Monthly Archives: September 2014

I get asked to critique screenplays all the time. I get them from production companies to read for my notes for possible rewrite jobs, from my manager for the same reasons (got one from him just five minutes ago), from friends who want me to read their latest and greatest, from strangers who think I’m going to read their script and give it to my good friend Steven Spielberg. (He’s not my friend, by the way. When I worked on Jurassic Park 2 he wasn’t even there, just the ILM effects guys who were fun as hell. We laughed the entire two days they shot me running and getting smashed by a T-Rex.)

Sometimes it’s fun, reading those scripts. When I read a bad one with a great premise and I can instantly see what needs to be done to fix it and know the notes will resonate and will probably get me a good crack the job. Sometimes it’s not fun. I’ve had to ask a producer (who I knew well enough to ask) after reading a script, “What would have possessed you to buy this piece of crap?” It can be fun when one of my friends writes a great one. And horrible when I get one from somebody that's irredeemable.

People who have asked me to read their scripts will tell you I do not pull punches. That doesn’t mean I’m nasty or make fun of the writing or subject matter, I just tell the truth as I see it, good or bad.

But you know who I am hardest on? Me. You should be too. No, not hard on me, on yourself.

Great writers I know are the ones who can say to themselves, after reading their own scripts, “This doesn’t work.”

Self-editing is essential to being a good writer. I’m not talking about fixing a typo or polishing dialogue. I’m talking about looking at whole scenes, whole sections, whole acts, and blowing them up if you have to.

Too often I meet and talk to writers who are convinced that their scripts are perfect as they are. If they were filmed as they wrote them, they’d win any award they can dream about. This is NOT TRUE, of course, but they believe it. I know I did when I first started writing, but then I was lucky enough to work around some pros who set me straight pretty quickly.

There is nothing in a script that can’t be improved or changed. I’m not talking about notes you get from others on occasion that make you throw up in your mouth a little, I’m talking about notes you get from YOU. You, as a writer, need to believe that there is nothing in your own scripts you can’t change to make your story improve. You need to view your own work with the same eyes you read other people's scripts. You need to be that critical. It will improve what you’re working on. It will improve your old work.

Got some time? Go back and read your old unsold scripts. Read them like you didn’t write them. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find you need to rewrite. How much you hate.

I have an old script that all of a sudden is gaining a lot of interest. Wrote it at least 8 years ago. Because of this renewed interest, I read it again and was appalled at what I saw. So I immediately embarked on a rewrite to fix the glaring weaknesses, overwritten dialogue, and a clichéd last page to beat all clichéd last pages. A 1980’s bad TV series episode last page. And this was after it had started gaining interest again. I’ve sent the new version out to the interested parties saying, “This is the version I want you to have, please.” So far, everyone agrees it’s a LOT better.

Now it has me looking back at everything I’ve written and making the changes I once thought none of my old scripts would ever need.

You, as a writer, have to be able to do the same thing. Be the hardest critic of your own work. Your stories need to be living, growing, ever changing things. Take them out and do a test drive every once in a while. Change the technology in them to reflect today. Fix the stupid dialogue. Blow up your bad second act if you have to. Get rid of characters that don’t work. Kill subplots that don’t move the story forward or fix them so they do. Be bold. Use your improved ability as a writer to bring all your work up to your standards today. You’ll discover all kinds of things and maybe resurrect an old script, making it new and exciting.

The difference? Expectations can be anything you can imagine. Reality mostly bites you in the ass.

This Blog is courtesy of a few new writers I’ve dealt with in the past couple of weeks. I got a lot of response to my last Blog, mostly about the writing to budget part of it. I talked about writing low budget films because I said, and I do believe it, that a new writer has a much much better chance of getting traction with a low budget script than with a high budget one. And this is purely based on numbers.

I can count on my hands the number of entities who can produce a high budget script. And the truth is, they don’t buy spec scripts anymore. Look at what the big budget films of the last five years consist of if you think I’m wrong.

Maybe a couple of exceptions a year. But out of the thousands and thousands of high budget specs floating around out there, two or so exceptions a year does not offer a new writer very good odds. You have a better chance of being killed by a rhino.

The problem is most every new writer I heard from about this subject assured me that they were the exception. Their big budget epic is going to knock the studio execs off their feet and most likely a bidding war will ensue. All they have to do is get it to “fill in the blank”.

1. Spielberg

2. Jonah Hill

3. David Fincher

4. Denzel (they never say his last name)

5. You get the drift.

Expectations. Sky high. No semblance of reality.

There was a time when people did research and/or worked to find out how to do something. I’m not sure if it’s cultural or just the sheer numbers now of people writing screenplays, but those days seem to be gone for most new writers. They storm onto Internet Boards of all kinds demanding satisfaction for their monumental efforts. And when they find out the truth, they whine. “Why won’t the agents at CAA read my script? Why won’t George Clooney read my script? It’s not fair.”

That’s right. Life isn’t fair. Get used to it. You’re not living in an insular world where they don’t keep score and everyone gets to play regardless of skill anymore. Everybody is NOT a winner.

There are ways to get your scripts read by agents, managers, actors, directors, and producers. You network. You query. You use websites like the Blacklist. You enter screenwriting contests if you want (although personally I think 98% of these are worthless). You go to pitchfests. You don’t know what these things are? Go look them up. Learn to do the nose grinding work that most successful writers have done.

Now, you also have to write great scripts to get noticed and I can count the great scripts I’ve read this year on three fingers. And I’ve read quite a few. So it’s not easy.

And I’m not innocent in all of this either. I was filled with unreasonable expectations from the moment I started writing. Luckily, I learned some valuable lessons early on. Painful lessons. Extremely painful lessons. So I listened and I took those lessons and I studied the industry and I found out how to get my scripts read the way the industry expects me to.

Did it temper my expectations? Yes absolutely, except one. I lost that one a couple of weeks ago.

My last remaining expectation was that I was going to write features. Movies I could walk red carpets to see. In the theaters. It still may happen, maybe. I have some scripts optioned that if they get made might not go to VOD first.

My first credited film was for a big Cable Network. They were the only people offering me the chance to write films. It was where opportunity came first. Luckily for me, it was a huge success for the network. Sky high ratings and good reviews. And then… the next five credited films came. Also for Cable Networks. Also rating successes. The one film I thought might go and get theatrical release was postponed yet again not long ago. It still has a very good chance of being made next year, but again… expectations.

My CV says loudly… this guy writes for TV. Very successfully, thank you God, but for TV. Not what I had planned.

Then reality a couple of weeks ago. In form of a very very good friend.

Jeff Perry is an amazing actor. You all might know him as Cyrus, the President’s Chief of Staff, on the show Scandal. Jeff, Gary Sinise, and Terry Kinney founded The Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago right out of High School. It’s still one of the premiere theater companies in the world. If you don’t know Scandal, look Jeff up. You know his face and you know that he is uniformly excellent at anything he does on TV, film, and on stage. He is also my good friend.

We had breakfast a couple of weeks back and were talking about my career. (His is set) I was bemoaning the lack of theatrical films on my CV. He told me, and correctly I might add, that if I was getting a reputation for being a TV guy that was great, because the future of this business was right where I am. TV, VOD, Netflicks type outlets, Cable Networks. Look at the kind of risks all these entities are taking. Look at the originality across the board. I know all these things are true, but expectations…

The more we talked seriously about it and the more I thought about it afterward, the more I came to realize that I am positioned as a writer in a pretty good spot for where the future of original writing in this business is going.

Right after that I had a general meeting with a big production company that does both theatrical and TV producing. We talked about my theatrical film scripts and they asked to see a couple of them, but they brought me in because of my TV resume. So they asked what I had there. I told them. They asked for my hour drama pilot. But… They really got jazzed when I talked about a mini-series idea I’m working on with actor/director Elise Robertson. TV mini-series. Jazzed enough to ask that Elise and I come back in for a formal pitch.

Not bad. Expectations and Reality. Sometimes, just sometimes, reality doesn’t bite you in the ass. You accept it and embrace it.