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A truthful look at the screenwriting business by those who know!
on November 7, 2011
If you're someone who plans to write, or has written a screenplay, with the intention of selling it and then seeing it produced as a major motion picture, then this DVD is definitely for you. I've read dozens of books over the years on how to write a movie script, but this DVD, along with the book by William Goldman, Adventures In the Screen Trade, have been the best and most enjoyable experiences I've had in dealing with the movie business and how difficult it is for a newcomer to break in, or even for a seasoned pro to sell one of his screenplays.
The DVD of Tales From the Script (this is also available in Trade Paperback format with even more information in it) has interviews with many of the most well-known movie writers of the last fifty years who are still alive, as well as some who are not known outside of the business. The thing is all the interviews here offer you food for thought, and each screenwriter has something important to say about his or her career and making it in the entertainment industry.
First thing you need to understand is that this DVD doesn't teach you how to write a movie script. Everyone involved with this project already assumes you know how to do that, though some thoughts are expressed on structure and how everyone seems to think there's nothing to actually writing a screenplay. Just have Fade In at the beginning with some words and commas in the middle, and then Fade Out at the end. That's all it takes.
Writing a high-concept screenplay and selling it is as difficult as writing a bestselling novel and selling it to a publisher. If everyone could write a great script, the theaters would be filled with Oscar-caliber movies that had large box-office grosses, instead of films that are off the screens almost as fast as they first appear on it.
Here's two important thoughts to keep in mind about the business that were expressed by veteran writer, William Goldman, who was a novelist and playwriter long before he wrote his first script for actor, Cliff Robertson.
The first thing that Bill Goldman says, "Is that no one sets out to make a bad movie. Everyone does their absolute best within the framework of their budget, the skills of their director, the quality of the script, the acting chops of the performers, the editing of the film, and the music soundtrack. Unlike writing a novel, the making of a movie is a collaborative effort that starts with the screenplay. Without a screenplay there is no movie." I was kind of paraphrasing here, but this is essentially what he meant.
The second piece of advice is now famous in the annals of the Hollywood film industry. It's simply that "Nobody knows nothing." What this means is that no one knows what makes a great film or a bad one. It's all a toss of the dice. You may think you made a bad movie, then the sucker is fixed in the editing room, and turns around and wins an Academy Award for Best Picture. Then again, you may think you made the best film possible, only to have no one come to see it. That's why it's all a crapshoot. Nobody knows nothing. Keep that in the back of your mind.
The people being interviewed on this DVD are writers you may not know, but their movies you certainly will: William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and All the President's Men), Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Deep Impact, My Life, The Time Traveller's Wife), Steven E. de Souza (Die Hard, Die Hard 2, 48 Hours, Another 48 Hours), Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight), John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, and Christine), Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers, the television mini-series for The Stand, The Shining, and Bag of Bones on A & E this December), Paul Schrader (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and The Yakuza), Ron Shelton (Bull Durham and Tin Cup), David S. Ward (The Sting and Sleepless In Seattle), David Hayter (X-Men), and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist, and The Walking Dead). There are also other writers who are interviewed, but the names above give you a general idea of the quality of the information being presented here.
Here's a short summary of some of the things disscussed. The first is that there are over a quarter-of-a-million writers in Los Angeles and everyone of them has a script to sell. Though I live in Las Vegas, I'm part of that group. The catch is that no one wants your script. They don't have the time to read it. They already have a ton of writers who are established so what do they need you for? Getting your first script read and then produced is like that opening Normandy beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan where the American soldiers get out of the landing crafts and then have to make it up the beach without getting shot. It's a nearly impossible task, but some make it on the first wave. Afterwards, you stand there in surprise and shock that you're still alive and actually made it. That's what it's like starting out in the movie business. You have to be so passionate and believe so strongly in yourself that you never give up, no matter how many rejections you receive. As one writer said, "You may get a hundred rejections, but all you need is one sale to make it."
Another thing to be aware of is that there are a number of people who will probably like your screenplay and tell you how great you are. The thing is nobody ever buys the script or calls you back. The producers and agents will tell you the exact same thing they told the last flavor of the month. The only sure thing is whether or not your scripts get turned into films that make tons of money. Being known as a writer who makes the studios a lot of money is about the best reputation to have in Los Angeles.
Okay, so you write the perfect script (not that there is such as thing), what can you expect? Well, to be rewritten by somebody else is probably the correct answer. Almost every single writer has experienced that for themselves, or have been the one to do the actual rewriting. Paul Schrader talks about how he was doing rewrites of The Yakuza in two-story bungalow on the Warner Brother's lot and directly below him in the bottom bungalow was Robert Towne, who was also doing rewrites of the same movie. Paul didn't know about it at the time, and when he found out what was happening, he didn't feel very good about it. John Carpenter advises new writers to learn to love it because it's going to happen whether you want it to or not. Almost all studio executives will bring in other writers to make sure the script is up to par. I mean what executive wants to take the chance of losing his studio a hundred million dollars and then finding himself fired? It's easier for most execs to simply say "no" to a great script idea and not take any chances.
One of the people being interviewed talked about how he had to go into therapy because he was seeing his scripts produced on a smaller scale, but wanted a better career. In therapy, he met another writer who was making big money writing scripts, but none of them had ever been produced. The first writer decided he didn't need therapy after all. The son of Bruce Joel Rubin (the man who won an Oscar for writing Ghost), had an easy time breaking into the film community because of his dad, but he still hasn't been able to make a script sale yet. David Ward, who won an Academy Award for The Sting and also wrote Sleepless In Seattle, stated that a writer should be happy if he gets paid for his screenplay whether it gets produced or not. The director doesn't get paid unless the movie is made, and the actor doesn't paid, either. Only the writer. If it turns out the movie sucks, the studio can't ask for their money back. You get to keep it all.
Shane Black, who wrote Lethal Weapon, was paid 4 million dollars for his spec script, The Long Kiss Goodnight, only to see the movie flop at the Box Office. He then took a hiatus from the business for several years to think things over. He said the big payday probably hurt him more than a smaller fee would have.
Frank Darabont talks about how The Shawshank Redemption did nothing at the Box Office, until it was nominated for seven Academy Awards the following year. It was then re-released and made more money and cemented his position as one of Hollywood's best screenwriters and directors. Though this isn't on the DVD, Darabont was let go by the executives of AMC from his hit TV series, The Walking Dead, last July. This was a show with the most positive reviews and the largest viewing audience of any independent television show for its first season. Still, the executives wanted to cut the costs for the second season and what better way to do it than by getting rid of the executive producer who's also the main writer and director of the series. That's Hollywood! Success is no guarantee, but it's better than a string of losers.
Now, there's nothing fair about Hollywood. You can have a deal in the works that has been reported in the trade papers, only to have it cancelled at the last moment for no apparent reason. That happens all the time in Tinsel Town. There's something else I want to mention here. It's not discussed on the DVD, but a professional screenwriter told me this a few weeks ago. He's in his early sixties. He said that Hollywood was a young person's town. Once you hit fifty, it's hard to get a meeting with anyone unless you've had a big hit during the past year. Age and location are two of the three ingredients to making it in the movie business as a writer. High concept is the third ingredient.
The basic series of interviews run a 105 minutes on the disc. There's also an extra 48 minutes of interviews in the Special Features section, along with a twelve-minute segment called The Gospel According to Bill (William) Goldman and a nine minute free-for-all that deals with advice for the beginning screenplay writer.
There's a ton of useful information on this DVD, and it's worth whatever you have to pay for it. This is something every would-be screenwriter needs to watch, plus it's just damn interesting and funny at times. I could've watch another two hours and not been bored. The Gospel According to Bill Goldman should have been an hour long in and of itself. Bill Goldman doesn't hold anything back and tells it like it is. His first screenplay assignment was when Cliff Robertson hired him to write the movie, Charly, during the early sixties. Bill wrote the script and then was fired from the job. Cliff Robertson then went on to win the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in that movie. Bill Goldman then went on to win an Oscar for his second script, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You see, nobody knows nothing.
Highly recommended to those who want to write movies or who simply love movies!