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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.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Good Workshop!

A few of us got together and had a nice long chat on process and theory. It was great to hear about where everyone was in their writing, and share on where they were stuck. Hopefully, we can all take something away from today and get a little bit more unstuck. Thanks for sharing your time.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Common Mistakes

I think one of the hardest things for a writer to do well, (this can be present company included), is often the mistake I see in amateur and professional work alike. It's the hollow line of dialogue. It's the one that reads with the intent of the writer and not the intent of the character.

Non-poetic, uninspired narrative is something a script can survive if the dialogue is great. Bad dialogue and you kill your script. And ten pages in the door will be closed by any prospective reader, and any future life for that story comes to an end. And it won't matter that your script is perfectly structured (which it will need to be as well, by the way, sorry, didn't I mention that?)

Sometimes dialogue error is subtle, the writer placing information in a line of dialogue that's important and you just get a sense that it's off, a certain line doesn't ring true. Sometimes it's laughable and the character is literally stating her exposition, background and need.

Subtle error:

Jane: Bob, why do you work here so late all the time?
Bob: People ask me fewer questions, Jane.

It's funny, because in the answer, he's telling her what he likes to avoid. It's subtle error - her flat out clumsy question. It's not that the information is wrong, it's just not the way a person talks. It's the way the writer needed to let you know Bob's hours - something that will obviously be important to the story. What's good? The implication in Bob's line - why doesn't he like being asked questions? Something we might learn...

Enormous error:

Jane: The Arthur Thomas Publishing Building. The largest publisher in the United States. Come on, Bob, let's take our manuscript inside and show them we're their next best seller!
Bob: Gee, think Arthur Thomas has an ego as big as the building he built for himself?

Do I have to point out why it's so bad? I've read lines like this. People don't state where they are. They don't state facts you'd find in an encyclopedia in natural dialogue, they don't state their intent and desire. And this happens more than you'd think.

So how do you write great dialogue?

Listen to how people talk. Short fragments. Half thoughts. Often in the moment. Usually started in the middle of a thought. And always with the implication of something other. What's the other? Usually what they want. What they got, or didn't get. What they're emotionally connected to. You have to write from your character's emotional center.


Lois: So where'd you go last night?
Stan: You said drinks. I had one.

See why that's great? Because I wrote it. Okay, aside from that. It implies so much with so little. They're friends. They're very different, one likes to party, one doesn't. A social butterfly, and a loner. And the implication about the evening - what happened to each of them? One split early, one had a late night. And will we find out? Do you want to know more about them?

Good writing pulls you in. Like a great photographer who knows how to frame a picture so we don't see everything. It's like a good game of poker. Don't show your hand right off, or you'll lose. Tease us. Don't give it all away right out of the gate.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Can You Track The Process of Development and Can One Learn From It?

An interesting question:
I have been reading heaps of scripts to try and teach myself the style of writing...sort of getting used to it. I must admit, one thing I find fascinating is reading early drafts of the movies (after having seen the final movie) as it shows me what they have changed, to hopefully have improved the movie.

Is this a good idea, or should I concentrate more on the final product(I normally read both if I can source them)?

I know you can't give a definite, but would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.


I think everyone is different, and too much information can overload some people. This will cause overthink - get one too much into "mind" and that will cut off any true creative flow as the "editor" will be alive and well in your brain and shouting "no, wrong, bad, stop!" every fifteen seconds.

That being said, if you are able to read multiple drafts, and truly appreciate and follow the changes, it's fascinating. I myself found this a learning process into the making of movies when I started. The first draft of Star Wars, for example, is unrecognizable from the first film. Is it a good script? Not exactly, it sort of has all the ideas that were in the first three films. It makes you understand why multiple studios passed on it. But it's filled with exciting ideas and multiple characters. Now that you know the film, you can see choices made as to why the script was changed. It needed to be simpler, it had to flow better, it needed a straight through line with an urgent driving force, one basic story, not multiple stories. And Lucas found his way there. But seeing where he started, where we all start - manifesting thoughts out of thin air into flesh and bone, can be inspiring. It reveals the ugly truth that it doesn't always fall correctly onto the page the first, second, or even fifth time out. Or if it does, for some reason it was re-shaped into a new version with a new life, and does it work better? It also shows one that, not only are there many false starts before the winning draft, but also that we're all human, and all go through the same process of try and try again. That alone might be encouragement enough for some. "They did it, I can too if I work hard enough, period." It was for me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Reading is Fundamental

A reader asks:
Can you suggest some screenplays to read that illustrate good writing? Maybe some bad ones that still made money? Where do I find these screenplays (I live in Idaho - so don't tell me to go to the store on the corner of Melrose and Armpit)
It's as good question, and a very important learning tool. For all the self help books about good writing out there, there is nothing that replaces reading a script and seeing how an author laid it out. Seeing how dialogue plays on the page, scene lengths, choice of narrative, etc. Making sure it's a good script doesn't hurt, though you can learn from the bad ones too. The following is a short list of suggestions and where to go to find them.

First, a few of my favorite screenwriters:

William Goldman
Bruce Joel Rubin
Nick Kazan
Charlie Kaufman
John Wells
Richard Curtis
Chris Gerolmo
Paddy Chayefsky
Cohen Brothers

But every list you make will reveal your favorite predilictions in writing. Wit, raw drama, eloquent speeches or near silence and powerful images. It's all good, as long as it inspires you.

And I think it serves you best if you don't limit your reading to screenplays only. A good novel,
non-fiction or poetry that compels you will always shower you with new ways to put words together, explain a moment, create a mood - and set you off to re-capture a mood you were handed by another writer, describe a moment now in only a few words, or come up with an entire new film idea - merely because you read some good writing, and therein will always lie new inspiration.

Sites to go to where you can download scripts for free and see how the others are doing it:

Drew's Script-o-rama

Simply Scripts
All Movie Scripts

Additional note: Thanks to Grubber for the new link:
Scripts For You

Friday, July 22, 2005

How Can You Tell If Your New Idea is Old?

Another very good question from my friend Tommy:
"How can you find out if the great and wonderful idea that came to you the night before while showering is in fact and original idea and wasn't made ten years ago as a direct to video project? How can you find out if the idea isn't already being developed or made at a studio? Does it matter?" - Tommy
Well, yes and no. This is really the nightmare of the contemporary artist. You've come up with a brilliant idea (this happens to my friend Tommy a lot, by the way) and then discover it's literally in development at a studio, or in casting, or being filmed. So even though it landed in your lap in a fit of inspiration, it seems like it's totally useless.

Total drag.

So here's the answer. You can't worry about it. It's impossible to live as a creative spirit and constantly work from the outside in. You have to work from the inside out. (Even when you are handed an assignment with a strict set of rules to follow. More on that another time).

Point of it is: every year there are probably four of the same films being developed at every studio. And I mean, the same film. This is the nature of the business, massive companies trying to thread the eye of the needle in what they hope will be their commercial blockbuster. And their eye of the needle is just that - it's quite narrow creatively. So that means - a superhero movie, a cop movie, a killer thriller, a broad teen age comedy, a romance. They're going to develop about four of each of these to try and get one that doesn't suck, so they can pump more money into it than is in most third world countries.

And there you are, inspired, pulling down brilliance from the heavens and onto the page and some genius tells you - forget it, they've got one just like yours in development at Sony. So you stop, and broken hearted decide to open a donut shop.

The truth of it is. 90% of what's in development won't make it to the screen, but is actively being written. Agents will be quick to tell you to put the kabosh on something as they've heard it's elsewhere. But you have to say screw it - and not listen to what anyone tells you. You follow your muse, and write the best version of what moves you. Because in the end - what jumps off the page is what generates excitement, and if you can do that, they just might buy your script after the three like it in development have failed.

Now - huge caveat. I wrote a spec. script a year and a half ago, one that I loved - and that a great reaction from producers around town. Cruise/Wagner took it to Paramount to Buy, Radar took it to Universal to buy, I had producers at Sony who wanted it. I had a great reaction from agents and had interest from several and was able to move to a new agency with terrific people who I'm extremely happy with. This is the kind of reaction you hope for. And then not one studio bought it. Why? Because every studio had something like it. So what the hell do I know?

Upside - it generated a great response, created new relationships, and it's still a piece of gold on the shelf. One never knows the exact purpose of each piece of writing. You hope they all sell, but in the end, each one is part of the larger picture of your life, and the only way to have peace of mind is to trust that each one is doing what it should.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Complications Ensue

This is not just the clever title of a blog by Alex Epstein who wrote the how-to writing book Crafty Screenwriting, it's also what happens every time anyone creative gets involved with a movie deal.

And it's just happened to me.

For those of you who've been reading, you're aware I'm up for a production re-write, a major motion picture, good budget, excellent production company (they won an academy award last year), and the director wants me for the job.

Pretty good, right? You might say, things couldn't be better, stars couldn't be better aligned for a job, and so forth. And I had a very good creative meeting with them last week as well.

Except they read one of my new scripts over the weekend and didn't like the woman character in it. So now they're not sure I can write a "woman". It's a woman lead in the film, by the way, and they just got burned on the last writer. He originally wrote a leading man, they asked it be changed to a woman for the next draft - and the writing team did, but they basically changed the character description, but didn't change the character. So the producers are a little skittish over there about that happening again, I guess.

You know, this is the part they don't teach you in film school, and thank God. Film making is so hard to begin with - who would want to imagine how hard it is just to get into that small group that actually gets to do any film making?

Well, my agents just sent over a different script. In the end the script is king - and they have to be moved when they read your material. But enthusiasm and passion play an important role - I was full of that in the meeting, and they loved it, it won that day. And I just filled my agent with it, and now my agent is blasting it their way.

And soon, we'll see where it all falls. I'm on the weekend read.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Workshop is a Go

Okay, let's do this. I've had some very nice feedback from a few of you that you would be interested in sitting with me and listening what I have to say about screenwriting. Believe it or not, I'm interested in what you have to say, too. So I'm thinking a few hours, at a cafe, and it's free.

We'll do it in my neck of the woods, upstairs in quiet room of a cafe I know, a week from this Saturday.

Saturday July 30th,
Buster's Cafe
(Okay the technical name is Buster's Coffee and Ice Cream Shop)
Phone: (626) 441-0744

You can mapquest it pretty easily.

For those of you who can make it and come out my way, I look forward to sitting down together!

ADDED NOTE: One caveat; this will be a discussion between us on theory and concepts, with lots of questions and answers. But I'm afraid I will be unable to read or promise to read any material as I just don't have the time. Thanks for understanding!


Sunday, July 17, 2005

If A Pitch Goes South, Do You Try To Save the Meeting?

This is a very good question from Moviequill, and as we had this dialogue in the comments section a few posts back, I reprint it here for others who may have missed the comments.

in one of the many tips that ended up my way, I heard if it looks like the pitch is going downhill, try to salvage the meeting by finagling yourself into a re-write job on some stalled script they have on file...do you find that is the case? they are willing to keep you around even if the project you came to them for falls through? - Moviequill.
Good question, Moviequill, but no - that's not the case. All you can do is to bring 120% commitment to your take, your creative enthusiasm, and your genuine insight into the project - and that will either win the day, or not - based on countless variables of which you know only a few. Have they heard something like your take before? Are there political issues with this exec. behind the scenes that make them more/less in favor? Do the execs love this project, but the pres. hates it? (that's happened to me).

You could go crazy trying to figure it all out. I"m guessing that was non-professional advice you heard. I've been specifically told by my agents not to de-rail and try to jump tracks onto a new idea. It looks like you're desperate, and it takes away from you in the end. Now, having said that, if you're in the room - and the exec. says - "hey, forget that, you might be the guy for - this - and it's a new thing, go for it. It's coming from their side and follow that energy. And, on another meeting, I went in for a re-write chat, but we took off on a whole other thing which would have been an original adaptation of a sci-fi book. But as that conversation wound down, the exec. realized it wouldn't work, and so we went back to what the meeting had been about. So in those situations, you ride the energy.

In this town, everyone on the money side has one emotion: FEAR. Afraid they can't fix the script, afraid they'll be fired if they hire the wrong person, fear that the movie will "go away" if the next draft is awful, on and on - so your job is to come in clear, grounded and with answers. Jeez, this is turning into a long answer and I have more to say. For example - in my meeting yesterday, for this production re-write, I went in saying - cut this character, I want this other guy to now be a woman, and she has a child, and they move in with the leading lady...blah blah.. and she is crippled psychologically and has panic attacks (she's a cop and was fine in the other draft) and all this new stuff is coming at them and they're saying - 'you're sure?" And I'm saying - this is how I want to do it, this is how it has to be, don't you see? Now, they're thinking it over this weekend. They may say - screw him - or yeah! But in the end, I went in crystal clear, and confident in the way I saw it - that's how you write, and how you pitch in this town. Period. Because at the end of the day you have to know you did your best job, and the rest will fall where it may. Phew.

Heard Good Feedback

Well, apparently I was a big hit at the producer's meeting on Friday. They're reading me this weekend to "make sure I don't write like an idiot", as my director said. Otherwise, I came across as everything he promised. Tomorrow will reveal all.

Friday, July 15, 2005

On "The Meeting"

Meetings in Hollywood tend to be oddly inscrutable. Something for the beginning writer to be aware of, and the veteran writer to endlessly put up with.

I blasted out my passionate ideas with genuine enthusiasm. They sat back, nodding, thinking, frowning. You all laugh, you all agree or disagree on smaller points. After an hour or less the meeting ends, and they say thanks for coming by. And you say, sure. And you also think - um, did I leave something out? Why didn't they jump up and down and acknowledge my unique creativity?

In this case it was with the Chairman of a company (Academy Aware winner) and his excellent producing partner. But it's the same all the way down the ladder. And the farther down you start, the farther up you have to come with the same meeting and new people.

Ah well. If you want instant feedback do stand up comedy.

Anyway, that's it. You go home and then you wait for them to call your agent and find out what they really thought.

That's how the system works. They'll rarely say "no" to you in the room, and rarely say "yes" as well. They don't want to harm a relationship with a turn down, and they don't want to harm a negotiation with thumbs up. Plus, in this era of a financially more careful Hollywood, every money decision seems to be made with double and triple checks.

So, now I wait.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Fix

Part of the job of the screenwriter on assignment, whether it be the re-write, the adaptation, or the production re-write, is THE FIX.

In terms of the adaptation, it's pulling out the essence of the original, while making it screen worthy. This usually implies a different version of the story with possibly different characters than the original, yet at the same time completely independent and alive.

The re-write is usually addressing specific concerns of the studio/producers because something just isn't right about the current draft. It was good enough to sell, or even get to pre-production, but the feeling is it's somehow lacking and what can you do to fix it?

The production re-write addresses these concerns as well, but in an extremely condensed time frame - like time from the pitch of your "fix" to your completed draft that everyone is expecting to be the GO script, needs to be three to four weeks.

That's why all the books on writing, teachers of writing and working writers you run into will tell you the same thing. That writing, in the end, comes down to one thing. Writing. Sit in your room and write, every day. Build that muscle. So that when you need it, you don't have to be the skinny kid in the gym required to lift the 300 pound barbell and you won't be able to. You want to be the guy in great shape who doesn't have to worry if he CAN lift, he knows he can lift it, so his only concern will by the type of lifts and how many sets of repetitions.

You must create a mechanism within yourself that is used to writing, is in flow with writing and has stamina for writing so that you don't really have to THINK about the writing. You can then get out of the way and let the writing happen to you. Sure you may have to sit at your desk and slog away for six hours, but that seventh hour may deliver to you the grace you were waiting for and true inspiration channels through.

That's when you can place yourself in your story, be your characters and let them flow through you. That is how you bring inspiration to the page with no time available, how you bring light into the darkness when it seems like there is no time. Because you have opened within you a timeless space.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Train Is Leaving The Station

The energy around a production re-write is very frenetic and exciting. Since my last post about my friend's call, (yesterday) my reps have chatted with the movie producers, fees have been discussed and my "money meeting" has been scheduled for this week, the one where they hire me in the room if they like what I have to say. And tonight I meet with the director to get his notes.

It is very much like a train leaving a station and it pretty much sweeps up you and whisks you off and everything else going on in your life comes to a halt.

Great for adrenalin junkies and stress freaks, the production re-write is a great test of talent and the spirit as well. As a teacher of mine once said, when you're in the white water, all you can do is paddle. Meaning, don't think too much, don't complain (you're going to complain to the rapids that they're going to fast?), and focus on your work. It's good advice.

And in the midst of all that hurry, all that demand and rush to judgement, you have to find the stillness inside you where your talent dances, and your peace of mind that keeps you true to your own inner voice about what's right for the script.

It's a great test, and a great ride.

Monday, July 11, 2005

One of Those Nice Calls

Got a call from a friend the other tonight, he just signed on to direct a feature, they want to be in production in the fall. Script needs work, he wants me to do the production re-write. He emailed me the script two days ago, and I'm meeting producer and head of production company with the director end of week to discuss my take and potential hire. Love that.

Don't know how frequently that happens to other working writers out there. For me, that kind of call from a friend in the driver's seat, is unusual and awesome. Sometimes the studio recommends you, says you're the go-to guy, and you meet and greet the director and producer to see how it feels, but they may not like your take, or your price. Sometimes you get a script, come up with a take, meet on the take, be one of several writers, and wait to see which way the tree falls. Sometimes you chase a job, it's a studio idea, you develop a take, maybe again you're one of several, and you pitch, and again you wait and...the head of the studio and half the exec. change jobs that week, and the project is scrapped and ...you see what I mean.

Point is, it's rarely easy.

Makes me think on how there are three tiers of professional screenwriting.

1) production re-write work, very intense, very fast, film is going into production and the script needs work, original writer falls out of favor, deals made quickly with new wrier, work required very quickly.

2) Standard re-write, adaptation, or original concept writing. Multiple meetings, multiple pitches, adjustments, notes on pitches, this can all take weeks and months until you get into the meeting that could close the deal. Then if you make the sale a long drawn out writing period begins which always starts sweetly because you're all alone and haven't handed anything in yet, and then it's the development mill for months and months, and potentially years (I've done that on one Paramount project. Watched a senior exec's kids grow up).

3) The third is the spec. script, your timetable, but still a damn lot of work to nail it and make it right, just no one is watching you, so you'd better be damn well disciplined. And stop talking so much about it and just do it. All that talking dissipates energy.

Point is, it's often a lot of work just to get the work. And so often it takes a great deal of time.

So to get this call, well this is particularly sweet.

This is Just Weird

Called friends today for an impromptu dinner. They have a daughter our age, we've know them for years, from pre-school, thought we'd have some pizza. Feature writers, they last year had great success with a TV pilot and are now show-running a top ten show and about to enter their second season. It's really a great success for great people.

So here's the weird part. I get the guy on the phone, he says sure - unless a previous engagement happens, an actor on their show may come to dinner with them, and as they start pre-production next week they would want that if it happened. Cool, no problem, so we're plan B. Then his wife/partner calls an hour later to say sorry they can't do dinner tonight, but really want to get together, and that when her daughter heard my voice on the machine she said her daughter really said she wanted to come over for dinner and see my daughter too!

Machine? Heard what machine?

The point of the story is not to make fun of my friend, but to ask what the hell does this town do to us? She was in some kind of producer mode, handling me - care taking me, whatever - putting out a fire she imagined I was, because it's become some pre-set mode to operate from. She got a cryptic message from her husband about my call - didn't realize that I actually SPOKE to him, she thought it was a message. So she wanted to make me feel good, while saying no.

What was weird for me, was that if I pointed out how big a lie she was telling, it would make ME appear rude. So I just said...uh...sure!

What do you all think out there about this? Harmless? Or endemic of a larger problem of knee-jerk falsehoods that could make one woefully paranoid if they thought about it too long?

Don't get me wrong, sometimes to play the "game" out here correctly, you need to be selective with the truth. It's the nature of the game. Okay, that being said - this was dinner. Pizza.

It was just so...weird.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Do You Need To Live Here?

In a recent post, a reader asked some very good questions. Let's tackle a few.
Is it necessary to live in LA in order to be taken seriously as a new writer? Do you have to have an agent? If not - how do you get the right people to read your work?
- Tommy.
Okay, first of all, I know the guy. He's one of my best friends from high school. But it's still a great question. The answer is easy. No, and No. and Yes and Yes.

A writer doesn't have to be in the basement of Paramount to write a screenplay. They can be anywhere, that's the beauty of it. Write your beautiful piece of work at home, on the road, on a plane, on a train, anywhere Doctor Suess has written about. Once you have a good finished piece of work, you can do something with it. If you can't complete a script outside of Hollywood, what makes you think you'll complete it within the city line? I have a friend who says that's the greatest challenge to any writer. Finishing. He's Right.

Now, there are great advantages to being here. Not just the new address on the mailbox, which is cool, but a very large group of people doing the same thing you are doing. That's a lot of access to ideas, experience and support. But in the end, without a script, what are you doing wasting your time chatting about scene length in a cafe?

The agent. Very important. When I wrote my first few scripts I had no rep. Who's going to rep. you without a script? So you have to start writing without one, and make that your calling card. But once you complete something, you have the thing that turns them on. And if it's good, all you have to do is bang your head against a lot of doors and someone will eventually read it. If you're lucky, they'll recognize your god given gift and sign you. If not, they may "hip pocket" you, which means rep you on just that script, and if things go well - maybe continue with you. But at least that means you're in the door - because in the end, the script is king. And your life will be a lot easier if you have an Agent who is jacked into the industry network who will try to sell it for you, or send you scripts on open writing assignments, or set up meetings to discuss open writing assignments/pitch said re-writes, etc.

And if you're script isn't King - write another. Because if you're a writer, that's what you do.

Then, when you get the attention you deserve, you will probably decide to move here.

because Hollywood is a social town, more than that, it's like an old fashioned mediaeval town in one sense - if you're not within the city walls, it's like you don't exist. Not that execs and writers are hanging out with us at bars all the time. They're not. And it's not like cell phones, PDA's and blackberry's haven't made connecting easier. They have. But waltzing into offices, taking meetings, doing drinks, lunch, taking conference calls who's start times get changed three times in the course of a week, or a day, producers and directors knowing you're "in town" (which means you're available). all has significant psychological impact on the way you're perceived. Maybe it has something to do with the math associated with different time zones, and certain minds not being able to do it. But if you're not in town, unless you're on the A-list, it's pretty much like you're off the planet.

Now maybe you just want to write spec. scripts and mail them in from an undisclosed location. That, actually, would be fine. If you want to engage in the more loony world of writing original pieces for the studios, or re-writing them, you need to be here.

So moving here, to get famous enough within the industry, so that you don't have to live here, is one of the odd things associated with the craft.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

When Do You Stop Writing?

Okay, this may sound like a joke, but it's just as important as the earlier post of "How Do You Start?" Because as writers will tell you, the work never stops, the story is never finished, your work hours come to an end, but your mind is still in gear, as the rest of the work ahead hangs over you. This isn't a job where you punch a clock and walk out of the factory, or put your sales files away because the business day has ended and you can't cold call anyone anymore.

Writers take their work home, probably because they work at home, but even if they don't - most importantly because there is no clear end to the work day, and the work isn't in your desk, it's in your head.

Sure it's fun to talk story all the time, think of great ideas in unexpected moments, that's the way of life of the artist. Your pilot light is always on, and should be, it's why you're doing what you're doing.

But I've seen, and experienced myself, the guilt mind that winds up restricting life because you're punishing, demanding, insisting and rigidly holding onto the "work" and can't let go enough to allow yourself rewards, time off, nourishment for the soul, until you finish the script, finish those pages, etc. Now - if you're on deadline and this is a matter of weeks, that's fine. You need to hunker down. But as weeks stretch into months, and months into years (no joke) if this is a way of life for you, this is not healthy.

So here's some advice. Figure out a page count system, hit your pages then stop for the day. And make it something realistic. 5 when you start. 10 when you're in a good rhythm. Not 25, okay? Or create a macro schedule and feel like you want to hit a weekly count, or it page counts freak you out, you do it with time and put in hours a day - 8 a day if you can stand it - most can't - so start with 4 or 6. And when you hit the end of your time, come to a stopping place (like I'll tell my nine year old when she's reading) and then switch off the computer. And really enjoy your dinner and a movie. This is really important advice, okay?

Because as any athlete will tell you, you don't train the same muscle all day every day. You'll exhaust it, weaken it, and then damage it. Same with writing mind. You need to work it hard in the gym, and then take it to the shower, give it a massage, and a good night's sleep.

It's the only way to stay fresh and come back with Olympic strength for what is surely the decathlon.

I'm still working on this one, by the way, but I'm a lot better than I used to be.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Meeting at Paramount

Studio meetings are a way of life, and the many executives you meet over the course of a job, or the course of getting the next job, is quite numerous. Yesterday I met with a guy I first met when he was the youngest member of this Paramount company's creative team, a CE (creative executive) lowest on the ladder, assigned with the impossible task of taking down notes during writers' pitch meetings and then writing those up a in a coherent presentation for the in-house creative "team". That was in 1999. Now he's an exec. here with his own assistant, in charge of his own CE. Nice to see that, the system actually working as opposed to chewing them up and throwing them out, which the system also does.

As for the meeting, I was pitching my film adaptation "take" of a comic book bought by Paramount for this company, implying the wonderful possibility that the studio was already behind it, as they committed more than 4 cents in option money. This used to not be earth shattering news, nevertheless, in this current cold climate of film development, any thread, any glimmering light, any port in a storm. So they were particularly excited that the studio was behind it already.

As for my pitch - which went on for over an hour - I had to field the unexpected task of dealing with this executive's notes, as the pitch was happening. Now, for those of you who don't know, questions or adjustments are not unusual after your pitch, and very occasionally during. But this is a very development oriented group, (I've written two scripts for them I know) and they are very comprehensive with their note writing. This "note writing mind" has now unfortunately trickled down into the meeting where the notes are presented to the writer as the pitch is happening.

Can you imagine?

I'm pitching the story, the characters, the relationships, and suddenly have to field - what if he's "older/young?" "what if his father is actually not around?" "What if his friend has a completely new family not currently in your pitch and how would that play out? What if the bad guy had a different motive? Maybe the bad guy should appear earlier/later and how would that play out?" pause...waiting for my response... And as any good story teller will tell you, boy does this do wonders for the momentum and building excitement of your pitch.


As my head was spinning I calmly advised him hold those notes until I had least presented my whole story. He saw the wisdom of that and agreed, until two minutes later when he gave me a note on changing the major set piece of act 2, and changing the location of the ending and how would that play out? - pause - waiting for me to answer.

Well, I did answer, and played out the ideas of his notes, and we talked more, then had to re-summarize the whole movie in beats for the poor new assistant who was taking notes - and said that his "eyes were burning" by the end of our meeting. That's okay, my frontal lobe was burning.

After we finished the whole thing, and all shook hands and I left, I wanted to go stick my head in a bucket of cold water.

Will they move forward with my take? Do they like it? Who the hell knows? What did I say? And what did it become? I can't wait to get the notes from this meeting and find out what the hell my take is.

And of course they won't tell me if they don't like it, they'll tell my agent. Well, in all honesty, they will tell me as they're pretty cool. Most won't, however, so get ready for that if you haven't experienced it yet. Hollywood is a sunnytime town, all friendly and nice when things are happy and they're happy with you, and rather quiet when things are not in your favor. Don't take it personally. It's just business, as any experienced Mafia figure will tell you.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Big Idea

What is that? The "Big Idea?" I think it's really important. It's the idea within your story that gives you real glee. The one that is going to be the generator of excitement that pushes a wave of energy through your whole script. And for the professional writer, it could be the idea, or "take" that makes the sale. It doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, that would be bad. But it does have to be all encompassing of the story.

These ideas are crucial not just for original story telling, but for adaptations or re-inventions. I think Spielberg's big idea in War of the Worlds was a 9/11 emotional tone: aliens are terrorists who want to kill you. He even captured the look in those initial attacks, stunned people filling the streets, covered with white ash and looking up. Amazingly powerful.

So how do you get the big idea? How do you identify it?

It will feel good.
It will be unexpected.
The statement of the idea will have energy.
It will indicate an entire story.
It will NOT have structure.
It's just - an idea - remember? Keep it simple.
But it should be as radiant as a little sun to YOU.

I'll give you an example of a big idea.

A genius is a schizoprhrenic. His intellect endlessly at war with his interpretation of his world.

Wow - that's so perfect, you know? That was enough to excite that screenwriter (Akiva Goldsman) every day. That's all I'm talking about.

Start writing.

Writing for Fun and Profit

One of my readers emailed me:
I'm curious to know if you still make time to
write for fun, or if it's all business related now?
Write for fun? Good question Keith. Because to be successful, you have to make your work fun where ever you find yourself. The spec script answer is self evident; sure it is, otherwise why do it? The trick is - how to find the fun in an assignment? Work is work, writing is extremely difficult, it's not as easy as any non-writer thinks it is. Even when you're writing the script for fun - you've got to work your ass off to make it beautiful. So - the answer is a bit of a Chinese box. You do your work, and inside you always try to find the fun.

And I think the fun is apparent in an email a friend of mine just sent me: "I'm going to read my script now, and try not to commit suicide." This from a guy who really knows what he's doing. He's won an acadamy award. Are we having fun yet?

Now start writing. Or, maybe run for the hills.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

So I'm in the Paper

Made the LA Times today, in a well written and comprehensive piece on the history of the FANTASTIC FOUR (see two posts down). It explains the ins and outs of the development story, the writers involved, and the long road to the screen. My mention is less than a blurb, but in good company with a great list of writers who all threw their hats in the ring.

Dinner and Inspiration from a good Friend

Had dinner with a friend tonight, a guy who works at a very high level, the exec. producer/director of a top ten crime show last year, currently signed to a feature deal to direct, while keeping his hand in directing other hour dramas. And he can also walk and chew gum at the same time.

He had some particularly inspirational moments at dinner with me, and as I'm usually the one being inspirational, it meant a great deal to me to have that energy directed at me on this occasion. I pass on his advice and thoughts, as it pertains to every one of you out there who wants a career in this town, and wants to keep a career in this town.

His thoughts are simple, but that's why they're important. And they're not just for beginners, but for the vets who've been at it over ten years who begin to double think themselves, or get clouded by the white noise of feedback from agents, managers and lawyers:

1) Write original material, keep control and ownership.
2) Stop trying to get the re-write job and please everyone in the room, write your own work.
3) Don't look to others for validation. You are enough. They are lucky to be working with you.
4) Forget trying to win positive feedback from your agent/manager/lawyer.
5) Stop trying to please your wife, your significant other, your partner, or your friends.
6) Be ready to give it all up and go live in a motel if you're not doing what you want to, so you can do what you want to.

Sound harsh? It is. Sound freeing? It should. He's not saying don't pass up work. He's saying put your energy into defining your work at the highest level, and you will get the highest level of return. He has directed/produced tv and film. He said he knows how much power and control the writer really has, because he's had to deal with scripts so much. And the most power comes from the original script. The script with the original voice, the writing that's not diluted by the endless advice and warnings of your representation and family members.

Believe me, it seeps in. Stay true to your idea, your vision, stay pure.

It's really really good advice.

And I'm going to take it, as I believed I've slacked off here on a few of his points.

Now start writing.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

F4 - The Few, The Proud, The Uncredited

Yes, I'm one of the uncredited writers on FANTASTIC FOUR. There are quite a bunch of us, actually, almost enough to form our own political party. I threw my hat into the ring when it was still a relatively new project at 1492, (that's not year I wrote my draft in, by the way, though it feels like it, that's Chris Columbus' production company at Fox), and I was only the third writer. There have been ELEVEN of us all told since then. Yes, count them. And I did my part back in 1998. So, do the math. It demonstrates just how long it takes Hollywood to ruin a really good idea. Sadly they didn't keep much of what I came up with, which is a shame. Though I'm assuming there must be about ten of us who feel that way. Thus, you won't be seeing my name on the film.

From the advance word I can't say I feel terrible that my name's not on it. On the other hand, any writer with two kids will tell you he'd be happy to have his name on any franchise-potential that has not one, but four super heros. Even a failure at this level must generate some family-car-trip money, don't you think? But if it's a stinker, maybe I lucked out and have kept my monicker more pure.

I include the list of writers here, in the order they wrote, for your appreciation at just how Hollywood can deconstruct the auteur theory:

Fantastic Four written by (at one time or another):

Michael France
Chris Columbus
Philip Morton
Sam Hamm
Douglas Petrie
Tristan Patterso
Mark Frost
Zak Penn
Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
Simon Kinberg


I believe the first and the last are getting credit, and I assume that's fair. Even though Writers' Guild credit arbitration may feel like a gypsy seance to some, I've had friends who've done it (on The Sum of All Fears) and were handed a stack of scripts, some phone book sized, by a group of authors, and these guys read them all and voted with fairness and best intent on content. It made me realize how seriously we would all take the job if called up to do so, or might decide to get a PhD instead because it would be less work. Even so, so I trust the process).

Whom of my readers are local?

You know, it's not often that I get to use "whom" and that was very exciting.

I live in Pasadena, CA. I'm going to give my first free workshop in screenwriting in my home in the next week or two. Whom of you out there are nearby? Let me know and I'll see if this idea makes sense.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Desire vs. Fear

A friend of mine told me the other day that he'd heard the theory of screenwriting boiled down to one simple idea. In each scene, you have to know what your character WANTS and also what your character is AFRAID of.

Interesting idea. I'm not sure I completely buy it, but there's something simple and pure about it which may speak to others, so I present it here in case this is a reductionist way of thinking that can help you.

He added that it's crucial to know what your character is feeling in every scene as well. Well, I'm assuming he's really feeling that he WANTS this thing and will be AFRAID that he won't get it.

Okay, I jest. But in case this works for anyone out there, I present it here.

Because in the end it's most crucial to get OUT OF THE WAY of ourselves. There is entirely too much thinking going on out there in most early writers' heads. And seasoned writers as well (I can be guilty of this any day of the week). You want to stop the thinking. There's a reason the old saying "the mind is the slayer of the soul" is still around. It's true. Think too much and kill whatever beautiful feeling you ever had.

So use whatever trick you need to, to get into your character. Because as any old pro will tell you - character is story. Think about that, it's not a zen trick. CHARACTER IS STORY. It's not about the car chases, and robot crushers, and flying sharks. All that has it's place, can be crafted well, and be good eye candy - but in the end, character defines the entire universe, the reason the story came to be, and all events unfold because your character manifests his world, needs to learn the lessons that come to him, and either succeeds or fails.

So know who the hell you're writing about, what they want, and what they're afraid of. What's coming up behind them that's going to stop them? A monster? Or their own personal demon?

Start writing.

How Do You Start?

Some people are really killed by the open. Can't get past it. So much to say, but not sure what the first thing is that they should say. Well, it is CINEMA, moving pictures, think visually. What image thrills your character, or defines your character, or defines their world, or surprises your viewer, but makes sense to your characters? These questions all inspire many ways to start - and guess what - they would all be correct. One will speak to you - but it should be visual, connected to the character or their world, and have an aspect of the unexpected.

How do you do that, by the way? Introduce the unexpected? I hate when people say things like that and then sign off. Okay - the unexpected: it's easy. This is linked to the essence of good writing, and I believe a basic theory of successful writing. Unresolved tension. I'll be writing about this a lot. The best writing sets up a familiar subject, system, or character, and then begins to build tension. And then - guess what - does NOT resolve it for the length of the story.

This can start with an inappropriate item in a scene, inappropriate behavior, immediate conflict with your characters, etc. There are many ways to build tension. And it's unexpected if it comes from left field, an unexpected item appears, or if problems start quickly. Don't wait until the end of act one, you know? Get busy early. My favorite thing to do by the way, get the tension going immediately. So that's what I mean by the unexpected.

As to the idea of unresolved tension - this is CRUCIAL to be successful in the art of writing.

The key to success in long form drama - is MAINTAINING unresolved tension. Don't resolve it early. Many people will want to because unresolved tension is uncomfortable. Or some idiot told them in a writing class that every scene has a beginning, middle and end, so they'll resolve the tension at the end of each scene. Guess what. Don't. Unresolved tensions is what makes a page turner.

You start immediately in a dangerous life, or after a short build of a safe life, by creating a dissonant energy, like a minor chord in music. Something is wrong. Your character has a problem. And following my rule, things will then get bad for the character and after that, make the problems a lot worse. When they're crushed at the end of act two, and have really LOST something, they learn what they need to do to resolve the tension. They bring this new energy to the story, duke it out - either verbally or physically, and finally resolve the tension.

And boy will that then feel good. Because you resolved the tension on page 110, an not page 10.

Start writing.