Interview with: Lewis Colick - Award Winning Screenwriter

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Lewis Colick: Script Tips

Lewis Colick estimates that he's been writing for 25 years and 'making a living at it for about 18.' His critically-acclaimed 'October Sky earned him the 1999 Humanitas Prize for Best Feature Script and a Writers Guild nomination for Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published. Colick, in fact, began work on 'October Sky' before Homer H. Hickam Jr. had finished writing 'Rocket Boys,' the autobiography on which Colick based his script. Preparing to write 'Ghosts of Mississippi,' Colick spent a lot more time on interviews in Jackson than he'd originally anticipated. But those interviews yielded some 300 pages of invaluable information about the life and times of Medgar Evers. Colick's genre-spanning credits also include the feature films 'Unlawful Entry' and 'The Next Worst Thing,' which he co-wrote with Joe Gayton. But like many, Lewis Colick began earning professional dollars writing TV sitcoms, a career at least twice removed from his original goal.

When the Brooklyn, New York native arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1970's, he came to earn his MA in playwriting at UCLA. 'I wasn't interested in television or feature films, he remembers, 'I wanted to write plays.' Then, about six post-grad-school years later, Colick realized that if he was to support himself -- and his family -- he'd have to turn his talents to something other than plays. Heeding advice he continues to give to students when he lectures at USC and UCLA, he sat down, wrote a spec TV script and gave it to an old UCLA friend who was a story editor. The friend liked the story and Colick's pitch. But ultimately the most important thing was that he recognized Colick's potential, an appreciation that brought Colick to the doorstep of "Archie Bunker's Place," and his first professional credit which, in turn, led to a staff slot on 'Three's Company.'

"Friends told me how stupid that show was. But it was a really hard show to write. I was," says Colick, 'kind of glad when the option wasn't picked up.' 'Three's Company,' in fact, proved to be a very good learning experience for the beginning writer. He came away from the show with a healthy appreciation for the rigors of writing for weekly television and new-found respect for the craft of writing within the tight structures of sitcoms and the challenge -- even for Colick and his ready wit -- of coming up with just the right joke at just the right time. Colick left the show convinced that writing TV sitcoms wasn't for him. He also left with another piece of advice he freely shares with aspiring writers: 'Be careful what you go after. If you get it, you also get the consequences.'

Once again, Colick returned to what he considers the employment key for writers: the spec script. And this time he turned his talents to creating a feature film. His advice is simple: 'You have to write what you think can be your best script. And write in whatever genre you excel at. This script will be the showcase for your talents, and no one can do that but you.' If Colick believes that writers should lead with their strengths, he also believes that an all-too-often-made mistake is trying to succeed by replicating today's box-office hit. One major problem with that approach, he feels, is that by the time the writer cobbles together a half-decent version of the last big hit, the marketplace 'is off looking for something else.' Using his own career as an example, Colick emphasizes 'If you don't get the right response, keep on going. It's a tough business, but perseverance results in success.'

Like every writer, Colick has had his nightmares. He's seen at least one project win studio approval only to stall and then stop with the installation of a new regime. Of his script for 'Radiant City' -- which eventually became a movie of the week, he says, 'I couldn't get it made for years. But I did get work out of it because some people who saw it liked what I did.'

Colick's university training taught him the basics of writing, but for those who don't share that background, he underscores the importance of learning these well if success is the goal. Three invaluable assists he suggests on this learning curve are 'The Art of Dramatic Writing,' by Lajos Egri, 'Screenplay, The Foundation of Screenwriting' by Syd Field, and Robert McKee's 'Story' seminars.

Another thing Lewis Colick has learned is the value of computers and software. A technophobe of long and good standing, Colick didn't even use a Selectric during his typing days, opting to correct with his bare hands. 'I had an attitude,' he laughs. 'The attitude was: What does this technology have to do with my creativity?' Finally a friend sat him down for a long talk and convinced him that computers could be a plus. But convinced though he was, it took the advice and proddings of several friends -- Walter Halsey Davis, Bob Eisele and Vickie Patik among them -- before Colick opted to take advantage of the classes and technical support that were available at the Writers Store back when the store sold hardware and was known as the Writers' Computer Store.

While Colick remains wary of acquiring every new piece of technology and software that comes along and still has urges to throw his computer companion out the window, he now describes computers as 'liberating' and refers to his as 'The greatest thing that ever happened in terms of my creativity.' 'Now I can write a three-page monologue, move the pieces around and around, try it different ways. I no longer have to edit myself as I write. All I need to do is get the thoughts out and the words down.'

The one thing he has done is switch from Scriptor to Final Draft, a program he likes because it offers what he most needs -- formatting ease. Oddly enough, for a man who -- search engines reveal -- is the subject of page after page on the Web, Colick says that he [as of this writing] doesn't use the Internet all that much. While listing Box Office Guru and Ain't It Cool News among his favorite sites, and admitting a tendency to look up people in the Yellow Pages and check the status of the stock market online, he limits his use of the Internet as a research source to finding the most preliminary information and, in fact, finds its most useful function in e-mail. It is, though, he admits, another way to stay in touch with the marketplace, a necessity for writers.

In summarizing that marketplace and his own relationship to it, Lewis Colick casts a well- balanced eye. 'The marketplace does demand a certain kind of product. I write to earn a living,' he says. 'I write commercial stuff for the movies, and I also try to have my integrity when I can.'

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