Archive for September, 2016

Writing Quote #61 (Cheever/Stegner)

“The novelist and short story writer John Cheever, when asked why he wrote did not say, ‘To show the upper middle class lives of Connecticut.’ He said, ‘To make sense out of my life.”
Wallace Stegner
On Teaching and Writing Fiction

P.S. Both Wallace Stegner and John Cheever had connections to Iowa. Stegner (who won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972) was born in Lake Mills, Iowa and received his Master’s and Ph.D at the University of Iowa. He went on to start the writing program at Stanford University where his students (which he did not claim credit for) included Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines, and Larry McMurtry. Cheever, who won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,  spent a semester teaching (and drinking with Raymond Carver) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Scott W. Smith

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Epic SpaceX Promo

I grew up watching the Apollo launches from Cape Canaveral dreaming about being a NASA astronaut and traveling into space. The astronaut thing faded away long ago, but the space travel thing never died. Time will tell if SpaceX (or some other group) will realize some kind of space tourism, but this SpaceX promo shows what could happen in the future from Cape Canaveral:

Related posts:
Postcard #104 (SpaceX)
Postcard #83 (Kennedy Space Center)

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.”
5-time Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather)
Academy of Achievement Q&A

Below is a partial list of Francis Ford Coppola related posts I’ve written over the year. I’m going to designate Coppola the Godfather of this blog.  If you’ve never read the post Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio check it out. You’ll see Coppola way back in c. 1979 was way ahead of the curve in seeing a digital revolution.

Related posts:
Heart of Coppola
“Who said art has to cost money?”—Coppola
“Take a risk”—Coppola
Coppola, Castro & Capitalism
Coppola & Roger Corman
Coppola, Criticism & the Internet
The Francis For Coppola Way (Tip #29)
Writing ‘The Godfather’ (Part 1)—A five part series

P.S. I’ve always admired Coppola because he’s a swing-for-the-fence kind of guy. Never afraid to risk failing. This blog has had successes (the Emmy in ’08 and most recently hitting a million total views) but it’s also hit failure (Kickstarter in ’11, and most recently Patreon)—but you learn you either pack up shop or suck it up and forge on. In my case I’m pushing to get the book version of this blog done by the end of the year. If you have any connections to Mr. Coppola I’d love to have him write the introduction the the book, so if you have any magic powers to pull that off I can be contacted at info@scottwsmith.com.

Failure related posts:
Tennessee Williams on ‘Apparent Failure’
Facing the Possibility of Failure (Filmmaker Edward Burns)
Failure is an Option
Susannah Grant on Failure
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Spectacular Failures
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith


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Arnold Palmer (1929-2016)

“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening—and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.”
Arnold Palmer


This morning when I heard he’d died it reminded me of a couple of years ago when I had a meeting at the Golf Channel in Orlando, Florida and took the above photo of his parking space there.

Here’s a nice tribute on Arnold by Golf Digest including thoughts from actor Chris O’Donnell, broadcaster Jim Nantz, and hockey great Wayne Gretzky:

Scott W. Smith



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Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 9)

Today rounds out the nine part series with screenwriter, and author of Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter, Greg DePaul.

Scott W. Smith: What do you tell the writer who’s been in L.A. for ten years who’s had some success, maybe writing on a TV show, and/or some indie films made, but financially they’re not where they thought they’d be at this stage of their life. They’re wondering if they’re ever going to get married, or have kids, or have a life. What’s the average house in L.A. now, in the $500,000 range? And what if they’re still paying on student loans? How does that play into a different kind of reality?

Greg DePaul: Are you asking me to talk to me ten years ago?

Scott: Sure.

Greg: I’m a pretty good writer and I got to L.A. at 29 and that was old. The first manager that ever took me to lunch pulled out a contract and said “sign this contract so I can take 15% of what you make and I’m going to get you connections and help you.” He had heard about me through a friend in a writing group. That’s how I made a reputation. And someone had sent him a script of mine without me knowing, and he liked it. So I’m looking at this contract and he said to me, “How old are you by the way?” I was 29 but I told him I was 27, and he said from now on you’re 25. In other words, I lied and then he lied on top of it. I didn’t end up signing with him, but my point is I was only 29. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go out there at 29, you can make it at any age, but it’s hard. Once you have kids it’s a totally different world. I love my kids, so they’re the priority, but it’s a totally different universe. But it was hard to go there at 29, that was old. When I was trying to get a job as a writer’s assistant, and I had some connections, but nobody would hire me. Because they thought I was too old. They wanted somebody who was 22.

But I did it, I’m one of those people who broke into Hollywood, but I made a choice to leave L.A. I’m not crying about it. There’s just other things than Hollywood in my life. Even when I was in L.A. I sometimes lamented that I wasn’t doing enough playwriting. My way of looking screenwriting was I did it for the money, because screenwriters sell the copyright. They sell it outright. You don’t own anything you write as a screenwriter. Playwrights don’t do that. Mark Stein once told me — If you have a really deep personal story, write a play. So you can control it. You’re not going to make any money on it but you’ll feel better. If you have a story that you think will make money and will entertain people and you can watch while eating popcorn that’s a movie. That’s the way that someone who’s a screenwriter and a playwright might think. It’s not the way a filmmaker thinks.

Scott: Author Seth Godin was asked what advice he’d give a start-up company today and he said, “Don’t push the wheelbarrow uphill.” What he was saying was the success of a new business start-up is so small that you don’t want to start with an idea your pushing uphill. When I heard that I thought that transferred real easy to the world of screenwriting. So many people start out with a concept that they’re pushing uphill. Is that something that Writer’s groups ideally should prevent?

Greg: If you’re writing a spec there’s a point where you need people to give you feedback on before you show it to the industry.

Scott: Some people don’t want to show it to anyone because they don’t want the criticism.

Greg: Yeah, that person’s not going to succeed. That’s why you need other writers, other people, that you show stuff to even if they’re not giving you good notes. Because when you start taking meeting you’re going to start hearing lots of bad notes anyway. You have to get used to that process.

Scott: Bride Wars was directed by the late Gary Winick, [Scott note: Winick also directed Pieces of April, which is one of my personal indie favorites] and you said you didn’t go on the shoot, but did you ever talk with Winick?

Greg: No. This is Hollywood. You think he ever called me and said, “Hey, I like your script?” No, he didn’t. I’m sure he was a really nice guy, just overworked like everyone in Hollywood. That’s the whole thing that people don’t get. People want to believe that there’s some artistic journey to independent films because there’s less money involved. Then when you’re in Hollywood everyone is cynical. It’s cynical from the top to the bottom. Everyone’s got to be selfish that’s part of surviving in Hollywood. It’s better to be more realistic about it. I’ve had three films produced and only got to be on the set for one of them. On the other two I was banned.

Scott: The yellow brick road isn’t paved with gold?

Greg: When they made Bride Wars in China they never called me to say they were making it because they didn’t want me to bill them. I had to discovery it and send them a bill. Even though they were under contract to pay me. They wouldn’t have paid me if I hadn’t said, “you owe me this money.” And even to do that I had to pay a lawyer 5% of what I made to do it, which was fine with me. He deserved it.

To me there’s the writing life and a business life. And you have to distinguish between the two. My way of dealing with it is if I wanna write something that’s very personal, I write a play. I get a catchy, marketable concept idea and I write a screenplay.

Greg teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, wrote the book Bring the Funny, and blogs at bringthefunny.com. His writing group is Stillwaterwriters.com.

Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 1)
Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 2)
Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 3)
Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 4)
Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 5)
Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 6)
Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 7)
Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 8)


Scott W. Smith

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Scott W. Smith: Part of my emphasis on this blog is to put the spotlight on filmmakers doing things in unlikely places, which are often micro budget filmmakers. Do you think there’s a place with Amazon, and Netflix , and all the other outlets for indie filmmakers anywhere in the world that could that morph into a farm league for producing bigger budget stuff? Or just doing stuff at a smaller level that brings filmmakers an income stream?

Screenwriter Greg DePaul: I guess so, but I don’t feel like I know what’s going on in the rest of the world. I’m so focused in the mechanics of writing and every little thing that goes on the page. Students have so far to go on the mechanics. Everybody I meet in my classes is making webisodes. Every actor I know is appearing in short films. Some of them are really good and I think that’s a great thing. My friends at The Collective are making short films. They’ve done some really wonderful work, and they’ve performed a lot of stuff I’ve written and I love them. And they’re a perfect example of a New York group of actors who are now getting into making movies, short films, and they’re appearing on the TV show Inside Amy Schumer, and they’re producing plays. If anyone can do it they can do it. And then you have Tyler Perry in Georgia.

Scott: I drove by his studio a couple of years ago and it’s amazing what he’s built.

I like what Edward Burns (a New Yorker) did to reignite his career by making micro-budget films, and one of his lines was don’t try to compete with Hollywood. And it was Tyler Perry who told Burns to “Super-size his niche market.” Focus on what you’re good at. I just heard a Billy Ray quote where he said eventually we’re going to hit a place where we can’t pack any more special effects into a movie. And people are going to revolt. I’d like to think that when that happens that there will be a crop of writers prepare, via playwriting or whatever, and be ready to write the next new thing. Perry followed his own vision there in Atlanta and became one of the wealthiest filmmakers ever.

Greg: There is a difference between those that want to be writer/directors who can probably get a lot out of film school. And there’s people like me who are at their core really writers. For me it doesn’t bother me that Hollywood is going down a peg. Because I’m a dramatic writer. I write plays. I write comedy sketches, I’ve written and sold TV, I’ve written and sold screenplays, and so I have to just focus on the writing. And if you’re a true filmmaker and you’re shooting stuff the writing is just part of it. You either do as much writing as you need to make your low budget film. Or you work with someone who will help you do the writing then you go off and shoot it. They’re both valid and can both lead to great work, but that first group is what I’m more beholden to. And I’m not worried about Hollywood collapsing if that’s what’s going on because relatively speaking, the theater world in New York is really blossoming with lots of small plays kicking up everywhere. And TV is exploding and I think it’s the home of great writing.

Scott: Let’s turn our focus to the new writer. The person who maybe hasn’t written anything. They’re not at NYU, they maybe don’t live in New York or L.A., maybe they’ve read Syd Fields’ Screenplay and Robert McKee’s Story, maybe they’ve tried to read those but found them too technical. Some people think screenwriting gurus are toxic. What’s square one that you like to point people to start writing screenplays. Is it breaking down movies?

Greg: Well, first you should read every book. Like Bring the Funny by Greg DePaul. You should probably buy ten or twenty copies at a time. If you read six or seven copies at a time that’s the best way to do it.

Scott: And give them away to your friends.

Greg: Yeah, give them to all your friends. You should be reading every book, come on, if you’re going to change your whole life, books are pretty cheap. You should have a wall full of screenwriting books and you should be able to compare them. I have a bunch of them; the McKee book, don’t forget Blake Snyder—

Scott: —Save the Cat.

Greg: Yeah, Save the Cat, that’s a great book. And you should read them all and study them, and diagram every script. You should be an expert in movies, that’s the Tarantino lesson. Be an expert in other people’s movies. The most common mistakes of screenwriters are they don’t read enough scripts by other people. So they don’t become expert in their genre, they don’t see the mistakes that others make that they could learn from. They’re scared to watch movies and read scripts that are too close to what they’re writing, which is the opposite of what you should be doing. They think it will ruin their originality. It won’t, it’s just going to inform what they do and help them. And the other mistake is they don’t realize you have to network as much as you write. And you have to do both all the time. And, of course, it’s all about the writing.

Greg teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, wrote the book Bring the Funny, and blogs at bringthefunny.com. His writing group is Stillwaterwriters.com.

Scott W. Smith

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[Note: To support this blog, and further interviews, please become a patron at Patreon. Even if just $1 or $3 a month.]

Scott W. Smith: There are dozens of working screenwriters I can think who came to their success in different ways, but the one thing they have in common is it took time to reach their level of success. And there’s no doubt that most of them have a L.A. element to their success. But John Logan is someone who comes to mind that honed his craft for ten years in Chicago writing plays and working in a library until he connected with a agent in L.A. where he eventually moved on his way to writing Any Given Sunday, Hugo, and Rango.

Screenwriter Greg DePaul: Well, sure, you can say the same thing about David Mamet, and David Ives, and a few other playwrights who started in NY or Chicago. Exceptions that prove the rule. The point is you have almost no chance if you don’t move to L.A. And if you do go to L.A., you have a very small chance – but it’s better than almost no chance.

Scott: I think when Tiger Woods stormed on the scene we all thought that there was going to be a whole army of black golfers rising up and winning championships. But that just didn’t happen. Tiger Woods was the exception. And perhaps the lesson of Diablo Cody’s sudden rise from the suburbs of Minneapolis to winning a Academy Award back in 2008 was an exception to the rule. An anomaly.

Greg: Nothing you read about anybody’s success in Hollywood can be trusted. Nothing. I’ve made a fetish out of telling that to students. Once you break in everyone goes back and re-writes their bio. It’s the cult of the author. I can’t tell you how many people don’t tell you the truth about their origins. But also because they want to refashion the story.

I’ll give you an example. Do you remember the N.Y. Giant player 20-30 years ago, that guy, Phil McConkey, who caught a pass in the Super Bowl?

Scott: I’m drawing a blank.

Greg: Back in the late 80s the Giants had Phil Sims, Mark Bavaro, Lawrence Taylor, and a guy named McConkey. He was a blue-coller guy and he walked on to the team [at age 27 after serving in the Navy for 4 years], he was never drafted. He earned his way on the team. And he ended up in the Super Bowl. But would you tell somebody to do it that way? No. You don’t teach the exception.

Scott: Fair enough. Well, you are talking about the traditional Hollywood way of breaking in, but I recently heard a couple of writers on Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin from Australia and they’re doing an online cooking show that has lively banter and is part cooking show and part drama and all of a sudden they’re taking meetings in L.A.

Greg: My teaching is for writers who are writers who aren’t good at anything else. I work with a group here called The Collective in New York, and they’re a group of actors founded by Amy Schumer and Kevin Kane and some other very talented actors. And Amy Schumer is also a screenwriter. I’ve met her, but I don’t know her. The one thing I know about her is she started as a comedian. Well, I’ll tell you right now there is a separate path for comedians. If you tell me you’re moving to New York to be a screenwriter I’ll say you’re making a mistake. If you tell me you’re moving to New York to be a stand-up comic and you might like to be a screenwriter like Amy Schumer, or move up like Louis C.K., I would say that’s smart. Because I have observed in the last ten years there is a real particular path for stand up comics in Manhattan. And if you can then get offered a show then you become a screenwriter because they need you to work on that show. But that’s not a straight screenwriting path. Amy Schumer is not the example of the writer starting from scratch who is not a stand-up comic. She’s the example for a stand-up comic who might also blossom as a film star and screenwriter.

Scott: So you’d also look at Robert Rodriguez down in Austin as example of a filmmaker who produces, directs, writes, shoots, etc not an example of someone who only writes.

Greg: Yeah, most of the people I’m teaching are writers. That’s it, they’re screenwriters. They’re not making their own things. All you have to do is go to IMDB, and go to Box Office Mojo, and see who the names are for screenwriter on like 20 movies and figure out where they live.

Scott: Which will be 98% L.A.?

Greg: Well, maybe 90% live in Los Angeles County. I remember about five years ago I was at a comedy show in New York, and I met a guy who was a writer on 30 Rock. And I said, “You’re a screenwriter, I’m a screenwriter and I just moved to New York, where’s the community of screenwriters here?” and he said, “There isn’t one.” He said there’s just us at 30 Rock , there’s him and like six other writers. And I said But this is New York. And he said, “Get over it.” And this is a guy who’s successful.

Greg teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, wrote the book Bring the Funny, and blogs at bringthefunny.com. His writing group is Stillwaterwriters.com.

Related link:
Starting a screenwriting career outside of LA (or New York, or London) at JohnAugust.com

Related posts:
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
Are You an Anomaly?

Scott W. Smith

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Today we pick up part six of the interview with Greg DePaul, screenwriter, teacher, and author of Bring the Funny:

Scott W. Smith: Richard Pryor once said all comedy is rooted in pain. In your book you talk about mean comedy, can you unpack that?

Screenwriter Greg DePaul (Saving Silverman): Certainly comedy has cruelty. You’re always going to have people doing mean things to each other because that makes us laugh. If you’ve ever watched Larry, Moe, and Curly [The Three Stooges] you know how much mean stuff can make people laugh. I mean Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Daffy Duck shooting their faces off with shotguns is pretty visceral isn’t it? That’s just an element of comedy there’s no doubt about it. What I try to do in Bring the Funny is give you the tools you’re going to use to speed up the journey, to learn things quicker, and just write better. As a teacher, I also focus a lot on the whole world of the dramatic writer, because I think the best writers—especially those in TV—have a dramatic approach. Most films schools don’t teach dramatic writing, they only teach screenwriting. I think that’s a mistake.

Scott: By dramatic writing, you mean Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov?

Greg: Dramatic writing is playwriting, feature screenwriting, TV writing, and sketch comedy writing. Those are all dramatic writing. Where you use characters in a dramatic presentation. That’s a separate world from prose. Certainly, a screenwriter and a playwright have more in common with each other than either has with a prose writer. For my students, I talk about how screenwriters are a little bit like novelists, and the TV writers are a little bit more like playwrights. And if you look at the writing staffs of TV shows, especially sitcoms, you’re going to find a lot of playwrights.

If you look at NYU – how the Tisch School works — which I think is the absolute best school for dramatic writers. So you learn about the Greeks, and Ibsen, and all those people, and then branch out and take a screenwriting class, you take more playwriting classes, you take a TV class, but the foundation is dramatic writing; characters, drama, conflicts.

Scott: Certainly part of Aaron Sorkin’s success is being rooted in dramatic writing, and he’s someone who has worked in theater, television, and features. In fact, when he wrote Social Network he said that it was basically a Greek play. And it does appear that TV has become the place for the kinds of drama that feature films were doing back in the ‘70s.

Now you’re based in New York, my blog is called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I know you’re a fan of “get to L.A. if you can,” But in your opinion, when is the best time to go to L.A.?

Greg: Look I didn’t come back to the East Coast by choice. My career went up and down twice, I came back east because I have two children, that’s it. And it’s a lot easier to raise kids in suburban New Jersey than it is in Los Angeles. If you want good public schools for instance. It’s a night and day difference. So I came out here because what I wanted was the family environment and all of that. So for screenwriting the answer is L.A., L.A., L.A. and there’s really no exception to the rule. But if you can’t be there, you can’t be there, that’s life.

What I tell people is if you’re going to spend years writing and you live in Massachusetts, which is not off the edge of the world—it’s a sophisticated place, it’s just not L.A., then you shouldn’t just be writing screenplays. Come on, write novels, you can be a novelist anywhere. The book industry is used to people writing from Alabama, or Arkansas, or having the local flavor of Nebraska. There’s no prejudice against you there. And it’s not built around contacts.

If you’re in New York, because you’re a playwright, or because you’re a journalist, and you also want to write screenplays, fine. Now that I’m in NYC, I’m also a playwright. Most of the creative writing I’m doing this minute is playwriting and working on my next book. And more recently I’ve begun working on a screenplay.

But if you just want to write screenplays or do TV writing you have to go to L.A. and you should go there before you’re ready. And the reason is you’re not going to show up in L.A. and have everybody go, “Great, give me your screenplay.” It’s going to take years of making contacts while you’re there to get open minds. So you might as well go there and do your maturation there, because while you’re maturing and writing badly, and hopefully improving, you’re going to be meeting people. It’s going to take a few years to meet people who will read you. If you wait until you’re 35 and now say, “Now, I’m a great writer,” you’re going to have to prove yourself there. You have to develop fans. That’s why writers groups are so important. Other writers have to notice you and take note of you.

In Bring the Funny I talk about that a lot. If you’re an agent on Venice Boardwalk or you’re in Times Square New York, or Santa Monica Promenade, and you’re walking around and looking for an act. One guy’s juggling, one guy’s carving something in sand, and one guy’s telling jokes, and another singing, the guy who has no one around him—you’re not going to walk up to that guy. So you have to develop a circle of friends around you as a writer that gets you attention, that builds your contacts, and that’s when you start bumping into agents. Maybe you have a friend who likes your work, he or she already has an agent and because they know and like your work they say, “You know, I can introduce you to my agent.” Well, think how long that took to develop. That doesn’t happen the day you arrive in L.A.

Greg teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, wrote the book Bring the Funny, and blogs at bringthefunny.com. His writing group is Stillwaterwriters.com.

Scott W. Smith


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[Note: To support this blog, and further interviews, please become a patron at Patreon. Even if just $1 or $3 a month.]

Scott W. Smith: One of your lines in your book [Bring the Funny] is “You must teach yourself how to be a screenwriter.”

Screenwriter Greg DePaul (Bride Wars): Definitely. But I do have tools that can save them a lot of time in the learning process.

Scott: You write that the most important key to success as a screenwriter is [drum roll please]…diagramming. What do you mean by that?

Greg: Well, some people would call it deconstructing, or coming up with a beat sheet for an existing movie or what have you. When I was getting an MFA degree in playwriting from Catholic University I took course from a guy named Mark Stein who wrote a movie called HouseSitter with Goldie Hawn. He was also a playwright. He said, “The first thing I’m going to teach you is diagramming.”

Basically it means taking an existing film. (I strongly encourage you to use the script, not to watch the movie.) You can do it by getting on Netflix and hitting pause after every scene. And you deconstruct it by creating a one sentence version for each scene. So you’re going to have 60,70, 80 sentences all in a line. They might take up two pages. Single spaced may be one and a half pages. And then you can break it into three acts. You can just see “Greg shoots Bill.” “Greg escapes the police.” “Greg goes to see Mandy.”

And the trick to diagraming is to put the main actions in capital letters, so SHOOTS, KISSES, ESCAPES are always in caps on the page. I don’t usually put the setting or any details in the scene because it’s not that necessary. I break it into three acts, and this does two things. It helps you remember that movie. Because if you’re writing a horror movie, (which I’ve never done) you should be diagraming every horror screenplay in your genre or subgenre that you can possibly diagram. And you should pile them up in your room if you’re writing horror, so you’ll be very familiar with the turns of a horror film.

So you’ve done your research. Don’t write in ignorance. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. There are certain things that come up in every horror film. You need to know them, even if you’re going to change them, or violate them. So first you’re doing research on your genre, I’ve diagramed almost every romantic comedy you can think of, and secondly you’re also training yourself as a writer to remind yourself not to fall into the biggest pit that all screenwriters fall into which is not enough action. I can’t tell you when I read someone else’s script how many times it doesn’t have enough action, and if there’s not action there’s not conflict, and if there’s not conflict, then there’s no story generally.

There’s derivatives of that. Like I teach a sitcom writing course where I make them diagram a whole bunch of screenplays or TV scripts and they don’t just write Greg KISSES Mandy, I have them use the word DESPITE.  It’s a rhetorical trick. Every time you use the word DESPITE then you have to look for the obstacle. Greg KISSES Mandy DESPITE her RUNNING AWAY.  Bill STEALS the money DESPITE the guards SHOOTING him. Whatever it is. So now you’re training yourself to identify and use action at the same time, and to identify and use obstacles. Because the next problem that screenplays have is people don’t give their characters enough obstacles. So there’s a lot of tricks like that I used when diagraming that’s really just about understanding the story form that you’re writing in, especially your genre, and also reminding yourself how to write.

Scott: I went to a workshop once with an accomplished writer and he started by saying, “I’m not sure why they wanted me to do this workshop because I’m not sure writing can be taught or that there are any rules.” I raised my hand and said, “What about conflict?” He said conflict was good you should have conflict and it ended up being an enjoyable day of anecdotes. But his approach was more internal, instinctual, and he didn’t really have way of conveying what he did.

Greg: I’m an A- screenwriter, but I think I’m able to help people [learn the writing process] more because I’m not a natural. If someone was a total natural at it they may not have had to externalize their process and articulate it. It might be easy for them. If it’s too easy for them, it might not help you if you’re having he struggles that the other 99% of writers have.  

Scott: I call that the Ted Williams-effect where the great baseball player Ted Williams who’s advice to younger ball players was to wait for a good pitch and swing. Some have said his coaching career was short-lived because he became impatient with ordinary athletes’ abilities.

Greg: Right, I think that also works with genre, tone, and style. There are some people who naturally happen to have been into dark comedy, and that’s your natural bent, but now they’re not buying dark comedy. Well, now you’re going to have to work hard to write bright, happy comedies if that’s what the market wants. And you might be able to make that change. It might take you some time to make that pivot. Or if you hit the market in Hollywood with your dark comedy in a year or month when they’re dying for dark comedy then you might break in immediately, but that’s like the luck of the draw. The zeitgeist happened to be looking for you and you had it. For most of us though you’re going to have to have to make a compromise with the zeitgeist.

Greg teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, wrote the book Bring the Funny, and blogs at bringthefunny.com. His writing group is Stillwaterwriters.com.

Scott W. Smith



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Scott W. Smith: From the original conception of the idea for Bride Wars to when it finally got produced how many years went by?

Greg DePaul: It might have been five years, 2004 to 2009.

Scott: So there’s a lesson there. Michael Arndt talks about writing 10 screenplays over ten years before he sold one, and that one (Little Miss Sunshine) took five years to get made. I think he was 40 when he got his first produced credit.

Greg: That’s more common than the person who goes out to Los Angeles at age 27 and breaks in on their first script. The average age of someone entering the Writers Guild [on the feature side] I’m going to guess is at least 35, if not 40.

Scott: In your book Bring the Funny you talk about hearing Michael Arndt talk about his writing process at a Writers Guild event. What did you learn from him?

Greg: What I learned from that discussion years ago was that he’s a typical Hollywood screenwriter in that sense. I learned from Blake Herron who I met back at the Writers & Actors Lab who I looked up to. He wrote Bourne Identity and some other movies. And he told me like 15 or 20 years ago when I first got to Hollywood, that he sold his 13th script. That’s very common because you generally get better each time. And what most of what writers learn they learn through trying and failing, not books on theory. So you have to keep be willing to push it out there and get humiliated over and over again. That’s really the system.

Scott: I have a whole list of screenwriters I’ve gathered over the years who said they wrote many screenplays before they sold one or hand one made. Oliver Stone said he wrote 12, Sheldon Turner was 10, Dale Launer told me he didn’t even show anyone a script he’d written until he’d written 10. Not too many people selling screenwriting books and workshops address that because who wants to face the daunting task of writing 5,10,15 scripts before they get any traction? I think the record was Geoff Rodkey who wrote Daddy Day Care, which was his 18th script but his first to get produced.

Greg: I’m on the East Coast now and have been here for about seven years, but I spend a lot of time with other writers. I run a writers group called Stillwater Writers (Stillwaterwriters.com), which is New York City playwrights, screenwriters, and TV writers all hanging out together talking and reading each other’s scripts. But I founded a group called the Clark Street Players back in LA with my old writing partner Hank Nelken, I was in the Writers and Actors Lab in LA that’s how I met people like Jim Uhls (Fight Club), Blake Heron, and other great writers that helped me. So I’ve always been involved in these writer’s groups. And I’ve seen how people develop and it’s a long time coming.

So I’ve taught workshops, I teach at NYU, and I teach at the New School and I’m completely straightforward with people about that. I don’t say it’s easy. And I tell them don’t go to pitch festivals, conferences like Austin Screenwriting are useful, but when you go to those things you’re not going to walk up and pitch some executive an idea and he’s going to give you a million dollars. I’ve never heard of a movie that got made that way.

Scott: Michael Arndt also said that 99% of your focus as a screenwriter should be on the writing. And that’s what you hit on in your book. You talk about the AIC—can you explain that to people?

Greg: Ass in Chair. And I didn’t make that up I read it in an article some place from a romance novelist—I think it was Nora Roberts. But I use it. It’s ass in chair. The biggest problem I see with my students is perfectly understandable. I have this problem too, everybody does. It’s a fear of being in the chair too long, and yet you can’t succeed unless you commit wild amount of hours to sitting in that chair.

Scott: How do you quantify to your students how much time in the chair they should be writing?

Greg: More is better. Not a time or page limit. It’s to make yourself do more. If you’re in Hollywood and you’re getting work and you’re a working screenwriter, there is some virtue to write all morning and take meetings in the afternoon theory. But most people don’t have that luxury. If you’re trying to break in, more is always better when it comes to writing.

When Hank and I started working together and got serious, which was probably 1997 or ’98, just to have a goal I think I came up with it, I said, “Dude let’s do seven pages a day and see what happens.” It became silly and arbitrary and sometimes we’d just add lines on the page to hit CUT TO:, and go on to the seventh or eighth page and then go drink. When I was working with a partner it was usually two shifts. We write from 10 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon and then say we can’t stand each other anymore and then we’d take a break for three hours and go home and have dinner, and come back at 8:00 and write until 2 in the morning.

Greg teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, wrote the book Bring the Funny, and blogs at bringthefunny.com. His writing group is Stillwaterwriters.com.

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Related post:
The 99% Focus Rule
Write 2 or 3 Scripts This Year
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Thoughts by Michael Arndt)

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