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“Too many scripts don’t have soul. What does soul mean? In character terms, it means, I want to feel what your characters are feeling. And as a writer you’re obligated to give your audience and that reader that feeling. It better happen on the page, or it’s not going to happen in the film.”
Screenwriter Rick Ramage

This is a follow-up to the three part Q&A (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) I did with writer/director Rick Ramage and is a look at a new screenwriting series he is working on called The Screenplay Show. (The 10-part series is not yet available to purchase.)

If any of you were around in 2008/09 when I started blogging you may recall it wasn’t uncommon for me to write posts between 1,500 and 2,000 words. This 1,700 word post is a throwback to that style. I hope some of Rick’s insights help you in your writing.

SWS: Who is the intended audience for The Screenwriting Show?
RR:  We’re openly saying we’re for new writers, or writers that haven’t sold. Because a lot of writers who haven’t sold have been very close a few times, and one minor adjustment they might pick up or an idea—like I did from others over the years—can help them reset and refresh. Even a seasoned writer can think, “Alright, what is this thing?” What if they pick something up that helps tip them over?

SWS: I saw one clip in The Screenplay Show promo where Ben Franklin was writing in a bathtub, how does an inventor and founding father of the United States, who’s been dead 200 years, help a screenwriter learn the craft today?
RR:. New writers don’t know what a method is. In my mind there are two kinds of methods. One is physical; it’s how you arrange the day. It’s where you’re most comfortable. The time of day, and how you do it. I used other writers to show that everyone has their own way and there is no right or wrong. It’s what works for you. Ben Franklin used to like to write in the tub. Truman Capote called himself a horizontal writer. He liked to write in cheap hotel rooms laying down on a bed. People need to find their method.  

Screenwriting is basically problem solving and if you have a consistent method that helps you solve problems—mine is writing with questions— you have a very valuable secret because now you can rely on it. You return to the way that you’re used to story telling to solve a problem that a character is having. Usually if a character is having a problem you are as the writer because you’re looking for an answer.

SWS. Christopher Lockhart, story editor at WME, says you don’t need to write the great script, but the right script
RR:. I agree.

SWS: How does The Screenplay Show help writers, wherever they live, write the right script?
RR:I have a very unconventional approach compared to all the screenwriting gurus, because the things I know about writing or hope to know came from working with guys and women whose main purpose was to help me get the story right. And you can’t work with big directors and producers and executive over the years without having it inform how you approach a story. It just does. I was usually in awe of whoever I was in the room with. And so when they were going over the notes of something that I’d written you’d bet I was paying attention. And I was never afraid to ask, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?” And it was really freeing because they didn’t really know either; we’re in a very subjective world. So what you look for in scene is that favorite pair of blue jeans that fits. And you’re working on those scenes right up to production. We were working on Stigmata right up to the day. There’s a reason for that, as things develop and as they grow you find out “That’s not working?” But the thing I learned over the years was re-approach it, don’t be appalled to look at it another way. We’re not writing in stone. You can always put it back if it doesn’t work.

So I did a few seminars for writers and I realized they were as interested in the writing experience as they were the nuts and bolts. All anyone wanted to know was “am I doing it right?” And, by the way, that’s never a question that’s gone away from me. Those seminars were very visual. If you wanted to put together a character arc, we’d put together 50 still of Jack Nicholson in The Shining of all his different expressions. With no words, just his expressions. It’s a phenomenal exercise seeing what a character arc looks like as he progresses into madness.

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 R.R. (con’t): And I began to realize if I tell people why I’m doing it, this is how I arrived at this technique. And this is when I’ve learned to shut up writing dialogue and just let the subtext play. Those are explanations that are not right or wrong, but it’s the way I do it and it’s worked for me. Because I’ve been generous enough to have people share those little secrets with me. And that’s really what The Screenplay Show is about. It’s a narrative about being a writer and it’s also a nuts and bolts way of approaching screenwriting that doesn’t seem so scary to me. I really want it to be conversational. I want people to see I’ve had as much rejection as success. It’s part of the business; it’s part of the game. And then there’s always questions about the business, so in episode 10 I’m going to deal with the business. Take some of the scariness out of it because I think people want you to succeed. I was only in one hostile room in 25 years. And it shocked me. But it was just somebody trying to make a name in their circle, so I left. End of discussion. But for the most part I saw notes as protection.

I worked pretty hard, but I’m a pretty average guy, and if I can do it, I really believe other people can do it. That’s just the truth of it. That’s the good news that The Screenplay Show is going to bring to people.


SWS: What’s your goal with The Screenplay Show?
RR: To prove to people that it’s not the impossible dream. My manager told me once, you know my nickname in Hollywood is Rico, it’s a long story (my friend gave me that) she said, “Rico, if every writer only knew they’re only one script away from a career like yours. One script did it for me. I think that’s tremendously positive, and it really hit me. One script away. Now there’s flashes in the pan. You see them come and go, and that’s why I was determined to treat script writing as storyteller. Not as some guy writing a blueprint for a director. I wanted my scripts to read like stories. I’m on the page. A really famous actor told me, “You cheat.” I’m like “what?” “You cheat, you’re on the page, telling me what to think.” I’m like, “no, I’m just telling you what my character is thinking.” He had me. But I think that’s what’s helped me sell so many scripts. The scripts I get to re-write you have to read between the lines just to figure out what’s going on in some of these. They’re good ideas but then they turn to a real writer and say make something out of this cause we have to take it to talent, we need to bring it to a director, flesh this out, let’s get a story going. Because what do you think draws talent? What do you think draws a director? They want to see the movie on the page. Maybe that’s an antiquated view, but that’s mine.

There is a structure to screenwriting, you have to obey all of that but as a writer and artist I’m going to bend those rules every chance I get because it’s going to help me get read. It’s going to make people stay with me because they’re in the hands of a storyteller. I think for my career anyway it’s made all the difference. 

SWS: How does any writer—from the middle school kid to the hipster in LA, to the grandfather in Fargo—get anyone of importance to read their screenplay?
RR: You’d be surprised. Readers ascend the ranks by finding good material. It’s not a dodge. If your script is really unique and good enough they’ll find you. That’s a widely affirmative statement because it means if you pick up a phone and try to get a reader or somebody that has a connection in Hollywood to read your script, if it’s good enough, they’re going to forward it on. I used to call it friendly eyes. I wanted friendly eyes to read my scripts and that meant there was a buzz about it going in. And the only way you can get a buzz about it is to get them to say, “wow, have you read Ramage’s latest script? It’s good.” So you automatically have friendly eyes. So find somebody, no matter who it is, that has a connection in L.A. and exploit it. Make a friend at any level and it’s going to help. I’m not talking about kissing someone’s ass, be a businessperson. You have a product to sell and ask them if they’ll take a look at it. I wouldn’t be shy. As I’ve said, my bigger fear is not being read.

SWS: Any closing tips you can pass on until The Screenplay Show is released?
RR: I look at screenwriting like a trade. I know it’s an art form, but I think it’s a trade, too. You don’t just pick up your first straw and blow perfect glass. You have to experiment and find different ways to express yourself. And in screenplays you have to do it with brevity, you have to do it quickly. You develop stylistic traits as you go….Keep trying. Don’t get one rejection and stop. Keep working, Keep testing yourself.  Writing in general is a muscle, the more you use it the stronger you get. If I take two weeks off I can feel it.

Scott W. Smith

 

Q&A Part 3:

Screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata) was still doing studio feature work while continuing to live with his family in Denver when his manager opened doors for him to create (with Andrew Cosby) the TV show Haunted (which starred Matthew Fox) and the USA show Peacemakers with Larry Carroll.

The “meat grinder” writing demands on Haunted required Ramage to rent a home in the Hollywood Hills for a time, but the show was not picked up for a second season. Then Peacemakers went into pilot mode and soon went into production in Vancouver.

Scott W. Smith: In a five year period you had two features released, and co-created two different television programs that made it to air. That was a good run, why did you step back?

Rick Ramage: I was fairly burned-out. I was tired. So I came home to Denver and took a couple of years off. I was really drained.  

SWS: Robert Redford once said something to the effect that you need to hit the reset button every ten years. What was your reset button?
RR:I wanted to go back to the classics for kids. So I came back home [to Denver] and was introduced to a guy who owns some banks and he said I have some money do you have any ideas? And I said, “yeah I do, I want to do this thing called Timeless Tales. The classics for kids. I want to do ten or 12 and they’d be a million dollars each. He said, “Well, let’s do one.”

So I went to a couple of friends who are songwriters and we adapted Ichabod, a play that I had produced years earlier into a film. We built Sleepy Hollow on a massive sound stage in Denver. And it was the most fun because as Bob Gunton [the warden in The Shawshank Redemption] said, it’s a hybrid between film and theater.

The premise was that Washington Irving tells the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but he goes back in time to do it. Eventually you find out that Ichabod was Washington Irving. It was his experience in the Hollow. If you remember Ichabod disappeared into the hollow, so my take was he was actually Washington Irving telling the tale of redemption and forgiveness. There’s no violence in it. Ichabod! was the best experience of my life. I had fun directing it and it aired on PBS, then 2008 hit and the world went into turmoil.

SWS. Tell me about your most recent produced feature, Heaven Sent (2016).
RR: A guy I went to film school [Michael Landon Jr.] called me and said, “I’m looking at IMDB, it’s been a while.” And I said I’d taken some time off, and he said, “That’s great, now I can afford you. So let’s work together.” I was flattered because I liked Michael a lot. We were going to do a six-hour mini-series called the Nazarene. And it was supposedly funded, and realized the producer who shall remain nameless isn’t going to come through. Michael’s really an honorable guy and said, “Well, do you have anything else? We’ll set it up.” I said, yeah, I got a little Christmas story and I sent it to him and he loved it. We helped develop it and put it out for a weekend read. First script in a couple of years that I’d put out and it sold that weekend. And we had our green light by the end of that week. So it was another one of those magic carpet rides. And we set out to make it. It was a small budget like $3.6 million, but Michael and I produced it and it was a wonderful experience. We were in the final mix to finish it and we got a call that the company that financed it was going out of business. Though no fault of ours, our movie hadn’t even been seen yet. Then it went into receivership and it’s just now coming out later this year.

SWS: What are you working on now?
RR: I just finished a pilot with Michael so we’re about ready to go out with that. I’m working on a re-write which is a western, been approached to do a book adaptation, so life is good right now.  

SWS: Your story from North Dakota and Denver, to AFI, to working on projects with Spielberg and Pollack, a #1 box office movie, to many spec scripts sales, along with  work in TV and indie world, How do you sum up your career to this point?
RR: For me it comes down to one thing. if people like your work, if you continually turn in good scripts or good writing you’re going to stay employed. And the rest takes care of itself. Because Hollywood is a place where new talent, or talent they can rely on is always embraced. Like no other place on earth. In L.A. they’re looking for that guy or girl they can count on. And they’re also looking for that new talent. It’s pervasive. What I tell people all the time, especially new writers is read your third act as much as your first. Because we have a tendency to write fade out and think it’s done, but it’s not. That’s going to be your first calling card, and if you make it bullet proof—which doesn’t mean perfect (there’s no such thing). Bullet proof just means don’t let anybody sit there and shoot holes in it. Cause that’s what they’re looking to do. From the first reader, to the next reader, to the producer, to the executive, they’re all looking for reasons to say no. You know, when I’d put a spec out the company would say, “No, this isn’t for us, but you know we have something we’d like Rick to look at.” That’s a job. That keeps you employed. You’re doing a rewrite even if your spec didn’t sell. That’s the writing sample, not personality. I wasn’t part of the Hollywood scene at all. I flew in and did my business, and I flew out usually within two days. I had a life outside of L.A. and I think that kept L.A. fresh for me. Sometimes you forget you’re in the movie business in Denver, you’re just Rick Ramage to your friends, it’s no big deal. But then just walking through the gates a Paramount after a couple of months would really invigorate me. I was always in awe of the business. I felt bad for writers who got cynical over the years because it is a tough business and it can wear you down.

SWS: There’s been a lot of changes in the film business since you started your career. But indie films are still getting made, and many people are saying TV in its new modern golden era, and companies like Amazon and Netflix are creating content, what encouragement do you have for writers outside of L.A. who for whatever reason can’t uproot and go to L.A.? Can they they do it if they live in North Dakota or South Africa?
RR: I believe they can. From the bottom of my heart I believe they can, because it’s all about great stories. The one thing that’s worth a lot of money is a story. And if you have a good one, they’ll find you. Agents will find you because word will get out. I have this saying, “Don’t be afraid of rejection, be afraid of not being read.” At least if it’s a rejection you’ll know. That’s what scares me still. I still have a lot of phobias. When I write a script one of them is, “Will I be able to do it again?” and “How will it be received? Will it be read?” Those insecurities are indicative of our profession. We all go through it. It’s just part of the gig.

Scott W. Smith

 

This is part two (of what I think will be four parts) of an interview with screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata). In part one we covered how he was born in Fargo, North Dakota, raised in Denver, Colorado, where in his mid-twenties he was selling tractors when he wrote his first screenplay. That led him to getting accepted at the American Film Institute  in L.A. where he got a formal education writing and making short films.

Scott W. Smith: I read that when you were at AFI you had the  opportunity to work with and up an coming young actor named Tobey Maguire.

Rick Ramage: Yeah, that was an unbelievable day. He wasn’t a star then; I think he was 12 or 13 years old. He walked in an just nailed that audition. Tobey and I became fast friends. We’ve lost touch now, but we hung out for quite a while after that. He was just a wonderful kid. Bright and cocky, he had all the right stuff. He was a wonderful actor. He just had it. I always tell that story when I’m at a party, “Oh, I know Spiderman. He was in one of my movies.” “Really, which one?”, “Ah…it was a student film.” But it’s still fun.

SWS: What did you do after your formal film education at AFI?

RR: After film school I worked at Omega Cinema Props for almost a year while I continued to write, and I got lucky and I optioned a script. I actually optioned my script right before I got out of film school.

SWS I think I read where that first script optioned for $5,000.

RR: Yep, Five thousand bucks, but it felt like a million though. It never got made. But I had a serious sale after that and was busy. I started to work on the project Shakespeare’s Sister which turned into The Proposition [1998] which was the first movie that I had written get made. Ted Field and Diane Nabatoff who were at Interscope bought that script. I never looked back after that.

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SWS: So you had success right out of the gate.

RR: This is the truth— but I almost hesitate to tell it because I had such a dream experience—I sold Shakespeare’s Sister and literally in the next week or ten days the first director I ever met was Steven Spielberg and the second director I ever met was Sydney Pollack. Both on the same day and both gave me a job so I was thrust into a level for which I was in no way prepared. Those guys are massive storytellers and massive directors, but they read Shakespeare’s Sister and were intrigued enough to give me a shot. So here I went from having $17 to having Shakespeare’s Sister sell. As you know, you get half up front and half upon production, so I had a couple hundred thousand there. So I went to work with both of those directors. It was phenomenal. I thought “great, this is how it works”. Everybody wants that to happen. And I stayed in the studio system for the next 15 years. I would do re-writes. I’d sell a spec—I’ve sold 10 or 11 spec scripts. I was pretty spoiled.

[Note: Ramage is taking all the experienced he’s gather over the years and putting them together in The Screenplay Show.]

SWS: Stigmata, of which you are co-credited as writer with Tom Lazarus, is one of your highest profile projects. How did you get on that project?

RR: I was asked to do a rewrite on Stigmata by Frank Mancuso and it was shortly after The Proposition was made. I didn’t even know what stigmata was. I got a call from MGM and they asked if I’d look at it. I love projects where I don’t necessarily know the answer that I’m looking for. I have a theory that if I can get you to identify in the first few pages and ask, “What would I do here?”, I got ya.

SWS. I thought the scene in Stigmata where Patricia Arquette gets a stigmata raised a major dramatic question and it made me think “What’s going to happen to her?” and carried that through to the climax when that was resolved.

RR: I tend to look for God a lot through character and scripts. I love that because there is no answer, right? It’s what you arrive at dramatically that counts. As long as you approach anything with reverence, I think people will respect it.

I had a director ask me once, “What’s the one thing you come out of the movie theater with?” and I’m like, “Duh, I don’t know.” He goes, “An opinion. It’s the one thing that everybody has when they leave a movie.” And he said, “The gift is they’re discussing your movie or engaging about it on the way home.” Because you’ve accomplished something. It’s not Spam in a can. You got people talking about it. I thought that was great advice.

SWS: Stigmata and Se7en were thrillers with religious overtones—both made in the 90s—do you think those films get made today given that the middle class of filmmaking has all but disappeared?

RR: I’m glad you put it that way, middle class. Where did the middle class go? I don’t know. It disappeared shortly after the Writers Guild strike. I think a story like Stigmata would definitely more so than a story like The Proposition. As a a society we’ve moved so far past what might have been considered salacious back in the 30s to now is commonplace.

Stigmata would. It touches on the spiritual aspect. The horrific elements of Stigmata came out of a real place. The Father named Padre Pio would be attacked in his cell, another word for his room in Italy every month or two (something) would go in there and throw him around. That’s when it got interesting to me, because it’s the yin and yang, good and evil at work.

Right after the movie came out—and it was number one that week—I did a radio interview out of New York and the guy said, “I really liked your movie and we’re about to go on the air.” And I said “Good”, because at least he liked the movie. And he came back after the commercial break and said, “we’re with Rick Ramage screenwriter of the number one movie Stigmata, Rick what do you have against Catholics?” I felt my stomach sink into my knees. I said “I don’t have anything against Catholics; I’m married to one. Why?” He said, “Well, you know, in The Proposition the priest sleeps with the woman, and in Stigmata your priest is a bad guy.” I go, “Well, my priest in The Proposition finds God because there is an old saying that ‘Priests are in search of God, and sinner know him.’ And for Stigmata the priest is a bad guy, but so is the good guy. It’s called a power struggle. Certainly the church is a wonderful place for a power struggle.” He said, “That makes sense”, but you get the point, you never know how something is going to be interpreted.  

I was in awe of what Patrica Arquette did with the role. One of the gifts of a screenwriter is you write it down and then you watch somebody do it better than you ever hear it in your head. That’s a gift. She made it better, and that’s one of the fun parts of getting something made. When I watched her performance, she didn’t blink she went for it. Gabriel Byrne went to seminary so he’d know how a priest would think and act. So it was a great experience.

In Part 3 we’ll look at how Rick transitioned to television and other projects. Until then check out The Screenplay Show’s Indiegogo page to learn how you can get involved in that project.

Related posts:
Screenwriter Rick Ramage Q&A (Part 1)
Screenwriter Rick Ramage Q&A (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

 

“Kindness is free.”
Garry Marshall

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When I learned Hollywood legend Garry Marshall died yesterday, I recalled fondly his career in film, theatre, and TV. The producer, writer, director and actor has a special place on this blog as he’s the only person I’ve ever blogged about for 31 days in a row. In fact, I called last October Garry Marshall Month where I re-posted previous wisdom that Marshall passed on through his books and interviews.

What follows are quotes by Marshall (unless otherwise noted):

Garry Marshall’s ‘Gentle Hilarity ’ “I wanted to make films that celebrated the human spirit and high lighted the good in human beings through both comedy and drama.”

Writing and Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part You just have to believe that the more you write, the greater the chances are that you can write something that will sell.”

Writing and Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part 2) “When Disney first sent me the script for Pretty Woman, it was a dark tale about a cold and heartless corporate raider and a drug-addicted prostitute.

‘The Power of Gentleness’ “Directing is about more than just the nuts and bolts and technological process. That can be learned. It’s also about the people, which is much more difficult to master.”

Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall) “It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 1) “If you want to be adored on a movie set, don’t be a director, be the caterer. Everyone loves lunch.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 2) “A director has to be part psychiatrist, part teacher, and part parent to everyone on the set.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 3) “The truth is that there are a few stars who are just one taco short of a combo platter. The director’s job is to deal with it all.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 4)  “Yes, I’m a filmmaker and I chart menstrual cycles.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 5) “One of the best characteristics a director can have is the ability to compromise wisely.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 6) “A brief but important moment for me as an actor was when I needed an angle on the character Barnard Thompson, the hotel manager in Pretty Woman. I went to Garry. He paused for a moment and said, ‘Just create the guy you’d like to work for.’ Simple as that. No long discussion. No deep analysis. A slight suggestion and I made it my own. We’ve done 17 movies that way.”—Hector Elizondo

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 7)  “To have a great line is nice, but to have a strong and memorable reaction is even better.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 8) “For the sake of the story, you never want to mislead the audience, unless it’s intentional.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 9) “Film directors should jump at any chance to direct a play because it can improve their relationship with actors.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 10) “I will always protect the actor.”

Garry Marshall’s Chicago Detour “Academically, Northwestern opened many new doors for me. It was the first place I learned that words mattered and could lead to a real job.”

Jumping the Shark “People come up and ask me all the time about the phrase jumping the shark and if I find it offensive…”

Happy Days in Hollywood  “Happy Days was for me the quintessential television success story. I had followed my instincts, and they had turned out to be right.”

Wanted: Writers with No Lives “When you hire actors or actresses for a series, you look for people who have well-rounded-lives with supportive friends and family. But when hiring writers…”

The ‘Stuckinna’ Plot “in which the main characters would get ‘stuck in’ something because it helped reduced the number of sets and kept production values down.”

Garry Marshall—Survivor “The truth is that I always wanted a more stable life than my intellectual idols had…. I wanted to come home to a wife, children, and a sane family dinner hour.”

Offensive & Defensive Screenwriting “The biggest lesson a screenwriter can learn is how to master a rewrite of his own script, or someone else’s, and make the change a studio wants without destroying the story.”

Telling the Truth=Humor “[Phil Foster] encouraged us to abandon our sophomoric gag humor and said, ‘Look at people and pick up on their mistakes and inadequacies. Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.’”

Tasting & Smelling Comedy Buddy Hackett held up a matchbook and said, ‘What jokes can you write about this?…”

Flaming Rejection “Be prepared at all times for rejection, even after you break in.”

Scott W. Smith

 

Screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata) has had a career which includes some interesting peaks; he had his first script optioned while he was still a student at AFI, developed projects with Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack, had a number one hit movie the week it opened, has sold many spec scripts—and been based in Denver, Colorado for most of his career. Now he’s launching The Screenplay Show to pass on what he’s learned over the years to new and/or unproduced writers. Here’s a Q&A I did with Ramage just two weeks ago that I hope you find helpful in your own journey.

Scott W. Smith: I read you were born in Fargo, North Dakota, what road did you take to get to Hollywood, California?

Rick Ramage: I moved to Denver when I was in fifth grade and my parents split up almost right away. My mom married a guy who owned a tractor dealership. I worked for him my entire adolescents through high school and I went to university for a year, but I was making way too much selling tractors and college didn’t interest me. I thought, “What’s the point? I’m going to go into the family business anyway.” I thought that was going to be my life. But when I quit school I wanted to be read and well-spoken so what I did is promise myself that I’d read 100 of the classic books. I was about 15 novels into that promise when I realized I wasn’t just reading stories but I was following the ways different writers were presenting their tales and working the elements. 

SWS: Did you buy the leather bound The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written you used to see advertised in magazines?

RR:No, I was haunting this place called the Tattered Cover. I was a bookstore stalker. I would just roam up and down the aisles and if I recognized it as a classic, I’d shift my weight in front of it, and then I’d buy three or four books I found. I didn’t expect anything except to get an informal education. All my friends pretty much went away to college. By the time they got back I was already daydreaming about being a writer. 

SWS: My wife is from Denver so I’m familiar with a the Tattered Cover Book Store that once had many more locations in the pre-Internet days than they do now. Which one did you frequent?

RR: The Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek was the one I was going to. It was a department store for books, a really fun place. They had a great atmosphere. And they had a great attitude about book lovers. I would hang out there for hours. 

SWS: That was a cool vibe.

RR: Totally. I would stop by on my lunches, or on the way home. It was a staple for me. It really gave me—and this will sound corny— a longing to be a part of that world. After daydreaming about being a writer I decided, “I’m going to write a book.” And I thought for sure it was going to be the great American classic. And for the next seven or eight months I worked on it at night when I got home. It was more of a novella, and I sent it to someone I trusted. And the story kind of ends with him saying it wasn’t a very good novel and I was crushed. I felt like I’d been hit with a gut punch. But he was kind enough to say, “But you’re a really good writer. You’re really visual, you should consider writing screenplays.” I had never seen a screenplay presented; I’d never read one. So I went to the Tattered Cover and bought Brian’s Song.

SWS: The first movie I ever cried watching. In fact, I think for a lot of men that’s the first movie they ever cried watching.

RR: I know! Let’s not talk about it or I might start crying again. But the formatting appealed to me. And so I turned my bad book into a bad screenplay, but I was hooked. I could see a definite structure into how screenplays were written. It appealed to me. 

SWS. What did you learn from those novels you were reading? And how did it inform your screenwriting?

RR:. I think the thing I began to identify quickly when I picked up a novel was a distinctive voice. An author with a very distinct delivery and style would really pull me in quickly. That really stuck with me and I worked very hard at developing the correct voice for one of stories. By that I mean the tonal quality of it. Great writers have this tonal quality to their writing that’s very distinctive. You can tell Dickens from Flaubert. I think that was very conscious with me. 

I’ll never forget The Scarlet Letter was one of my favorite books because I think it has one of the greatest antagonists ever written. Because Chillingworth didn’t just want to kill Dimmesdale, that was too easy, he wanted to ruin his soul. And I thought, “That’s a bad guy,” you know? Later when I told my agent I wanted to be known as a guy who could adapt books, I think it helped get me a lot of jobs. They knew I wasn’t going down to Blockbuster to get my next idea. 

SWS: When you were reading all those great novels and started writing your first screenplay you would have been in your mid-twenties, were you still working in the tractor business all that time?

RR: You bet. Full time. 

SWS: Well, since my blog is called Screenwriting from Iowa, I have to ask—what kind of tractors did you sell?

RR: I love it. We sold Allis-Chalmers, Owatonna, and Kubota. I was in Denver and my territory was the Front Range. I was selling to a lot of industrial places, rail yards and construction companies. My specialty was Kubotas, and forklifts and backhoes and stuff like that. 

SWS:. Screenwriter Dale Launer (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) told me he sold stereos in LA before he sold a screenplay, and I’ve pointed out before the great job former insurance salesman, Pete Jones, did on selling his screenplay on the first Project Greenlight. Do you think being a salesman helped you to become a screenwriter?

RR: It did teach me to sell. How to conduct myself in a room when there is a buyer in front of you. I never lost sight of that. I never went in and reduced myself to just explaining to a producer what my dream was. I knew I was in there to sell a product called a script. 

SWS. Sales is a transferable skill.

RR: I really think so. I wasn’t Rico Sauvé. My very first pitch I pretty much got thrown out of Hutch Parker‘s office because I forgot the title of the script. I’m not kidding. I went in there with two producers. They said, “You sure you don’t want to pitch it to us?” I’m like, “No, I’m fine, I’ll be good.” I walked into Hutch’s office at Orion at the time. He said, “Hi Rick, how are you?” You could tell he was busy. We sat down and he said “Go.” And it was like someone fired a gun at my temple. There was no preamble. This was no foreplay. He was very cordial, but “go.” And the producers where like “The Masterpiece.” They actually reminded me of the title and I just looked at them and I started to laugh, and I said I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to do this. And Hutch clapped his hands and said thanks for coming in and out the door I went. And I didn’t pitch again for like three years. It rattled my cage. 

SWS: Let’s back up a few steps. There must have been a step between being a tractor salesman in Denver and pitching a project to a Hollywood executive.

RR: I decided, “If I’m really going to do this, I’m going to go to film school.” I didn’t have a degree and here I was applying to AFI, which is a master program. All of my friends who had degrees at this time said I was chasing rainbows—“Don’t waste your registration fee.” I wrote David Shaw at the AFI a letter and said if it’s about a pedigree I get it, I don’t have a degree. But if it’s about the writing, here’s a sample of my work. And I sent him 5-6 pages of a script I was working on. And sure enough I got a letter that I’d been accepted. And I thought, “there you go, I’m going to be a screenwriter.” So I sold my house, I had a little boy at the time, and talked my wife into going out there. We had two cars and I sold one of those. I needed loans and stuff, but we bit the bullet and moved to L.A. Couldn’t afford to live in Hollywood where AFI was located so we lived way out in Rancho Cucamonga. It was about two, two and a half hours a day one-way. We could get a two-bedroom apartment out there for a reasonable price.

This ends Part 1 of my Q&A with Ramage. But just like in a good screenplay the goals, obstacles, and stakes are clear. He desires to be a screenwriter, but he (A) Didn’t go to college, (B) Didn’t start writing until he was in his mid-twenties, (C) Was told his first writing effort wasn’t a very good novella, (D) Lives and works in Colorado, (E) Decides to uproot his wife and child and go to film school in California, and (F) Ends up renting a place that means he will have a significant commute to school.

Who’s betting on that guy? Reminds me of this screenwriting adage:

“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.”
— William Froug

Part 2 of this interview will continue Ramage’s own personal Hero’s Journey and discover how he found success in a competitive field. Until then you see a promo video on The Screenplay Show’s Indiegogo page and read more about that project.

Related posts:
Spielberg on Good Drama
Screenwriting Quote #29 (William Blinn writer of Brian’s Song)
Flaming Rejection
Do You Have To Live in L.A. to Make It as a Screenwriter?
What’s it Like Being a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones 

Scott W. Smith

Today I’ll round out my recent run of Aaron Sorkin related posts with a little bit of a twist of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The twist being an oh so loose connection I have to Aaron Sorkin that I just discovered.

Over the weekend I flipping through an old notebook gathered from my L.A. days and discovered some notes from an acting workshop I attended given by actor/director Lou Antonio.

What a career 82-year-old Mr. Antonio has had. He was born in Oklahoma City and began studying acting at the University of Oklahoma. He performed in theaters throughout the Midwest before landing in New York City where he became part of the The Actors Studio studying with Lee Strasberg.

He performed in off-Broadway plays and on Broadway before moving to California in the ’60s where be acted in classic TV shows including Gunsmoke, Mission Impossible, Star Trek and The Fugitive. He also racked up an impressive list of directing projects over five decades; everything from The Flying Nun, The Rockford Files, and The Partridge Family in the 60s & 70s to Chicago Hope, Dawson Creek, and Boston Legal in the 90s & 2000s.

He also was cast in Elia Kazan‘s America, America. (Kazan was a co-founder of The Actors Studio and won an Oscar for directing On the Waterfront.)  And Antonio also happened to have a role in the Cool Hand Luke. What a career, right?

So what’s all this have to do with Aaron Sorkin? Well, Antonio also directed a episode of The West Wing which Sorkin created. And since Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men—there’s the quick connection between both Antonio and Kevin Bacon.

The acting workshop I was a part of was at Tracy Roberts Acting Studio back in the 80s. (My acting career peaked somewhere between playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie and doing a Domino’s Pizza commercial.)  Roberts was also a part of The Actors Studio in its early heyday with Clifford Odets and Stella Adler. (She was an encouragement to me in my L.A. years.)

She was sometime credited as Tracey Roberts and when I put that in The Oracle of Kevin Bacon it says that she was in the movie Actor’s & Sin (1952) with Eddie Albert, and that Albert was in The Big Picture which starred Kevin Bacon. (The Big Picture, by the way, was co-written by Gary Kroeger who I got to know when I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Never forget that it is a small, small world.)

Here’s a couple of quotes from my workshop with Antonio:

“Actors get me out of trouble more than they get me into it.”

“If you know where you are going you’re okay. There are lots of ways to get there.”

“Shape the performance you want, don’t try to change the actor. Work with their training, not against it.”

“Kazan once told me to bring 100 ideas and he may use one. It keeps the actor alive and thinking.”

And lastly, one bit of advice I was actually given at Tracy Roberts Acting Studio after I was disappointed with a scene I did, was from a teacher I can’t remember who told me, “Just because you can’t be Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you you can’t play baseball.”

Not every actor or actress is going to Paul Newman or Meryl Streep, not every writer is going to be Aaron Sorkin, or director Steven Spielberg, but there are many actors, writers, and directors who are less than household names who have had solid careers in the entertainment business.

In fact, tomorrow I’ll begin a series of posts on a screenwriter you may not know much about, but he optioned his first script while still in film school, developed a project with Steven Spielberg, had one film debut number one at the box office, and had a seven digit spec sale. And for most of his career he’s been based outside of Hollywood. Come back tomorrow to learn from his career journey.

Update: Found this Gunsmoke clip that features Lou Antonio (who along with Bruce Dern) torture a town drunk. (For what it’s worth, Bruce’s daughter Laura Dern studied acting with Tracy Roberts.)

Related posts:
Jerry Seinfeld (Part 5) Has Gary Kroger/Larry David clip
The Shakespeare of Hollywood Ben Hecht who wrote Actor’s & Sin
Postcard #49 (Yazoo City) 
Kevin Bacon’s connection to a small Mississippi town

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

Scott W. Smith

 “I put no organization to the writing process. The writing is done on the fly.”
Oscar & Emmy-winner Aaron Sorkin (on writing teleplays for The West Wing)
The West Wing Script Book

page 151

P.S. While Sorkin may have been writing on the fly for The West Wing because he knew the characters and there is the regular TV grind of cranking out work, for his feature film scripts he does have at least one tried and true organizational way to add to his writing process:

“There are index cards everywhere in Aaron Sorkin’s office. Index cards for scenes from films going back to 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War. The writer likes to use those cards, tacked to a large corkboard, to keep track of key elements. Social Network’s pivotal scenes are still up there, with notes that read, ‘Mark and Erica in bar,’ ‘Mark walks back to dormitory’ and ‘Mark begins drinking, blogging, hacking.'”
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process by Christy Grosz
The Hollywood Reporter, 1/8/2011

Related posts:
Screenwriting Via Index Cards 

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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