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The Bad Ass Screenwriter

As a Script Consultant for many years, I’ve worked with more than 2,000 screenwriters. Most of them are nice people.
Good guys and women. Many have hired me more than once. I’ve become friends with lots of them. I’ve helped them through deals. I’ve been invited to weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs and numerous parties, rooftop gatherings and barbecues.
But frankly, most of these good people are wimps.
What exactly is a wimp? The following comes from the dictionary on the dock of my computer.
Coward, namby-pamby, pantywaist, weakling, milquetoast, wuss, pansy, candy-ass, scaredy-cat, chicken.
Instead of calling them wimps, let’s just say they were all too nice.
But nice is for dogs.
Let’s look at another word: bad ass: a tough, uncompromising, or intimidating person.
Which would you rather be when you’re negotiating a deal for your screenplay?
Ninety percent of the screenwriters I’ve worked with are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Another nine.nine percent are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. I’ve had two others in their 80s. I didn’t know these two guys ages until after I finished their screenplays and I met them. Incidentally, both of them wrote killer scripts.
One was a war hero. Not Desert Storm. Not Vietnam. Not Korea.
World War Two! A great guy. A weapons expert. But he was too nice.
Is that you? Are you too nice? Are you tired of all the bullshit you’ve been dragged through? Have you had enough? Are you fed up to the core, broken and ready to throw in the towel because you’ve let producers, studio executives, Hollywood agents, directors and actors (if you’ve gotten that far?) and everybody else walk all over you?
The infamous screenwriter Joe Esterhaus (Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge, Music Box) was most assuredly not too nice. He was and is the bad ass of screenwriters. He’s downright scary with his shoulder length streaked hair, long beard and ever-present snarl.
He rarely smiles and in his hey day he wore lots of leather. He looks and sounds like a Hells Angel enforcer. He could have fit right in to Sons of Anarchy. He made a career (and a fortune) out of intimidating Hollywood executives. Even on his lousier scripts, he got big money and a begrudging respect (or maybe fear). BTW, Check out Joe Esterhas’ great book The Devils Guide To Hollywood: The Screenwriter As God.
He wasn’t afraid to throw or take a punch. That’s the way every screenwriter should be. Do you see yourself that way? I’m a screenwriter myself and the idea of throwing, and especially, taking a punch makes me uneasy.
David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables, Spartan) is also a tough guy. He’s fairly small and he rarely smiles (not sure what the not-smiling thing is all about), but he’s a bad ass that executives don’t like to mess with.
He too wrote an incredible book Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business.
Frank Darabont wrote a script for the 4th installment of the Indiana Jones franchise only to have it rejected by George Lucas. He was upset, but didn’t lose it because he “didn’t want to harm my friendship with Steven (Spielberg).” And I think it’s fair to say that words were exchanged with the bosses of AMC regarding their disagreements on The Walking Dead.
There are many other stories of bad ass screenwriters who took their scripts by the horns and managed to control them, but those guys are rare. Billy Bob Thornton once jumped on a producer’s desk ready to beat the crap out of him for messing with his script.
I’ve worked with multi-millionaires, hard-nosed, tough-edged businessmen (and women) who had the killer instinct in their other careers, but are the biggest babies as screenwriters. I’ve worked with doctors, lawyers of every kind, editors, high school teachers, college professors, PhD.’s, psychologists, psychiatrists, advertising copywriters, publishers and virtually dozens of professions who’ve wimped out when it came to their screenplays.
Why is that?
Before I answer the question, let me ask you something: are you too nice?
Do you have the courage to admit it? Of course you don’t because nobody likes to think of themselves as being weak.
But chances are that you are weak when it comes to your screenplay. Maybe not at first. You’re filled with piss and vinegar, but then the nonsense starts and continues with your second and third scripts. You want a deal so badly that you will do whatever it takes to make it happen and usually that means selling your soul, losing your integrity and turning into a whore (which is worse than being a wimp).
Whichever route you chose, at the end of the day, your screenplay doesn’t get made or sold and you’re back at square one having your calls, emails and texts go unanswered by the people who took advantage of you.
If you’re new to screenwriting this information may come as a surprise and it might be easy to be judgmental. You may think I’m full of crap, but if you’ve been at it for a few years and come close to getting a deal (or actually got a deal and made some money) you’ll know what I’m talking about.
The thing is: most screenwriters are afraid to be bad asses.  They’ve spent anywhere from four months to three years working on a screenplay and most don’t know what to do with it. They finish their first script and are all gung ho about getting it out to agents. When they find out that’s easier said than done, it’s a real wake up call.
There were times in my screenwriting career where I wished I’d spoken up. And I can’t tell you the number of times former students, clients, colleagues and friends have not spoken up when they should have.
It’s easy to understand why they didn’t.
They didn’t want to rock the boat and risk being replaced on somebody’s whim. Getting the deal is life and death. So is getting your movie made.
Speaking up is the key. I’ve done it. Twice. And both times I was treated differently than when I was my usual frightened screenwriter. The first time it was about money. A certain figure was brought up in the early stage of the deal. Then it came time to make it happen and the figure was cut in half.
I needed the money, but I was so enraged at the cheapness of the two producers that I stood my ground and said it had to be the initial figure.
I waited three days. They agreed. I got the money.
I was petrified during the three-day wait that my plan would backfire. I was physically ill.
Then the phone call came from the money guy. My aggressiveness paid off.
The second time was also about money. It’s ironic how being desperate for a paycheck will make a screenwriter get some balls.
I’m writing this because of a recent agent situation. I got an email from someone I knew who started out as a television writer, but wound up as an agent for a big firm. In his email he told me he was looking for screenplays and could I get him some, not only my own, but of everybody I knew.
Duh! Yeah!
I contacted ten of the best screenwriters I knew who had great scripts. A few had come close to getting deals. The rest were first-timers. I knew the scripts were great because I helped them develop them. I also included one of mine. I told each person (male and female) to email the new agent and mention me. He was ecstatic to have all these wonderful projects. He thanked me profusely.
And I felt happy that I could be the conduit to my screenwriter clients possibly getting an agent.
Two months passed. A couple of the ten emailed me about it. One wanted to call the agent. I suggested that she not. “Better to hold off and wait for him to call you,” I said.
I, on the other hand, did contact him with a gentle, pathetically friendly email asking if he’d had a chance to read the scripts.
“No. I’m swamped. I promise I’ll get to them soon.”
It’s now three months, going on four. I’m ticked off because I’m starting to look bad to the screenwriters I contacted. I reassured them all that the guy was new on the job and that he would be getting back very soon.
But I wasn’t really certain of that.
I sincerely hope he will.
I want to handle this like Joe Esterhas because at times like this he is my hero. I could never really be like him, maybe it’s in the DNA, but if I pushed myself, I could be a little bad ass now and then. So could you.
 I want to call up the agent and say something to the effect of, “What’s the deal, asshole? You tell me you want screenplays and I give you ten winners and you can’t find the time to read them? What the fuck’s going on with you? Jesus Christ, man, read the Goddamn scripts or I’ll take them to somebody who will!”
I think I could do that. Could you? Would you be able to muster the courage to say it or something tougher or something really nasty that will rattle the agent’s cage?
Most people would say I’m a nice guy. Maybe too nice.   
But I know I’ll have to get more assertive if anything is going to happen with my screenwriting career.
And you will too.
You just cannot be nice.
Don’t be afraid to risk the deal or the almost deal. Don’t be afraid to tell a producer that his notes are idiotic. Don’t be afraid to defend the scene or the Act break or the ending you know in your heart is right.
You’re the person who created the script. You’re the writer in the room. You’re the one who labored over your screenplay. Don’t let them take it away from you.

     Remember: nice is for dogs.

I'm Baaaaaa-aaaaacccckkkkk!

     It's been awhile, almost nine months since I last posted.  But I have an excuse. I've been busy and lucky enough to get work. Yes. Work!!!
     It happens.
     I got a writing gig on a new sitcom called Don't Know Jack. When it will air is anyone's guess, but that's how it is in the television business. For example, over the years I've had seven deals. 7. I got the money, but none of them ever made it to the air. Just like most pilots never make it to the air. 
     I also got a rewrite of a screenplay called Dead Is Even. Worked on it, on and off, for five months. The producer hired me because he read a screenplay I wrote eight years ago. He had always liked the script and said he would back pocket it (which means he would always symbolically have it in his back pocket if the occasion ever arose where a studio was looking for something like it. )
     Lo and behold: a script came across his desk, which he optioned and remembered my screenplay and called me because it needed a rewrite.
     It's good to be remembered.
     This kind of thing is pretty much the norm for screenwriters. Not the upper echelon types, but the normal, typical screenwriter. The work comes sporadically until you're connected to a project that gets some buzz and makes some noise and gets made and gets more buzz and noise and suddenly you're a hot screenwriter.
     Anyway, I'm happy to be back in the saddle and I will be posting on a regular basis.
     Oh, by the way, I also published three books during these last nine months.
    Writers Rehab, Never Trust Ann Coulter and my third novel Paris Time (A Time-Travel Novel) that has been selling well.
     Check all of them out or just one.
     See you soon!


30 Days And Counting To Publication Date!

     One month from today, Writers Rehab will be published published. To say that I'm excited about it would be an understatement.  Whether you're a novelist, screenwriter, playwright or television writer, Writers Rehab will work for you.
     The book is designed to be a comprehensive self-help book in the form of a 12-Step Program for writers dealing with emotional or psychological roadblocks with their writing.
     You can use it as a source to deal with the numerous scenarios that face writers:
          * Being stifled creatively
          * Running into brick walls
          * Losing confidence
          * And experiencing writers block to the point of depression and creative collapse
     Starting today, I will be making posts about the book and about the worst thing that can happen to any writer: writers block
     I've had it. I know you've had it.  Frankly, my guess is that everyone has had it at one point or another.
     But there are ways around it.

Is Finding The Spine of Your Story Breaking Your Back?

     As with all writing, no matter if it's a novel, screenplay, television pilot or play, everything boils down to structure. Without it, you're doomed. Without even a basic cause and effect outline, eventually you'll hit a brick wall.
     Even when we have a detailed scene by scene or chapter by chapter outline, the actual writing part is difficult, some say even torturous.
     What can be of help is to understand the spine of your story. What is what you're writing "really" about? The wildest thriller can still be about the disconnect between a father and son or a child from an alcoholic family's relationship with her mother or a guy with authority issues.
     Re-watch or re-read your favorite novels or movies and figure out what the stories are "really" about. Or look at the TV shows your currently watching or have watched? 
     Was "The Sopranos" about the brutal head of a Mafia family? Or was it "really" about a mobster who was the head of a Mafia family who was also a family man with mother issues? 
     Think about it.
     I recently saw a production of the play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I saw the movie years ago and I've read it, as well. On the surface it's about a destructive relationship between a man and wife. But if you look at it closely, what it's really about is a woman disappointed with herself for marrying a weak man who she compares to her successful father, which says to me the spine of the play is a woman with father issues.
     Now, the play is one of my favorites and it's about other things, as well, but the core of the structure, i.e., the spine, comes from Martha putting her father on a pedestal. Her husband can never live up to her father and she never lets him forget it.
     So pick a couple of your favorite works of fiction and look for the spine. It will help you recognize the spine of your story.
     
  

Don't Keep Knocking On The Door When You Know In Your Heart Nobody's Coming

     A big mistake many writers make is waiting for someone to help them. I don't mean with what you're writing at the moment,  but with what I like to call the "maintenance" of your career. Once your project is ready (meaning you've done several drafts, gotten positive feedback and you're confident it's as good as it can be), it's like a child being sent out into the world.
     Unfortunately, the world doesn't care and it won't be a welcoming place for your baby to enter into.
     That's where you come in. Unless you have contacts in high places or a referral to someone who can help you, you and only you are responsible for finding a contact in a high place and getting your own referrals.
     Too many new (and not so new) writers are helpless. 
     They act like foreigners in a country who don't speak the language.
     They are timid about asking for help. 
     They are lazy. They feel that the hard work was in getting their project in shape. I won't say that that's the easy part, but finding an agent, manager, editor producer who will even read your script is almost as difficult.
     Whatever discipline and work habits you used to write your latest opus, you must do the same in your pursuit of representation or an interested producer. 
     Allocate an hour day (more if you can spare it) to surfing the Internet for writing sites and contests with the hope of finding a name who will be receptive to reading your script or at least reading a synopsis.
    Get to know people, especially other writers or people working in the business. Join writers support groups. Go to symposiums on writing or breaking into the business. Everywhere you go talk to people. Schmooze. You never know where you'll find someone who knows someone who knows someone else.
     And keep writing query letters and query emails. Find ways to nail down the exact email address of someone important. Or even of someone not important, but who may know someone who is.
     The thing you should do least of all is to wait for someone to knock on your door, out of the blue. Or wait for someone who said they would help you, but didn't. If you encounter someone who seems positive and receptive, be thankful, but also be mistrustful. They may be lying or just yessing you to death so you'll stop bugging them.
     Be relentless, be polite, be cautious and be smart enough to know who has your best interests at heart and who doesn't.
     And hope for some luck!

Are You An Overwriter or Underwriter?

     Screenplays, as well as all forms of writing, are either overwritten or underwritten. And I don't mean strictly by length.  An overwriter will write a screenplay that's just too long. I encourage people to shoot for 110 pages, but many new (and experienced) screenwriters go way over, as well as way under. 
     This kind of overwriting and underwriting can be fixed by either editing and cutting or adding and embellishing scenes, sub-plots and the main storyline.
     The other problem area is what I'm dealing with today.
     Scenes can also be overwritten and underwritten. Overwritten means you've put in too much information or information the reader already knows or you've written a monologue that stops the forward movement of the plot dead in it's tracks. Simple, the scene is bloated and needs to be trimmed or maybe even eliminated.
     Underwritten scenes are an even bigger problem. When you have to edit a scene that's too long, it's a bit easier than having to embellish a scene that's too short. Now, in screenwriting, scenes should be short. If you can give all relevant information in a one page (or less) scene good for you. Move on to the next scene. But often, it's not that simple. Some scenes require crucial info to move the story or reveal character, so it's difficult to make it lean and mean.
     Ultimately, you will look at your first draft and realize that some scenes work very well, others are underwritten and some are overwritten.
     An underwritten scene means that you've given some information that presumably will lead to the next scene, but you just do a cursory job of it. You've written an exchange between two characters consisting of 10 lines. It probably needs 20 or 30 to clearly get the information you need to get across.
     Overwritten scenes are frustrating to read because they just have too damn much information, but at least the key info is there. Underwritten scenes are more frustrating because you merely drop some information and move to the next scene, but you leave the reader hanging and frustrated because we're not sure what you're trying to get across.
     So if you've written a scene that looks too short on the page, it probably is. Take another look at it and make sure it contains what you want it to contain. And if it doesn't, take another crack at it.

Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

     Most screenwriters (and writers in general) are in one kind of rut or another. It just ain't happening. You have a mediocre idea or not even an idea--maybe just a notion of a story. Or the premise you fell in love with doesn't love you back. It sounded like such a good idea at the time. Now you hate it and you wonder why you ever thought it was any good.
    Back to the rut. You're not writing. The only thing you're doing is feeling sorry for yourself. Days go by. Maybe weeks. And then a few months have gone by and you're self-esteem is dwindling as your self-loathing is increasing. 
     That's when it really gets bad because you're starting to become immobilized with fear that you'll never find another good idea or that even if you do, you won't be able to finish a draft or if you do, you won't be able to rewrite it or rethink it.  That kind of thinking pushes you down even further into the miasma of a blocked writer.
    Oh, by the way, that's what you've become. You are not a screenwriter anymore. You are now a screenwriter who can't break through his block and that's dangerous territory because with all that free time you have because you aren't writing, you can spend it "thinking" about how you're not writing and that brings you down even more.
    Is there a way out of this horrible place?
    Only if you change the rut you've been in. How do you do that? Depends on your psyche. Maybe take a short vacation. Or a long one. Get away from your environment and the daily bullshit.  Join a health club. Exercise can be a very freeing experience once you find a routine.
     I won't kid you. There are might be 50 things you can try to get out of your rut and none of them may work. But you have to try. 
     You have to change whatever pattern you've fallen into.
     Because nothing changes if nothing changes, you have to take that first step.
     If you don't, it'll only get worse.