A special treat this week on GITS as each day I will be posting excerpts from a screenwriter’s roundtable I did with some of the best and hottest young screenwriters in Hollywood: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John Swetnam and the writing duo Jeremiah Friedman & Nick Palmer. How good are they? Over the last 2 years, they have combined to sell 12 spec scripts, and that doesn’t include the numerous writing assignments they have landed or original pitches they have set up.
Our conversation covered many topics and is a unique opportunity to learn what it’s like to go from aspiring to professional screenwriter. Beyond their insights into the craft, I’m sure you will be inspired by their passion for what they do, their love of movies, and just in general how much fun they are.
2011 Screenwriters Roundtable: Part 1
SM: I thought let’s start off with a reality check. As recently as one or two years ago for most of you, you were on the outside of the business looking in. Are there times today, like when you drive onto the studio lot for a meeting or you’re sitting with a director on a project where you say to yourself “My God, is this really happening?”
Scott: Yeah, I mean for me it’s almost sort of something that’s completely unreal. Almost on a day-by-day basis. John Swetnam and I were getting beers a couple weeks ago and we were just like… we promised we would hit one another if either one of us ever got out of the position of thinking that this wasn’t cool anymore.
Nick: It’s all like incredibly surreal. The thing that I’m surprised by is how quickly you start to… it all feels very strange, but you still find yourself bitching and then when you start bitching you go, “What the hell’s wrong with me?” Like we’ll complain about trying to find parking on a lot and stuff like that, and it’s like wait a minute. This is ridiculous.
Scott: Although I will say that people who don’t validate, I mean come on.
Greg: Yeah, that’s annoying.
Jeremiah: CAA is a nightmare.
SM: That’s so funny. I mean, put yourself back two years ago and think “Oh my God, I’ve been complaining about parking?”
John: Just to reiterate what Scott [Frazier] said. In my last year I’ve had a thousand moments that have just kind of given me goosebumps. And the thing is, I feel like this generation, we know how hard it was to get here, that in the next thousand of these moments, I want it to feel exactly the same as it did the first time. You know what I mean? Because it’s literally every day I try to be grateful for the position that we got put in to. So it’s something that I think about all the time and we just can never forget how lucky… I mean, I’m not as talented as Scott is, so I just got lucky and I’m very very happy about that.
Scott: I have no comment on that.
Greg: You know, I think everyone’s got that moment that they can point to where it’s kind of an out-of-body experience. And I remember the one that I had, my first time pitching to a studio, I got very lucky because I got to work with a really talented writer at the same time, Chris Morgan [Wanted, Fast Five]. And I remember this moment where I got invited in to sit with Chris and Michael Bay’s people. I’d written two little movies and I kept having to pinch myself so I’d know where the hell I was and how I got here. I was such a fan of the action films these guys had made over the years. It’s little moments like that that make all the other difficult moments worth it.
Chris: I’ve been in the business a little longer than a lot of you guys and I was in physical production, then I was in development, each of those about four or five years. But I’d only been in the business a little while and I got used to conversations on a set where a producer’s yelling into the phone “No, I need the tarantula for Tuesday! Just Tuesday, not the whole week!“ And that’s almost like every day in the physical world of making a movie which I always think is kind of like planning a wedding reception every day. Every single time you try to shoot something or accomplish something, it’s so complicated. But I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful for everything, I’m grateful for what we get to do, that we get to use our imaginations and Lord knows, I’d be bad at about every other possible job. I find it exciting and when things do get frustrating I try to remember how lucky I am. And there’s almost no better job in the world than what we’re doing.
SM: I broke into the business in 1987 and I sold a spec script like you guys have, and I still remember the very first piece of advice I got from my agent. He told me “Always be nice to the assistants because some day, they’ll be the people hiring you.” And I was wondering, have you guys gotten any advice like that?
Chris: Let me just mention that yesterday I had a meeting with a DOD who was my last agent’s assistant. And I was nice to him and he’s doing real well now and this was just yesterday. So I think it goes for everybody, being nice as possible to everybody that you can be. I’m not one of those guys who believes in karma necessarily, but I believe that there’s a sort of logical version of it, where if you’re a real prick to people, it does come back to you. And the reverse is also true. So I think that’s great advice.
John: I got a piece of advice sort of like that, but mine wasn’t in a meeting. I was at a party and a friend of mine who was like a young executive told me to be careful how much I drink when you’re at these parties. I remember I went to this first party and there’s all these good-looking actresses and I’m like where the hell am I and this is amazing and I got completely wasted… I was like dancing on a table, just being completely ridiculous…
Chris: I want to party with you!
John: I’ve heard it forever. Now I’ve learned how to wait until the after-party to sort of let loose. The first party’s always like have four or five drinks then get the hell out of there and hit the real party.
Nick: Right, the real lesson: You should not drink, you should just do cocaine.
Chris: Or wait for the after-party.
[Laughter]SM: Any other words of wisdom you’ve discovered in your stint as Hollywood screenwriters?
John: The biggest pieces of advice I ever got, when I first came to town I started out as an intern at a production company at Outlaw Productions for a guy named Bobby Newmeyer. He produced Training Day and The Santa Clause movies. It was all these guys that I met there interning and I knew I wanted to be in the business, but I didn’t know what kind of writing I wanted to do so I was, at the time, writing. They were doing these big concept comedies so I started writing big concept comedies. I totally realized I was not funny, but what I learned from that experience was, it was one the guys, one of the VPs told me that it always starts with the concept. That’s the one thing I always tell people every time someone asks me about… I just had a conversation today with a guy where he wanted advice about his script and that’s all I keep telling him. It’s just so important to start with the right concept and think as much as you can about that concept before you start writing. Bobby used to say it was all about the idea and I’ve never let that go because I feel like that’s so true.
SM: Yeah, I knew Bobby. Outlaw optioned a script we wrote and we worked up a pitch on another project with them. Bobby was a terrific guy…
John: He was. I was actually working there when he passed away…
SM: It was up in Toronto…
John: Yeah, it was crazy. We were actually working on a script together and I was still going to the office and I’m still friends with… I actually just had dinner with the VP of Outlaw a couple nights ago. Bobby was a great guy and I just remember him always talking about the importance of the idea.
SM: I think that’s a good example. The script for The Santa Clause had been passed on by everybody and Outlaw — because Bobby thought the core concept was a great one — optioned it, reworked it, then the movie became this hit and a big franchise. Let’s stick with that as long as we brought it up. How important is it to you, that core idea, the story concept?
Greg: I just want to agree with John and say that the idea really is everything. It’s the beginning of everything we do, everything follows that idea. I can’t tell you how many ideas I throw out on a daily basis just trying to find that one. It’s hard. To me, I think that’s the hardest part of doing this. Finding the idea.
Jeremiah: Yeah, building off that, at least for me and Nick, it’s a lot of times about, we’ll get a nugget of something but it’s finding the version of that idea, that really works for us, and that you can build a movie on. Everyone around Hollywood talks about how they want something kind of new and original, which they do, but they also want something not too original, it needs to feel somewhat familiar so they can wrap their heads around it. Finding a way to strike that balance and find the new way of doing something, that’s what we’re always kind of struggling with. And something that can sustain a whole movie. We’re just actually ended up jumping off a project because we just couldn’t make it work in the end. We weren’t excited to write it.
Nick: Yeah, and we’d spent several months on it and it was something where we’d heard the origin… this was not our original idea, this was someone else’s, but it was some people we were excited to work with, so we… even though the initial concept, we were kind of like “That seems interesting… we could make something of that,” but it didn’t really excite us. So we spent months on this thing, developing it and finally just this week realized the concept doesn’t work for us, even though we want to work with the people involved, so we just finally jumped off of it.
Scott: I had a similar experience this summer where I was working on a project, again with a company I wanted to be in business with and one of their creative guys had an idea. Initially I was like that’s a cool idea. I didn’t do the due diligence on it, I just kind of jumped right into it, and I finished a draft of the script, like 120 pages, and it’s the best possible version of that movie you can have. But an almost fundamental level you can tell the idea and the concept was flawed and no matter how good I execute the script, it’s still never going to be a movie. It’s not ever going to get to that stage unless there’s a serious re-working of the core concept.
John: I think that’s really interesting because, what you just said where, what I’ve found also is that like there’s a lot of people who can make a living writing scripts. Like you can take a shitty idea and execute it and create a 110 pages of stuff. But I don’t want to write scripts, I want to make movies. So there’s a difference between writing a screenplay and writing something that is a movie. And I think people really have to think about that, especially in the spec stage. It’s like, you want to… unless, again, some people can write great samples, but they can never be a movie… I want to write something that is a movie, that can sustain 120 minutes on the screen.
Scott: I would totally agree. Like if someone gave me the choice between the best 120 page script that would get all these accolades and writing a 100 page movie? I would opt for the movie 100% of the time. I mean, to me, when I’m reading spec scripts, the ones that always stand out to me are the ones that are written like a movie. Like the edits are written in, like just reading the prose of the script, I can literally imagine the movie, in my mind’s eye I can see every edit, I can see every shot, I know what the movie looks like… I mean to me, that’s super important. And those are usually the specs I end up reading all the way to the end. As opposed to stopping at 30 or 40 pages and saying, “Ok, I get it.”
Jeremiah: For us, when people are asking us for advice in terms of when we have friends or people come to us for advice in terms of how to write a spec that sells. Obviously there’s no answer to that really, but we do talk about finding that idea, about the execution, but also thinking about those things that make a script a movie. I think Scott, on the blog, you had something from Ron Shelton the other day, just talking about what movie stars want to play. And writing a role that’s going to attract an actor. Because nothing’s going to happen with the script unless an actor attaches. Thinking about those kind of larger picture type things I think is important.
Chris: One more thing that I’d like to add to this whole idea we’re talking about here, we always think of us as the writer, and of course the movie, which is sort of step Z, we’re step A. You have to think about the exec who gets excited by reading your spec and then has to go pitch it to their boss. And if you have a high concept, great idea that he or she can say in one or two sentences, it makes their job easier. It’s going to make the agent’s job easier when you’re attach a director, when you’re trying to attach an actor. And honestly, step Z, people deciding what to see that week at the movies, they always say “What’s it about?” That’s always the question that gets asked. If it’s a great, simple, clean concept, something you can say that quickly, it works for everybody. So it’s really really important… the idea, a clean idea, and if it’s not, it really is just to me a good writing sample. And I feel I’ve written enough of those. I want to write things that get bought and get made.
Right off the bat with this interview, a huge piece of takeaway: The importance of the story concept. It’s got to be better than good, it’s got to feel like a movie.
If you have a decent story idea, but it doesn’t feel like a movie, instead of jumping into writing that script, why not take some time, generate a bunch more story concepts, and see if in that process you can nail a great one? Then write that one. You stand an exponentially better chance of finding representation and selling a script if it has a killer story concept at its core.
Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the participating writers. Today: Chris Borrelli.