8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting

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(This is the last post in my series on professional screenwriting.)

So you sell your screenplay, and then what?

You get that first professional job and all those dreams of becoming rich, famous, and respected for your cinematic brilliance are about to come true.

Until the alarm clock rudely wakes you up.

Because you, my dear friend, are definitely dreaming.  Never lose sight that those visions of greatness that brought you to Hollywood have nothing to do with a real-life screenwriting career.  The true work of the professional is being able to take a punch below the belt and to keep going.

I don’t know how Astrid Cruz knows this about screenwriting, but she does.  When we traded emails last month, and she asked me what it was like to be a professional screenwriter, I was amazed to see such a keen understanding about the most difficult part of the job: surviving.

“What you write will be taken to pieces by a director, rewritten and reshaped, ” Astrid wrote me, with a sophisticated savvy of filmmaking well beyond her years.  “Does it bother you?” she wanted to know. “Does it hurt you that some of your writing may never make it to the screen?”

Does surgery hurt without an anesthetic?

“But how do you let go?” was what Astrid really wanted to know.

Reading this last question that this young screenwriter/filmmaker/student sent me made me realize this is what they don’t teach you in film schools: the truth about Hollywood, and how to survive it.

So here’s what I’ve learned along the way…

Tips They Won’t Teach You At Film School

The first rule in screenwriting is:

#1: Don’t take it personally. 

The biggest problem about Hollywood is that everyone will seem like your friend.  Remember:  They’re not.  If you think your agent, manager, producer, director, or studio executive really cares about you, you should get back on the bus right now and go home.  I don’t care how many parties they invite you to, or how many muffin baskets they send you, Hollywood is a business and screenwriters are simply part of the machinery.  And machinery can be replaced.  No one ever takes a machine personally.

#2: Yes, you will get screwed (or rewritten) eventually. 

If you’re asking “Why?” you need to re-read Rule #1.

#3 Getting paid definitely soothes the pain, especially in the “letting go” stage of screenwriting.

I don’t want to sound like some creative whore, but getting paid for the job helps you to move on to the next job (which hopefully you’ve already started writing – more on that later). When you’re able to pay your rent, clothe your children (or yourself), buy a car, and have something left over for unnecessary baubles, over-indulgent vacations, and the next generation of Apple products, you’re able to say to yourself, “Okay, so this is why I go through all the pain.”

As a screenwriter you have to come to terms with the fact that the only draft that you own is your first draft. You learn to put all of your unbridled passion, brilliance, and hope into that first set of 110 pages. Of course, you will be certain that no one will ever change a word because it’s so brilliant, and of course you will be lying to yourself. But screenwriting is like giving birth – you eventually forget the pain and go on to conceive again, only to go through the grunting, bloody, painful event once more (if you’re lucky) at some later date. That brings me to the fourth rule of screenwriting:

#4 Nothing you write is perfect.

As soon as you put your story down on paper and turn it in you will begin to get notes from everyone. And not just the director. (NOTE: Usually a director isn’t hired until the script is “green lighted” by the studio. Unless the director is developing the script through his own company, but that’s another story completely.) If you’re a professional screenwriter and lucky enough to have your script “green lighted” and a director is hired that means the cocoon stage of your story is about to end and an entire new creature is about to be born. You can only hope it emerges beautiful and looking somewhat like what you imagined: a beautiful butterfly – and not some blood-sucking parasite. But a screenwriter must live in a constant state of denial and always expect the most beautiful of butterflies to be born from our well-crafted cocoons. Yes, and that brings us to the fifth rule of screenwriting:

# 5: Keep your head down, working on your next screenplay.

Forget about that script you spent a year and a half writing that is now in the middle of its transformation into a film. Just separate from it as quickly as possible. Literally, take the money and run because as brilliant as you felt on that day when your agent/producer/studio executive called to say, “We’ve got a go!” you will feel like a total failure when the “production polishes” begin.

Why?

Chances are they won’t be coming to you for those polishes. Every director wants to leave his imprint on the screen – like a dog pissing on a tree. Yes, I’m using the male pronoun because in spite of Kathryn Bigelow, chances are the director will be a guy. Please check out this link: http://www.thewrap.com/music/article/sexist-hollywood-women-still-struggle-find-film-jobs-study-finds-74076 , and if you’re a woman in the film industry, try not to sob too much while reading it.

No director ever takes a film job and sets out to do what the screenwriter has written. Suddenly, this very perfect piece of writing that was so great, so exciting, so promising that people wanted to invest millions of dollars into making it, has morphed into a flawed, terribly-executed, lackluster piece-of-shit that only the brilliance of (fill in here with the name of a current director) can save. And how does the director do this?

By bringing in another screenwriter.

Depending on how prestigious this director is, this can be a name screenwriter that commands more money than you received for writing the story in the first place. When this happens, you can kiss your solo writing credit goodbye. Especially if the new screenwriter has time to do a total rewrite. When that happens, you’ll be lucky to even end up with a “story by” credit.

Rule # 6: It’s all about the credits.

When you get a credit for writing a screenplay you get paid every time that film plays somewhere – on television, on a DVD, or as a download. Also, when you get a credit you automatically join an elite club of professionals.  Production credits are what get film professionals more jobs. Whether the film sucks or not will determine what kind of jobs you’ll get in the future. But if your agent is smart you’ll have at least a year and a half to two years to line up as many jobs as possible (hopefully, good ones) until the film is released and dies a quick death either in reviews or (more importantly) at the box office.

As if you couldn’t tell by now: Going through the screenwriting process hurts like hell. Most of the time you can rant and scream in private, or throw things at home (I had a black walnut tree in my backyard where on more than one occasion I would hurl a recently emptied cocktail glass against its massive trunk, watching it shatter into a thousand pieces while imagining it to be the head of some producer, director, or studio executive). But the real test of a screenwriter’s mettle (and ability to develop a poker face) is during a “notes session” at a production office. To understand how this works, you have to know how a screenplay is developed.

Understanding Your Deal

There are two ways a script is developed and a screenwriter gets a job: 1) Write your own screenplay based on your own story and sell it. 2) Get hired to write a screenplay based on someone else’s story, idea, book, play, comic, or video game. Originals can sometimes bring in more money, especially if it’s a hot topic, or a unique premise. Sometimes there are “bidding wars” among the studios and that can really push a script price up. The problem with selling an original script is that it’s your own little baby, and it’ll be much more difficult not to take all the shit you’re about to go through as personal (See Screenwriting Rule #1).

Once you’re hired, your agent (or lawyer) will negotiate a contract. Every screenwriting contract makes clear how many drafts are expected from the writer. Typically, there are two drafts, and then a couple of polishes. Hopefully, your agent (or lawyer) will be a good one and you won’t end up with a “cut off” deal. That means that they can say buh-bye to you after any one of those steps, including the oftentimes dreaded “treatment” first step. The other steps listed are just “wishful thinking” and will be worded as “optional” But let’s say that you are guaranteed two drafts and a polish – You will have “reading times” in-between those drafts. You’ll also have time built in when you develop the story. That means that once the deal memo has been signed you can go off and do research or start stepping out your story beats. You may or may not be required to include the development team (studio executives, and/or producer) in this step. If you go in and tell them the story it just gives them another opportunity to try to shape their own story and not yours. Ideally, you want to just sign the deal memo, and go off to write your first draft. You don’t want to develop the story and then go in and get permission to write the first draft you want to write. They can really screw you up creatively by giving you bad ideas, and you’ll have to rebuild your story (taking more time out of your writing schedule) to incorporate their ideas. Nevertheless, that might happen. So deal with it – you’re getting paid and that should help heal the pain.

Usually, you’ll get 10–12 weeks to write your first draft. Once you turn it in you might have a reading period of four weeks and this is when you work hard at letting go. That’s easier said than done because when you finish your first draft you begin this euphoric high for having completed the script and you feel like a genius.  But trust me, let go of that perfect script the moment you finish typing, “Fade Out.”  Here are some ways you can do that:

Say Goodbye To That Brilliant First Draft

TIPS FOR LETTING GO

1) Be already working on another screenplay. Just like a love affair that’s falling apart, it helps if you have another lover lined up waiting in the wings. The more creatively promiscuous you are as a screenwriter, the better you can protect your heart from breaking.  I was always a loyal lover and I learned the hard way that it hurts to “stand by your man” because sometimes that man likes to sleep around with other screenwriters for rewrites.

2) Use the reading period (in-between drafts) to separate emotionally from your work. Go on a vacation. Do research for another project. Distance yourself, move as far away from your current project as possible. You probably will have three or four weeks (maybe longer if it’s near a holiday period) before you meet with the development team, and this is your separation period so use it to clear your mind and to rest your body. You will need as much energy and objectivity as possible for the next hell you are about to enter. And trust me, it will be hell. Because the seventh rule in screenwriting is:

#7: No matter how much they tell you they love your first draft, they’ll still want to change it. 

And you will sit in an office and have to take it without crying or throwing things.

If you play poker, you know the importance of having a poker face. Get good at this because you will be asked to sit in many meetings when you will hear the most asinine suggestions for improving your script. Just remember Rule #1 and don’t take it personally. This is one of the jobs of a film industry executive/ producer/director/development person: to give notes. If a non-creative doesn’t give notes he/she (Yes, there are women development people) is not doing his/her job so he/she comes up sometimes with ridiculous notes, notes that make no sense, that only show he/she didn’t really read the script or read it too quickly (usually while sitting in traffic). These people are paid to make suggestions (no matter how ill-informed or stupid) and you are being paid to write them down as notes in these sweat-inducing next-draft meetings. My advice to you is to keep your mouth shut, your head down, and your hands busy scribbling notes (even if your notes are simply creative ways for the people to f&!# themselves). Remember – You can always have your nervous breakdown in the comfort of your own home, and not in some over-air-conditioned Hollywood office.

You’re Not The Only Member On The Team

Now begins one of the biggest challenges you will face as a screenwriter: Do I make the changes they give me and possibly ruin my brilliant story, or do I refuse to do the changes and possibly risk being replaced by another writer who will whore his/her services and make the changes themselves? That is a very personal, moral decision that every screenwriter faces, and I would never suggest to you what your choice should be. Just remember that making films is a collaborative effort, and if you’re unwilling to play with the team, there are thousands of players on the bench more than willing to take your place.

The best advice I was ever given about how to deal with notes was from David Jacobs – the creator of “Dallas” and “Knott’s Landing” – who told me: “Don’t argue with them, just take the notes. Use the ones that make sense, and don’t do the ones that are stupid. Chances are they won’t even remember what they told you to fix. But sometimes they DO give good notes and those are the ones you want to use.”

I will also share with you something written about Sonya Levien – an amazing screenwriter who first started out in the industry by doing scenarios for silent films, became one of the big screenwriters in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and won the Academy Award in 1956 for Interrupted Melody:

“Levien possessed a certain plot cleverness or dexterity and an editor’s willingness to cut and paste. She succeeded as a screenwriter because she knew how to adapt stories, plays, and novels into “entertaining,” filmable movie scripts, wrote quickly, and made, without argument, whatever script changes her supervisors directed. In addition, she willingly doctored other writers’ problem scripts, never missed a deadline, and worked as many hours as necessary to solve script problems. Seemingly without ego investment in the words she wrote, she rarely complained, and she helped anyone who asked.”

from “A Great Lady” by Larry Ceplair

In my book, that about sums up what it takes to be a successful screenwriter. It worked for Sonya, it can work for you.

The key to doing Hollywood is to be the best damn screenwriter in the business.  Know that in your heart, keep improving and learning, get yourself an agent who can do all the battles (and negotiations), and just keep writing, writing, and writing.

And then direct.  Or produce.

A screenwriter has no power in Hollywood, and Hollywood is all about the power. When Disney wanted me to write a specific screenplay and I said no, they sweetened the deal by offering me the director position.  I was extremely agoraphobic at the time and just getting to the damn note meetings was difficult so I turned down the opportunity to direct.  For me, that was the right decision to make (I hate bossing people around), but for anyone wanting to be a filmmaker, you have to move up to a power position – directing (for films) and producing (for television).

And that leads us to the eighth rule for surviving professional screenwriting:

# 8:  Be flexible

You will make decisions you won’t like, but you will have to make them anyway.  You will have to work with people you don’t like (you don’t respect), but you will have to work with them anyway.  You will get hurt, but you must never show it.  There’s a saying in show business:  Never forget what they’ve done to you.  But never let them know that you know.

Smile big. Look confident. Be prepared. Work harder than anyone else.

And enjoy the adventure.

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 (Read the other posts in this series: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter? It All Begins With A Screenwriter, Emails To A Young Screenwriter, If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?)

If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?

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(If you’re new to this series on screenwriting, don’t miss reading: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?, It All Begins With A Screenwriter, and Emails To A Young Screenwriter.)

The-Comedy-and-Tragedy-Masks-acting-204463_489_381I didn’t go to Hollywood to become a screenwriter.

Like those with stars in their eyes that came before me, and the greatly talented unknowns who are there right now, I wanted to be an actress.  I won’t bore you with the details.  If you’re interested, you can always read my book.  Let’s just say the fates decided on screenwriting: agoraphobia and acting don’t really mix that well.

Astrid read my book, so she knew I had studied to be an actress.  She wanted to know if it had helped my writing.

“Has being an actress and having knowledge of the process an actor goes through when getting into character help you understand how to develop your own characters.” she asked in her email.

It’s no secret that writers live in their heads – We’re in there poking around at our imaginations 24/7.  We’re either looking for a story or writing one, and unless we’re writing with a partner, we’re doing it all by ourselves.  That’s not only lonely but it’s limiting.  Where do we find all of our characters?

Through acting.

You can’t be an actor without observing people, and you can’t observe people from behind a desk.  Acting forces you into the world – you become a microscope for observing the human condition.  You don’t just go through life getting from point A to point B – you open your eyes, your ears, your heart to those fellow travelers around you.  You capture their quirks, their voices, their gaits, and you slip all of this on, trying it out for size.  You really do learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes.  You lose yourself and in your place you find characters.

Three Steps to Finding Characters

The best thing I ever did as a writer was to take improvisation classes.  Here is what was expected of us as actors:

1. Observe

2. Capture

3. Perform

As actors, we didn’t just work in the classroom.  We were expected to go out into the world and study people, bring back what we observed, and then, perform it.  Those same three steps are also invaluable to creating fascinating characters that one day you will slip into a screenplay.  And make no mistake, the more fascinating, and complicated, (yet identifiable) characters you put on the page, the greater the chance some executive (reading your script while in rush hour traffic on Laurel Canyon) will be hooked.

But it’s that third step – performing – that helps you understand what to do with those original characters.  It teaches you about the structure of a scene – the beginning (a hook), the middle (complications and conflict), and the end (the payoff). When you perform in an improvisation you learn about tension, and how it helps a scene develop.  You can tell what is working in a scene and what is falling flat because you’re right there in the room with an audience. You can hear them laugh, feel their silences (both good and bad), you can sense if they’re watching, and (most importantly) if they’re caring.  Those are lessons screenwriters have to learn and take back to the workshop, to inject into our writing.

If you’re shy or an introvert as a writer, acting forces you to not be shy on the page. You can’t be an introvert in improvisations – it’ll push you past your comfort zone and stretch you as a writer.  It won’t be easy – it’s painful.  I always felt like throwing up when I was in improv class.  I used to pop Tums or Maalox because the butterflies were so huge.  But looking back, those classes are what started me on a path to becoming a good screenwriter: You will learn how to make your characters much more interesting – how to create multi-dimensional characters that an audience will want to watch. You will learn how conflict moves a story along and how to construct entertaining scenes. Once you’ve taken those improv classes then take a couple of acting classes too. As a screenwriter, you should understand what it feels like to play emotions – not just to feel them, but to perform them. Like a painter, you want to have a palette filled with a wide variety of colors (emotions) for your canvas (the screen), and you do that through acting and improvisation. I honestly don’t know how anyone can write a screenplay (or play) without having been an actor. If you haven’t tried acting or taken an improv class, stop reading right now and go find one. Seriously, sign up.

Someday you’ll thank me for it.

(Read the last post in this screenwriting series, 8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting.)

(Got a question or comment? Don’t be shy – I’ll actually write you back!)

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Emails To A Young Screenwriter

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Astrid’s first question that she emailed me was a good one.

How do you write a screenplay?

“I took only one screenwriting class during my BA and, to this day, I’ve only managed to complete very short scripts,” she wrote.  “Every time I sit down to write a screenplay I find that I want to write all sorts of stuff (thoughts and philosophical pondering) that will never be transformed into action.”

She’s right – It won’t.

“How do you deal with the economic language supposed to reign in scripts?” Astrid wanted to know.

If you write books, short stories, or anything other than screenplays, you’re going to have to  change your writing style.  Here’s what you need to remember – Always think of writing for film as utilizing only two elements:

1) Action (Show it, don’t tell us about it).

2) Dialogue (Skip the long speeches unless it’s an Oscar quality premise).

As you develop a story always ask yourself:  What are my characters doing and what are they saying?  Nothing else should end up on the page.  Why your characters are doing what they’re doing is called “motivation” and while those motivations should be clearly understood by your audience (tip: show, don’t tell), avoid scenes talking about them.  If you are a brutal editor – meaning that you’re not afraid of red penciling and cutting your work – then overwrite, if you want to.  Just make sure that when you turn in that script it’s not over 110 – 112 pages.  And understand this:  Usually what a character thinks, especially what the screenwriter thinks,  and any “philosophical pondering” doesn’t play in film.  Those kind of scenes “lose” an audience.

Always Remember Your Audience

I read Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger in junior high school, and I was very affected by one of its passages – the story of the Fat Lady.  Zooey is a young girl who is on one of those “quiz kid” radio programs every week, and she’s becoming very jaded, cynical, and resentful about having to perform every week.  Her brother (Seymour) gives her some advice: to shine her shoes every time she’s going into the studio to be on the air:

“Seymour’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn’t see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again — all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don’t think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and — I don’t know. Anyway, it seemed goddamn clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.”

That passage really stayed with me and because of it I developed a strong instinct for what will keep an audience interested (“in their seats”) and what will “lose them.”  Losing an audience is when they go to the refreshment stand for popcorn instead of being so hooked by what’s on the screen they don’t want to leave their seats.   Any self-analysis by a character, any injected philosophical wonderings by the screenwriter simply won’t play.

You can always overwrite a scene in a screenplay but then you have to go back and cut the fat out – anything that doesn’t entertain or keep the tension in a scene has to be red pencilled.  As a writer, it’s important that you understand what your character is thinking (what’s their background and their back story) but it’s how you use that thinking – whether in a dialogue quip or a bit of action that makes for a powerful screenplay.  Just keep the “Fat Lady” on that porch entertained.

Know Your Strength and Weaknesses

My strength has always been with dialogue so writing lines for my characters has never been a problem for me.  (If you’re not good at writing dialogue, I have suggestions about how you can improve those skills – More about that in the next post). I’ve always hated writing description and action.  I confess I used to skip reading a lot of it if it went on too long in novels.    Unfortunately,  writing action demands an ability to write description.  But you can’t go on for long paragraphs; you have to be succinct in your description of the action.  Action – or movement of a story without using words – used to be the most difficult part of writing screenplays for me.  Luckily, my first writing jobs were in episodic television and unless you’re writing a cop/detective show (with a lot of chase sequences) television is known to be a medium that’s heavy on dialogue. The big challenge came for me when I moved out of episodic television into movies.  I made that transition because I was brave enough (or stupid enough) to take on a rewrite assignment for a three-hour movie-made-for-television.

Normally, it takes months to write such a long movie (180 pages).  However, there was already a script that the network was on the fence about “green lighting” (giving a go ahead for production) and the producer wanted another writer to do a “pass” to see if the rewrite could convince the network to go into pre-production.

They gave me ten days.

That was a lot of pressure to take on a complete rewrite of a 180 page teleplay in such a short amount of time, but luckily the structure of the script worked fine.  All I really had to do was write a new opening sequence to hook the audience, add a couple of new scenes for character development, and do a “Page 1 Rewrite” of most of the dialogue in the script.  The action sequences played well enough to leave alone so I was thankful for that because (as I said) I hated writing action.

Because of my three hour rewrite the movie was green lighted and went into production.  I was thrilled until I was notified that I wouldn’t be getting a screen credit.  A screenwriter only shares a credit when he/she changes at least 50% of the structure of the screenplay.  I had written several new scenes, and changed every line of dialogue, but I didn’t alter 50% of the telling of the story.  I was using the same characters that the original writer had created – even if they were saying my words, and not his.  So that writing job provided me with a couple of valuable lessons about screenwriting: I was paid for my rewriting but because I didn’t have a screen credit I never got to share in any residuals every time that film played on television.  But the fact that I had stepped in and “saved” a production from being scrapped added to my credentials as a screenwriter, and I started to get other assignments.  Working on that script also showed me that if I was going to write features (which was my goal) I had to somehow learn how to write action.

Keep Learning, Keep Growing

The big growth for me as a screenwriter came when I was hired to write a sequel to a television movie about a little deaf boy.  I wanted to get a better understanding of sign language so I set out to find someone who could come over to my apartment and teach me sign.  I was very agoraphobic at the time and I couldn’t just seek out a class somewhere and go there every week.  By luck, I was at a theatre awards function, and after I had stayed my obligatory half hour (before all the people and anxiety finally kicked in) I headed for the lobby.  While there I saw a young man and woman signing to each other.  I stopped and decided to ask them a little about sign language and when I introduced myself I learned that the woman was a deaf actress and the young man was her hearing interpreter.   She would use her hands to sign to me and he would use his voice (and hands at the same time) to interpret.  I was fascinated watching how they worked together and I expressed an interest in learning sign.  I  asked them if they had any suggestions on how I could do that.

The woman paused a moment and then signed (as the young man spoke): “Let me think about it and I will call you.”

Several days later, the phone rang and when I answered it a male voice said, “Hi, this is Julianna Fjeld.  We met at the NRT Awards.  I’ve been thinking about what you asked me, and I decided that I would like to teach you sign.”

All of this was said in one long sentence, and all I heard was this male voice saying, “I want to teach you sign.”  I thanked him gratefully and then asked (because I had forgotten the male interpreter’s name), “What was your name again?”

He answered, “Julianna Fjeld.”

Well, I was pretty sure that Julianna was a woman’s name so I persisted again by asking the man, “No…What’s YOUR name.  You’re the one wanting to teach me sign.”

There was a pause at the other end of the phone, and then the young man said to me very slowly, “…Let me explain how this works.  I’m Julianna Fjeld.  I’ve called you on the phone to talk with you, and I am using my friend Dave’s voice.  But when you’re talking to me, you are talking to ME, and not Dave.”

Whoa.  Talk about being schooled in deaf culture.

That was the first big lesson I learned from Julianna Fjeld, and it wasn’t the last.  She offered to be my sign language teacher…in my home.

How could I say no?

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

I was so nervous about being alone with a deaf person (who I assumed I wouldn’t understand and we would sit awkwardly for hours in my little apartment until I started having panic attacks inside my house as well as outside) I recruited my boyfriend, and two of my closest friends to join Julianna and me in our little sign language class.  Well, I was worried about nothing because as soon as we met Julianna we were all communicating like the best of friends.  She’s one of the most amazing communicators I have met in my lifetime.  She not only taught me how to use my hands to communicate but how to see the world with open eyes.

For the first time in my life I became aware of the “visual” in our world.

Sign Language for French

Words and dialogue remained important to me, but now the element of silence took on a life and a power that was equal to the words.  I grew as a writer because of Julianna.  First, through her sign language classes, and then through the power of a film that we made together.

One day I asked Julianna if she had ever read, In This Sign –  a wonderful novel by Joanne Greenberg about a deaf couple with a hearing child.  I had read the book several years earlier and it was one of the most powerful novels I’d ever experienced.  When I signed the title of the book, Julianna’s hands quickly (and excitedly) joined with mine to spell out the title with me.

Her eyes widened and her hands spoke quickly, “I have the rights to the book!”

She went on to tell me that she had loved In This Sign so much she tracked down the writer who was living in Colorado where Julianna was born and raised.   She told Joanne Greenberg how much she loved the book – that it was so powerful she wanted everyone to be able to experience the story as a film.  Well, Joanne was so impressed with Julianna that she offered her the option to her book…for $1.00.  You would have to know Julianna to understand why an author would trust her so much to make such a deal.  But Julianna is so amazing, and such a wonderful life force that it made perfect sense to me why she got the rights for only $1.00.  As it turned out, Joanna Greenberg had made a very wise choice.

Julianna immediately went to work trying to get any of the studios interested in making a film from the book.  She was able to set up something at Warner Brothers but they wanted to use hearing actors and Julianna was against that because the deaf culture would be offended.  The deal with Warners was not going to happen.

“Do you still own the rights?” I asked her.

“Warners gave me back the rights before they ever hired a screenwriter to write a script,” she explained.

That was good news because I knew a producer who I thought might be interested.

When I called Marian Rees (of Marian Rees Associates) and asked her, “Have you ever heard of a book called In This Sign?” I thought she’d jump out of the phone with her excitement.  It was one of her favorite books.

“I’ve been trying to make that book into a film but Warners has it.”

“Not anymore,” I told her with a smile.  “But I know who owns the rights.”

That began the transformation of the novel, In This Sign, into the television film, Love Is Never Silent with Julianna as one of the executive producers and me as the writer.  The screenplay profoundly changed me as a screenwriter – action sequences no longer bored me, and I found a new excitement in writing them.  And because of the success of Love Is Never Silent (the film won an Emmy for Best Picture) I was able to transition into writing screenplays for films – a medium that relies heavily on action and the visual.

But now I could write action.

So you can learn how to write action just as you can hone your skills as a writer and learn the “economic language” that is supposed to “reign in screenwriting.” What’s important to remember is that even if you are hired as a screenwriter and you’re making money as a professional, your talent should always be evolving, getting better, and adapting to whatever needs are there for the medium you’re working in.

(Tomorrow’s post:  If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?)

(Got questions, comments, or thoughts?  Don’t be shy – I’ll answer them below.)

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So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?

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Darlene the Tour GuideA couple of months ago a wonderful blogger named Jen Owenby emailed me and asked if she could do a contest involving my book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood.  She had read it earlier in the year and really enjoyed it.  She also discovered my website, contacted me, and we started exchanging emails. I was honored that she had chosen my book as one that she wanted to talk about on her website, so I said yes.

Astrid

Astrid “Artistikem” Cruz

I was a little embarrassed when Jen wrote her post about the book and me,  but I liked the idea that six people would get a chance to read my book.  After all, that’s why I wrote it – for people to read.  Jen randomly was going to choose five lucky winners who would win a copy of the book, and one extra lucky person also would have a chance to ask a professional screenwriter (me) any questions they had about screenwriting.  Well, as fates would have it, that sixth person was Astrid “Artistikem” Cruz, a young Master in Communications student at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus.

When Jen emailed me the name of the grand prize winner I smiled because I had just discovered Astrid’s work on a writers group website where she had posted a short film she had made based on her poem, “A Study On Character Development.” I had sent her an email a few weeks earlier telling her how much I enjoyed the poem and the film, and she had written back to tell me she was developing a Transmedia project based on it.  I was excited to meet a young writer who also was involved in making film.  Small world, (small internet): Astrid entered Jen’s contest, and she won the grand prize.

After the holidays, Astrid quickly wrote me four questions – four excellent, multi-dimensional questions (Astrid could also add investigative reporting to her résumé if she ever wanted)  and she really made me think about the craft of screenwriting and what it’s like to be a professional.

Over the years, I’ve had people ask me about screenwriting (I worked non-stop in Hollywood for 25 years), and some of them even suggested that I teach a class about it.  Well, my husband is a teacher, and that’s about as close to teaching I ever want to get.  As my own kids will probably acknowledge:  I don’t have the most patience in the world when it comes to teaching people anything.  Maybe that’s why my son and daughter both learned how to drive from their father and not me, and when my daughter had to learn about camping as a Brownie I insisted we stay at a hotel instead and order room service (true story).  But Astrid’s questions really made me stop and think about the process of screenwriting – something that most screenwriters take for granted when they’re so busy doing it for a living.  For the first time, someone was sincerely asking me how to be a screenwriter.  And for whatever reason, maybe because with age sometimes comes patience, I wanted to explain how it’s done.  Or at least how I did it.

I’ve never won an Oscar.  I’m not a Hollywood name.  But I’ve written some movies, and television over those 25 years of working in Hollywood, and yes, I’ve gotten paid for it.  Enough to raise a family, buy a house, a couple of cars, and have a very nice pension to look forward to (Thank you, Writers Guild of America!)  So when Astrid sent me her questions, and I found myself writing, writing, and (still) writing all of the answers, I thought: Why not share this with anyone interested in screenwriting?

So I asked Astrid.

“Do you mind if I share this on my blog?”

And she was kind enough to say yes.

So here’s what we’re going to do:  Next week I’ll be doing several posts about screenwriting. Make sure you’re signed up to this blog so you’re notified via email when they’re posted.  If you’re not interested in screenwriting, I understand, and maybe you’ll come back in a couple of weeks and read something else here on the blog.  But if you’re a writer,  a screenwriter wannabe, or you’re just someone who’s always wondered about how movies are written, then you might find it interesting to hear it from someone who has been in the trenches.  And if you know of any young filmmakers, or anyone interested in screenwriting, please tell them to drop by next week.

I promise to be patient.

(Are you interested in learning about screenwriting? Please raise your hand if you think you’ll be attending – I want to make sure there are enough chairs. And yes, this is free.) 

(To read the first part of this series click here:  It All Begins With A Screenwriter)

 

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