Where Are They Now? - Q&A's With Notable Jenks Grads
Trey Callaway - Writer/Producer for TV and Film
Each week throughout the 2016-17 school year, the Where Are They Now? series will feature a Q&A with a notable Jenks graduate. In these profiles, Jenks’ alums from all over the country, from multiple generations, and from a wide array of career paths, will share how their Jenks education set them up for success and how they have become leaders in their industry and community.
In the summer of 1977, Trey Callaway stood in line 11 times at Tulsa’s Fox Theatre to witness the spectacle of Star Wars. Inspired by the film, Callaway started dreaming of telling stories through the platforms of television and movies. Today, the JHS Class of 1983 grad, is living his dream as a writer, producer, and showrunner for network TV dramas, and as a screenwriter for feature films. In addition to selling over two dozen television pilots and motion picture screenplays to every major network and Hollywood studio, Callway passes on his knowledge to the next generation as a professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Even though he works with big names under bright lights, he maintains his love and loyalty for Jenks, and looks back fondly on his days in Student Council, Thespian Society, and band. Read further to learn more about Callaway’s career, and look out for his latest project which will debut on your TV screen in February.
What are your fondest memories of attending Jenks High School?
Callaway: The lasting friendships and permanent school pride I still enjoy. Many of my friends from elsewhere in the country look forward to their college reunions, but for me - especially after emceeing my 20th and 30th high school reunions - it’s all about Jenks. The intense bonds we formed as Trojans continue to impact my personal and professional life every single day.
Was there one particular teacher or principal who inspired you or made a lasting impact in your life?
Callaway: It’s too hard to pick one. The late, great Linda George, my third grade teacher at Jenks, my fifth grade teacher, Linda Dunn, my high school history teacher, Mr. Fritz, my high school drama teacher, Rena Cook, my high school Great Books teacher, Mrs. Schoenefeld, my high school Television Production teachers Joyce Nichols and Joan Whitmire, my high school math teacher, Howard Dunn, my high school Dean of Students, Mr. Goodwin, and my high school Algebra teacher, Mike Means. Those names stand out but there are so many other amazing instructors and coaches who shepherded me from K-12 in the Jenks Public Schools system.
When did you first become interested in TV and film?
Callaway: Both of my parents worked in advertising and marketing when I was a kid. And my father produced and directed local TV commercials (even once featuring my 6th grade science class at Jenks in a Bank of Oklahoma ad), so I was always fascinated by the power of film to move and persuade people. Then after standing in line 11 times at Tulsa’s Fox Theater to see the movie Star Wars during the summer of 1977, I was powerfully inspired by the dream of telling stories as a profession. When Hollywood came directly to Tulsa in 1982 and I booked a small acting role in the Francis Ford Coppola movie The Outsiders, I knew I had to eventually head west to “join the circus.” I moved to L.A. to attend USC in 1985 and have happily remained here ever since.
What was your role at KRMG Radio and how did you enjoy your time there?
Callaway: Ever since my early days of listening to Tulsa’s beloved top-forty station KAKC, then doing voice-over work in commercials with various air personalities from KMOD and KRAV, I’ve had a long love for radio. Right before I moved west for college, I worked as a DJ on KRMG during the summer of 1985. The station hadn’t switched to an all-talk format yet and still played music back then. I basically spun records on the weekend graveyard shift (and made myself some really great mix tapes with their expansive catalog while I was at it)! After graduating from USC, I was the Creative Director for an LA ad agency—where I not only wound up producing radio commercials featuring some of the most legendary voice-over talent in radio history—but also got to work with some of the very same disc jockeys I had once listened to as a kid growing up in Tulsa! I kind of came full circle on the whole experience, and am happy to call some of those talented folks my friends to this day.
How did you get started in the entertainment industry? What was your big break?
Callaway: After graduating from USC film school, I struggled like many young writers do, just trying to hone my craft and pay my dues (not to mention all those student loans!). My first big break came after selling an original idea for a movie to a Hollywood producer. The movie was never made, nor was I paid very much at the time to write it, but at least I was smart enough to get the producer to agree to help me get representation which wound up landing me my first agent at William Morris. That really helped me break through - not only with additional movie sales and screenplay assignment jobs - but also landing the gig to adapt one of my feature scripts into my first television pilot, which later went to series. Since then, the bulk of my work has been writing and producing for TV, but I still love working in film, having just been hired to write a new motion picture called Third and Long, based on a poignant and moving novel by Bob Katz.
When writing a script or screenplay, what inspires you to come up with creative, imaginative, and innovative ideas?
Callaway: The simple answer is to write what you know, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have directly experienced something. After all, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan without ever setting foot in the jungle. But it can (and should) at least mean you have EMOTIONALLY experienced something. So the more complex answer is, write what you FEEL. When you can write from the heart about your feelings, you can place them pretty much anywhere—in a space station hospital, a wild west bar fight, or a modern day police precinct - and your story will still resonate with audiences on an authentic, emotional level.
Is there one show, film, or piece of work you consider your favorite?
Callaway: If we’re talking about someone else’s work, then for me, it’s always a toss-up between Star Wars and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Both films took me places I’d never been, and made me feel things I’d never felt. If we’re talking about my work, I’m usually most excited about what I’m writing right now—in this case, a new crime drama for the Fox network called APB, which will debut the night after the Super Bowl on Monday, February 6, 2017.
Rejection is common in your business – scripts are rejected, shows are canceled, pilots are not picked up. How have you learned to deal with failure without becoming discouraged?
Callaway: I’ve been teaching for the past 11 years at my alma mater, the USC School of Cinematic Arts. I often tell my students that building a successful career in the entertainment business is a PERSISTENCE GAME. The minute you give up your dream is the same minute someone else will step over you on their way up the red carpet. You just have to keep at it. Keep writing, keep acting, keep directing, and keep feeding your creative muse in any way you can until your number finally comes up.
Many people would love to do what you do. How have you managed to stay in and stay on top of a very competitive, cutthroat industry? Callaway: Family and friends certainly help. My parents and sister (who still live in Tulsa) not only inspire me, but keep me grounded. My wife and kids are also here in LA to remind me of what really matters when the cameras stop rolling and the stages go dark. I find it’s also important to remember that just like living in Tulsa, believe it or not, Hollywood is a very small town. Relatively speaking, a very small group of people are responsible for creating most of the TV shows and movies the world sees. So it’s almost inevitable that you’ll wind up crossing paths and/or working with most of them at some point. That’s why I try as hard as I can to remain a positive presence within the creative community. We all know people who’ve succeeded as bullies or brow-beaters. But I’d much rather be known as someone who told good stories and made people feel good. I work very hard. I maintain a healthy level of blind faith optimism. And I never lose sight of the fact that I have the greatest job in the world. I literally get to make things up for a living!
Who are some of the most memorable actors, directors, and producers you have worked with over the past several years?
Callaway: I’ve been blessed to work with all kinds of incredibly talented people. Actors like Harrison Ford and Gary Sinise, directors like Tim Burton, Phillip Noyce, and John Badham, and producers like Arnold Kopelson, Arthur Sarkissian, and Mace Neufeld - the latter of whom also happily consented to me marrying his daughter!
What is the most satisfying aspect of being able to pass along your knowledge and experience to your students at USC?
Callaway: Well, on the one hand, I fully recognize that by teaching and mentoring students at USC, I’m not only paying the debt I owe to professors and industry professionals who once helped me, but I’m also essentially training my replacements. An unexpected bonus which I’ve also discovered over time, is that it’s actually gotten hard for me to walk into a studio or network at this point, without running into a former student of mine who’s landed a job there. It’s such a rewarding feeling to see them succeeding on their own. And in some cases, I’ve been able to have a direct hand in that process myself by hiring former students to work in various staff positions on shows. For example, right now on my new series APB, I have three former students on the payroll. So USC has turned out to be a great talent pool for me as well! They don’t pay me to say it - but I’ll say it anyway - it’s truly the greatest film school in the world.
What do you see as the next step for your career?
Callaway: It may not be as traditionally stable as a lot of 9-to-5 careers, but one of the things I love most about my job is that every day is an unpredictable adventure. You just never know what you might be doing next or exactly where the art of storytelling will take you. The best thing about your imagination is that it can transport you any place. Right now, I’d like to imagine that millions of people will tune in to watch APB and the show will be an enormous hit. Then I’ll continue running it, while developing and producing new film and series projects. I also plan to keep teaching with an eye toward more potential involvement on an administrative level at USC. Beyond all that, I hope to stay closely connected with Jenks Public Schools where so many of the seeds of my success were first planted.