Allan Durand’s original screenplay “Willie Francis Must Die Again” is an amazing real-life story and a script that won Allan a 2012 Nicholl fellowship. However the story behind the story is also quite remarkable, one I’m happy to share with you through this interview.
I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week, and for those of you who think the only people who break into Hollywood as screenwriters are young USC or NYU grads, Allan’s saga will dispel that myth quite nicely.
Today in Part 6, Allan reveals more insights into his approach to the craft of screenwriting.
Scott: What’s your writing process like?
Allan: Nights and weekends are usually when I get started. I get on a roll and I write a few days in a row at night when I get home from work. I owe a lot of my successes to the fact that network television is so bad and there’s really nothing to watch on television at night. But there’s nothing else to do. And then, weekends. Before, airplanes used to be my favorite. Going out to Los Angeles, that’s three hours where the phone can’t ring and nothing else can happen. But I’ll go in spurts. I’ll write a few days in a row and then I’ll stop for few days and I won’t. I’ll write a few days in a row again and at some point, I can’t stop. I just can’t wait to get home to get back to it when it’s really flowing good.
But if I can give advice to any screenwriter, I’d say don’t do it like me. There’s no rhyme or reason with me. I have a shotgun approach to it and I do it when I can and when I feel like it. That’s not the way to do it, but I’ve been toying with it off and on for 30 years now. So far, so good. If I spent more time, I would probably have had more success earlier and all that.
I was very fortunate. I got to take a creative writing course here at the local university. I was already practicing law. Teaching at the time was Earnest Gaines, who wrote “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and several other award winning books. His six rules of becoming a good writer were read, read, read, write, write, write. I think that’s probably as well as you could synthesize it.
Scott: I guess screenwriters could add watch, watch, watch, as in movies, right?
Allan: Yeah. When you pass by church, light a few candles, because luck never hurt anyone.
Scott: In your comments at the ceremony when you accepted the Nicholl Fellowship, you asked a really great question: “When did age and experience become a negative for screenwriters?” Could you elaborate on that?
Allan: My good friend Glen Petrie is members of the Writers Guild, and he had told me about that true story that I mentioned about being a writer, you have this program for disadvantaged minority writers, and one of the minorities was anybody over 50. I wouldn’t have any luck pitching anything, and I just started wondering, is that a fact? I went and talked to a very good friend of mine at a [TV] network. A good friend of mine who is in development, and I asked him. I said, “I’m in my 50s, am I wasting my time here? Is it that bad?”
He said, “If you work in television, yes, you’re wasting your time at your age.” He said, “But in feature films, I don’t think it’s a factor.” I just was looking for something to bring up to distinguish myself from the other four people who were…five people getting up there and all saying thank you very much. I was looking for a chance to be a smart aleck, is what is was. [laughs]
Scott: It’s a legitimate point. And you mentioned David Seidler [screenwriter, The King’s Speech]. I talked to him about this subject, too, and I think your friend is right. The TV side of things, it’s a younger person’s field. But the feature side does seem to have more openness toward older writers.
Allan: Yeah, because on the television side, you’re looking, from what I understand in the industry, but you’re looking to get a job working on a show. In the feature film business, if you can get somebody to read your script, if it’s a great script and they love it, it’s a great script and they love it. They’re not looking at you to direct it or star in it or dance the first dance with them at the prom. I do believe it’s a whole different thing.
Scott: The Nicholl this year bears that out. You’re from Louisiana, and over 50. Another Nicholl winner Sean Daniels is from South Africa. They say it all the time in Hollywood. It just comes down to writing a great script.
Allan: Bob Broden is old as me with as much gray hair as I have. Certainly, in the Nicholl competition, they don’t care. If it’s good, you win. If it’s not, you don’t.
Scott: Are there any parting words of wisdom you want to send out to aspiring writers who will be reading this?
Allan: Based on my limited experience, understand that your chances of ever getting hired to write something or ever selling something is something less than one percent, and that’s just math. When you look at how many people are out there, but if you’re good and if you’ve picked a good story and you enter it in enough screenplay contests sooner or later it’s going to pop up and somebody’s going to see it. I have never tried the inquiry method, where you send an inquiry to a bunch of agents and managers and ask them to read your stuff. I just thought that the…I don’t know…I believe that that’s tough.
There’s a lot of screenplay contests out there and these guys pay attention to who wins them. If you want to break out of the pack, I think that’s probably far and away the best way to try to get it done.
This wraps up my interview with Allan Durand. Please stop by comments to thank Allan for taking the time to share his thoughts and post any follow-up questions you may have.
Allan is repped by WME and Madhouse Entertainment.