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The Hollywood Screenwriter As A Multiple-Personality

By John Hill

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Or.. How many personalities does it take to be a Hollywood screenwriter?

Answer: All you've got.

My favorite definition of a writer is a strange personality, perfectly happy spending eight hours day alone in a room with a small machine. Writers in general are usually, let's whisper it, wee timid beasties. We've just never been that crazy about Reality. Sir William of Goldman says an unhappy childhood is a writer's gold mine. Think about it. If you're a writer today, or trying to be one, what's Reality ever done for you? How many writers do you know that were in the Popular Crowd in high school? The football hero? The perky cheerleader?

Dealing with reality is something we were never too successful with, so we backed off, and we wrote our own realities! We create fiction because fact hurt. We make up a story, which is our way of saying, there, here's a much better version of life! And I created it!

So there! Neener neener neener!

(Admit it. Your secret hope as a writer is that people when you were young who didn't appreciate you will see your name and think, oh, wow, they were really something after all...)

Instead of forcing ourselves to fully challenge life directly, we are basically trying to re-write life, all our lives. We create better heroes and heroines than we suspect we'll ever be. We invent bigger challenging adventures, more passionate loves and wilder challenges our protagonists have to deal with, than we suspect we'll ever succeed at ourselves.

Dialogue? Let others realize in the parking lot what they should said in the meeting; let mere mortals moan after finally thinking up the clever retort to a lover after the moment has passed. We are Writers! Within our stories, since we can't rewind reality, we do have the magic with our stories called Rewrite!

So, writers are shy little introverts, right? In general, yes. And it follows that a sub-species, screenwriterus dealmemosus, can also be stay-at-home introverts -- and that's okay too, right? Right? Oh, look at that...you walked right into another one.

The truth is, if you want to be a working Hollywood screenwriter, sorry, you can't behave like other writers throughout history. You can't just write whatever you feel like, then after you type FADE OUT, look up and around, slightly confused, wondering if there might be a market for it.

Why can't you just behave like other kinds of writers in any era? For openers, screenwriting in the 21st century isn't like any other kind of writing...ever. What other kind of writing in history is almost impossible to ever sell, when purchased goes for six figures, then is used as a blueprint for a product with an average cost of $80 million, with a profit requirement of making back twice that, forced to earn the first $25 million of it the first weekend? You think Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Jack London, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost or John Updike had anything close to such fiscal realities?

So since the nature of screenwriting is such a different writing business, what makes you think you can have the same kind of writer's personality as other types of writers? Are you shy? Then live anywhere you want, write novels, mail them into your New York agent, he'll sell them or he won't. But you get to stay home and just worry about the writing, like writers throughout history.

Are you sensitive? Write poetry! Then just mail your poems off to...wherever little poems go to die in 2005...presumably to tiny literary magazines called THE OBSCURE BUTTERCUP with a circulation of 19 and jagged, bad stapling so you cut your finger each time you show it off to people who don't care anyway.

You have no head for business? Write short stories! After years of trying to make any money by selling short stories, you'll discover you sure don't need that pesky business acumen! But...if you want to write screenplays for today's mainstream Hollywood studio system?

You need to find a lot of other versions of yourself than just the introverted writer who stays home with her characters in her own world. You know all those voices in your head? Organize them, then listen!

The biggest single shock to Hollywood screenwriters, who start off thinking that screenwriting is, well, just writing, is discovering that..you have to become a salesperson!

There's some business street-smarts involved in what you choose to write, but after typing FADE OUT? You have to then become be an outgoing, persuasive, people-person, one who walks into a room and starts successfully selling themselves (their talent, not their soul) and their ideas. You have to have a salesman's glib charm, charisma, ability to instantly bond, create trust, then wave your arms, mesmerize and sell to the most jaded potential buyers on earth! You have to talk them out of $100,000 in 15 minutes based on your vision for a movie!

But being a people-person salesman is the opposite personality type from being a quirky, solitary, creative type. This is why ad agencies are divided into the creative department and account executives, why actors have agents, why Butch needed Sundance.

In fact, there's all kinds of other wild new, often contradictory, additions to 'just your writer personality' you'll need as a screenwriter.

A hunter and a gatherer

You have to enough of a "gatherer" to stay in your cave, creatively make a pot or medicine from herbs (the screenplay) and patiently stay there until the project is completed and made with quality. But then, you have to do a 180 -- and leave the cave, and turn into an aggressive "hunter", knowing game trails, how to find elusive prey (hunting down deals for your screenplays), making the kill (the deal), and successfully dragging meat (money) back to the cave.

You have to be the tranquilly talented, sensitive, solitary poet Emily

Dickinson -- then morph into Conan the Barbarian, with script-as-weapon, declaring, I am businessperson, watch me roar, I am too good to ignore. But don't agents do this, you whine? Don't agents do all that selling and business stuff in Hollywood, so we can just write scripts?

Okay, wait, those of you with agents? Please stop laughing so the rest of the class can learn, okay...settle down...I'm waiting...it's not that funny...well, yeah it is, but still... the reality is, you and your agent are a business team, partners, each with your own defined duties.

Any literary agent is at the mercy of the writer's talent, street smarts about how commercially they write, and how successfully they can be persuasive salespeople in meetings. All an agent can do is get your spec scripts and name in front of the right people, but if your script isn't very commercial, or well written, well, those brads aren't made of magic. And let's be real: agents live on their percentage of their client-created income. You're not creating a cash flow? (Not a quiet pool of talent, not a deep well of sensitivity, but a stream of cash?) Then you won't keep a good agent very long. They are in business, it is a business, and they are clear about that; screenwriters stay in some fugue state, lost between their art, their craft and their business. An agent ultimately just puts people together in meetings and hopes something good happens, i.e., a deal.

The reason the screenwriter can't just sit back and let their agent do all business stuff for them (those of you with agents, I said stop laughing) is that the screenwriter has a responsibility to this team too! (Screenwriters love agent jokes, but forget they have responsibilities to the agent too! Agents? Copy this article, send it to your clients.) The screenwriter has to be sufficiently commercial about what they write and pitch, and very effective in meetings (and networking and contacts) to create a career for themselves too. And the screenwriter can't just do it staying home and "just writing" like a novelist.

That's because the bread-and-butter of the average screenwriter isn't selling a spec, it's being hired for assignments, adaptions and rewrites, all done through face-to-face meetings. (For screenwriter-wannabees who don't live in L.A.? What does this tell you?) Is it all "who you know?" No. It's who knows you. And how much respect they have for your persona as they perceive it (easy to work with? Smart? Good ideas? Low nonsense quota?) and how good are your recent screenplays.

Let me put this a final way, to dispel your fantasy that your agent can do all the salesman/business stuff for you. You write a spec. Your agent shows it all around town, to the highest-level people he can get to read it, including a studio exec, Armani Advantaged, at Sequel Studios. Armani says he likes it, so the agent quickly leverages any compliments into a meeting, so you the writer and Armani have a twenty minute, get-acquainted meeting.

But if you don't smoothly, like a good salesman, convert that cup-of-coffee hello into a persuasive pitch meeting of a new idea, you deserve to go back to Tulsa and sell Xerox toner again, where you can make a nice piece of change for yourself. So let's say you use this rare chance in a meeting with a studio development executive and after five minutes, you do say, "Look, we're just getting to know each other, so maybe the best way for us to do that, for me to learn more about you, for you to learn my sensibilities, may be for me to tell you about an idea for a movie I'd love to write..." (See how slick that is, how smooth? See what I mean by being a good salesperson?) Then you pitch them a new commercial idea for fifteen minutes, then you leave, with a possible temporary new professional buddy or fan, if you impressed Armani.

Okay, it's a week after your meeting with Armani, he nicely passed on the idea, you've gotten your compliments already on the spec he read, he's on to other writers, deals, etc. Your agent has done his job for you -- he got your script to potential buyers like Armani, he even leveraged his response into a meeting for you. You even had the sense to pitch a new movie idea once inside Fortress Studios. But that's all history now. What happens next?

Well, your instinct as an introverted writer will be to retreat to your little cave and be a gatherer and create a new spec. Wrong. While you write your new spec, you've got to keep being a hunter - following up on any positive feedback from your specs - hunting down deals, networking, and doing relationship-maintenance-through-pitching. That means, you call Armani in eight weeks with a new idea, go in and pitch it. Repeat as needed. Over and over. FOR YEARS. With any and all producers, development people, studio story editors or executives. It's a way of life - you're a salesman making calls on buyers, selling your wares WHILE you really want to focus only on what you write.

But being both a hunter and a gatherer isn't the only contradictory personality traits you need.

A dreamer and a schemer

You've got to be able to dream up a huge big story, one worth of a sixty-foot screen and eighty million dollars. You've got to dream up a whole universe, with your own characters, that you feel passionate about and then hang on to this dream while you work to make it become real.

That means getting your head out of the clouds (or any other artistic location you may have it) and scheme a business plan for how to make this dream become real. Strategy and tactics. Reading both, yes, both, Daily Variety AND The Hollywood Reporter every day, with a sharp eye toward any insights into why certain scripts became movies, trends, when the buyers start playing musical chairs (hmm...Armani Advantaged just went indy-prod, make a note, use a congratulations as an excuse to meet, see what type of movies he's now after; to meet, perchance to pitch...to pitch, perchance to deal, to deal, perchance to film), and your ongoing study of the nature of your aspect of the movie business. It means tracking spec script sales especially, to look for the patterns of what is selling now, plus what is hot at the box-office now, and this year, to massage that data into better helping you figure out what spec to have on the market four-six months from now. That's both dreaming and scheming.

A leader and a follower

You must know when, as the writer, to lead others in the meeting towards your vision (usually prior to or about the first draft). And you have to know when to be a follower, let them tell you what they want, since the Golden

Rule applies: whoever has the gold, maketh the rules. Sir William of Goldman wisely says that a first draft is the writer's vision -- but after that, he's there to facilitate the practical needs of pre-production. Learn when to lead, then how to follow (without sulking.)

A maverick and a team player

You have to be a rebel, a maverick, a loner, to come up with your own creative story, your own style of writing it, your own attitude for it, and write it alone. But later, in this collaborative medium, accept that if you sell your script or agree to write for hire? It is your script, but it's their movie -- and you are now part of a huge team, so be a good team player.

A visionary and a marketing expert

You have to have your own personal quirky vision for your story, and value it. Yet you also must juggle a contradictory world view: that of a marketing expert, who is aware objectively how that story will be perceived, what genre it is, what target audience, how it might fit in well, very well -- or not! -- into a studio's perception of commercial movies they may want or need.

You have to think big -- and think small.

Big movie screen. Big money at stake. So think big! But as the writer, you know the devil is in the details. No one ever comes to know the script in as much detail as the writer. So be alert for which well-intentioned (read: bonehead) changes by producers or studio execs will cause a bad ripple effect, swamping the original vision, and fight for the details that matter.

They won't know them; you will.

The list of other personality traits you'll need, some contradictory, goes on and on. For all the phone calls, and follow-up stuff, you have to almost be a telemarketer; to understand how your script would sound to a studio, you have to be an advertising copywriter, envisioning the movie poster/ad and the 25 words or less of ad copy they'll require; you have to be a psychologist in meetings, quickly getting a feel for the real dynamics of the meeting, the lines of power, then how to play it; you'll have to have the free spirit and messy office of a writer, yet be as organized as an executive assistant, keeping track of contacts, notes from meetings, industry data, a business calendar, tickler files, follow-up notes, etc.

Meanwhile, there's still the writing of screenplays, where you have to write dialogue like a playwright, visualize a story like a director, grab their interest as fast as great direct mail advertising, and touch our hearts like an sonnet.

You need the thick hide of a rhinoceros and the soul of a poet. You need the passion of an artist and the business focus of an calculator. But relax, with the all the tough challenges coming at you, as you juggle art, business, day job, and personal life, you only have to be able to catch javelins and know how to get cats to walk in a parade.

You have to think as big as P.T. Barnum, network like Rasputin, be as sought after as Oscar Wilde, be as feelingful as Maya Angelou, and as tough as Sir Ernest Shackleton.

So, what are little screenwriters made of?

Sugar and spice....and nerves of ice.

A last thought on personality stereotypes: if someone creates their own world, people it with whoever they want, and control what they do? What type of person is that, really? Oh, yes... God. And people think writers are shy...

Now sit down, go forth with your stories, be fruitful and multiply.

Using the multiple-personalities it takes to be a screenwriter.

About John Hill

John Hill began writing as a professional screenwriter over 25 years ago. His numerous credits include GRIFFIN AND PHOENIX (2006), starring Dermot Mulrooney and Amanda Peet and QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER (1990), based on his spec script, starring Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacomo, and Alan Rickman. He has worked on staff as a writer-type producer on QUANTUM LEAP and on L.A. LAW, where he won an Emmy in 1991. He wrote a regular column for SCR(I)PT magazine for 5 years and now teaches writing and creativity at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. One-on-one mentoring in screenwriting is available. He may be reached at [email protected].
Screenwriting Article by John Hill

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