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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.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Traveling For Much of August

Be back soon, honest. Blogging from out of country has not been user friendly.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Audio CD of Screenwriting Workshop is ready!

Some of you (out of towners) have asked me for, and I have now put together an audio CD of my writing workshop!

As I said to one of the attendees from last weekend: "In the end, I think a lot of these 'screenwriting systems' lose sight of how simple it has to be, how little you really need to prepare, and how much to trust the writer with just a few simple guidelines. Then, of course, you just have to work your ass off."

So for those of you who have already ordered, thanks. For those of you who are ready to work your ass off, and are interested in the guidelines for quick story construction and execution, here is some quick feedback from the last workshop:

"Phil has such an extensive understanding of the craft of storytelling, and he freely shares the many techniques that he’s developed during his long career working within the studio system. I’ve taken seminars with McKee, Truby, Michael Hauge, Linda Seegar, and many others, and while it’s always great to hear analysts deconstruct story, there’s nothing like getting tried and true writing tools directly from an accomplished practitioner. This isn’t some enormous screenwriting seminar at your local Hilton, it’s just a working writer chatting craft and structure at his home on a Saturday afternoon. I highly recommend attending the next time he does one."
Warren Hsu Leonard - check out his blog - http://www.screenwritinglife.com
and some more feedback:

"Thanks for your excellent screenwriting seminar. Your informal presentation of structural theory, witty anecdotes, market info, and pitching skills was appropriate for a wide range of screenwriting levels and addressed a lot of the issues and unknowns that I currently struggle with.
Thanks, Matt"
NOTE: And Nick just added:

I had to write real quick and THANK YOU again. By exploring my characters
emotional lines I have discovered my second act in a way I never thought
possible. Your seemingly simple suggestion has accelerated my writing to a whole
new realm. I can not fully express how amazing this. I haven't left my room
since your workshop - I cant stop writing. Thank you, thank you!!

Hey, thanks to all. Of course, my secret is that I think I had more fun than they did. But that's the trick with good writing too, in the end. And the secret of how to always find that place, even amidst horrendous development, is something I talk about too.

You can listen to it in the car like a book on tape, or put it in the computer at home and make a crib sheet. Whatever suits your style the best.

Click on "Audio CD" on the sidebar for more info!

Monday, August 07, 2006

When to Cut and Run, When to Stay and Fight

A very real problem for every screenwriter on any project. You've sold your spec, or handed in your first draft on an assignment, and you're handed a sheaf of notes a mile high that are either constructive and exhaustive, or pig-headed and ignorant. The instinctive response to both is to cut and run, of course. Not that you necessarily do - it's just the fight or flight response. But it's much easier to fly away from a fight. That's survival. You just spent months (years) putting a script together, they bought it and now want to change it. So you want to cry. I know I do.

But the real question posted from the previous post:

"But I'm still looking for that elusive 'rule' that would explain when to cut bait and run vs when to stay in the mix and fight. Both can be painful, and rewarding, in their own ways.

The most frustrating and confusing thing about this process for me is that sometimes, even the ideas that seem like total crap at first look sometimes aren't, and sometimes spawn new directions that couldn't have been anticipated had the crap not been waded through. Ugh!

So, it seems the battle for me is between instinct, belief, and 'stinking thinking.' Which is a roundabout way of coming full circle, because I still have NO IDEA where to draw the line and when to back away. Hope is a funny thing - sometimes, in certain situations, it can be a disastrous come-on leading to wasted energy and time. And sometimes the challenge of applying a new set of ideas can be much too tempting."
The problem is, there is no qualitative rule to give you the exact guideline, no warning sign that is exactly ever the same, and most frustrating - a rosy ending may start in the muck at the bottom of a swamp (and a swampy ending can begin with a dozen roses).

Point of fact: Many years ago a friend of mine is wooed by a big director as his script is so great, he's promised a great creative relationship. Friend sells script to studio with this director. Director then abuses and tortures the hell out of him trying to get him off the script, telling him it's crap, smells like shit, on and on - (because the director wanted him to quit and re-write himself and take credit.) My friend didn't walk, stuck it out, delivered a great re-write the studio loved it and it went into production. The script didn't only do well, but received four academy award nominations - and my friend had an immediate A list career.

I was on a project at Paramount, wrote an original adaptation, and for three years wrote about nine drafts, with two different directors who came on and off the project, in various different step deals. The project is still at Paramount and now, though a great script still exists, there are other less good versions as well, all in the history of this project, and the project is now asleep.

I've never walked from a project. I'm not saying I wouldn't, I'm just saying I haven't hit that moment when my inner 'knowing' says:'bail, now!'

For me the rule would have to be this: You don't write when you are faced with a change of direction you know that you couldn't write well.

Notice I'm not saying a change you don't agree with. As mentioned before, I've had a friend on a project for eight years - countless drafts, finally taking him down roads he not only disagreed with, but wound up taking out every special bit of story that he liked about the project to begin with. Nevertheless, he stuck it out anyway. It was finally greenlit last year because he gave them exactly what they wanted, and the film just finished principle photography in Van Couver. He knew he could still write what they were asking him too - and write it well. He realized it was just good business. And I agree. Part of the gig is craft. And sometimes you're bringing that wholly to a project.

In the Bhagavad Gita, it tells the story of Prince Arjuna, born into the life of a warrior, filled with doubt on the battlefield as he's about to enter a climactic war. He has some beloved relatives and teachers on the enemy side, who he has to head into battle and kill. He balks at this idea. And he's told by his God that in this life he must play out its part. What frees him is a glimpse by the divine of the divine truth, that once we release our attachment to the ego and desire here, we re-join the oneness of God - as does everyone on this battlefield, and beyond there is no suffering.

The teaching, of course, is meant to guide the reader to release his attachment to everything here right now and see the divine in everything, and live a life free of suffering here, whatever walk of life they travel in, well before they are crushed by an army of charioteers.

Good writing can only happen when we release our own attachment to what 'should' be, even in our spec. scripts, and let through what 'has to' be. When you're handed notes and have to re-shape along lines you disagree with - you're merely constructing a new house so that the inspiration of what 'has to' be can flow in the new form.

So we too are offered a path to play out. Re-writing from the notes of others may feel as repulsive as heading into battle to fight your relatives, but somehow we've attracted this life, and the sword in our hand is our pen. If you release your attachment, and release your resistance, you have a good shot of writing well.

And in the end, that's what we're here to do. Good writing will always generate more work, if not on the project you're on, then on another. Bad writing is a dead end.

I always vote to stay in the game as long as you can write it well.

caveat: You may have a conscious objection to the turn of a story. It introduces violence to a character or group you feel is morally repugnant, etc, or it may bring in a darkness of storytelling that you don't want to bring into the world. I've actually made that choice myself. I think that's a healthy choice.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


What any screenwriter is faced with, on any given day, is the endless testing ground between rigidity and flexibility. Because it's the only art form that is endlessly collaborative. Your friends will give you notes, your wife, your gardener will have an opinion. And that's way before you get studio notes.

What note do you listen to? How much do you change something even if the notes are good? And how much do you have to change something even when you disagree?

You will undoubtedly have to make changes from your first draft through your re-wrties and polishes, through to shooting. That's inevitable. And cringe, whine, anticipate or hope as we may, that is the one constant in our lives. The script will change. M. Knight Shymalyan wrote - I believe - 14 drafts of the Sixth Sense, realizing only about halfway through the process that his hero should be dead. Sometimes writing reveals the answers, and sometimes 'answers' are foisted upon us without a question. "Change the male lead into a woman and we can make it," is a favorite note of mine. (And not one to me thankfully. The changes were made. The script is still not made.)

So the real challenge becomes how to stay inspired, how to stay connected to the material, how to keep the thrill of storytelling alive amidst a barrage of changes that may deconstruct your carefully modeled Architectural Digest home.

Well, as a friend of mine says:"There are a thousand ways to do something right. Just pick one." There's some real wisdom here. So how to guide your transformation into something that keeps its vitality?

You have to keep in mind what your 'big idea' was that started the whole thing. The bright jewel, the sun in the sky that made you smile every time you thought of that story. That has to be kept alive, even as the bookends, and surrounding story structure change to appease the notes. If you have to re-seed the story with new roots to make the new structure make sense, grow them all from that original big idea - fight to keep that intact. Because in the end you can't win every battle in notes warfare. But you have to pick your fights. So always fight to keep the big idea intact.

There is an old Chinese saying that says something to the effect of:"The reed that bends, doesn't break." Some writers don't tolerate notes and would prefer to walk off a project. I prefer to keep in the mix, keep the story alive with me as the guide, doing my best to shine my light through it for as long as possible.

Great Workshop

I had a great time, thanks to all!

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Meeting Mill

This week I've taken meetings at one major production co. at Universal, Silver Pictures at WB, John Davis Co, and another major prod. co. at Paramount.


So what did I learn in the gossip mill?

1) That everyone thinks Dreamworks is the trojan horse that will devour Paramount. As one exec. put it, at Paramount with the new regime in place, there is still no clear 'there' there. No clear mandate. No clear take on what a 'Paramount Movie' is right now. So people aren't bringing them big projects. They're shopping big projects elsewhere first. Like - to Dreamworks.

2) Much chatter about the Broder Webb devouring of ICM's TV department. Well, more truly the surgical replacement of ICM's TV department with Broder Webbs'. The feature side will be a merging of the titans. As one exec. put it - two tanks of sharks, put in bucket of chum, serve, enjoy. (I'm glad I was repped at Broder Webb, and coming in to new digs)

3) Mandate from one head of studio: no more arab bad guys. No more Iraq war narrative. Geo-political global marketplace feedback is getting sensitive to it. This specifically altered one big project already in development at this studio, and pretty much tanked something that had been pitched to me that I was working on. Wow. That one hurts. So much for freedom of expression. Freedom of commerce doesn't seem to permit it.

4) There is now the $35 million movie, and the $150 million dollar movie. But there really isn't anything inbetween. Very serious discussion about this in one meeting on potential project. Very savy prod. exec. was pointing out our effects shots and casting made a potential adaptation of a soon to be published book a $65M picture, which was no longer a category. You're either in the lower budget block with acceptable demographics non-star driven vehicle and predictable returns. Or you're in the star driven tent pole movie which shoots for the moon and every potential cross over.

Also endlessly fascinating - the same EXACT pitch got a luke warm response in one room, and a bowled over cartwheel inducing effect in a different room.

This is the upside of meetings. In the cartwheel room the feedback was rather joyous to my reps. Which means I've generated a fan merely by showing up. That's the value of meetings. Passion, enthusiasm, good story telling always wins the day. Whether or not the initial project survives, proactive action and continued attention could create new opportunity. And in this changing marketplace - one less friendly than it has been - the savy writer needs to always be conscious of creating new opportunity, new fans, new champions. Don't leave it soley to anyone else to find the job for you. Be diligent, be creative, be proactive, be positive. As Lawrence Kasdan once said: 'be the hero of your own life."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Workshop - Saturday, Aug 5th, Noon!

Come join us! I look forward to seeing you! For those of you who are just finding out about the workshop, all are welcome! Leave any questions or thoughts about it here!

NOTE: This is an LA workshop.