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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Chevy Chase and You Know Who

The Chevy vs. show runner Dan Harmon bruhaha may have finally subsided slightly, as Harmon was squeezed out of his tube of self congratulatory protection cream to offer a half-sideways apology for going public with Chase's verbal rant on his telephone. Personally, I thought that was a great move.


I hate when bullies win, and that counts even when a bully is being bullied. Chase is famous for his bullying. So is Harmon. There's a potential reality show here - 'Double Down Douche Bag' - and see who out - acts - out the other?

I worked on SNL back in the day (it was my job out of college) and it was just several years after Chevy Chase's tenure. (Two years after Bill Murray, six after Chase is when I started). There were a lot of people around on the production staff who still had known him. The word back then on Chase wasn't good either. You'll see that supported in the various journalistic accounts that have backtracked through the years and gotten first person accounts of all the antics, actors and attitudes that spread out over the show's run. You make your own bed and then you lie in it, correct? It seems Chase has been defecating in every bed he gets for decades. it's not more complicated than that. You reap what you sow. Can anyone reading these accounts imagine either leaving the message he did - or being treated the way he was at the wrap party? Probably not - bu then again you all probably haven't pathologically acted out in an infantile manner to all your co-workers everywhere you go. As to the other side, Harmon, now being called out on his excessive bullying, is clearly in a league of his own. And you can only ever have one big bully at the dance, and the biggest one wins. Chevy is sort of a broken child. I think Harmon is a mean grown up. Nuff said about who made sure he had to win. Ironic that Harmon was so offensive, he made himself look worse than the established chronic drama queen and now has to back pedal on his own offensiveness.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

TV pilot vs. TV spec

I just finished a draft of a tv pilot. Cable. Half hour. It made me think about the art of TV writing, and how efficient you have to be at creating the gem of a scene. 'Enter late and leave early' is the old writers adage about scene writing to remind us not to waste space. It's even truer on the small screen where time is clocked so precisely. Your script needs to be a string of gems, essentially. You don't have time to waste.

This made me think on the value of writing a pilot as part of the writers arsenal. Not just a selling tool for the series, the pilot is a great reading sample to prove yet another skill set.

And when you're trying to get a staff job on a tv show, what's the best writing sample? Is it better to write a spec episode of a popular show or a spec pilot?

Hands down it's the pilot. If you're trying to figure out a new episode of Breaking Bad, or Awake or dare I say, House, don't. I know one of the writers on House. And they're very clear when they're looking at new writers that the spec episodes of popular shows are no longer the way in. "It feels stale...we want to hear new voices," is the best paraphrasing of our discussion. "Write something new."

So if you're going to the trouble of creating a spec script to begin with, make sure you're writing the right kind.

Want to write for One Tree Hill? Walking Dead? Desparate Housewives? Look at the format, hour or half hour? Look to the genre, teen drama, thriller, dark comedy? And think of a new world in that drama.

There's multiple upsides - you're not just creating a writing sample, but a potential shot of your own.

Do you need an A list actor in an independent film?

The short answer, No. But it comes with several qualifiers.

a) is the film $400,000 and under? Then you can make a genre film and probably guarantee a $500,000 return on horror/violence from a Distributor, thereby convincing a financeer, but not more. So if you stay in that framework you don't need bankable stars.

b) you do it for even less than $400K and crowdfund or have angels back you and cross your fingers when you go to sell it.

After that you're looking at bankable talent to pre-sell and finance an independent film. The new 'micro budget' films of $400,000 and under are the result of desperation. A temporary framework that is holding because so many people are out of work, and can grab a few days or weeks at low pay on one of these - so that they can survive to the next one.

I just wrote one of them, and had an amazing cast and crew, so I know by experience.

The next level of budget jumps farther and has bankable talent. $1.5 M and up need stars, and even non A list stars, but say stars of a cable franchise or HBO series could generate the kind of budget as Distributors feel confident of that return.

I know this too as a friend secured a star of a cable series for a film of her's last summer, and raised $1.5 million off of his name - and they made the film - and it turned out great.

The time has never been better for independent films in terms of cast and crew that you attract. So do all you can to generate a script that will magnetize what you need.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Independent Movie Making

With the studios hiring fewer people for fewer films, the independent movie making world is suddenly flush with incredibly talented people on both sides of the camera who are ready to work. It's been true for the past few years, but now benefits from that precedent. We all benefit because it's become less theory and more practice. Producers and Distributors know that talent 'x' can raise budget 'y' because it happened last summer.

I wrote a film that was funded and shot last fall starring John Michael Higgens (one of Chris Guest's ensemble regulars) and a fantastic actor. Michael has an amazingly long resume of performances (and is enough of a chameleon that he played Letterman in 'Late Night Wars') and has the skill to make any scene funny. That he can then repeat the performance perfectly for those in the editing room and get a laugh every time is a bit mind blowing. He's one of those guys.

The fact that he's also considerate, creative and incredibly giving as an actor just ruins everything.

One of the hallmarks of independent movie making is how carefully you design the budget. There's about 5% worked in for overtime and errors. The fact that we had two rain days killed us. We had to jam more than we expected to the other remaining days. Chasing the daylight every day can become a bit waring.

But when you have to collapse scenes and re-write on the set because you're losing the light - and make it all work by the end of the day it's a bit of an intellectual (and somewhat stressful) challenge. Michael has some kind of on-board pattern recognition system. He can see the entire shape of a scene, and isolate the important moments. He was invaluable when we had to trim moments, or shorten scenes and brought very creative suggestions about how to keep what was essential and lose the extra fat.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Please Don't Say It's Been A While

Seems to be a common thread out there. I've returned to the writing blog after a long absence and I checked out the others I used to love. Two have vanished, two have switched to podcasts, two are posting their 'classic posts' from years ago and one guy is current. Wow, times have changed.

Forget about the writers of Hollywood not getting hired to write, even the writers of blogs have stopped writing.

I've been away from this blog for two years. I've been through a series of adventures, all my own doing and none of them fun. But I've decided I have more to say. It has to do with a new adventure, going independent. And as I learn by doing I'll be glad to share with you what I learn.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Animation Features

Seems like every studio is getting into business on this and that is very exciting. I worked at Dreamworks last spring on a great project and loved it. Hired this summer on another animated feature at a different company and met at Universal just last month on a short list of those being considered on - you guessed it - an animated feature. Big business and really big fun for the writer as you win the day going in with the really exceptionally whacked out version of reality - the story you could never pitch to a studio with a straight face.

But that's because the old "Katzenberg" line comes in to play when you pitch an animated concept. You will definitely hear his edict whispered through the responses of any executive you meet "why are we doing this story animated?" Is the world special enough, are the characters impossible enough - could this all not exist in reality, etc. If it's just a great story about people with one fantastic element, why not shoot it live as an effects movie?

And they're right. It's a great question. Why the hell is this an animated film? What is so fantastic, impossible and visually stunning about it?

So to all of you out there pitching the animated film: You want the ice giant hanging out with floating jelly fish and all crossing a world where time goes backwards but they go forwards, etc.

Keep it emotionally grounded in reality, that's your anchor, the heroes love, suffer loss and fight back to love again. And the structure we all know and love has to play across the landscape of the impossible. Surround characters that are emotionally real with the truly impossible and you've got a winning combination.

The New Landscape

Well, what is happening to our business does anyone know? I'm sure that most people in the business don't. And I'm sure that the few people at the top who okay the checks are sitting on them and saying 'wait' and 'everyone will take less." A sad truth that's happening all across the financial structures of our country, it's not just us. Full timers are being cut in all business, and only part timers and temps are being hired, so no medical coverage payments that way, no 401K, no stock, etc.

So what does that mean for us? The providers still need content. And we all write content much better than they do. But are we looking at more and more of the *gasp* micro-budget productions? Hearing a lot of that lately. Such a nuetural, almost pleasant sounding term, like something that might go in the kitchen and warm your oatmeal in the morning.

But the friendly euphemism for the above definitely makes one reconsider private school.

Don't EAT a fish. Learn how to FISH!

Did you know that every script has four acts, not three? That there are 8 major sequences to each script that your character must pass through in the right order? Did you know that each story has both an “emotional “story and a ‘situational’ story – but that they have to come at each other from different directions like speeding freight trains until they crash? Do you know how to end your scenes but never resolve your tension?

Jeezy Louise-y, let's get serious folks. Script writing is the most structured for there is. Get your form down and everything else falls into place. It goes from being a script that is put down on page 30 to one that has to be read to your last words: THE END.

And of course your characters can't be dead on the page either, but that goes without saying.

but it's a lot like Real Estate's three laws of location, location, location - for us it's structure, structure, structure. Don't doubt it, even when it feels old, embrace it.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Jehova Goldberg, the Gas Giant

As Gas Giants went, Jehova Goldberg was a doozy, 1.8986×1028 KG or 417.8 Earths, in other words; fat. Couldn't even slip into his gas giant jeans that he wore in college anymore. To make matters worse, he never had enough mass to ignite into a star, whereas his sister, Jupina, detonated at an early age, around 3 billion years ago, into a blazing G class, head of her class in fact - and graduated from the incindiary bipolar star cluster with honors. Jehova's parents, a binary system of Blue Giants stared down at Jehova with disappointment and erupted their flares in shame. "You could have at least become a black hole, son," said his father. "Even that's an achievement. But this..." He went into orbit around his wife so he wouldn't have to look at him. His mother was no better. She was covered with spots, which only acted up when she was upset. "you don't even have planets of your own," she lamented. Just a group of moons. It's embarrasing. What are we supposed to say when other stars roar past? Out son is still at home, in orbit around us? When are you going to go out and DO something with your life, you're not going to live forever - just another 12 billion years. Better get ON IT.

Okay, fine. Writing this instead of my WORK. But I figure why not start the new year with something looney?

Friday, July 31, 2009


Teaching screenwriting at UCLA Extensions on and off and a student, overwhelmed with facing the blank page, asked for help.

Some of her concern - and it's something that everyone feels, whatever level you're at:
I am having a hard time starting my 10 pages. I have read the
chapters you listed, but am still having a hard time. I have never written in this style and format and it is nerve racking. What do I do to even get started. I think most here have already done this by looking at their work. They have some idea of what they are doing. And, how am I suppose to critique some else's work when I don't even know what I am doing, much less them. I don't know if they are formatting correctly and if they are doing their story correctly. I don't feel qualified to correct their work -
I think anyone can relate to that feeling, to that concern - to just feeling clueless sometimes. But what the hell to do with the feelings of cluelessness?
Well, all I can tell you is even the professional writers, when they sit down with a new project, feel much like you do. "What the hell am I doing? And what the hell do I know?" are things I hear from my friends who do this for a living. So in that sense - you are doing just fine!

We are all story tellers, our lives are stories and what compels us about stories that we love is that they speak to some deep inner place our ours that knows about struggles, dreams, disappointments, hopes and failures. We've all had them in our lives - and we've all had mentors, allies and enemies.

So I think you're very much qualified to tell a person that something rings true in their work, or doesn't, that a piece of dialogue is emotionally moving, or perhaps should be looked at again to nuance more emotion out of it (we must critique gently after all), etc.

As to starting - the first page is always the most difficult. And yes, there is a specific structure required for the modern screenplay. No way around that. however, if it feels all too much at first to do structure and creative writing, abandon structure for now.

Write everything out in single line format, like a play. Character left margin, with a colon after it, followed by dialogue - then space inbetween next character, space inbetween your next narrative/description of action.

That way you can get into the flow of the talking and the action without having to worry about structure - you can always structure it later, that's mechanical, but creative writing needs to flow and we have to serve that as best as we can (I do this kind of writing sometimes, by the way. when an idea comes fast and I don't want to have to worry about structuring it...)

So - go for it. Sit there. Something in you wants to do this, or you wouldn't have signed up. Give it some time at the desk to manifest, sit there even if it's not coming, because it will. Pace around the room if you need to, jog, stationary bicycle while thinking - come back and sit down again - walk around with a tape recorder and act out the lines as they come out - they don't have to be perfect, you'll take the ones you want later, or sit and over-write knowing you can edit later, or if you dictate come back and transcribe, there are as many methods as writers, find yours. (Rod Serling, supposedly, dictated EVERYTHING and had someone else write it up, how about that?)

And remember to be a bit light about it all - after all, it's something you chose to do, something you want to do - that's pretty cool. (As opposed to being in a flood or being chased by angry bulls in Spanish streets, you know?) This is something you're doing for you.

You shall prevail.