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.
Screenwriter’s Roundtable: Part 4
SM: That gets into the whole area where you’re trying to give them [producers, studio executives, directors] some ownership over the project or the story, right?
Scott: You absolutely have to. Here’s the thing: My dad was a TV writer and he gave me advice as I was getting into the business over the last couple of years. And one of the things that he would always tell me, having spent time on TV shows and sets for two decades, is that it’s a collaborative process. There are gaffers and grips and catering people: This is their livelihood, right? They want to be a part of the process. They don’t just want to come in and service a movie, they want to actually be a part of it. And that goes from executives to directors, too. As much as we start a process, we just start with a blueprint. And being able to hand that blueprint over to other people, and being okay handing it over to other people, and then saying okay, now you add to it. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Nobody sets out to collaborate on getting bad ideas into a movie. It’s one of those things that you have to be okay with. It’s a shared vision. Unless you’re a guy like Quentin Tarantino who gets to write and direct and edit, it’s a collaborative medium. We have to share.
Justin: Something that I would add, one of the areas that you do have control over is who you get into bed with. So if you’re worried about getting bad notes or a bad collaborative experience or them having ownership over something, it’s kind of “Don’t make a baby with a woman you don’t want to live with.” That’s my perspective on this. If you’re going to sell a screenplay, you don’t have to sell it to the first guy who asks if you don’t want to. Or you go to a meeting and you don’t think you guys are going to gel.
John: My problem is that they give me money, I’ll just sleep with anybody.
SM: Let’s talk about that now because it’s a big difference now you’re all established and in the business. You’ve got representation, you’ve all been working with some top agents and managers. How much help are they in that regard, in terms of interpreting those types of people that you may or may not want to work with? Just in general, what’s your working relationship? What do you expect from your agents and managers and what do they expect from you?
Scott: They expect us to write, that’s what they want from us. They want us writing scripts, they want us writing movies. I always say that the currency of the screenwriter is a completed script. Very few people are going to pay you for beat sheet or an outline or an idea: It’s a completed script. That’s what I bring to the table for them and I expect advice about navigating the tricky waters of Hollywood. And I take their counsel seriously. I wouldn’t be repped by them if I didn’t respect and appreciate their counsel.
Jeremiah: Yeah, we’ve had some friends who’ve had less fortunate experiences with representation than we’ve had once we ultimately signed, and I think for us we expect honesty above all else. That when we give them material and we ask for their opinion or we ask about a meeting or an executive we want to have a truthful conversation about that stuff. We try and work as much as we can as full partners. I think there’s a lot of preconceptions about what agents are going to be like, but if you can find your way to relationships that feel like a partnership…
Nick: Yeah, feel like a partnership and that you can turn into a partnership and think of it as a team effort, then it can be incredibly beneficial.
Greg: Your agent, your manager… They’re your eyes and ears. They’re out there laying down covering fire while you’re down in the shit. They’re out there scouting what’s ahead of you trying to find the best way to get you through. It really has to be that team or else you’re going to get killed down there. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by that with my team and I love when they come back and say that they’ve got all this research on a project and who’s going in and this is where they’re going to position me. That’s what you need cause you can’t be worried about that. Your job is to just go in there and kick ass when you get the chance.
John: For me, I had been through a couple different managers and agents over the last few years, and after going through the process with a lot of different people… and they were all really good people, they were all really good friends and partners in a lot of ways… but what I wanted for me now was I wanted to talk about my career. My future. It always seemed to be about the spec you have. When you get your first manager or first agent with that spec, a lot of the talk is about the strategy of that particular spec. And what I want to talk about is where am I going to be in ten years. How do we get there? What do I need to start doing now in order to become the guy I want to be in five years? And when I met my guys, I had a meeting with a bunch of different people, and that was the reason why I signed with them. Because I went into the day and said, “Loo, this is where I want to be.” And it wasn’t just… I’m pretty arrogant, as Scott can probably tell you, but I have these huge goals, and I wanted these guys to believe in those goals and that they actually had a plan to help me get to that place that I wanted to get to. So it’s about thinking about the future and planning ahead, because this business is way too hard for just right now. All of us want to be doing this conversation in five years. That’s the important part to me… longevity.
SM: I want to jump to something that I think Scott said, basically that the stock and trade for a screenwriter is a completed script. I think there’s something going on with you guys. I’ve been around 25 years now and I’ve tracked the spec script market every year since then. And there’s something going on that’s different. Now. With this group of people. It used to be that Joe Eszterhaus would come along and he’d actually sell two or three specs or what not, but by-and-large what happened, the paradigm was you’d use a spec to break in, then you’d go after writing assignments and pitches and the rest of it. And very rarely would working writers come out with spec scripts. It happened, but not that often. You guys, some of you in particular, you seem to be going back to that. That is your stock and trade in a way: You keep going back to these spec scripts. So I’m curious, is that strategy? Is that driven by your desire to get that story written? What’s going on there where you’re going back and putting spec scripts out on the market, even though you’re well-established in the business.
Chris: For me, I found it was a trap early on, where I was creating documents. I had a script, but I was just creating documents for execs, and a year went by and what had I created? What had I added? And thinking again, not from our point of view as writers, but thinking from the point of view of buyers, and people who make money off the buyers — agents, managers, etcetera — our real value is to create story, to create scripts. There’s a saying in business — nothing to do with film — don’t look for a job, create a job. So I don’t ever plan to stop writing specs. I’d love to do two a year, if I get really busy, maybe less. Maybe I can do more. I’m no Frazier, I can’t do seventeen specs a year, but I can do some. I think that’s our value: always be creating. And another thing about a spec is that it’s a wonderful advertisement for you. It’s the best commercial you can do for your career. It goes out to a hundred people who read it, and they may not need it/want it/like it, but hopefully they like it enough that you’re on their radar even stronger than you were before. I’m a big fan of it. And I also believe… I call it brick-laying. I’m never happier career-wise than when I finish writing five pages a day. And that movie, whatever it is, feels closer to me. It’s not just a document. It feels somewhat real. I’m a big fan, I don’t ever plan to stop writing specs.
Scott: For me, I went out on a lot of assignments this year and it’s not like it was a choice to only do specs, but I’ve gotten sent out on a bunch of assignments, and I’ve gotten close, but they’ve never materialized. But I have sold two specs this year, and I sold two last year, and so I’m being successful in that. It’s what I’ve kind of gotten used to. And if I wake up every morning and I’m not writing, I feel off, I feel weird. So if there’s nothing else to be working on, I might as well be writing my own thing…
Chris: — that you love –
Scott: — exactly, that I love to do. That I’m fortunate enough to be able to do.
John: Yeah, I only wrote my last spec because I was tired of Frazier fucking selling so many, and I had to keep up so I had to go write another one. I was just going to sit around and do nothing and drink but… thanks, Frazier.
Scott: I’ll tell you a funny story about that. The first time Swetnam and I ever met, it was the middle of the summer and I’d been doing a lot of assignment after assignment, where I was putting together documents, beat sheets, all this crap. And I hadn’t written an original page in probably two-and-a-half months and it was getting to me. I was literally like physically itchy. I needed to write. So Swetnam and I go out to get a burger, and it was three days before his movie Evidence started shooting, and he was telling me about how awesome it was, and they were building sets out in Valencia, and they were about to shoot a movie. And I was like, son of a bitch. I need to write a movie. So I went home — and this is no joke — and I was so pissed at Swetnam for getting this movie made, and I’m thinking, what is a movie that I could write really quickly? And I had three or four ideas that I’d had sitting on the back-burner, and one of them was a contained thriller. And I went home that night after burgers with John Swetnam and I sat down and wrote the first draft of Autobahn in like ten hours. Because of John Swetnam.
John: Where’s my fucking ten percent, dude?
Scott: So, I don’t know. We push each other.
John: Then I went and wrote Category Six because he pissed me off writing a script in ten hours, I wrote mine in four days and I was really pissed. So I just wrote one last week in a weekend, so fuck you, Frazier.
Here’s something about screenwriters: We’re competitive. Oh sure, some of the nicest people you will meet. Well, at least most of us. But when we read about someone selling a script or a pitch, at least some part of us is going, “Damn him/her!”
We want those gigs. We want those headlines. We want that money.
The competitive spirit can be destructive. But it can also be incredibly creative. Read up on John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They did just like I said: Paul would write a song one day and play it for the guys. John would come back the next day with his song. Then Paul. Then John. That led to greatness.
So embrace your creativity. But also embrace your competitive drive.
You’re going to need it to make it in Hollywood.
Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: Justin Rhodes.
You may follow Justin on Twitter: @twopointfour.