Some pretty decent news today...

It seems full financing has been secured for one of my projects. The two lead actors, who have been on board for well over a year now, have also been approved. While in my “wait and see” mode, I’ve been dealing with the usual "writer’s stuff." Several months ago, the producers brought in another writer to do a rewrite. I finally had the nerve to read this rewrite only a few weeks ago. (Since the project was in limbo, there was no big rush; I mean, why get myself all worked up for nothin'?) Some of the changes in this new draft I agreed with; some I didn’t. I just felt the main character (dark, brooding, dangerous) was significantly watered down. I also felt the “bite” was taken out of much of the dialogue. I’m told my original dialogue was too “art house,” and the producers wanted to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience. Sure, I can understand that. Sort of. So, I wrote up about eleven pages of notes. According to my manager, the producers thought a majority of the notes were quite good and on target. I’m told they will address them in the next rewrite. But everyone is confident we’ll be in production in six months. Of course this is all subject to change, but right now it’s looking good.

Ya gotta get the work done...

Every once in a while someone will ask me, “How often do you write?” Well, just so happens I got asked that same question again today. My answer: “Pretty much every day of the week.” Yup, I’m a big proponent of parking myself virtually every day and getting something done. No, it doesn’t have to be actual script pages, but it has to be something that gets me closer to my goal of completing another script. I could be jotting down notes…perhaps merely organizing notes…writing up and/or organizing 3x5 index cards…maybe taking another pass at an outline (either partially or fully). But every day I get something done. As to how long I work…it depends. If I’m writing a first draft, I can work for 2 to 6 hours a day. If I’m rewriting, I’m looking at maybe 2 to 4 hours a day. Then there are days when I can get in only thirty minutes to an hour of actual writing/rewriting done. I’m a fairly quick writer, so an hour here and an hour there gets it done. But I do this 5 to 7 days a week. It’s important for me to build momentum and not let up. Too much slack can kill.

Another question I’m often asked is, “Where do you write?” Well, just about anywhere works for me. I've written on the beach, on cruise ships, on planes, in restaurants, greasy spoon diners, cheap motel rooms (when I’m traveling alone), expensive hotel rooms (when I’m traveling with a friend), rest stops along deserted highways, a cheap dive in Utah, in the dark corner of a movie studio back lot…anywhere! But my preference would be any coffee house (Starbucks!) or plush hotel lobby. Sure, I can (and do) work at home, but I’m far more inspired and energized if I’m out of my day-to-day environment and surround by life.

In case you were wondering...no, I don’t look at these daily writing sessions as work. Not really. I actually look forward to the time I spend writing. The clean sheet of paper and blank computer screen are very exciting things for me. In them exists a world of possibilities! Just give me my favorite Starbucks beverage, a pen and a legal pad, and I’m a deliriously happy fella!

So, as I told this budding writer today: “Find your creative/inspirational comfort zone and put in the time. Get the work done.” Once more for those of you not paying attention: Get the work done.

Back on track...

In my last blog I told the disappointing news of how my two scripts had been taken off the “Recommend” pile at a particular prodco. Well, I just got a call from my manager and her partner, letting me know that those scripts are still very viable projects for the prodco. Not really sure how the miscommunication happened. This is all sort of like playing that game “telephone,” with information getting a bit twisted by the time it’s filtered down to the writer. So, it looks like we’re back on track again, folks. The roller-coaster continues.

Visit me at www.TheWorkingScreenwriter2.blogspot.com -- a blog for the pre-pro screenwriter.

Disappointment: A way of life…

The life of a screenwriter is rife with it. If you’re in this for the long haul, you’d better get used to it. People are interested in your script, and then they’re not. They option your script, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Your project is on track for production, then financing falls through and you’re suddenly back to square one.

Yup, I’ve had numerous disappointments in these last dozen or so years I have been writing professionally (at least two of them mentioned in previous blogs). The most recent disappointment came yesterday. My manager called to tell me that the two scripts I had with a prodco for the last few months – scripts they were hot for, scripts they were keen on putting into production – are now off their “recommend” pile. Seems they’re not doing horror stories at the moment. Huh? They were doing horror stories a week ago, but now they’re suddenly not? Horror is BIG. It’s always big. (Well, usually.) Anyway, I don’t get it. (Actually, I do get it.) But still, these weren’t even horror scripts. One is a psychological thriller; the other is a fun creature-thriller. But they did say they’d like to “revisit” these two scripts in four months. Not entirely sure what that means, but whatever. Sure, I spent about three minutes bitching and complaining, maybe kicked a wall, but then I was right back at my desk, on the phone, strategizing new avenues with my manager. We actually do have another producer interested in the psycho-thriller, so maybe that one’ll turn out fine.

Speaking of turning out fine…my first produced movie (The Perfect Tenant, 2000), was sold in 1997. Then there was a series of script meetings and rewrites. Things looked really good. Then nothing. The company shut down and we didn’t hear much of anything for more than a year. Two years of limbo. Then one day I get a call and things are back on. We’re with the same producers, but a different prodco. The movie commences shooting in September 1999. So, yeah, that one worked out.

But hey, that psycho-thriller script is a darn good script; both scripts are darn good, and I’m confident they’ll get picked up one of these days. You have to believe that sort of thing in this crazy game…because, man, it is crazy. Cra-zeeeee.

***

APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)

More book news...

I want to take a moment to send a big thanks to those of you who have purchased my book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter. Based on your e-mails to me, it seems the book has been not only a good look into the mind of a working screenwriter, but also a source of great inspiration. Music to my ears, believe me! I’d like to share an e-mail I received just a few days ago (reprinted with permission):

Dear Mr. Vines,
I have just finished reading your book....I am 52 years old and long ago gave up the idea that I could possibly write for the movies....You have given me hope that I could perhaps achieve that dream....I have decided to once again tackle two scripts I wrote some years ago. I think they could sell, given the time and effort of some solid rewriting, of course....As you wrote in your book “Live your dreams"....perhaps now I can finally accomplish that....

Sincerely,
Howard M.

Thanks so much, Howard, you made my day! Now get to work on those scripts!

Diggin' out those "old" scripts...

My prior blog (“They call it LOVE”) got me to thinking. It got me to thinking about other times when I unearthed a forgotten (or half-forgotten) screenplay from the depths of my filing cabinet and thrust them out into the world...

I wrote a comedy script back in 1995. For the sake of clarity, we’ll call it Joe’s Boondoggle. So I sent Boondoggle around to a few friends and got some nice feedback. But still, I wasn’t thrilled with the script. My gut instinct told me it just wasn’t ready. I wanted to “fix” it, but I didn’t quite know how. So I tucked it away in the back of a drawer and forgot about it.

Flash forward to 2005. I’m on the set of a movie (one that I wrote), chatting away with “Tom,” the public relations guy, and I’m telling him about my personal experiences with such-and-such. Tom says, “Ya know, I’ve always wanted to produce a movie about such-and-such. I think it could be very funny.” I tell him, “Really? Well, it just so happens I have a comedy script about such-and-such. It’s called Joe’s Boondoggle.” Tom’s eyes grew large and he says, “I want to read it!”

So I pulled that copy out of that filing cabinet, dusted it off, and gave it to him. He calls me a week later and says, “I love it. I think it’s very funny.” Then he tells me he’d like to “take the script around, see if I can get it set up somewhere.” Hey, sounds great! But I wanted to do a quick polish first. So I did. Then I gave him the script, and he sent it around to some of his connections.

Several months went by. Not much happened. My manager, who also loved the script, was sending the script out as well. (I gave the script to my manager the day before I left on a week-long trip to the east coast. A few days later, somewhere in Connecticut, I check my e-mail. I had three from my manager. The first one was, “I’m reading the script. I’m on page four and I’m already laughing!” Then I opened her second e-mail: “I’m on page 45...and I’m still laughing!” Then I open the third and final e-mail: “I just finished the script! It’s very funny!” Sure did make me feel good. This, friends, is why managers get 15%!)

Anyway, my manager got the script to some pretty big names. Alas, no takers. (One “V.I.P.” told us the script was funny but wasn’t mainstream enough. What a crock.) We’re still trying to get that script off the ground. I think it’ll happen...eventually.

Then there was a very creepy thriller I wrote in 2000. My intention was to produce it myself. Well, why not? After all, it’s the perfect low-budget script: two actors, one central location, virtually no special effects. It’s all about character, setting, and mood. Well, I never did get around to producing the darn thing...

But in 2003 I did meet up a young fella, “Ralph,” who was looking to put together a low-budget project. He was a film editor and had connections to equipment and crew, and he “loved” my script. I liked the way Ralph talked and I had a modicum of faith that he’d actually get my script into production. So I signed a one-year option for the grand sum of one dollar.

Keep in mind, I wasn’t looking for up front cash on this script. If I could’ve been paid a few bucks and been involved in the making of the movie, that would’ve been more than agreeable to me. But after just a few additional meetings with Ralph, he completely disappeared. I haven’t heard from him since. He’s probably bagging groceries at a Quik-E-Mart somewhere (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Moving on.

A few months prior to the expiration of Ralph’s option, I decided, “The heck with it, I’m gonna try to get this thing going elsewhere. If Ralph wants to take me to court for breeching our option contract, let him try.” (Though I knew that would never happen.)

So I get in contact with this movie director I sort of know. He’s the husband of a girl I’ve known since grade school. He’s done a couple of movies and is always looking for scripts that interest him. He’s read a couple of mine, but finds them too “middle-of-the-road.” He likes his films “dark” and “strange.” Then I remember my low-budget thriller that will soon be available. I tell him, “Ya know, I might actually have a script that’ll interest you.” “Send it to me,” he says.” Well, I did better than that – I hand delivered it to him at his house.

Two days go by and he calls me, says that mild-mannered voice of his, “I really like it. I think we can do something with it.” (Notice how he said “like,” not “love”? Always be moderately concerned when they tell you they “love” your script.)

Well, here we are a few years later, and it’s been a regular Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but it looks like the script is on track to production in mid-2007. At least that’s what I’m being told.

But ain’t it kinda cool how “forgotten” scripts can be resurrected and garner some nice attention?

So, boys and girls, the moral here: Keep tabs on those old, dusty scripts!


They call it "LOVE"...

Once you start getting into the Hollywood maze, and people are reading your scripts, you’re gonna hear that word an awful lot. I’m referring to the “love” word. No, we’re not talking about eager young starlets trying to get parts in movies (sure, like they’d actually go after screenwriters!), I’m talking about the people we affectionately call producers. Here’s one little story I’m particularly fond of:

A few years ago I heard about a producer looking for a great horror script to put into production, something that could be shot relatively inexpensively (the million dollar range). Well, it just so happened I had such a script. I e-mailed this producer, "Frank," and pitched my story. He wrote back, letting me know he loved it. He gave me his home address and asked me to send the script. Turned out his home was just a hop, skip and jump from my home, so I asked if I could drop it at his front door later that night. His response was, “Sure, no problem.”

So there I was dropping my script at his front door at one o’clock in the morning. A day or two later, Frank calls and leaves me a message on my voice mail: “Jim, it’s Frank. I read your script. I love it! Call me.” So I called him and we had a nice chat. He was positively glowing over my script. Said it was the best one he’d read in a long time. He also said he could definitely produce it relatively low-budget (but he did say he’d like to try to do it for a substantially larger budget). He also talked about distribution avenues that were available to him.

The next day I was at his house and we were signing an option agreement. He even paid me a modest little option fee. What followed was two years of ups and downs, meetings, phone calls, and a teaser trailer (for potential money people); at one point we were actually mere days away from pre-production. But things would always fall apart.

Then one day we met with a fairly well-known baseball player (being deficient in the sports gene, I had no idea who this guy was) who came on board as an executive producer. He was going to co-finance the movie. One of the first things he says to me is, “Hey, man, I love your script.” (Come to think of it, everyone at the meeting that day said, “Love your script.”) To show much how much he loved my script, Mr. Baseball said he was going to pay me a relatively generous chunk of “good faith” money. But oh, he forgot his checkbook. “I’ll put the check in the mail first thing tomorrow,” he said. No problem.

The following week went by and no check. Another week went by and still no check. I told Frank, and boy, was he upset. I did finally get my check, about two-and-a-half weeks after that initial meeting. Oddly enough, that was the last we heard from Mr. Baseball. I was told he chickened out. But hey, I got to keep the money!

Frank then introduced me to a woman named Joanne who represented an Italian production company. First thing she said to me was, “I really love your script, Jim. The people I represent love your script, too.” Then there was all this talk about shooting at that big studio over in Rome, and American television stars heading the cast, and...well, it all became a blur after a while. One thing I do remember quite clearly was Joanne saying, “Italy shuts down in August. There’s nothing going on. We’re going to have to wait until September before anything really starts to roll.” It was something like mid-July, so I just sat back and waited. As we parted company after that initial meeting, Joanne reiterated that she loved my script, and that I should write more scripts for her to love.

In the weeks that followed, I had phone conversations and exchanged a few e-mails with Joanne. Then I never heard from her again. Frank was so distraught that he pretty much just gave up. However, he did have another script of mine that he really loved. His wife loved it too. She told me so herself. Anyway, he tried to get it set up at some companies, but it never went anywhere.

I haven’t had contact with Frank in nearly a year. I’ve sent him a few e-mails in recent months, but he hasn’t responded.

But never fear, I’ve have since optioned that horror script to another producer who loves it. In fact, he’s halfway through his second year of loving it.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Oh, those bright and shiny packages...

Don’t fall for it, people. Don’t fall for all the ads you see. Stuff like, “Write a blockbuster in 30 days!” “How to write a hit movie in six weeks!” “If you’re not using our software, your scripts won’t sell!” Oh, man, I have to puke. C’mon, finding success as a screenwriter ain’t coming from that bright, shiny software package or that hot new book everyone’s buying. Nope, it has to come from inside you. Sure, I know that sounds kinda goofy, but it’s very true. After all, did William Goldman pick up a “how-to” book one day, then write Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the following week? Um, no. Did David Koepp pick up the latest screenwriting software on a Monday and have Jurassic Park cranked out by Friday? I kinda doubt it. Guys like that are born with their ability (or, more likely, that ability was ingrained in their informative years).

Look, I’m not saying software or books aren’t going to help you at all, because they certainly can, I’m just saying they’re not going be that magic key that will allow you to gain entry into the Hollywood kingdom. It’s like all these weight loss products you see advertised on late-night TV. You’re not going to lose all that fat around your gut by taking a pill. To lose the weight you’re going to have to do some exercise and stop eating Twinkies and Doritos in the middle of the night.

If you want to write screenplays that get optioned and/or sold (or at least get you some notice from the powers that be in Hollywood), you’re going to have to do the work. That means you’re going to have to a) read lots of pro scripts, b) write some scripts of your own, c) get feedback on those scripts, d) rewrite those scripts, e) be prepared to trash those scripts, and f) write some more scripts. You will also need to have to have a burning desire to create and tell stories, a basic knowledge of movies (both past and present), a fundamental handle on grammar and sentence structure, a visual (read: cinematic) sensibility, some knowledge of the business side of filmmaking, intestinal fortitude, a cast iron belief in yourself…and an ability to press forward through a thick barrier of negativity and astounding odds. You don’t get all that from a book.

“But Jim,” you say, “even you have a book out!” Yes, that’s true. And it’s a darn good book, too (at least that’s what people are telling me), but I never say, “Psst, buddy, read my book and become an instant screenwriter!” No, I’ve always made it clear (in fact, I mention this in the Introduction to the book) that Q & A: The Working Screenwriter is merely “an informational hand-up to help get you where you want to be in your screenwriting career.”

To me, how-to books have always been more a source of inspiration that anything else. This is why I decided to do a book containing a compilation of interviews with working screenwriters. David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, said it succinctly in his foreword from my book, writing, “When I began my own writing career, it was a book of interviews that inspired me the most.” I’d certainly agree with that. After all, if I read that Mr. Successful Screenwriter wrote twenty scripts before finally selling one, then I know that maybe I’m not such a dope after all.

So, yes, learn from others who have gone before you. Discover what worked for them and incorporate whatever possible into your own personal style. But also learn from their mistakes, and know that you’ll have to make more than a few of your own mistakes before you can find any kind of success in this wonderful, nutty business.

And always remember, if they try to sell you success in a bottle, a) don’t believe ‘em, and b) change the channel.

Dialogue: Gettin' it right...

Many novice screenwriters seem to have trouble with their dialogue. They just don’t seem to have an ear for it. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read where the words spoken by characters just sound awkward, very unnatural. No, I’m not even going to get into dialogue that is necessary versus dialogue that is unnecessary; or dialogue that reveals character, or subtext, or any of the other things you need to be well aware of in order to write a successful screenplay. Right now I’m just talking about dialogue that sounds like how people really talk. In fact, if you’re like most writers, you’ve probably asked yourself, “How can I get my dialogue to flow; how can I make it sound real?” It’s a good question…and one that needs to be asked.

In my opinion, either you have an ear for the way people speak or you don’t. But can you develop this so-called ear? I think, to a degree, you can. “But how,” you ask? Well, it can be as easy as simply listening. As for myself, I’ve always really enjoyed listening to other people talk. I listen to people as they speak on the phone; I overhear conversations at restaurants, coffee houses…everywhere. Always have. If this is not something you instinctively do, try it sometime. Go ahead, the next time you’re sitting at your favorite coffee house, working on your script, get those dang-blasted earphones out of your head and listen to what’s going on around you. Listening to great movie (and TV) dialogue is a huge help, too.

If you’ve never seen a Preston Sturges movie, I suggest you do. Sullivan’s Travels would be one excellent choice. The Great McGinty and The Palm Beach Story would be two others. Mr. Sturges was truly a master of dialogue.

Also check out some Billy Wilder movies. Mr. Wilder (a writer and director) was another master of great dialogue. Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Sunset Boulevard are just three of his classics.

You can also watch just about any movie written by Neil Simon for a fantastic lesson in dialogue. My personal favorite would be The Odd Couple. (Try to get your hands on the scripts for any of these movies…and study them.) But the actual words you choose are only one aspect of successful dialogue. You also need to know something about timing and rhythm. When you watch the aforementioned films, actually listen to the timing and rhythm of the dialogue. Very important.

Another big problem I read in most newbie scripts is robotic dialogue (I cover this on my website, in the “Fatal Flaws” section). People generally aren’t very formal in their speech; they tend to abbreviate. In other words, most people don’t say things like, “I am going to walk down to the corner market and get today’s newspaper.” No, they’ll more likely say, “Think I’ll go down to the market, pick up the paper.”

For those of you unsure how the dialogue in your script actually sounds, I suggest you gather some budding and/or pro actors together and do a table-read. This can be a fabulous way of hearing whether dialogue works or not. Believe me, you can say dialogue in your head over and over and it’ll sound fine, but give it to somebody else to read…well, it can really blow your mind, man.

So, if you’re having trouble with dialogue, set your pen down, close your eyes…and listen to what's going on around you. Listen.

They call it "desperation"...

Yup, desperation is a terrible thing. It drives perfectly normal (or somewhat perfectly normal) screenwriters do really silly and costly things. I’ve just come across yet another novice scribe who tells me how their “agent” is asking for more money in order to get a project off the ground. I’ll tell ya, hearing this sort of thing really upsets me. So, I need to get the word out to those of you who are new to the screenwriting game. Here it is, ladies and germs, so read verrrrry carefully…

Reputable literary agents DO NOT charge their writers. If you are being charged any kind of fee (even if it’s a “maintenance” fee), you are being ripped off.

Writers DO NOT pay agents; agents get paid (typically a 10% commission) when they sell your script.

Legitimate literary agents, the kind that can actually be a boost to your career as a screenwriter, are usually NOT located in Florida, Utah, or Nebraska. Sure, sure, maybe agents who rep poets, novelists, or short story writers are located in those regions…but screenwriters? Uh, no.

The agents who will be your biggest asset are located in either Los Angeles or New York City.

If an “agent” jumps all over you, saying, “I think you have an incredible script. I can sell this,” you need to be wary. I know you think your script is incredible, but chances are good that it’s just not. I’ll go a step further and say – and I say this with LOVE – your script, at best, is probably mediocre. Just ask any Los Angeles lit agent and they’ll tell you about 99% of the scripts they read are lousy (as a part-time script consultant myself, I'd concur with this number). Perhaps the most egregious offender of all the less-than-legit lit agencies (or the company I’ve heard the most complaints leveled against) is an outfit calling themselves The Screenplay Agency. Sadly, many people have been ripped off by these jerks, so I suggest you steer very clear of them.

Look, getting an agent – a REAL agent – is a difficult thing. Fact is, even writers who have written several scripts, who have even had a movie or two made, can find it difficult to land an agent. So, if you, Mr. or Miss Newbie, with one or two completed scripts, suddenly grabs the attention of an “agent,” just stop for a moment and ask yourself “Why is this guy so interested in me?” It’s a question that needs to be asked. But if you won’t listen to me, go ahead and do some research on this so-called agency that “loves” your script. Ask ‘em, “What produced scripts have you repped?” I’m willing to bet they’ll tell you something like, “Well, we’re a relatively new agency, so we’re hoping YOUR script will be the first!” Or maybe they’ll spit some phony names and titles at you, “Well, we just sold John Smith’s political thriller Flatboy Wigwam for six figures.” My guess is no production company in Hollywood, New York, Canada, or Europe has ever heard of the title Flatboy Wigwam.

You’ll also find that most of these literary scammers have nothing more than a website where they post names and loglines of the scripts they rep. Big deal. You could do that sort of thing yourself (and probably do a better job running it). Anyway, legitimate producers aren’t scouring the Internet, looking for screenplays on websites. They just aren’t.

So, please, don’t be so desperate in your search to gain representation; don't sign on the dotted line with the first person who shoves a contract at you.

Always look carefully before you take that leap. Very, very carefully.

Jumpin' through hoops...and not even gettin' paid for it?!

I've heard many a screenwriter complain about having to execute multiple rewrites on their screenplays for producers. No, I’m not referring to screenplays that are in development or pre-production…I’m talking about situations where a “producer” has merely expressed some interest in the screenplay and sets the poor writer off on a mission to make improvements.

By the way, did you notice how quote marks were around the word producer? Well, that’s because there are hordes of people who go around town claiming to be one. Very few of them actually are. Sure, maybe their intentions are good, and maybe they’re sincere when they tell you they have plans to put your written vision on a movie (or TV) screen, but intentions don’t pay the bills, folks. So, let’s say you have a script, and this producer “loves” it (they all tell you they love it), but it just needs a bit more rewriting. Being the eager fella (or gal) that you are, you readily accept their notes and ideas, and you sit down to rewrite your script.

So, you’re doing all this rewrite work (making changes you may or may not totally agree with) for no pay and no promise of actually getting the script into production. Not the greatest situation to be in, but hey, at least someone has taken interest in your script! But just who is this guy who “loves” your script? Has he produced anything previously? Does he have any kind of track record? Is he fresh out of film school? If I may paraphrase Paul Newman from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid…WHO IS THIS GUY?

Chances are, Mr. Producer has a dozen other scripts (and a dozen other writers) in “various stages of development.” He’s hoping that maybe – maybe – one of those scripts will be his foray into a production deal. But if he’s actually lucky enough to get a script off the ground, will it be your script, or will it be one of the other eleven? Sorry, I can’t tell ya that, but hey, at least you’re in the running…and that’s not such a terrible place to be.

OK, now, the big question: Is this producer paying you for these rewrites? I’d be willing to bet he’s not. Has he even signed an option agreement with you and shelled out some halfway decent option cash? Again, I’d be willing to bet he hasn’t.

Speaking of options…do your best NOT to accept the infamous dollar option deal. What’s a dollar option deal? This is when your producer says, “I’m pretty confident I can get your script produced, and I’d like to option it, but I can only pay you a token amount. Let’s sign a one-year option agreement," then he'll cut you a check for a dollar to make it legal. Actually, if you’re lucky, you might get five or ten bucks. At least with that you can buy a cup of coffee at your favorite Coffee Bean. But the “dollar option” offer should raise a yellow flag. Look, you’re being asked to tie up your script for six months, or a year, or longer. If your producer is legit, and if he has faith in your script, then he shouldn’t have a problem putting a few dollars in your pocket.

How much is “a few dollars”? A hundred? Five hundred? A thousand? A few grand? Well, it all kinda depends on how serious you both are. Point is, if Mr. Producer stuffs some cash in your jeans, you know he’s at least halfway serious about his intentions.

And don’t fall for the “I’m your buddy” song-and-dance routine. Sure, these producers think you’re absolutely the bees knees (did I just write that?) when they’re trying to peddle your script around town, but once that option expires, once they’ve failed at getting your script off the ground, chances are really good they won’t even respond to your e-mails. OK, fine, then forget about ‘em. After all, it’s Show Biz, Jake. As a wise Hollywood insider once told me, “There are no friendships in this town, only business relationships.” I think 99.8% of the time that’s absolutely true.

So tread carefully, dear screenwriter, cuz there be sharks in them there waters. Sharks that bite.

Careful what you say!

For about the last year or so I’ve been receiving foreign royalty payments from the WGA (for a movie I worked on once upon a time). These checks started off for relatively substantial amounts, but the amounts have grown smaller and smaller with each subsequent check. In recent months I’ve been laughing at how small the amounts have become. (Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take anything they want to send!) The last check I got was so minuscule I actually wanted to have it framed. I even joked to a friend, “Pretty soon I’ll be owing them money!” Well, today I got a letter from the WGA. It seems they’ve overpaid me by X amount. Now, there are two ways for them to get their money back: they can deduct the amount I owe from future disbursements to me, or I can send them a check for the full amount. Boy, if it wasn't so ridiculously funny, I’d be cryin’!

Talk is cheap!

I met another one. A screenwriter wannabe, that is. Probably in his early thirties. Anyway, he saw me working on a script at a Starbucks. He kept looking over at me. He finally said, “You working on a script?” I told him, “Yeah, I’m just doing a rewrite.” Then he went on to tell me how he’s been working on some ideas of his own. So we kinda got to talking about the whole screenwriting thing. This is pretty much how our conversation went:

HIM: How long have you been writing?
ME: Professionally, since about the early nineties. But I’ve been writing stuff since I was a kid. Most of that was sketch comedy…
HIM: Cool. So you’re a professional writer?
ME: Well, that’s what my tax returns say.
HIM: Cool.
ME: What about you? How long have you been writing?
HIM: Well, I haven’t actually written anything yet. I’ve just been thinking up some ideas. I have a couple of good ones.
ME: Great. So what do you do when you’re not writing?
HIM: Construction sometimes. The money’s pretty good. But I really want to get into the movie industry. I’d be so stoked if I could write a blockbuster.
ME: Well, that ain’t easy. Does it have to be a blockbuster?
HIM: I hear the money’s good if you can write something like War of the Worlds
ME: Sure, but those are assignment jobs. You’d pretty much have to be an established writer to get a gig like that.
HIM: Oh. Well, I don’t want to waste my time writing that low-budget art house sh*t.
ME: So, you’re basically interested in all this for the money…and not the writing, not the art?
[He just sorta grinned at this.]
ME: Well, good luck to ya.
HIM: Do you know any agents?
ME: Uh, yeah. A few.
HIM: Can you hook me up?
ME: Nope. Sorry.
HIM: I hear you need an agent to sell your scripts.
ME: Not always. But you have to have scripts first. You told me you just have ideas. Agents don’t want your ideas, they want your scripts.
HIM: I’ll have a script soon. By summer. I just need some more time to work out details.
ME: Details?
HIM: The script I’ve been thinking about is sort of like X-Men. Loads of action…
ME: Action is great, but do you have a story?
HIM: That’s what I’ve been working on. I have my heroes, I only need to figure out what each of them do.
ME: Like superpowers, that sort of thing?
HIM: Yeah. So listen to this: I have this one character who –
ME: Stop! I’d rather you didn’t tell me. If I write a script that’s similar, you’ll come back and sue me.
HIM: I wouldn’t do that.
[Yes, I knew it would never happen, but I had to do something to keep him from telling me his story idea. If I had a dollar for every story idea I’ve heard…Ugh.]
HIM: So why won’t you hook me up with an agent?
ME: I told you…you need scripts. You don’t have any scripts!
HIM: You’ll see, I’ll be a big-time screenwriter one day…
ME: Well, when that day comes, give me a call and I’ll take you to lunch.
HIM: Seriously, can you hook me up?
[Now I’m just laughing at this guy.]
HIM: I hear CAA is a big agency. Do you know anyone at CAA?
ME: Um, nope.
HIM: Who’s your agent?
ME: Ronald Hartung over at United Agency. They’re in Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard. [Of course, this is a completely bogus name, company, and location.]
HIM: Can I call him?
ME: Sure, go ahead. They’re in the phone book. But he won’t talk to you.
HIM: Why?
ME: I told you.
HIM: Well, when I get my scripts written.
ME: OK, then, but only when you get your scripts written.
HIM: What’s your name?
ME: Sturges. Preston Sturges.
HIM: I’ll have my script written by June or July.
ME: Then you'd better get crackin'. But hey, good luck. By the way…how long have you wanted to be a writer?
HIM: I got into it about two years ago.
ME: And you haven’t written anything yet?
HIM: Hey, man, I’ve been trying to. I gotta work, pay those bills. I’m paying for a [he mentioned some very pricey utility vehicle].
ME: You can’t write in your off hours?
HIM: It’s hard, man. My girlfriend and I do stuff. She’s a DJ at a club and sometimes I help out. Man, the girls I meet at these clubs! Sh*t, if I wasn’t engaged to my girlfriend…
ME: Well, look, you need to find time to write, even if it’s half an hour a day, every day. It’s the only way you’ll get it done.
HIM: I’ll get it done. You’ll be seein’ my name on the big screen one day.
ME: I hope so. Well, I gotta get going. What’s your name, by the way?
HIM: Ed.
ME: Good meetin’ you, Ed. Good luck with everything.
HIM: You too, Pete.
ME: Preston. Preston Sturges.

Then I was out the door. I glanced back and poor Ed was just sitting there, sipping his latte and watching people walk by. I know I gave him a hard time, and I truly felt bad about giving him the wrong name and agent information, but what else could I do? Sure, I could’ve just told him, “Sorry I don’t reveal my name and agent info.” But I think that really would’ve upset him. Besides, he’ll never try to call that phony agent. Never. I’ll go back to that same Starbucks (luckily I rarely ever go in there) and he’ll be sitting there, drinking his latte, watching the world walk by. I’ve met too many people like this. They talk about writing screenplays, but they never actually do anything about it. Look, if you truly want to be a screenwriter, you need to do the work. You need to produce product. You need to deal with reality. So, get your head out of the clouds, get your mind off the money you may potentially make, do your homework, set aside some time to write…and GET TO WORK.

I walked with zombies!

Yes, I was a zombie. No, not the real kind. The fun kind. The movie kind. See, a buddy of mine is the DP (Director of Photography) on a low-budget zombie movie. I mentioned to him recently that I’d love to be a zombie for a day. I also have a bit of experience doing stunt work, so I can fall down real good. So my buddy calls me the other night and asks, “Hey…you wanna be a zombie tomorrow?” I said, “Sure!” So yesterday morning I get myself to the downtown L.A. set around 10:30. (I should mention that this is waaaay too early for me. I’m usually not even up until about 11:30 or so.) A handful of other actor/extra types are walking around with various stages of blood and decay on their face. They all look pretty cool. Nice guys, too…for zombies, that is. So I get my wardrobe on, sit myself in the make-up chair, and spend some time getting latex and blood (and who knows what else) applied to my face. Then, as is typical on a movie set, I spend a lot of time sitting around and waiting. And waiting. After several hours, I get to do my first shot. I won’t go into detail here, but I spent the next few hours being shot-gunned, pummeled with a large sledgehammer-type thing, hacked to bits by a samurai sword-wielding ninja, as well as punched and kicked by the hero (a guy who looked like Schwarzenegger in Predator). So, by the end of the day, I died something like five or six times. At one point during the action, I had to change into a different outfit and modify my zombie look. The make-up guy accomplished this modification by pouring roughly a full gallon of blood all over the upper portion of my body...my face, hair, down my back...ugh. Let me tell ya, blood might look awfully cool on the silver screen, but in reality it’s very gooey, VERY sticky, and when it dries, it hardens and clothing sticks to your skin. After every fall, I’d get up and peel my shirt off my skin. Ouch! But hey, that’s the price you pay when you…WALK WITH ZOMBIES.

Movie moments (part 1)...

If you’re gonna write movies, ya gotta LOVE movies. Believe me, I love movies. There have been so many great moments over the years. Here are just a very few of my personal favorites (in no particular order):

Elmer Bernstein’s fabulous musical score accompanying Steve McQueen as he races his motorcycle across the lush German countryside in The Great Escape (1963).

Paul Newman’s amiable Butch Cassidy delivering a swift kick in the groin to massive Harvey Logan (Ted Cassidy) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Sundance (Redford) uttering to Butch (Newman), right after blowing a railroad car halfway to Kingdom Come: “Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?”

In the prelude to the best car chase ever put on celluloid, that fantastic shot in Bullitt where Steve McQueen’s Mustang suddenly appears in the bad guy’s rearview mirror.

In You Only Live Twice (1967), James Bond (Sean Connery) casually quipping after tossing his bad guy opponent into a pool of piranha fish: “Bon appetite.”

Butch and Sundance (Newman and Redford) on that cliff very, very high above a raging stream, and Newman suggests they jump to escape the encroaching posse – then an embarrassed Sundance bellows: “I can’t swim!” Then ol' Butch roars with laughter, and says, "Are you crazy? The fall'll probably kill ya!"

In Thunderball (1965), after James Bond (Sean Connery) sends a spear through a bad guy, effectively pinning the poor guy to a palm tree: “I think he got the point.”

In The Great Escape, when stone-faced Willie (Charles Bronson) confronts Hendley, the camp’s Scrounger (James Garner):
Willie: “Hendley, I need a pick. A big, heavy pick.”
Hendley: “Just one?”
Willie: “Two would be better.”

At the end of Father of the Bride II (1995), when Steve Martin cradles his newborn baby grandson in one arm and his newborn baby daughter in the other.

Butch and Sundance (Newman and Redford) surrounded by a very dangerous and persistent posse, and Butch considers their situation: “Well, the way I figure it, we can either fight or give. If we give, we go to jail. If we fight, they can stay right where they are and starve us out, or they could go for positions and shoots us. They might even get a rock slide started and get us that way. What else can they do?” With that, Sundance retorts: “They could surrender to us, but I wouldn’t count on that.”

The Monument Valley interlude from Electra Glide in Blue (1973) still gives me chills.

The ending of Electra Glide in Blue…is not something you’ll easily forget.

Speaking of endings, the final scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ain’t one you’ll forget, either.

In Le Femme Nikita (1990), when Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is in the restaurant…and she receives a very unexpected birthday present: a gun. Then she’s ordered to use it on the guy at a nearby table.

The exhilarating helicopter main title sequence from The Towering Inferno (1974). Great cinematography and a great John Williams score. (This happens to be my all-time favorite movie – and the movie that truly got me interested in becoming a filmmaker).

From Love Actually (2003), when Juliet (Keira Knightley) realizes the wedding video tape shot by Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is focused entirely on her…and she realizes he’s actually very much in love with her. Heartbreaking.

From Helpmates (1932), the Laurel and Hardy classic, as a soot-stained Stan stands amidst the burned out ruins of Ollie’s house, spraying water from a garden hose.

The final scene from the classic action flick The Mechanic, when Steve (Jan Michael Vincent) reads the note taped to the car’s rearview mirror – and we hear the voice-over of the late Arthur Bishop (Charles Bronson): “Steve…if you read this, it means I didn’t make it back. It also means you’ve broken a filament controlling a thirteen second delay trigger. End of game. Bang, you’re dead.” And that’s when the car (and poor Steve) blows sky high.

The “luckiest man” speech given by Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) at the end of Pride of the Yankees. Keep a hankie handy for that one, folks.

From the truly wonderful film The Sound of Music, when Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) sings “Edelweiss” to his children. Another hankie moment. Beautiful.

From Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)…the sword fight between King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and the Black Knight (John Cleese). I never laughed so hard in my life.

From Ghostbusters (1984), the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (with his big ol’ smiling face) strolling down the street.

From Bowfinger (1999), when Jiff (Eddie Murphy) has to run across the very busy freeway lanes.

I think one of the funniest scenes ever put on film would have to be the Jon Lovitz/Adolph Hitler scene in The Rat Race (2001). (If you’ve watched the movie, you absolutely know what scene I’m referring to here.) It’s set up beautifully and executed perfectly. Funny, funny stuff.

In Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993), when Walter (Robert Duvall) gives Frank (Richard Harris) a professional shave. Love, love, love this film.

The ultra-sexy chess scene between Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Truly a classic.

The final shot from The Accidental Tourist (1988), when Macon (William Hurt) sees Muriel (Gena Davis) standing on the street corner, and for the first time, we see him smile.

In the final moment of True Grit (1969), when Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) bellows, “Well come see a fat old man sometime!” and he leaps his horse over the three-rail fence.

From the opening shots of The Omega Man (1971), as the theme from A Summer Place plays on his car stereo, Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) driving the empty streets of downtown Los Angeles.

From The Poseidon Adventure (1972), when doomed passenger (stuntman/actor Ernie Orsatti) does a backwards fall into the ceiling skylight.

The fiery end of Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) from The Towering Inferno. A tragic ballet…and one of the best stunt sequences ever put on film.

Speaking of stunt sequences, I think the final water tank flooding sequence from The Towering Inferno is one of the best action sequences put on film.

In Die Hard (1988) when John McClain (Bruce Willis) dangles outside the building at the end of a fire hose – but he pendulums out, fires several blasts from his gun, swings back to the building, smashes through the window, crashes onto the floor to safety. But he’s not safe. Nooo, the heavy coupling from the end of the fire hose is dragging him back out the window and a certain death. Just when all seems lost, he frees himself from the bindings of the hose. A nail-biter.

From Midnight Cowboy (1969), as that great theme from John Barry plays, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) holding his friend Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) on that final bus ride.

So there you have a handful of memorable moments from some of my favorite films. I’ll come up with more and post ‘em at a later date.

***
APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)

Screenwriting contests...

On my other blog (www.theworkingscreenwriter2.blogspot.com), I provide my opinions about screenplay competitions. I always wonder why newbie screenwriters put so much time, effort, and money into these things. Here’s an interesting bit of info I just picked up from the March/April 2006 issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine:

While winning the Nicholl is tough (since its inception, only 91 scripts have won out of 73,118 entries) it isn’t a guarantee the script will turn into a film. Only about thirty of those 91 winning scripts have been optioned or sold, and only thirteen have actually been produced.

And don't forget, Nicholl is arguably the biggest of all the screenwriting competitions.

Contests...not exactly the key to the Hollywood kingdom.

Mindless pap?

My workload has decreased a bit in the last few days as I wait for producers to get back to me with script notes, so I’ve been hanging out on that screenwriter’s bulletin board again. I know, I know…but there’s a debate raging. It’s been like a train wreck and I cannot avert my eyes. The debate is over writing “mindless pap” versus “films of substance.” Boy, what a waste of time that one is. But hey, I’ve got a bit of time to kill, so I might as well chime in with my two cents worth. Here we go:

I’ll tell ya, I love those literati types who sniff at the idea of writing movies such America Pie or Porky’s. I suppose they’d be happier if every movie looked and sounded like Howards End or The Queen. Personally, I enjoy all types of movies. I can enjoy American Pie (which I did), and I can enjoy Howards End and The Queen (which I did). (Sorry, I never saw Porky’s.) C’mon, what does or does not constitute “entertainment” is a silly thing to debate. Ever hear the phrase, “Different strokes for different folks”? Should I look down on television shows such as Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch? Not on your life! I happen to enjoy these shows. I still laugh at good ol’ Gilligan, the Skipper, and the rest of those wacky castaways. Lots of people do. Fact is, both shows have given years and years of harmless entertainment to millions of people all over the world. Now, what’s so terrible about that? Absolutely nothing! If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. But don’t tell me I can’t watch it, and if I do, I’m some kind of mindless Neanderthal for doing so. (And I won’t tell you you’re a snobbish bore with a stick up your rear end because all you watch is Upstairs, Downstairs.) The same goes for what type of projects I choose to write. Sure, I’d love to write something in the vein of Antwone Fisher or The Pursuit of Happyness (both wonderful films, by the way). I’d also love to write stuff akin to Warriors or Mission Impossible. I can guarantee that there are just as many people who have been entertained by the latter as the former. I realize that the film industry is a business. Production companies and studios are not necessarily making movies (or films) for the sake of art. Like it or not, they do it to make money. That in mind, I know I probably have a better chance of getting Mission Impossible 4 sold than Howards End II. That’s just the way it is. When I’ve made a name for myself (and probably a small fortune) by being a “sell out” to Hollywood, then I can kick back a bit and write my small, personal art house script, get it sold, then hopefully produced. So, if a studio or production company says, “Jim, we need you to write Super Ninja 16 and we’re gonna pay you $200,000 to do it,” do I turn it down? Well, the first question I have to ask myself is: Am I comfortable writing in that particular genre? Yeah, sure, I could handle that. So I sit myself down and write the best Super Ninja 16 script I can. Great action, great characters, great story. (Whether or not the resultant movie comes out as good as my script, that’s another story. Most good scripts tend to get mucked up during the development process.) I then collect my paycheck, pay off my bills, put food on my table, send a few bucks to my daughter (and her new baby boy), I give some gifts to family and friends (no, really, I would), take my girlfriend out for a lovely dinner at Denny’s, and perhaps I take a trip or two. But nooooo, those stuffy types want me to turn down the assignment because the Super Ninja movies are (apparently) for complete idiots. Ridiculous! Look, if you don’t want to write “low brow,” then don’t do it. Write whatever it is you want to write. Just be sure to send me an invite to the premiere. And when my Super Ninja sequel comes out, I’ll be sure to send you an invite to the premiere. Whether or not you choose to show up…well, that’s up to you. After all, we wouldn’t want you slumming with the Neanderthals.

Come visit me at www.TheWorkingScreenwriter.com -- a site for the pre-pro screenwriter.