Premise: (from IMDB) A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
About: It’s the latest Coen Brothers film! This one stars newcomer Oscar Isaac, along with Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman. The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (which, historically, is a sign that the movie will be slow, boring, and pointless – yippee!). When asked about the plot, Joel Cohen joked that it didn’t have one. I’m not sure he realized how true that answer was.
Writers: Joel and Ethan Cohen
Details: 105 minutes long
Well this movie sure gives “Save the Cat” a whole new meaning (or should I say, meowning). No really, I’m just kittying. That joke was purrrrr-fect.
I understand, Critics of America, that the Coen Kool-Aid is usually double-packed with extra pink sugar and therefore never fails.
The Coens are great filmmakers. I’m not going to argue with you there. And they’ve won two screenwriting Oscars. So they know how to write. Not going to argue with you there.
But being great at something should never give one free reign to write a script with…
a) Boring subject matter.
b) An abysmal unlikable protagonist.
c) No story.
d) Boring music (although I guess the music itself isn’t actually in the script).
I would not rule out the possibility that the Coens are laughing at everyone who gave this movie high marks. There’s a chance (albeit small) that they made this movie just to fuck with you. Just to see how pointless they could make a film and still get you to declare it great.
Inside Llewyn Davis is like the movie Once, but without a story, likable characters, or good music. It’s just not a good movie. Okay, it has a few interesting performances. I’ll give it that. But as a movie, it’s a disaster.
The movie follows our “hero,” Llewyn Davis, who’s a really good folk singer in the early 60s. The problem is, Llewyn is a complete loser. The guy doesn’t even have a home! He just couch surfs. His entire life! Can you imagine not having a place to live? Having to call someone every few days to see if you can sleep on their couch?
Anyway, Llewyn is nearing that “point of no return” in an artist’s life where he either has to commit to being an artist forever or move on to a “normal” life. Complicating matters is that Llewyn doesn’t exactly sing the most commercial music. He sings folk. Which is even less popular than jazz, which is also not very popular.
On his last leg (and last dollar), Llewyn spends a few days in the city trying to make ends meet. As if this guy’s miserable angry existence isn’t enough to make you dislike him, it turns out he’s also impregnated one of his best friends’ girlfriends! So what does Llewyn do? Looks for a gig so he can pay for the abortion! No, I’m serious! This is the only time this guy shows any initiative.
After taking care of that, the movie looks to have nothing more pushing it along. It’s like the people mover at the airport if all of a sudden, it just stopped. So where to go next? Why not Chicago! Of course. Makes sense. Yeah, so Llewyn decides to hop in a car with two artists and take an impromptu trip to Chicago. It’s not really clear why he’s doing this but the smart money is on meeting a club owner there who may be able to get him a job.
That doesn’t go well (the guy tells us what we already know – Llewyn’s music will never make any money). So Llewyn goes back to New York, where he finally gives up on music. He gets in a few more tiffs with all the friends he’s bummed couches off of, until the “big” finale where he gets beat up by an old folk singer’s husband for cursing her off the stage. The End.
I get the feeling that the Coens, if they’re even aware of sites like this, laugh at them. I don’t think they believe that there’s any reason to analyze a piece of art. You just follow your gut, make what you feel, and whatever comes of it, comes of it. It’s likely why they look so damn bored whenever they win an Oscar.
And there’s something to be said for that approach. It serves you well when you’re a genius. It doesn’t do jack daniels to those of us who aren’t, however. The rest of the world must construct an approach to storytelling that allows us to write a good story. But even if that wasn’t the case, without form or structure, you run the risk of dolling out just as many total pieces of shit as you do total pieces of genius. It’s the law of averages. And unfortunately, Inside Llweyn Davis from the Coens lies squarely in the disaster heap.
First of all, there’s no story here. I mean, there is for awhile. Our main character’s goal is to “make it.” So that drives him a little, gives him a reason to get up in the morning. Which is good. At least we have a character who’s active. But eventually, Llewyn is revealed to be so self-destructive, we know he’s never going to achieve anything. This is going to be one of those depressing movies with a depressing ending. And when that happens, we tune out.
But where this story really lost itself was when Llewyn heads off to Chicago. I mean we don’t even know where we’re going anymore. Vaguely, Llewyn’s trying to get his papers in order so he can join the Navy (or something like it – that was unclear). But that seems to be secondary to simply showing Llewyn be miserable. All. The. Time.
The Coens even have the audacity to write a scene where Llewyn goes to see his father, who lives in the saddest living assistance facility in the world and has dementia, play a really sad song for him, then watch his dad shit himself. Ooh, I’m sure the Coen critic fans were saying, “It’s so raw and real! It mirrors life!” No, it’s sad, it’s depressing, and it’s pretentious.
Don’t even get me started on our unlikable protag, who takes unlikable to a whole new level. I mean this guy doesn’t work hard enough at his dream, he impregnates his friend’s girlfriends, he then ONLY WORKS HARD to get money so he can pay for her abortion, he’s selfish, he complains all the time, he’s not thankful when people let him stay at their place. Look, I think the unlikable protag is a daring choice and it needs to be used sometimes. But there has to be a measure of balance. If your main character is going to be an unlikable loser, the rest of your movie has to have some redeeming qualities, something to offset that. But there’s nothing in this movie that does. It’s just a sad depressing movie with a pointless wandering plot.
There are really only two standout performances in the movie: John Goodman and Orange Cat. I mean this cat – he was the only character I actually cared about! When he was lost, I wanted him to be found. When Llewyn is carrying him around, I was worried he was going to slip away. When he ran away, I desperately wondered how Llweyn was going to explain it to his owners.
And I’m sorry, but in a “real” movie, the character you care most about shouldn’t be a cat. Which leads us to John Goodman. I gotta give it to the guy, his heroin-addicted crippled always-sleepy ranting jazz musician stole the show. But a lot of that is because there was nothing to steal from. It’s hard not to be the prettiest girl in the room when you’re going up against a bunch of inbreeds.
However, if you were to make an argument about this film’s merits, it would come back to, as it always does in a Coens film, the characterization. These guys do things with their characters that nobody else does. I mean they even made Carey Mulligan, a girl who’s made a living out of being boring, into a semi-interesting character. John Goodman’s silent mysterious driver kept us guessing. The weirdo actor from Girls was good in his few moments onscreen as a goofy clueless singer. But all these performances fell on deaf ears because there wasn’t a story to hold them up.
The Coens are known for always putting a bag of money in their scripts. Everyone, then, follows the money. And that usually makes things fun. At the very least, it gives the story a plot. But there’s no money here. Just a bunch of sad people living miserable existences. Yeah, the music was pretty. But it was pretty in that boring way, the kind of music you nod to your girlfriend about afterwards and say, “That was pretty good.” But no fucking way do you ever want to hear it again.
I know I get criticized for not being open enough about indie film. But trust me. Unless you’re 60+ years old and have a hard-on for folk music, this movie is going to bore you to tears. Save your moolah. This is a freshly mixed glass of disaster sauce.
[x] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Parallel problems. Parallel problems are problems that are happening to your character at the same time as they’re dealing with a current scene-related problem. If you use them correctly, they create a lot of tension, since the audience will be worrying wherever your character goes. Here, it’s the cat. Llewyn loses his friend’s cat, which they don’t know about because they weren’t home. So now Llewyn is meeting up with other characters, dealing with other problems, and all we can think about is, “Is he going to be able to find the cat in time?” You can use MULTIPLE parallel problems to add even more tension to your main character’s plight.
Get your script reviewed on Scriptshadow!: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send in a PDF of your script, along with the title, genre, logline, and finally, something interesting about yourself and/or your script that you’d like us to post along with the script if it gets reviewed. Use my submission address please: Carsonreeves3@gmail.com. Remember that your script will be posted. If you’re nervous about the effects of a bad review, feel free to use an alias name and/or title. It’s a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so your submission stays near the top.
Genre: Contained Sci-fi Thriller
Premise: (from writers) When an elite team of Allied forces assault a top secret research facility, they become trapped underground with a sadistic Nazi Colonel and a mysterious Machine which allows him to switch bodies, turning the team against one another as they desperately try to survive.
Why you should read: (from writers) Echovault is a contained thriller with a strong hook, interesting characters ,and edge of your seat twists: the perfect low budget script to get two blokes from Australia noticed. We are a writing partnership from downunder and believe being featured on Scriptshadow would be great exposure, as well as a means to get extra notes from the Scriptshadow community. Please don’t hold back; we’ve been bred tough, boxing kangaroos and wrestling crocodiles, so go ahead and throw us to the Scriptshadow wolves.
Writers: Andrew Macdonald and Jacques Joubert
Details: 96 pages
Okay, enough about who made it in Hollywood and who didn’t make it in Hollywood and if you’ll make it and why we make it. What it comes down to is writing scripts. You gotta write something. So it’s time to review one of those somethings. Maybe today we’ll see someone make it. Which is a darn good reminder. People can still make it right here on Scriptshadow! If you write something awesome, it will be recognized and people will seek you out. But you gotta bring it. Let’s see if today’s writers did that.
Echovault is about a group of American soldiers in Germany during World War 2. They’ve been given the task to storm a secret vault in the dead of winter and secure some nasty German fellow named “Schneider.”
Our hero is 30 year old Corporol “Fish” Fisher. He’s a man’s man who just wants to follow orders and get the job done. He’s joined by a group of men that include Captain “Jonesy,” Lieutenant Colonel Somerset, Private Mahler, Corporol “Jackpot” Washington, Corporol Webster, and a few others.
So these guys storm this vault that juts deep into the ground, only to find out that their target, Schneider, is a scientist, and this is his testing lab. After a lot of confusion, Schneider (who was supposed to be taken alive) is shot and killed.
Or was he??
It turns out Schneider’s machine switches the consciousness of two human beings! And that Corporal Webster is now Schneider. Of course, nobody knows this yet. They’re still trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.
Schneider uses his cover to call in reinforcements, who are a few hours away. In the meantime, everyone’s trying to figure out how to get out of this vault, which has been mysteriously locked from the inside.
Eventually, everyone gets caught in the lab area again, the machine is turned on, and Schneider uses another jump to get into someone else’s body. By this time, everyone’s figured out what’s going on. The problem is, no one’s sure which body Schneider just jumped into. Which means any one of them could be the bad guy. Combine that with the fact that the calvary’s coming and they can’t get out of here, and we have ourselves a dandy of a situation.
There’s definitely something to Echovault. The last two days we’ve talked about the importance of writing marketable concepts, and we’ve got that here. We have a contained thriller set in World War 2 with Nazis and secret experiments involved. Those are a lot of marketable elements.
They’ve also added a clever mystery (who’s Schneider?), a ticking time bomb (the Nazis are coming), and some high stakes (obviously, there’s death at every corner. But also, if Schneider gets out of here with his experiment, he could do a lot of damage).
But MAN, there are so many little things that trip Echovault up. The good news is, this is an idea worth pursuing. The writers should definitely keep at it and try to make it work. Because my gut tells me there’s a movie here. But the writers need to pay a lot more attention to the details.
First off, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea that the Nazi scientist they’re trying to get just happens to be working on an experiment that would help him get out of this exact predicament. I found that to be a little convenient. I eventually forgot about it, but it was always in the back of my head. I don’t know if anybody else saw this as a problem. If so, they might want to fix it. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a way to do this.
Second, I think the story moves a little slow. I only became interested once we didn’t know which one of them was Schneider. That’s when the script really picked up. Whenever you write, you come up with a few good things in that first draft. Your job in the second draft, then, is to move all those good things up in the timeline and try to come up with MORE good things. The third draft, do the same. The fourth draft, the same. Until your script is packed with good things from beginning to end! That’s what we need here. We need to push up the moment where we’re not sure which one’s Schneider. Because before that, I was kinda bored.
The BIG fix that needs to be made, though, is the characters. They’re all the freaking same!!! In this kind of script (with lots of people to keep track of in a small space), you have to differentiate the characters somehow. All these guys pretty much acted and sounded and did the same things with only slight variations. The extent of differentiating them came in the description, when someone was labeled as “big” or “black.” You think that anorexic description is going to help us remember who’s who five pages from now? Twenty pages from now?
But even if you take out the “helping the reader” aspect, you just want your characters to feel different. Give a character a certain phrase he keeps using (“You got it champ”). Make one character faux tough, compensating for the fact that he’s scared as shit. Have an over-educated guy speak intelligently. Have one guy who never says more than a few words. And then use the character’s actions to further differentiate them from each other. Have one character be overly fearful. Have another be too brave. Because outside of Fish, I rarely knew who was who until the ¾ mark of the script.
Character differentiation is one of the easiest ways to spot the pros over the amateurs. So if you can master this, you’re in good shape. But it’s REALLY important in scripts like these, where you have a lot of characters thrown at the reader quickly. It’s so easy for the reader to forget who’s who. It’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen.
As for the rest of the script, it was a mixed bag. It still feels rough to me. I think Anna is a throwaway character that you’re not committing to. You either have to commit to a character like that or not. You can’t straddle the line. And you’re clearly straddling the line. I think the soldiers would’ve figured out A LOT EARLIER that they could sit everyone down and play the memory game in order to sniff out Schneider. I was thinking that the whole time, so I didn’t believe it took them forever to figure it out as well. I didn’t know how Schneider all of a sudden became a perfect naturally speaking American once he was in someone else’s body. Did he just inherit the person’s speech patterns? I’m not sure that makes sense.
These are those annoying things we writers HATE trying to figure out but we HAVE to figure them out or else the screenplay feels lazy. And that’s where the script lies right now. So unfortunately, while I think there’s potential here, it isn’t at “worth the read” quality quite yet.
Script link: Echovault
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: In order to help differentiate your characters, think (maybe even write down) about ALL your friends and the people you know. Write down what makes each of them sound different from one another. Some speak fast. Some slow. Some are more nurturing. Some are less caring. Some keep the topic of conversation on themselves. Some like to ask other people about themselves. Some say “um” a lot. Some are more eloquent. The list of variables is endless. Take what you learn there and apply it to your characters so they, too, sound like their own people.
So yesterday’s guest post created quite a lot of discussion, as I figured it would. Facing the prospect of “giving up” as a screenwriter is one of the most terrifying things any writer can go through. Because we all have those questions on our mind, some of us right there at the tip of our forehead, and some buried deep within our subconscious. “Should I quit?” “Is it better to get a real job while I’m still young?” “Do people back home think I’m a talentless hack for not making it yet?” The questions get harder when you find a spouse and have children. Now you’re not just affecting yourself with your decisions. “Is it right to keep going?” “Am I spending enough time with my kids?” “Does it not matter since screenwriting is based so much on luck?”
The first thing to know is that everybody’s situation is different. Nobody can base their decision to write (or not write) on the experiences of someone else, because the experiences of others are probably nothing like yours. And you don’t know all the circumstances anyway. If someone says they gave up after five years, but failed to mention they were only writing a couple of hours a week, wouldn’t it have been foolish to let their decision influence your own?
Or take Randy from yesterday. From what he told us, he didn’t like mainstream material and wrote smaller character-driven faire. This is a mainstream material driven business. If you’re not writing mainstream material, it’s going to be very hard to break in. The indie world is more about “do-it-yourself.” It’s more about writing and then directing your own material. That tends to be the only way those movies get made. So if you’re in the same boat as Randy, you might want to shift your approach from trying to sell specs to trying to make them. And if directing isn’t your thing, become a writer-producer and find other people to make your movies.
I also think information helps. You need to study how the system works in order to increase your chances of becoming a professional screenwriter. Through the evolution of this site, for example, I’ve learned what genres have the best chance of selling. Knowing that piece of info right there increases your chances of selling a script a hundred-fold (probably more). I also know how important it is to write an interesting main character that an A-list actor would want to play. That also increases your chances. If you keep picking up and learning all these pieces of information (of which there are hundreds if not thousands), you continually position yourself higher and higher on the ladder for breaking in. Which is why it usually takes screenwriters so long to break through. Cause they don’t know all this stuff at first.
I also want to say something about managers and agents. Guys, you HAVE TO STOP thinking agents and managers are the end-all be-all. These people only do something for you twice – with your first big spec that they like, and then (if that spec doesn’t sell) when you’re generating consistent income for them. Between those two times, they don’t do anything for you because they don’t have time. They have 20-30 other clients, and those are the ones who are paying their bills. You wanna hear something scary? I know this up-and-coming writer-director who just made a movie with one of the hottest character actors in the business, a guy who had one of the biggest TV shows ever. A couple of months after he finished production, his agents called him. “Hey, we just read your latest spec,” they said. “We like it. We want to send it to a few people.” “Umm, I finished shooting that movie two months ago,” he replied, laughing. That’s how freaking clueless these guys are about you unless you’re making them money.
Oh, and I also met with an agent from one of the Big 3 agencies, and we were going through a list of professional scripts I liked. It just so happened, he represented five of the writers of those scripts. He noted, as he went down the list, “I represent that guy. Haven’t heard from him in a year.” “I represent that guy. I have no idea what he’s doing right now.” And so on and so forth. And it was just this kick to the head. I realized that these guys can’t and won’t do anything unless you’re creating quality material for them that’s making them money. For that reason, it’ll always be your job to write as much as possible and create your own jobs. Do you know how Sam Mendes ended up directing the last Bond? It wasn’t because his and Daniel Craig’s agents decided they should meet. It was because they saw each other at a party and Craig suggested the possibility to Mendes. The more I learn about this business, the more I learn that it’s up to YOU to create your own breaks and forge our own career. Nobody is going to do it for you. Your agents just legitimize you and facilitate your deals.
And now to the big one – the reason I wanted to respond to yesterday’s article. Should you move to LA? Put simply, moving to LA increases your chances of selling a screenplay and becoming a working screenwriter. There is no question about that. And I’ll tell you why. One of the biggest complaints from aspiring screenwriters watching all these other writers break in is, “Yeah, but they knew that famous actor or that famous director. That’s the only reason they got that opportunity.” Well yeah, no shit. And guess how they met those people? Cause they moved to LA! This is where you meet all the folks who make movies! So if you’re out here and active, chances are you’re going to meet someone who can give your script to someone who can give your script to someone else. And maybe it sells.
And if it doesn’t? If it only gets people interested in knowing you? Then you take meetings and gain more contacts based on the quality of that spec. Something that’s hard to do if you’re not in town. It’s kind of like trying to break into the popular clique at high school when you live half-way across the country. How are they going to remember you over the 20 other guys who they see every day?
Now, with that said, I do NOT think it’s impossible to break into Hollywood from outside of Los Angeles. But I will tell you a truth that may be difficult to hear: YOU HAVE TO BE BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE. You have to write more. You have to work harder. You have to meet as many other screenwriters online and build the biggest ONLINE screenwriting network you can. You have to enter more contests. You have to cold query more agents and producers. You have write even when you don’t feel like writing. The reason? You have that “not here” stigma attached to you and that works against you. I’ll give you a personal example. Since I’m moving into producing, I want to meet all the writers whose scripts I like. So I try and set up meetings with all of them. When I find out they don’t live here, I’m bummed. I want to put a face to the name. I want to know what kind of movies they want to make. I want to know if their sensibilities match up with mine. I want to possibly make a movie with them! If they’re not here, it’s a lot harder to do that. E-mail is fine. But it’s not the same as being able to get to know someone “for real.”
But. BUT. BUTTTT!!! I don’t care if you live in Santa Monica, Alaska, Iraq, New Zealand. If you write something great, you better believe I will try and do something with it. I will never pass over a great script because the writer doesn’t live in Los Angeles. And I’m sure there’s nobody else in town who would either. There is such a lack of quality material out here, that if a quality script shows up, people will want it. Period. I’m not talking about “good” material. People here in LA can get away with that. When you’re an outsider, it has to be REALLY GOOD. But like I said, that isn’t going to happen magically. You have to out-work all the guys who are in a better position than you are. You need to read all the books, read as many scripts as you can, write more than the dude with a plush Hollywood loft. And then you need to blanket every screenwriting avenue that will read your script. Because a great script doesn’t matter if nobody knows it exists. That’s the only way it’s going to happen for an out-of-towner. Nobody’s going to hand it to you.
So that’s my response. Screenwriting is not a hopeless cause. It’s just hard, like any profession. And if you’re in a situation where it’s a little harder for you than the next guy, you have to work harder than the next guy. That ain’t exclusive to screenwriting. That’s life.
Hey guys. Carson here. I’ll be moving today’s review to tomorrow. Today, I have something special and interesting, something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before – a screenwriter openly admitting defeat – giving up on his dream. It’s a brave and scary thing to confront. And I’m sure a draining thing to write about. But like our guest columnist, Randy Steinberg, says, if it can help just a few people avoid the mistakes he did, it’ll be worth it. I don’t agree with everything he says below, but I agree with most of it. I know one thing. This should be a very interesting comments section.
*Note* Throughout this essay, when I refer to screenwriting it should be meant to understand I am discussing theatrical film writing as opposed to television writing.
I received a Master’s degree in Film in 1998. My concentration was screenwriting, and from that point forward I set out to write movie scripts with the goal of finding an agent, getting produced, and building a career. In 2011, I ceased trying. I threw in the towel. Tapped out. I had failed. I made very little money during all those years, had a virtual rolodex of contacts who probably wouldn’t remember my name in six months, and a bunch of old scripts that only myself and the universe knew existed.
How had this come to pass? It’s not as if I didn’t try. I had diligently written scripts for more than a decade. I knew people both in and out of the Hollywood system liked my writing. I had the chops, the drive, and the ideas to succeed. Why didn’t I?
No one will tell you success in screenwriting is easy, but few impart just how high the odds are. You may secure an agent or a manager, but that is only one step. Once you have representation, your script may be circulated. You may even get an actor or director attached. A small paid option will seem like a giant leap forward. If you are extremely fortunate, your script may sell and even be produced. This may mean some solid income, but don’t quit your day job because you could go dry for years after that. To actually live off screenwriting and that alone (and hope to support a family if that’s part of the equation) is an achievement few realize.
It’s not as if I was unaware of the long odds, but I didn’t play the game correctly. The age old saw “if I had only known then what I know now” applies, but even armed with better knowledge the odds of success increase only slightly. Still, if one hopes to achieve a dream it is best to embark on the journey with the proper tools and information.
What was it I didn’t know? What should I have done differently? Why did I fail where others succeeded? What can I pass on so new writers avoid the mistakes I made?
As with most failures, you have to look at yourself (though many are wont to do that). First, however, let me indulge in a bit of self-pity. When I emerged from film school, I was ill prepared to commence a career in screenwriting. It was the classic dichotomy of theory and practice, and many film school grads face this: no matter how well-schooled they might be, they are not prepared for what lies beyond the halls of the academy. For me, at the time of my graduation I did not hit the ground running: I just hit the ground.
It took me a few years to get over this poor start, but that amount of finger pointing aside, I have no one but myself to blame about the subsequent mistakes I made.
One of the appeals of screenwriting is the lottery-like nature of it. You can go from rags to riches overnight. One day you are the struggling writer in the garret, the next the toast of Hollywood. There is an entire industry built around tips, strategies, formulas, etc. that can help a writer achieve that big payoff. The allure is hard to resist.
That is probably one of the reasons I stayed at it as long as I did. Every time you begin a new script, you have hope. This could be the one. All the disappointments of the past are washed away, like so much sin after a sprinkling of holy water. Writers of all stripes have to deal with constant rejection and self-doubt, but they are the ultimate optimists. No aspiring writer would ever begin a new project if he or she didn’t think it would be the one that was going to make a big splash.
But here is the first and greatest mistake I ever made: I never moved to Los Angeles (I am from the Boston area). I had the opportunity when I was younger—before family and work made it an impossible decision—but I didn’t seize it. I labored under the impression I could write from afar, and, perhaps after a sale or another big development, then move to Hollywood—or maybe never have to live there permanently.
It’s not that this can’t happen. There are writers who don’t live in LA, who write scripts and visit frequently but don’t call the town their home. Some can make noise, but if you are going to make screenwriting your career (especially television writing) you simply have to live in Los Angeles—or at least reside there for some amount of time.
This is truer now more than ever, as reps eschew some clients simply because of out of town status. It’s harder to build the career of a young writer (and sustain the career of an established writer) if he or she isn’t known around town and can’t meet with industry players on a day in and day out basis.
Some writers may be content with one sale or maybe writing material for independent films. Maybe they want to write and produce their own scripts, in which case Hollywood matters less. But if you want to work in the Hollywood system and make a true living from it, you’ve got to be in the mix. There are always exceptions, but personally, in retrospect, it was a very large error not to move to Los Angeles—at least for a time if not permanently.
But let’s put that decision aside. Could I have achieved more, even removed from the center of the American movie industry? Yes, but again I made some poor decisions. If you want to succeed in screenwriting you have to be focused—like a laser. You are only as good as your last script. Everyone wants to know what you are working on next, and if you get sidetracked with other pursuits you fall behind. Reps and producers forget you. Tastes change and new trends form. To succeed in screenwriting you have to stay relevant, and to be on the forefront of people’s minds that means new material all the time.
Life intercedes, so it’s easier said than done, but for a time I wrote a few novels (lousy ones) and then I tried representing other writers for a bit. Both were worthy endeavors, but they forced me to put down my own screenwriting, and this was time I could have been writing newer and better scripts and perhaps breaking through.
And speaking of the wasted time department, I fell into the writing trap that is almost impossible for people to avoid, but bears mentioning because, undoubtedly, it will be asked of you if you attempt to make screenwriting your career: writing for free or writing “on spec.”
Every script that a writer begins without compensation is essentially that. Unless commissioned or written with an eye on raising money for your own film, every screenplay is penned on speculation that it can be sold or at least a manager or agent gained by it.
Some years back, times were a little easier for writers (not much but some). An unknown could procure a rep based on solid writing samples and then work his or her way into the system with small paid assignments. Money for the development of screenplays was freer and studios and production companies were more likely to take a chance on an unknown writer. Those days are gone and writers are being exploited.
More than ever, writers (both new and established) are working for free. These are not their own projects, which they then try to sell or pitch to reps. These are the ideas of producers, managers, and executives. Writers are asked to work on these for months, maybe even years with no pay, hanging only on the promise of a big score when the script is finally sold.
It is often hard for the writer to turn down these opportunities. There could be the chance to work with someone who has clout or access, and passing that up feels like starting at square one. It’s better to cling to something than have nothing, so writers take the chance and work this way, putting aside their own original material to spend time on ideas they might not even have full intellectual control of.
This, as with not living in LA, can occasionally work out, and that one out of one thousand success story fuels the notion that “it can happen to me, too.”
I don’t believe most of those asking writers to work on spec are bad eggs, looking to fool writers or get something for nothing. I do think it’s an unfortunate practice, on both sides of the equation. If you want good work, you pay for it, and there seems to be a belief that writers will still give their best effort even if not getting paid. On the other side, writers naively believe because someone is offering to get their scripts to higher ups these assurances will be followed through on. But I’m a firm believer that if there is no skin in the game on the producer or managerial side, even if the intentions are noble, you are unlikely to gain traction working on spec.
Of course, there are some looking to exploit writers, but whatever the motivations of those asking for free work, the writer should avoid it. I made this mistake several times. With limited time in this life, a writer should look askance at these situations and try to stay with his or her own original material.
But, if you must do it, do it when you are younger. Trial and error should happen when you have time and freedom on your side. You don’t want to be 20 scripts into your career, maybe with a spouse, children, and other responsibilities, putting down your own work to take free passes at someone else’s idea.
This happened to me toward the end of my screenwriting efforts, and it was not without appeal. It was a situation about a well known true crime story, one which I had a lot of background in. The producers could not afford to (or just didn’t want to) pay me up front, but as it was a front page story (and still is) there was some mojo for the project and the belief that it could be sold. In my younger days, I probably would have bit. But having learned the lessons of a failed screenwriter, I passed.
It’s not just with producers that writers can fall into this trap. Finding representation can also be a time suck and lead to failure.
In theory, the rep is supposed to work for the writer, and this may be true at the higher echelons where a well-known writer can fire an agent or manager and easily sign up with a new rep. But at the beginning stages the writer has little negotiating power. Your only leverage is to walk away, but many writers feel it’s better to hang on to something rather than beginning the search for a rep again.
Part of the reason for my failure is that, in several instances, I did just this. I should have headed for the exit far sooner, but I played the part of the ingénue too long hoping against hope that reps who took interest in my work would actually advance my career.
For example, I had once been introduced to a strong management team. They liked my writing and asked what else I was interested in doing. After discussing some ideas, we settled on something to script. Nine months and four or five drafts later, we were basically nowhere, and these reps didn’t seem interested in trying to work on something else. Furthermore, they did very little to put me forward to the industry as a writer with ideas and skills worth hearing about.
The emotional screws are similar to writing on spec for a producer and go down just as deeply. You have a legitimate rep, an industry player, interested in you and your work. They have the access and the contacts to get you where you want to be, so you are shy about asking questions or pressing the rep too much. They have all the power. The time I spent working on a script the reps never really showed to anyone was time I could have used writing other material and making more –and possibly better—contacts.
The small advantage to these situations is you have control over the material (unless you sign something to the contrary). You are working on your own ideas, with the rep helping to develop but not legally entitled to them. Still, unless you ask specific questions and “manage your manager” you can easily wind up in the same situation you would working on spec for a producer. You labor on a script for months and possibly years with the expectation that your rep will eventually get you and the work out there, but in the end they do neither.
There are many variations on this kind of relationship. A writer can spend much time working on different things for the same rep, but when push comes to shove the rep doesn’t feel it’s right for the market and asks his or her client to begin again on something new. Or the rep is only half-interested in the writer and strings him or her along hoping he or she will produce something amazing, but, short of that, won’t lift a finger to help the writer’s career.
Indeed, a few years after my failed efforts with Management Company A, I was introduced to Management Company B. Company B had an even better track record in the business than A, with big sales and an impressive client list. I showed them some scripts, and they thought I was a skilled writer but stated they could not sell those particular screenplays (more indy, character-driven pieces). Nevertheless, they wanted to discuss other ideas I might have. It quickly became apparent they were only looking for concept-driven scripts –action, big-comedy, horror and sci-fi—and their interest in me was of the “hip-pocket” variety.
This is a situation where a client is not formally signed with the manager, but he or she will agree to look at material the writer submits even though providing no guidance. When the script is complete, if the rep sees possibility in it, he or she will then sign the writer.
Had I been younger, I might have attempted to play ball, but I had learned my lessons by then and realized I would probably spend several months writing on a wing and a prayer—and in a genre that I had little passion for. In the end, I told Management Company B we didn’t have much common ground. They did not seem surprised and made no attempt to convince me we should try to work together.
The experience with Management Company B came in 2009-10. Even then, nearing 40 years of age and with much experience, I let the situation play out for too long. I was still holding out hope this one could be different. I did not want to admit failure. But when I did walk away I actually felt relieved.
After a few months of reflection, I realized I should start to move away from screenwriting entirely. I also realized the irony of it all. My final failure (the reality that I no longer aspired to practice the art of screenwriting professionally) came about because I was not afraid to fail. All those years, I was afraid to walk away from dodgy opportunities, afraid to ask for more commitment from potential reps, afraid to move to LA. Once I stopped fearing those things, I could be realistic with myself and summoned the courage to let it all go.
It was about this time, after more than a decade of trying, that I really and truly started to understand the system and could see why I had failed to make headway.
I began to realize that writing scripts was not the hard part, because if you want to succeed in the Hollywood system you have to be more than a good writer. There’s no question you need skill to make it; one can’t bumble his or her way into a successful writing career. But once you get past some of the first hurdles, success in screenwriting becomes more about market savvy, how you position and develop yourself, and saying the right things to the right people.
You’ll hear Hollywood insiders frequently tell new writers to just “write a great story” and you will get noticed. I think this is terrible advice. If there are two writers of equal skill, one who loves writing period dramas with female leads over 50 years of age and the other who scripts action pieces with 30-year old male leads, it’s not hard to see who is going to get more traction.
Screenwriting is, far more than any of the other writing forms, business-based. No one is going to shell out millions of dollars to make a movie without expecting (misplaced as this often is) millions more in return. Writers need to realize this.
I’ve read enough screenplays (at different levels of development) and seen enough movies by career-professional writers to know the gap between them and the talented aspirational class of writers is not as large as we are led to believe. It’s true that being in the right place at the right time is something no one can predict or prepare for, but I think a certain class of writers separate themselves from the pack by doing the little things that others can’t or won’t do.
No story about how a writer broke in to the system and succeeded is ever the same. There is no magic formula. The best advice I ever heard about success in screenwriting is “be pleasantly persistent.” But some succeed while others fail because they learned to do the little things. The little things evaded me for a long time, and when I did finally understand them I didn’t want to put them into practice.
I found the ideas that spoke to me as a writer were not commercial enough for Hollywood. I was not interested in moving to LA, ever. And I was unwilling to talk the kind of eager-beaver talk that producers and reps in the system want to hear. Perhaps some of this was due to the fact that I was nearing 40 and at a different place in life, but there are plenty of writers, no matter what age, who succeed because they play the game correctly (in addition to possessing great storytelling skill).
Perhaps I was never truly cut out to be a Hollywood-style screenwriter, but all those years of trying would have been less of a letdown if I had not made some of the mistakes I did. Then I could have chalked up lack of success to poor timing as opposed to some of the other missteps I made.
Even though I harbor little ambition for screenwriting any more, I still have people approach me and exclaim “I’ve got a great idea for a movie.” It’s difficult to even hear this because there is so much beyond having a great idea. I used to respond, “Sounds good. Write it up.” Now, I feel I should be a little tougher or at least ask “What’s your goal?” You need a great idea to begin, but that’s one piece out of a 1,000 item jigsaw puzzle.
It’s hard to be entirely negative. A prominent screenwriter I’ve known for years has always counseled me not to bother with the craft. Naturally, I never liked that advice, but he knew what I was up against. You don’t want to lead on aspiring writers by telling them just to try hard and believe in themselves. You want to encourage someone to pursue their dreams, but at the same time you want them to know exactly how steep the climb is.
As I noted earlier, there are a million books, articles, and blogs about screenwriting that will tell you all the things you need to do in order to sell a script or land an agent. The point of this essay is not to follow suit. I don’t want to tell anyone reading this article what they must do in order to succeed at screenwriting: I’m here to tell readers what I did wrong and why I failed.
A screenwriter who did succeed once told me something about the business when I asked him what I should expect out of a situation with an agent. He said, “It’s all a mystery until it isn’t a mystery.” If this article can take just a small slice out of the mystery by highlighting my missteps, I will take solace in helping someone else succeed where I did not.
There was a time long ago when you couldn’t turn on your TV and not find The Warriors playing. It must’ve been the first movie ever syndicated or something because no matter what house you showed up at, what street you passed through, what party you attended, there was The Warriors. My memory of the film was formulated on these viewings. And I must admit, I haven’t seen it since. All I remember is that the movie had that indescribable something that made it unforgettable. Unforgettable good? Unforgettable bad? Unforgettably cheesy? It’s hard to say. Which is why today’s Ten Tips will be the first in the site’s history where I expect to note both good and bad screenwriting tips. I mean, there’s a roller-skating gang-leader. The movie was written and directed by Walter Hill (he worked off a screenplay by David Shaber, who adapted the script from Sol Yurick’s novel). Hill wrote and/or directed some good movies in his day like The Getaway, Hard Times and 48 Hours. Unfortunately, he had a really bad experience in 2000 with the movie Supernova. The studio wrestled the movie away from him, famously recutting it with numerous directors (even Francis Ford Coppola took a stab at it). The movie was famously awful and Hill said it was because it deviated heavily from his original darker vision (however, he claims to have never seen the film). Since then, Hill has worked mainly in the background of Hollywood, mostly in television.
1) ALWAYS WORKS – The wrongly accused protag! We will always love and root for the wrongly accused protagonist! Here, the Warriors have been wrongly accused of killing Cyrus, the beloved gang leader. It’s for this reason that everyone’s trying to take them out. Combined with The Warriors’ underdog status as a gang, it’s no wonder we root for them from the first page.
2) Don’t throw a female character in the script just to have a female character in the script – This tends to happen in macho male-driven films. The writer knows he needs a female lead but doesn’t want one, so he tosses one in there without any thought as to how or why she’s involved. This happens in The Warriors. The prostitute who hung with The Orphans just decides to join the Warriors for NO REASON. Come on now. As a writer, it’s your job to FIGURE OUT A WAY to get your female characters into the story naturally.
3) When the stakes are sky-high, simple scenes become awesome scenes – When the stakes are high (in this case, The Warriors can run into death at any corner), creating a simple objective with an obstacle in front of it can lead to a great scene. There’s a moment where the Warriors have to get to the train. But the Skinheads are blocking their way. We watch as the tension builds. They have to decide if they’re going to go or not. They finally make a run for it. A chase ensues. We’re on the edge of our seats wondering if they’ll be able to catch the train in time. It’s a simple scene, but one of the best in the movie. And it’s so simple!
4) If your characters are trying to outrun something, make sure you explain why they can’t just stay where they are – I had a problem with this here. Since there was no urgency in The Warriors (they didn’t need to be anywhere by a set time), I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just stay put and leave the next night when the city was less volatile. There are vague references to dangerous cops and gangs finding them. But it seemed to be a lot more dangerous trying to get home rather than staying put. This is why a ticking time bomb always works. It explains why your characters can’t stay put.
5) Is backstory bad? – Walter Hill has an interesting take on backstory. This is what he says: “I very purposely — more and more so every time I do a script — give characters no back story. The way you find out about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue.”
6) Counterpoint – Backstory ain’t so bad – I see Hill’s point. Exploring characters through their actions is one of the best ways to develop them. More importantly, it keeps the story in the present, where movies work best. But these days, actors, producers and readers need more from their characters. They need to feel like those characters have lived a life. Backstory does that. The trick is to keep the backstory relevant and never give more than you have to.
7) Never underestimate the power of a simple plot – Hill, who was given a draft of The Warriors before writing his own draft, loved the “extreme narrative simplicity and stripped down quality of the script.” Looking back at it, I think that’s why the movie had such an impact on children, in addition to adults. A stripped down plot means every audience member, no matter what age, will be able to understand what’s going on. If you then want to up the adult appeal, add complexity through themes or social commentary or characters, whatever floats your boat.
8) Your main characters shouldn’t be wimps – One thing I realized when re-watching The Warriors was: THESE GUYS ARE WIMPS! They’re always running away. They’re only fighting when they’re cornered. If you have a macho hero-driven movie, make your hero a hero! Have him go after the prize instead of running or hiding. Obviously, in chase movies, your hero will be on the run. But when the opportunity arises and it makes sense, have them stand up for themselves. There wasn’t enough of that here.
9) Beware the Split-Up Paradox – In movies with group protagonists, there’s inevitably a time when the group splits up. My suggestion to you? Think twice before doing this. Watching The Warriors, I was all in for the first 40 minutes. Then, I noticed my concentration wandering. I wasn’t as into it. That’s when I realized the gang had split into three (or maybe four?) mini-groups. I wasn’t sure where any of them were or what they were trying to do. If you’re going to split up your characters, KNOW that this could be a problem and take counter-measures. Keep each mini-storyline focused (give them goals, makes sure we know where they are). And just like the overall story, try to give urgency to these tangents. If you don’t, our minds will start to wander.
10) Write your villain to steal the show – I read SO MANY boring villains with no personality. It’s no wonder I forget them the instant I put down the script. Honestly, I can count the number of memorable villains I’ve read in screenplays this year on one hand! To prevent this, write your villain to steal the show. Make SURE he’s memorable. Luther, despite having something like 5 minutes in the film, is a villain I still remember to this day. He’s small (unlike a typical villain). He’s a weasel. He’s a bully. He’s got a temper. But the big thing is, he just LOVES to have fun. He leads the charge when it’s time to get into trouble and he loves it. “Warrr-eee-orrrrs, come out to play-ye-yeeee.” If your villain ain’t stealing the show, you probably have a weak villain.