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.

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