staring into the abyss

27 May

There’s a guy I played basketball with.  Let’s call him Johnny Wordell.  Cause that was his name.  Johnny Wordell.  Johnny was older – and short.  Like 5’5 probably.  With a Super Mario Brother’s mustache.  He was nice.  In good shape.  Fast.  But not the best player.  Not bad – but not the best.  If he missed a shot and you had the ball – you could guarantee that he was going to be running up behind you like a freight train and would take you out at the knees.

But here’s the thing:

Every now and then – through some bizarre chance of fate – the stars would line up and Johnny would hit a 3.  Or make some amazing behind the back pass.  You would think that would be great – Johnny having a good night – and if you were on his team – you’d be thankful.

Just the opposite.

Hitting the three – making the between the legs pass – these things only encouraged Johnny to be a little more reckless.  Try that pass again.  Take a half court shot.  All night you’d be chasing bad passes and ridiculous bricked shots.

This is how the spec sale works for writers.

It’s a lottery ticket.  Think of it that way.

Read this brilliant post from Carson Reeves:

http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/2010/05/why-bad-scripts-sell-and-why-it.html

The hard part of making it in this business?  It takes work.  Lots of it.

The hard part of not making it in this business?  It takes work.  Lots of it.

Nothing different in step one or two – just the stars lining up.

More often than not – breaking in is a lot like that Johnny Wordell behind the back pass that makes it to your teammate and he hits the shot.  It’s a one in a million thing.  Everything was perfect – and you slipped through the cracks.  Having the talent to stay there is where the rubber meets the road.

I believe if you stay in this game long enough – everyone can get read.  By friends, by agents, by stars.  But being able to produce past that one script that get you attention – there’s the rub.

How many professional screenwriters can you name?  More than you have fingers?  Why do you think that is?

I wrote my script to direct it myself.  It is full of a lot of the things that books tell you not to do.  It might make a reader fall off his chair.  I wrote it full of notes on how I was going to direct it.  It wasn’t meant so much for others to read.  But they did.  And it got noticed.  And it got stars attached.  And multiple studios.  And a director.  And I got an agent and took lots of meetings and did takes on other projects.

Like winning the lottery.

One producer told me he thought my script was great.  I said – Really?  Cause I think it’s just OK.  Its genre.  It’s written to be what it is.  I wanted something a bit splashy and attention grabbing that could be done on the cheap.  He responded by saying:

I read a couple hundred scripts a year.  This is better than 99% of the stuff that comes across my desk.

I said:  You must get some pretty crappy scripts then.

SIDE NOTE:  do not follow my path.  If I’ve learned anything, telling the truth doesn’t work in Hollywood…

Bottom line:

Things get bought and things get made – and really, there is no accounting for taste.  The stars line up, you know somebody, a star is looking to play a hooker, someone somewhere thinks that there’s money to be made in a movie about turning people into human centipedes… whatever.  This is life.  It’s not fair.  It’s not like a race where the fastest wins.

There are a million writers more talented with more scripts out there than me.  Was it unfair that my script waded through the piles and got attention?  YES.  If it makes you feel any better – its been read and rejected by more companies than I knew existed.

What does it mean for you?

Same as it does for me.  Nothing.  You are your path.  The way you get there is not complaining and whining. (Oh if that were true!  I would be KING!)  It is by writing.

Put your head down.  Ass to seat.  Fingers to keys.  And get better.  If not better, than more prolific.  Sometimes volume beats talent.  And the more you write, the better you get.

And when you’re not writing – make friends with rich people.  And people who know people in the business.  Cause sometimes, its better to be lucky than talented.

Go.  Do it.  And stop looking at the guy next to you.  The only guy holding you back is you.

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The Next Step

25 May

There’s always the next step.

The problem with filmmaking – as in life – you never reach the top.  Let me put it another way – there are ten million people on the same set of stairs as you – all trying to reach the top.  Each one of them thinks they are one or two steps away.  But each step they climb reveals more steps.

Except for those people at the top.  They taunt and tease us.  Some of those people only had to climb 4 or 5 stairs.  Some of them climbed a hundred.  A thousand.  For each of us, the journey is different.  And that’s what sucks.

To make it in film, you can’t follow a path and be successful.  It’s not that simple.  There are schools – but that doesn’t mean you’ll make it.  You can work your way up – but it doesn’t mean you’ll make it.  You can have famous parents – and that certainly helps – but it doesn’t mean you’ll make it.

In film, there is not really a version of the guy that plays the coffee-house once a month and calls himself a musician.

There’s made it – and not made it.

Sure – there are a lot of people who exist on the fringes of the business.  Even a wedding photographer is a photographer.  But it’s not what we all are here for is it?  We have a burning desire to tell our stories.  To get our films out there.  But how can we do it when the dream we chase is so elusive?

9000 films were submitted to Sundance this year.  200 got in.  Maybe 10 get distributed.  That’s 8990 broken dreams.  And of the 10 that made it – let me ask you:  What’s the last Sundance film you saw?  That you remember?

Orson Wells said:  To paint, you need paint and a canvas.  To make movies, you need a bank and an army.

This is not easy – what we strive for.  Which is why so few make it.

Even when you’re a successful screenwriter – when you’re making more than 1 million dollars a year – it seems you write more things that don’t make it to the screen than things that do.  There are millions of scripts are written each year.  And while more movies are getting made now than ever – that’s a lot of scripts that are sitting around collecting dust.

Like mine.  Like yours.

Everywhere you go, everything you read,  says “write a great script – and the doors will open.”  If every movie that was made had a great script – I might be more inclined to believe this – but it seems like “write a crazy blockbuster script that defies logic, is based on toys from the 80’s and has a hot girl in it” might be a better path to take if you want to make it.

Here’s what I know.

You can’t control anything in this business.  Insecurity and confusion is the oil and gas that make this car run.

So what do you do?

Your best.

Each day you wake up and try to put words to paper and story to script and emotion and character to film and hope that someone out there sees what you see and they pull you up to the top of the stairs.

Here’s my path to success:

Desire to be a filmmaker

Start making short films

Go to film school and get masters degree

Make a film

Win numerous awards in over 15 festivals

Sit back and wait for offers

No offers

Start to grip on commercials

Move to art direct commercials

3 years after film – someone finally offers me a job.  Cutting down 100 episodes of a bad sitcom into a 10 minute clip reel.

hired to direct commercials

hired to produce documentary series

hired to produce/direct documentary series

hired to direct bad drama series

write my own script

raise 1 million dollars to shoot it

try to get 1 million more

end up with two major stars attached and film greenlit at 10 million dollars.  with a start date.

stars leave to do 120 million dollar film

get job doing infomercials

keep writing

The next step?

…to be continued.

It’s a long way to the top of the stairs.  Or its a short way.  Problem is we’ll never know.  Unless we stop climbing.

Best time to get a new idea

23 May

…when you’re suffering in the middle of your old one.

There’s nothing like wandering through the lawn maze of ACT 2 on your current script to make you mind race with the untold possibility and wonder of your NEW IDEA.  Everything you’re doing now seems so two thousand and late compared to the genius brewing in the NEW IDEA.  In fact – you can’t believe you are still writing something so bad and derivative when there is the potential BEST SUMMER FILM ever just sitting there in the back of your head.

Whenever this happens – and it does happen, like, every script – I think of one man.

Ever heard of Ron Bass?

If you haven’t – you’ve surely heard of his movies.  Rain Man. Dangerous Minds.  Joy Luck Club.  My Best Friend’s Wedding.  Sleeping with the Enemy.  Right now, this guy has 8 films listed in development on IMDB.  For a run through the 80-90’s – this was the go to guy for just about any kind of script.  And this doesn’t come close to counting the number of rewrites and passes he made on other people’s projects.

Ron Bass started writing as a kid.  By 17, he had a novel – and showed it to his teacher who said it was good – but a bit too personal.  Ron responded by burning the manuscript and giving up writing.  He instead went to law school.  At Stanford.  At Yale.  Finally at Harvard.  Specialized in Entertainment Law – moved out to LA and eventually worked his way up to partner at his firm.  Then he remembered he liked to write.  He started waking up at 3 AM and would crank out stories till he had to go to work.  His first novel was reworked from the memory of his burned manuscript.  He would publish 2 more books before finally turning his last book into a screenplay.  That screenplay started an impressive run that made Ron into the high-priced screenwriter he remains to this day.

Ron is somewhat famous for how he works.  He sits down and writes up to 12-18 hours a day.  He has a team of research assistants that get him whatever info he needs about whatever he is looking at.

And then he writes.

Half the day is the project he’s working on – the other half is the next project.

Half the day is about cranking out the pages.  Half the day is being creative about what’s next.

How does he do it?  “Discipline, grasshopper.  Discipline.”

I don’t have the luxury or patience for discipline, thank you.  I want my brilliant script and I want it now, thank you.  I have the job, the two kids, no time… I want it all and I want it on the first draft, thank you.

Oh well.

My advice?  The great idea will still be there when you plow through this script. Truth is – this script most likely started as a great idea in the middle of your last failed script.  The best way to get better is to keep writing and the only way to do that is to finish.  The more bad scripts you’ve finished – the better chances are that you’ll be a good writer when you get to your truly great idea.  In other words, the best way to get better is to write till you stop being mediocre.

And start taking notes.  Now.  While you’re at work.  On the train.  In the car.  Flesh the new idea out till it sparkles like gold.

And once you finish the stinker you’re in the middle of – jump into your new one with excitement.

Cause there’s another idea out there.  And trust me, its way better than your new one.

And it’s just waiting for you to get stuck in ACT TWO.

up against it

20 May

I’ll show you the life of the mind! – Barton Fink

Writer’s group today.

Some people are so good at regulating their creativity.  They sit down every day and crank out their pages.  The trick is to never worry or think too much about the quality – but focus instead on the quantity – and then go back and fix it later.

That’s where I fall apart.  I’m lazy and undisciplined and unfocused.

I want to do the right thing.  But there’s right and there’s right and never the twain shall  meet.

Hence, the writers group.

Nice thing about having to be accountable to a group of people for a small amount of production every week – is that it forces you to do something.  And since people are gonna look at it – you raise you’re game a bit.  Now you would think with a whole week to produce – I might actually get my stuff together and go over it a few times and have it nice and tight by deadline.

Whoops.

More often than not – like today – I’m down to an hour left and finally getting around to getting something down on paper.

Oh, but what a joy it is to finally get something down on paper.  And without the group – who knows what would happen.  Like school, I wait till there’s no time left – fly through the pages on the seat of my pants – and get something done.  But there it is – done.  I spent the other day going through all my scenes – and lo and behold – 70 pages of script.

That’s 3/4 done.

Which is a lot better than 3/4 not done.

So there you go.

What pushes you?  What is making you go forward?  What do you want out of your writing?

We used to have a rule:  You don’t write for writers group – you have to buy lunch for writers group.

Good rule.  I hate spending money more than I hate writing.

There isn’t a book I’ve read that says you should just write whenever.  All of them say that getting in the discipline of writing is what makes you better and keeps you going.  That means doing this everyday.  Sitting down.  Ass to chair.  Fingers to keyboard.

Time to man up.  I got an hour.

I’ll show you the life of the mind.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

19 May

http://johnaugust.com/archives/2010/moving-to-hollywoo

MAKING THE MOVE TO LA and DIVING IN:

If you are thinking of making it in this business – this is one of the most straightforward insightful articles ever written.

It’s hard truth.

You might not want to believe.  You might think you’re the exception.

But I’d say – think again.

There are many many ways into this business – and everyone has their own journey.  But if you want the fast track – and by fast I mean the track that takes less than 10 years- this is where you should start.  Yes, you can get in through some serious wrangling and maneuvering that takes some wild windy route – but this is your map.

Use it like a Thomas Guide.

Or for you youngsters, googlemaps.

Trust me – this guy is trying to save you years of wasting time.  He is true.  And good.

Go thou and do likewise.

Why should you care?

18 May

There are so many people out there that say they are writers.  So many who pretend to be writers.  So many who try to be writers.  So many who write, but are not writers.  Sometimes I’m not sure where it is that I place myself.

But I do write.  Not often enough.  Not well enough.  But I do write.

I have a script that has made the rounds.  It started as something for me to direct.  Went to a smaller producer who is now a really big producer.  Was bounced around.  Had two big name stars attached, was picked up by three different independent studios, was green lit – and then completely fell apart.

Twice it has been back in play.

Twice more it failed to go anywhere.

In between, I got agents for my writing.  They are not with the top three agencies – but they are in the top 5.  I also have a manager.  I made the rounds with two weeks of meetings – and got to do numerous “takes” on different projects – but nothing took.

Now my script is  – well – hot is not the word I would choose – maybe lukewarm is the better choice.  One of the original actors is now represented by my agency and they have decided to package the project and get it out there again.

That started by us making a list of potential directors – myself NOT included.  We picked three and sent it out -and got three rejections.  Now we are making another list… but other things are going on behind the scenes.  Machinations that I am not privy to – but am told they are in my best interests…. we shall see – but truthfully – I don’t feel much is done in my best interests…

There is so much wrangling that goes on to get a script to screen.  Its silly.  I spent two years of my life pushing this – at one point I raised 1 million dollars to direct it – but then we got big names and suddenly had a 10 million dollar film – with me producing.  The money was there, the film was greenlit – and then…

nothing.

So back to the workforce for me.  Directing commercials.  Working.  Feeding my family.  And trying to write something else.

And not doing so well.

I’m great at jumping in – horrible at finishing.  I love to find myself 80+ pages into a script and realize I have no idea where I’m going.  And no idea how to get out.

Now I’m in the middle of a thriller and am trying to extricate myself from the knots I’ve tied myself and my characters in.  I always think – one day, I’ll learn how to get myself out of this – but it doesn’t seem like I do.

So there you go.

I’ve been making a living in this business for 20 years.  I’ve shot over 100 hours of TV, over 100 commercials – and yet the only agent I get is for writing – and only one script of mine has ever gone out.  And its been floating around for 4 years threatening to get made.  When I stop complaining and look at how lucky I’ve been – I realize I’m quite blessed.  But somehow – I still feel like the guy who hasn’t accomplished much and is on the edge of having a career.

If only I was able to sit down and funnel all that rage and bitterness and disappointment into a great and powerful script.

Instead –  here I sit looking out the window.

Avoiding writing.

So I ask why should you care?

Well – learn from me.  From my mistakes.  From the missteps I’ve taken.  I pledge to give you nothing more than unbridled honesty and painful insight.  I can show you the road not to take – the thing not to say – the way not to handle yourself.

I do bad so you don’t have to.

Sit back and watch me sabotage what little of a career I have.  Its all fun and games while I get hurt.

Enjoy….

When to write

18 May

I like to write when the time is perfect.

Not one second before – and truthfully – not one second later.  It only works when the time is perfect.

When is the perfect time?

Good question.  I struggle with that everyday.

Usually – it’s after I have done everything else.

Cleaned the house.  Finished the to do list.  Run errands.  Read every book in the house.  Taken a shower.  Gone to the bathroom.  Twice.  Looked at every website that has every existed.  Started a new website.  Gone to the gym.  Stared into space.  Taken a nap.  Walked the dog.  Talked philosophy with the wife.  Made a list of my shortcomings. Made a list of reasons to start writing.  Made a list of lists.  Cried.  Watched TV shows I’ve never heard of.  Played legos with my son.  Fought with my daughter.  Talked to my dog.  For hours.

Then – if the inspiration is there….

I write.

Not too long – cause it might become a habit.  Not too short – although – when writing – how much is too short?  I consider each sentence a victory…

And then I feel so good.  So good,  I spend the rest of the week celebrating how great it was to write something a week ago.  I think about how nice those scenes turned out – and how proud I am that I pulled some crazy conflicted scene out of my tired beat down brain – and I rejoice all week…

Until the dread returns that its time to write again.

Now all I have to do is wait for the perfect moment….