Q: Could you give me a little bit of background on how you got into screenwriting?
Oddly enough, I became a screenwriter by default; I wanted to be a novelist. I had just written my first novel and I sent it to someone whose opinion I trusted. He told me my book wasn’t very good – but that I was a good writer. He said he thought that I was very visual. So he suggested I try writing a screenplay. Thank God he was nice enough to encourage me!
Q: Was The Proposition the first screenplay you found success with?
While I was still in film school, I managed to option a script (for very little money). It was called “Triad” and it was a psychological thriller. But it gave me a tremendous surge of confidence to actually option a script. So I wrote The Proposition next. And that was my first major sale.
Q: How did you connect with the filmmakers and sell The Proposition?
A friend of mine showed the script to an exec at Disney – she didn’t buy it, but she did like the story and the writing. That led to an introduction to an agency. And that led to the script getting into the hands of the right producers. A few of those producers wanted it bad enough to get into a small bidding war. I think the whole process, from getting the script read, to getting an agent, to actually selling it took about a week. It was so fun – changed my life, too.
Q: The Proposition has a great cast – did you get to be involved in the production at all?
Now that I look back on the whole process, I was very lucky, because the producers and the director were really good to me. The actors were awesome, too. Even though I was a complete rookie, everybody treated me with great respect, and — more importantly – the script was treated with great respect.
Q: That was followed by Stigmata – another great cast. How did this script come about?
Stigmata was a re-write assignment. And yes, great cast. I was asked by MGM producer, Frank Mancuso Jr. to do the re-write and we pretty much went right into production after only a few drafts.
Q: Studio pics and living the screenwriter dream …
One of the best things to come from putting a spec script out, is that even if a studio doesn’t buy it, there’s a very good chance that you might pick up a writing assignment if they like your writing. I always try to assure new writers that a rejection is not always a rejection of your story or writing. It’s usually because the studio already has something “similar” in development, or because that type of story just isn’t going to line up on their slate. Often times a producer or an executive will read you and if he or she likes your writing, they will think of you for other projects they may have in development.
Q: Where did the inspiration for “Haunted” come from?
My manager asked me to meet with Andrew Cosby, the co-creator of the show. He pitched Haunted to the producers and they brought me in to work with him. Andy is a very collaborative guy, and we got along great in the writing process.
Q: Now the move to TV is fairly common, less so then. What prompted the shift?
To be honest, I really can’t remember why writing for TV even sounded good. I was making way more money as a feature writer … so I suppose it was the challenge.
Q: Peacemakers was a change in genre … do you have a particular genre?
Good question. I’ve never wanted to allow myself to get pigeon-holed into one genre, because that very definitely limits your marketability for assignments. Every time I write a spec, I try to keep it fresh (genre-wise) so that producers know I have a wide range.
Q: How did ‘Ichabod’ come about?
Ichabod was a labor of love.
I’m a great fan of classic literature. I sold a spec script for a lot of money that year, and I wanted to do something cool for my kids. (They were in 4th or 5th grade at the time.) Most dads go out and buy a pony or something – but I wrote my kids a play.
I approached some song-writers that I knew and suggested we do Ichabod for kids in grade school and middle. As it turned out, we had 89 sell-out performances and won some awards with the play … But my feature career was just too busy to run a theatre company, so I let the company go for several years. Then, when I decided to see if I could direct a film, I went back to Ichabod. I was honestly thinking about doing a TV series for kids based on the classics. So it (kind-of) made sense on a business level … It aired on PBS and I thought I was going to launch the series, but then my funding fell through. It’s still a dream of mine to do the series, which I called “Timeless Tales”.
Q: How was the experience of directing Ichabod?
Flat –freaking– awesome. I’ve never had more fun. It was truly one of the best creative experiences of my life.
Q: Thoughts about moving to LA to pursue a screenwriting career?
I’ve always said the hardest thing about being an artist is financing your life while you do the work. I think writers should live where they can do their best work … If that means Denver, or Miami or Fargo — so be it.
I also think too much emphasis (especially for new writers) is placed on living in LA. Meeting with executives and producers don’t just fall out of the sky. Until you have a bullet-proof script, you’re really not going to get good meetings anyway. Once you have a truly great writing sample, I believe producers and agents will find you. LA is always looking for the next great talent that will take the world by storm.
My advice is get the script right, and the rest will take care of itself …
Q: Your career appears to have gone quiet for a few years. What were you working on and what happened to all those projects?
The truth is, I took a few years off because I felt burned-out. I thought I would finally write a novel, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Then one day, a friend of mine called and asked me pretty much the same question you just did: “Where have you been? You’re not working …” I laughed when he said that he was really glad I took some time off, because now he could finally afford me because my quote would suck … He said he wanted me to write the script for a project that he thought he had set up – but that didn’t work out. So then he asked me if I had any old specs sitting around. I said I had one, but I was saving it so I could direct it … Needless to say, he talked me out of that, and we took the script out … It sold over the weekend, and we had a green light within the week. The script was “Heaven Sent” due out this holiday season.
Q: What was the genesis of the documentary?
I’m laughing because I still don’t know how that project landed on my imdb page! I need to take it off! … It was really just a small favor for a friend : )
Q: When it comes to feature scripts, how do you approach structure? Do you follow or advocate any particular method?
Yes. Yes. And… yes!
I am a creature of method. And I do have a very particular way of addressing structure, and character development based upon a method that I’ve developed over the years. But if I go into it here and now, I’ll spoil the first episode “Method vs. Madness” of The Screenplay Show… And it’s so important for me to get it right when I describe it to new writers. I honestly believe it will make a difference in the way they approach story.
Q: Have you ever tried the conventional “breaking in” routes?
To be honest, no. I’ve never had to write a query letter or make a cold call as a writer. I’ve been really lucky in that I was approached by my first agent because he read one of my scripts (through a friend) which then sold. So you might say Hollywood found me.
That’s why I tell new writers that it really is all about the material. My career didn’t start because I was good in a pitch meeting or because I wooed an agent, or because I was a nice guy that producers wanted to meet. Producers buy your work and employ you to rewrite their scripts because they respect your writing …
Q: You are now launching a new venture: The Screenplay Show. Where did the idea for that come from?
A friend of mine who runs a writer meet-up group asked me to do a seminar for his writers a few years ago. Very reluctantly, I agreed… But then instantly regretted it because I was completely afraid I would bore people to death, droning on about a “how to” approach.
So I pulled my editor into the mix, and we put together a very visual presentation which actually shows examples of screenwriting elements, such as writing transitions, creating character arcs, writing action, the plot, etc.
For instance, we pulled about fifty stills of Jack’s character from “The Shining” to visually document his character arc – or descent into madness. It was very effective, because people could see it in real time when it was compared to the script (I put page numbers beside the stills). You get the idea …
But what really surprised me is that the writers were almost more interested in the “writer’s experience” … They had more questions about method and the biz, than they did about the nuts and bolts. So that got me thinking: if I combine my “story” with the nuts and bolts, it’s really a very different kind of writing series.
I’ve been extremely fortunate during my 25 year career to have developed scripts with some of Hollywood’s top producers and directors. Those experiences have changed and informed the way I write and approach story. After all, they were generous enough to share their knowledge with me for one purpose – to get the story right. So, I began to think in terms of presenting that knowledge and those insights in the form of a narrative, or show style.
Q: How will people be able to see it / get involved?
Each episode will be approximately 30 minutes. You will be able to purchase and stream at our site. We will consider moving to other formats later. I’m also talking to a cable network, so that is a possibility now, too.
Q: One of the accusations leveled at other gurus is that they haven’t had anything produced or sold. But that can’t be leveled at you – is that what makes your offering different.
I hope so. I mean, you can talk all day about the nuances that make a race car driver great, or a football player, or a ballet dancer, or an artist – but I would hope you’d get the information from someone that has actually been “to the show” … Otherwise there is too much information missing from the actual process of learning. It’s called trial and error. You learn things in the script development process that just isn’t covered in books.
I believe that people know instinctively that you learn by doing, much better than by reading it in a book or a talking-head video. One of the things that I feel is really important, is to talk to new writers about rejection and heartbreak. In “The Screenplay Show” the highs and lows of the craft are talked about quite naturally in the narrative since I have had plenty of both in my career.
The trick is to learn from it and not take rejection too personally.
Q: What exactly is it, and what will the episodes cover?
The Screenplay Show is an actual show you’ll be able to watch. It’s a very different approach to screenwriting, from a personal point of view. It’s both the story of a writer’s experience in Hollywood, and how those experiences have informed the way I write and how I have survived for 25 years. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve developed material (from spec scripts, to rewrites, to book adaptations) with some of Hollywood’s most talented directors and producers. That has definitely informed the way I go about my business . I will be sharing that information and knowledge — both technical and philosophical – in a narrative, visual way during each episode of The Show.
The Episodes cover these topics:
1) Method vs Madness:
We live in two worlds: the physical and the mental. New writers are often balancing a full-time job with trying to find quality time to write. I talk about my own method, and how I discovered a way to get the work done. But I also explain how important it is to have a method that is intellectual – which leads to episode 2 called ….
2) “Write with Questions”
A very famous author gave me this tip, and once I came to understand exactly what he was talking about. I realized that he had just given me a method (of the intellectual kind) that actually helps me solve problems. I believe learning to write with questions is the single most important factor that has helped me set up and sell over 40 scripts in Hollywood. But here’s a teaser: it’s not what you think it is …
3) Writing the Beat Outline
Over the years, I learned to write my outlines using a technique that also informs the way I pitch. Most new writers think a pitch is a condescended version of the story … But a pitch is also the story of how you’re going to write a killer script. Don’t forget, you’re also auditioning to prove that you have the chops to back up your pitch. In The Show, I’ll share a technique that will help you get on the page as a writer – because it will assure the producer you’re not only a good storyteller, but ready to go to script.
It’s my opinion that this is where most scripts live or die. Most new writers DO NOT know how to give their script a voice. In fact, when I’m asked to do a rewrite, that’s usually what they are looking for – the proper tone (or writer’s voice) for the story. Another word for it is “soul”.
5) Character Arcs
A great director once told me that the key to writing great characters is that
“we write in search of ourselves…”It sounds obvious, but it isn’t. (It does tie very nicely into Episode 2 once we break it down … )
6) The Four Elements
This is another episode I’m anxious to get into, because once again, most new writers don’t really know how to write or execute these basic elements of screenwriting properly. 1) Action 2) Plot 3) Subtext 4) Transitions
7) Act I
8) Act II
9) Act III
We’ll be talking in-depth about the three-act structure, and how to seamlessly build three acts into one solid story. We’ll also delve into something that I feel is crucial to your success as a screenwriter: the mid-act breaks … It’s also very important that new writers understand how to enter and exit each act so that your reader will keep turning pages.
10) The Biz
When I do a live seminar, this is the topic the writers want to hear about the most – not only do they want to know how to break in, but they need to know what happens once you do sell that first script. How do you survive this intense and competitive business?
Q: I’m assuming this isn’t a purely altruistic venture? What are the costs involved to you and how will you charge for it?
Since this is a “show” format, and not a talking head seminar, the “usual suspects” on a line item budget are required: Lights. Camera. Crew. Actors. Sound. And finally Post – the show will have a rather hefty budget.
Basically, for $149.00 writers can pre-purchase all ten 30 minute episodes now at a 50% discount. (When we are finished with production, the show will retail for approx. $300.00.)
Q: Screenwriters are perhaps, rightly, a little suspicious of guru’s with schemes that promise them success – for a fee of course. What is different about the Screenplay Show and how would you answer that challenge?
Great question. I would answer by reminding people from the start that I’ve never taken the position that I am a “guru” or a “coach” or a seminar guy. I’m a working writer – so I won’t be spewing theory. I’ll only be talking about the methods and techniques that have worked – and continue to work – for me.
I think anyone who promises instant success in this business is full of BS. What I can promise, however, is that I’ll be coming at the craft of screenwriting from a very different perspective than most. Why? Because I’ll be sharing the same techniques and methods that some of Hollywood’s most talented writers, directors and producers have shared with me.
Q: How will you judge success for The Show?
I’m smiling right now, because I won’t get to be the one who does that. Only the writers who take the time to tune-in to The Screenplay Show will get to judge. And deservedly so. If they learn something that helps them become a better writer, wonderful. If they think I’ve wasted their time and money – I’ll get slammed. But that’s how it is for the writer of any show or movie. It is the nature of our business to get applause or … rotten tomatoes.
Q: If successful, what next for the project?
My hope is to take The Show on the road if we are successful. One of my personal requirements for any of my projects is that I only take on subjects that interest me. And I’ve always been fascinated by the methods of other writers, actors and athletes. I like to know how they prepare, execute, and deal with the business they are in. Learning from other writers how they do-what-they-do will be interesting to me. Why? Because I’m sure I’ll learn something.
I’m working on several projects right now, both film and television. I think we almost have to keep several irons in the fire for one to get hot … Working on several projects has always helped to diversify the odds of success vs failure.
Q: What’s the best / worst advice you’ve been given?
The best: “read the third act as many times as the first act” we tend to write FADE OUT and think it’s done too quickly.
The worst: “Don’t write so much exposition – the director will just ignore it anyway.”
To the latter, I politely say “bull”. My scripts are stories, first. They just happen to be formatted like a script. As a storyteller, I always try to think of my scripts as a literary work – or in other words, I’m on the page.
A producer once told me the script was fat, but I responded by saying that there was no charge for the extra words. I wasn’t being snide, either. I simply told her that it was my draft, because we were about to go out to the town on spec … people would be reading it and judging me as a writer, as well as for story. So I insist that my scripts read well. She agreed, too.
Q: Favorite film / script?
I have too many “favorite” films. But I’m an unapologetic romantic when it comes to most of my faves: I like anything by David Lean, but I also never miss a chance to watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” … As for my favorite script, I’d have to say my favorite script-writer is Steven Zaillian.
Q: Favorite Author / book
Once again, too many to pick one. I did recently admire “Broken Music” by Sting. I was really taken by his writing. He’s as eloquent and lyrical and aware in his prose as he is with his music. And when I say “admire his writing” I really mean it makes me jealous. (Great writers will do that to you; you put them down wishing that you were that good : )
Q: Beer / Wine or other
I like brew pub blondes … But it’s a very cold martini that makes the voices in my head go away until the next writing session.
Q: What screenwriting software do you use – and why?
I’m a Final Draft guy. Why? Because it’s become like a pair of my favorite jeans – I’m comfortable with it.
Q; Favorite Food?
Pasta. Not the best choice for a guy who sits on his ass all day, but my wife makes it from scratch, so it’s hard to deny on Sunday.
Q: Any other interests or passions?
I’m a big sports fan – all types. Sports has become the other thing that helps me get the voices out of my head at night. I don’t sit there and analyze the seventh inning, the way I do when I’m watching a movie.
Q: Any final thoughts for the screenwriters of SimplyScripts?
I once had an agent tell me that any writer in Hollywood is just one script away from being a success. You are one script away.
About Interviewer Anthony Cawood: I’m an award winning screenwriter from the UK with over 15 scripts produced, optioned and/or purchased. Outside of my screenwriting career, I’m also a published short story writer and movie reviewer. Links to my films and details of my scripts can be found at www.anthonycawood.co.uk.