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
Spielberg on Good Drama
Screenwriting Quote #29 (William Blinn writer of Brian’s Song)
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