So -- do you have to move to Los Angeles to be a successful screenwriter?
We get that question a lot.
The quick answer is, "No."
The more thoughtful answer is, "Well, that all depends on how you define 'successful.' "
And the cynical answer: "Brother, stay away from this morally bankrupt, god-forsaken town, at the risk of losing your sanity, at the cost of your very soul."
Choose to live in Southern California and you do put your artistic, emotional and intellectual health at risk. There is, in fact, a Surgeon General's warning at the San Bernadino County Line, but the sign whips by too fast for anyone to read.
So, first ask yourself: are you really sure you want to come here?
It's not just that the West Coast lacks an artistic atmosphere (like, say, changing seasons, brick train stations, steepled churches, and, oh, BOOKSTORES). It's not just those magnetic fields generated by cell phones plastered to our heads, or the fact that we spend a good 20 years of our lives stuck in traffic on the Santa Monica freeway. And it's not just our boxy cookie-cutter architecture, ferns, or that warm lazy sun that robs us all of our work ethic and our artistic convictions.
No, there's something else.
It's this thing called the Brain Cloud.
Okay, so you never heard of the Brain Cloud. But I swear to you, it exists. Odorless. Colorless. It covers all of Burbank, Studio City, and North Hollywood. A thick layer stretches from Hollywood to Century City. A strong concentration has been reported over Culver City, new pockets are gathering at the West Side, Santa Monica and Playa Vista. A little dust-devil tornado of the stuff follows Jon Peters around, like Pig Pen with his personal puff of dirt.
What the Cloud does is lower I.Q. levels of people working in the film business by about 30 percent. Throws off their decision-making ability and fashion sense. Over time, it can turn entire companies into staffs of blithering idiots. And the higher up in the building, the worse the effect, which helps explain the high turnover rate for studio execs.
You think I'm kidding. Hah.
Ted and I first noticed the existence of the Cloud when we were just starting out. We didn't live in Los Angeles, we had to drive in for meetings. And were consistently amazed at the idiotic ideas people would present to us. ("Okay, okay, here's the thing -- and I think you guys are perfect for this -- here we go... it's Santa Claus, on skid row!")
Pause and listen to that crickets-chirping sound as we wonder how to react.
Now, if you screwed your brain up just right, you could kinda-sorta go along with the meeting, and it would kinda-sorta make sense. But then we'd drive back home, get out from under the Brain Cloud, look at each other and say, "They're nuts!"
The clincher was that all of the 'normal' people outside of the film industry could easily spot how inane these ideas were. Friends, family, lovers, pretty much anybody not in the film business could do it -- tell what was good and bad better than the pros.
So the next meeting would come, Ted and I would drive back to Los Angeles and put forth simple ideas -- just common sense notions -- and people would hail us as saviors. Simple logic was at such a premium, something like a Brain Cloud was the only explanation.
A first-time director was up to be hired to direct one of our scripts. The guy was a fan of SUPERMAN, the movie. In a 'get to know you' meeting he pointed out the great shot where Superman flies away from the balcony of Lois's apartment... we follow her, no cutaway... the doorbell rings, she opens the door, and Clark Kent, with glasses, suit, combed-back hair, is standing there. This director pointed out how that single shot 'defined' the movie, and how our film should have something similar, though he didn't know what that shot would be.
All well and good. Next day, I get a call from a very excited studio executive. They were hiring the director, and this exec was beside himself with the choice. I had some misgivings, but the exec wasn't concerned. He asked, a little breathless, "Did he tell you about the SUPERMAN shot?"
The director's description of that shot from SUPERMAN, I guess, was the clincher for them. As a test, I related the phone conversation to my best friend -- not in the film business. He considered for half a second, said: "Just because this director can point out one good shot in a different film doesn't mean he's going to be able to do a good job as director on your movie."
But then, my friend wasn't under the influence of the Cloud.
When Ted and I turned in our first draft GODZILLA screenplay, the studio was pretty happy with it. The usual story concerns, clarifications, character issues, etc. But one executive had an odd note -- almost an insistence. He wanted us to include a 'third monster' in the story. Our plot involved Godzilla (call him 'monster one') battling an adversary (call him 'monster two'). So, with the script at 128 pages and budgeted out to $150 million, why add a 'monster three' to the mix?
The reason, it turned out, was that the studio didn't own the sequel rights to GODZILLA. If they were going to spend all that money on a film, they wanted a character they could license, and star in a sequel. So we were supposed to write-in a buddy monster for Godzilla to pal around with.
Again, I outlined this logic to my (non-film) friend. His immediate response: "Who's going to watch a sequel to GODZILLA that doesn't have Godzilla?"
Now, to the studio's credit, after a few months, they came to the same conclusion. (I think the Santa Anna winds were blowing hard that day.)
Still, there's no doubt this place is nuts. What can you say about a town where --
a. Every studio passed on BACK TO THE FUTURE. b. Someone paid $2 million for a Joe Esterhaus story outline written on a napkin. c. When the script CASABLANCA was sent out as a spec (under a different title) only a third of the people recognized it, and of those who didn't, most all of them turned it down.
It's the Brain Cloud, I tellya. Okay, those are classic, well-worn examples. I, myself, personally have seen --
a. Studios routinely spend millions -- MILLIONS -- to get a script right, and then trash it all the second a director is hired. b. A smart development executive passes on a project because, 'there were too many rules.' This on a fantasy script that had exactly one rule. c. A company options the rights to a book without anyone at the company actually reading the book. d. A Writer's Guild arbitration committee, after careful review, gives the highest credit on a film to the writer who did the least amount of work. And another case where they award no credit to the writer who wrote every word of a finished script. (There appears to be a lethal concentration of the Brain Cloud down near 3rd Street. That odd smell isn't from Farmer's Market, it's whatever those WGA arbitration committee folk are smoking. But that's another column.) e. A smart studio executive, faced with a two-month deadline to get a script written on a green light picture, spends the two months in story meetings talking about a single secondary character.
All right, okay. So you're aware of the dangers. You'll take the risk. Brain Clouds and other mental heath issues aside, what you really want to know is whether a move to Los Angeles is needed to help get your career on track.
Thing is, there are different phases to a writer's career, and a different answer for each phase. Let's go through them:
PHASE I: "Apprenticeship"
She stood there bright as the sun on that California coast I was a midwestern boy on my own She looked at me with those soft eyes so innocent and blue I knew right then I was too far from home -- Bob Seeger, "Hollywood Nights"
I remember when Ted and I were asking ourselves the question, "Should we move to LA?" Orange County is a good 45-minute to an hour-and-a-half drive south of Los Angeles, depending on the time of day and the traffic gods. Our friends, our families, were all in O.C. I knew where all the Taco Bells were located, and which ones were open late.
Having a writing partner really complicated the question. Did it make sense to put distance between us? Not really. It seemed like if we did move to LA, we'd have to do it together.
Whenever I did think about moving, I had this really clear vision of myself driving north, parking the car, getting out, and standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, and thinking, "Great. So, I'm in LA. Now what?" As a first step, I didn't see how standing on that street corner -- or living in some apartment in Silverlake -- was going to help me get into the film business.
The point being, I wasn't yet ready to make use of being in Los Angeles... so why go live there?
I needed to study craft.
I needed to learn the business.
I needed to buy scripts, read them, and sit in front of the computer and run a couple hundred thousand words through my brain and get an idea of how this writing thing actually worked.
Bill Marsilii -- a screenwriter who lives in New York -- points out that being 'out of Hollywood' doesn't necessarily mean being 'out of the Hollywood loop.' You can subscribe to "Variety." You can buy and read screenplays. You can watch and study films. You can read books (and columns) on screenwriting. You can read film histories, autobiographies. Via the Internet, you can correspond with screenwriting professionals. Most importantly, you can write scripts, learning your craft.
It's mostly just practice, and it pretty much doesn't matter where you do it.
PHASE II: "The Big Break"
Up ahead in the distance I saw a shimmering light My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim I had to stop for the night There she stood in the doorway I heard the mission bell And I was thinking to myself, 'This could be Heaven and this could be Hell.' -- Don Henley, "Hotel California"
Yeah, I know. You don't want to hear about practice. Entering film festivals is fine and reading the trades a day late is okay -- for a while. But now you want to break in. You want an agent. Meetings. Assignments. A paycheck.
The good news is, you still don't have to come to LA. Plenty of writers who are here never make it, and plenty of writers from out of town do manage to smash down the door.
No matter where you live, what you really need is an industry advocate. Someone who believes in you and is willing to promote you, and stake their reputation on you. And the best way to find that person is write an unstoppable, you've-gotta-see-this screenplay. The screenplay will get around town faster than you ever could by pounding the pavement.
The hard part is writing that great script.
The contact person, by comparison, is a piece of cake.
Could be a family friend. Could be someone you interviewed for a story. Could be a recommendation by a school professor. An assistant at a production company you talked with on the phone. An acting teacher, someone from a seminar, someone you met online, another writer who has a contact. Or, yes, someone you found through a blind submission. Heck, someone might even be impressed with your contributions to an Internet message board, and ask you what you're writing.
Yeah, true, it is easier to find that contact person if you're in town. And that's where writers start to worry. They think the game is about making contacts, instead of strong writing. Melissa Matheson's story comes to mind. It may be apocryphal, but reportedly, she started out working as a production assistant on one of Steven Spielberg's movies. He knew she wanted to be a screenwriter... and asked her to write E.T., which was her first script.
That's the worry writers have, right there -- If only I was in town, they think, my innate talent would be recognized, and I'd get my big break, too. They imagine that other new writers in Hollywood are all somehow crowding into line in front of them, and they're missing out.
But Melissa's story is simply extraordinary. It's not something you can bank on. If there are two writers, one living in Toronto obsessively focused on quality and craft, and another in Hollywood, looking to make contacts -- my money's on the out of town writer all the way. Yeah, maybe being here gives a slight edge; I wouldn't argue against it. But if moving is a hardship, you might do just as well orchestrating your break from afar.
Then, suddenly, you actually do get some interest in one of your spec scripts.
PHASE III: "Journeyman"
Life in the fast lane Surely make you lose your mind -- Don Henley, "Life In The Fast Lane"
So now you're a Flavor of the Month. Now you do have to come to Los Angeles, to attend those 'get to know you' meetings. After all, they may not buy your spec, and even if they do, they may not make your spec. So the name of the game is assignments. Better to continue to learn your craft while getting a paycheck, right? So you come in, listen to pitches and give pitches, and try to get hired.
During this phase of our careers, Ted and I could still get away with not living in Los Angeles. We were close enough to commute in for meetings... and man, did we commute. You know you've been driving to LA too much when you start lane-changing by instinct, anticipating slowdowns before they occur, depending on weather and time of day.
We managed to turn this commute into an advantage. We had a courtesy meeting with Carey Woods, a producer who called us up and said, "I've got one word for you: GODZILLA." Ted's response: "Do you have another word?" We got into the car fully expecting to turn the assignment down -- heck, we had no idea what to write on a Godzilla movie. But during the course of the drive up, stuck in the car with nothing else to do, we came up with a basic story.
So we told our ideas to Carey, in case he wanted to use them. We still didn't really want the assignment. But he liked the 'take,' and insisted we talk to the executive on the project, Chris Lee.
Another meeting was scheduled. On the ride up to that meeting, stuck in traffic, we worked out some more of the story. And we were starting to actually like it. Chris liked it as well, and we got the assignment.
(Just to finish off the story... our version of GODZILLA was to be directed by Jan De Bont. But that incarnation fell apart due to budget differences. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich came in, wrote a new screenplay, using some aspects of our script. Our contribution was reduced to a shared 'story by' credit, and now it's really Roland and Dean's movie. Easy come, easy go...)
So anyway. In this 'Journeyman' phase, as long as you can get to LA for the important meetings -- by car, boat, plane, camel, whatever -- you still don't have to actually live in Los Angeles. We know writers who fly in for meetings all the way from Santa Fe. Writers on the East Coast will group their pitches so they can 'fly out for a week' and take meetings.
Ah, but then you get a film into production.
PHASE IV: "Master"
They say it never rains in Southern Californi Seems I've often heard that kind of talk before -- Albert Hammond, "It Never Rains In Southern California"
What you'll find is that professional filmmakers in Hollywood do not follow the writer's screenplay. If you think you can just write something good, mail if off and it will get shot the way you imagined it -- forget it, never happens. What does happen is everyone on the set will try to influence the story in some way. Directors, producers, stars, cinematographer, effects teams, other writers -- they'll all try to alter the story to fit their own vision. Once those people are together (and yes, it's usually the script that has brought them there) they are perfectly capable of telling a story, on film, with their own collective beliefs and ideas.
If you want the vision of your script to get onto the screen, you'd better be there to fight for your point of view.
I never liked the 'a screenplay is a blueprint for a movie' analogy. I think this is better: in Hollywood, a screenplay is treated like a travel guide.
Consider: a travel guide will tell you all about some incredible destination, someplace you'd really like to go. It tells you how to get there, and why it's important, and what to look for -- even where to stay, and the best order in which to see the sights, etc. It's all laid out very clearly.
But what happens when people actually get to the destination? They all pile out of the car and go running off to see the big attraction. They explore, take pictures, whatever, each person discovering the place in their own way.
And the travel guide? It gets left back in the hotel, or at best, lying face down on the seat of the car. It may have been the thing that got everyone there, and it may in fact have the best ideas of what to do, but who wants to follow directions when you have a chance to just go do it?
To get your film to happen the way you want, you have to fight for it. You have to get to know directors, and producers, and stars... you need to attend story meetings... casting meetings... you must be on the set...
Yes. NOW you need to live in Los Angeles.
PHASE V: "Reclusive Genius"
They will never forget you till somebody new comes along. -- The Eagles, "New Kid In Town"
Okay, there's a final step beyond Master, a sort of mega-success that comes after a few big hit movies. The irony is, if you get successful enough, you then earn the right to move back out of town. You can become the 'Expert from Afar,' the reclusive, creative genius, living in some enviable place that actually has atmosphere, and no Brain Cloud.
I can't tell you much about this level 'cause it hasn't happened to us. Yet. But I do know that Robert Zemeckis has his estate on Jamaica. Cash and Epps live bi-coastal, commuting via the telecommunications industry. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich do their writing down in Mexico. Tim Rice can barely be reached during cricket season. And George Lucas went and built himself an entire town.
If anybody ever makes it to this level, send us all an e-mail and let us know what it's like.
Okay, to end this, I want to make one more analogy. Just one more, I promise... an extended analogy, always fraught with peril. ("Step back, folks! He's about to make an extended analogy! Give him some room!")
Writing a film is like having a love affair.
Do you have to live in the same town to have a love affair?
Well, not really. Especially at the start. You could restrict yourself to writing love letters, or the modern equivalent, have phone sex. You could IM and fax and e-mail and phone, and become quite intimate with the object of your desire, without ever meeting them. (In fact, not meeting them might help to keep your illusions intact, and your desire burning.)
This might be exciting, but, most would presume, also ultimately unsatisfying. That's the equivalent of writing a screenplay from out of town, and just submitting it through the mail, with little response.
So next comes the travel romance. You fly into town, meet someone, and have a passionate, intense encounter. Steamy and wild and thrilling. Intense, and really over too quickly. That's the equivalent of the spec script sale -- especially if it doesn't get made, and lands in development hell.
So, now you try the long-distance romance. Planes, letters, phone calls and weekends together. You see each other a lot, but only when you're at your best, always a special occasion. You have many of the advantages of marriage, but not the ultimate responsibility. Thrilling but limited. This is the equivalent of commuting to LA and taking assignments, but not living there -- and letting others make your movie. No matter how you look at it, you're not really a part of your beloved's real, day-to-day life.
Finally, the ultimate love affair for many is to get married, be together full time, and have kids. In order to do this, you have to actually be there. There is no substitute for putting the time into the marriage, and into the children. Your presence is required. That's the equivalent of living and working in town, immersing yourself in the experience, and taking an active part in getting your movie made.
Later, when the kids are all grown up and have flown the nest, that's when you take off and travel the world.
At least, that's how it looks from here, on a Sunday evening, on Mulholland Drive, in Los Angeles, California -- high enough in the Hollywood Hills to escape the effects of the Brain Cloud. I hope.
34 THROW IN THE TOWEL
You don't get to hear the truth much in this town, so listen up. I'm gonna back up the truck and unload. Harsh truths, right here, right now. And we're gonna start with the most brutal:
You people really aren't much good at writing screenplays.
In fact, your writing pretty much sucks.
I tried to be different. I tried to leave the door cracked open a bit. I politely asked you to send me only good stuff, your best stuff. And for years now I've been deluged by a storm of crappy query letters and mind-numbing script submissions. So many I can't keep up, can't even respond to them all. And not one of them has been any damn good.
Now I'm about ready to slam the door shut, and lock it down like how they do in cartoons, with a whole series of barricades and bolts and latches and such.
It's disappointing. Especially after offering all this advice and encouragement. But man, I'm tired. Tired of being informative and helpful and optimistic. Tired of wasting my time answering your pedestrian-at-best e-mails and faxes and message board questions. Tired of inventing nice ways to avoid telling you all that your writing sucks.
Hollywood, it is said, is the only place where you can die of encouragement.
Well, not here. Not anymore.
Your writing sucks.
You simply cannot write to a professional level. And you probably never will. It's a safe bet to say that none of you will ever make a sale, anywhere, anytime; to think otherwise is just deluding yourselves. It's a waste of your time, and that pains me, and it's a waste of my time, and that pains me more.
Oh, of course not. I knew you wouldn't. I know you people all too well. You've been conditioned to 'keep trying,' and to 'never give up.' to 'believe in yourself' and to 'keep following your dreams.' Hey, I'm as guilty as anyone, with this oh-so-encouraging Website, with all those inspiring little quotes and professional tips and all. Like it was ever a good idea to make a bunch of people struggle on, no matter what the cost, against all common sense, with no real prospect of success.
Y'know what? I actually feel a little guilty. I do. I feel like I've been calling for a puppy to come jump up on the couch, knowing full well he can't make it, but calling anyway, just to watch him try his best and fall back on the floor.
The worst of it is, I know exactly why I've been doing it. Because it made me feel important. Made me feel like the big successful expert, amongst all you floundering newbies.
A big fish in my own pond.
So yeah, there's a dab of guilt that motivates me to come clean, here, to continue on and write this column. And I do have to continue on, of course. I knew there was no hope that one quick little splash of reality would get through to any of you, because --
-- oh --
-- oh, wait a second, that's right --
-- I almost forgot --
-- you're the special case.
You're the once-in-a-generation manifestation of talent personified. The exception to all the rules. You know that there's only a tiny amount of room in this business for only the absolute most talented, but it's always all those other people who're gonna get squeezed out by the numbers game. Soon, very soon, the industry is just gonna fall all over itself to recognize your unique genius. If only you could juuuuuust get the right people to juuuuuust read your work, they'd see how very SPECIAL you are.
Hmm, funny how all those OTHER people out there trying, they each think THEY'RE the special case too, and that you're part of the loser crowd.
How could that be?
Could it be you're ALL part the loser crowd?
Are you getting even a glimpse of the idea here?
Oh, no. Of course not. Not yet. Not even close. And heck, I knew the sarcasm bit wasn't going to have any real effect. I was just venting a little, there. You folk are actually quite clever, in your own way. You're smart and educated and savvy. Way too savvy for that line of reasoning to work.
I apologize for that.
Changing tacks, now.
Lemme speak to you as a friend, someone who genuinely does care (well, a little bit) about you. And I'm gonna make it real easy for you. I am going to give you the best professional advice you will ever get in your life, right now. Here we go. You should stop reading this column at the end of this paragraph. (I'm not kidding. Please, you should really do this.) Then, you should immediately drag all your writing notes to the trash, along with your uncompleted next script. (The world will not miss it, believe me.) Then, find a big fireplace and burn all your old screenplays, too (hell, none of them are really finished anyway, right? And you know in your heart they never will be.) And then you can throw away all those useless 'how to' screenwriting books (yes, including any of these inane Wordplay columns you might have lying around). Just do it. Now. Think of how good it will feel. Be decisive. Free yourself, this instant, from the fever dream, from the slow agony of your doomed-from-the-start efforts. A clean break. Then you can go out into the world and start living a real life. Travel a little, get a job at something you can actually do, something that takes you out into the sunlight, something that lets you meet people, be a part of something real. The end of the paragraph is coming up, and I'm telling you, you should do it RIGHT NOW -- and I bet, deep in your heart, you already know the reason why. One simple and overwhelmingly incontrovertible truth. BECAUSE YOUR LIFE WILL BE BETTER FOR IT. Please, pause and just give it five seconds' thought, before you go on. Be honest with yourself, for once, before it's too late. And just admit the truth: at the center of your being, you can't deny that this is right.
You're blowing it, man.
You're really blowing it. You're making a mistake.
I tell you, there's nothing at all interesting to read from here on, promise. So just quit now.
Oh, okay, I know what it is. You're smiling to yourself, you're thinking this column is somehow all tongue-in-cheek. The reverse-psychology thing. Like I try to encourage you to quit, and that makes you want to work even harder, try even more.
You think I didn't know you'd think that? Yeah, sure, there's an element of that going on here. But it's just a device, something I'm using, a sneaky way for me to hit you with some hard truths, some real truths I couldn't effectively say any other way. There is honesty in this column, and you know it... like how in every good joke, there's always something real and true at its core.
That's what I'm really trying to do here (and you're smart enough to see it). And I'm not quitting. Oh, no, I'm not even warmed up. This is important, and I'm gonna give it my best shot.
Because what's at stake here is pretty damn big... oh, just, let's say, your life. A wasted life, potentially, or at least wasting the best years of your life. Days, months, years of effort endlessly trying to do something that you'll never be able to do well. And how many sunsets will you miss before you finally give up? How many walks in the moonlight are forever gone? How much laughter with friends are you willing to sacrifice? How many times will the kids not get the attention they deserve because 'Daddy's trying to write something' that nobody wants to read?
Oh. Gee. Did that one get to you a little?
Feel a little twinge in the pit of your stomach?
Because these are simple truths, really. They live within you already -- I'm just bringing them out into the light.
A few weeks ago, I was driving on the freeway when a dog, a Great Dane, stepped out into traffic. I managed to swerve, but as I passed, I got a good look at the expression on the dog's face. He was lost, confused, but focused on the far side of the freeway for some unknown reason, determined to get across, oblivious to the many cars whipping past. I managed a quick glance in my rear-view mirror, watching as he took a few more steps, and then was blind-sided in the head by an oncoming truck. The body spun around several times before it hit the ground.
It was chilling. And terribly sad.
Yeah, I'm saying that you people are as clueless in your determination as that dog. You're lost, you're ruining your lives. You're chasing a dream of a place that doesn't exist, that has no room for you if it did. It's pathetic, it's painful to watch, and I'm tired of it.
I tried sarcasm, I tried friendly and nice.
I even made a weak stab at harsh brutal reality. And you're still here.
What do I have to do?
A few more truths?
Like: the mindless drivel Hollywood churns out is only rivaled by the mindless drivel you churn out to replace it. Like: there's a reason this industry invented coverage readers -- writers like you.
Like: did you know that we all can tell by page one that your script is no good? To begin with, you can't even put two words together to create an effective title, let alone write a whole script. (Will any of you ever come up a decent title? Jesus, it's just a couple words!) Next, there's wrong formatting, poor spelling, wrong page length, those clever pictures and photos you include, and oh! the colorful script covers, and that cute little copyright notice and WGAw registration number you always put on the cover page. There's pedestrian dialogue, descriptions that are either self-consciously clever or impenetrably dense.
Actually, sometimes, a script is so bad, we do read past page one. Like the ghastly fascination of watching a train wreck as it happens.
Readers, bless their beleaguered hearts, are forced to read all the way to the end of your convoluted efforts. The upside of this is that the coverage can include all the real howler lines of bad dialogue. (The downside... well, it's a little-known fact, but the suicide rate amongst readers is just a notch below psychiatrists. Not a big mystery, when you consider the jobs are similar: dealing with wackos.) Seriously, I always warn readers who work for us: if you take this job, you will be forcing the convoluted, incomprehensible and just plain icky dreams of others into your brain. It is actually mentally painful to read bad writing, to put that meandering illogic into your thoughts. Makes you want to take a shower afterwards.
And again, let me emphasize, I'm talking about you.
Look around the room. See anybody else there trying to become a screenwriter, reading this column? Anyone other than you? No?
All right. You folk have been clamoring for years, 'How do I know if I have any talent?' As a matter of fact, you don't, but here's how you can tell. There are some common attributes that successful writers have. Attributes that you -- yes, that's right, you -- seem to lack. As long as you're still reading, I'll take the time to go through the list. These attributes are the final nails in your coffin, and then you can lay your screenwriting dreams to rest:
Good writers know the quality of their writing relative to industry standards. They know when they've come up with a clever plot twist, a good character entrance, an effective opening sequence. They can tell good work regardless of whether or not they're the ones who came up with that work --
-- something YOU don't seem to be able to do. How can you possibly think that last spec you sent out is as good as BODY HEAT, or BROADCAST NEWS? Can't you go buy a copy of a good script, put it side by side with yours, and see how bad yours is? And if you can see how weak yours is by comparison, why did you send it out?
2. LOVE OF READING
Good writers all love to read. Most of them started at a young age, reading voraciously anything they could get their hands on: adventure stories, science fiction, mysteries, classics, comic books, whatever. I feel sorry for people who realize they want to be writers late in life -- it's nearly impossible to duplicate the knowledge background one can acquire as a kid, because you never again really have the time and the focus. And I think there's just a right age to read "Treasure Island" or see DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE. An age where those stories will have maximum impact, and create an internal touchstone for good, solid story sensibilities.
Simply put, you haven't read enough. Really good writers have vast libraries, full collections from Shakespeare volumes to back issues of "Swamp Thing." Good writers can't pass a bookstore without going inside. You, on the other hand, choose to write in genres you know nothing about, and you don't do any research before starting -- so you have no idea whether that wonderful new idea of yours is in fact novel, or horribly hackneyed.
Let me assure you, it's the latter.
Good writers not only read, they remember what they've read. Minds like steel traps, they're pack rats for information. Show me a great writer, I'll show you a "Trivial Pursuit" champion. And so they tend to be great storytellers, great conversationalists. Hang around a bunch of successful writers and be amazed. If you can recite the opening paragraph of "A Tale of Two Cities," recount the plots of every Hope/Crosby road picture, recite all the lyrics to Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," or name every artist who did a cover for the Alan Moore run of "Swamp Thing," you haven't even scratched the surface of the kind of stuff these guys know.
Beyond general information, what do you really know about film? Who is Ennio Morricone? Name the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. Quick, George Lucas just asked you to name your favorite Kurosawa film. What do you think of Rod Steiger -- do you think he can do a southern accent?
And those are the easy ones. Who are Siegel and Shuster? What does Hank Azaria do well? What is the most famous visual associated with Harold Lloyd? Quick, Spielberg just asked you your opinion on the ending of ONE-EYED JACKS. What do you say?
All of those are easy ones, too. If you don't know the answers, give up now. You'll just make a fool of yourself the minute you step through the door.
You simply don't know near as much as you need to know to even pretend to be a writer. And there's a reason for it, actually -- you don't happen to have the right kind of brain. It's not your fault, just a physiological truth. The capacity of your frontal lobe, or whatever, just isn't big enough. Just as some people are not tall enough to be basketball players, you lack the physical tools -- the actual brainpower -- necessary to become a good writer. Tough luck, but there's nothing to be done.
Good writers have something to say. They observe life, recognize underlying patterns and offer insights into the nature of the human heart. So even if, by some stretch of definition, you do, occasionally, write something -- the truth of it is, your writing is mediocre. You offer only the most obvious and common of themes, and so the competition from real writers will just blow you away. Even though you try hard, your writing remains shallow, meaningless, and so essentially worthless.
You're just not very wise, not a poet, and certainly no genius with words. I recommend you go read some work by Ray Bradbury or Theodore Sturgeon to see brilliant insight combined with masterful use of written language. "I've read Theodore Sturgeon, I've worked with Theodore Sturgeon, and you, my writer friend, are no Theodore Sturgeon."
Most really good writers are pretty smart. You're not smart enough to compete with them.
It takes courage to be a writer. Courage to face yourself, work through your demons, and make your art. Courage to put your work out into the world, and unflinchingly face the response.
You, on the other hand, will sell out in a second. Without the courage to take a stand and keep it, your writing is compromised from the start. You don't write from your heart, from the inside out, but to please others, from the outside in.
7. SPEAKING ABILITY
By the way, did you know that you will have to pitch? Give interviews? Argue persuasively for your creative point of view before a roomful of people? Think fast on your feet, or lose the assignment, lose the story point to someone else's vision?
You've seen true pros on television, or up there on those panel discussions. They're witty, they're compelling, they're entertaining.
Can you entertain? Nope. I've seen you. You mumble, eyes downcast; your thoughts peter out as you say them.
Face it, the type of people who make it in Hollywood are raconteurs, Renaissance Man types, salesmen as well as artists -- and con artists. They are exceptional people, a breed apart. You're really just a film-goer, another face in the crowd.
8. SOLID GROUND
Why do you think you can write when your life is a mess? Why do you think that failing in other fields qualifies you to be a writer?
Let me clue you in. Good writers have support networks. They have friends, and lovers. Their lives are in order. Many of them are wealthy to begin with, so they have time and resources to dedicate to the task.
You, with your failed relationships, your messy apartment, psycho-loser friends, your psychological problems, your last-legs car, and your overdue bills to pay... do you really think you can mount a sustained effort to be a screenwriter?
When Ted and I were trying to break into the business, our final step was always to read every word we wrote out loud. And still we missed typos and mistakes. I remember printing out screenplays late at night, usually around 2:00 AM. I'd be looking at page 89 coming out of the printer (one of the old daisy-wheel types) and notice some small typo. It was late, I was exhausted, and the script was due the next day. But I would always choose to stop printing, open the file, make the change, and reprint the whole thing -- even if it meant just a correction of spelling or fixing some tiny mistake of grammar. Always. And if the page break didn't look exactly right, I'd take the time to fix it. The script had to be perfect.
You, on the other hand, send in work without reviewing it. You give us spelling errors, and obvious grammatical errors -- even in the cover letter. You can't be bothered by proper format. In short, you lack that almost obsessive need to get it exactly right, which means, in the final tally, it never will be exactly right.
I could have traveled the world. I could have played poker with my friends on Friday nights. I could have made out on the beach under the stars with my girl. I could have raced demolition derby at a small town racetrack. I could have done drugs, or hung out at bars to pick up women, or gone stargazing in the desert. I could have stayed in school or played drums in a rock band. I could have married and had kids. Instead, I chose to stay at home, sit in front of the damn computer, and write screenplays.
You're not really up to that level of sacrifice, are you? It's okay. It just means you're human. Too human, really, to be a writer. You value the prospect of having a normal life. You want love, and family, and time with your friends. You'd rather see the world and have real experiences, instead of living out your days trapped in your imagination.
See, for the people who really make it in this business, the choices are easy. Nothing is as important as the film. They neglect their children, they get divorces, they play the power game, they do whatever they need to do to make it. That's your competition.
You might be able to hold your own against them for a month or two. But that's all. Their natural abilities match their ambitions, so for them, performing the job is not a sacrifice, not an endless anxiety-filled struggle. Consider Jeffrey Katzenberg. For you or me to keep that man's schedule would be impossible. It would kill us. But he thrives on it -- to him, not working would be the struggle.
But you're not like that.
Face it, the truth is, you're just not 'cut out' to be a screenwriter.
Good writers love words. Shout out an unfamiliar word and watch them stampede to the dictionary. They collect words, treasuring them, enjoying every subtle nuance of the language. They enjoy telling words what to do, and having the words stand in line and do it. They're Eskimos when it comes to snow -- but to you, it's all just cold and white.
Consider this: in the afterward of Stephen King's book "Different Seasons," he explains how the four stories in the volume came about. Each one was written after he had completed writing one of his novels. He writes, "...[I]t's as if I've always finished the big job with just enough gas left in the tank to blow off one good-sized novella." So he wrote "The Body" after "Salem's Lot." "Apt Pupil" after "The Shining." "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" after "The Dead Zone." And "Breathing Method" after "FireStarter."
Now just stop and think about this. Here's a writer who, after finishing a best-selling novel, has the ability to sit down and knock out a masterfully-written novella in a matter of days. And three of these 'afterthought' books have been adapted into major motion pictures.
Now that's prolific. Like the Hugh Grant character says in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, "I don't know how I've been spending my time."
And what have you done in the last couple years, in the same time that King has turned out eight new novels, and Spielberg has produced and/or directed 10 new films?
Visionaries may be ahead of their time, and unsold -- but they at least have people on their side, actively promoting their work. In order to make it as a writer in Hollywood, your script has to be the one somebody plucks out of the pile and says, "Now this! This is what I've been looking for!"
You need advocates. You need mentors.
At age 21, George Lucas was hanging out with Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich. Who are you hanging out with?
If no one is getting behind your work, consider that it may be because the work isn't any good.
This truth may be the hardest to take of all. The only thing a writer has to sell is his decision-making ability. A professional writer usually has a pretty accurate sense of what's cool. From character names to plot twists to lines of dialogue, a good writer sells his taste for what he thinks is neat and fun. That's the writer's voice, his style. It's an innate sense of what feels right.
Bad writers have this ability, too -- only their sensibilities cause them to consistently pick the wrong choice.
I hate to tell you, but even if you are lucky enough to have one great film idea... your instincts are going to cause you to mess it up.
The one thing you need to sell is the one thing you can't sell. Your instincts will tell you to go left when you should go right, dooming you to failure.
You may sense this, and give up on having a voice altogether. And you start to look to others to copy for your voice.
You become a parrot. You mimic.
I'll always remember a line from Larry Bird's biography. It was right at the beginning, at a description of how Larry came to start playing basketball. Apparently he went out to a court, and just started shooting around with a bunch of friends. The descriptive line then said, "He noticed that his shot always went in."
That's such a powerful line to me, because it indicates the pre-existence of his ability. He didn't practice for years -- not until later, anyway. At first, he just 'noticed' that he had this amazing ability.
It's that magical thing called talent. It's something that you notice you have. You can't invent it, it's got to be there. And if you don't notice it, if people aren't telling you that you have it, you have to consider the probability that it doesn't exist.
And without talent, you'll never make it in this business.
In the realm of completely outlining the subject here, I've got just a few more issues to raise. I don't even need to be in truth-telling personal-insult mode any more. Because the rest of this isn't so much about you, it's about Hollywood. And it's stuff pretty much everyone knows:
Have I mentioned that you're too old? Filmmaking is a young person's game. If you're past 30, and you don't have a feature film credit yet, be concerned. Every day younger players are getting in line ahead of you.
This is a town of rich white males -- for rich white males. The religions are predominately Christian and Jewish. If you don't fit the bill, you're not going to fit in, you've got yet another wall to climb.
3. WHO YOU KNOW
Face it, this is the town that defined nepotism. Not only are there only a few open slots to fill, guess what? Those slots will be filled by the sons and daughters, friends and lovers of people already working in town. Those folk have the inside track. Which leaves even less room for you.
Be under no illusions. This town is built on confrontation. The stakes are high: power, sex, money. And no one is going to give up without a fight.
The stupidest thing you are doing is spending years of your life trying to enter a world you know nothing about. You think being a writer is about creativity and fun.
This whole town is about conflict. Anxiety. Strife. Yelling. Lying. Insulting. Machiavellian power struggles. You must fight for your job every time out, against people who are stronger, more experienced, and who have fewer moral qualms than you. You have to play the game. Do the politics. Struggle to gain power. Argue with the studio at every turn. Try to out-manipulate lawyers and producers and directors and stars. If you're not willing to fight -- and I mean stand up in a room and yell for your convictions -- you will get eaten.
5. FAIR PLAY
I hope you don't think this town is fair. Your ideas will get stolen. You work will get bastardized. Even filmmakers you admire will screw you over, if they get the chance.
Hey. Let's say you actually are lucky enough to get some interest in one of your scripts. The most likely scenarios:
- The studio executive will assign it to some other writer. - The project will get shelved and never made. - A director will come in and mess it up, turn it into something terrible. - The film will bomb, and the critics will blame the writer.
And the writer won't even be you, because after filming, the WGA will award credit to some other guy who did some minor work, polishing the script for production.
Through it all, you'll be helpless to change a thing.
Sound like fun?
Everyone knows that quality is no guarantee of success. Half the scripts that are produced each year are no better than the thousands that never sell. It's a matter of the right thing at the right time -- which you cannot control. For every one person who hits the jackpot, there are a thousand who keep pulling down the handle, eventually losing it all.
Again, given all these truths, you should do the one and only sensible thing.
Give up now.
Throw in the towel.
Head for the showers, listen as the Fat Lady sings --
I'm back, folks.
Terry here. The real me.
By now the conceit of this column is no doubt more than apparent. (Heck, it probably moved past apparent long ago, into the realm of belabored.) I've been cataloging all the typical anxieties and doubts and fears writers have. I'm a bit of an expert here, having felt all these things myself. I'm afraid the length of this column is a testament to the depth of my own insecurity.
In truth, anxieties and fears and second-guessing are things we all go through. It's easy enough to write about characters who never say die -- but that sentiment can be tough to live out, in the face of continued rejection, when the rent is due.
In this column, I've tried to put all the negative thoughts you might have in one place. I hope the nay-saying and insults have stirred you up. Maybe along the lines of, "Who the %#$@!!&* does that +^%$*@! think he is? I have talent, I'm as good as anyone, and I'm going to prove it!"
Because you should be pissed if someone tells you you're no good, that you can't do it. And you should be able to shrug off the negative thinking, and prove them wrong. You need to have the confidence to tell everyone they're full of crap. That you know the right path, and you don't need anyone's help.
If you have a dream to write screenplays, I think you should, actually, keep trying to write screenplays.
And now I'll even tell you -- really and truly tell you -- when you should give up, throw in the towel, and go home.
Some writers will give themselves a time limit. In fact, that's what Ted and I did when we were starting out: we gave ourselves 10 years to make a sale (we had our first sale after five).
But a time limit is arbitrary, and I don't really recommend it.
Instead, you should quit trying only after two conditions have been met:
1.) You've given yourself a legitimate shot. 2.) Trying is no longer fun.
Now I'm going to claim that giving yourself a 'legitimate shot' is not a matter of time -- it's a matter of execution. (Someone could, I think, write for 10 years and not give themselves a legitimate shot.)
Legitimate shot means you learn proper format. It means you know your genre. It means you write on a concept worth writing. It means researching your subject matter. It means developing an effective style. It means targeting your work, and getting it before professionals. It means holding back your work until it is as good as can be. It mean putting out a body of work, if that's what it takes. It means learning to shoot your own film (such as BOTTLE ROCKET or EL MARIACHI) if that's what it takes.
In short, it means doing everything right -- so the industry can effectively judge your talent.
Now, this industry is so capricious, you could give it a legitimate shot for years and still not make a sale. In which case, you should simply keep trying as long as it is fun to keep trying.
Or, at least, more fun to keep trying than to quit.
At some point, though, you should take seriously the charge of living a good life. Once you've satisfied yourself that you've given every effort, and failed, and it's no longer fun to you, then it is, truly, time to find a new challenge and move on. Something else that will bring more satisfaction.
And if, even then, you're the type to choose to not give up, you love movies that much, well, all I have to say is...