Thursday, October 24, 2013

Screenwriting for Fun and Profit

In 1993 I had the privilege of being an extra in the Disney film Iron Will. The power of Hollywood to make an impact on mid-America communities was brought home with such force that I conceived a story about it that I pitched to the producer, Robert Schwartz. I called it The Extras. Mr. Schwartz agreed to read my treatment if I wrote one, and upon his return to Hollywood after the film was completed he called to say he would actually read the screenplay if I wrote it. Being a Minnesotan himself he offered some advice on the matter, including the recommendation that I obtain and read Syd Field's book called Screenwriting.

My brother Robert had studied film making in college and agreed to assist me on the project. All of his suggestions proved to be improvements when I implemented them, and my only regret is that I hadn't implemented more of them. Alas, I had a certain vision for the story based on my experience and conceptually the idea was sound, but it costs money to make a movie and "sound" isn't enough.

When the screenplay was finished I sent it to Mr. Schwartz who promised to read it. Sure enough, he kept his word. A couple days later he called to tell me it was a very good first effort. He asked me then to write a second screenplay, but in a different genre. I created a dramatic World War II story told from the point of view of a crippled man  from Estonia called Uprooted. There were life and death escapes galore and lots of opportunity for nail biting by audiences.

After submitting the manuscript in the spring of 1994 Mr. Schwartz once again called me on the phone to say he'd read it. He proceeded to read various passages to me, noting it was very good writing. He suggested I consider coming to Hollywood and that he would introduce me to people.

But I had a job, and a family. I did not feel I was in a position to take risks. Instead, I obtained an agent who believed in the manuscript enough to shop it around a little as I worked on my next screen play in yet another genre, Love Letters Inc., a comedy.  What follows here are some lessons I learned from my two year infection with the screenwriter bug.

1. Read Screenplay by Syd Field.
Even if the book is dated, his ideas of how to tell a story in film will never be out of date. There are also other books on screenwriting that you can obtain and should probably read, but I can't say what's best and most currently respected. In 1993 Field's book is the one that was recommended to me.

2. Read a few real screenplays.
You can do a Google search and find sources for screenplays of many of your favorite films. I bought Dave and the screenplay for Runaway Train. Even if you never get an inkling to become a screenwriter it might be fun to purchase the screenplay of your favorite film. In 1993-4 they were only $15 apiece.

3. Join the Screen Writers Guild.
Not sure what it costs today but back then it was $35 a year. Supposedly they have attorneys who will defend writers ini court should a studio or director steal your script or concept and not pay you for it.

4. Watch lots and lots of movies.
I went through a phase where I watched the first ten minutes of hundreds of films, studying them to see how the director set up the story and foreshadowed the end. Studying films is invaluable if you are desirous to truly be part of the film making industry.

5. Study the various ways directors move the story forward.
A standard film is essentially a series of scenes. Study the pacing, the way in which directors create tension and then release it.

6. Don't write a sequel to an existing film.
When I pitched my idea for The Extras to Robert Schwartz, I also pitched another film called Pause Button which I imagined would make a great sequel to Honey I Shrunk the Kids. He said that when the first film was being made they were already working on sequels in the event it was a hit.

7. Know that what you do will probably never get produced in Hollywood.
Why are you writing this movie script? My guess is that because it is a story you feel needs to be told. Why else would you sacrifice so much of your energy and time on this project? I say go for it. Once you find a way to tell the story as a screenplay, you may later turn it into a novella. That's what I have done with my story Uprooted. It is now a semi-polished manuscript which I aim to see in print within a year or so.

Bottom line: the notion of screenwriting for fun and profit is a joke. It's work, and you will probably never see a dime of profit. But it's a rewarding experience to create something from nothing, to share it with friends, and to see what happens next.

In the case of my writing The Extras, I discovered the the author of Iron Will, the film I was in, was also the author of Runaway Train. He'd written it two decades earlier but nothing came of it. Till Disney picked it up. Now it's been two decades since I started writing Uprooted, inspired by my brief exposure to the Hollywood experience. Perhaps it's time for this story to be discovered, too.

In the meantime.... life goes on. Have a great, great day.


My Inner Chick said...

I love that you were in Iron Will. Did you meet Kevin Spacey? Love him!
Great tips about Screen Plays. I'd love to take a class about how to do this!
Keep Well.


ENNYMAN said...

I was practically standing next to him on the Start of the Race scene. I have a friend who talked to him quite a bit, but I was not introduced....