Give him a ghost
I was talking to someone who had worked in development and who had produced several films of her own. I had given her my script to read and give me notes on a week prior to her calling me and inviting me over for lunch. I arrived there excited that she had read my script.
Her: I haven’t read your script yet, but I’ll give you some notes anyway.
Me: But don’t you want to—
Her: How much do you know about structure?
Me: A lot.
Her: Where’s the first act end?
Me: Around page 30…
Her: That’s good. That’s good. Does your main character have a ghost?
Her: Ah, see, you don’t know what a ghost is. Your hero needs something in his past, something that drives him.
Me: Well, actually he does, sort of. It’s hard to explain. If you read the—
Her: As long as you give him a ghost, it’s fine. It could have been a long lost brother, or a family secret.
Me: I get you, but it’d probably be better if you read the script to see what I mean.
Her: No, that’s ok. I know what I’m talking about. People who refuse to use my notes never get produced.
One summer, I was working for a credit-less Producer. I did development for over twenty scripts that he was trying to get off the ground. One day, we were sitting outside of a Starbucks in Westwood and I had just pitched him two biopic ideas. I thought they were great stories, but the Producer shook his head. “Those sound like George Clooney movies, and no one likes George Clooney movies”, he said. I didn’t know how to respond.
The Producer began his pitch. “Here’s a movie I’ve been trying to get made for a while. A Detective loses his partner in the field. This guy is grizzled, tough. One day, he is in the Chief’s office. The Chief says to him, ‘You have to get a new partner’. The Detective argues that he doesn’t need one. The Chief says, ‘Too bad. Your new partner is on his way.’ Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. The Detective opens the door, but there is no one there. He looks side to side, then looks down. It’s a Penguin. The movie is Penguin Cop. You see the Detective and Penguin driving around town. The Detective is talking about a case, but the Penguin can’t respond because he is a penguin. The Penguin will help solve the case somehow, I don’t know.”
The Producer then points to a Harry Potter poster at the theater next door. “I can see it right there. It could be as big as Harry Potter.”
I want you to move to Compton
A producer interviewed me for a writing assignment. He had bought a pitch from another writer regarding gang wars in South LA, a story about the rise of rival gang leaders who were bothers. I was very interested in writing the story, but the producer had a request:
Producer: Where do you live?
Me: Century City.
Producer: I want you to move to Compton.
Producer: I want you to get some hands-on experience, see the place, experience it before you start writing.
Me: I dunno.
Producer: Just for six months. Live in Compton for six months, I guarantee you the writing will be a lot more authentic.
Me: I could visit Compton, take pictures—
Producer: Nono, you gotta experience it. Feel the place, the vibe. Try and get in touch with some people, talk to some gang members if you can.
Me: Hmm… Let me think about it.
The next day, I called him and politely turned down his offer.
August 21, 2011 at 3:43pm
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Legends in the lead
Not long ago I was pitching a spec script to an executive (who is now a producer) about two old friends who reunite on a road trip to Vegas.
Executive: Okay, have you thought about who would play these roles?
Executive: Who do you see in the lead?
Me: I would love to see Paul Newman and Robert Redford play these characters.
Executive: Nobody wants to work with them!
Me: Really?! (looking away in disbelief)
Set it in Appalachia. In 2019.
My first meeting as a young screenwriter:
I was sitting next to my manager, whom I didn’t even like, but was grateful for, across from some development people. They liked my indie script and asked what I was working on next.
Me: I was thinking about a serial killer that was working in Poland in the 60’s.
Exec: No. Poland doesn’t sell.
Exec: No one cares about Poland. Set it in Appalachia. (Exec stares at the wall, thinking.) In 2019.
Me: Futuristic? I wasn’t thinking about that.
Exec: Yeah, think about it. Post-Apocalyptic Appalachia.
My manager: She’s not writing a serial killer movie next. She’s writing a comedy.
Me (quietly to him): But I’m not a comedy writer.
My manager (patting my knee): Yes, yes, you are.
Jets, tanks, boats — throw it all in!
A writer/producer hired me to write a treatment on an idea of his, a Three Kings-type story set in Afghanistan where a group of marines find $10 million in Al-Qaeda drug money and decide to keep it. I was about halfway finished with the treatment when the producer called me one night, around 3AM.
Producer: I spent the whole day playing this Battlefield game—have you played it?
Producer: It’s a military shooter with all kinds of stuff, jets, helicopters, tanks—it’s got everything and it’s fucking tense!
Me: It’s 3 AM.
Producer: We need that in the story.
Me: We need a game?
Producer: Jets, tanks, boats — throw it all in. An all out war. We can get the studios interested in this if it’s got huge action set pieces.
Me: You wanted it to be character-driven, low key—
Producer: Let’s try it this way. Start from scratch, these guys are part of a huge offensive against Al-Qaeda.
Producer: And the Russians are involved. Maybe the Saudis. They’re bankrolling the Afghans with hardware and tech.
Me: Let me think about it. I’ll call you tomorrow.
Producer: And try that game. It’s fucking tense.
The hero spends 50 pages looking for a plot! Why the fuck are you wasting my time?!
— Pissed off producer’s note on my first script (which sucked badly).
This is worse than Inception
I have been writing scripts on and off since the late 90s. About a year ago, I handed in a spec script to a well-known and respected producer in town. The script was a sci-fi action thriller, dealing with parallel universes. He read it and completely tore it apart over the phone. Here’s how it began:
Producer: Remember Inception? It took them 40 minutes to explain the rules of the game and set the story up. Which left them with no time to develop characters, that’s why the film was populated by a bunch of cardboard cutouts.
Producer: This is worse than Inception. You spend 35 pages setting it up, and the way you do it, it’s gonna end up being 45 minutes on screen. And it’s gonna feel like an hour.
Me: How do I—
Producer: Do the opposite: set it up in 10 pages or less, then spend more time on character development. You can weave in the other shit throughout the story, but don’t make people read 35 pages just to set the rules of the game.
He went on for an hour, completely destroying the script, destroying my self-confidence, and destroying my pre-conceived notion that Inception was an awesome film. (they do spend a lot of time explaining everything. And the characters are weak).
Nobody cares about the fucking dog
A producer was giving me feedback on a writing assignment I was doing for him, based on a pitch of his. The main character was a loner who had a dog to keep him company. The producer hated that fact.
Producer: It’s sickening how many writers take the easy way out and just give the guy a fucking pet, and we’re supposed to like him because of it.
Me: What else do you suggest?
Producer: No pets. Nobody cares about the fucking dog. It’s a cliche plot device. Guy pets a dog, we love him. Gimme a break. You can do better than that.
Me: I’ll figure something out.
Producer: And don’t try to swap the dog for a picture of his dead wife or he walks an old lady across the street or gives money to homeless person. Be original. Find an original way for us to like this guy.