“The odds are stacked against everyone. Beat the odds and write a great script.”
Writer/director Jeff Arch
This afternoon at I’m going to be doing a filmmaking workshop for high school teenagers at Wartburg College. They’d probably rather talk about the upcoming release The Dark Knight Rises rather than a movie like Sleepless in Seattle that was released almost 20 years ago. But I’m in a Sleepless state of mind these days.
Of course none of those students were born when the movie Sleepless in Seattle came out in 1993. Most of them I bet have never seen Sleepless in Seattle or heard the name Nora Ephron who directed and was co-writer of the film. And I doubt any of them will recognize the name Jeff Arch—the original screenwriter of Sleepless in Seattle. But the reason I’m going to talk more about Jeff Arch than Batman is Arch is a great example of someone who wrote a script while living outside of Los Angeles and hit a home run. So at least for today put it down as Screenwriter 1—Superhero 0.
When Arch was in his early 20s he was living in Los Angeles and actually worked as an assistant for the great Oscar-winning director of photography Conrad Hall (Road to Perdition, American Beauty, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid). When he was thirty he wrote an off-Broadway play that sold out three weeks of preview shows before critics hammered the show and it ended with such a disappointment that he gave up writing for three years. On an interview on the Dr. Laura Ciel Show Arch said what prepared him to succeed is,”I had already failed in every way you can.” He moved to Virginia and took up Karate where he learned about “Desire. Enthusiasm. Stamina.” He became a black belt and opened a martial arts studio.
If you came across Arch at that point in his life there isn’t much chance that you bet on him writing a screenplay that a few years later would gross over $250 million and earn him an Oscar nomination. But that’s what happened.
I found an interview of Arch where he was asked, ”Did you have any idea that Sleepless in Seattle would be such a major hit?”:
“This is going to sound arrogant, or something like arrogant if not exactly that – but the night I got the idea, the story sort of all dropped down into place piece by piece. And then, the minute I thought of the title, I knew it. I remember thinking to myself, if I pull this off it’s going to be a monster. I just had this really strong sense that the right people were going to come along and steer it, and that also the wrong people were going to show up too, but the thing would be strong enough to shake them off. And that if any negative elements remained, they’d be like barnacles on a ship – a hassle, and something that needs to be dealt with, but nothing that can stop the momentum. “
How about that? This guys had short runs in LA and New York and then walked away from writing when the title Sleepless in Seattle pops into his head. And it’s a great title. A memorable one. A rare one with built-in conflict. It made me take a look at the AFI list of 100 great movies and see how many of those had titles that had built-in conflict. Only 15% of the titles had what I qualified as inherent conflict.
Raging Bull (4)
The Grapes of Wrath (23)
High Noon (27)
To Kill a Mockingbird (25)
Apocalypse Now (30)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (66)
Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf? (75)
Saving Private Ryan (71)
The Silence of the Lambs (74)
In the Heat of the Night (75)
Twelve Angry Men (87)
The Last Picture Show (95)
And I’m not even sure Jaws qualifies because without the poster of the shark is it really conflict? An interesting sidenote about the above list—and toss in Sleepless in Seattle—is that the conflict is implied in negative terms. Years ago an author told me that a writer would sell more books if he wrote “What’s Wrong with America?” rather than “How to Make America Better.” The old journalism axiom (stated in the movie Up Close & Personal) ”If it bleeds, it leads.” Something to think about when you’re coming up with a title.
But let’s go back to that night and hear how Arch says he had his cinematic epiphany;
“This all happened in the space of about an hour or two, on a freezing cold January night. I was living in Virginia at the time, and I was looking up through a skylight and the stars were just amazing that night. And I told myself, ‘for every star in the sky there’s a good idea.’ And then, I am not kidding, it was like one at a time, these shooting stars would come right down through that skylight and land in another part of the story. I have never had a single experience as exciting as whatever was going on that night. ’Exciting’ can’t even begin to describe it. And then later on, for the entire time I was writing the movie, that same feeling was there – something was going on that was way bigger than I was. I know I’m making this sound like I had discovered the Theory of Relativity or something, and obviously this was a lot less world-shaking than that. But I’m not Einstein, and for me this was just as big. I felt so lucky to be the one that got that idea – I felt like anybody else that had been up that night might have gotten it instead if I hadn’t been there – but as it was, I had this sense that I was being trusted with something, and that I had better not mess it up. Where my head was at the time, I wanted to send a valentine out to the whole world.”
He wrote the first draft of Sleepless in Seattle in four or five weeks. And he was right, it became a monster hit.
Currently Arch is working on the musical version of Sleepless in Seattle—The Musical which is set to debut in June of 2013 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Looking at the locations where people just yesterday read this blog, my guess is tonight that there will be sleepless writers in Singapore, UK, USA, Canada, India, Austraila, Brazil, Thailand, France, Norway, Russia, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Fineland, Japan, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Poland, Palistan, Belgium, Jamacia, Uruguay, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cameroon and the Isle of Man (need to look that last one up and see where that is)— writers who perphaps like Arch have “failed in every way you can” who still have the courage to write.
Even if you don’t take up karate, memorize these three words: “Desire. Enthusiasm. Stamina.”
P.S. According to Wikipedia, “the Isle of Man is a self-goverining British Crown Dependency, located on the Irish Sea between the island of Great Britian and Ireland, within the British Isles.” Check out how cool their flag is: