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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, January 28, 2006

Trimming, Slimming, from the Beginning

Trimming pages is a normal task, one that writers are asked to do regularly for budget reasons, pacing reasons, or because a directors style may trump one's dialogue.

Or maybe your first draft came out to 160 pages. Don't laugh, it happens. And for those of you not laughing, I guess I'm talking to you. It's certainly happened to me. Some writers write exactly to the page count, others don't. Regardless, all will be asked to cut something at some point.

(I was once told by a friend who was on a board meeting at the guild, as writers were sharing their war stories, that one team related their first draft usually came out to 250 pages, which was normal for them, and then they started cut. Wow.)

But how do you actually do it?

There have been various definitions of what screenwriting is in books, on this blog, and on the other writing blogs out there that are all excellent. It starts with Hitchcock's observation that movies are "life with the boring parts taken out" and goes from there. Every moment matters, every word matters, because every second on screen matters. And if an image carries more power for your story, write the image and hold the silence. Writing doesn't necessarily mean make your characters speak non-stop for 90 minutes.

Another definition on this blog that I love came from The Thinking Writer
which essentially remarked that good scene writing starts as late into the scene as possible, and leaves before the scene ends. It marries posts on this blog where I talk about maintaining tension, and to never resolve tension, which means - don't resolve all your scenes in a nice little package and tie it up with a bow. Scene can end, abruptly if need be, tension continues.

Now, some have to write a whole scene to get to the meaty part in the middle and figure out that's what they need, others go right to it. But it's a great way to start trimming.

So here are my first three go to spots for the trim:

First place to go: There's plenty of excess set-up, exposition, talking without saying anything, and overly ornate description to clog up any script, and that happens to writers on every level, which is why you don't see a lot of first draft scripts shared on the internet. They often suck. That's the first place you go to trim.

But a story beat that happens on page 40 of a fat script, may seem perfect landing on page 30 after you cut and condense what comes before it.

The second place to go: Kill repeated action. Often young writers hit the same beat two or three times in one script. The same joke in a comedy (hey look, this time the pie hit my dad!), the same threat in a thriller (okay, this time I'm really going to kill you if you don't tell me where the &$%! is), these are important to cut as they hurt your story anyway, you can't build a drama on repetition. (caveat: in comedies the "running joke" is a piece of gold and doesn't count as repetition.)

The third place to go: Visit the idea of multiple action to condense story. We tell stories linearly, meaning we walk them out on a straight line as we weave them into the world. That often means single events happen in each scene, then we move to the next scene for a new event or piece of information, etc. I have written here before about the "one new piece of information a scene" idea, which I think is important so you don't lose your audience. But if an idea/character/element has already been introduced, there's not reason it can't double up in the same scene. So rather than have your hero and his best friend have a falling out at lunch, and then in the next scene have your hero meet his love interest for the first time and embarrass himself because he's nervous, you can place both events in the same scene, perhaps using the first moment to help affect the second moment.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Can You Just Hand Us A Few Pages?

Hey all, been burning the candles at both ends. So, all right Eleanor, jeez, here's my next post. And it's not going to be the one about editing and condensing, that comes next, but this one is foremost in my thoughts as it's a regular question that comes to writers, one that everyone will be hit with at some point and one that I was asked recently.

"Can we just have a few pages on that?"

It comes after your pitch, after you're brilliant in the room and they want to capture some of that and carry it on. So they're going to ask you for free work, because they can't keep it all in their head when they have to pitch it to - a director, a producer, their boss, their chairman, whatever they can just say "here".

This will usually be qualified impossibly, by the way with :"don't do too much work on it, just include everything in the pitch, so that someone could understand it and see the movie if they weren't familiar with it." I love that one, really cracks me up. You mean - a SCREENPLAY?

No, they literally mean two pages. And they're not kidding. It's like asking someone to describe the taste of chocolate, but just write down the recipe and don't use any declarative language.

Well, don't do it.

Managers and Agents might even council you to do it, as they just want you to get the job you want and feel you're showing a ready to work attitude.

But in the end, there are two reasons why it's not a good idea.

The union says don't do it. And if you're literally trying to capture on paper the sparkle of a pitch, it more than likely will be list of reasons executives can look at and say no to.

So, what do you say when you're asked this? It's easy.

You say you'd love to. But that you feel it's impossible to capture the excitement and everything that "you" responded to in such a short document. If you hate saying no, you just said it by looking out for the other guy. And, if you don't mind saying no, you can just say "no".

Saturday, January 21, 2006

We Love It, Now Can You Take 10 Pages Out of Act One?

I love that note. How the hell do you do that? Happens on every project - you always have to cut pages for pacing, for budget, for time. But keep the feel of everything, can you do it? Well, you have to.

And I've realized I need to do that to my spec.

And how about 20 pages off the back end as well? And trim the bangs? Can you tell I'm running a bit long? But that's how I write, I over-write and trim back like a gardener cutting a hedge. Always have, and have learned to embrace my process, otherwise I kill any inspiration. Other writers create differently (like a friend of mine) who goes scene by scene honing at the length he wants, until he finish his draft spot on at 118. (I hate him).

You need to have a very capable editor within you, yet the edit switch must be OFF when you create your material, and then turned ON when you trim it. Boy that's a tightrope walk. I'll write how I do it in my next post.

(My most severe experience of that was taking a feature script at 120 and have to turn it into a 90 page teleplay for a two hour movie. Can you just cut 30 pages? That one physically hurt.)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Long Haul

Hollywood is still a gold rush kind of town. You can hit gold here immediately, or dig for 20 years and then hit gold, or hit gold in the middle and run out, etc. Life turns on a dime all the time here and no one knows what to expect - or what to tell you what to expect - but you'd better expect to have one thing if you're going to succeed, or at the very least survive with as few angina-like chest episodes as possible:


"Hurry up and wait" is still a big part of Hollywood, even when things are moving in your favor. When they're not, it's like watching ice ages come and go before you feel anything significant happens.

So for those of you starting out, prepare for a long haul, it'll be easier on you later.

And for those of you already in the long haul, like a wagon train headed across the country, you know where-of I speak. And for those of you who can't cope with the process, you might as well leave the wagon train right now and make a claim and start growing wheat.

I wrote a script years ago, it was my second one that I sold as a solo writer (I had colloborated with two partners before that on different projects which brought me out to Hollywood).

This script got a great reaction then, was picked up by a studio with top director/producer team, but was never made, and has subsequentally come back into my hands. It has then been set up again (at high profile independent company) then returned to me, set up with talent for me to direct (Kevin Pollack) with independent financing, then the funding never came together. Then years later set up again with talent for me to direct (Nathan Lane), with major independent studio, then the funding fell through. And now I was just told today by the current producer that the script has just gotten the attention of a very significant talent (I have released myself on director this time around), who may set up the project on their marqui value alone. Exhausted yet? That took 14 years so far. Who says it's over?

That's what I'm talking about. You're not just writing long form product in Hollywood as a screenwriter, your life is a long-form product and you need to have some very nice stress management tools to deal with that.

I'm just saying.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Phone Pitch

An important weapon in the writer's arsenal. Because you'll be asked to do it a lot. It's one of my least favorite. And I had a big one today.

But everyone's different, and you may love it. But I prefer to see the people I'm talking to, telling a story to, so I can read their reactions. Interested or glassy eyed? Focused, or questioning? All of these in a five minute period?

Then I can always adjust, question, or alter the energy of the pitch as required. It might not take away the glassy eyes, but hell, at least I tried.

But on the phone you can't see 'em, just hear - well - a lot of nothing.

And you have to jabber on. This was the follow up call on my Dreamworks meeting from last week, with one additional producer and two additional excutives from another company who would share the cost of this movie. Cassic set up, standard procedure, five people, four locations.

My reps tried to get all of us all in the room, by the way, for the reasons I stated above, but schedules didn't allow it - so - you go with it. And with this one I had to bring more detail to the table, and really show the shape and flow of the movie. Meeting two people for the first time as well (the other two knew me).

So. How do you give a good phone pitch?

1) Lead the call. After the nicities and hellos the lead exec. may give a brief introduction and say get to it, or may not. Either way, be a horse out of the gate and lead clearly with high energy.

2) Hook them immediately: you need a great open to your story, and you need to paint a great visual. It's possibly your first introduction to them (as two were to me today) and you need to get their attention. First impressions are lasting. So do the work and nail a great start. It will make them realize they need to pay attention on this call and not just put in an appearance.

3) Don't assume everyone has briefed everyone else properly on where you are with your "take". And this is not about you and your history. It's about the story. Briefly re-summarize your love of the material and what excites you about it. Or what excites you about this original idea, whatever it is. Enthusiasm and passion are crucial in writing and in selling writing. I've stated here before that people want to be moved, and will believe you can do it if you can move them with your passion. And if you don't love the material and aren't excited about it, fake it.

4) Any good pitch has visual cues, gags for comedy, stark images for drama, and you must paint your juiciest in the room. Don't stop at your first one that started the show, keep them coming. (An atom bomb goes off in the desert and turns the sand to glass for half a mile. That was one of mine for an action film. That might have gotten me that job). On a conference call the visuals are all the more crucial. They can't see you act anything out.

5) Clarity. Be clear and concise. Who knows who's walked into the executive's office, or what email has come in, or what message prompt rolls accross the screen from their assistant. Don't deviate from your through line, hit your beats, gags or dramatic reversals, clean and hard.

6) Pitch a beat sheet not the blow by blow 90 minute detailed version of your film. And hit your acts cleanly and let everyone know where you are.

Additionally - you may be asked something akin to "what page are we at this point" or "where do you see us now?" "Where are we in act 2?" Know the answer. Don't guess. Confidence is key.

7) Have your theme, or your character's lesson/need, in your back pocket. You will be asked for them if they don't come out naturally in your telling. I didn't on this call, amazingly, and after a one second pause - created it, based on the character and the story I had made. Of course that answer was key, by the way. (and of course it was part of my prep, but for some reason I never articulated it in my notes)


You will be asked these spoilers that could shatter your world and tank your pitch, so be ready for them:

"I understand the first hero, but the second hero doesn't make sense to me, seems a mash of several different people. I don't see how that works." Don't fumfer around on that one or you're dead. They've just called you a crappy writer! Have your answer ready - in the guise of how you would cast this movie, and the talent that would play that part. Powerful charismatic people bring their own energy to a part that can pull together major swings in a character's arc. (Reese Whitherspoon in Blonde Ambition for exmaple, or Ian McShane of Deadwood). Place the actor in the role and defend your character.

"Why isn't there as much action in act 2 as there is in act 1?" Oh, but there is, wasn't I clear about that? Be ready. Perhaps you concentrated more on the dramatic elements, or character bits. Have your clear confrontations and conflicts at hand.

"I don't understand how that character can make the change you're talking about from the beginning to the middle. It doesn't work for me." Jesus, weren't they listening? It's very clear. Have your definitive moment that shatters your character's world - forcing them to see the true nature of their soul and change who they are. (This can be an act 1 into act 2 moment, or act 2 into act 3 moments, different characters have different lives).

"Do you see another movie after this one is over? If we were to build a franchise?" For crap sake, I just spent all this time putting together THIS story, now you want the next one too? This is a trap if you attempt to spin story number two, but there is a simple correct answer. "Oh, yes." Then follow that with "I'd have to think about it, but this is so RICH that there's plenty of OPPROTUNITY." Okay, you dodged that bullet. In reality, of course, that answer is always yes as the nature of stories with truly vivid characters are to weave on unending. Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Homles and look how that turned out.

Of course there are more spoilers, but these are fresh in my mind as they were just the ones I was asked today!

And I nailed the answer to each one because I was ready.

That isn't luck, or specifically great skill by the way, just a lot of hard work that you need to do before going in. Unless you do it, no one appreciates the amount of work that writers do. But if you do your work, you'll be fine. In the end, you can only do your best. So make sure that you do so. That way, you won't leave the call feeling that you missed an opportunity. Because you will not get a second chance.

Follow up: reps tell me call was received quite well and I'm to go to the next step, the final meeting before pitching to the head of production. Meeting is set for this Friday, so this is moving fast, they are very motivated. Very good sign.

Follow up: I've had a chat with the studio exec. about answers needed in this next meeting, the beats laid out clearly again, specifically two spots they thought needed attention, and this time, guess what, we'll all be in the room together.

An Indication of Positive Reinforcement

So, I wound up polishing about 70 pages of my friend's script in one blast and sent it off in the middle of the night. Now, the structure was fine, well the third act is too mechanical, not emtional, but characters are flat, unreal, and not smart. And it's a detective thriller. How can you send that to talent?

So I made them smart, edgy, real, funny.

Now remember, he's the director fast tracked at a company with the film ready to go, but the draft came in disappointing and he's concerned the film will go away. To give you an idea of what's at stake for him, it's a company that won an acadamy award last year and they were thinking of going to Hillary Swank to star.

So he calls this morning and says he loves the changes. Can he come over?

There's nothing like positive feedback. Always makes me feel good.

So we work for several hours in my study and go back and forth on the changes. We also laugh a lot and probably because of the ridiculous situation we were in.

I experienced something very eye-opening, however, which was being completely free and creative in the moment without any tension (except for the time demand) because I was completely unattached to the material, and was literally searching for the the best movie to reveal itself to me and come out from the existing script. (by the way the original writers wrote a solid thriller, great structure, but weak characters. The re-write guy slowed down the pacing and gummed up the characters up more. Re-writing work is tricky and I of course don't know the notes he was given, conflicting as they may have been, and what he was attempting to satisfy and placate at the studio level).

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed myself. Now - that's the secret to inspired writing. No attachment.

It's the resistance we feel to changing our own work that sometimes creates the stress of the job. And that can be writing an original and re-writing it, or being a hired hand and attacking your second draft.

This business is one that takes you from "Puffed up to shattered in six weeks" as my wife likes to say. But there's something deeply teaching in the practice, if you can step back and appreciate it. Because your expectations and attachments are what puff you up pand shatter you. And if you literally stay with your work, day to day, in the moment, and just do good work - that in the end will be a reward. And that reward can manfiest material rewards in the real world as well.

Anyway, he's sent the script off tonight to the company and we'll learn this week if the work done has kept the project moving forward.

Today was fun. Reminded me of college.

Now why the hell can't I do that on my own script? Maybe I should get him back in here and give me notes. I'm hoping to take some of what I learned back to my own work, which can sometimes make me feel beaten down and lift myself back up when I'm feeling the ghoulies encroach.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Real Hollywood

Got a call today. From a good friend of mine. Those of you who have read this blog for a while remember I was courted for a good gig back in autumn, at a high profile company, academy award winners. My friend is directing a thriller that has been green-lit by this independent financially solvent company (dependent on a good polish), the script needed a polish, he wanted me for the job.

That's a great set up, by the way. Couldn't be much better going in.

So I had a great meeting with the head of the company, and the head producer. They loved me. Then lost the job to another writer. My sample script they read wasn't perfect for the job, the other guy had one that nailed it.

Fine. It happens. Just another story in the big city. Another road kill on the job possibilities of life.

I had forgotten about it.

Until my friend called a few days ago. The director. The script came in beginning of the week, and it's awful. He's really upset. So he wanted me for the job again. Then he called back. The company has no money for any more writers. I shared my sympathies and offered a shoulder to cry on.

But could I look at it? And maybe offer some ideas? On four scenes? As it falls to him to cut and paste and write the thing back into shape? Why not - I love this guy, he really is a good friend. Sure I said today, I'll be glad to help you. "Great, I'll send you the script, I have to hand it in tomorrow," he says.


Welcome to Hollywood. Ready to go in and get paid for a good gig, don't get it, and now working for free and up all night on the same gig so my friend won't lose his film. You've got to love this shit, or it will drive you insane.

The Many Deaths of a Writer

You'll feel it as you work, and an idea slips away, or a perfect structure suddenly tangles.

You'll feel it as months of hard work stares back at you and feels empty.

Or when you soldier on through that despair and hit the elation that comes from breathing true life into the once empty vessel and then getting your first ream of notes about how the hero isn't likeable, the story takes too long to get going, and the villain isn't working.

Writing alone in a little room, poor and hungry is bad enough. Writing professionally and being lanced regularly like an annoying boil makes the poor and hungry thing seem romantic.

Until you remember being poor and hungry and how that's really much less romantic in hindsight.

What makes it romantic? Staying true to your vision. Trusting your judgement. Letting the story shine through you.

These are the moments of the phoeonix when the death every writer experiences on any number of days is turned into new life.

It's the thing new writers can appreciate now, before they have to look back and appreciate it.

It's the thing veteran writers need to stay in touch with, as the re-write, adaptation and endless variations thereof require them to dig deep to their source, the spring where the new material comes from, and let that inspire their demands of the craft.

This profession has many deaths, daily, weekly, yearly. It needs to have many lives and re-births as well to keep one's talent blade sharp.

Find that thing that feeds your pheonix. New work not based on source material. Parallel work (poetry, book), music (composing or playing - that's my trick), painting, clay - what have you. Hell, just go to the gym or ride a bike to start if you're not doing tha tnow.

Creating is messy, demanding and thrilling. It shouldn't be endlessly controlled, contoured, adjusted, tweaked and strangled. Make sure you haven't put all your creative energy into one basket that will be blundgeoned to death regularly.

If you're channeling your creative fire into a creative profession, make sure you're feeding it too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Meeting at Dreamworks

The fun thing about Dreamworks is that it kind of seems like it's from a movie. The massive adobe structure is one that Indiana Jones would feel fine strutting through, if it were not for all of those offices full of executives.

But the meeting makes me think of the writer's job in meetings. There has been much written on this before, but I pretty much have to work from the moment, and this forced me to focus on the issues I had to face. So I pass on to you the simple advice I've learned over the years (from myself or from friends) for when you find yourself in a writer's meeting.

It's not a big list, by the way. But it may be a helpful one.

1) Don't sell yourself. Sell the movie.

Whatever has brought you in, an original pitch, a re-write of a script, or an adaptation of a book (why I was there) you are merely a conduit for all of the studio execs hopes and desires, which is simply to deliver a brilliant blockbuster of a movie. Their path to that, which could be through you, is simply a great script. And it may inspired by what you have to bring to the table. They want to feel that inspiration, and the only way to do that - is to take your natural love to of story telling and fill the room with it. The fact that you are there means you're already in play, so get to work and fill the room with passion and enthusiasm for what you feel for the project.

2) If you're there on any kind of re-write or adaptation, have two of the problems you found in the source material fixed and they will think you're a genius.

Part of the problem, the reason(s) this thing isn't a movie yet, or doesn't exist in script form yet, is the seemingly insurmountable difficulties with the existing source material. This could be a script in one of several conditions: (a)crappy with great hook b) merely good with great hook c) really great with great hook except they now need to change the leading man to a leading woman).

Now, all you story tellers out there can sense when something's not right. Always ask up front before your first meeting if there are specific issues or directions they've tried that didn't work on the existing material. Then follow your instincts. The leading lady doesn't sound like a lady? Has no lady friends? Has no community? (which women will do more than men) Bring that up and You will undoubtedly be solving a problem. Story is too static? Story is too kinetic? Here's the fix? Bring your sense of what makes a great movie to this movie, and that shows them why you're right for the job.

And, if it's a 400 page book, as in my case, what the hell do you cut and how do you get out of the lead character's head and onto the screenplay page?

Again - follow your instincts. After you close the cool but thoughtful first person narrative remember a film is visual. And the middle 200 pages in a survival desert camp doesn't make for great visual story telling. Condense it, get to the point, get out, and create a visual set piece that forces the hero's hand and challenges him on his/her greatest weakness they have to face.

Because in the end, all drama is the search for personal identity. And what forces the identity to be revealed, and how much it deepens/differs in the character we've come to know and love, makes for great drama.

So put that in.

3) Determine the theme, the lead character's arc, and your tone. Is it a coming of age story and a comedy? Terrific, you've once again put into words something they may not have realized, and help them see how the structure will fall into place, hopefully with greater clarity.

Is it a redemption story? Is it the return of the King?

This is very important by the way and a great way to frame the discussion of the story.

4) Lead the meeting. When you're handed the floor take it. Everyone in this business is scared, and they want to be told everything will be all right. That's your moment to show them why everything's all right. Don't try to copy anyone else's style, or be someone you're not, just be you. But not at 60%. Don't be a night light. Be you at 100%.

As for me, the meeting went well and now I'm off to the next meeting with the producing partners. Now I'll have to repeat the same meeting with new people, perhaps more indepth and with more detail.

It's kind of like shampoo instructions. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But as you do so, you're honing your own story, getting it cleaner, more polished. Many of us have been down many of these roads, and it doesn't guarantee a sale, but it guarantees that you give it your complete best so you can have no issue with your own presentation.

And in the end, that's all we have control over anyway, whatever aspect of life we're facing.

It's certainly one of the requirements of studio work. Hitting the rooms with clarity, energy and enthusiasm high.