A question from Robert:
I know you often mention the fact that there are a number of scripts one usually needs to write before they “get it”. It’s usually somewhere in the 5 to 7 range.
My question is, how many did you write before you first got an agent/manager, and how many before you hit with K9?
Thanks for your insights and love the blog!
K-9 was the third screenplay I wrote. The first one Stand Up I wrote solo. The second one Dream Car I co-wrote with Steve Siegel. Then K-9, also co-written with Steve. Universal Pictures bought it as a spec script for three-quarters of a million dollars in January, 1987. Siegel & Myers signed with the Bauer Benedek agency and our agents were Marty Bauer, Peter Benedek, and Dan Halsted (Bauer Benedek later was part of the merger that created UTA).
A few comments per your question and my experience in what happened with K-9:
* Even though K-9 sold, my understanding of the craft of screenwriting at that time was limited. To that point, this was my ‘formal’ education: I had read Syd Field’s book, “Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting,” and perhaps a dozen scripts. Informally I had seen thousands of movies in my life, taken cinema courses as an undergraduate, and was a member of several film groups at UVA as well – that knowledge base of movies is probably what saved me when working on K-9 because I drew upon my intuitive sense of how movies work. But I found myself in an odd position: In 1987, K-9 sold, I got an agent, we sold a pitch to Warner Bros. called Mr. President, a comedy vehicle for Rodney Dangerfield — but I knew I needed to learn more about being a screenwriter. A lot more.
So for the next several years, while working as a writer, I read every book on the subject I could find. I analyzed every screenplay I could get my hands on. I went to every public session with any screenwriter – interviews, Q&A’s – I could find. I watched every movie that came out, sometimes attending 3, even 4 screenings a day. In other words, I immersed myself in screenwriting and movies. In fact, I still have hundreds of pages of notes I typed out from all the books and articles I read.
Then with every project we set up or every writing assignment we landed, I pushed myself harder and harder as a writer. Even with the lame projects – and there were some of those – I viewed each one as a learning opportunity.
In one sense, I was really lucky in that I was getting paid to write, and during that process, I was learning my craft.
But to be honest, I don’t feel like I started to feel comfortable as a screenwriter until about 3 years into the process. And to be even more honest, I don’t think I really began to understand ‘story’ until I started to teach — because teaching forced me to look at what I did as a writer, to see if I actually had my own approach — which I discovered I did — then articulate that process to students. Since 2002, I’ve taught perhaps 40 screenwriting classes, written hundreds of lectures, and responded to thousands of questions about writing. All of that combined with continuing to read scripts, watch movies, and write pages has continued to feed me in terms of how I perceive and approach story.
Then there’s my studies the last few years of Carl Jung. But that’s another story.
* Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours. I heard screenwriter-director Larry Kasdan once say that he didn’t feel like he really ‘got’ screenwriting until his 10th script. I’d say those are fairly good barometers for some people, but not all. Every writer is different. I read a script once by a 17 year-old that blew me away.
I think it helps to look at this from a ‘spiritual’ vantage point. You’ll sell a script when you’ve written a great one and you’re ready to be a professional screenwriter. You just need to be persistent. Keep pushing yourself. Every day, do those three basic things:
It’s not just about the writing, you have to immerse yourself in movies. A person can learn every screenwriting theory under the sun, but if they don’t love movies, if they haven’t seen all these movies and hundreds more, they may get lucky and sell a script – but it’s doubtful they’ll have the background, understanding, and depth to sustain a screenwriting career.
I don’t know why I got off on a rant here, but perhaps a GITS reader needs to read a post like this right now.
The bottom line: Writing is hard. You have to believe in yourself, push yourself to learn as much as you can, and keep at it. Every single day.
[Originally posted February 20, 2010]