Friday, June 26, 2009

Dreams on Spec

I found this article and found it very inspirational and is more evidence that perserverance pays off...eventually. Here's to never giving up!

Write on!

PS. Check out my revamped website if you haven't already. Thanks.


Dreams on Spec
By Daniel Snyder

I was sitting in a well-furnished office on the 20th Century Fox lot, asking James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment,” “As Good as It Gets,” “Broadcast News”) about the art and craft of screenwriting.

“I never knew anybody,” he was saying, “who ever got a Writers Guild card who didn’t have a hard time when somebody said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ saying, ‘I’m a writer.’ Your voice always catches on ‘a writer,’” Brooks said. “From the earliest stages, it’s what your secret thought was that you wanted to be and what of course you knew was impossible to be.”

Brooks was one of a dozen luminaries I talked with for the screenwriting documentary, DREAMS ON SPEC. The film follows three aspiring writers as they try to turn their spec scripts into movies – and intercuts wisdom from a “Greek Chorus” of superstar scribes including Brooks, Nora Ephron, Gary Ross, and Carrie Fisher.

I repeatedly saw the love of writing that Brooks was talking about as I followed those three struggling writers for the better part of a year. None of them had a Writers’ Guild card – or an agent – but it was undeniable that they had desire.

I watched David give up his nights and weekends to write and re-write his scripts. I watched Deborah share a cheap apartment in a not-so-great part of town so she could afford to try to get her romantic comedy script into production. And I watched Joe sacrifice valuable time with his wife and autistic daughter to write what he thought could be the great American screenplay.

These screenwriters – just like James L. Brooks and tens of thousands of others across the country – weren’t writing just for money or fame. They had a story to tell – and they’d do just about anything to turn it into a movie.

This Quixotic quest is what first inspired me to take a documentary look at the agony and the ecstasy of screenwriting. Living in the Los Angeles area, I had known scores of friends, acquaintances, and co-workers who’d written screenplays and would pitch them to anyone who would listen.

In fact, I learned first-hand about the screenwriter’s travails when I was a teenager, working alongside aspiring writer/directors Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary at the famed Video Archives video store in the Los Angeles suburb of Manhattan Beach. This was years before they became famous.

From Quentin and Roger, I first saw the passion people have for their screenplays – and how much work it requires to get them made into films. Quentin, for example, doggedly pitched his screenplays for “True Romance,” “Natural Born Killers,” and “Reservoir Dogs“ for four years before he hit pay dirt.

In DREAMS ON SPEC, I set out to look at why so many people around the country spend so much time writing screenplays – and why some writers succeed while so many others fail. The big-name writers I quizzed on this subject had some insightful answers to this last question.

PAUL GUAY (“Liar Liar” and “The Little Rascals”): “The thing that separates more successful writers from less successful writers, the most important thing, is the perseverance. There are a lot of people who are lucky. There are a lot of people who are born with connections or have the kind of personality to easily make some. But if you don’t have that, you have to keep pushing, you have to keep generating ideas, you have to not take rejection personally, because almost everything you come up with will be rejected, and even the scripts that eventually sell will probably be turned down by a number of people first. So you’re constantly hearing ‘No.’ And in the face of that, you have to you have to persevere.”

ED SOLOMON (“Men in Black” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”): “The best formula I ever heard about writing, I think was attributed to Oliver Stone, and I think it was something like ‘Ass plus chair.’ That was it. Sit there and do the work. The problem is, so many writers think ‘This screenplay, this one screenplay is gonna be the thing which, you know, gets me out of my day job, or which finally gets me enough money where I can, you know, pay back my loans and – or it’s gonna, you know, it’s gonna sum up my entire world view.’ … Whatever they put, this weight on these – these very delicate, fragile little things which are these stories trying to – trying to grow and become alive and – all that pressure does nothing but, you know, really hurt your chances of actually creating something like that.

GARY ROSS (“Big,” “Dave,” and “Seabiscuit”): Success is sort of an elusive word. Were you satisfied? Do other people see the movie and are they satisfied? Does it evoke something strong and powerful? Not everybody – and this is not about consensus. This is about were you able to communicate something specifically to somebody and move them? You’re not always gonna be able to do that, and some people are not gonna like your stuff, and other people are gonna like your stuff, and that’s okay. The real issue is, you know, there’s a great line in J.D. Salinger when he talks about writing, he says, “The ultimate question is not ‘Were you successful or weren’t you successful?’ and ‘How much money did you make? How much money did you make?’ The real question at the end of your days when you’re judged as a writer is, ‘Were all your stars out? Were all of your stars out? Did you live up to your potential? Did you say everything you had to say? Whatever was in you, did you let it out? Did you censor yourself? Did you have the guts to realize those things?’” And if so, you know, I think in a lot of ways that is the definition of success.”

One of my last interviews was with Nora Ephron, the writer of “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Bewitched.” Thinking about those many writers who do not enjoy success, I asked Ephron how long a writer should try before giving up.

It was clearly a difficult question for her to answer. Ephron started out haltingly, but finally responded, “I wouldn’t go near that question with a ten-foot pole because you never know if someone who hangs in there isn’t gonna turn out to be fantastic. It’s just a question of can you feed yourself in the meantime?”

When Ephron finished her answer, I thought back to a writer I used to know when I worked at Video Archives. Jeff Maguire was a frequent customer, one of the nicest guys in the world, and always struggling to pay the bills that he, his wife, and his young son racked up every month.

Maguire had helped write the Sylvester Stallone film “Victory” in the early 1980s but for most of the next decade, he had little luck in the screenwriting trade. He was so desperate for work at one point that he turned to writing dialogue that dolls said when kids pulled their chord!

Finally, in 1992, he decided he’d had enough and was about to move his family back to the East Coast and start life anew. As Maguire was finishing his last spec script, he received a shut-off notice from the power company due to unpaid – and, at that point, unpayable – bills.

Then almost over night, his life changed. That last spec script was called “In the Line of Fire” and Clint Eastwood liked it so much that he wanted to star in it. Maguire was nominated for an Academy Award – and as many as a half dozen of his old spec scripts (which no one had wanted just a few days before) sold, bringing him millions of dollars.

So Ephron is clearly right – some writers will eventually succeed beyond their wildest dreams if they can just figure out how to feed themselves in the meantime.

I ran across these very same issues as I made DREAMS ON SPEC. The further I followed my three aspiring writers, the more I realized that I was struggling to overcome many of the same hurdles – of creativity, inspiration, and solitude – that my subjects were encountering.

It’s not easy making a film about the world inhabited by screenwriters – it’s not exactly an action-filled extravaganza! But it is enormously rewarding – both for me and, I hope, for the audience.

In the end, I believe I captured these three writers’ journeys – and I hope I’ve succeeded in portraying the artist’s struggle in modern society. It’s not an easy struggle – because not only do you have to keep working and pushing and striving, but you also have to stay focused on your vision and your goals.

“Dave,” “Big,” and “Seabiscuit” writer Gary Ross perfectly summed things up in the last interview I did for DREAMS ON SPEC. When I asked him how screenwriters should define success, Ross offered an answer that is true for everyone who has a dream on spec.

“I think that it’s easy to give it away – give the definition of success away, empower other people in determining whether you have talent. The Catch-22 is that the more you do that, the less you’ll be able to write. That’s the hard part – writing is all about the preservation of your own voice. So if you give that voice away by guessing what you think or you think or you think as you go, you’ll have less to say and then [your inner voice] will go away entirely.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why High Concept?

Chris Soth has written a very good article about how to come up with high concept ideas. It's simple and straight to the point and I think will get your creative juices flowing in new directions. By the way, Chris puts on a great one-day seminar if anyone is curious.


Getting High: How and Why to Write High Concept Screenplays. And How to Make Sure They Don't SUCK.
By Chris Soth
June 11, 2009

Summer is here, the season of the blockbuster, and like so many summers before it, the “blockbuster” fare will be mainly driven by two things:
- Sequels.
- High Concept Fare.
- And Sequels to High Concept Fare.

Ok, that’s three things. But I wanted to point out that there’s a significant overlap between the two AND that the High Concept rules the summer, Hollywood’s biggest money-making season.

High Concept: What IS it?
Simply put, a High Concept movie is one … driven by … its concept. The concept — or idea of the movie predominates almost every other element in it — is the reason the movie got made, and probably the reason you’re going to see it, right?
Yes, it may have a movie star or two, it may have delightful product tie-ins, but the reason you came to see it, want to see it, need to see it, is …
… that idea.

It’s so cool. You have to see that movie. Maybe you’ve always wondered what a movie on this premise would be like, maybe you’d never think of it in a million years, but the moment you heard, you realized “Yes! Wow! Why hasn’t that movie been made? It’d be so cool to see that! In fact, I never knew till now, but I’ve GOT to see that!”
It was the concept — the idea of the movie that brought you to the theater.

So …
Why Write High Concept?
As a novice screenwriter, chances are your concept, the central idea of your screenplay, is your best chance to get it read. It’s unlikely you have a major movie star attached to your screenplay, or Steven Spielberg wants to direct, or that you’ve brought $100 million in financing to the table along with a fat deal for European distribution and a deal for Burger King to distribute toys based on your main character with their happy meals … but kudos if you have.
If you are like most of us, however …

… tapping into the above “that’s so COOL” feeling is your best chance to get read, getting read is your best chance to get represented, and getting represented is your best chance to get your screenplay optioned, sold, developed, shot, and distributed. Being ready with that “one-line”/”elevator pitch” opens the door.
So, am I saying, "Throw away all your personal stories that you love, and write only High Concept Hollywood crap?" Am I telling you to “sell out”?
No, I am not. Let me ask you:

Have you ever liked a High Concept movie? Were you one of the millions who flocked to Iron Man last summer? Did you like it? Did you like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Independence Day, Men in Black, or Spiderman? Back to the Future, Roger Rabbit, Liar Liar, Transformers? The list goes on and on …
If you had written any of these movies, do you think you’d be proud of the accomplishment? Could you sell out and take pride in your work? To me, they seem mutually exclusive.

So, would it be selling out to write a movie you actually love? The key: Find an idea where the High Concept and what you love as a writer overlap. And write something that could be one of your favorite movies one day.
And how do we come up with the High Concept idea?
Short answer: Look to the supernatural. That is, pick something that doesn’t actually occur in the real world because it would go against the laws of physics or nature. Look at the examples above: There aren’t really space aliens as far we know, teenagers don’t gain spider powers in our own world, we can’t time travel, robots are not using our planet as the final battleground in their eons long war, and cartoon rabbits stay pretty much to themselves. But in the movies …

… we get to see those things!

And that alone is often worth the price of admission. There’s no real Jurassic Park, but if we could go and see dinosaurs, we’d sure want to … and till they manage to clone them for us.
Another thing? Movies depicting the supernatural will have to use…Special Effects! Because you just can’t shoot that stuff, it doesn’t really happen. And we love seeing special effects! Especially since they got good. Blockbusters are made on them.

While not ALL High Concept is supernatural, MOST supernatural is High Concept. So that’s a pretty good place to start.

And … how do you make sure that your new High Concept idea isn’t selling out?


Make the supernatural phenomenon, whatever it is … a metaphor for a human condition or weakness. You can do it. Think about it: Peter Parker is coming into his own as an adolescent, as all of us do, but is lagging a little behind on his maturity, so he must learn: “with great power comes great responsibility”. Iron Man has a weak heart and so covers his weakness in armor, as his alter ego protects himself with superficial relations with the opposite sex. The hero of Liar, Liar depends on dishonesty to make his living, but it’s leaked into his personal relationships and needs correcting.

So. Come up with a concept that is a “must-see.” If it’s not readily apparent, start turning your mind to the supernatural … magic, charms, superpowers, time travel, werewolves and vampires, abominable snowmen, aliens, and Loch Ness Monsters. Then connect them via metaphor to something inexorably human and emotional.

Chris Soth, creator of the Mini-Movie Method, has had many years of success as a Hollywood screenwriter. He has had his work produced by major studios, holds an MFA in screenwriting, and is the author of Sold! How I Set Up Three Pitches in Hollywood.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

And the project is SOLD!

Well, it finally happened. I finally sold a project, not just another option but an actual real life sale! Contract is signed and the wheels are in motion. The idea was originally pitched years ago and had been optioned previously but nothing really happened. There had been interest off and on over the years but finally last week, it sold. I feel a great sense of accomplishment. I'm hoping that this will be the domino that starts the chain reaction. So, I guess it's true that perseverance eventually pays off. What I've learned most from this experience is that we can't control when we sell. We can only control whether or not we give up.

Best wishes to you all and remember to hold on to your dreams and never ever give up.