By Sean Tuohy
A working screenwriter is as versatile as a well-trained Green Beret. They have to jump in to the middle of hazardous production, fight elements like bratty actors and loud producers, and punch up new pages on the fly while the whole production team waits for them.
William C. Martell is one of those screenwriters and has been producing scripts for more than 20 years. He's earned a solid Hollywood career by penning action thrillers, horror flicks, and noir films. Martell also give newbies plenty of screenwriting tips and advice on his blog "Script Secrets" and in his book Secrets of Action Screenwriting.
I recently talked with Martell about his career, how screenwriting has changed since he has entered the business, and what is next for the script guru.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Did you always know you wanted to be a screenwriter?
William C. Martell: When I was a kid and I told all kinds of crazy stories and got punished for lying...so I had to find some way to get paid instead of punished. As a kid, I did everything from little plays in my backyard to making my own comic books and giving them to friends. I loved movies, but had no idea that someone wrote them, and for sure I couldn’t do something like that in my home town. My grandfather’s business was water wells and farm irrigation, so I figured I’d end up digging ditches for a living (literally). My father painted and installed signs, so during summers I’d often have to help carry heavy signs up ladders so they could be bolted onto the fronts of buildings. That was the other job I might have ended up doing, while making short stories, comic books, and little plays my hobby.
I loved movies, so I got a job at the local movie theater at 15 and a half years old and got to see movies for free (including R-rated movies). Around this time, I was also making short films with an 8mm camera and later a Super 8mm camera. Somewhere in there I discovered this business that sold actual screenplays from movies and television shows and ordered some and thought “I could do this!” Of course, I was hundreds of miles from Hollywood, so I just continued making short films (and a Super 8mm feature, which was a bad idea at the time). My first script sale was to a local production company that was making low budget kung fu movies. A decade of working in a warehouse later, I sold a script to a company on the Paramount lot.
ST: You have written everything from techo-thrillers to noir. Do you find it challenging to switch from genre to genre?
WCM: I write testosterone. My home genre would probably be Hitchcock-style thrillers (which is why I have the first of three books on screenplays and Hitchcock out on Amazon), but my Super 8mm feature was a private eye movie. I then did that kung fu movie (and wrote a kung fu sci fi script that was supposed to be shot next, but that didn’t happen). The script I sold to Paramount was a noir script called "Courting Death." That got me to Hollywood, where a second noir script, "Treacherous," sold and was made, followed by "Implicated" (more noir!) and then a sci fi kung fu movie! Cable networks like USA, HBO, and Showtime began making their own films and that sci fi kung fu script was an HBO World Premiere Movie. The techno- thrillers came from trying to sell another script to that HBO producer. I’d read an article in Variety about U.S. Navy cooperation on films—where the Navy allows you to shoot on Aircraft Carriers and film SEAL Teams doing exercises for free—so I wrote a script targeting cooperation. The producer realized he could basically do "Hunt for Red October" on an HBO budget, and I made a sale. I continued writing techno- thrillers for a while. I also wrote action films, which led to all kinds of studio meetings on scripts that never managed to get made (on the average, for every 10 scripts they buy, they only make one). That led to writing my book Secrets of Action Screenwriting. I have a spy script that almost got made *ages* ago, kind of a kid Indiana Jones script that was optioned by a Hollywood company when I was still living in my home town, and all kinds of other “testosterone” scripts.
ST: What films influenced you early on?
WCM: I write the kind of movies I’ve paid to see, so everything from Bogart films to Hitchcock films (especially "Rear Window," North by Northwest," "Psycho," and "Notorious") to "Chinatown" to "Point Blank" to James Bond movies to "Dirty Harry" to "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" to "Mysterious Island." As a kid, I’d watch horror movies and science fiction films and Sherlock Holmes movies that played on Saturday afternoons on television. And I read a ton of books (still do) and sometimes read the book before the movie or the movie pointed me to the book (for example, "Point Blank" sent me to Richard Stark, "Double Indemnity" sent me to James M. Cain, "Rear Window" sent me to Cornell Woolrich).
ST: Do you have any scripts that are stuck in "development hell?"
WCM: A stack of them! As I said, usually for every 10 you sell (or are hired to write) only one gets made. In 2007, I had two films come out the same day—one with Steven Segal, one without—and since then everything has either stalled or died along the way. A couple of years ago, I wrote the remake of a hit 1980s horror flick for a big name producer, but it hasn't been made. I wrote a big action script that takes place in Finland, a funny creature feature about giant killer frogs, a horror script about an elevator that craves blood, and a whole bunch of other scripts for producers where I got paid but the film never got made. Some of these went as far as to have posters designed before something happened and they ended up on the shelf. You get used to this after a while. "Courting Death" would pop up in Variety and Hollywood Reporter every few years when they hired another director or star and then it would fall apart again. David Fincher was the director on that one for a couple of months. The problem becomes scheduling, getting all of the people you need to get the movie off the ground in the right combination at the right time. On a recent project, we needed a star and a director that wanted to work with that star and we would either have one or the other. Star on board, but no director. Director on board, but no star. It went back and forth like that for almost two years before they just moved on to another project. It’s a miracle if any script gets made in Hollywood.
The “development hell” part comes when some star drops out of a project and the producer thinks that they need to completely change the script before they send it to the next star so that it’s “fresh.” They decide maybe your western should take place on Mars and you have to do the Martian rewrite, which, of course, doesn’t work. So the producer thinks, "Maybe if the Martians were really Nazis who fled to the angry red planet after World War II?" And you write that version and it doesn’t work. And then they “replace you” aka they fire you) and bring in some other writer to try the Nazi Martian western version, and when that doesn’t work the producer thinks maybe it can take place in Iceland, because he just vacationed there and it was really cool. So that new writer does an Iceland Martian Nazi western script...and on and on into the night. The strange part is that sometimes they make one of these crapfests and your name is still on it, but it doesn’t resemble anything you wrote. Oh, and it sucks (obviously).
One of the reasons I started writing articles and books on writing is that I was in control of those things. My column for Script Magazine (which ran for 20 years) was never going to sit on a shelf because the magazine was going to hit newsstands and be mailed to subscribers. If I wrote it, it went to print. My website, www.scriptsecrets.net, has a free screenwriting article every day and my blog, which are things that I can write and instantly people can read them. None of the frustration of writing a bunch of scripts that sell or assignments for pay, and having the projects get shelved when a star backs out to take a job with Clint Eastwood (that happened).
The Blue Book expansion thing is folding those 20 years of columns for Script Magazine into some old booklets I wrote in 2002 and turning them into full-sized books, which are instantly published on Amazon Kindle and people are reading them the next day. After a big project I’d been working on got put on hold by the producer at the beginning of this year, I wrote a couple of short stories and they were on sale at Amazon in 12 hours! The frustration of being a screenwriter is depending on a bunch of other people in order to get your story to the audience. For every movie you see listed on IMDB there are nine other scripts that you do a lot of work on, but no one will ever see them.
ST: What is your writing processing? Do you have any pre- or post-writing rituals?
WCM: My main writing ritual is to sacrifice a movie producer with a special scimitar and then...oh, wait...you mean the stuff that’s not crazy psycho stuff?
Because I was writing scripts with a 40 hour a week day job, I tried to find the best method to get things done writing a limited time every day. That ended up being outlining the script and breaking it into manageable pieces that I could work on every day before work. I would basically do a bullet point outline listing the scenes of my script, and work that outline until it made sense and there was no fat. Then I’d write two or three scenes a week, at least one good page a day, and that added up to finished scripts.
I still do that now, just with more pages per day because I don’t have that pesky day job. By the way, this helps when I have an assignment with a deadline, because I know if I write "X" number of pages a day I’ll end up with a completed script by the deadline. I like to finish two or more days earlier to do a quick rewrite to fix things before sending it to the producer. I have a home office that almost never gets used because I bicycle from coffee shop to coffee shop in Los Angeles (and often parks), and try to write five pages a day. The cycling gets my blood flowing and gives me time to think. My job is sitting on my butt, so I before bicycling I was looking like Jabba the Hutt. Coffee shops are less distractions than working at home for me because there’s nothing else I can do there. I have headphones and listen to movie music from whatever kind of script I’m working on, and when I look up from the laptop screen I have a window on the world, people around me who might spark some idea. Plus, coffee is close by at all times. I switch up my locations often, so that when I look up at my window on the world it’s interesting.
ST: How has the screenwriting world changed since you first entered?
WCM: Many different ways. Those HBO movies I used to write? Don’t exist anymore. I had a friend who made horror films "for" Blockbuster. They paid him to make six films a year as Blockbuster Exclusives because horror has loyal fans and exclusive movies would bring them into the stores. Blockbuster isn’t around anymore. If Hollywood stopped making some kind of film to focus on superhero movies or whatever, there were other places that would make those movies. Now many of those places are gone. So we have great television shows now on cable networks, but no movies. So it’s more difficult to get things made.
Because studios are focusing more on “branded” entertainment (stuff that is already insanely popular in some other medium) the market for original scripts is tough. Original scripts are basically job applications for some writing assignment working on those scripts in development hell, trying to break it out into production.
Screenplays themselves have gone through an evolution. About 15 years ago these people began popping up on message boards who thought screenwriting should be more than a document designed to make a film. It should be "literature." Now that some of those people are in the biz, screenplays have become “great reads” that sometimes may not make very good films. Though you want a script that is a “good read” you also want it to work as that blueprint for the film. This is a weird trend, and part of it is due to “the business of development” that sprang up. If most scripts are never going to be movies, let’s just not focus on that movie thing! We’ve ended up with these little factories that develop scripts that are separate from the business of making films. Producers just want you to work for free on some script that’s probably never going to be made instead of changing their methods because studios are cutting back. The problem as a writer is we don’t know what projects will happen and which will not. So far, I’ve managed to get paid on every project, but that’s because I turn down unpaid gigs. Because the business continues to evolve, I suspect the “unpaid work” will shift back to the old model where there was less pointless “busywork” and scripts are focused on becoming films.
The great thing happening in screenwriting? When I turned from making my own films to writing scripts because I could no longer afford film and processing, I basically became Hollywood’s bitch. I work for "The Man." But now there are people making films on their iPhones! Now you can make your own film, and that’s a big shift in how the business works. Instead of working for free for some producer who is never going to make our film, we can make a film ourselves. We can still work for "The Man and" sell screenplays or land assignments, but if we get frustrated with the system we can just go out and do it ourselves. That gives us power and that power can help when we are selling scripts and getting paid gigs. Hollywood is not the only game in town, and we can go make "Paranormal Activity" and make them pay a lot more later. And that may be one of the things that has lead to an increase in spec sales. Add to that, as Hollywood focuses on big tentpoles, there are foreign companies like Europa who have moved in to make genre films like "Three Days to Kill," "Brick Mansions," and "Lucy." New script buyers!
ST: What advice would you give to an up and coming screenwriter?
WCM: Write! Read screenplays to get a feel what they are supposed to read like, then just keep writing screenplays. I’m always amazed when someone on a message board says they are going to quit because they have written four scripts and Steven Spielberg hasn’t phoned yet. WTF? A survey by the WGA a while back showed that the average writer wrote (and rewrote until they were great) nine full length screenplays before they ever made a cent! You either love writing, or you’re in the wrong business! Writers write.
Other things: grab a crew position on a film set. Since people are making films all over the place now with Kickstarter campaigns and doing credit card movies, find some low budget folks in your area making a movie and work on it. Once you see how films are really made, it changes the way you write screenplays. You see what works and what doesn’t and understand the practical needs of production. Also, don’t limit yourself to screenplays. Writers write! So write short stories and novels and articles and whatever else you can. It’s like working out, you use different muscle combinations and that helps you overall. Someone who wants to be an Olympic 400 meter hurdle runner, you don’t only practice by running the 400 meter hurdles, you do all kinds of stuff. Oh, and find some film related job you can do. Learn editing or sound or some other set job. Those are great ways to earn a living and make contacts.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
WCM: I was born in the same hospital as Tom Hanks.