This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 069: Screenwriter John Jarrell Talks About His Career As A Working Screenwriter.
Welcome to Episode 69 of the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. This episode’s main segment I’m interviewing John Jarrell again. This is going to be the second segment of a three-part series that I did with him. We get deeper into his career and talk about some of the more frustrating moments as a screenwriter so stay tuned for that.
If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review on ITunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread the word about the podcast so they are greatly appreciated.
A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found in 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 69. 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 and managers and 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 of the readers have experience reading for studios, production companies, agencies, or contests. The readers have partnered with other gatekeepers. 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 one recommend from a reader, you get a free email and fax blast to my list of industry contacts. This is the same exact email and fax blast service that I use to promote my own scripts, and it’s the same service that 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 who you would like to read your screenplay. One question I’ve been getting a lot about our studio reader three-pack, right now it’s on sale for just $1.99 so that’s less than 67 dollars per script read. I dare anyone to find better value anywhere out there. There really is no way that I know of that you can get a seasoned reader to read a script for just 67 dollars. So I think this is a great value and it’s just a great service. The notes, as I said, you’ll be getting two to three pages of professional notes from these readers. People have been asking how long the sale on the three-pack is going to be going, and I really don’t have a set answer. It seems to be working; people seem to be responding to it. So I will keep the sale going for at least another month, maybe a little bit longer. We’ll just kind of have to see. So if you want to check out the screenwriting analysis service, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
A quick few words about what I’m working on, I mentioned in the last podcast episode that I met with a producer/director about my sci-fi thriller script. Well, I am going to option it. In fact, I did option that script to him last week. He has a couple of notes he wants me to address with the script. It seems like mostly it’s a slight tweak to the ending. It’s a pretty standard option deal. It’s like a lot of the options that I’ve been signing recently. It’s a free option for nine months. I’m going to be getting three percent of the budget again which is pretty normal especially for a free option. Sometimes when the producer is paying for the option, we might negotiate a little bit less than the three percent of the production budget like 2.5 percent or two percent of the budget. I think I have actually gotten those percentages on other scripts. Rush Lights was a script that I sold a few years ago. I think I only got two percent on that and Dish Dogs was one of the first scripts I ever sold. I think I got 2.5 percent on that. So that’s sort of a typical range. Generally when I give a free option, I try and get the top of the range which, as I said, is the three percent, and I did get that for this. And I think that’s perfectly fair because, as I said, I’m taking a little bit of risk on the back end and should get sort of more towards the high end of the percentage. There’s a minimum of three thousand dollars which means the budget would be about a hundred thousand dollars, and he wanted a ceiling of WGA minimum so I can’t make more than WGA minimum on this script sale. I honestly don’t even know what that number is. In my experience producers are lucky to raise the minimum budget so I don’t even worry too much about the ceilings but some producers like to put a ceiling in there which is fine because, as I said, I’ve never had a producer come anything close to hitting that ceiling. You can renew the option. He can renew the option in nine months, but he has to pay 500 dollars. This may not seem like a lot but for an independent producer, it’s going to make him really take stock in whether he can get the movie made or not. It sets a sort of deadline for him so it is something so he knows he’s got to wrap things up or else pay 6500 dollars which I found works nicely. One other important thing that I put into the contract was a clear statement that makes it clear that any rewrites I do are owned by me if he doesn’t execute the option. This is important; he’s not paying me for the rewrites or the option. So I should own them if he doesn’t make the movie. Some of these ideas may be his ideas; some of them may be a combination of his ideas and my ideas. You just never know, and that’s why it can get really muddy if the producer tries to hang onto these rewrites to a script that you ultimately get back. It really is kind of a muddied situation. There are a lot of ideas, as I said, that will just be floating around. Other producers in the future may come up with similar ideas so it becomes very difficult to determine who owns what in terms of what ideas as far as the script. So it’s important to me anyway is that I get this into the contract and make it absolutely clear that if he doesn’t option the script, any ideas that he has contributed basically just become my property and the property in the script.
Anyway, for the most part, he has pretty good notes and that’s a good sign. As I said, they are actually pretty minor so I don’t think it’s going to take a lot of time to knock them out. Hopefully I would say less than a week. Like all the options I’ve ever done there is always this burst of excitement when we start and then as things drag on, it usually goes downhill. So I’m optimistic right now. Hopefully I will remain like that. I want to be clear, too, I’m not a lawyer so please nothing I’m saying in this segment should be construed as legal advice. I’m just telling you what I did. I find it interesting to hear sort of how other people are navigating similar situations. So that’s what I’m hoping to do. I’m just hoping to basically tell people what I’m doing and how I’m navigating those things, but every situation is different. So you need to decide for yourself if you need to talk to a lawyer. You need to decide for yourself what’s right for you if a deal like this might not be a good situation for you. So that’s something only you can decide and as far as the legalities of a contract like this, you need to talk to a trained lawyer because some of these things can get kind of complicated. So again, just please don’t take any of this as legal advice. I’m just kind of telling you what I did.
I did finish a draft of my limited location mob action thriller screenplay so the timing on the rewrite for this sci-fi is pretty good. I can kind of take a week off of my current project, work on this for a week and then I should be hopefully having a little bit fresher eyes once I get back to my limited location mob action thriller. I’m actually putting up that script in my writers group the last third of it tomorrow and recording this on a Monday. So I’m putting this up tomorrow. On Tuesday, I’ll get some notes and then, as I said, I’ll finish up the sci-fi thriller rewrite and then I’ll get back on to this mob action thriller screenplay. I’ll have a nice set of notes from my writers group, and then I’m hoping to basically get done. We’re in the middle of April so I’m hoping to get done in May, let’s say another month, maybe a month and a half so maybe late May or early June I will start blasting this script out using my email and fax blast service sending it to my contacts.
Anyway, so now let’s get into the main segment. This is the second episode in a series with John Jarrell. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts and look for episode 67 to listen to the first episode I did with John. There is nothing really unique to hear before hearing today’s interview if you haven’t heard episode 67, it’s not going to be a big deal. If you like today’s episode, you want to hear more of John, definitely go back and look for episode 67. As I mentioned, too, this is part two in a three-part installment. So keep an eye out. In the next couple of weeks I will be releasing that next installment the final installment of the John Jarrell interview. Also, one other quick note before we get into the main segment, John recently wrote a book called Tough Love Screenwriting. I do refer to it often in the interview. I’ll link to it in the show notes. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s a real good just insider account of screenwriting. There are a lot of just ins and outs. It’s not necessarily a how-to book or anything like that, but it really just gives his—I mean, he’s been doing this professionally for over twenty years now—and it just gives a good insight. There are a lot of just war stories and interesting information. He did a bid section on WG Arbitration, very in-depth so if you’re curious about WGA Arbitration, it’s really a great resource for that. So there are a lot of topics in the interview that we cover from the book. You don’t need to read the book for the interview to make sense, but it will give you a little bit more context. So if you haven’t read his book, definitely check it out. You can get it on Amazon. As I said, I’ll link to it in the show notes. You can get it on Amazon; you can get a Kindle version. You can get a paper version. Anyway, here’s the interview with John Jarrell.
Ashley: Let’s get into your routine. You go into this a little bit in your book. You mentioned you need to have a routine to get going every day. Maybe you can just tell us a little bit about your routine as a working screenwriter.
John: Right. I mean, obviously I’m a little bit nutty. So as a type a rat, type a curmudgeonly kind of guy who admits he would take Pat Riley’s coaching over anyone else, I’m really black and white about my ritual. So for a year I’ve had an office down the street and it’s a process of the bottom line is I don’t want to write every day. Some writers claim I wake up and I dance a jig and I can’t wait to sit there and write for six hours. That’s not me. Writing’s hard work for me. Now I assume it’s work for everyone. I hope it’s work for everyone. I don’t think you have to be as maybe dour as I am about it, but it’s hard work; it’s serious business. So for me it’s essential that I have a ritual. So at that time in that particular office I would literally I know I’m going to work today. So I was very faithful. Get up, make breakfast. On the drive between my place and the office, that’s kind of like being in the locker room before the big game. So you’re getting your mind set on hey, I’m going to write scenes 20, 21 or 22 today, whatever your spreadsheet tells you. All right here’s today’s goal. By the time I would get to the office, now I’m psychologically set, the great thing about the office was it was literally cinderblock. There were four cinderblock walls, one window which I immediately cover. There was no phone, didn’t take a cell phone. There was nothing in there with the slightest bit of pleasure involved. It was a desk and a computer, and the great thing about that mind set was, there was only one reason to go to this office and that’s to work. If you start populating your office with toys and fun shit, you’ll play with toys and fun shit. I don’t think human beings—we’re the only animal that even does this where we would sit in front of a device and put down the words—watch Discovery Channel; the gorillas aren’t doing it. It’s a little unnatural, and so you’ve got to force yourself wherever you live. In Southern California [inaudible 0:12:23.7] go ass surfing and see the hottest chicks in the world than sitting here making up imaginary shit. I’m assuming other people feel the same. So for me it was you go in here, shut the door and you go to work. People ask a lot about how much time during the day. I’m a four to six-hour guy. That means I can give you four to six hours normally if I’m not on a super crazy deadline or whatever—four to six hours and I’m done. I’m at a point in my career where I understand the point of diminishing returns. It’s something we talked about in my class on Sunday, we all know when we’re doing good work, and then there’s a gray area where it doesn’t feel like the best work but it still feels like the usual work. And then there’s the vanishing point where we really don’t know how good or how bad your work is. A surefire sign that you’re in that grey zone, you get giddy. You start getting to think about stuff you’re writing, a scene is unworkable, so it’s really about you can spin your wheels for ten hours, but what I’ve found is if you give yourself an honest four to six every day that you know you’re doing high-energy work, you’re really focused on it. You’re not taking breaks. You’re not on the internet, set a goal for yourself four to six and you’re done. One trick—and again, we talked about this on Sunday—one trick is let’s say you get in the office at 11 o’clock because we’re writers. Hopefully we’re not up at the crack of dawn; we need to sleep in a little bit. So if I say to myself all right, I’m working until 5 o’clock today. What that immediately does is it sets parameters so I know that you’ve got six hours, and by looking at the clock you know you need to turn the tempo up or hey, I’m doing just fine. I mean, you stick by it. At 5 o’clock I’m out of here today. So what that does for me—every writer’s different—what it does for me is it helps me maintain the proper tempo. If I start to drift or I spend too much time on a certain passage, you go back to that. I spent three hours once writing one sentence—and I’m not bragging—you get lost in it. So that reminded me, I’ve only got two hours left; we’ll come back to this, whatever. But I’m really a stickler on disciplining that time that you’re going to be writing and doing it in an environment where you can really focus on writing. For me the big thing that’s in the book is if I’ve had one genius idea about writing my entire life, it’s the time card. I get emails from people all over the country who have read my book, and they all say I read this thing about the time card, and I didn’t think it was that great and then I did it. Holy shit, it really works. It’s such a simple idea that I can’t even tell you when I came up with it. I just set up a word document called time card. When I go in, I put the date; I put my start time. I put my finish time for the day. If I take an hour off for lunch, I’ll put a minus 1 in there, an hour off for lunch, but what it does is you keep a time card; the time card never lies. So the beauty is let’s say you went in and you worked from 11:00 to 3:00 and then you went surfing. All right, that’s four so you give yourself a four. The next day hey, man, two good hours but then I had a pitch meeting, I really didn’t make it back to the office so that’s a two. So as you start going through, you can look at the time card and you’ll know how come I don’t have more pages? I’ll tell you why, two, one, one, two, zero, that’s why. It’s amazing because I use it as either as a baseball bat to hit myself with and say dude, you’re fucking up. You’ve been in here six days and you have a total of six hours. That’s not going to get it done. I say that to myself with that same voice, by the way in case you’re wondering, that same authoritarian voice. On the other hand, you can look at it and say hey, look, I’m doing good; I’m averaging—and this is how far I take it. I take a calculator out and I’ll average out my daily rate and at the end of each time card, I actually run the numbers to tell myself how many hours a day did I average? How many pages did that yield? How many total hours spent? If this sounds totally academic, dude, it’s a mind-blowing exercise in maximizing your productivity because you can’t lie to yourself when you see it in black and white. I’ve used that for years now, and it always tells me hey, you’re doing okay; keep this pace, you’ll be fine. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Hey, you’re doing good work; stick with it or you’re fucking up; you need to turn up the heat. And I’m also the guy that says this in the book. I also like to put a little comment like the hours, the total hours. I always put a comment like what the day was like, the good days which are fewer and farther between or solid day or kicking ass, but the bad days—and there are more of those—it’s like you’re fucking up. Who are you kidding? You’re an impostor. I like to give myself that extra little needling. But I tell you, if you use the time card—I’ve seen this happen dozens of times with students, with other people I know—it’s the simplest idea in the world and it forces your feet to the fire, and it will show you what you need to do to get it done. I guarantee you it’s impossible not to use the time card and not have it help you. It sounds basic but it’s a genius idea, and really, let’s face it, as writers we have an ocean of time to manage especially if you do it professionally; that’s your job. That’s your only job. You can blow all 16 hours in the blink of an eye. You go on the Internet and you’re on there four hours, it starts as 15 minutes, it’s so important to manage our time, and this little device, the time card, gets that done for you.
Ashley: One thing I wanted to comment on, and now that I’ve listened to you, it makes a little more sense. But when someone’s days are routine, to me that kind of usually means writing at a specific time of day, but when I looked at your actual time sheet—and this was in a small sample—but your time sheet you actually did not seem to be writing at the same time every day. It was very scattered.
John: If you look at that in the book as a sample time card just to show you what I’m talking about, there would be a lot more 10:30-11:00 starts because that’s me, but a lot of times you have got a lot of stuff to do so you’ve got to start in the afternoon or whatever. For me it’s not necessarily the exact same time, it’s more about the space, doing it in the exact same space. In the book I mention the Joseph Campbell thing about sacred space, everyone’s different. I’ve written scripts in coffee shops; I wrote the book above a tea shop. I’ve also written in my office or at home. It’s about a sacred space for whatever project you’re working on. So for me the sameness of the space establishes the ritual psychologically. When I’m in this space I’m writing. So that’s the idea because it brings a certain seriousness to the process. Hey, if you write over here or if you write over there, every writer’s different. For me I want to know when I’m in this space I’m in serious work and serious business. I’m sure you could write twenty minutes here, go over to paint berry, write twenty minutes over there, that’s just not my take. I really think finding a space—I have a student who has a coffee shop, a little teeny coffee shop in Silver Lake—I don’t even know the name of it—but there’s like three seats in the joint. He goes in there, that’s his space. He gets his work done. It’s perfect; he’s out of the house so he doesn’t feel claustrophobic. I like a little ways away. I don’t know about you when you write, I like having people moving around, and if the noise isn’t good for me, I’ll just put in ear buds. But lock down is tough. So a library, did you study in the library? I never studied in the library because it was too quiet for me. I need a little noise. Whatever it is, find a space and say I’m here it’s work. This sounds so simple but really it’s hard. As a writer it’s hard to get your ass in the chair. Writing equals ass plus chair. It’s wholly true and it’s hard some days to get your ass in the chair.
Ashley: Just kind of a quick question, have you ever added up just from an idea concept to first draft, how many hours it takes to write scripts?
John: I usually do scripts in two; there’s the pre-production side, the planning of the script and the writing of the script, approximately 220 hours writing which is eight weeks four to six hours a day. Again, everyone’s different and it works differently. By the way working 300 hours doesn’t make you more of a man than 220 hours. It’s the right hours.
Ashley: How much is in just the planning stage?
John: I’d say to people four to eight weeks planning and that means at the end of that month to two months, your beat sheet, your note cards which then translate into a beat sheet. A lot of times you laugh, what’s a beat sheet. You lock your note cards and then you write what those are on the paper so you have a document right there with you instead of sorting through your note cards, four to eight weeks to get that beat sheet bulletproof. In other words, you look at it, all the holes, the logic issues. I think I’ve fixed that as well as I can, time to write. In terms of writing, eight weeks. Contractually you get anywhere between eight and twelve weeks on a studio feature. I’ve never taken more than eight weeks, and I’ve never been late in my life. But as you can tell, I take it pretty seriously. When I’m all on, that’s all I do. That’s not actually healthy either; you could probably spend a little more time in the sunshine. But as I say, a month to two months to plan it and then two months to write it.
Ashley: That’s very important for people to hear because so many people are like 90 percent writing and ten percent planning. That planning stage is just so important.
John: I don’t think you can have said anything more important than what you just said. You get out of it what you put into it, and if you don’t create produce that script and figure it all out beforehand, I’m not saying you eliminate any chance for fun stuff to happen, the happy accidents while you’re writing, I’m saying you better have that story locked because the way I always look at it is that’s kind of like a map through the jungle. This beat sheet, that’s your map and if you get off it, you wander off into the jungle, sometimes they never find you; sometimes the cannibals get you. It’s like stick to this beat sheet, you’ll be okay. What that means is you have to do all that. The beat sheet stuff has to be done to your specifications before you start and then you’ve got to stick to it. It doesn’t mean you won’t change this, change that, realize these scenes need to flip, but if you venture into a screenplay without a hundred percent step sheet, doom is inevitable. How many people do they know they have fifty or sixty pages of the script and they flat line? Anybody can write a cool first act, yeah, sure, right on. The problem is you need another thirty pages so plan it all the way out. It’s better to spend more time on the front end and wait to write than just start writing. We can all agree we want to start writing. We want to start doing all the poop shit we have in our heads. If you don’t plan it out, you’re dead.
Ashley: One of the things I found too is doing that planning stage is you have days where you feel like nothing was accomplished where when you’re actually writing pages, you have a nice page count to look at so it’s just a moralizing thing.
John: You hit the word, the moralizing. What’s so funny is you read a lot of stuff and writing the book is kind of a reaction to that too which is everyone makes it sound like you show up and you’re at the top of your metal and you’re just channeling, the manna from heaven, it’s like why do we need to moralize it? You can spend a whole day working on something and still not crack it and have nothing to show for it and you feel like shit. That’s part of the writing process too. It’s just part of the process that you have to understand, not every day is going to be a winner. You need those days. Those are the days that push you to the day that you do crack it. I remember there was a project I worked on and I came upon probably twenty pages. It was a studio job at Universal. I got about twenty pages in and suddenly, a logic issue popped up I hadn’t seen before. It’s like oh fuck! That doesn’t make any sense now. So I literally had to stop writing and I spent a week cracking it, how to fix it and by the grace of God at the end of the week, I had cracked it and it made the whole thing even better. But that’s an ugly feeling to realize that we have a big issue here. There was no choice but to hit the brakes, go back to the cards and get those things worked out. It was worth its weight in gold; it was worth the time. Do all the planning, all the note carding, and get that shit right. It’s so much easier then. This shit is hard. Anyone who thinks writing is easy; I probably don’t want to read whatever they have written. It’s hard. Think about it, you beat yourself up terribly. There’s no exit. It’s you and you, and you’re fighting the white elephant, the blank page to express what you’re trying to express and this is hard. There are rough days. There are days you feel like shit; there are days when you feel like an asshole, impostor. I see there is a preponderance of happiness when people talk about writing and a lot of articles, interviews, and stuff, and maybe they just know something I don’t know. But my experience is it’s blue-collar work. It’s really hard. So just accept hey, it’s going to be a rough go. Ultimately what you find is the things you think are terrible, if you give them time before you edit them, you realize it’s not that bad. Actually this will work. During that given day, you know. You look at the page. You’re like I should just destroy this and get on with my life. I’m not good enough. You come back a week later, it’s not that bad. I’m going to punch it up here, and that’s really one thing, objectivity is a premium. One thing we concentrate the last week in class, one trick that took me years to learn—maybe some people already know it—never edit the pages you wrote on the same day you wrote them. Finish your day; finish the scene as best you can for the day and just put the gun down and walk away. I shredded God knows how many pages. It’s just like I’m six hours in. I’m starting to burn out a little bit, just not happy with it, start tinkering with it, oops! It’s an hour and a half later and I’ve just disemboweled the scene before; it’s now shambles. Just leave it, come back. What I’ve found is if you write stuff that you can’t edit, leave it. If you come back a week or longer later, first of all, it will appear much better than you thought it was. Second of all, it’s much easier to punch up because you have fresh eyes on it and you can take the raw materials there and really take it to that next level. Trying to edit the day you write is just a fool’s errand. God knows how many years I did that until I realized just leave it, come back. You don’t have to finish it to perfection today. There is plenty of time; it’s a long haul.
Ashley: Okay, so this next section, I have some questions myself about this. You talk about voiceover, and I started writing a script and it has elements of film noir. So I’m just saying because you said that film noir—
John: It’s the golden age of voiceover.
Ashley: I put it on Sunset Boulevard last night on Netflix. I sit there watching it and it’s nothing but voiceover. You mentioned Taxi Driver, Usual Suspects.
John: There are clearly films where voiceover works spectacularly without a doubt. Unfortunately you are not writing one of those films.
Ashley: I want to just get–because you spend a lot of time—exactly, voiceover sucks, when not to use it, but maybe you could talk a little bit about when it might be a good idea to use it. One of the things that I keep hearing—I’m in a writers group and almost—I mean I presented this script. It had the voiceover, it got lambasted. I knew it was because every time someone puts voiceover up in the writers group, it gets lambasted. One thought that has occurred to me, though, is that I feel like in some ways people are just regurgitating what they’ve heard from you and other screenwriting professionals don’t use voiceover.
John: I feel as though voiceover does have a bad rap.
Ashley: And it’s like basically what I’m doing is it’s going to like you start out with kind of a voiceover at the beginning and voiceover at the end. It’s kind of like the book ends of the script. So I’m just trying to get a feel for when would be an appropriate time to use voiceover? Maybe there are some examples where you think it would work. I pulled out Christmas Story—I mentioned I have two young kids—for some reason my two-year-old daughter has gotten into Christmas Story—I’ve seen it literally a hundred times in the last two months. Again, there is nothing but voiceover. One of the things that always comes up in the writers group is, oh, we’re not really learning anything new through the voiceover. The big thing you talk about is that voiceover is a crutch and stuff. But it’s like with Christmas story, Good Fellas is another one. Good Fellas does something and I’d be curious if you would take on this. Good Fellas does something really strange if you watch it. About halfway through the movie just for about five minutes, the voiceover switches to the what and you actually get—
Ashley: Frankly it’s a little weird.
John: It is a little weird, but since it’s a masterpiece—
Ashley: Exactly so—
John: Here’s what I’m saying generally, I mean, obviously there are many instances where voiceover works like a charm and may even be essential. In Taxi Driver, it’s essential, but we’re taking kind of the highest end efforts here. The reality I find is that as an aspiring writer, a younger writer, people are using voiceover as a crutch to kind of caulk the story holes. The reality is essentially Blade Runner, the studio forced the voiceover on the original Blade Runner; it took twenty years or whatever. Finally they took it off. It’s a much better movie. I don’t think we can even argue that. But usually use voiceover to get people over holes in the story or stuff that’s not a hundred percent plausible and you’re trying to sell it even better. I think one case voiceover is probably necessary is source material like a book, etc. that kind of demands it. So Good Fellas is a good example because it was a real life story when they did it. It was good to use Henry’s voice and it really accentuated the story in ways that couldn’t have done otherwise. The real question is if you strip voiceover off of something, does it still tell the story? That’s really the litmus test. If I take this away, do I still get the same story and that tells you essentially are you using voiceover to do the heavy lifting of the story or does this color it or accentuate it in a way that’s unique in addition to the content. In the book I talk briefly about film noir which is considered the golden age of voiceover. What was so great about that was for the first time they were exploring the insides of the characters, these post World War II disillusioned vets who had seen horrifying stuff, living in strange times, etc. No one had gotten into that new darkness, the noir of all these characters had inside and so voiceover was one way to do that. If you watch them, generally those voiceovers are emotional. If you watch Rod Neal which I am a huge fan of, it’s a voiceover of an obsessed woman who has sprung a convict from prison and trying to help him get away, and she’s so obsessed with him she would even help him with a prison break. But as the story starts to go sideways, her sexual jealousy comes out. That’s fundamentally different than most 90-plus percent of today’s voiceover which is just telling the story or telling you what you’re already seeing on the screen. So the reason I bring it up is—
Ashley: I want to be clear, Good Fellas, I watched that in the last month because I was writing this movie. I’m watching it and there is literally a scene in the beginning where he says something about “You know, yeah, I was hanging out with the guys across the street in the coffee shop.” There’s voiceover and the next scene you see him hanging out with the guy across the street in the coffee shop. That does exactly what you just said.
John: In the beginning as you follow the movie, you’ll notice it becomes much more surgical. Here’s what I think. I’ve never done this so this is all new to me. I think you could strip the voiceover off Good Fellas and it would still totally work. I think where it’s really important is getting more in the mechanics of the mob and how Paul Servino gets the message from him who gets the message from him, it’s hard to get that stuff across. That’s an example of the voiceover doing the heavy lifting. It’s not as artful as Good Fellas. It ends up taking over the movie. So there are always the exceptions that you’re going to say yes, you need voiceover. I would argue that those are few and far between and that for writers using voiceover, they’re probably not telling the story. Again, show me, don’t tell me. You should be able to tell pretty much any story without it. Again, there are always exceptions but for younger writers especially you find like you know, I’m having trouble telling this story in traditional screenwriting. Why don’t I just tell them? That’s not good for young writers. It’s not good for a lot of reasons. One of them is it stunts your screenwriting. If you’re going to use a crutch, it’s like cool, what do they call that thing, the lady’s helper? Use the lady’s helper. So don’t use it unless it’s absolutely essential. You can always find a brilliant example where it works. Bird Man is so surgical with its voiceover. But you can’t assume that you’re at the Bird Man, Good Fellas, Taxi Driver level. You’ve got to assume that you’re writing isn’t quite there yet. So my advice is write the story without voiceover any chance you get. If you need it fine because of the source material or whatever you need to add some, fine. But don’t use it as a crutch. Again, like I said, executives kind of blow it through the voiceover. It’s a cheat; they know that. Is the movie here on the page without the voiceover? That’s the standard question they should probably ask themselves.
Ashley: I just want to talk briefly about—you mentioned this before—you go very deeply into training day and I think that’s an excellent section. I highly recommend people check that out in the book. I’m someone who learns by just example. Like theoretical stuff is not so valuable to me but actually seeing examples and seeing what a professional screenwriter thinks in those pages was very valuable. And obviously you really like the script. Are there some other scripts that you recommend that obviously you really like Training Day but maybe just mention some modern script or two or three modern scripts that you would say make sure you read these scripts because they’re really excellent? The people at home can try and break them down.
John: Just take the first act of Training Day and then discussing what each scene accomplishes; that’s all it is. The reason I chose Training Day is because it’s so simple on screen but so deep in terms of what it’s accomplishing that it makes an excellent example and really shows you. I think some people feel like when you put your first note card down and it says car crash, that’s great, but eventually you’re probably going to need more detail on that. So when it says husband and wife argue, we’re going to need to know more. That’s a great starting point but we need to mine those subtexts. And so that’s what that exercise in Training Day shows us, stuff you don’t even know is actually even mechanically important in accomplishing stuff is actually mechanically important and accomplishes stuff. So it is a great one. I’m a huge Fight Club fan. I haven’t broken all these down. I think I’m going to start doing Prisoners.
Ashley: I think I did read the script. It was about a little girl who gets kidnapped.
John: There were two little girls who get kidnapped. It’s a fantastic script. It was released a little earlier in the year. I think I’m going to break that one down because that one has some extremely subtle storytelling that nonetheless is mechanically very effective. At the end of the day every good movie you should be able to do what I did with Training Day which is break down the first act and then see everything—there are no accidents. Every line counts. Sometimes you’re writing the lines just to fill the scene, it’s like great screenplays don’t have accidents. They don’t have throw-away this or throw-away that. Everything is measured for size. Training Day is great because there is like one line there. You look at it later and realize how big an impact it has. Part of this is if you’re going to write a cop movie, break down some of the great cop movies. Everyone who is an aspiring writer may have a movie that’s a good paradigm for them to work on or whatever. Obviously you’re not going to lift from a B but find that movie that’s really relevant to your project and do exactly what we did with Training Day which is break it down scene by scene and ask yourself okay, what do they accomplish here? What’s the point of this scene? Why does the character say that? Is this a random description or does that description really set the tone or tell me something I need to know about what’s going on. It’s amazing how deep even the apparently simplest films go. I hope that when people read the Training Day thing that they use that same device on movies they’re working on. Legally Blonde is somehow germane to your spec, same level of detail. It’s not drama specific. It’s all good solid movies. It’s helping for me. I’ve written 29 or 30 features. I remember watching Bird Man the first time it was playing. I wish I was man enough to followed the Bird Man. American Beauty is another classic to break down. So much is going on there but because it’s a suburban white setting, it seems kind of easily paced and then you break it down like Training Day beat by beat they have heavy shit going on in that movie. American Beauty is another one you want to read and check out. But you can see how excited I get just thinking about these guys are building better mousetraps. I’m going to do one of those.
Ashley: So again, I always like to ask screenwriters about this and kind of get their take. You mentioned Blake Snyder several times in the book. I find most successful screenwriters really scoff at him and sort of that rigid formulaic approach. What’s your take on Blake Snyder? You can just tell us what you think.
John: Here’s my take on Blake Snyder. Blake and I had the same agent for awhile. It’s funny because when the book came out I got a few hate emails from people saying one of the mail outs said just saving the cat isn’t enough to build a professional screenwriting career, and I didn’t think twice about it because it seemed self-evident to me that it takes more than just understanding quality to build a career. It’s the stuff my book talks about which is meetings and all this kind of stuff. So I got a couple emails from people that were very passionate saying you’re disrespecting Blake and this and that which was fascinating to me having known Blake very briefly and having the same agent to have a guy in Timbuktu telling me who actually knew Blake that I’m disrespecting him. I said you know what, check out the book and tell me where I’m disrespecting him? It’s not disrespect. I think what happened is Blake was a high-concept guy; his scripts were shamelessly high-concept and very successful in the late 80’s, early 90’s. God bless him. I think what it is, is his book really touched people emotionally. It’s kind of one of those paramount books that made it accessible to people who wanted to know more about it; I’ve always wanted to know more about it but just didn’t know where to start. I think in tribute to the book, it makes it very easy for the layman, for the civilian to start to understand what screenwriting is. I think that’s awesome. Who can argue that? I think people took that book to heart in a way that screenwriting books don’t generally affect people because they’re generally a little more literary or however you want to put it. How do you bash Saving the Cat? If it helps anybody get a start, that’s worth its weight in gold. I think the blow-back is it is formulaic—remember, Blake sold high-concept comedies. He wasn’t writing American Beauty; he was writing stuff that my mom would shoot. So I think the real thing is for some writers, they stop at it given what Blake actually sold and given Blake’s enjoyment of opening this world up to aspiring writers, so I think there’s just a little hater vibe to people that consider themselves experienced writers or better writers, kind of like don’t let the riffraff in. We’re the serious guys. I don’t want the housewives reading about it, but how do you argue with a book that opened up the world to a lot of people who may not ever have investigated it. My only point is my book is a very different book. If you think this is going to be along the same lines as you can attest, you’re going to get a whole different message out of it. But how do you argue anything? It’s like I say in there, I’m not a huge fan of script consultants largely because I feel like they haven’t proven themselves. I’m an old school guy. I am the guy that you won a championship, then you got the big contract. Now you pay for potential in pro sports. You give the 19-year-old kid a hundred million dollars hoping he’ll be Cobi or a Magic Johnson at some point. For me I think that anything that gets you fired up, anything that points you in the right direction, anything that has any amount of content that keeps you moving forward is great. Script consultants tend largely to not have the credentials in my humble opinion mean that they’re any better at it than anyone else per se. It’s interesting because I didn’t really pay much attention to the cottage industry around screenwriting until I started writing my book and then I went oh, there’s about a million books on screenwriting. But then I started to look a little deeper. The number of books written by guys who have produced credits is so small, I mean infinitesimal, you know like he won the Texas Alternative Film Festival in 1995. I don’t think that makes him an answer on writing Hollywood screenplays. Because it’s unrelated, because you don’t have to get a permit from the city of Santa Monica to do this. I don’t know if you know this but massage therapists now have to be licensed. Really it’s to make more money for Santa Monica. At least now some of them passed the most basic tests so they know what they’re doing. We don’t have that in screenwriting so basically any joker anywhere can write a book about screenwriting. Does that make them qualified to do so? I really don’t think so. Hopefully when you read the book you saw it. There is certain experience from people who have done it, lived it and died by it, have made their livelihoods at it that can’t be replicated theoretically or by rehashing the note cards. So for me I would really rather have the book than some of these bios I see where guys like what are your qualifications? I don’t get it. How do you know? Some of these prices are crazy. It seems like you get three to five pages of notes for 600 dollars. How does that work? Does that mean you’re holding back the good notes unless I purchase the 600-dollar version or are you only half thinking it through for 150? It’s like it’s so arbitrary. How do you price notes that way? It’s absurd, and do these notes help? My experience with a lot of my students is a lot of them tell me, there are just certain places that go to get notes done or story consultants read them and they’re ultimately just not very useful. They’re kind of knee-jerk studio notes, but they’re not prescriptive. So getting notes alone I don’t think is going to help you with a problem. You need not only someone to diagnose it but then prescriptive. Okay, great, it doesn’t work. How do I fix it? Paying a guy 600 bucks to tell you it doesn’t work doesn’t help you, and again, how qualified are they? What have they done? There are some people who might have worked at CBS. They did notes for big producers for years or whatever, God bless. I’m always wary of people who haven’t done it themselves. As I said in the book, the quote that sticks with me is there is no expert like someone who’s never done it. This shit is expensive. You know, 600 dollars is a lot of money. Don’t give that money away to someone who can’t really help you. Be more selective. You’re never going to eliminate the cottage industry around screenwriting any more than you would with acting. There’s always going to be a guy giving a bogus acting class or shooting shitty head shots. I’m just trying to tell people be wise about what you spend your money on. Don’t assume people are going to be able to help you unless they can prove they can help you. I just get a little bit chafed when I see some of these people saying what the fuck do you know? Really, seriously, what do you know and there’s no answer for that. There is “co-writer for Raging Bull” Citizen Kane, but it’s not that, it’s like he teaches at Texas U and Berkeley. Really? Is that it? Never been in the deep water? It’s like the soldier who’s been in combat vs. the guy working in the stockroom back in the States? Who do you want to know from? Personally I want to deal with battle shit. I want to hear what happens on the ground.
Ashley: Blake Snyder—and I’d just be curious to dig in a little bit—how much do you use his beats or at that point the catalyst that, you know—
John: Ultimately Blake’s book is kind of a more user-friendly version of the books like Sitfield Screenplay which proceeded it. It’s all kind of the same mechanics. I don’t personally use it. Sitfield’s Screenplay was the only screenplay book I ever read and Thank God I found it like millions of other people. I think there are certain terms he uses that are equal to other terms that are easily understood. I’m not a Save the Cat guy, but I go out of my way not to slam Save the Cat because he did find a great way to—there’s a lexicon he uses that is really helpful especially for people who don’t have time in the business. You’ve got to remember, you moved out here; I moved out here. Not everybody can move out here or wants to move out here. So it’s a great shorthand. Any book like that that gets you turned on to what the mechanics are, great! I’m a huge Sitfield fan because it’s so straightforward. Also remember, it was originally written back in 1979. So it kind of has that old Hollywood vibe to it, the way he talks and stuff. I love it.
Ashley: Okay, so let’s—we’re going to switch gears a little bit and kind of talk about some of the things that you talked about in your book just in terms of your career, the first thing I want to talk about—and I think this was such importance for people here who are trying to break in. You retell this story of a chubby French director.
John: It’s not French, it’s European director. He keeps telling monkey hairs. Maybe you could correct me. Just tell us the story and then we’ll dig in to sort of the bigger meaning of that story because the sad reality is that’s not a unique story; that’s the problem with that story. It’s not something like whoa, look what happened to John. That’s the repeated process that screenwriters face if they want to have a real career.
John: And sometimes the higher your ascent, the bigger the people you’re working with almost ensure a cartoonish flavor because of who they are. I mean the chapters follow all of these monkey hairs, and essentially everything is true. But it’s a very famous European director—I’m cutting to the chase here—it comes in and starts pulling shit out of his ass and pitches something that if you were in a coffee shop with your friends and they pitched it, you would laugh out of the room. Because this person was an internationally-renowned director people did not do that. I was on the verge of doing that. But really it comes down to at that point in my life I had just worked with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Joel Silver so when I got hired to save that movie, I was like let’s rock and roll. I had just come off two awesome world-class producers so I knew I was going to work with this director who made one from a particular—I was a huge fan of—I was super pumped. I am thinking this is it, the trilogy, the triumvirate, the great producer, the great director and it just turned the exact opposite. The guy was a buffoon. What’s funny about it is sometimes someone’s not having their best day or you’re not having your best day so you don’t see them accurately. Subsequently over the years I’ve seen this person be a buffoon in several other contexts. So it turns out they actually are a buffoon. Really what this story is about is sitting in a room and hearing shit that is just absurd and learning to surf that as a writer in terms of not only your reactions in the room but subsequently what you do with the notes that you get. It’s fun to read the story but it was more about I made a mistake, and I was a young writer. I was finally in the big leagues, really starting to feel it and I beat myself to death trying to make that project work not understanding that a lot of it’s just silliness and fiction and notes that people won’t remember. That’s one thing that I found to my career. Like you’ll have someone advance a note and the moment is arrived where you hear the note, you panic. You’re like oh fuck that will fuck up the whole script. Hopefully you don’t say that, but it’s like what I’ve found is a lot of times—I mean, it’s in the book—my response is always you give me a note I hate. Let’s change the lead as a man into a woman. I already hate that idea. So what I usually do is like this: I go well, that’s a big note. Let me think about that and I’ll get back to you. I’ll think about it and let’s talk about it again. And then nine out of ten times before you realize it, the next story meeting, they don’t remember giving you that. It’s not that important in the note. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider it in case they do call you on it. But what I’ve found is a lot of times, think how easy it is for the executives. They just have to fill the day. They can just throw notes out. You’re the one who actually has to make sense of it. A lot of times they’re just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks were they really good producers? Believe me they knew their shit. It’s not just reacting to bad notes, it’s acknowledging that the note has been put out there which is just being respectful and then dealing with the note appropriately. The bad notes tend to go away on their own. Do your homework. Figure out if someone calls you on it again, what’s the answer shy of just going that’s terrible which I did for years. That’s the worst goddamn note I ever heard. The thing to remember is these people ultimately if they could do what you do, they’d be doing it. Despite all the bullshit they need you. So they’re trying to help. Some are better helpers then others; some are just lousy helpers, but really think through what’s being said if you can make it work, if you should make it work, and then as a writer treat yourself a little better than I did at the time. I went down a rat hole. I physically and psychologically exhausted myself, psychologically battered my girlfriend. I was just terrible. I took it so seriously only to realize later you went too far. Nobody else has taken it that seriously. The crazy euro director wasn’t taking it that seriously; none of the execs are taking it that seriously. You’ve got to keep some bounds as to what is going on there. I think when people read the story, they’ll get a better sense of that. Really the note is you’re going to see some crazy shit, and it makes great stories later. Just keep in mind you always hear that thing about Hinduism like Hindus see life as a game. There’s like the puppet master, it’s all a big game. Hollywood’s a business for using the Hindu approach to those meetings really helps. This is all just a game. That doesn’t mean don’t take it seriously and you don’t write your ass off. It means don’t take this shit personally, just a cartoon. It can be a very lucrative cartoon.
Ashley: That’s sort of like some great tactical advice how to navigate those sorts of meetings. My dad used to tell this story where during the Depression a poor guy goes up to a rich guy, knocks on the door and says hey, can you give me a job? The rich guy says sure. Go in the back yard and dig a hole. He comes back the next day and says hey, man, do you have another job? The rich guy says sure, go in the back yard and fill the hole in. He fills the hole, comes back the next day and says hey, man, you got a job for me? Sure, go dig another one. And suddenly he says no. It’s like there is a certain moment where people want to feel like they’re actually doing something that does have some meaning and some value. To me that’s what the monkey hair story boiled down to. At some point you must have realized that this thing was never going to see the light of day. How do you get up for those meetings and how do you continue to write—
John: Right. It’s very tricky.
Ashley: You know it’s never going to go anywhere and what can you do to get over those?
John: It’s an excellent point. My take is simply that it’s got to become a matter of pride for yourself, no one else. In other words, don’t you become the shithead because everyone else is being a shithead. Take personal pride in trying to make, no matter how difficult the assignment or how silly some of the material seems, whatever, do it out of personal pride. Do it to not only sharpen your own skills—dude, it’s hard to spend shit into gold. That’s a great skill set to have, but understand it really doesn’t matter if these other people are taking it seriously or not. I’ve been paid good money and I’m going to take it seriously. I want to do the very best I can. So even if it’s a dog shit project, when someone reads your draft of it, they don’t say oh, this fucking guy phoned it in; this is dog shit. They can see that you worked hard to do the best you can. We don’t always get Fight Club to work on unfortunately. So if you’re going to work on a lot of stuff, if you’re lucky you’ll work on a lot of films that may not necessarily be your favorite films. The question is can you still bring something cool to it that satisfies you as a writer and in a way kind of like up the bar a little bit despite everyone’s expectations. There’s nothing better than low expectations and as a writer over-delivering. A lot of times producers or execs just feel like this project’s just kind of DOA. All right, we’ll give it another writer and then you surprise them and it’s fucking awesome because you realize they didn’t expect anything out of me other than taking another turn on the wheel. They say hey, you know, there’s kind of a cool movie here. I mean, it seems like a small victory, but a lot of times small victories are all we have. The important thing is that you haven’t hurt yourself as a writer by phoning it in. You went for it. They pay you good money when you’re hired and I think the least you can do is give it a hundred percent. Plus, if you don’t you’re going to be bored as hell. If you’re not trying to make it better, oh what agony. It’s already tough. You make this thing better. Romeo Must Die is a great example of if I just pitch that project to you, kind of stock. You know what we did was make it better than what you would expect and also Leo was a huge part of that and it was Jet’s first lead in an American movie, but when I went into it, it was like I love those movies. This is going to be better than what you would think if you read the log line. It was better and subsequently it was a hit. Aim to make it better. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just make it better. Ten percent better in a lot of movies is huge. I think it’s so easy just when everyone else is being a sad sack or phoning it in for you just to get a line back. I just think you want to go for it at all times. Just go for it. Do your best writing whenever possible.
Ashley: At one point—and it’s almost an offhand comment in the book—I think it’s the section you were talking about when you first got to LA and [inaudible 0:59:32.2] AFM folks and you were just kind of, as I said, they’d often give a comment like hey, I’m going to be a writer or director by the time I’m 25. But it got me thinking, what is sort of your plan for the future? Do you want to be a director? Have you decided you don’t want to be a director? Have you given up on that? Do you want to direct something? You’ve achieved some significant success in the business. So what’s next? What sort of motivates you?
John: There was a juncture around 2000 where a script I had written we got [inaudible 1:05.2] interested, I actually met with Chris Waulkin. One of the cool things about working with him briefly was my answering machine message of Chris Waulkin calling me which everyone thinks is someone being Chris Waulkin doing a Chris Waulkin impression, really cool guy. He was awesome. It was a small budget and you’re willing to do it for very little money. This is the juncture where I can direct something I have written; it’s an action piece. It will all be good, and ultimately what happened is the [inaudible 1:48.4] I was that close to directing and at that point it’s really hard to get off your need to direct. You have to kind of make your own opportunity with the material you bring to it. I think at that point I just felt like it would have been awesome to direct my own movie, but that was also right as I was hitting the absolute peak of my writing career and so in not stopping to direct that movie, I ended up doing some really great projects. At that point I never set out to be a writer. I was trained as a cinematographer. Like so many other things, you start out to do this; you end up doing that. At that point I was very comfortable with it. This is what I’m doing, and I really like it. It would have been great to make that movie, but at this point I don’t have that yearning to run out and become a director. I’m very good with what I’m doing. If you have an opportunity to direct something you’ve written, you want to jump all over that. It’s got to be a good fit for your life. For me by the time it came around to that also, I really focus on the writing.
Ashley: And so what are your goals as a screenwriter? Do you want to win Oscars and what kind of is up there in the future for you?
John: It’s really interesting. I think (1) you want to keep making a living at it which is increasingly hard in this business. I think more as you enter your 40’s, I think there’s suddenly a question about what does it mean? We can sit down and write somewhat of a straightforward stock top of your list without a problem. But at the end of the day I think you want to work on something that feels like it’s really, really good. I don’t mean necessarily even winning an Oscar, I mean something that you feel really good about. So this is the writer’s dilemma. You want to keep making money but that window for stuff they’ll buy or specs that get sold gets smaller. So that’s where I am. After writing this book which is really a breath of fresh air is like trying to find a vehicle that’s commercial enough that goes a little deeper in terms of what it’s trying to say and that makes it harder. We’re talking theoretically, but I guess it’s super simple to sit down and say all right, let’s write a bank heist movie. Now we all know there are some artful bank heist movies, but that kind of takes the pressure off to do something of deeper meaning. So I think it’s aspirins and applesauce. You can get the applesauce and get the last one in there, hey baby, open up. That’s the writer’s goal. So if you’re coming at it from meaning first, it’s probably not going to go well for you. Film is entertainment; it’s always been entertainment. It’s got to be entertaining. Bird man is super entertaining. It manages to say some heavy stuff too. American Beauty, same thing. I think actually the goal is if I could write something anywhere close to American Beauty, I would be very happy. Just go ahead and put a pen up right then. So I think as a writer with 20-plus years of experience, now I’m really trying to focus on creating stuff that is obviously entertaining but stuff that the level of difficulty and artistry required is much higher. Otherwise you’re just kind of retraining the same—but you want to try to push yourself because that seems to me about screenwriting is ultimately no one pushes you to be a better writer. You made your jobs. They didn’t push you to get a job or to sell something, but it’s really incumbent on the writer to decide I’m not comfortable just with what I’ve accomplished. I want to try to get better too. That’s the number one thing I see with some writers. With a certain amount of success they tend to stunt their own growth. They tend to feel like they know all the answers; they’ve been there, they’ve done that. In any kind of writing I don’t think that’s accurate. I think there’s always room to grow and improve. The moment you think you’ve got it figured out, you’re probably in trouble, and I think you always want to push yourself. Like I said it’s always been entertainment. In my class this term I have a guy working on a movie. He came in and pitched it. It’s literally a movie about abortion and abortion rights, and it starts with the bombing of an abortion clinic. The whole class read the treatment and thought it was a comedy, very smart older guy and I said to him. I said you know that no one will touch this. This is one of those issues nobody wants to make your abortion movie. He said that’s fine because I want to write this movie knowing its commercial limitations, but this will get his first legitimate screenplay and get him going. I like hey man, it’s your dime. Do what you got to do. It’s funny, though, because you trained yourself instinctually there are certain things, the moment you hear abortion movie, there are certain things that weren’t meant to be commercial Hollywood movies. So find something you love and push yourself for something interesting. That’s the number one thing I find these days—I don’t know how you feel—if I’m watching something, Netflix, streaming or a new movie or something, I continually ask myself, am I interested? Is this interesting to me which is kind of a weird question. It could be entertaining and not even be interesting. But something like True Detective—I don’t know how you felt about it—I mean, I was just up until they crashed the ending, a good buddy who hadn’t seen it, I said listen, the first episodes are some of the best television you’ll ever see; the second is okay, eight I’m not a fan. If I’d never seen the episode, the guy watched the first seven and refused to watch episode eight. The first six episodes that are so good that you’re interested. I was like what is this? That should be the goal is the stuff that really rouses you. We all like certain junk food, but wow! True Detective and Homeland and all these shows have really opened up the idea this shit can be really interesting. So I think that’s what you strive for.
Ashley: And this sort of segues into the next question. What does a screenwriting career—you’ve been at it twenty years—what does a screenwriting career look like at this stage? Romeo Must Die now was 15 years ago. So what exactly does your career look like? How many meetings a month do you get? How many rewrites?
John: Coupled with aging out a little bit and the crash in LA which has really changed the model, I mean there was a model before the crash and the model after and the model before and a lot more development work and getting a lot more money. So there are less meetings; there are less opportunities. There is more of a focus on creating your own opportunity kind of ironically like the way you got started back in the day which is self-generating material. You’ll hear this from agents; you’ll hear this from managers. A writer who has the ability to self-generate is in a great place because people always need new fresh material. I remember early when I was in Endeavor—Tom Strickler was the head of Endeavor—and he had a quote which is “Don’t become a slave to the grid.” And what that meant was don’t become a slave to the open writing assignment grid. You don’t have to come up with the original idea. But what writer doesn’t want half the heavy lifting time and money. That’s why they’re also so hard to get. What’s interesting about it is if you get into working—God knows if you’re fortunate enough to be able to work, great, do it. But there is still no substitute for self-generated material because you’ll probably be the most passionate about it and they are always looking for something new and fresh. I hear a lot of copouts early in my career. You have heard this one. Hollywood doesn’t buy good scripts but it’s just absurd. Believe me they can’t buy enough good scripts. In fact, there are not that many great scripts. That’s what young writers fail to entertain. It’s not some conspiracy, it’s just the bar is high. So when they see a great script, they jump all over that thing. The question is are you delivering them? No writer wants to ask themselves am I delivering a great quality script? That’s a hard question and a lot of writers are not. Hollywood will buy as many great scripts as people can manage to write. It may take a week, a year, whatever, but the route is there are so few great scripts. You read scripts; I read scripts. How many times you go this is a great script. It’s not a usual occurrence. It’s no different for readers.
Ashley: I remember writing scripts. I was constantly hearing stuff from every other writer.
John: I imagine you’re [inaudible 1:09:55.5] read fifteen to twenty scripts a week. What’s that like? Is there any agony? You have the bad script headache where you’re like boosting younger writers’ bad ideas in your head? I can’t imagine you doing it, I mean, fifteen bad scripts a week? The great news is they are always buying great scripts; the bad news is most people who think they’re delivering great scripts are not delivering great scripts.
Ashley: So the next logical question is are you writing spec scripts because it seems like that’s what the market wants.
John: It’s been a little while. I haven’t because I wrote a book, then after that, I reached the point where I wanted to write this book I’m writing because I just heard so much bullshit over twenty years especially about arbitration. I said fuck it, I’m going to take a year off and write this. In the middle of that I got called in to save the man with the iron fist II which is now available on VOD and Blue Ray DVD on April 14. Yesterday for the first time I saw [inaudible 1:11:07.9] and I’m very happy to report they used bright pink on the ladder. I was very very excited about that as you can imagine. I started working on the writing book and then just stopped, saved the movie. I had thirty days to save it, saved it. They agreed with it, went out to shoot it. I went right back to work on the book. So now I’m at the point where I need to start a new script, exactly like every other writer out there. Again, there are certain guys that will work for the rest of their careers, they have a pedigree. Unless you are at that level, the two percentile, you’re going to need to keep writing. Nobody gets an exemption from that that I’m aware of.
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Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.