I was sitting in a well-furnished office on the 20th Century Fox lot, asking James L. Brooks ("Terms of Endearment," "As Good as It Gets," "Broadcast News") about the art and craft of screenwriting.
"I never knew anybody," he was saying, "who ever got a Writers Guild card who didn't have a hard time when somebody said, 'What do you do for a living?' saying, 'I'm a writer.' Your voice always catches on 'a writer,'" Brooks said. "From the earliest stages, it's what your secret thought was that you wanted to be and what of course you knew was impossible to be."
Brooks was one of a dozen luminaries I talked with for the screenwriting documentary, DREAMS ON SPEC. The film follows three aspiring writers as they try to turn their spec scripts into movies - and intercuts wisdom from a "Greek Chorus" of superstar scribes including Brooks, Nora Ephron, Gary Ross, and Carrie Fisher.
I repeatedly saw the love of writing that Brooks was talking about as I followed those three struggling writers for the better part of a year. None of them had a Writers' Guild card - or an agent - but it was undeniable that they had desire.
I watched David give up his nights and weekends to write and re-write his scripts. I watched Deborah share a cheap apartment in a not-so-great part of town so she could afford to try to get her romantic comedy script into production. And I watched Joe sacrifice valuable time with his wife and autistic daughter to write what he thought could be the great American screenplay.
These screenwriters - just like James L. Brooks and tens of thousands of others across the country - weren't writing just for money or fame. They had a story to tell - and they'd do just about anything to turn it into a movie.
This Quixotic quest is what first inspired me to take a documentary look at the agony and the ecstasy of screenwriting. Living in the Los Angeles area, I had known scores of friends, acquaintances, and co-workers who'd written screenplays and would pitch them to anyone who would listen.
In fact, I learned first-hand about the screenwriter's travails when I was a teenager, working alongside aspiring writer/directors Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary at the famed Video Archives video store in the Los Angeles suburb of Manhattan Beach. This was years before they became famous.
From Quentin and Roger, I first saw the passion people have for their screenplays - and how much work it requires to get them made into films. Quentin, for example, doggedly pitched his screenplays for "True Romance," "Natural Born Killers," and "Reservoir Dogs" for four years before he hit pay dirt.
In DREAMS ON SPEC, I set out to look at why so many people around the country spend so much time writing screenplays - and why some writers succeed while so many others fail. The big-name writers I quizzed on this subject had some insightful answers to this last question.
PAUL GUAY ("Liar Liar" and "The Little Rascals"): "The thing that separates more successful writers from less successful writers, the most important thing, is the perseverance. There are a lot of people who are lucky. There are a lot of people who are born with connections or have the kind of personality to easily make some. But if you don't have that, you have to keep pushing, you have to keep generating ideas, you have to not take rejection personally, because almost everything you come up with will be rejected, and even the scripts that eventually sell will probably be turned down by a number of people first. So you're constantly hearing 'No.' And in the face of that, you have to you have to persevere."
ED SOLOMON ("Men in Black" and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure"): "The best formula I ever heard about writing, I think was attributed to Oliver Stone, and I think it was something like 'Ass plus chair.' That was it. Sit there and do the work. The problem is, so many writers think 'This screenplay, this one screenplay is gonna be the thing which, you know, gets me out of my day job, or which finally gets me enough money where I can, you know, pay back my loans and - or it's gonna, you know, it's gonna sum up my entire world view.' ... Whatever they put, this weight on these - these very delicate, fragile little things which are these stories trying to - trying to grow and become alive and - all that pressure does nothing but, you know, really hurt your chances of actually creating something like that.
GARY ROSS ("Big," "Dave," and "Seabiscuit"): Success is sort of an elusive word. Were you satisfied? Do other people see the movie and are they satisfied? Does it evoke something strong and powerful? Not everybody - and this is not about consensus. This is about were you able to communicate something specifically to somebody and move them? You're not always gonna be able to do that, and some people are not gonna like your stuff, and other people are gonna like your stuff, and that's okay. The real issue is, you know, there's a great line in J.D. Salinger when he talks about writing, he says, "The ultimate question is not 'Were you successful or weren't you successful?' and 'How much money did you make? How much money did you make?' The real question at the end of your days when you're judged as a writer is, 'Were all your stars out? Were all of your stars out? Did you live up to your potential? Did you say everything you had to say? Whatever was in you, did you let it out? Did you censor yourself? Did you have the guts to realize those things?'" And if so, you know, I think in a lot of ways that is the definition of success."
One of my last interviews was with Nora Ephron, the writer of "Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail," and "Bewitched." Thinking about those many writers who do not enjoy success, I asked Ephron how long a writer should try before giving up.
It was clearly a difficult question for her to answer. Ephron started out haltingly, but finally responded, "I wouldn't go near that question with a ten-foot pole because you never know if someone who hangs in there isn't gonna turn out to be fantastic. It's just a question of can you feed yourself in the meantime?"
When Ephron finished her answer, I thought back to a writer I used to know when I worked at Video Archives. Jeff Maguire was a frequent customer, one of the nicest guys in the world, and always struggling to pay the bills that he, his wife, and his young son racked up every month.
Maguire had helped write the Sylvester Stallone film "Victory" in the early 1980s but for most of the next decade, he had little luck in the screenwriting trade. He was so desperate for work at one point that he turned to writing dialogue that dolls said when kids pulled their chord!
Finally, in 1992, he decided he'd had enough and was about to move his family back to the East Coast and start life anew. As Maguire was finishing his last spec script, he received a shut-off notice from the power company due to unpaid - and, at that point, unpayable - bills.
Then almost over night, his life changed. That last spec script was called "In the Line of Fire" and Clint Eastwood liked it so much that he wanted to star in it. Maguire was nominated for an Academy Award - and as many as a half dozen of his old spec scripts (which no one had wanted just a few days before) sold, bringing him millions of dollars.
So Ephron is clearly right - some writers will eventually succeed beyond their wildest dreams if they can just figure out how to feed themselves in the meantime.
I ran across these very same issues as I made DREAMS ON SPEC. The further I followed my three aspiring writers, the more I realized that I was struggling to overcome many of the same hurdles - of creativity, inspiration, and solitude - that my subjects were encountering.
It's not easy making a film about the world inhabited by screenwriters - it's not exactly an action-filled extravaganza! But it is enormously rewarding - both for me and, I hope, for the audience.
In the end, I believe I captured these three writers' journeys - and I hope I've succeeded in portraying the artist's struggle in modern society. It's not an easy struggle - because not only do you have to keep working and pushing and striving, but you also have to stay focused on your vision and your goals.
"Dave," "Big," and "Seabiscuit" writer Gary Ross perfectly summed things up in the last interview I did for DREAMS ON SPEC. When I asked him how screenwriters should define success, Ross offered an answer that is true for everyone who has a dream on spec.
"I think that it's easy to give it away - give the definition of success away, empower other people in determining whether you have talent. The Catch-22 is that the more you do that, the less you'll be able to write. That's the hard part - writing is all about the preservation of your own voice. So if you give that voice away by guessing what you think or you think or you think as you go, you'll have less to say and then [your inner voice] will go away entirely."