This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 067: Screenwriter John Jarrell Talks About The Beginning Stages Of His Career.
Welcome to episode 67 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger, over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment I’m interviewing screenwriter John Jarrell. It’s a special episode. It’s the first Sys podcast interview where I actually recorded it while being in the same room with the person I’m interviewing. I think it actually worked very well. It makes the interview much more conversational which I like. When I’m doing interviews on Skype or telephone, there’s just like maybe a quarter-second delay in the talking, and sometimes I feel like it’s a little bit stilted. Sometimes I feel like we’re kind of interrupting each other because of that little microsecond delay, and when we were in the room together, as you’ll see, it just felt a lot more conversational and natural. We ended up talking for about three hours so I’m going to break the interview up into three episodes that will come out over the next few weeks. We cover a ton of screenwriting topics from specifics about his career to just general screenwriting tips and how to survive as a screenwriter. So stay tuned for that.
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A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts and then just look for episode #67. Also, if you want my free guide How to Sell a Screenplay in Five weeks, you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers, or producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
Also, a quick plug for the new Sys screenwriting analysis service. It’s a really economical way to get a high-quality professional script evaluation on your script. All the readers have experience reading for studios, production companies, agencies, or contests. The readers I’ve partnered with are the gatekeepers of the industry. They’re exactly the same people who are going to be reading your scripts at the companies you submit to. The readers will evaluate your script on several key factors like concept and premise, structure, character, dialog, and marketability. Every script will get a grade of pass, consider, or recommend, and I’m also offering a bonus. If you get a “consider” and a “recommend” from two different readers on the same script, you get a free email and fax blast to my list of industry contacts. This is the exact same blast service I use myself to promote my scripts and it’s the same service I sell on the website. It’s a great way to get your script into the hands of producers who are looking to make movies. Also on the website, you can read a quick bio on each reader and pick the one whom you think would be the best reader for your script. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
Just a quick few words about what I’m working on and doing, I’ve mentioned this a couple weeks ago, I attended the Robert McKee story seminar this past weekend. It was something I had always wanted to go and do, and I’m glad I finally got the chance to do it. It is a little pricey. I think it was nearly $900.00 for three days so here’s my take on it. I’m very glad I did it. I would even consider doing it again. I would say—and I think even Robert McKee would probably agree with this—if the money is an issue and you’re wondering gee, can I afford this or not, I would say you probably shouldn’t do it. I mean, I did find it helpful and very inspiring, a lot of great information but it’s not one of those things that I think is mission critical to becoming a good screenwriter. I haven’t read his book. I will go back and read the book now for sure, but a lot of people at this seminar told me were that a lot of the same material was in his book. Obviously hearing it in person is a different experience, but that’s definitely a cheaper option. If you want to hear what Robert McKee has to say on story, definitely check out his book. He’s got a lot of great insight.
The one big difference between he and other script gurus like Sid Field or Blake Snyder is that he’s very much in tune with the screenwriter as an artist. He’s not at all dogmatic, and he doesn’t have a simple structure which he recommends like Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, and this is what I found so refreshing about the experience. This is why it was so inspiring. I think most of us when we started on the long screenwriting journey, you know, we aspired to be artists and to write great scripts and so some of the fire was rekindled by going to this seminar and that’s not a small thing especially for a screenwriter whose most recent credit is a film called Ninja Apocalypse. There was also a time of tactical tips so I don’t want to make it seem like it was just all inspirational, lots of tactical tips and a lot of great stuff on dialog, character, text, which is the dialog subtext—just a lot of tactical tips on a lot of scene-level tactical tips on screenwriting. The last day we actually watched Casablanca from start to finish and at the end of each scene, he would actually pause the film and we would discuss what we had just seen and he would really go through it almost line by line. This is an incredible exercise to do even by yourself but doing it with someone as experienced as Robert McKee is very interesting and educational. He knows a ton about screenwriting. He knows a ton about Casablanca. He’s seen it a million times so hearing his thoughts on it and seeing the movie, seeing a scene, having him pause it and really break down the dialog, what we had just seen is a pretty interesting experience, a lot of really educational experience. Anyway, so overall I really did enjoy it and I felt like I got a lot out of it.
One quick note before we get into the main segment. John recently wrote a book called Tough Love Screenwriting. I will refer to it often in the interview. I’ll link to it in the show notes. If you haven’t read the book I do highly recommend there are a lot of topics in the interview from the book so reading the book before listening to the interview will give you some context or going and reading the book and then coming back and listening to the interview again. You shouldn’t have any problem following along if you haven’t read the book. But again, I’ll link to it in the show notes. I definitely would recommend it if you haven’t already read the book. Go check it out. It just covers a wide range of topics and John has a lot of insight, many, many years of experience, and a lot of insight into the industry. Anyway, here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, John, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
John: I’m very excited to be here.
Ashley: So let’s go ahead and get into some questions. I recently read your book so I have a bunch of questions I will relate to that and then we’ll probably go outside of the book.
Ashley: I usually start out by asking interview guests to just kind of tell us how they broke into the business. You cover that pretty well in the book so I’m just going to refer people to the book to get some of the inside scoop on that. But I would like to go back, something you didn’t cover in great detail, I think it was back sort of before you broke in as a screenwriter, even before you got your first agent, what sort of inspired you? Why did you want to be a writer? Even just take us back to your childhood that made you think why—
John: It’s very funny. I’m not one of those weird guys who like at age eight I’m making some great movies. I literally worked in radio as a senior in high school on a real commercial station, something the equivalent of The Sound today or Jack Fem. As a senior in high school, that was pretty big shit. Basically I met a guy there who was the program director. He was a smart guy. Ultimately he ended up in LA working for KROQ, but I was a freshman at Oregon and I got a call from the guy who said listen, I figured it out. We’re going to do film. It was like great, let’s do film. I had no idea of what that was etc. but radio was limited even back then. It was a kind of limited world. He got this idea like look; we’re going to do film. So I was like great so I immediately started applying to film schools. It was really blind faith, hey, this is my buddy. We’ll lick this; we’ll do it. So I applied to all these film schools. I got into NYU, started at NYU incurring a huge student loan debt like everyone else and ultimately what was interesting was I didn’t really have any great passion for film per se. I liked movies like other people, but someone put the idea in my head and it sounded cool. So I went to NYU and that’s when the learning process started and all that stuff. So I really can’t claim to be like one of those kids, I was in the crib and they had to be taxi drivers. It wasn’t like that. Ultimately he didn’t get into film at all which I guess that’s logically where the story’s going to go, but once I was at NYU and really got into it, that kind of took hold.
Ashley: Were you a good writer. I hear of a lot of screenwriter success stories saying in their early, whether it is junior high, they really liked writing. They liked reading. They were into stuff. I mean, were you a good student? Were you a good writer?
John: Not a great high school student. I was too busy listening to Ozzie and Black Sabbath to get in shape. But I was a good writer. I wrote for the school newspaper eventually getting my own column which was suitably twisted as you can imagine. So I had always shown a good raw ability to write. So I had a raw talent, and when I realized it at NYU, by the time I graduated, I understood I didn’t have the money to direct. I didn’t have any connections so the only way to get above the line was to write. I had basically trained myself as a cinematographer and I realized in New York City at that time in 1990 there was no work there. If you were going to go union, that’s only fifteen years before you can touch the camera so I was like how can I get above the line and really writing was the only tool you had to get above the line. So I knew I had a raw talent, and if I worked super, super hard at it, I might be able to become a decent writer. That’s exactly the way it was. It wasn’t as if I had this predestination to write. I knew I had a raw talent and if I busted my ass, I could turn it into something. That’s really the process.
Ashley: One thing again—and you talk in your book about getting this first agent and that was at least sort of at least inspirational enough for you to move to LA and get your career on track. There seems to be a misconception—I get this question a lot. I get people asking me trying to break into the business that once I get that first agent, it’s all smooth sailing, and maybe we can get your thoughts on that because you got your first agent through happenstance which I think a lot of people sort of the first thing. But it didn’t seem as though it was smooth sailing once you had your first agent.
John: Essentially you’re exchanging one dictator for another. You’re on your own so you get an agent. Once I get an agent, I’m going to be fine. Then you get the agent and now you have other problems like getting him to pay attention and writing material they can sell. So not only is it not smooth sailing, essentially you’re just inheriting a little bit higher class group of problems. Especially nowadays it’s very different where managers are doing a lot of the servicing that agents used to do. Back then the agent was pretty much it, but now you’ve got a whole other list of concerns. You’ve got to put one down in the middle. Say they sign you over a script that’s really good but they can’t sell it or whatever but they see some talent there, you’ve got to prove yourself all over again. Having an agent is good because that means you have one person among ten million strangers who actually gives a shit whether you live or die kind of as opposed to zero people, but it really actually turns out the responsibility you have to generate new material. It took me years to learn this. The agent can only work with what you give them. I was one of those guys who were super young, super fired up. I was like yeah, I already wrote one good script that we came very close to selling, let the job offers roll in. It was like dude, one good script that didn’t sell is not going to get you a studio writing assignment. I hear this a lot from my students. A lot of them want to be TV writers because there is more money in TV now. It has really come up in terms of quality, and they want to get into a writer diversity program or the Fox Writer Program or this or that thinking that is a gateway right onto a staff. I mean, staffing jobs are brutal, man. They’re not giving those jobs away. I have a friend who was Emmy-nominated. I think there are this mythology that somehow to me the odds of selling a spec even in this kind of marketplace is markedly higher than getting a staffing job. I have an Emmy-nominated buddy of mine. He went three years without getting a staffing job and then only got staffed because of the short run and was a good friend. Those are the plum jobs, and there are really good writers with proven track records in TV. For someone who’s 24 and thinks they’re going to write a spec of Two-and-a-Half Men or on the staff of True Detective, it’s just a little far-fetched. Of course, I take every opportunity to tell them that. I try to get them back to reality.
Ashley: For sure. So you talk about in your book getting the right agent and maybe you could talk a little bit about that. I mean, obviously for someone starting out any agent is probably better than no agent. Once you start to move on, how can you identify the right agent for you as a writer?
John: Well, I think in the book it kind of covers my personal ups and downs of that. I really think it comes down to the agent getting you which means they understand—not everybody’s going to be a giant broad, rather simple, someone who’s good with big broad strokes if you don’t look too closely at the details. Not everyone’s like that. Some people are ready to give some credit. They are more character-based. It’s really finding an agent who sees what you are as a writer and sees where they can plug that in. For me when I got assigned to Deborah, that was really the turning point. My agent understood. He read my new spec. It was a little darker piece, and he said I get it. You can write. A lot of writers have one great script, one great idea and that’s kind of it. That’s good too, but he could see I had some range; I could write. He said we’ll get you working. It will probably take a year but we’ll get you out there. What he was great at that time was figuring out how to get you into the specific place you needed to go, the rooms that would be really open to what you brought to it. So I was very fortunate to have that kind of agent. Not every agent and not every manager is going to be that precise or have the luxury of taking their time like that. I think at the end of the day, someone’s better than no one and if that’s a stepping stone manager or agent, that’s fine. And the thing you always have to remember is you can always leave your representation. That’s not a problem. The big thing is if you—one thing I will say—getting signed by a partner on a major radio scene as a new writer is not a great thing because they’re not going to service you. What you want is someone who is kind of where you are, an up-and-comer, a junior agent is awesome because they’re building their career while you’re building your career. So it’s the huge guy with big money clients. You’re not paying the rent on that building. You’re just kind of hanging on. So what was great for me I went to a brand new agency which became really big but also had an agent who was on the company too. So it was a really nice fit. So I think you can get lost in the name game with agents and managers. Just remember it’s not—ultimately the agency doesn’t matter. The agent or the manager matters because that’s your point person who’s going to try to steer you where you need to go. That’s really essential.
Ashley: You mentioned in the book too—and you just mentioned it as we were talking—when you started out, you had an agent. The agent would do a lot of the duties of the manager. Maybe you can just tell us what you get nowadays from your agent vs. what you get from your manager.
John: I’ve talked to a bunch of friends about this. I think it’s markedly different than pre-crash, really agents—especially at WME—it’s a huge agency. It’s a global force and they’re doing the packaging and much bigger scope things. Their focus is not the ten per center, the average working-class middle-class writer like me. They’re dealing with bigger stuff. So you don’t get service like when I first went to [inaudible 0:17:17.3] you were being actively serviced in the old school sense. What I find now is it’s the manager who’s really doing what the agent used to do and the agent—everyone has a different take on this—if you have a great agent, you want to keep them. But essentially that agent is kind of there when it’s time to do the deal now as opposed to the manager in my experience is actually getting the brush, seeing what’s out there, open assignments, making the connects. You know it’s a little unrealistic to think that my agent is a partner at WME. So they’re dealing with big, big people. So the idea that that guy is going to be beating the bricks for me, it’s just a little ridiculous. So I think that’s where the manager has come in because that’s the person who services you. Like I said, it doesn’t matter where they’re at, what their company name is, do they understand who you are as a writer? Are they really giving you a hundred percent? Are they keeping their eyes open for things that would be great for you? And you’ve got to remember there’s a lot less development work now than there ever was before. Before the crash you could make a very good living as a middle-class writer. Now those jobs are fewer and further between, more competitive. It’s really a buyer’s market for studios and producers where they can—I’ve heard all sorts of [inaudible 0:18:34.3] and having competing writers work on. It’s really in their hands now which is a little unfortunate, but you need someone to steer you through all that noise and just get you in the room so you can do what you do and try and get that job.
Ashley: So right now with the William Morris agent, you could almost just—you want that prestige of William Morris agency even if he’s not really doing anything for you. I mean, essentially you could just have a lawyer negotiate your deal.
John: Absolutely. I have a long-term relationship there. Obviously I’m not one of their top-drawer clients. The advantage for me is the long relationship there being a career screenwriter, I can get hold of them and say, like with the book, for example, I know that if I go to my agent, he’ll send it to the head of publishing in New York and he’ll take a look at it and tell me what they think. I have an open door there for any material I ever write. If I write a big my spec, that’s great too, but it’s good to have that scope of influence. I wrote a book a couple years ago of a very famous Chinese mobster from the 70’s. When we got it to WME, they covered it immediately realized it was kind of [inaudible 0:19:47.7] and literally in about five days’ time, they had it with Justin Lin to see if he was interested. That’s fucking awesome! Although he passed, but you write a good book about an Asian, develop a real-life story and you get it to them and they have the connections to go right in at the big-way level. Maybe a CEO likes it and he gives it to a VP, you can grow old waiting for that. The idea that you called and said let’s get with Justin Lim, see what he says.
Ashley: You use the word service. Maybe you can just define what exactly does that mean “service”?
John: Service means that they’re actually working on your career. I mean, it’s a combination of factors. It’s seeing what the open jobs are, finding out the new executives that might be good to meet with, whom to send your material to, even just sending it could just to build relationships. Back in the day there was kind of an impact with that kind of stuff. You met people face to face and now the generals are scaled back my feeling is because they’re unnecessary. If they offer you a job, they’re going to get you in there. But the idea of building relationships face to face in the room has kind of taken a back seat to expediency and this contraction where branded writers are going to have kind of the pick of the litter. It’s weird for anyone to think that way, but J. J. Emmons is a branded writer. There are writers that their names move a project. I’m not one of those writers, but it’s just interesting when you’re being well-serviced, that means someone despite a ton of no’s, despite they’re not right for it, despite executives’ complete and total apathy towards your screenwriting, they stay at it. When I was at Endeavor, one agent in particular took an interest in making my career. She basically kicked a few doors in. To make a long story short, I had written a script for Regency which was a really cool script, but I was a really young writer. Regency seemed unhappy with it and like every young writer; I was wracking my head like I think this is good. I mean, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m an asshole; maybe I totally fucked it up, but I felt like I think this is a lot better than they’re saying. I mean, it was bad enough these are the old school producer tricks. I eventually got a call on Thanksgiving from one of the producers—there were four of them—and they called me. I was in Arizona at my folks’ place. I got a call and the producer—I’m like a Pat Riley guy like I don’t mind people saying let’s get fired up; let’s do this. Come on, John, suck it up. It’s the silent disappointment. So I got this call, as I mentioned, the producer said “John, I’m very disappointed in your draft.” For me that was just like oh, now you call me on Thanksgiving. So obviously I was the monkey in the middle. Lots of times this happens in the studio. Two producers wanted one movie; the company wanted another movie, you’re the monkey in the middle so each side is kind of trying to manipulate what that draft is. So he called me on Thanksgiving to kind of blow me out a little bit, get me moving the project, and the whole time I’m thinking this script is really not that bad. I know there is good stuff in there. Well, this agent at Endeavor [inaudible 0:23:20.6] she read the draft and said you guys are fucking crazy. I’m going to use this as a sample and they’re like whatever, use it. So she sent that in to Warner’s. Warner’s needed somebody to come in and [inaudible 0:23:36.3] and they winnowed it down to four writers and I made the cut to four based on the draft that Regency was telling me I fucked up so she knew and it was basically an interesting job. They wanted someone young and hungry, and they just said look, each of the four writers you’re not even coming into the studio. Fax us a couple of pages of how you would fix Romeo Must Die. So I later talked to the executives because I got the job, and these guys faxed it. People phoned it in. They faxed in like one to one-and-a-half pages. I put together five rock-hard bulletproof pages. If you laid them out, it was like one page, one page, five solid pages, and I got the job like that. One thing I would say to young writers is if that door opens even that much, you’ve got to kick that thing in. Do not go soft. They’re not giving the shit away. They’re not giving the money away. So these guys went soft at the finish line. I just bumped on all of them. What was fascinating is ultimately that five pages, I don’t think we really used much of what I had posited there, but when I talked to the executive who was Greg Silverman at the time—he’s much bigger up at Warner’s now—Greg said well, we read them all, even though we didn’t want to use your specific ideas, we saw that you understood the movie, the construction of the movie and what the movie was about. We think it’s kind of funny like we’re not using those ideas but we can see from the way you think that you can fix this and that’s exactly what happened. It was [inaudible 0:25:13.3] refusing to just walk the company line and using your own sense. Now we’re back to what’s good servicing of a client. She knew it was a good script and that I was a good writer that I could handle it and refused to just settle with oh, Regency thinks this is shit. She made her own mind up and my career subsequently blew up because of that. God bless you find an agent as good as Adriana Alberghetti that’s out there, but remember, at that time she wasn’t the superstar that she is. She was on the come to and hungry and now we’re back to she understood me as a writer. She understood the projects I’d be good for, what was in my wheelhouse, and so if you find someone like that and that’s not interested in immediate payoff—and that was a huge thing at Endeavor at the time—when Endeavor started, the idea was we don’t need you to make money right away. I talk about that in the book a little bit. You get a window, hey, we’ll give you six months or a year, whatever to see where this goes, and Endeavor was great about that. They were like we’ll get you working; don’t worry about that; just put your best effort into it.
Ashley: I want to back up just a little bit. You talk about this project. Was it New Regency?
Ashley: So back it up; you’re developing a script for them. Your agent sends it somewhere else. Were they paying you to write the script?
The script was done and I had gotten two passes and I was just getting sodomized by everybody. At that point she called the executive in charge of Regency and said you guys just don’t know what you’re talking about; I’m using this as a sample. They went fine, use it as a sample. So she uses it as a sample. I got the job on Romeo and we were shooting two weeks after that. So what was really funny was they couldn’t wait for me to finish my steps at Regency so they could fire me. They were so excited about firing me. So then it came out in the trades that I was doing Romeo Must Die, and suddenly, they were going what? I remember at the premiere—this was hilarious—at the actual premiere of Romeo Must Die—it was a full house; it was awesome. It was a surprise hit movie; all your screenwriting fantasies are coming true. I remember after the movie, this same executive from Regency came up to me and said oh, so that’s what you were working on? There was like six million dollars on a Wednesday. And I never heard another word from that guy. But the point is I don’t want to fuck my ex-girlfriend anymore, but I don’t want you fucking her either. That was basically, you got another job from this script? So it was very sadistic in a way. I suppose that’s some of the politics of it, but really the key is an agent, a representative who said no, fuck you, the guy’s good and we’re going to make this work. Again, count your lucky stars if you meet someone who’s willing to go to the mat for you like that. It’s completely changed my life.
Ashley: One thing I don’t hear you talking about—and I had one manager and had a couple of really lousy agents—but one of the things that the manager did for me, more than opening doors was he was real good with [inaudible 0:28:22.8] just so he would read my material and give me notes. He was really excellent at that, and I don’t hear you saying any of that. Is that not the relationship you had with them but is there that back and forth?
John: Managers tend to, I think, develop more—and you touched on something which is key too which is well, how do you know if they’re a good developer? You feel like the guy’s instincts are right, that he’s helped you. I went into it from the start, from the moment I went into Endeavor, I had never had a relationship about development. Everyone does it differently. Writing is a different process. For me, my stuff doesn’t leave the house until I feel like it’s pretty much bulletproof. So I never had those discussions. I think if it wasn’t right, someone would have said something, but it wasn’t contingent on them helping me to develop. They kind of assumed I could get the job done, the same with my managers. Everyone’s different. Some people like having outside feedback from managers which can be very helpful. So I don’t really have a preference. I just know I tend to be so type A about it that by the time it leaves the house it’s screwed in pretty tightly. But I assumed that if it had sucked, someone would have told me—I hope they would. There was a story in the book about the first script that I sold, my agent and I had a very different take on was it ready to go out or not which was detailed at great length in the book, but it’s a really fine line. Young writers especially, you don’t want to change anything. It’s such a monumental task to write a screenplay and write one well that the last thing you want is people telling you to change shit. This is being a writer. I think as a professional you learn to take it less emotionally, less personally, but what’s really important is that you listen to what they’re proposing the changes are from as objective a place as possible but don’t just knee jerk assume that they’re wrong because you’re the writer which I did for many years as a young writer. In that story in particular, let’s give it to the producer and see what they say and they ended up buying the script. But the agent had been right; we did then change the third act that the agent said we needed to change anyway. So it’s really important to listen to feedback even if you disagree with it. You’ve got to remember, especially if you’re a younger writer, these people do this for a living. They’ve been doing it a long time so their notes do have real value. It’s easy just to go you don’t know, man, I’m the writer—and believe me, I did that for years—it’s really about if you don’t agree with any of their notes, that’s great, but if you give them an honest listen, at least you have the opportunity to incorporate them. I tell this to so many people, other people’s great notes, you get credit for them. They don’t put their names on the script. When they say hey, change this character and you do, you go wow, that’s great and you get the credit for it. So I think that’s really a thing young writers especially need to deal with which is it’s okay to listen to feedback. Don’t get on your hind legs right away. Ultimately if you think it’s really fucking up the script, you take a stand, but you’d be shocked at how many good notes you can throw away out of the sense of I’m the writer and you’re trying to fuck it up. It’s kind of a cop-out ultimately.
Ashley: It seemed like your book was not necessarily in chronological order so I might be misreading some of what—so correct me if I’m wrong but it seems like there are three distinct periods of your career. There was the period where you moved to LA before you sold that first script so that was like six months. And you detail that quite a bit in the book. You kind of go through that rough six months. Then there’s the second period where you had sold that first script, but it seemed to be before Romeo Must Die which we talked about. So then there was the third period where once Romeo Must die was a big hit and your name was on it so that kind of took your career to the next level. So I want to go back and talk about that second period which is basically between before Romeo Must Die but after selling your first script—and I include myself in this—I mean, when I was starting out, I had this idea that if I could just get that one first sale, it would be smooth sailing. This I would say was the most hazy in the book was I wasn’t sure like there are stories of you still driving ’66 Volkswagen bug, you’re still living in the apartment, you’re still eating tacos, but yet it’s after that first sale. I think it’s so important for people to hear that and realize that it’s not getting that first agent. It’s not getting that first sale. A screenwriting career is really a marathon. So maybe you can talk about the struggles after selling that first script, how hard you had to work to actually make a living at it.
John: I think one of the big misconceptions is that it’s ever smooth sailing. I think if you get over the wall and you’re at the point where you’re going to get hired no matter what, I suppose then it’s smooth sailing but for 99.9 percent of all writers, it’s never smooth sailing. You’re self-employed. It’s work for hire, and I spent enough time–it took me seven years from the time I started to the time I optioned my first script that got made. So that’s seven years of living the low life which I had no problem with because I stripped my life down so there were no expenses. I didn’t have a car back then. I had my bug. I lived in a 400 square-foot bungalow that was $450 a month. It was like a stock car. You took the seats out; you take the dashboard out. There was a roll bar, a steering wheel, speedometer and gear shift so I was totally good with that and that allowed me to persevere that long. Even after I started making real money, at that point I had experienced enough poverty so the last thing I wanted to do was get stupid about it. It was really like—I mean claustrophobia is too strong—but it was like keep your head low in the hole and keep working; this one check doesn’t mean—I told you this story before we started—when Romeo Must Die got made, I was talking to my dad and I just said wow this is great. I finally got a studio movie produced. And my dad goes you know what, this is great, John. When you boil it down, you’ve made like a buck fifty an hour for the last eight years. And it’s really true like yes, you get a check at one point, but when you go through the hours you’ve spent, hour for hour it’s not really a great thing. So it was a conscious effort like keep everything down-sized. Don’t get goofy, don’t get hillbilly-rich. I’ve seen numerous friends back in the day buy the big car, do shit that was just out of their means. One check does not a career make and that’s what I found out was I just put the money away, keep your head down and follow this lead. I was very happy. I knew that when I up-sized my life, when you start here and then it starts over, you can’t really get the genie back in the bottle. So I knew once I move and bought a home or did real adult things, I would never be able to go back to that. So for about ten years I just rode that horse all the way in as best I could. The money is illusory. It’s great to finally make money with your writing, and it’s a satisfaction unlike any other, but believe me, the problems have just kind of started. You’re exchanging one dictator for another. Now you have to deal with can I keep writing? Did they like this assignment? Will that help me get more work or do they actually hate it? Am I going to get that movie produced or not? Will I go into arbitration and get credit on something I clearly wrote or not? So it’s always a bunch of [inaudible 0:36:18.9] problems, but you’re dead right. You never really find easy street. It’s an illusion. My advice to screenwriters is save your money. If you’re lucky enough to make money, save it because especially now this is harder every year. This whole idea of buying a sports car, it’s like a bad Cinemax movie from the 80’s. He buys the Porsche, moves to the beach. Don’t do it! Put the money away.
Ashley: Maybe you could just elaborate a little bit what kinds of jobs are you getting? How much money were you making and how much time was between the jobs? Did you end up with one or two jobs here, you make 30 thousand here, 60 thousand here so what did those seven years kind of look like?
John: The seven years before Romeo, those were the leanest years and I was really doing it hand to mouth, finding a lot of the work on my own. My agent wasn’t particularly helpful for a number of reasons. That’s also outlined in the book. I wasn’t setting the town on fire with my writing. You can only beat one or two good specs to death. You can only mail them around town and [inaudible 0:37:24.9] with your best efforts so many times. So I wasn’t giving her great material to work with, that’s one. You get into the room; there are people who have done more, etc. So I was really piecing it together. A friend of mine’s dad had a company and I was writing a movie for them for like fifteen grand. Some Israeli producers contacted me to save a movie. That was a horrifying experience. Those are the classic Israeli producers that speak perfect English when they’re pissed. Otherwise they only speak broken English. It’s when they become upset it’s suddenly like the King’s English. That was a hoot. It was fifteen grand here, twenty grand there, an eight-thousand-dollar polish which actually was a rewrite, but they’re calling it a polish to pay you less. It was really hand to mouth so I made just enough money every year to survive having zero expenses and living at the poverty level. I wouldn’t recommend it. It would be very hard for me to say do it, man; it’s great and making like fifteen grand a year. It’s not great; it’s hard but by any means necessary. That’s really how I thought of it. I’m going to stay in this long enough to turn a corner. It was really a point of pride. I think probably the low point financially was growing up I loved one marble superhero which was Iron Man—you’ve got to remember this was thirty years before Iron Man came out. So the one collection I put together of comics as a kid, I had Iron Man one through like 250 in mint condition. I had this for about fifteen years or whatever. So I got a bunch of stuff sent to me in LA. It was in storage. My Iron Man collection was among them. I think this one month my total all-in monthly was $750 that would cover what I needed to survive, and I just didn’t have any work. I didn’t have any money, and essentially I put an ad in like the Penny Saver back then for my Iron Man collection. A guy came over and he bought it for—I think it sold for $750. It had like Fantastic four, forty-eight, forty-nine, or fifty in there. I mean, it was awesome. But I just had to sell it to the guy; I just had to let it go, and it hurt. It hurts like you’re selling off you’re the last remnants of your childhood but that $750 kept me in the game and ultimately to make millions of dollars later. Do what you have to do. It hurt like hell to tell my mom, yeah, I had to sell my Iron Man collection but on the scale of things, that got me where I was going, helped me keep the drive alive.
Ashley: I’d be curious. When was that in the seven-year period just so people have a sense of that?
John: That would have been probably ’95-’96 so maybe two years before Endeavor. So in other words, if I hadn’t done that and kept it alive for another month, I wouldn’t have gotten to Endeavor which then was the puzzle piece that moves you forward. Believe me; this wasn’t like trust fund rebel stuff. This was like you don’t have enough food; we don’t have money. It was very educated, white poverty. It’s great to be college-educated, have fifty grand in student loans and be eating 49-cent tacos at Taco Bell; it’s a wonderful feeling.
Ashley: To be absolutely clear, just after that first script sale…
John: That was—we’re back to what you were saying about smooth sailing—it was like I sold the script which at that time it appeared like it was going to get made. So I was a yes or no away from a $350,000 check. A few starts attached with Warner’s, it was all looking good. I was young so I literally waited by the phone that day to hear if it was a yes or a no at the studio. It came back no. So I went from the imaginary $350,000, the car I was going to buy my dad, the party I was going to throw—that kind of stuff, and in conjunction with that I also got a writing assignment at Silver Pictures. It was a small thing like fifty-five grand, but those two things happened and then nothing. They both died which is very common. It’s enough, the development deal is over and so then it was right back to—I mean, illusory and it went like that. That’s what people aren’t prepared for. It does not go like that for 99 percent of people. It was like hey, this is awesome, now what? And then it was that dead zone of you’re on the desert floor, can you make it to water? Indeed, like I was saying before we started; it’s got to be tougher on young writers now because the economy is different. Things are more expensive. You have more expenses—your gadgets, your cell phone. For me it was a very gorilla undertaking which fits my personality, but it’s not for everyone. I mean, I really do think the idea of having a job like you were talking about; having an IT job, a programming job while you’re screenwriting could be a huge, huge load off your back because you know you’re not going to starve. For me it was hit the three-pointer at the buzzer or go home. And by the grace of God—you’ll notice I’m not taking any credit for this at all—I got pushed out of balance and just heaved it up and it went in by the grace of God. But there are easier ways. I mean, in retrospect it’s having a job that you enjoy to keep a roof over your head would have been huge. But then there are different ways to do it.
Ashley: I just want to go back—I mean, my blog is called sellingyourscreenplay.com so I always like to dig in a little bit—you said there were sort of these win times when your agent wanted to get you work, you were finding work. As an example, maybe you could go into how you were finding work. You just mentioned the Israel producer, how did those Israel producers actually find—
John: I met a director who did a ton of low-budget action—I can’t even remember how I met the guy—and then he had this thing coming up. We hit it off so he said yeah; I’ve got this movie coming up. I want you to meet this crew so that they’re free to do a draft of it. My buddy’s the head of the company and he had a low-budget thing so that was a couple grand. I mean, networking would be too strong a word; it was just fringe kind of like find someone that might know someone. It was nothing like today’s idea of networking. It was someone I met at a party or I was getting high with, knew somebody who had a movie. So it was lean, but the other thing was we sold a horror franchise. Me and a couple of buddies wrote a horror franchise that we sold to Highland Pictures back in the day. That was so little money it was like one year on the clock like we sold it to them, but one year later they failed to get it done and back to the drawing board. So these little one-year or six-month increments just to keep moving forward. No glamor, no glory, just blue-collar grinding. The great thing about that I will say is having worked at the bottom end of the food chain, you develop skills to write quickly and accurately and that ultimately was huge when eventually I got to the wrong end of my [inaudible 0:44:46.9] assignment, I had years of experience doing stuff fast and loose. So inadvertently that skill set played into me being able to save Romeo in two weeks and get the movie made. So not planned, but when you work that low-budget level, I mean literally, I wrote a kickboxing movie for at that time a very famous kick boxer in one week for five thousand dollars and they shot it the next week. So it’s fast and loose, and this is always my philosophy, if you’re going to write a bad movie, write a good bad movie. You all know what those are, the guilty [not understood 0:45:22.2] we love to watch late at night on Cable. They’re not going to win awards. It’s not Citizen Kane, but really have fun with it and that’s always been my approach to action witches. What would I like to see? When I watch bad action movies, I’m all in their shit. So if I were going to write this movie I’m being hired to write in one week for five grand, what would be the coolest stuff that I could see and that really helps make those movies fun. Ultimately the logic may or may not light up, but as long as it’s fun for five grand, rock and roll.
Ashley: Okay. So the next section—and you go into quite a bit in your book just about screenwriting craft, so I kind of pulled out some questions on craft. The first thing you start with in your chapter Screenwriting 101 is you literally have these four points, what’s the movie, what’s the world, who’s the main character, what other movies are like. So maybe we could just briefly talk about those four things and it’s curious that you pulled those things out because those are like the main sections of craft and correct me if I’m wrong here—again, those are all things that really are very much geared towards the concept and figuring out before you even start writing the script. Again, I find a lot of writers, they start writing a screenplay and they haven’t gone through those four. Blake Snyder frankly does a lot of this stuff too. You’re doing a lot of prep work before you start writing so let’s just run through them.
John: The book obviously is not a how to write book, but it’s the big questions and then there’s the training day section showing you how precise the note cards need to be. I thought that was an important balance. You’re right. These are kind of the broadest questions you can ask when you start and strangely a lot of people don’t ask them. In the training days with that you’re really micromanaging what that script’s going to be. So in terms of these, what was the first one?
Ashley: What’s the movie?
John: It’s amazing how many people don’t really have an answer to this question. Read the four that I use.
Ashley: What’s the movie? What’s the world? Who’s your main character AKA who’s the protagonist? What other movies are like your movie.
John: These are all elemental because it seems so self-evident and look, we all like to run before we can walk. It’s amazing to me even good writers how few really come up with answers to these questions. The ultimate irony is these are the first questions that come up in a professional environment because if they can’t answer these questions, they’re not going to buy your movie. If they don’t know how to market it, if they don’t know what it’s about, who is it about, you’re already way behind the eight ball so for me let’s just take it from what other movies are like your movie? This is like the simplest trick in the world, and it’s so important for two reasons: (1) You need to know the ancestors, the cinematic ancestors to what you’re working on to know what to use, what is so obvious if you’re stealing it and what to avoid. I find that this is a truism I heard early in the business and it’s never changed which is if you can’t name another movie like your movie, you’re fucking up because there are thirty-six spots, you’re not going to reinvent the wheel. It’s not about totally reinventing the wheel. It’s about finding a fresh spin on a version of what’s been done before. So if you can’t name those movies, you’d be stunned in my classes, you’d be shocked how many people, smart people, good writers really can’t find what that is. Now that means they either haven’t thought about it enough or there isn’t one. And if there isn’t one, you’ve got to start rethinking. In terms of the character, I don’t think it’s ever been more important than it is right now to know who the protagonist is at a really thorough level. I mean, the obvious reason is you need a star, you need a name. The name system now is far more pervasive than it ever was in the Hollywood system of the 40’s. If you don’t have a name, it’s going to be hard to get foreign sales; it’s going to be hard to finance that movie. So that ties in with the idea that movie stars want to play movie star parts. It seems so self-evident like we’re talking about it, but it’s like you know what? I’d say the number one thing I noticed with my students is a certain passivity with their protagonist. Now you don’t need to be carried away with this. You don’t want to have the Tom Cruse syndrome where the guy’s bulletproof. He can jump off buildings. That’s just bullshit. But you’d be shocked the passivity like they have other characters doing all the cool stuff or your lead is asking questions all the time instead of making statements, stuff that just inherently weakens the premise. Well, they have some character flaw that is just unredeemable. You’re like dude; nobody wants to play a pedophile. I don’t care if he’s the coolest pedophile ever Tom Walkington is not playing the pedophile. So it’s stuff like that, you needed to know who they are and what they’re about because movie stars want to play movie star parts and whoever you are, however smart you are, etc., you’re going to need an actor with some bankability to want to do that movie. Unknowns are for chumps. These days you’ve got to have a name.
Ashley: For sure. So let’s talk about what’s the world? Maybe you can just give us because that’s probably the least obvious of these four points.
John: What is the world and worlds are something that we kind of take for granted but really the corollary is essentially take us to a world that we haven’t seen before. Now that doesn’t mean a wholly unique world. You’ve seen police stations before so what’s different about your police station? I would use the shield and television is a great example. It looked different. It was called the barn. It was an old building that LAPD had restored so it gave it a very idiosyncratic look which was different but also the interplay between the Dick Mackey’s squad and the captain and the other detectives. It kind of reinvented the contemporary idea of the police station. So in terms of the world, what is the world, i.e. training days, it’s the world of the undercover narc and what’s different or fresh about that? While in Training Day which I covered in extreme detail, I think it was the first time we saw the world of the undercover narc from the inside of the cruiser, essentially crossing the River Styx inside his G-ride Monte Carlo and focusing it from the in out. That was awesome. We’ve seen a dude in Southern California, I mean, Adam-12. There’s been Dragnet; there have been a million other cop shows. So what’s going to make yours different? And so when it comes to world, you need an interesting world and you need to give it a fresh twist or spin that makes it feel like something new and unique we haven’t seen before. It’s interesting when you start looking at police that way, you start to notice okay, these are four questions I would urge anyone to ask watching any movie. Okay, what is the world? So it’s an emergency room in a trauma hospital. Okay so what’s different about that? Who is the protagonist? You should be able to answer these four questions successfully about any movie that you see.
As I mentioned earlier, the interview with John was nearly three hours long so I’m going to be releasing the next two parts over the next month or so, so keep an eye out for those interviews.
A quick plug for my email and fax blast service, I’m running a special right now where you can purchase one-third of the blast for a little more than 50 dollars. The total list is around six thousand contacts so this first one-third is about two thousand contacts so still a solid number of producers. I’ve done this just to lower the barrier to entry so that people can check out the blast service without having to invest a whole lot of money up front.
One thing that hasn’t changed, I still require that you join Sys Select which at the time of this recording is just $24.99 per month. The reason I require this as part of the process is that I’m going to personally look at your log line inquiry letter and help you make them as good as possible. This is really for everyone’s benefit. I want to make sure that the query letters and log lines are well-written before I send them out to my list. The people receiving these email queries can unsubscribe from these blasts so sending out a bunch of half-baked query letters would just burn the list up which hurts everyone who might ever want to use this service in the future. Also, by getting my feedback on your log line inquiry letter, it means your response rate is going to be much higher. I’ve been doing this for awhile, and I’ve had a lot of success from cold query letters so I think getting my feedback alone is valuable and probably worth the price of admission. You’re welcome to join Sys Select for just one month and then quit once your query letter is ready to go. I hope you don’t obviously, but that’s totally fine. Once your query letter is approved by me, you’re free to buy the other blasts later on even if you’re no longer a member of Sys Select. You don’t have to rejoin down the road to send the same query letter out. It really is just to get your letter and log line into shape.
Lots of people have joined Sys Select just to get my input on their log line or query letter so you’re more than welcome to join even if you don’t want to use my blast service.
Also, I just want to talk about a few of the other Sys Select benefits. By joining Sys Select you get access to the Sys Select forum. In the forum I’ve reviewed hundreds of query letters and log lines and you can see my notes on the revisions and the revisions that the writers made. So this is a great resource just to help you write your own log lines and query letter. You also get access to all the online Sys Select classes that have been done over the last couple of years. There are more than a dozen classes covering all sorts of screenwriting topics from writing your script to pitching your script to writing and producing short films. I teach a lot of them. There are some other people who have taught some of the other classes as well. It’s a great resource for any writer who wants to further their screenwriting education.
I also get this question how long will this sale be going on? I obviously don’t know. If it seems to be working well, I’ll probably keep it going for awhile, but if it just ends up being a ton more work, I’ll probably just go back and make people buy the entire blast in one big purchase. So the one-third blast plus the one month of Sys Select is just 78 dollars and that’s a blast to more than two thousand industry producers. It’s really never going to get any cheaper than that. So if you ever wanted to try out my blast service, this is a good time to do it. To check this out or to sign up for Sys Select, just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/blast to learn more about the blast service. If you want to sign up for Sys Select just go to sellingyourscreenplayselect.com. Again, the blast service can be found at sellingyourscreenplay.com/blast.
In the next episode of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast I’m going to be interviewing screenwriter and actor Tim Ogletree about his latest film The Walking Deceased which is a low-budget zombie comedy that he also helped produce so keep an eye out for that episode next week.
I just want to touch on a couple things from today’s segment. I don’t want to dwell on the negative but I think knowing what you’re up against is very, very important. A lot of the questions and a lot of what John talked about today was just those seven years of struggle, and as I mentioned to him in the interview—and I think a lot of people feel like things are smooth sailing once you get that agent and that life will be good once you get that first sale and that’s not really the case. Really it’s a long, long road and that’s really only the beginning of a very long road. So I hope this comes across as inspirational and positive because, as I said, I’m not trying to dwell on the negative, but I think it’s important people kind of know what they’re up against. I actually think that gives you a better chance of success. I mean, if you feel like you’re just going to come out to Hollywood, sell a script in six months, your career’s going to be up and running, it’s a little unrealistic and I think if you come with those expectations and then that doesn’t happen, you’re more likely to get really discouraged. So I think that there is some importance in kind of understanding what it’s really going to be like. Listen to what John just said. I mean, he was really persistent. I mean, he literally devoted his life to becoming a successful screenwriter. He stayed in a small apartment. He didn’t upscale his life. He really didn’t have any back-up plan. He just invested everything in it, and sometimes that’s what it takes. It can be just a brutal struggle for many, many years. I think, too, his struggle looked like it was about seven years but he actually arrived in LA with an agent. So I think in a lot of ways, he was ahead of people right as he drove into LA. He was actually ahead of the game. So it could take longer than seven years. It could take you a few years just to get to the point where you have an agent and get an option. So, as I said, I don’t like to dwell on the negative. I know a lot of people don’t necessarily want to hear that but I think it’s important. I think understanding what you’re up against can really help you succeed. It can help you with your expectations. Come out to LA and be ready for the long haul. Get yourself in a situation so that you can stay out here for more than a year or more than two years. You can stay out here for the rest of your life if that’s what it takes. I think LA is a great place. I mean, there are a lot of opportunities, not just in the entertainment industry but in all facets. So no matter what your job is you can probably find a similar job in LA and you can find a nice place to live, and you can find nice friends and set yourself up for sort of the long haul. I think you’ll be in much, much better shape. I think you’ll have a much better chance of success than saving a bunch of money, coming out for six months or a year, writing, going through your savings and then having to pack up and go home. I’ve been out here for many, many years and I’ve seen that a lot. There are a lot of people who come out here and there seems to be that two year to five-year window where people don’t make it. They kind of pack up and go home. Just listen to John’s story. It took him more than five years to really get a foothold in the industry. He’s a really smart guy and he worked really hard. He was really persistent so if you think you’re going to do better than that, it’s really going to require a lot of luck and you just really can’t count on that.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.