Ashley: Welcome to Episode #224 of the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger of the www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing screenwriter Rob Tobin whose film Get Married or Die was recently produced. Rob gives a great inspiring interview. He’s a guy that toiled on the edges of screenwriting for 25 years and has finally broken through, he’s a guy who worked a day job for many years all while trying to write as well. So we talk about that whole experience, his experience working a day job, writing on the side, how he was just persistent and eventually he did break in and how he is earning his fulltime living as a screenwriter. Again just a great inspirational story, so stay tuned for that interview.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing screenwriter Rob Tobin. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Rob to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show and talking with me today.
Rob: My pleasure, thank you for having me.
Ashley: Perfect, to start out maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business and screenwriting?
Rob: Well, I’m actually Canadian, I was born in Nova Scotia which is just about in New England but I was raised about 400 miles north of Toronto, actually surprised only just about 40 or 60 miles away from James Cameron where he was born and raised. I came down to the States I guess in about 1989 and then came over to [inaudible 00:02:40] and then I came to finish my Master’s Degree in professional writing at USC in ’90 and that’s when I actually started doing screenwriting.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. What were some of the first steps you took to actually turn it into a career? Did you write some specs, did you send them out, did you get an option? Maybe talk about some of the early days of your career and how you got a foothold.
Rob: Right, I have to tell you, the first thing, probably the most remarkable thing about my screenwriting career is that it took me 25 years to sell my first screenplay. Everybody always laughs at that and then they pat me on the back and congratulate me for an incredible inhuman perseverance. But it took me a long time because I just… I think I did things, maybe not the wrong way…I did the writing the right way, I persevered, I spent every second I could doing my writing. I wrote and rewrote and read all the right books and did all the things you’re supposed to but I got sidetracked by becoming a development exec in the film industry.
I thought that that would somehow get me well, first a living because it’s hard to make a living just screenwriting. Second I thought it would get me the kind of contacts that I would need for it but it turned out that the kind of contacts I got were really not interested in me so much as screenwriters with a better track record. So it just took me a long time but I persevered. After many years I finally got to the point where my scripts were starting to finish high and even win in some major competitions and getting some buzz. Then finally, finally, finally…along the way I did get some screenwriting assignments, some of them were quite lucrative and I was almost making a living but not quite and then I finally sold a script that got produced.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. On IMDb page it’s listed a number of short films. I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit. How did those help your career and would you encourage screenwriters to write shots and produce shots?
Rob: Yeah, I’m not really sure how much they helped my career because to be honest and surprisingly I actually sold a feature film before I sold the shots. I will say though that the one shot- Broken, probably had the most effect on me. That was because it was done as part of one of those 48 hour contests where you ensemble an entire crew and you have to do everything within 48 hour shoot up. It’s usually around five or six minute film. We did a six minute film and you have to do everything within 48 hours which sounds…, “Well, it’s a six minute film, how hard could it be?”
Oh my God, it was life changing because although I’d been on set many times as a development exec and also having friends who shot both TV and film I had to be actually part of that incredible rush for 48 hours to get something not just shot, you had to write it, cast it, find a location, get everything, get the set all done up, shoot the thing, do the sound, the editing, the music. It was just astonishing. It was astonishing. I think that more than anything really made me aware of…I think it added to my writing tremendously because I realized that every line somebody has to not just say but shoot and light and get the sound right forward and shoot it many, many times in order to get it right.
Every word has a cost in a production in terms of time and money and especially when it’s all condensed. This made me hyper aware of that and I think my writing got even leaner and more considerate toward the production people.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. So let’s just talk briefly about that first sale that you had. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you were able to get that sale. Was it query letters, was it through an agent, was it through a contact? How did that sale come to be?
Rob: Well, I think the first thing that I did that allowed me to get that sale was that I sat down after…at that time I guess it was about 23 years or so that I’d got in. I’d made some good money from screenwriting but I’d never actually sold my own spec script. Of course selling a spec script is one of the most demanding and challenging things you can do in the film industry because usually most production companies and studios are really looking towards veteran writers. They get writing assignments that they give to these writers and there’re only maybe 50 or 60 spec scripts that are sold in a year in the entire market, whereas there might be thousands of them or tens of thousands or maybe even 50 or 100 thousand written in a year. Maybe 50 or 60 of those scripts get sold to a studio or a production company.
Now, a lot of those get done independently, you know, small, handheld kind of thing, but if you’re talking about making money from a spec script it’s extraordinarily difficult. So I finally sat myself down and I thought to myself, “What do I need to do in order to finally get a producer be willing to commit that amount of money to an unknown writer?” And I thought what I need to do is reduce the amount of money. So what I did was I intentionally sat down and wrote what at that time the script was called Store Front. I wrote a script that could be done in one location, a small location with no special effects, a small cast of maybe three or four people and done for maybe $100,000.
Within weeks of writing that script it was optioned. Unfortunately it took a little while for it to be optioned by the right producers because it was optioned three of four times by producers who just didn’t have the juice to do it. Then I finally read an ad on a film site saying they’re looking for $100,000 dollar film. I applied, they loved the script and then it went from there.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. How did you get some of those other options? Were those similar things where you’re just on some of these sites submitting?
Rob: Yeah, I probably took too long to do it but basically what my approach was over the years, I just increased the size of my film industry network and I just kept increasing it and increasing and networking, pitching all the time, all the time, all the time. Again, I think I did a lot of things wrong because I should have been able to do it in a much shorter period of time. I’m not saying to anyone out there that it’s going to take 25 years. 10 years is probably average though to be realistic. It is that hard to sell a spec script in Hollywood, but it was even harder for me because I just was holding down a day gig, raising a family, trying to make my way in the film industry and also writing on the side and it just is a tough gig and I respect anybody who does it for sure.
For me what I did finally was I just kept pitching everything that I could, submitting to contests and now of course you have a lot of online pitches that you can do which are written pitches and online pitches directly to producers and it’s a lot easier now than it was then. Trying to get into a producer’s office back then was just…it was brutal. Usually what you found was…because when I came here I was already in my mid-thirties when I came to LA. I found that there were 12 year olds behind the desk or what seemed like it to somebody who’s in their mid-thirties. More than once I just had the word ‘old’. They would just come right out and say, “You know, it’s a young market, we can’t have older writers writing for it.” It would be that blatant.
So for me it was just a matter of persistence and just pitching all the time, but to back that up a bit the most important thing I did was, and the thing that I learned to do even more as I grew older and further into my career was that I made sure that I never, ever sent anything out that I was not sure was the very best thing I could do. Hemmingway has a great saying, I can’t quote it exactly but he said the first draft of anything is poopoo [laughs]. That’s not the word Hemmingway would use. And he’s right, and I think that the nice thing is that when you are submitting, although there may be thousands of other people submitting, you can know for sure that the vast majority of them have not done the amount of work that you have if you do the work.
Ashley: Why do think you had this light bulb moment after 23 years where you said, “I’m just gonna write a low budget script?” What changed you, what happened that you just had that moment? Because I get a lot of emails from people and I often wonder because I preach this advice in the podcast every week, write something low budget. That’s your best chance of getting something. And I’ll get emails from people, “Oh, my scripts are more in the 5 to 10 million, $50 million. I don’t have any smaller ideas.” Why do you think you had that light bulb moment at that particular moment that all of a sudden, “Hey, let’s write something that could be produced more easily?”
Rob: Right, well I think it was cumulative based on the fact that around me I started to see especially low budget horror films screenplays starting to get produced and some of them doing extraordinarily well of course, starting with of course the Blair Witch Project but then moving forward to everything. All the ones at the top of my head I can’t remember now but they just kept getting produced and doing well. And just finally I guess being a tough headed Canadian it took me a long time thinking that, “No, no if you write well enough…,” and that’s one of the myths by the way I don’t like hearing in town, which is if you write well enough somebody will find your script. No they won’t. The odds are against you and I know that sounds negative, but I think it’s important that if you’re going to jump across a gap and a cliff for instance from one side of the Canyon to another, I think you need to know how far it really is.
I think you need to know what your chances are of succeeding. I think it’s the same thing with screenwriting. If people come into this industry thinking that quality alone will do it or I’ll get lucky or if I’m good looking they’ll like me or whatever it is. It’s just the fact that it’s an incredibly demanding, challenging profession and that the vast, vast majority of people will never make a living off of it. I can tell you that I’ve made as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year from it but it took me 25 years to get to that point. And although again that may be a typical I’m not the only one who’s done that and I think in the majority cases it’s not that it takes 25 years to make it, it’s that you never do make it.
Ashley: Yeah, and this is more of a philosophical question. I’m gonna ask it of you because I ask it of myself all the time and I’m just curious to hear your answer. Why do you do it? Like at the end of the day…because I ask myself this. I look at the scripts that I’ve sold and I wonder if the amount of effort I put into it has really been worth the rewards I’ve gotten out of it. It’s a hung jury with me. I’m honestly not sure and I’d be curious to get your thoughts. Is all the effort, the 25 years to get these sales and some of these writing assignments, has it been worth it and if so, why is it worth it to you?
Rob: Well, I’m not sure that’s the way that I would look at it in terms of worth or value. It’s simply because of this, I started writing stories when I was three years old. I started writing short stories actually when I was three years old. For me it was always part of who I was. That’s not necessarily the case for everyone of course but it’s kind of like you look at Tiger Woods and he was hitting a golf ball a hundred yards when he was like three years old or something. Of course he was driven by his dad and all but I don’t know how much of it was from him. But for me my dad never drove me. He was a gold miner in northern Canada and all he knew was that he wanted me to get a government job because that was safe and secure.
I loved him for it because he’d been through the depression and he knew how hard the world was and he loved me enough to want me to not be a writer to want to make a living and support a family and be happy. To him that’s what that was. For me it was at three years old I started writing stories and I just never stopped. In a way although it took me 25 years of screenwriting to sell a script, I was actually writing since I was three. So for me there was never a choice. It’s kind of almost for me like being an addict I guess, but I’d like to think it’s a positive thing. But because it was always a part of me, it was never a question in my mind was it worth it because I didn’t have a choice anyway.
What I often tell…because I teach screenwriting classes and I’m often times flown everywhere, south of France, East Coast, San Francisco to give talks on screenwriting and the first thing I always tell everybody is do it because you love it because the odds of actually making a living from it are very, very small. If you’re looking at it in monetary terms going, “What’s the best thig for me to do?” Spend four, five years in law school and you’ll come out and probably be able to make a six figure income fairly quickly and have something that you can depend on for the rest of your life if that’s what you’re looking at. If you’re looking…it’s kind of hard for me. I don’t want to say that if you’re asked the question you shouldn’t be writing because that’s [inaudible 00:16:46].
But I would say that if you do have doubts you should listen to them because it may be that maybe it’s not the right thing for you to do. Certainly if you’re doing it for any reason other than passion, unless you are one of those brilliant people that sell their first script, you know, one of those Red Bastards [laughs] that’s fine, but otherwise it’s just gonna be a long haul. On average I think if it’s in figures that it takes about 10 screenplays before the average screenwriter who gets produced does get produced. That’s a long, long…that’s school. That’s school plus graduate school plus post-graduate school. It’s like getting a PhD. So if you’re not willing to sit down and get a PhD in physics or psychology then you’re probably not willing to sit down and get a PhD in screenwriting.
Ashley: Yeah, sound advice. So let’s dig into your latest film Get Married or Die. Maybe to start out you can just give us a log line or a pitch for that film.
Rob: An old man walks into a small one-man travel agency, pulls out a gun, holds it on the one-man owner who’s there and says, “I want you to get your next female client to marry you or I’ll kill you both.”
Ashley: Okay, perfect. So where did this idea come from? What’s the genesis of it?
Rob: Well, it was for me, unlike probably any of my scripts before then I was really very methodical about it because once I had decided that I was going to write a $100,000 movie, unlike a high concept movie or a movie that was inspired by a place or a person or a line or a condition or a political situation or any of those things that usually at least inspire me to write a screenplay, it was inspired by almost mechanics. How do I write this screenplay, and I started to do a checklist. It was like well, first thing of course is it’s got to be one or two locations at the most. Now, it turned out after I’d written the first version of the script, many drops of course, but once I’d written the first version of the script, it all took place within that little travel agency inside a mall.
When people were coming in it was shot from inside. When people were in they stayed in there and all of the drama happened within there. There was gun shots and a fight and all of the things that could happen in a space just big enough to accommodate it and there was about I think four characters at that point in the script. Once the final producers who actually bought the script as opposed to just optioning it, once they began to work with me they convinced me to create scenes outside of the travel agency and to kind of take away from the claustrophobic feel of the script. So I started taking some of what happened originally in the script and putting it outside but also adding scenes as backstory that occurred outside of the store, to add death to the story.
And so it kind of revolved that way, but for me it was very much, “Okay, where do I set it?” And so once I realized what one location can I set this thing in and have it be interesting. I thought well, it has to be a location that’s small, it has to be easy to furnish, it has to be a place where people would naturally come in and out of. A bedroom in a home might not be a place where people would come in and out of and logically build up tension and add new characters and so forth, so I thought, “Well, maybe a commercial location. Maybe a small place in the mall.” So that was the process. Really, it was almost like I would say line producer or a studio accountant kind of going, “Well, how can we save money here?”
It’s funny because originally the script was in a travel agency and when the producers were looking for location, and remember they had $100,000 budget which unless you’re familiar with the film industry you may not realize how infinitesimally small that really is. It’s like you can barely burp on $100,000 on screen on that kind of budget. They looked and they actually found that the only place they could find was a small church basement. They found that it wasn’t right for a travel agency so they made it a photo studio. It ended up being that it wasn’t a travel agency at all but it was a guy who did travel photos. So most of the script could be maintained as it was as somebody…because I had a travel theme where people would come in and it kind of had a symbolism of people going on their final journeys.
That’s what the old man was, he’s going on his final journey in a lot of ways and if things go wrong the people in the store may actually be going with him. I like that it was a travel agency, but it was only after I picked the travel agency that I realized that there was an opportunity to create that parallel symbolism of people physically going into a travel agency and people maybe coming in for their final journey of their life or at least travelling in a new direction which I really liked and they were able to maintain it with Photoshop.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Let’s talk about your writing process a little bit. We can talk specifically about Get Married or Die but we can talk in more general sense as well. How much time do you spend preparing to write, doing the outlining and that kind of stuff as opposed to opening up a final draft and actually writing?
Rob: I am horribly addicted to structure. I’ve even written fairly well known screenwriting books on structure and that’s my main thing. I’m not saying that that’s it for every one and I’m not saying that every single screenplay… I have written one or two screenplays where I just kind of sat down and felt the urge and started to write. But even those screenplays I then have to go through and fix the structure, add a structure or whatever. For me it begins with thereabout half a dozen or so major elements that I look at. Whichever one of those elements has inspired me to write that particular script. So if I’m sitting in a restaurant and I hear an interesting conversation or see an interesting character walk in and I go okay, well, it’s the concept, it’s the character, it’s the situation, it’s the location, whatever it is, I go, “That’s where I’m starting. Now how do I build it” For me it’s almost like building blocks.
Let’s say it’s a character, given this character, what would be an interesting context, location, situation to place that character in? If I decide that then I go, “Who else can inhabit that space that would cause friction with him, that could perhaps bond with him, oppose him and so forth.” So yeah, for me it’s very much a Lego kind of situation where I build it from the ground up and I may never know until it happens which of the main characteristics of the play, the main elements of the play will start me off. Once I have that it gives me my first step and then I look to really create the relationships within the script and the characters within the script and the settings that kind of act like characters and I just build up from there.
Once I have that it kind of revolves into a treatment rather than a synopsis because I end up doing an actual treatment and in the film industry the literal definition of a treatment is a short description of every single scene in the script. A lot of people mistake that for synopsis but… I build the scenes and I build them and I build them then once I have a really full treatment for me it’s like add water and you’re done. For me it’s like add dialogue and I’m done. Once I have maybe about 15, 20 pages of this really detailed treatment for the script I then go in, I take it from Word, put it into final draft, I just pour it in and then I just start writing.
Ashley: How long does that take you typically to just finish up once you’re to that “just add water” stage?
Rob: Everything is story dependent. Well, two things, first it depends on what I’m doing in my life at that time. The last script I wrote which actually just got sold in Canada to a Canadian producer and they’ve got a $4.5 million budget for it and a director attached and it’s full speed ahead. I wrote that one while I was working about 60 miles from my home and I was commuting in Southern California traffic every day. So what I did was I actually got up at 3:30 every morning and drove to the city where I was working and spent two hours every day in a Starbucks writing before going to work, and I was working as a tech writer. I would write screenplays for two to three hours, go to work eight hours a day writing tech manuals, training manuals and maintenance manuals and then drive home. And because I was driving home in traffic it would take me two to three hours to drive home.
I did that for about a year and a half. One of the scripts I wrote during that time as I said has just gotten sold and another one that I wrote during that time actually is being considered seriously by a couple of producers. It really depends how long because in that time it took me a long time to write things because it was two hours a day and the exhaustion of waking up at 3 o’clock, because I’d go to bed maybe at 10 or 11 o’clock so I was getting four to five hours of sleep a day and it just was brutal. At other times, since I quit and I have become a fulltime screenwriter I can do a screenplay in two months.
Ashley: Yeah. What is your writing schedule like now? Let’s talk about that. Now that you’re a fulltime screenwriter, what does your writing schedule look like now? Do you write for 12 hours a day, do you try and pace yourself out? What does a typical day look like?
Rob: Well, you know, because I’ve been doing it for so long and I have such a backlog of scripts I actually find that a lot of my time is taken up with marketing. I’ll sit down and because I have such a vast online network of film industry people the number of emails I get in a day is just overwhelming. It could take me two hours of sitting down or standing up because I have one of those stand up desks. It could take me two hours just to get through my emails and just to find out who’s interested, who wants a script, who wants a meeting, who may be asking me to help them with their script and so forth and going through all of those.
And then also included in that is going through all the film sites looking for any postings for screenwriters, because even if you’re making $250,000 a year which is not every year for me but it has happened, even then because you’re a freelancer you go from assignment to assignment or script to script and even if you sell a script for if you’re lucky $60,000, $70,000, if you wrote the script three years ago and you spread that over three years it’s not a lot. You’re like a shark. I kind of compare screenwriters to sharks. You have to keep moving. You have to keep moving, you have to keep pitching projects you have, you have to keep putting yourself out there for assignments, for other people’s scripts and either writing from concept or rewrites, polishes and all that kind of stuff.
Your day is taken up…probably in a 12 hour day maybe 8 hours of that is taken up with what I call business but necessary business. Then maybe about four hours if I’m lucky, actually writing a new screenplay. It’s funny because the more successful you get the more your own spec screenplays kind of get pushed aside because you’re always doing either an assignment for someone else or you’re looking for an assignment. Like the first script I ever sold which was Get Married or Die, I only made $3,000 because $100,000 script unless you’re lucky and a Blair Witch Project it probably isn’t going to make a lot of money. It’s just a stepping stone to your next script and to getting assignments and so forth.
Again I don’t mean to be depressing about how hard it is but it is brutally hard and it takes a long time and the vast majority of money I make is from screenwriting assignments rather than doing my own spec scripts. Even on a day where I might right for 12 hours it’s probably going to be 12 hours of writing somebody else’s scripts. To give you an example I’ve just finished writing a screenplay for $30 million feature film for a Chinese studio. They want to do an English language feature film and they reached out to me through a friend of mine in the industry. That was a year and a half-long assignment just doing that one script because it’s animation to begin with and it’s flying to China and them flying here and it just went on and on and on and those were often times 12 hour days. So it really depends.
Ashley: What does your development process look like? Once you’ve finished a spec script what do you do with it? Do you have a bunch of trusted writer friends that you send it to? How do you go about getting notes and then implementing those notes? We can talk specifically about a spec just because we’re talking a little bit about Get Married or Die.
Rob: Right. Well, usually what I do is my process is I have about a half a dozen or so screenwriting contests that I have over the years determined at least to my satisfaction are good contests. By good contests I mean not necessarily that they are the most finest contests around but what I’m saying is contests that are really looking at real world screenplays, because I have to tell you that…I have two scripts in development and then I just got Get Married or Die and none of those scripts won a major contest. They did well in some of the smaller contests because I handpicked those contest because my experience told me that they were really looking at real world screenplays, not necessarily art house screenplays but screenplays that could make money, that could appeal to commercial producers, because unless you’re producing your own film you really are depending on people betting their own money or their investors’ money on your screenplay.
What I did was I picked about half a dozen of those contests and with every spec screenplay, once I’ve rewritten maybe a dozen times at least or more and I find that if I do anything more it I’m actually harming it because it’s as honed as it can be, I’ll send it out to all six of those contests and then while I’m waiting for those results to come back I’ll start my next assignment or my next spec screenplay. I try not to sit on pins and needles waiting for it and then when they do come back I really, genuinely look at the results. I always look for contests that give feedback. Sometimes you have to pay extra for that. I look at the feedback and I look for some continuity between all of the contests in terms of the feedback and the results.
If five out of the six contests I finish in the quarter finals or better or win then I know that I’ve got something that is probably good enough to submit to the industry. But I never submit to the industry before going through that because one of the things that I always tell beginning writers is you’re always gonna think your first script is the greatest script ever written. I did. Everybody does. The problem is if you submit it to producers or agents, those agents will log that script in before they read it if they do read it at all. If it’s a bad script you then become the writer who wrote that bad script. If you go back to those producers and wanna submit another script, they’ll go back and they’ll computer log, see that you’ve submitted something else that they really hated and you’re gonna have a real hard time and you’re gonna build a bad reputation.
So I think the screenwriting contest, although the contests themselves don’t necessarily generate enough publicity except for maybe two or three of the very biggest to get you anywhere, but it does prep you and help you build your resume to say, “Okay, in contest X, Y, Z I was a quarter finalist, I was a semi-finalist here, I won here,” and so forth, and then when you submit your resume with the script there’s a certain validity to your submission and a certain credibility that that gives. I’m very much in favor of submitting to screenwriting contests even if they don’t directly get you anything it’s a way of validating and verifying your script and of adding to your resume and giving you a little bit more and also give you a realistic appraisal of where you are in your career. For all those reasons that the first thing I do after I’ve finished a script.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. I just wanna touch…actually going back on that, do you mind mentioning a few of those specific contests that you enter? If you just at the top of your head can name a few.
Rob: Sure, the last one that I won was the Austin Revolution Film Festival [inaudible 00:34:44] surprisingly awesome. It’s the smaller version of the much bigger and better known Austin Film Festival, but it’s really gotten a really high profile among the indie world. I submitted a script down there that’s now in development. It was called Chasing Spielberg and it won The Director’s Choice Award. That’s a contest. Another one that I really like is Action On Film which is somewhere that I’ve had several scripts win there. The reason I know that those two as an example of good contests is that after I won there the scripts went on to do something. Both Chasing Spielberg and Face Time which is the script that I mentioned is in development in Canada right now with a $4.5 million budget.
Both of those won at Action On Film and of course Chasing won at Austin Revolution. So those are two great contests right off the top of my head that I can say definitely are worth submitting to. And of course you got the bigger ones like Final Draft and End Page and so forth. I have done well in those to a certain extent but I just kind of found that for my particular style of writing they didn’t seem to be as open and so when I found contests that were a little more commercial in nature those scripts did well and then went on to do well on commercial.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. You mentioned that you had written some books on screenplay structure. I’m a big fan of Blake Snyder, I’ve certainly read Syd Field and those are two sort of real classic screenplay structure books. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your own book and maybe even some additional lessons. You can mention that too and I’m happy to link to it in the show notes too so people can maybe check that out. But what is your take on Blake Snyder and Syd Field and then what is your unique twist on screenplay structure?
Rob: I always tell everyone whether it’s in an audience or readers or just people who contact me on the web and ask me for advice which I try to do. I can’t always of course because I’m just swamped with work, both my own and other people’s. But what I usually say is that there’s no set way to write. That although there’re certain truisms in the film industry and in screenwriting, if you’re brilliant enough you can write a script that breaks every single so called rule in Hollywood and make it work. There’s a big thing now that they’re starting to call “the one act screenplay” which is that screenplay that is more of a sketch than an actually structured story and Lady Bug is an example.
Really nothing much happens and it’s really more of a character study than it is a structured story with act breaks and escalating tension and jeopardy and all those kind of things that we tend to associate with most scripts. But although they’re not to be honest my particular taste in movies, I recognize the fact that you can basically break all the rules and have a commercially and credibly successful movie is very important to know. And so what I find is of all the books I’ve read, and I’ve read Linda Seger and I’ve read the cat books, I’ve read most of the books out there and I think as with most people you end up picking one or two books that just appeal to who you are as a person, your personality, your work habits, what your genre is and so forth.
My personal favorites aside from my books are John Truby and actually Viki King wrote a great little book called How to Write a Movie In 21 Days. Those are actually the only two books that I personally ever suggest, not because I denigrate any of the other books but I just love the simplicity of it and because I’m again talking about personality. My personality is towards structure and both of those books are heavy on structure and they’re detailed about structure. They actually go through step by step. I think Truby has something called The 22 Steps. They actually bring you through it. Of course as you get better and more experienced as a writer you don’t tend to stick to a specific structure and do it step by step anymore.
But when you’re building a house you probably wanna intern with somebody who knows how to build a house with walls and floors and ceilings and all of those things and boring nails and boards and all of those things before you build a geodesic dome. Although the geodesic dome may be your ultimate goal you probably should know about structure and load bearing things and all of that. Same thing with screenwriting. It’s good to get big books on the basics of screenwriting, hone your craft and then when you have the skill to, veer off in your own direction and do it [inaudible 00:40:16]. There’s a film that I think is just brilliant and I don’t know if there’s a rule in that film.
If there is I missed it but it’s a great example of how when you have the skill you can write anywhere you want. It’s kind of like Picasso. There’s a great story about how Picasso’s father was an art teacher and Picasso learned everything he needed to know about traditional painting, you know, perspective and shadow and color and all of those things and then drew a woman with three breasts under the left side of her face. But he really came from a place where everything he did that broke rules it wasn’t an accident. It was a conscious choice that he was going to…a creative painting of someone that wasn’t anatomically correct maybe flat without perspective with different colors, not realistic colors and all of those things.
And I think because it was a conscious choice based in an actual knowledge of painting, it wasn’t an accident. He could reproduce it and it came across as instead of being accidental, instead of people saying, “Oh, this guy doesn’t know how to paint,” they said, “Oh, this guy is a master of taking regular painting and taking it to logical extremes that we couldn’t even imagine beforehand. For me that’s the truth.
Ashley: Perfect. You mentioned some of your other projects, what is next on the docket for you?
Rob: A movie called Face Time which is in Canada with a production company up there called Bruised Productions. I love the name because being a screenwriter going at 30 years now I do feel bruised. He’s a wonderful Irish fellow and he read the script, loved it and he’s gonna be shooting it in my home province up Nova Scotia where I was born. Not where I grew up but where I was born and I’m just very excited by it. That’s the $4.5 million budget, he’s got European money already committed and I’m working with a director right now on making changes, those horrific changes that every screenwriter has to make and compromise on when you…because that’s the other thing too.
Screenwriters go, “Oh, I’ve sold my script, I’ve made it!” Yeah right, little do you know the process has only began and they’re going to take you through often times very beneficial changes but still when you think it that you’re done with the script and you find out that a quarter to a half of it is gonna change [laughs] you get a real understanding of what the whole collaborative aspect of the film industry is and that is that once a director comes on board, in this case she is the boss and although it’s a back and forth and it is collaborative, you do have to realize that somebody’s betting $4.5 million of their or their investors’ money into this and you’d better damn well listen and not be a prima donna because this…if I want to be a prima donna about it this could be the last script I ever sold.
Ashley: You’re chuckling as you say 25 or 50 percent of the script may change. I wonder just how you are able to accept that or live with that. I mean, what happens when…and I know we’ve talked about Face Time specifically as a project but I know that there must have been times in your career where the producers are coming at you with notes that you just completely disagree with. How do you get yourself mentally in a spot where you can still go back and try and actually execute what the producer is asking for even though you and your heart of hearts feel like it’s a terrible, terrible idea?
Rob: Well, I’m chuckling again because I’m thinking of Store Front which was the title of the script for Get Married or Die. One of the first companies to option Store Front after I wrote it, and it got a lot of buzz right away because it was $100,000 script. There were these wonderful two guys and they’ve never produced a script before. They’re both industry guys and they did different things. One guy was an animator I think and the other guy was a really, really good DP- Director of Photography. They started working with me on making changes and it started off as I think it was like 110 or 115 paged script, and it ended up as a 70 paged script. They just cut…oh my God, I was bleeding all over my laptop.
By the end of it they looked at it and they said, “Well, we don’t like it anymore.” It took months to get there. Took months to get to the point of cutting my…killing my literally children, cutting everything out, getting down to…knowing as I did it that I was cutting out the funny, cutting out the dramatic, cutting out the connections, cutting out the flow. All of that stuff. But at that point especially even though I was kind of a veteran and I’d done a lot of scripts and I had had a lot of scripts optioned and won some contests and been paid some good money to write and rewrite scripts for other people, so I had a certain status. Not a lot, but a little bit of status. Even with that because it was the first script I’d ever sold, oh my God, I was not gonna be the one that was gonna ruin it by objecting to anything that they said.
And so in a way it was probably my fault in that I just went with everything they said instead of making it a compromise between them. A negotiation over what stayed and what didn’t and try to make up for, you know, explain my point of view and then if they were persistent enough do what they wanted but certainly put up a little bit of a fight and a little bit of an argument but without being a prima donna. And then when I met Michael Feinstein the director and producer of Get Married or Die, he was…oh my God, he was so good to work with. He really was. It’s funny because English isn’t even his native language but he had a real gut instinct for what worked and didn’t work in the script.
Most of all, it’s not that he had a respect for me although he did, but that’s not what was important. What was important was he had a respect for the script. When writers object to not being respected in Hollywood it’s really more that they’re angry that the screenplays aren’t respected. Michael Feinstein is a perfect example of somebody who did respect the screenplay, did have to have changes made, part of it for casting because when you cast on $100,000 budget, he was lucky he got an amazing cast for this movie. Every time somebody comes up new on board you got to go, “Well, how do we accommodate their age, their race, their gender, whatever, their acting style, what they can, their range and so forth?”
Then of course when they found that the only place that they could afford to shoot $100, 000 movie and it was a church basement that was cluttered with junk. It looked like a junkyard in there. It’s amazing when you look at the film you would never, ever think that that’s where this was except that intentionally in the film they left one pile of debris and said that they were renovating the store. It may have made for a nice scene where they’re kind of chasing around the debris the old man with the gun. So it actually ended up working well, but if you look at that you’d never understand that that pile of debris filled the entire basement before they did this. So of course we had to make changes.
They made it because when they thought the film would be released they wanted to make it happen at Christmas time so we changed it so he was a photographer doing Christmas photos. All of the things that changed in the script all added to the script and if it didn’t I talked with Michael and he would see my point of view and we would leave it alone. But that’s an idealistic situation. I really thank Michael for that and I hope that he hears this because generally what happens is you’re kind of at the mercy of the people who are putting the money up to do your script and you’re always conscious of not stepping at anybody’s toes because maybe they’ll never hire me again, they’ll never buy another one of my scripts or word would get out that I’m hard to work with. It’s a real balancing act.
Ashley: Yeah. I’ve been just asking guest at the end of interviews lately what they have seen that they’ve really liked. I mean, there’s a lot of great stuff on TV these days but maybe you can just mention a couple of things you’ve seen that you really enjoyed watching.
Rob: You know, I just saw Ready Player One and I really quite liked it. I don’t think I’d call it a great film but it was very, very entertaining and it was mind blowing especially somebody in the film industry knowing or having some small idea of what went in to making a film like that. Step one in that film would have blown my mind and sent me home. I would never have been able to make that film. I’m not sure I could have made my own films to be honest. As a screenwriter I can write the screenplays but I don’t think I have the wherewithal, the patience and the gumption to actually do what’s necessary to make a great film. But of the ones I’ve seen lately I’d say that that was my favorite in quite a while.
Ashley: Perfect. How can people see Get Married or Die? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like for it?
Rob: It’s already released. It went straight to video, you can get it on Amazon, you can get it on iTunes, probably lots of other places, but certainly if you wanna make sure…you could actually even see the trailer on YouTube and the trailer contains a link for you to be able to buy it off of I can’t remember whether it’s iTunes or Amazon, but you can certainly get it those two places. The cast is tremendous, the directing and I wanna say too that Michael Feinstein is first time director on this. What he did with this film with $100,000 actually everything all in after it was all said and done it ended up costing about $300,000 with post and music and sound and all of that. But for a $300,000 movie, wow, I think he did an amazing job.
Ashley: Perfect. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing you can just tell us now and I’ll put in the show notes.
Rob: Sure, look up Rob Tobin or Robert Tobin on Facebook, LinkedIn, you can go to my site which is www.surfcityfilms.net and you can see the latest things I’m involved with there and there’s links there to my various projects films that have gotten done and so forth.
Ashley: Perfect. Well Rob, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Congratulations with this movie and I look forward to having you on in the future when you get done some other films.
Rob: Thank you, it was quite an honor.
Ashley: Perfect, will talk to you later.
Rob: Take care.
Ashley: Thank you, bye.
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On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing Canadian screenwriter Brandon [inaudible 00:54:05]. It’s another inspirational interview. Brandon was working a day job about 5 years ago and just really committed to writing. He started with writing and producing his own comic books and then he starts writing screenplays about three years ago and now has a half dozen projects in various stages of development including some films that are in the latter stages of post-production and he’s making a full time living as a screenwriter up in Canada. It’s a great story about how one person with talent, drive and determination and he found some success in the business. I think it’s a great interview and a really inspirational story so keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up I just wanna touch on a few things from today’s interview with Rob. I don’t wanna spend a ton of time passing what Rob just said. You can hear him in his own words. There was a lot of great advice. I think his advice on shots is excellent, I mean, they just make you better. Don’t get too caught up in this idea that they have to go viral in order for them to be a success. Just doing a shot, going through that process will make you a better writer. I thought it was also fascinating to hear his explanation of how he uses contests. I never had heard it quite worded that way, but I think he’s spot on with that. Again I think people just put too much emphasis on this idea of sort of winning and jumpstarting your screenwriting career as opposed to using the contests for what they’re good at, which is getting some feedback from third party people, getting some validation.
That’s just all great stuff and don’t get too caught up again in this idea that well, what happens if I win the contest, or how much money I’m I gonna win or, who do I get meetings with or what do I get, do I get an agent? All of these things, they are small pieces to a larger picture and that larger picture is your career as a whole and all of these little things, these smaller contests, they’re gonna add up. They’re gonna give you validation, they’re gonna give you just confidence to kind of move to that next level, and I think what Rob is doing is so smart. Again, I’d never heard it quite worded that way. I think that’s a great tip for all of us. I also think really listen to what he said about the different contests.
I think he mentioned Action on Film. That was actually a contest that I entered The Pinch into. I’m not sure if I’ve been rejected from that contest or not yet, but Rob’s point is a really valid one. The really high end contests, the Nickels and stuff, those contests are gonna be much more about sort of the expression of writing and the really high end dramas and those kinds of projects, whereas some of these smaller festivals, they might be more sort of interested in genre fair and that sound like what Rob writes. And so he’s gone out and found contests that will appreciate what he’s trying to write. Just as an example, a movie like Taken, the Liam Neeson movie, I thought it was a very good movie.
Obviously it was very successful and made a ton of money, but I don’t think a script like that is ever gonna win the Nickels or some of these more prestigious contests just because it’s a very elevated genre piece, but because it’s sort of an action movie or genre piece, those are not the prestige projects, they’re not the academy award winning projects. A lot of high-end contests, they try and concentrate more on these prestige projects. Again the dramas, the high-end dramas, the period pieces, those kinds of projects that aren’t necessarily something that’s ever gonna get produced but maybe would work as a good writing sample. So understand what you’re writing. Understand what films you like.
Understand where those people are that might appreciate what you’re writing because every script is not a good fit for every producer or every contest and you’ve got to understand that. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, it doesn’t mean it’s not well written, it just means it’s not a good fit. So think about that. Again, I just really wanna thank Rob. I thought that was a very, very inspirational interview. He really gave us some great information, was very candid to us, so I really appreciate anybody who’s willing to come on here and just be honest and really tell their story. Congratulations to Rob for all of his success and hopefully people listening to this can be inspired and find their own success. Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.