Michael: First thing, when you think you’ve got a script that is ready to show, assume that it’s not. That it’s not ready to show until you give it to five people, at least, whose judgment you trust because they’ll be honest and they know something about the film business, at least they see a lot of movies, or you give it to a consultant or someone like me who preferably has some track record or some reputation for being good and will also be honest and get their feedback, because you can never trust your own judgment. So after you get that feedback, then you’ve gotta address al of the issues that were brought up by those people or that person and then when it’s re-written based on that you go through that process again until you’re consistently hearing that it’s ready to go.
Then you start thinking about, how do I go out with this. Now, I would suggest that people read my book Writing Screenplays That Sell because there’s a whole section of the book that’s just on how does this process work. But ultimately, at its core, what you want to do is, you wanna get that script in the hands of as many people in the industry as you can, regardless of their position or rank, if they are in any way connected to somebody who can get you a deal. So yes, you should pursue agents.. yes, you should pursue managers.. no, you don’t have to have one you can go directly to production companies and you should be doing that. And if they offer you a deal you can hire an attorney and never have an agent or a manager.
Dan: And you should research the production companies so you’re not sending them the wrong type of project…
Michael: You should research everybody, and in the book I go through it, there’s a whole section on how do you research who the people are that you would be approaching. But the key principles are: number one, make absolutely sure its professional caliber before you go out, because you’re not gonna get a second shot with these people.
Dan: I think that’s the thing.. a writer, especially a new writer is so pleased that they’ve finally finished their draft that they’re just itching to get it out but at that point they really need to take a step back.
Michael: Oh, absolutely. They need to get reinforcement and for their opinion and get other people’s feedback. So number one make sure it’s ready to go. Number two do extensive research in all of the categories of people that you’re gonna approach, and specifically who are the people at the company you are going to approach. You don’t wanna go to a producer, you wanna go to his development executive. And third, play the numbers game. Just get as many people as you can. I hear from people sometimes who say, “I can’t get anybody to read my script”. And I say, how many people have you contacted and they say at least ten. And I say, okay, when you hit seventy then email me and let me know if you still can’t get anybody to read it. Because that’s what it takes, and if you can’t get the producer or the executive, see if you can get the receptionist or the assistant or whatever because if they read it and like it they’ll recommend it and it’ll move closer to the top of the pile.
Dan: And networking is very important in that.
Michael: Yeah, that is networking. Now networking also means perhaps going to writers’ conferences, it means asking anybody you know “do you know anybody in the business?”. If you know a screenwriter say “who represents you? Can I contact them?”.. things like that. But networking has this kind of aura that it’s some magical process or you’ve gotta be gregarious and outgoing to do it and neither of those things is true. All networking really means is meeting as many people as you can or getting in touch with as many people as you can, and having them introduce you to as many more people as you can until you reach the person that can help get you a deal.
Dan: Increasing your odds…
Michael: Yeah, but it doesn’t require that you be a particularly outgoing personality, it doesn’t mean you have to go to parties and stuff like that.
Dan: And what about having to live in LA? How important is it to be living in the heart of the industry?
Michael: It depends where you are in the process. If you haven’t been paid or gotten interest in your script then don’t move to LA, just stay where you are and keep writing and writing and writing until you do. Because you can do all of this networking and marketing process from anywhere. But be prepared for the possibility that somebody will say well, I’d like to represent you or I think I can get you work or I think this is really good but you need to be able to move out here. So it may be a decision you have to face down the road but it isn’t one I suggest you do when you’re still in the process of writing your scripts and learning your craft. As I say in my book, if you wanna learn how to surf then coming to LA makes sense, because, you know, it’s hard to do that in Des Moines.
Dan: In a first draft screenplay, what would you advise a novice writer to focus on: characterization, structure, theme or simply writing an original story?
Michael: My very strong advice is that you should absolutely focus on one thing more than anything else and it’s none of those you mentioned. The thing you have to focus on first is your story concept. Of all the unoptioned, unpurchased screenplays floating around Hollywood, of those forty-thousand that get registered with the Guild every year that don’t go anywhere, I would say that ninety percent of them at least don’t go anywhere because the basic story concept is no good. Meaning, it has no real commercial or many times, emotional potential. That choosing the story concept is one of the most difficult and I think without question the most important part in the whole process, because it’s got to be a concept, first of all, that has a clear protagonist with a clearly defined goal that has some visible end point so we know what the finish line is what the character is gonna cross at the end, and then beyond that, it needs to be familiar enough so that there are antecedents to it.
So someone reading it can say, “oh yeah, this is in the same genre, this is like that movie”.. it could be like any number of things. If it’s a romantic comedy then yeah, that’s a commercial genre, but if it’s more of a period piece, you could say, oh yeah, I see this is about a person, not as well known as others who had a very particular goal at one point in his life, and so an antecedent might be The King’s Speech. But The King’s Speech is not dissimilar in a certain way from Cinderella Man because they take place about the same time in history and they’re both about characters who have very clear visible goals. One wants to get rid of his stutter so he can make a speech, you know, be able to speak as King and the other wants to win the heavy weight championship of the world during the depression. So it needs to have a protagonist with a goal and there has to be some antecedents. It has to be familiar enough so that the person reading it says “oh yeah, I know how this kind of movie sells, I know how we’d advertise this. I know that audiences will gravitate toward this because they went to these other movies that are in the same genre or have the same kind of tone or basic story”.
It doesn’t mean they have the same plot element, it doesn’t mean, if yours is about robbing a jewelry store it has to be another movie about robbing a jewelry store but certainly there should have been other heist movies that have made money. And then, on top of those things it also has to have something unique and original. It has to have something that the reader would say “wow, I’ve never seen this before” . You know, I’ve seen a lot of stories about thieves making a big heist but I’ve never seen one about thieves who invade a person’s dreams in order to plant an idea in his head. So Inception, for all its uniqueness and originality and vision of Christopher Nolan, it’s not like we’ve never seen anything like it before. Because at the end of the day it’s a heist movie.. flipped on its head. It’s about planting something in a safe in a way, rather than taking something out but beyond that it’s the gang of thieves who come together and penetrate a very difficult fortress in order to get something.
It’s not different from the bank job in that respect. So if you have a story concept that meets just those criteria, now you have something that’s worth moving forward on. But until you do, don’t just latch onto the first idea you’ve got and say “oh yeah, I like that idea” and a lot of times when writers do that, the reason they like the idea is because it has personal meaning. Like it’s the idea of how their grandmother escapes from the Cossacks or something and no one cares about that.. but they do, or it’s the story of their divorce fictionalized and they wanna get back at their ex for doing this.. those aren’t the kind of movies that are gonna get sold. The ones that are gonna get sold are the ones that have real commercial potential right out of the gate.
Dan: So once you’ve got that original story and it works along those levels, would you then work with writers and advise them to do different passes that focus on the other weak elements? Because you could obviously have a good original story like you mentioned but the structure doesn’t work in some way.. or the theme isn’t clear.
Michael: Yeah, once you have that basic story concept then you can start asking yourself, okay, who are the primary characters? Who’s the hero? Why does this hero want this goal? What are the big obstacles that stand in the hero’s way? Although you should have thought about that to begin with. I mean, one of the things your basic story has to have is the implication of big conflict. Because it’s always about character desire and conflict. So who’s the hero, what do they want, what makes it impossible. Those have to go into your choice of story concept.
Once you’ve got that, now you start saying, okay, who are the other characters? Who’s helping the hero? Who stands in the hero’s way? What’s their plan for achieving this? And as you start thinking about those things you’re starting to develop the story and you’re moving in to thinking about structure and you’re also starting to move in to think about character arc. And then from that point the process depends on you as a writer. I mean some writers like to just boot their computer and start typing and see where the story goes and some like to outline and outline and outline so they thoroughly know what’s going in before they start the first draft. And both those methods are fine depending on what works for the writer but yeah, of course, one’s you’ve got the story concept you have to start thinking about structure and character.
Dan: You mentioned your book earlier “Writing Screenplays That Sell” and let me congratulate you on its 20th Anniversary. What changes did you make to the anniversary edition?
Michael: The two primary things we knew we had to do, me and my editors at Harper Collins, number one: update the marketing, because the principles of marketing one’s script are no different but the opportunities to exercise those are different because when the book was first written, believe it or not, no one was using the web, and there were no pitch fests, and a lot of resources available to writers now were not available then. So I had to update it and add elements and information about those things and how that might change the process and so on. The other thing was I wanted to update the examples because I think I have more than a hundred different movie examples and the principles throughout the book and I so I updated, not every one, because sometimes there were movies I used in the first edition that were such good examples I just left them in place but probably ninety of them are different now.
And also in the first edition I did a single chapter to summarize everything analyzing the screenplay for The Karate Kid and using it to illustrate all of the principles in the book. And it was funny because not only now has that movie been remade but I was actually involved in developing that script for the new version, so I thought we need something new so now the movie I analyze in depth and use to illustrate the principles is Avatar.
Dan: So a younger audience are going to be able to identify with some of the films you’re referring to.
Michael: Yeah, I don’t even know if they need to be younger it’s just that if a writer’s old enough to have read the first edition they might wanna get the new edition just to see which of these principles still hold true. So those are the two main things, and then there were other things because in twenty years, you know, I’ve got new ideas about what I’ve said. I didn’t really take much out, I mean the approach I took twenty years ago still is absolutely valid.. the approach to story and so on. I didn’t find anything in the book that I thought oh well, this isn’t true anymore for screenwriting, this isn’t true for the way scripts are written now. All I did was use newer movies to illustrate the principles but I did add some things like in terms of structure I gave more information on opening scenes than I had in the first edition. I divided those up, I approached creating character identification or creating empathy slightly differently so I grouped those issues more and gave more suggestions about that.
So all through I kept revaluating what I said and the way I said it. So it’s not like somebody would read the new edition and not realize it was the book I wrote twenty years ago at its core but another way to say it is I think anybody who has read the first edition of the book would feel it was worthwhile to get the new one, even though they’re reading much the same in terms of the principles just to see how I’ve expanded it and see the newer illustrations of films and just to reinforce it. And that was sort of my goal, I wanted to write a book that would be of sufficient value that those who already had the book, because there are lots and lots of people who own the book, would feel like it was worth another twenty bucks and also for it to be relevant for a new generation of people who hadn’t read it the first time round.
Dan: You mentioned that you updated the marketing section of the book, and so with that in mind and the new opportunities available twenty years on, do you think it’s easier for new writers to get their screenplays read?
Michael: Nope. What can I say? It’s not an easy process to break in. Never was, never will be. Maybe it was back in silent movie days, you know, when nobody knew what they were doing or what they had and they could just start filming but in those days they didn’t use screenwriters, they just did it on set. But no, it’s not gotten any easier, Hollywood is not any more open but by the same token, just as it was twenty years ago if you’ve got a really good script, talent comes to the surface very quickly. There are not many people, truly, that have great scripts that are great screenwriters. That can’t get it read or haven’t been noticed. Not if they’re doing their work. Not if they’re actually committing to getting their stuff read the way you need to. So while I would say it’s not any easier and they’re not any more open, they are not any less hungry for good writing. For good stories, good scripts and good writers.