Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood’

“In ‘Amazing Grace,’ that line —  ‘that saved a wretch like me ’— isn’t that something we could all say if we were honest enough?”
Bob Dylan
Interview with Robert Love

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Back in 1989 I had Forrest Gump moment in Hollywood.  I was eating at a Hamburger Hamlet on Hollywood Blvd. when I saw a crowd gathering across the street and it would be the first and only time I ever saw someone getting a Hollywood star. No, it wasn’t Tom Hanks— or any movie/TV star, but the evangelist Billy Graham. It was surreal.

Somewhere in a box I have a photo of that moment. And that distant memory came to my mind yesterday when I learned that Graham died at age 99.

“I feel somewhat out of place because I’m not sure that a clergyman belongs here.”
Billy Graham on getting a star on Hollywood Blvd.
(His star is between right between actress Judy Holliday and Italian opera singer Beniamino Gigli.)

But Graham was involved in radio, television, and film on an international level so it wasn’t so odd that he ended up with a star on Hollywood Blvd. When I lived in Burbank and was just a couple years out of film school I met a guy who worked on the film side with Graham and he gave me a tour of the World Wide Pictures studios (a division of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. ) in Burbank just a few blocks from Warner Bros. Studios. (And just down the road from Universal Studios.)

According to the Los Angeles Times the World Wide Pictures studio closed in 1988. Their first produced film played at a theater on Hollywood Blvd. and some of the best known films from the World Wide Pictures library are Joni (the story of a diving accident that left Joni Eareckson Tada paralyzed) and The Hiding Place (about Corrie ten Boom’s family hiding Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust).

Along the way a list of Hollywood actors had rolls in various World Wide Pictures including Jennifer O’Neill, Ken Howard, Pat Hingle, Jill Ireland, Dabney Coleman, and Julie Harris. Ken Wales, who was one of the producers of Amazing Grace (2006), also had a hand producing and acting for World Wide Pictures.

It’s also a little surreal to find a Rolling Stone article yesterday that touched on the friendship between Billy Graham and Johnny Cash.

The Sacramento Bee reported that when actor Steve McQueen died he was “clutching a Bible – one given to him by Billy Graham.” Elvis, President Jimmy Carter, and Martin Luther King Jr, all had positive connections with Graham.

“When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the ’50s or ’60s. This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified — volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution — when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30- or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. He could fill football stadiums before anybody.”
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan: The Uncut Interview with Robert Love

I went to the final Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA concert in 1985 at the L.A. Coliseum—greatest concert I ever saw. Largest crowd I ever saw, too. If I recall correctly there were 100,000 people there that night. But that’s not the attendance record there. That belong to a 1963 Billy Graham crusade with 134,254 in the stadium. (And a reported 20,000 more outside.)

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Before Graham filled stadiums he spoke in revival tents including a eight week period in downtown Los Angeles in 1949. That event was covered in the recent L.A. Times article Billy Graham: Made in L.A. (While talking about sin in the shadow of Hollywood might seem 1940ish to some, in light of Harvey Weinstein, sexual assault/harassment in the current headlines, and the #MeToo movement it seems rather timeless and appropriate.)

One of the people who attended the ’49 crusade was POW survivor Louis Zamerini. A USA Today article recounts how Zamerini learned about forgiveness from Graham. Zamerini’s story become the Laura Hillenbrand book Unbroken; A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Then the Angelina Jolie directed movie Unbroken. 

My story is not as dramatic as Zamerini’s, but out of curiosity I went to hear Billy Graham speak at Anaheim Stadium in 1985. I was living with a woman at the time and, like a lot of 24 year olds, my life was messy and complicated. Billy Graham had his critics, but I’m not one of them. You can put me in the company of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen, Obama, Zamerini and millions of others who respected the man.

When I look at that photo of the crowd at L.A. Coliseum, and I think back to hearing Graham at Anaheim Stadium in ’85, and reflect on life and death the word surreal keeps coming to mind.

You want something else a little surreal? Here’s a 1969 interview of Billy Graham with Woody Allen.

P.S. I hear there’s only one Hamburger Hamlet left these days (in Sherman Oaks) but they were once  sprinkled throughout Los Angeles. This is from an blog called Old Los Angeles Restaurants:

The Hamlet was the invention of a Hollywood costumer named Marilyn Lewis and her husband, Harry.  Harry was an actor, perhaps best remembered for his role in the Humphrey Bogart film, Key Largo.  The way the story goes, they opened the first one with all their savings — about $3,000 or $3,500 depending on which account you read. That opening was just before Halloween of 1950 and when they were about to open the doors, they discovered they couldn’t cook. The gas hadn’t been turned on and they were so tapped out that they couldn’t afford to pay the deposit and couldn’t afford to not open on schedule. Marilyn got in touch with a gas man and struck an under-the-table bargain: If he’d come over and turn them on anyway, he could eat there for free as long as they were in business. He did both these things. The original idea was to open an actors’ hangout but the place quickly caught on with folks of all different vocations and other outlets quickly followed.

Scott W. Smith

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“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”
Marilyn Monroe

James Gray is a working writer/director who back in 1994 made his first feature film at age 24, and his latest film (The Lost City of Z) is hitting theater this month. But in the recent article Jame Gray and the Struggle of the Middle-Class Filmmaker he lays out the difficulties beyond student loans and getting movies made:

“You know, people assume that because I’m a director, I make tons of money. I am struggling financially. Now, I’m very lucky I get to do what it is I want to do. I’ve made, good or bad, very uncompromising movies, the movies exactly that I wanted to make, and that’s a beautiful gift, so I’m not complaining about that. But I struggle. I have a hard time paying my bills. I’m 47 years old, I live in an apartment, I can’t buy a house. If I were coming of age in 1973, I would be in Bel Air. The whole reason for this is…the middle is gone. So now you have franchises, and you have, ‘I made a movie on my iPhone.’ This is the economic system in a nutshell, right? Five directors make Marvel, and then there’s the rest of us who are trying to scrounge around to find the money to make films.”
Director James Gray (The Immigrant)
Vulture article by Kevin Lincoln (4/14/17)

P.S. The most read post I’ve ever written on this blog over the years is the 2009 post How Much Do Screenwriters Make? It’s not a perfect post, but I think it’s a fair reality check and discussion starter. By the way, if you read that post and would like to clarify how writers (and how much) working writers are paid—from Hollywood to Nollywood—shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith as I’d like to clarify the process and reality as much as I can for others.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting Quote #189 (James Gray)
‘The Immigrant’

Scott W. Smith

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Producer Perspective

“Most producers go years in between producing movies; in fact, most of our time is spent not making movies.”
Producer Rick Schwartz (The Departed, Black Swan)

This is a fitting echo post to my last post where writer John Grisham said, “It’s very, very difficult to get a movie made.” This one from the perspective of a Hollywood producer on the difficulties of getting a movie made. Rick Schwartz says that his process is to read “hundreds of scripts, articles and books, watch countless films for remake possibilities, listen to tons of ideas – and most of them are crap. It’s like a beauty pageant where everyone has either a unibrow or two noses.” But this is what happens when he finally finds the one that he’s willing to dedicate the time, money and efforts to get produced:

“Nobody in town would finance the movie, because they claimed it had literally no appeal overseas. My weak protests – wouldn’t people go if it were actually a good movie? – were met with laughter. What does a “good movie” have to do with anything?…It’s now been 6 years since I last produced a movie, and the [script I purchased] sits prominently on my desk, taunting me daily. Help me, it pleads, get me to the screen where I belong. Then there are the other voices: Heed the signs, people tell me, this one just wasn’t meant to be. And still I carry on, for some unknown reason. Passion? Stubbornness? Desire? Stupidity? Who knows – it’s probably a combination of all of the above, but mainly the latter. For these are the tools of my trade. I’m a producer.”
Rick Schwartz
What It’s Like To Be A: Producer 


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“Getting a movie made is very hard to make happen.”
Screenwriter Greg DePaul

Even if you don’t care for romantic comedies, who doesn’t like screenplay origin stories? Part 2 of my interview with screenwriter Greg DePaul (and author of Bring the Funny) covers how came up with the original idea for Bride Wars, how he pitched and sold the idea, and how he thought the project was dead in the water after the studio developing the movie died.

Throughout this part of the interview Greg also reveals the business aspects (and frustrations) involved in working in Hollywood. And he tells what he did after botching a pitch in front of Kate Hudson.

(To support this blog and more interviews like this please become a patron at Patreon. Brad’s getting lonely over there.)

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Scott W. Smith: Bride Wars has a universal concept and a title that has built-in conflict where you can see the poster in your head even if you haven’t read the script. It’s primal. The original script you wrote attracted Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway. It made over $100 million. The concept looks so easy, but I’m guessing the journey from idea to released movie in theaters was a difficult one.

Greg DePaul: Getting a movie made is very hard to make happen. Bride Wars was based on a real thing that happened. About 12 years ago I was working on my own in Santa Monica and my wife and I got engaged. And I’d pitched lots of things. I’ve sold or co-sold eight or nine feature film scripts based on pitches. However that’s 1% of all the things I’ve ever pitched. You have to pitch like a machine gun. And you have to pitch over and over again. And you have to write really well before you get noticed and before anyone will listen to your pitch.

People think, incorrectly, that you can go someplace and pitch an idea and they’ll pay you to write the script. That simply does not happen. It’s almost impossible. It’s like a supernova occurring on the same day as you’re holding the ace of spades—and a royal flush. Basically the way it works in Hollywood—actually, it’s harder to do now than when I did it then. They’re buying less and less pitches like Bride Wars. And Bride Wars itself was an anomaly.

The way it works is you write a spec that gets you noticed. People say, “I think Scott’s a great writer, I love his spec. It made me laugh or was really great.” And they don’t buy it because that may not be what they need at that moment to buy. But they remember you because you wrote something that made them laugh. And they say, “Scott, my door is now open.” And that’s when you start coming in every couple of months with new pitches. And I did that for years in Hollywood. In fact, my old partner, Hank Nelken and I would say “We’re the sandwich guys.” Remember in offices 10-20 years ago they’d have these guys walking around with a cooler? They had pre-made sandwiches for offices that didn’t have a cafeteria and they’d go door to door, knock on some lawyer’s door and say Hey you want ham and cheese? Great, five bucks. We’d say we were the sandwich guys.

Once you develop fans, a lot of people in town who like your scripts and think you’re good, the door can be left open for years. You’re on the list of funny or talented people. You can’t waste the opportunity. You can’t call them every week. You might go every two or three months. If you have an agent or manager, they’re the ones that schedule that. If you have 20, 30, or 40 fans. You’re going to their offices 2,3,4 times a week to various people and you’re just pitching everything you’re churning out when you’re home writing 10 hours a day coming up with stuff.

So that’s where I was when I pitched Bride Wars. I’d broken up with my writing partner and I’d gotten engaged to my wife. I was at a point where I had a heist comedy script out there called Fur Crazy. People liked it, but nobody bought it. And so people thought I was funny on my own. I had distinguished myself from my partner in that way. And now the time had come where I was asked to do myself what my partner and I had done when we sold Saving Silverman and other movies.

It is by the way, much harder to pitch by yourself. Especially with comedy. Because I didn’t have him there to work with me. And so I was going into a room everyday at ten with a pot of coffee and a computer screen and a note pad and just trying to come up with one-liner ideas. And every couple of weeks I come up with them and review them with my manager, and he’d say “That sucks,” “That doesn’t suck,” and maybe he’d say those three or four are good. He’d set up meeting and I’d go pitch them.

And a lot of times what happens is you pitch them and they’d say, “That sounds pretty good Greg, why don’t you come back in two weeks with more on it?” So you have pitches you’re working on, pitches that are original, pitches that are getting stale, and it’s like your working at a diner flipping lots of burgers trying to find one that’s hot, or just tasty for someone to buy. They’re only going to buy a perfect burger. So you make a lot of burgers before they buy the one that is perfect.

So at some point Dvora [a credited writer on Married with Children] and I were getting engaged. Her sister had gotten engaged first. And they had been setting up plans to get married. My in-laws had laid out money for what was going to be a wedding in 9 months or a year. And Dvora and myself  got engaged, so suddenly my in-laws were facing the prospects of two weddings within six months that they’d have to pay for and deal with and it seemed like an act of cruelty. So my wife said, “We’ll make it a double wedding.” So then you had two sisters trying to plan a wedding. My wife and her sister have very different tastes and they may not have argued that much, but they argued a little over the style and the band, and the food, and the this and the that, and who to invite, and that’s when I got the idea of two women fighting over weddings in some manor.

And then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be easier if it was two friends and not sisters and they had mistakenly planned it for the same day?” So I changed the set-up to get the same second act tension that the real life wedding was actually causing.

So ironically as I worked on my pitch, my sister in-law broke up with her boyfriend and my wife and I sort of had their wedding. It was funny. So it was the band we had not picked, the shrimp we had not ordered, etc. But the long and short of it was the idea came through my wife and her sister.

And the first thing I did was try and work on it as a one-liner. I think I called a writer friend of my named Elizabeth Rogers and her friend Julie Forman because they were both woman and both screenwriters, and comedy writers. And I thought they’ll tell me if it’s good. And they said,”That sounds funny, we can relate to that.”  And so I embarked upon an idea that I normally would never write because it’s an idea for a young woman and teenage girls. But it was the money that kept me going.

So I worked on it for months. I ran it by my manager and he liked it. And eventually I took it to different producer. I think I took it to Mark Gordon, and various people. A lot of people passed. I took it to Bob Simonds who does a lot of Adam Sandler movies, and he was attached for a while. But he wanted them to be socialites from Houston, because he was from Houston. So I was working on it with him on one hand. In the meantime I was working on a whole ‘nother version with Alan Riche who was a producer who did Starsky and Hutch and Mousehunt, who’s now doing Tarzan that’s coming out.  I’d sit down with Alan, I’d give him my ideas and he’d give me notes and I’d keep working on it. And eventually Alan and my manager Matt Luber took it to some studios and the studios passed. I think maybe they passed because I’m a guy. They were like, “Can this guy write this?” Because they only knew me from Saving Silverman and other things.

Scott: When you took it to the studios what form was it in?

Greg: Once you start pitching it, it grows. And you grow it with the producer it grows. My pitches are very simple. I write things down. I come with a clipboard . I have maybe a page or two of what you call a beat sheet and I’ve basically memorized it, but truly memorizing your pitch is the dumbest thing you can do. And the reason you don’t memorize it is people will keep changing it. Are you going to keep changing what you memorize? Every time you pitch they’ll say, great, how about this, how about that? “Can you make him from Sumatra? Come back next month with that version.”

So you’ll have different version for different producers and different studios. Because you want to tweak it to serve their needs. If you try to memorize all those things you’re going to drive yourself crazy. And in fact, you’re not auditioning for the job of an actor, you’re auditioning for the job of writer. You don’t need to memorize anything. So I write stuff down, I have a pad, I have a clipboard that I refer to. By the time I pitch it I know it off the top of my head. But you’re not there to show you can memorize.

And so eventually, after many studios had passed, Alex or Matt said, “Let’s pitch it to Kate Hudson’s manager Jay Cohen.” We sat down with Jay and I pitched it and he liked it. And then he called back in a week and had notes and I had to make changes.  And he said, “Why don’t you come pitch it to Kate Hudson?” So at that point my manager, another producer who’d gotten involved, Tony Ludwig, Alan Riche, and Jay Cohen, all these middle age men showed up in a room and waited for Kate. And she showed up and sat down. And we sat in a big circle around her and pulled up my chair and pitched it.

And the first time I pitched it to Kate Hudson, I stumbled. And that almost never happened because I’m very good at pitching. But I was a little nervous because I was with a star. And I got a third of the way through and I said, “Wait I made a mistake.” And Kate said, “Well, why don’t you just start over.” And I started back from the beginning. And she was very nice. She laughed at curtain places and she thought certain places were funny and say, “I like this” and “I like that.” And when we were done she said, “I like this, I can see it as a movie. It would be me and another woman,” which at that point was undetermined.

And she gave me some notes, and I left the room knowing she really liked it. And I verbally got back with her or one of her people on the phone and they said, “Okay, we’re going to run with this.” And they got on the phone with Miramax and they re-considered because she was attached and they said, “Let’s make a deal.” My manager negotiated and we made a money deal for two drafts and probably some rewrites as I recall.

From that point it took a couple of years to write because I did one draft and there was a lot of waiting, and then I did another draft, and there were some producer polishes, and there’s always sits and stalls when that happens. And then when I finished my duties writing Miramax died as a studio. So it was sitting on their shelf and they owned it, but they weren’t going to make it.

Come back tomorrow and learn how the project got resurrected and eventually produced. You can find Greg on Twitter @GregDePaul and more info on him at the Bring the Funny website. He also teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School.

Scott W. Smith


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“If the current rates of growth keep up in China, the country will surpass North America as the world’s largest film market in early 2017.”
The Hollywood Reporter/3.1.16

Back in June, screenwriter/playwright and NYU instructor Greg DePaul took the time with me to have an hour and a half conversation that ended up being quite a sweeping overview of the ups and downs of being a working screenwriter. We talked abut his movies (Saving Silverman, Bride Wars), about his book Bring the Funny:The Essential Commpanion for the Comedy Screenwriter, and what it’s like to sit in front of Kate Hutson and pitch your idea. I will chunk out the interview here over the next week or two. We started off taking about the Chinese version of his original idea that was first produced in the United States.


Scott W. Smith: Do you have a Chinese poster of Bride Wars?

Greg DePaul: I wish I did. I’m going to do that. I’m going to buy one and frame it.

Scott : Have you ever seen that version?

Greg: I have. It’s just funny that it even exists. I’m credited on the poster and in the film.

Scott: And you got paid, correct?

Greg: I got paid. I had to tell them to pay me, but I did get it. I have a friend Scott Abramovitch (The Calling), a writer/director, and he contacted me and said, “I see your movie is getting made in China.”

A handful of years before that I got contacted through my lawyer at the time and the studios said they wanted to make Bride Wars in India. They had two Indian stars lined up. I said, “Great, my contract says I get a pretty large amount for a remake—foreign or domestic. And they said, “Okay, but we’re not going to make it unless you cut your rate and make that change to the contract. Agree to take five cents on the dollar.” So they were going to cut out 95% to what they’d agreed to in my contract. And I told my lawyer, “No, don’t do it.” I sent my lawyer an email saying this is insulting and that they’re a bunch of jerks or something. And he was a terrible lawyer. He kicked that email to them, because he just wanted me to sign. They walked and we never made a deal. And I didn’t hear about it for five years. And I didn’t want to tell my wife because I thought she’d say “fine, take the small amount of money, we need the money.”

Scott: And it would have had a great Bollywood musical ending.

Greg: Exactly, that would have been awesome. The studio was all upset with me and they yelled at my lawyer, and blah, blah, blah. And then two or three years ago Abramovitch contacted me again and said, “I see your movie is getting made in China.” And I go to Variety online and there it was saying they were making Bride Wars in China with director Tony Chan. So I called a different lawyer, a friend of mine and an excellent attorney in L.A., Ron Levin, and I said, “Ron can you handle this for me?” And he called them up and sent them an old contract I had and told them, “You owe Greg this money”; and they paid the full amount.

Scott: Maybe Bride Wars will end up being your Grease. I read that everyday somewhere in the world Grease is playing and the writers are getting residuals.

P.S. Author and futurist Kevin Kelly has said in light of China’s 1.367 billion (2013) population verses 316 million people in the United States that the U.S. is “statistically insignificant.” The largest film studio in the world, Hengdian World Studios, located in the Zhejiang Province is the largest film studio in the world. When you add to the mix that both India and Nollywood (Cinema of Nigeria) now produce more films than Hollywood you can see there is an interesting shift happening in global cinema. (A topic I will explore on this blog throughout 2017.)

To support this blog, and further interviews, please become a patron at Patreon.

Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 2)

Bring the Funny website

Related article:
Is ‘Chinawood’ the New Hollywood?/BBC 

Scott W. Smith

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“Kindness is free.”
Garry Marshall


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


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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.

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

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