Monday, February 11, 2008

10 Questions with the JOD

I thought I would share this interview I did with a college student who is interested in breaking into screenwriting and had to write about his aspirations for his creative writing class. I suggested that he aim higher than my fragile career, but he proceeded with the interview anyway.

1. Why (and when) did you start writing screenplays?

I actually started storyboarding when my friends and I made our first Super-8mm movies back in the late 70s. At the time they were basically adaptations of comics I was drawing at the time, a lengthy series featuring all of my friends in an apocalyptic stand against the Soviet invasion of the U.S. in 1999 A.D. Basically I began to realize my drawing wasn't getting any better and my word balloons were getting larger. When we moved to video I started making my first tentative stabs at writing actual scripts. One early one I wrote was called "Balls" and was about a high school tennis team. It was very sophomoric, but I was a sophomore at the time. I had some success writing an audio play that won in a statewide A/V competition for high school kids, and I won a statewide high school playwriting competition.

In college I kept at it and in 1987 wrote "West Coast Campus" which was the first script to win a David Letterman Scholarship at Ball State University. After that I worked and had a family and did a little tech writing and basically didn't get paid for a creative writing project again until 2000. I had decided to spend one year concentrating on my screenwriting and had some good luck working into a project for a producer. That never got produced but it helped me leverage into more work, and I have completed over fifteen screenplays for producers and a few on spec since then.

2. What knowledge does one need to aquire before writing a screenplay?How does one inquire such knowledge?

Back then I read the screenplays of a lot of movies I liked at the time to learn the format--"Sex Lies and Videotape" and "She's Gotta Have It" come to mind as early ones I read. I got these from the public library but now there are screenplays all over the web. Formatting is very important to learn because producers don't need an excuse to throw your script in the trash. There are hundreds of screenplays flowing over production companies at an alarming rate, and they will go on to the next one.

So definitely read screenplays but also just read and see what trends are out there and what people are doing. When you make a little money, or have a little, but a screenwriting program like MovieMagic or Final Draft and a lot of the puzzle pieces will be put together for you, making it easier to concentrate on your content.

3. How does screenwriting differ from writing short storys or novels?

You have to show more and tell less. Some producers don't like descriptives at all. I don't think it hurts to be descriptive as long as you don't tell the producer/director what camera angles to put in and all that; they don't like that. If they tell you "I can see this movie," then you've got them hooked. If they can't "see" it, they won't be interested.

Ultimately novels are written for readers, but screenplays aren't written for viewers; they are written for producers and directors, and then their product is for viewers. It is an important distinction.

4. What is your writing habit? How many hours do you write a day/week?

When I am committing to a project or projects I do 3-5 pages a day through the week at night and more on the weekends. But I need breaks from time to time and when I do that I like to keep my mind filled with interesting movies and books.

5. Tell me your “breaking in story.”

A longtime friend, Ivan Rogers, had shot a movie on 35mm and transferred the movie to videotape to do the editing to save some money. I was a pretty sharp tape editor back in the day and I offered to help on a part he was stuck on. I edited the tape and then they used the open edge numbers on the tape to match back to the film and cut the film. I did one scene and that led to another and then I ended up getting an assistant editor credit on the project. What was weird was that I only edited the action scenes and actually didn't see anybody alive until I went to the premiere. When it came to my fee all I asked was for him to help me shop some scripts, as he was based in LA at the time and I was in Indiana. I didn't see a lot of movies being shot in Indiana but knew I could write anywhere. He was good to his word and introduced me to some people.

That led to a project that was listed in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. I then made a goal to send out 100 letters to producers and directors and so on pointing to recent issues of those trades and mentioned that I was available for hire. I only got one response, from direct-to-video b-movie guru Mark Polonia. We did a project together and that led to another and then people started calling me and then all of a sudden I had done a bunch of direct-to-video horror movies.

The funny thing was that I had had a long layoff from watching horror, probably since the late 70s as I spent my college years trying to be a film school-type hipster, so I had to reacquaint myself with a lot of stuff.

6. How many screenplays have you written? How many of those screenplayswere made into movies?

I think I have done around fifteen or so to date; those on video shelves include the bigfoot movie "Among Us," the killer rabbit movie "Peter Rottentail," the pirahna movie "Razorteeth," the supernatural horror "Dead Knight" (The Da Vinci Curse overseas), and the frankenstein movie "Sex Machine" which is not a porno as some people think. A ventriloquist dummy movie I wrote called "Splinterhead" had been in production for a while and may come out in 2008. I did a lot of stuff towards the end of 2007 so hopefully something will get made this year but even stuff older than that you can never count out. "Sex Machine" had a very long gestation from when I was first contacted to do a rewrite to when it came out, a period of several years.

7. What all does a screenwriter need to know before selling ascreenplay? How does one then sell?

My story was a bit unusual because I came in on the production side. But any way you do it you need to cultivate a network of people you know because you never know who lightning may strike. The b-movie actor Jon McBride once told me that you can't push other people's careers ahead of your own, but if your career takes off you can pull people behind you, and I think that is very wise counsel. If you start making a web presence and showing up at Cons and watching trends and just writing friendly letters to people in the industry you can start sowing the seeds for the future. Ninety percent or more of the people you will meet who dream about movies are just doing that--dreaming. And there are a lot of people who think if they can convince you their dreams are real then they become more real to them. So many people in the business you might want to work with are going to have their guards up, and it can take a while to build relationships. Being reliable and steady and level-headed and flexible will all help.

When you get a project going, get everything in writing and make sure people know how your name is spelled and what you expect your credit will say. Unless you are working with really good friends you trust and even then it's not a bad idea.

Make sure you set out a workable timeline. I have said before being a writer is like being a virgin. They will push and push and when you finally give up what you have the phone will stop ringing.

I have written a few specs but at least in direct to video most people want you to write their ideas; in fact practically every one has been that way. Sometimes you may even be given the title and a rough idea of the box cover art. So it's good to have some specs around so people know what you do but those probably aren't going to get made.

Register your own specs at the WGA East website just to be safe before you start shopping them around too much.

Some times it takes a long time for projects to bubble to the surface so I don't think it's a bad idea to have a lot of irons in the fire and have a lot of patience while things unfold.

8. What is a screenwriter’s average salary?

I have no idea but a lot of them work like dogs for not much money (as the writer's strike pointed out). Most people I know doing direct to video stuff still have day jobs. Not all, but most. I have been able to supplement my income doing this but it is a roll of the dice so I am glad I don't count on the money. Some movies make nothing or less than nothing and nobody ever sees any money. A couple of things end up with good legs, like "Among Us" playing on Canadian cable and "The Da Vinci Curse" doing well in Japan.

Some times I have taken a flat fee for rewriting, some times I have taken a percentage of the budget payable the day the project starts shooting and sometimes I have taken a back end deal. There are pluses and minuses to all of these ways. I think you have to guage the project and what your role ultimately is going to be. The back end has the most potential but could also end up with nothing. The front end is good incentive because the better you write, conceivably the more money they can raise, but if it never goes before the lens you don't get anything. The flat fee is good if you have a small role as a rewrite person or what have you but if it takes off you might regret it.

So basically until you sign a million dollar screenplay deal keep your day job. I have been lucky to work in broadcasting and/or media and/or IT my whole day job career and have drawn a lot of satisfaction from that.

9. Do you have to live in LA to make a decent living as a screenwriter?

It certainly helps, but there is good work being done everywhere and with the internet and cell phones there is no reason to do it unless you really want to get to another level. I am happy and have had success where I am, and with family considerations I like the comfort and stability of the midwest just fine. When I think about it I have met almost none of the people I have worked with in person, which is a strange thought.

10. Do you have any additional information to share for peopleinterested in being screenwriters?

My only advice is not to use a psuedonym; so basically don't do anything you aren't proud of when it leaves your keyboard. What happens after that isn't on you.


Rhea said...

I live in Boston and have been doing screenwriting for almost 10 years. I have a few completed scripts, a few small awards, had an agent in L.A. for two years, and many fine production companies who've read my work. Still, I cannot call myself a screenwriter. Not until I sell something. That day will come, I hope...

John Oak Dalton said...

But you are doing more than most by working on your craft, instead of just talking the game. Good luck, and I'm sure things will fall your way.


cattleworks said...

Came to your blog via Film School Dropout's list of links, and mostly because I thought I recognized your name from yet another blog.

Just wanted to say thanks for sharing this interview.
Looking forward to checking out the rest of your blog, but right now, I'm mostly stealing abreak from shoveling all this damn snow!