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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.

Friday, March 24, 2006

How To Survive The Inferno?

A reader asks:
"How do you keep your own personal sense of respect for the
screenwriting craft, and what you do, intact in an industry that seems
to believe screenwriting is little more than 'idea vomiting,' which
takes no time, little effort, and can be executed by anyone with
fifteen minutes to spare?

I’m coming off of some form of development hell – which ring of hell, I
can’t be sure – but, boy, am I feeling beaten up...How do you handle this?"
Well, welcome to the fun world of professional screenwriting! Doesn't it sound grand? Come on everyone! I've got a barn and some costumes, and some unemployed development executives who can give us all the notes we want!

They didn't coin the phrase "development hell" to be poignent, or clever, it was undoubtedly uttered by someone standing on a window ledge ten stories up.

Before you get into this line of work, like any good fighter, you should know what to expect in the ring. It may not stop the pain, but it gives you a fighting chance. So here are some things to know about the fight you're about to enter (or have entered repeatedly).

First of all - Develpment Executives:

1) Are scared shitless that the story is fucked up and won't work and they'll be fired (eventually). This is before you're hired and after you hand in. Even if they believe in your script, by the way, a hint of doubt at the top and watch how fast they're ready to put the end at the front and twist the middle inside out.
2) Wittingly or unwittingly they need to prove they are worth their paychecks and so will generate a mountain of endless notes, corrections, thoughts ideas, a cascade of shit which is mostly unneccessary. In all that, there may actually be some good ideas. Use them!
3) Have no loyalty to you, but to the "picture". You're not there to make friends, you may, but it won't matter if you do. It's a bit like Don Juan syndrome. They're "dating" all these "hot chicks" (scripts they have in development) and will dump you the second you go cold.

And it's not nearly as much fun as it sounds, by the way.

Tools for dealing with this?

1) Their fear? Trust your creative source, you are the only one who knows how to tell your story. Be confident and grounded in that. They will always shake your tree, but they can't pull up the roots. Fear is contagious, so be prepared and don't let it in. You may be asked to trash all your ideas and start over. What do you do? Walk away? Well, you can actually. But if you decide to stay - you need to find a way to become re-inspired with what's in front of you. Why? Because you're a story teller who wants to play on the public stage and this is the price. Always go to your source, the place where your ideas play, always start with re-working the character so the rest of the situations and the new ones work again. Otherwise it's all just bumper cars and emotional emptiness.

I have a friend who's been in development eight years on a script. He's done about 14 drafts. He's let them cut out his most favorite stuff, and he continues to find inspiration in new ways to deal with the situations they ask for. He complains bitterly, frustrated as hell, then he takes a deep breath and goes down deep - below all that mindful upset - and finds his source, the place in the ocean of creativity that's still full of life and goes to work from there. What does it get him? His picture just started principle photography in Van Couver.

2) Too many notes: It's your job to hack through notes and say "yes" and "no" to what comes down the pyke. In fact, they want you to. You have to pick your battles, you can't say no to everything, but you really need to refuse the moronic ones. If not - and they insist - and you have to do it - you have to give it your best shot. That means re-working the story from the inside so that it makes sense again on the outside the way they want it. It means going to character and their emotional reality - and finding that change they have to make - and making the situations you've been asked to put them in make sense in a new way - and all that good stuff. If you don't start there, it won't ever play.

3) They're no friend of mine: Charm, civility, humor, betrayal, manipulation, guilt, seduction and all that before your meeting ends. There are a lot of clever people out there good at getting under your skin to get what they want. I did a re-write for Joel Silver in which I was hired in the room on my pitch, and left feeling I was way behind and already handing in pages late. How the hell did he do that? I had to go home and re-set myself.

Keep it professional, always present your best work on time - no first drafts please - even when they say "hey it doesn't have to perfect" (it better be your best effort or you're probably fired). Don't share works in progress. You need your chance to make your chemistry come to life and ignite and transform and then they get to see it.

As a cake maker said to my wife and I when we were shopping for our wedding cake. "You're only as good as your last cake."

Here too. Don't run the marathon on your work, just to get exhausted at the end and stop writing. Finish the job.

And in the end, don't write it all from your mind, write from your heart.

How do you keep your heart opened when you're beaten down? You don't take it personally. You can't or you'll drop dead from a heart attack at 38. You are a story teller. You open up and let it come through you, and you have found that thing that actually nourishes you as you do it.

That's all you need to remember.


Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

I would also recommend to this person Terry Rossio's "You, the Expert" column on Wordplay. It's actually about selling a script or finding an agent, but the premise is basically like your #1 tool for dealing.

Saturday, March 25, 2006  
Blogger greg said...


Hope you don't mind - I put up a link to your blog yesterday on my sight.

I am trying to be a writer...had my first script optioned and greenlit. We are waiting for our stars avails to line up. I am also a producer - so I am in the mix on the nonsense behind the scenes...

This is a very tricky business and very easy to lose your way - and sanity. Thank you for being a beacon...

If you have a second - check out my blog:




Sunday, March 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for posting this! I find myself re-reading sections over and over, to let the meanings sink in deep. I understand (I think) and am working to do that very thing right now -- reconnect with my source. To get under the frustration to what is real. Grounded and open.

Thank you!!


Sunday, March 26, 2006  

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