“By 1995 I was literally down to my last dollar. I called dad to ask for money, which was like pulling teeth. He wanted to know when I was going to get a real job. My car was stolen, so I was riding a bike. I thought I’d end up working in Starbuck’s.”
Screenwriter Ken Nolan
If you looked up screenwriter Ken Nolan on IMDB it’s possible you’d be underwhelmed. He has one lone feature film writing credit. But it’s a one big —Black Hawk Down. The 2001 film got solid reviews (74% at Rotten Tomatoes), made $172 million world-wide, and earned Nolan a WGA nomination.
But if you’re an inquisitive type you might ask,”Why does Ken Nolan have only one feature film writing credit?” Good question and I think the answer gives a nice mini-history of screenwriting in America.
Nolan was born in Detroit and grew up in Buffalo and Portland. He applied to UCLA Film School twice and was turned down twice. He ended up getting an English degree at the University of Oregon. While in school he wrote short stories and as soon as he graduated in 1990 he moved to LA. He got a job as an assistant at Richard Dreyfuss’s company and started to write scripts, “using Syd Field’s Screenwriter’s Workbook as my guide. ” By his own admission he learned to write by writing six bad scripts. His seventh script was sent out and some liked it, but no one liked it enough to buy it.
He read good scripts and bad scripts and decided to write his own version of a Die Hard/ Speed rip-off and sold it for $100,000. He had an agent and thought he was on his way, but the film never got made. Then he wrote what he thought was a very commercial natural catastrophe script but it didn’t sell putting him in a financial bind.
So if you’re keeping score:
1) Rejected from UCLA film school—twice
2) Writes seven scripts that don’t sell
3) Finally sells a script, but it doesn’t get produced
4) Next script doesn’t sell and he ends up broke
Inspired by an interview he read about Quentin Tarantino he decided to focus not on what he thought people wanted but on what he was interested in. He wrote a character driven script that sold for $600,000, but when a similar movie came out it killed the production of his script. But at least he had a little coin in the bank, right?
He then sold another script for $850,000 that also didn’t get made.
“I was starting to realize that I had a nice career, a car and could afford a house, but I had no movies made. I was very worried about my career.”
Through a little persistence by Nolan and his agent he landed on the Black Hawk Down project based on the book by Mark Bowden. He ended up writing a 60-page treatment and eight drafts over a year’s time before Ridley Scott was attached to direct. He did two more drafts before the project was green lit and eventually becoming his first credited (and to date, only) feature film credit.
And while other writers (including Steve Zallian) were brought on the project, Nolan retained sole screenwriting credit. In an interview with Alan Waldman for wga.org Nolan said of writing Black Hawk Down;
“One challenge was that Mark’s book had about 60 characters, so I had to figure out who our main characters were while maintaining the ensemble feeling and staying true to the story. Another challenge was that I had to track and balance several story lines, while eliminating others. I had to distill a book that dealt with the families of the servicemen who were killed, the political situation, the Somali side of the story and the repercussions after the venture. I thought that this movie should be about the soldiers only and put the viewers—to a greater degree than any movie in the past—into the boots of the soldiers and thrust the audience into modern urban warfare.
Jerry (Bruckheimer) kept hammering that we had to care about the characters, but I felt we had so much story to cover that we didn’t have time to develop characters. But as I went along in the drafts I realized it was important for the audience to care for the characters, lest it become a cold, distance movie that lacks gut punch. Mark’s book touches on the characters, but a big challenge was to invent the barracks scenes and hanging-around scenes before the battle, without making it seem expository or exploitative…Also the story is very confusing and complex, because, as I said, it is several stories. There’s the Delta Force capturing the bad guys story, the helicopter pilot crashing story, the two guys left on the corner story, the incredibly complicated lost Humvee column story, the General Garrison story at the joint operations center and what ties them together: the story of our Ranger Platoon who are the first on the scene of the first downed helicopter and who get pinned down there. So it was really hard to decide how much time to spend on each story and how to effectively weave them together. That took 11 drafts and 14 months of development.”
I imagine these days Nolan keeps busy working on various writing projects that, while not credited, I’m sure pay him quite well.