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Archive for March, 2011

Neil Simon on Critics

“Walter Kerr gave me one of the best pieces of criticism I’ve ever had. In the first line of his review of The Star-Spangled Girl, he said, ‘Neil simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote one anyway.’ That was exactly what had happened. Elliot Norton was helpful to me in Boston with The Odd Couple. His title of the opening review was, ‘Oh for a Third Act.’ He wasn’t going to waste his time telling everyone how good the first two acts were. His job, he felt, was to make me make the third act better. And his suggestion to me was to bring back the Pigeon sisters. I said, ‘Good idea.’ Brought back the Pigeon sisters, and the play worked. More important than the reviews, it’s the audience that tells you whether or not you’ve succeeded.”
Neil Simon
Playwrights at Work

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“I had dabbled with the idea of (becoming a writer), but I had never actually attempted anything. I mean, maybe once or twice I had tried to write a sitcom script or something like that, but again the discipline thing was a problem. And then one night, I was coming home from a shoot (working on music videos), and I had just gotten off the freeway and I pulled up in front of my house and parked the car. And I turned off the engine, and I thought, two women go on a crime spree. That was about December ’97. And I just sat there in the car because of that phrase. I liken it to being hit in the head with a two-by-four. That’s what it felt like…I finally decided I was going to write a screenplay…Probably a total of four people knew that I was doing this and they were all sworn to secrecy. I didn’t want to walk around telling people,’Yeah I’m writing a screenplay,’ because I knew I’d never finish it, I knew I would just get nothing but negative feedback. It seems people are always so willing to believe that you’re going to fail. Especially with somebody who didn’t go to film school, I was kind of there by luck. There were certainly people who would say, ‘Well, what the hell do you know about it. You didn’t go to AFI.’ I just decided to not open myself up to that. And the challenge to me was to just finish the screenplay; that was all I was trying for. I didn’t think about selling it. I didn’t think about anything.”
Callie Khouri interviewed in American Screenwriters
Khouri finished that screenplay, Thelma & Louise, in six months and it not only sold and got produced—but in 1992 she won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for that script and it would later be named by the Writers Guild of America as #72 on their list of 101 Greatest Screenplays.  (Ahead of The Verdict, Witness, Rocky, Do the Right thing, and The Grapes of Wrath.)
Like Diablo Cody, Khouri proved that you don’t always have to go to film school, have written 6-10 scripts…or be a man to make a huge impact.

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Writers & Rejection

“There is a brilliant writer called Hugo Hiriart and he oversaw the eight of us in this program (the National Institute of Fine Arts in Spain). I wrote a novel and he took it and said, ‘Who the hell told you that you were a writer? This is shit?’ He threw the manuscript into the air and the pages went flying everywhere. ‘This is the worst thing I have ever read in my life,’ he said. In order not to kill him, I made myself count to ten, and then I had to count again. Then someone else in my group said, ‘Yeah, it’s a very lousy novel.’ I said, ‘Shut up or I’ll beat you.’ So I picked up my novel and said to Hugo, ‘You don’t have a fucking idea what literature is about! ‘[laughs]  Years later I asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘Because I wanted to see if you had the guts to be a writer. If you can’t stand rejection it means that you don’t have the personality to be a writer.”
Guillermo Arriaga
That novel thrown in the air was published four years later and he went on to write the screenplays Amores Perros, The Three Burials of Meiquiades Estrada, and 21 Grams. In 2007 his script for Babel was nominated for an Oscar.
Interview with Kevin Conroy Scott
Screenwriters’ Masterclass 

 

 

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Writing “Cedar Rapids”

“Right out of film school I sold a movie and a TV show, and I thought ‘Hah!’ this is going to be easy.”
Screenwriter Phil Johnston on his early misperceptions

It’s not because Cedar Rapids is Iowa that I feel obligated to do another post on the movie Cedar Rapids, it’s because I found a couple quotes from the movie’s screenwriter, Phil Johnston,  that I thought you’d find encouraging. The first one is from a an online article at Film Independent by Maggie Mackay.

Mackey: This is your first feature script to be produced, and you were able to attach a name cast and a seasoned director in Miguel Arteta, can you talk about how the project came together?

Johnston: “It was truly a dream to get this gaggle together, you couldn’t ask for a better group of actors in comedy today.  You’ve seen how long things can go in movies, I’ve sold things that haven’t gotten made, had projects start and then stop, and this was the exact opposite.  I had breakfast with Ed (Helms) a couple years ago, and I just had the skeletal outline, and he loved it.  He was just on The Office at that point and The Hangover hadn’t been shot yet.  We went back and forth with the script for a while after that, and then we were so lucky to attract Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor as producers, then Miguel, and Searchlight.  Then The Hangover came out, and he [Ed] became an international movie star type and we were able to develop it as we liked.  Ed is a bankable movie star now, and within twelve weeks of Searchlight saying “yes” we were rolling on it.  I’ve been out of film school for five years and there was a lot of stuff that came close.  I had a film that came close then the company folded.  It’s a minor miracle when it all comes together.”

And this question came from Kiko Martinez at CineSnob: “Out of all the cities in the entire United States, why write a movie set in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?”

Johnston: I worked in Western Iowa for three years. I spent some time in Cedar Rapids and so I had some great affection for the Midwest. Physically, Cedar Rapids had those bad floods in 2008. I wanted something that an insurance agent might be able to look to as a place where they could be a hero. For Ed [Helms’] character, Tim Lippe, he saw these floods as a terrible thing, but he looked at insurance people working in the trenches like firefighters and police officers helping people out.

Martinez also asked Johnston, “Were you disappointed the film could not be shot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?”

Johnston: Place is a huge part of my writing process, so it was a bummer. It was interesting from a moviemaking standpoint because we had a production office set up in Des Moines, Iowa and we were going to shoot exclusively in Iowa, but there was a scandal with the Iowa Film Commission where they stopped their rebate program. Tax incentives got shut down. We were four weeks away from principal photography and the producer had to find a new location. We moved the whole production from Iowa to Michigan in four weeks. While it would have been great to shoot the movie in Iowa, I think the fact that it got made at all is a minor miracle given that huge speed bump in front of production.

Since Johnston knew Helms and that helped get Cedar Rapids made, I guess I should add to my post on alternative ways to market your script: Get to know an actor in a hot Tv show who is about to become a movie star in a hot movie.

Related post: “Cedar Rapids” — The Movie

Sneaky Long Screenwriting

Scott W. Smith

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“My greatest tragedy is now my greatest benefit: It gave me guts, and a sense of who I am.”
Screenwriter Heather Hach
Denver Post article

What would you do if your spouse called in the middle of the night and said they were never coming home?

You could move to LA and purse a career in screenwriting. That’s what Heather Hach did—and it’s worked out pretty well.

Hach co-wrote the 2003 film Freaky Friday with Leslie Dixon, and wrote the book for Legally Blonde; The Musical (based on another book and the movie). The play opened on Broadway in 2007-2008, is currently on tour in the states, and the West End production of the musical won three Olivier Award Awards (like a British Tony Awards)  last week including Best New Musical which honored Hach’s work along with the music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin.

Hath’s story begins in Iowa where she was born. (I promise I don’t go out of my way to find these connections. It’s just a recoocurring theme.) In an interview with Joe Tropia on Broadway Buzz, Hach said, “So many musicals are set in Iowa. It’s like the place to cast your Americana.”

When she was 10 she moved to Loveland, Colorado with her family and eventually graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder (Journalism)  in 1993. She worked in Boulder on a sports magazine, and then worked  for the New York Times Denver bureau. She also began performing with an improv group where she met her husband. )The one that called in the middle of the night a few years later turning her life upside down.)

After the divorce she moved to L.A. for a fresh start and in a divorce recovery-groups met an ABC producer (Jim Janicek) who became her mentor. She signed-up for the Writer’s Book Camp and wrote a screenplay based on her divorce called, “I Used to Be an Honor Student.” (That title alone makes a nice logline.)

In 1999, she won the Disney Screenwriting Fellowship followed by the opportunity to write Disney’s Freaky Friday starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindesy Lohan, and Mark Harmon.  Speaking back at CU-Boulder in 2005, she told the group, “I’m lucky because a screenplay ended up getting produced. I can’t count how many scripts are written and pitched to studios, but only a small, tiny number actually end up getting made.” 

And to follow that with a play on Broadway puts her in a rare category. 

Being born in Iowa and experiencing a tough divorce won’t always lead to Hollywood & theatrical success, but Hach is one more example of someone who overcame some rough spots in her life and found a way to use it as a foundation to grow as a person and a writer.

“I was someone who was used to having things go my way. I always felt really lucky in life. I was a good student and doing right in the world and … I just got pushed off a cliff. But I am here to say that life can go beyond your wildest dreams.” 
Heather Hach 

She also remarried and has a son and a daughter. 

Scott W. Smith

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“The sale gave me street cred. I was no longer some schmuck from Canada with a script and a dream. I was Mr. Professional Writer with a studio deal.”
Screenwriter James V. Simpson (Armored) on his first sale

Have you ever taken a script you’ve just finished and tossed it in the washing machine? And then put it in the clothes dryer? Yeah, me neither.

But that’s what the last week has felt like since finishing the script Shadows in Dark that I co-wrote. I’ve had hours of conversations going over my script with people turning the story inside out to make sure it can stand on its own. It is a little like watching your clothes tumble over and over in the dryer. Now I have to take it out and work on a new draft gathered with some of the notes. Someone asked me if I was worried about getting too many conflicting ideas. My short answer is, “no.”

I think the job of the writer is to act a filter with the notes you get and the story you are writing. If I had done it before the script was completed it would have been way too confusing. But I’m already on a new script so holding things loosely with the old script. (Even if it’s just two weeks old.) It helps that at this point in the game that everyone who has commented on the script wants Shadows in the Dark to be the best it can be. So I’m grateful that they’ve taken the their time to give me their two cents. (Actually, not even two cents since I haven’t paid anybody even one cent.)

Also, it’s been an interesting week to learn the Cedar Falls, Iowa area where I live is connected to a major movie star, an established producer with decades of hits, and an assistant with one of the major agencies in Los Angeles. On top of Mark Steines, the host of Entertainment Tonight having ties to Cedar Falls. Of course, that doesn’t mean the script has sold (or will even be read by those people) but interesting nonetheless.

But since this week I did write about marketing your script I thought it would be fun to find a quote from someone just after they sold their first script and what that experience was like. Adam Levenberg  pointed me in the direction of  the blog The Inside Pitch which as far as I know is the only blog written by someone inside one of the top agencies in L.A.—Christopher Lockhart who is the Story Editor with WME (formerly William Morris Endeavor). On his about me section of his blog it says his job is to look “for potential film projects for a small roster of “A” list clients including Denzel Washington and Steve Martin.”

That’s a nice gig. If you’re wondering how you get that kind of set-up, in Lockhart’s case he has an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and spent nine years at ICM where his duties included running the story department. He co-produced the feature film The Collector and was producer/writer on the recently released doc Most Valuable Players which was acquired by Oprah Winfrey. Lockhart has also taught at UCLA and given lectures around the country. He doesn’t blog on a regular basis, but he started back in 2006 so there is a wealth of information there.

Back on Novemeber 06 of 2006 Lockhart had a post where screenwriter James V. Simpson wrote about about selling his script Armored (which was released in theaters in 2009).  Here is a highlight from the post My First Script:

After the calls from my manager and lawyer congratulating me were finished, I told my wife. She cried and laughed and I told her to start looking for a car because it had been my promise to her that I would buy her a car with the money from my first sale to thank her for her support and tolerating me all these years.

Then I called my mother. She wept when I told her about the sale. For the first time in my life, my mother was proud of me. I don’t care how much money you get, there is nothing more important than your family and sharing this moment with them.

Since my deal had been done without an agent, I immediately had a lot of requests for meetings from agents as well as producers.

This is the victory lap and you have to take it if you want to start a career, so be prepared to be in LA for at least a week to begin with and for longer periods as your career develops.

So he went from writing for no money to writing for money. It reminded me of Stepehen King when his agent told him the paperback right to his first book sold for $400,000. In On Writing, king writes, “On that Mother’s Day in May of 1973 I was completely speechless. I stood there is the doorway, casting the same shadow as always, but I couldn’t talk.” Keep in mind that he was living in a an apartment in Bangor, Maine working as a school teacher making $4,000. a year. So it was a big moment.

How did King celebrate? He writes, “I suddenly felt that I had to buy Tabby (his wife) a Mother’s Day present, something wild and extravagant. I tried, but here’s one of life’s true facts: there’s nothing really wild and extravagant for sale at LaVerdiere’s (a drug store in Bangor). I did the best I could, I got her a hair dryer.” When he gave it too her along with the news she cried. You gotta love those moments. A hair dryer—if he made that up I never want to know.

In those times when you pull your script out of the dryer and it’s all crumpled and torn, it’s important to know that those breakthrough moments that happened to Simpson and King—though rare— do happen.

Scott W. Smith

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“Seems like we always spend the best part of our time just saying goodbye.”
Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers
A Place in the Sun

A great film to study on many levels is A Place in the Sun which starred Elizabeth Taylor. If you want to see the proper way to introduce two characters check out this clip:

 

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