Tales From the Script: 5 Things I Learned Interviewing Screenwriters

Posted by Peter Hanson on

Sitting down for intimate conversations with dozens of Hollywood's best writers was a transformative experience. Although I've been a professional screenwriter for many years, most of my work has been in the independent realm, so collecting material for Tales from the Script gave me a crash course in the realities of writing movies at the film industry's top levels.

1. Good things come to those who wait ... and wait ... and wait.
A recurring theme throughout the interviews in this project is the long (and painful) gap of time that stretches from the moment someone sets out to become a screenwriter to the moment that dream comes true. But as seen in the following remarks from Frank Darabont, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of The Shawshank Redemption, there's a way to put this excruciating downtime to good use: "Don't talk about being a screenwriter. Sit your ass in the chair, and even if it takes you ten years to start working as a professional, develop and hone your skills. Don't think that the first thing you write is gonna sell for a million dollars, 'cause I got news for you: It ain't." Stephen Susco, who wrote the American version of The Grudge as well as its sequel, put the same idea into numerical perspective, explaining that he wrote twenty-five screenplays before he got credit on a produced movie. Bottom line? Winning the screenwriting race isn't about speed. It's about endurance.

2. Don't hold your breath if you're selling an original story.
Tales from the Script is filled with inspiring anecdotes about writers who launched their careers by creating original stories that excited the Hollywood community, from Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) to Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) to Justin Zackham (The Bucket List). But in today's climate, the writer who rises from obscurity on the strength of a pure spec script is a rare creature. We're in the age of adaptations and remakes and sequels, so very often, the emerging writer's best hope with a spec is to get noticed and then hired for an assignment on an existing project. Just how bad is the climate for fresh stories? I'll let John August, the screenwriter of Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, field this one: "You tend to have a lot of ideas you would like to see made into movies, yet the reality is that most things that actually become movies aren't brand-new ideas. At this point in time, the movies that get made are based on some preexisting piece of intellectual property." To pour a little salt into the wound, consider this comment from Shooter scribe Jonathan Lemkin: "If I could pitch Wheaties: The Movie tomorrow, I'd have a better chance of selling it than I would with an original idea. 'There's a cereal box, guys!' It's a very strange time."

3. Don't underestimate the value of cynicism.
Okay, I'm cheating on this point, because if there's one thing I valued highly even before I began work on Tales from the Script, it is cynicism. I stopped expecting things to turn out well shortly after my film school days at NYU, when I realized that the world wasn't waiting with bated breath for the arrival of my grand artistic statements. The upshot of discarding youthful naïveté was discovering the importance of hustle, and learning that a career in film is built brick by painstaking brick. In speaking with the writers who participated in Tales from the Script, however, I encountered an interesting nuance about cynicism: in moderation, it can be a positive force. Nobody spoke to this point more eloquently (or amusingly) than John D. Brancato, who, with his writing partner Michael Ferris, has survived working on big-budget spectacles including Catwoman, The Game, and the last two Terminator movies. Here's what he said: "I've read screenplays, plenty of them, where the writer obviously hates what he's doing, and thinks it's B.S. That kind of cynicism is pernicious. It hurts the project. It hurts movies in general. So I try not to be cynical about the screenplay, about the movie - while being cynical about every single other thing attached to it. Staying innocent in the creative process is the thing."

4. Learn to love your neuroses. I've seen colleagues get the life knocked out of them by the ups and downs of pursuing a Hollywood career.
Agents lose interest, options expire, movies that seem close to production lose momentum ... it's a heartbreaking cycle, and even the strongest people experience self-doubt after setback upon setback. The one hope new writers have is that once they become established writers, things will get easier. Turns out that's not necessarily the case. Sure, the financial side of things can become a lot more comfortable once a writer starts selling originals and getting assignments. But after success arrives, a whole new set of difficulties becomes part of everyday life. Cutthroat competition from peers. Maddeningly nonsensical studio notes. Egomaniacal above-the-line talent. And to top it all off, the constant pressure of trying to top, or at least match, the kind of success that gets writers on the map in the first place. It's true that some of the veteran writers in Tales from the Script seem able to keep Hollywood in perspective; we should all be as sanguine as the eternally youthful Larry Cohen (Phone Booth). But I certainly recognize myself, and nearly all of the writers in Tales from the Script, in this commentary from screenwriter-turned-psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo (My Favorite Year): "A writer friend of mine once described screenwriters as 'egomaniacs with low self-esteem.' "

5. It's worth it.
Let's face it: Bitching about Hollywood is the easiest thing in the world. Anybody who dips his or her toes into the water out here immediately discovers that the film business is an insane asylum, because there's no clear path to becoming a screenwriter, there's no clear path to preserving the integrity of screenplays, and there's no clear path to maintaining a long career in screenwriting. As William Goldman has said many times, and as he repeated during his amazing Tales from the Script interview, "Nobody knows anything." We're all making it up as we go along, trying to figure out how to write great work, how to get other people to invest in that work, and then how to ensure that the work reaches the screen in something resembling its original form. So why bother? Why not just self-publish novels or read poetry on street corners? There are easier ways to share your art, and the number of writers who achieve Hollywood success is dwarfed by the number of writers who don't. The reason why the dream is worth pursuing is that the rewards are beyond imagining. Nothing touches audiences with the power of a great Hollywood movie, and if you reach the top of this particular mountain, you can enjoy a spectacular lifestyle. The reason why achieving screenwriting success is so damn difficult is that for the lucky few who get to the top, it's worth it. I'll let Gerald DiPego, the seasoned writer of hits including The Forgotten and Phenomenon, speak from experience: "I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I was twelve years old, and there's a moment in each production where I'm twelve again. What's more fragile than a story? It's this wispy thing you make up in your mind. And to see flesh-and-blood actors walking around, being your characters, and to see carpenters building buildings, and it all came out of this dream ... There's still a moment where I'm that twelve-year-old kid saying, 'Wow, look at this.' "

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