Monthly Archives: May 2014

One thing screenwriters hear all the time is “Write what you know.” Well… in a lot of cases that can be pretty limiting. Yes, writers should be drawing on their personal experiences for sure, because what you’ve seen and heard for real can be used as real in your writing, even if you have to enhance it or use it out of its original context.

But writers… most writers… come up with ideas for scripts all the time on subjects they know nothing about and what separates the good or great writers from the pack is what they do about it.

The good writers do RESEARCH. Real research. They don’t just look up stuff on Wikipedia or do a cursory internet search, they get out there in the real world and find what they’re looking for to bring authenticity to whatever they are writing about.

I read a script not too long ago that mostly took place in a Hospital. To say this might have been the worst script I have ever read is giving it some credit. The paper it was printed on threw up a little knowing what was written there. Nonetheless, the Hospital scenes were extra astounding due to the fact that the writer got everything about them 100% wrong.

Where do I start… ok… A nurse who is an integral part of the plot is only a REGISTERED NURSE because it’s part of her community service for being arrested for prostitution. No nursing school. No nursing license. Community service. The protagonist uses vacant operating rooms in the Hospital to do illegal operations on someone as part of a revenge plan without anyone there knowing or finding out. They use a “spare Hospital Room” for this same person while they recover, keeping it a secret from everyone.

I asked him, “Where is this Hospital? On Mars?” I then asked him if he had done one second of research on how hospitals really work. I knew the answer. “No.” I then told him that none if this would happen, ever, in any hospital in this country, ever. His answer was, “But it’s a movie. It’s not real.” It was then that I thanked him for letting read his opus and made a quick getaway.

Most all scripts are fictional and most are set in the real world and thus, need to be grounded in that world. If you’re going to be writing a film about the Secret Service, you need to find something out about how they operate. If you’re setting a film in a hospital or crime lab or anywhere else real, you need to learn the reality of those places so your script is steeped in that reality.

If your characters are doctors or cops or lawyers or scientists or any profession that requires a specific knowledge or ability, it’s your job to obtain enough of that knowledge to write intelligently about it. AND… you’ll find that knowledge opens all kinds of plot doors you never would have thought of in a lot of cases.

Ok, Bob… since you think you know so much… how do we go about doing this the way you suggest instead of just surfing the net for our education.

I can only go by what I’ve done in the past. I’ve interviewed and gone on ride-alongs with cops. I’ve interviewed real life detectives and even one Chief of Police of a semi-large city. I’ve bought lunch or visited at work to watch them in action, all kinds of doctors, forensic scientists, gunsmiths, military experts of all kinds, lawyers, art experts, Theoretical Physicists, Historians, Chefs, FBI agents, Theologists… You name it, I went and found them.

And I found they all had the same thing in common. They wanted me to get what I was writing about correct. To a person, they mostly hated the way their professions had been portrayed in film and on TV and were more than happy to help me get it right. Did I know all these people before interviewing them or watching them work? Nope. I cold called  some of them and got referrals from friends for others and told them I was writing a film about what they do for a living and wanted to get it right. A few have said no, but mostly it’s been a fabulous experience leading to a couple of lasting friendships.

Great research makes your job writing a great story easier and it helps once you’ve optioned or sold a script, too. I can think of three separate instances where I was in production meetings getting notes where someone has questioned whether something I wrote in the script could really happen. In all three instances I was able to use the research to prove that each thing could and in most cases would happen in whatever setting or occupation I set my story. Not only are they impressed that you know, but sometimes stop asking those kinds of questions after a while because you’ve demonstrated that you do your research.

Yes. It takes more of your valuable time. Yes, you do have delay starting your script with the great idea. Yes, it takes effort and does cost something, but it also leads to your script being a whole lot better than if you don’t. It might make the difference between an Option and a Pass.

It is. A business. It can be a big business. If you want to be a screenwriter and you want to succeed, you need to be creative, be able to write great stories, and understand the business end of things.

This week, a screenwriter touched base with a question. He had a script that a producer said she loved. Loved. And she’d like to option it and move forward, but… she was too busy with other projects to take it on right now.

My immediate thought was, “This is the nicest Pass ever.” Not fair to the writer, but a nice Pass.

Why? Because I think that anytime they don’t actually give you a contract to sign it’s a 100% Pass. You should think that, too. It will save you a LOT of grief.

That said, the writer in question said the producer left him with the impression that she would come back at an unspecified later date and option the script from him. So for the point of this exercise, we’re going to buy this.

His question was, “Should I put my script away and wait for her to come back to me?” My well thought out answer was, “Are you out of your frigging mind?” NO. NO. And if that’s wasn’t clear enough. NO.

Here’s where I go back to my car example. You have a car you own. You want to sell it. A buyer comes and says, “I LOVE the car and I want to buy it, but I’m busy for the next six months, so if you don’t show it to anyone in that time and save it for me, I’ll come back and buy it. But don’t contact me or ask about it.” You gonna put that car in the garage and forget about selling it now? Only if you’re terminally stupid.

You as a writer and businessperson need to do what’s best for you and your business. That means you get that script right back out there and if this producer wants to buy it at a later date, she has to take her chances it’s still available.

You certainly don’t put it away in hopes the producer might come back. I can promise you, PROMISE YOU, that the same producer wouldn’t do anything close to this for you. No producer would.

Screenwriters sometimes forget that they are just like any other business trying to sell a commodity. You built/created something and now you want to sell it. That’s the whole idea, unless you want to make it yourself.

You are in the BUSINESS of screenwriting. You network to sell yourself as a writer and your scripts. You query. You work to get a manager or agent. To SELL your product. Not to give it away or take a bad deal because you’re desperate to have anyone make your script into a film or TV show at any cost.

Without a business mindset, you are a pigeon, waiting to be plucked by people in this industry who would love for all writers to think they are betting from a weaker hand. That the writer is in a perpetual subservient position in any negotiation or deal and should be grateful for anything they get. This happens all the time to writers who are fearful and desperate and buy this crap. Writers who don’t realize that they need to treat their work like a business and deal with it that way. Without the emotion that often gets in the way.

If you’re a good writer, you possess a valuable skill. If everyone could do it, there wouldn’t be a demand for good writers. There is. Good writers who understand what they have and treat it like the business it is.

Be confident in yourself and your business. If you have producers who want to talk about your work, it’s because they see value in it, and if you’re good enough to have that happen to you, you belong in that room with them. Not dealing from a weakened position because you’re fearful of them. I’m not saying you make demands that are unreasonable, but you act like you belong there and you’re ready to conduct fair and equitable business.

This goes for agents and managers, too. There is no need to feel you're in a weak position when dealing with them either. As a writer you’d don’t work for a manager or an agent, you work with them, like a businessperson.

It takes a while for most writers to get to this place. Every successful writer is there. Every one of them. They know their business is to think of great stories and write them down. A semi-rare commodity. And one that is valued. If you don’t think that way, start to. Learn to value yourself and what you have and build treat your writing as a business. You'll be amazed at how liberating it is.

I’m starting this Blog out with a disclaimer. The following is my OPINION. It’s based on what I’ve seen and heard and read, but it’s still my opinion and if you disagree, wonderful. That’s why I love talking to people and reading about screenwriting because everyone has their own way of seeing it. I learn from these discussions and articles and Blogs all the time. But one thing, to me, sticks out from people who do this for a living. They all have their own unique voice and you can absolutely see it when you read their work. The voice that makes their work stand out and special.

When I’m sent a script to read and it’s unreadable, I’m faced with a couple of ways to approach the writer. Sometimes I come out and ask if they want the truth or if they just want me to tell them it’s great. They always ask for the truth, but a lot of them lie because when I get their reactions to my thoughts, it’s like I shot them in the heart.

This Blog is courtesy of a writer who asked me to read his script, which he said in very sincere terms was ready for the “Big Time”. I’m not sure exactly what the “Big Time” is, but this script was not ready anything close to that. The one thing that stuck out was the phony voice it was written in. It was yet another attempt at a Quentin Tarantino voice, including the prerequisite “Royale with Cheese” scene.

I asked this sincere writer if he thought copying another writer’s style was what he intended to do or if he fell into it because all he’d ever read was Tarantino scripts. He said, and this is an exact quote, “It never hurts to copy the best”.

This is where I get down on my knees and beg anyone who wants to be a screenwriter to please stop this. The way you get a career in this business is to NOT copy what you see, but to write and write and find your own unique voice. The voice that says “Someone genuine and different wrote this.”

One the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten on my writing was when someone was sent a page one rewrite I did on another writer’s script for a production company and then this person called me, saying they loved the rewrite and could tell from the first page it was me who had written it by the voice.

I wear that like badge of honor. You should too.

Every once in a while I get to read a script where I can tell the writer that not only did I like the premise and the execution, but that I found their writing voice unique, different, and wonderful. I got one a couple of weeks ago. I’m not naming names (Emily Blake), but it was sure fun to discover. And I found myself a little jealous of her pretty damn terrific premise. A good thing.

Occasionally a writer can be open enough with their writing to find their own unique voice quickly. Sometimes it takes a dozen scripts for them to figure it out. To reach that comfort level with writing something as yourself and yourself only. Not trying to force it or fake it, but getting to that zone where it flows from the real you. Not easy. But if it was easy, everyone could do it. They can’t.

That said……… Finding your own voice is not a substitute for having to write a great story. But, again in my own opinion, I'm convinced finding your own voice can make finding that great story easier.

So my challenge to you is to look at your older scripts, if you have them, and see if your voice changes depending on the script or if your own unique voice as a writer can be seen in each one. You might be surprised either way. To discover you haven’t yet found it or that you can see the tread of your own style as a writer developing through each script.

And don’t be hard on yourself if you haven’t found it yet. It takes time and knowing yourself as a writer. But know that you if try to copy the style of writers you admire you’ll probably take a lot longer to find your own.

Next time you sit down to write your next scene or script, reflect on why you think it’s YOU and you only that can relate this story the way YOU want to. Then tell it or write it the way only you can. To try and write what you think others may want is a trip into the land of the futile. You can never please everyone and you can never make everyone happy, so it makes sense to be true to yourself first.

Yes. You’ll still have to do rewrites and make changes because, well, that's the industry you’ve chosen and a script is never finished until it’s shot, but it’s easier implement notes and changes when it’s the voice that uniquely speaks from you and you alone making them.

I was talking to a friend the other day about his film project and how excited he is that his Kickstarter worked and how he now had the seed money to begin the arduous trek to actually getting his film made.

He’d set a realistic goal, for starters, not one of those “I need to raise Two Hundred Thousand dollars in 10 days, so if you have Two Hundred Thousand friends who can give a dollar each we’ll be funded for our film about the dangers of Glitter Tattoos”. He also said he got a couple of nasty notes from people who didn’t understand how HE could get funded when they couldn’t. I wasn’t surprised.

It got me thinking about why I think it’s important to actively support people who are trying to write and/or make films and TV. I am a firm believer in independent film and love what it can be in the right hands. I’d rather see a good small film than a big blockbuster any day of the week. (Except for the Lego Movie… that one kicked ass and now I’m singing “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!”)

It’s a relatively small community, this group of people actively trying to be a part of this industry, and I’m startled and saddened when I hear writers and actors and filmmakers getting upset or disappointed that someone has achieved some success and it isn’t them. We should all as a community honor success and genuinely be happy for the people who worked so hard to get it. I feel great when I see someone I know, or don’t know for that matter, get that golden ticket they worked so tirelessly for.

I know how it feels to be on both sides of that equation. I know friends and colleagues and acquaintances who are happy for me when good things happen and I’ve been with people who don’t understand why it couldn’t have happened to them instead.

Success is NOT a Zero Sum Game. Because one person is successful doesn’t mean another person won’t be. Success is open to all comers. Yes, you do have to perform. Yes, there is a modicum of good fortune involved at times. Yes, who you know can be important. But those last two things fall to the wayside if you write something or make something wonderful. Every overnight success I know worked like crazy to get there. They honed their chosen craft. They trialed and errored their nails down to the bone. They networked (the right way), building real lasting relationships with people in the industry. And they were encouraged by their friends and by some of the people trying to do the same things. It should be all of the people.

I love to encourage new artists. I give to projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo because I LIKE the project or the person whether I know them or not. I’ve helped writers in past by something as simple as giving notes on a script to as much sending a script to a producer because I loved it and it fit what was being sought. I’ve done this for friends. For people who have networked with me the right way. I’m no great shakes in the industry right now. I hope to be soon and things are looking pretty favorable, but what little I can do right now I want to do.

Why? Because we all have a shared goal. That’s the thing that binds us all in a kind of wonderful desperate hopeful community. To someday see our words, our images, on a screen entertaining, inspiring, exciting, scaring, thrilling, and educating people depending on what we’re trying to do.

So I encourage you to stop being jealous of other people’s success if that’s what you do now. Be joyful when someone gets what they’ve dreamed of. Mike Le got some amazing news this week about his script and a director hired for it. I couldn’t be happier for him. I don’t know him, but I bet I know how hard he worked for that moment. I’ve had moments like that and know how they feel. Pretty damn good. Way to go, Mike.

This Blog also came about when I heard someone bitch and moan about an acting part that went to someone they know instead of them. I’ve been on the actor side, too. If I hold my hands about four inches apart that gives you an idea of my acting range. If there’s a part within that range I’ll knock it out of the park, but those are few, so I’ve had my share of no calls after an audition. But I’ve never been angry at the person who got the part, like some I’ve actually heard. The person who got it had a better audition than I did or looked more like the director or producer envisioned that part to be. You can be disappointed and still be happy for the others.

When success eludes you or someone else gets what you wanted, it’s NOT personal. The factors involved, including the other person probably did a better job than you, are out of your control. I know that’s a very hard thing to swallow sometimes. I’ve had to do it a lot over the years I struggled. But all you can do is strive to be better and hopefully honor the person who was.