“I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur. Still, when you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever ‘succeed.’”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt
“There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers.”
Quasi-motivational speaker Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), Little Miss Sunshine
Screenwriter Michael Arndt is a textbook example of everything I’ve been writing about on this blog for the past two and a half years. Like Diablo Cody his first produced screenplay (Little Miss Sunshine) not only became a sleeper hit, but it won him an Oscar for best original screenplay. A pretty good start, huh? Except that’s not the start.
Rewind a few years and you’ll find that he’s a New York University film school grad (steeped in the films of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, and Woody Allen) who spent 10 years working in the film business as an assistant and a script reader. Times that weren’t always fun, but his time as a reader served him well.
“I had read enough mediocre scripts and was determined not to inflict another one on the world.”
According to an article by Anne Thompson in The Hollywood Reporter, Arndt quit his job in 1999 and with $25,000. in savings took time to just focus on writing screenplays. And lots of them.
Thompson writes; “(Arndt) holed up in his cheap Brooklyn apartment and knocked out six stories. Six of them didn’t sing. The seventh did. ‘It was the most simple story,’ Arndt says. ‘That’s a mistake a lot of scripts make: Their plots are too complicated, so you don’t have time for characters.’ So he kept working on it, writing it over and over and over, 100 drafts, until it was as good as he could get it.”
That script was Little Miss Sunshine. The script created buzz as soon as it was sent out, but it would still take five years to get it produced and released.
“I read a lot of comedy screenplays and the reason why most of them don’t work is they’re not about anything. If your story isn’t about anything, or your character just wants a pretty girl and the bag of money then—it’s not going to add up to anything…I wanted Little Miss Sunshine to actually have a real climax at the end.”
I’m not sure what other writing opportunities the success of Little Miss Sunshine brought Arndt after 2006, but you may be surprised to learn that to date Little Miss Sunshine is his sole feature credited film that has been released. Of course, that will all change next month when Toy Story 3 is released. That’s right, the small indie, philosophical screenwriter who wrote what one reviewer called “a cultural look at the emptiness of America,” follows his Oscar success with a big budget Disney franchise film.
Remember what screenwriter Christopher (The Usual Suspects) McQuarrie said; “(Winning an Oscar) doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies.”
I’m personally excited to see what Arndt comes up with for Woody and the gang. One thing that I know he came away with on Toy Story 3 is a boat load of money. And let’s be honest, doesn’t every screenwriter want an Oscar and a boat load of money? (In addition to writing satisfactory screenplays that are turned into artistic films, of course.)
So let’s review Arndt’s 10 not so easy steps to becoming a successful screenwriter:
1) Film degree from NYU
2) Toil in the industry at various non-writing/non-production jobs for 10 years
3) Save money
4) Quit job
5) Write six screenplays in less than a year
6) Write one more that you finally think is “the one” in three days
7) Write 100 drafts of “the one” over the next year
8)Send it out
9)Sell it ($150,000) and wait five years for it to get made and become a sensation
10) Collect Oscar
“Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.” Grandpa Hooper (Alan Arkin) Little Miss Sunshine
Pop quiz: What do these comedies all have in common?: The Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Groundhog Day, Tootsie, The Apartment, Modern Times.
(Ding, ding) Correct, they are all about something.
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