“The reason that I am a writer today is Shakespeare.”
Three-time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan (Hugo)
Here it is, in just under 1,000 words, the secret of being a successful screenwriter. (From the lips of a bona fide and currently successful screenwriter.)
There was some disappointment yesterday when the Oscar nominations were announced. (Isn’t there always?) While there were some new faces, in general, many felt it was a lot of the usual suspects; Scorsese, Spielberg, Sorkin, etc.
It’s a little bit like the Super Bowl this year— The Patriots verses the Giants. Brady verses Manning. Haven’t we seen that before? In fact, we have—Super Bowl XLII back in 2008 when the New York Giants and Manning defeated a then undefeated New England Patriot team led by Brady. There is one simple reason why these those two quarterbacks are in facing each other in the Super Bowl again—they are two of the best quarterbacks in professional football.
Ditto that from a filmmaking perspective for Scorsese, Spielberg, Sorkin…Clooney, Pitt, Streep, Malick, Alexander Payne, and Woody Allen.
But there is one screenwriter that is not a household name outside of Hollywood (as someone like, say, Diablo Cody) who had a killer year in 2011—John Logan. Though a top A-list Hollywood screenwriter, I think by design, he flies a little under the radar for even the average moviegoer.
He’s nominated for writing the film Hugo. A film that led the field for the 2012 Oscars with a total of 11 nominations. But wait, there’s more! He also wrote Rango (featuring Johnny Depp) which received an Oscar nomination for Animated Feature Film. But wait there’s still more! He also wrote Coriolanus which was released in 2011 and picked up a BAFTA nomination for its director Ralph Fiennes. Yes, 2011 was a very good year for John Logan.
And it’s not like he’s a newcomer. He’s fifty-years-old and has been nominated for an Academy Award twice before; The Aviator (2004) and Gladiator (2000). On top of that his credits also include Any Given Sunday, The Last Samurai, and Sweeney Todd.
So here’s the really important question? What’s his secret? Glad you asked. John Logan has the answer;
“I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years.
I lived in a tiny studio apartment where you could practically touch the walls. Outside the window was a place that installed car alarms, so at all hours it was car alarms. I lived on tuna fish, which I still will not eat to this day. I learned to de-bone a chicken because it was cheaper. And it was hard. And it was the greatest time of my life because I had no expectations of anything but learning how to do my job, which was to be a playwright….And my plays were put on in teeny little church basements or in back allies, in theaters that were condemned while the play was going on. It was fantastic. It was a very vibrant time in Chicago theater, and I loved it. I spent ten years learning how to do my job and it was fantastic.”
His writing eventually got noticed and he landed an agent in L.A., Brian Siberell at CAA. He didn’t have any assignments, but moved to L.A. and took nine months to write his first screenplay, which eventually became Any Given Sunday. But not, according to Logan, until he and Oliver Stone did a few re-writes;
“We did 26 drafts of Any Given Sunday, one right after another, so I learned everything about the form from him. He was patient. I’d go to his house, he’d say, ‘Pick up that Oscar, hold it, it’ll feel good, you’ll enjoy it.’ And then we’d work. Any Given Sunday, like all these monstrous big movies, was hard to get made.”
In case you missed it—26 drafts. That’s after his spending nine months writing and re-writing it on his own. 26.
Still with me? Still want to be a screenwriter? If so, here’s the bomb. From the lips of John Logan, here’s the most powerful, and potentially life-changing advice as you’ll ever find for being a screenwriter;
“If you want to be a screenwriter—a successful screenwriter—here’s the secret…This is what you have to do, it’s great—don’t tell anyone. You have to read Hamlet, and you have to read it again, and you have to read it until you understand every word. And then you move onto King Lear. And then maybe treat yourself to Troilus and Cressida.
And then you know what? Then you’re going to go back and read Aristotle’s Poetics until you can quote it. And then you’re going to read Sophocles, and then you’re going to read Ibsen, and then you’re going to read Tony Kushner, and then you’re going to read Chekhov. You’re going to understand the continuum of what it is to be a dramatist, so you have respect for the form in which you are trying to function. So you understand what comes before you. Then, if you chose, watch a couple of movies.”
On Monday I was a guest speaker at a college and asked, “Is screenwriting hard?” I think Mr. Logan answers that question quite well.
Here are the CliffsNotes on John Logan’s path to successful screenwriting:
* Study acting and playwriting in well-established Midwestern college with successful writer/actor alumni
* Devour Shakespeare
* 10 years of starving and learning his craft (while working a non-creative day job)
* Writings (finally) get him an L.A. agent
* Sells script to Oliver Stone and then does 26 drafts
* Becomes a wealthy and in demand writer complete with a house in Malibu
* Receives several Oscar nominations
The above quotes from Logan are from his BAFTA talk on September 20, 2011. Below is the You Tube 2-minute teaser which as of this writing only has 339 views. (Link to PDF of full talk.) Seriously, if there is one post I’ve ever written that I think you should pass on to fellow writers via Twitter, Facebook, text, email, or whatever— it’s this post.
Special thanks to BAFTA and the BFI Screenwriters Lecture Series in association with the JJ Charitable Trust for the work they do.
Tomorrow we’ll be back looking at the continuum of film history. (Inspired by my seeing Hugo and The Artist earlier this year.)
P.S. As big a year as Logan has had in 2011, 2012 doesn’t look like it’s going to be bad for him either. On top of possibly winning his first Oscar, he’s credited on the soon to be released Lincoln directed by Spielberg, and is also credited on the new James Bond film Skyfall which is currently being filmed.
Update 1/26/11: Found this nice little nugget about Logan:
“What I value most of all is his extraordinary knowledge of everything under the sun — film, theater, painting, literature, world history, you name it. I can tell you he’s absolutely unique is that sense and it gives him a real advantage as a writer.”
LA Times article