Fulvio Sestito talks to Caitlin Malcuit about his start in filmmaking, his knack for special effects, and his experience in making “Beyond the Sky.”
By Sean Tuohy
One of the most difficult parts of writing is sharing your work with someone. Screenwriter Andrew Hilton has made a career of reading other people’s scripts while also creating his own. A former story editor and screenplay reader, Hilton runs The Screenplay Mechanic, a fantastic service where he provides his clients with great feedback to better their screenplays. I’ve consulted with Andrew twice and his feedback is always pitch perfect.
In between writing his own screenplays and saving someone else’s, Andrew sat down to talk to me about how he got into the business.
Sean Tuohy: How did you get into screenwriting?
Andrew Hilton: I attended film school in the U.K. and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. I have a photography background so my goal was always to become a camera operator and work my way up to cinematographer, but my first studio gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. From there out, my path kept me in the development world and one of the execs I worked for encouraged me to start writing myself. My first script landed me an agent, almost sold for big bucks in the late ‘90s, and I was hooked.
In the meantime, I began working in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (“Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.). After six months with Joel, I jumped to Paramount to become a story editor for Mario Kassar (“First Blood,” “Terminator,” etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills. Throughout this time, I was writing on the side and every script I wrote was optioned. I was getting just enough success (and came close to huge success) to keep that carrot dangling in front of me.
ST: Which screenwriters did you admire?
AH: When I was starting out, like many other action writers, I was inspired primarily by Shane Black. Today, some of my favorite writers include Martin McDonagh, Scott Rosenberg, Charlie Kaufman, and, of course, the greats like Aaron Sorkin. He can write a dialogue exchange as exciting as any car chase and I’m in awe of that ability.
ST: What are the most common mistakes you see in first time screenwriters?
AH: Overwriting is a common pitfall. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use 20 words to describe something when 10 will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words.
A poorly kept secret in Hollywood is that few execs and producers like to actually read. That’s work for them. So when they sit down to read a script, they crave a fast-paced, page-turning experience. If the first few pages of a spec are dense and verbose, they’ll skim-read or toss the script and move onto the next one.
Another common mistake is failing to create a character we can become emotionally invested in. We don’t always have to like the protagonist, but it’s essential they evoke our interest. If we feel nothing but apathy for the characters, that screenplay is DOA.
ST: What makes a stand out spec script?
AH: A spec’s potential really comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box-office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced.
Obviously, a script that offers something I’ve never seen or read before is going to stand out, e.g. look at something like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” However, that level of originality isn’t essential. One of my favorite films of 2017 was “Logan,” yet I would hardly say it reinvented the conceptual wheel. I also loved “Wind River,” but that script worked because of the execution and character work, not because the murder-mystery setup was mind-blowingly fresh and inventive.
ST: What are agents/managers looking for in a script and in a screenwriter?
AH: This may sound cynical but that’s an easy question. Reps want a script they can sell, and a client who will crank out promising material consistently and have a long career ahead of them. Most reps live for the deals more than the end product. Hell, some agents don’t even read the scripts they send out but I bet they read the checks that come in.
ST: How has market changed since you started?
AH: Globalization, flat-screen televisions, and Streaming or Subscription Video on demand have changed the market completely.
The domestic box office used to be king. Now, the international box office is worth two to three times domestic, so America is really just another distribution territory to be sold off. Consequently, producers and financiers want projects that will work worldwide, not only in America. So, for instance, no more baseball movies and rom-coms because they won’t translate well in, say, China or Germany. It’s for this reason action and horror are perennial favorites.
Theatrical is dying because most folks have a 42”+ widescreen TV at home now, so the appeal of the multiplex has declined. Add to that the sheer glut of original product now available at home thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. I wish those entities would support more theatrical releases of their projects or else I fear the cinema will go the way of the dinosaurs. Big spectacle projects, i.e. all those comic book pictures and IP tent-poles, are currently keeping the domestic theatrical market on life-support. But we’re in a weird evolutionary stage that is tough to predict. My only hope is that we can still go see original features on the big screen in 10-20 years.
ST: As a screenwriter, what is your writing process like? Do you outline or write a vomit draft?
AH: I write in my head for months, and then transfer that story onto the page. I once read about a famous screenwriter, it might have been Billy Wilder, who was caught sleeping in their office. Their boss angrily asked, “Why aren’t you writing? You’re supposed to be writing!” The screenwriter replied, “I was writing. And later I’ll type it on paper.” (If I butchered that quote and anyone has the accurate anecdote, please get in touch.)
That said, sometimes I’ll simply sit down with a glass of wine, a legal pad and a pen, then see where that takes me.
ST: What is new projects do you have in the future?
AH: I have a sci-fi thriller and another action picture I’m writing. Right now, however, I’m focused on my project “The Guns Of Christmas Past.” I’m a producer on the project too, we’re fully financed, we have a director, and we’re currently making offers to lead actors.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
AH: I’m a pathological chocoholic and won’t hesitate to steal it from children.
By Sean Tuohy
Writing a novel or screenplay is an extremely difficult task, but the next step in the process is even harder: selling your work.
Pulling from her years of experience as both a filmmaker and a producer, Lane Shefter Bishop delivered a best-selling book, Sell Your Story In A Single Sentence, that is a must-have for all writers. Bishop writes from the trenches of Hollywood, informing her readers how to write the best loglines that will actually get read. She mixes together much needed know-how with humor that will make you chuckle throughout the book.
Bishop took some time to sit and talk for me about her target audience, the biggest mistakes that writers make, and how writers can sell their work with one sentence.
Sean Tuohy: What was the biggest drive to write, Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence?
Lane Shefter Bishop: I’d been speaking about logline creation for years at numerous conferences and there was just so much need for this information. Whenever I asked writers, “What are you working on?” I got told such sagas. In my business, most people don’t have more than a few minutes to spare for a content creator, so I knew those long answers would never work if these writers wanted to actually be able to sell their material. Also, after every seminar, I’d always have a line of folks asking me if I had a book...
ST: When you sat down to write Sell Your Story in A Single Sentence, what did you want the reader to take away from it?
LSB: I wanted readers to know that you can have the best material in the world but if you can’t sell it, it doesn’t do you any good—and in this crazy busy world we live in, the quicker you can sell it, the better.
ST: Sell Your Story in A Single Sentence is written in a very clear and funny tone. When you approached this project what was your mindset: a writer trying to help other writers or as an entertainment executive helping writers?
LSB: I’m sort of an out-of-the-box producer because I was a working director prior and was also a senior executive at an entertainment company for a few years, so I’ve been on both sides, the selling side and the buying side. As such, I have a unique perspective to offer writers and wanted to use that to assist them in their marketing efforts. I love writers and am continuously impressed by their creativity, so I really wanted to help them expand their opportunities.
ST: What are the biggest mistakes writers make when trying to sell their work?
LSB: The biggest mistake I see is that they are being too general, using big broad concepts to talk about their work. This just serves to make it sound generic, like hundreds of other stories. I am forever hounding writers to be more specific because it is those specifics that make a story unique and different and thus infinitely more sellable.
ST: The logline can make or break a story. Why is the logline so important?
LSB: The logline is so important because it can literally be the difference between someone wanting to read your work or turning you away empty-handed. It is the magic potion that can lead to a “yes,” which is always the goal.
ST: What makes a great logline versus a bad logline?
LSB: A great logline is one where who the protagonist is, what they want and what is at stake (if they don’t achieve their goal) are all clearly defined while using the most unique elements possible to do so. A bad logline is one where the content creator is either much too general or has tried to cram their entire plot into one veeeeery long run-on sentence.
ST: What do you wish you saw more writers do when they try to sell their work?
LSB: Read my book first! Seriously, I know a great logline would help them sell because I’ve used them successfully myself for many years now.
ST: What is next for Lane Shefter Bishop?
LSB: I’m going back to my roots and directing a feature film. I’ve also been asked to write a proposal for a book on the book-to-screen adaptation process. And of course I have numerous projects that I am currently producing through my company, Vast Entertainment. So, kind of a lot, I guess!
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
LSB: I truly believe that I am the biggest dog lover on the entire planet.
By Sean Tuohy
Shane Weisfeld is the screenwriter responsible for trapping Dylan McDermott in a freezer and sending Russian mobsters in to torture him.
I sat down with Weisfeld to talk about how he got into screenwriting, how he came up with the concept for “Freezer,” and what screenwriters need to do to be successful in Hollywood.
Sean Tuohy: How did you get into screenwriting?
Shane Weisfeld: I come from a planet called hip-hop, and from an early age I was exposed to that raw, visceral, pure art form of storytelling and poetry in motion. So much of hip-hop is about proving yourself, having your own voice, and making something out of nothing, and it’s all about lyrically paying your dues—with receipts. Coupled with my love of film, and that medium’s power of storytelling, it was just a natural progression to get into screenwriting. Once I went to film school as a screenwriting major, it solidified my intentions.
ST: Was there a special movie that caused you to get into film?
SW: “The Exorcist” was the first movie that had a lasting impression on me, where I was thinking about it for days afterwards. I’ve probably seen it 50 times since! While I was in film school, I was exposed to so many of the classics—both Hollywood and foreign—and many of those had a huge influence on me. However, in my last year of high school, I did a report on “The Karate Kid,” written by the great Robert Mark Kamen. I had first seen it when it came out in 1984, but when I did this school report on it, I learned for the first time the script-to-screen process and what’s involved in getting a movie made. That’s when I realized that I wanted to go to film school and get serious about pursuing this in a creative capacity.
ST: How did you come up with the concept for “Freezer?”
SW: I definitely wanted to write, for the first time, a one-location crime-thriller. That’s a sub-genre I’ve always enjoyed, and certainly it’s less risky for financiers to take on something like that as opposed to a big budget script. Not that I was only thinking about budget—my main concern was coming up with a compelling story with mounting conflict inside one location—but I was definitely thinking about all the elements that could be attracted to something like this and what could not only finally land me representation, but get produced as well.
ST: How long did you take to write “Freezer?”
SW: The first draft was pumped out in only three weeks. No outline, but a general idea of what was going to happen. It was a slim, bare-bones draft, not much to it. However, the rewrite and polish process was a good two and half years after that, as more story and character was injected into it. Rewrites were done with development notes from my manager in Los Angeles at the time, and also from the producers during pre-production and up to the point it started shooting.
ST: How did you break into the industry?
SW: Years of writing, re-writing, mistakes, rejection, struggle, hard work, sacrifice, patience, tenacity, insomnia, determination, persistence, perseverance and timing. No luck. That doesn’t exist. All these things still play a factor though, and always will. The basic timeline goes like this: I didn’t find representation until the 12-year mark, and I didn’t become a produced screenwriter until the 15-year mark. I’m 41 years old and it has currently been more than a 17-and-a-half-year journey in terms of actively pursuing this crazy industry, and I’ve still got a long way to go; but any success so far is that much more worthwhile knowing what went into getting this far, and those things are opening more and bigger doors.
ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline?
SW: I try and outline as much as I can, whether it’s a formal outline or just basic point form scene and character ideas. Outlining is really having a blueprint for your script, and you can’t go into it blind—you need to have some kind of structure for knowing what your beginning, middle and end will be. Once I have an outline, I prefer to write my script every day, even just for a little bit. Staying consistent is key. Sometimes I’ll be writing a new script and at the same time rewriting or polishing an older one, but I do prefer to concentrate on one script at a time.
ST: What is next for Shane Weisfeld?
SW: Continuing with the WHGTA [writing, hustling, grinding, and taking action]. I’m writing both original features and television, but I’m also going back and rewriting previous scripts, because things can always improve, and constructive criticism and feedback just makes me want to get better. Also, continuing to make connections and building relationships the blue-collar way.
ST: What advice do you give to fellow screenwriters?
SW: Once you’ve been at this for a while and the rejection starts mounting, you need to ask yourself if this is what you truly want, need and can’t live without. The reason is, it could take years and years of no progression and a ton of rejection, so you absolutely have to be in it for the long haul, ready to develop a backbone and very thick skin. Also, don’t try and guess what the marketplace wants. You should really write what’s in your heart, what you know, and the type of film (or television show) you would want to see. Watch as many films (both commercial and independent) as you can, but also read just as many scripts. Lastly, follow the business. This is so important. Read the trades, learn who the players behind the scenes are, get to know what’s in development and why. The craft will always be the most important thing, but this is a business; you need to stay on top of it because it changes constantly and can eat you up and spit you out if you don’t know it.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
SW: I know the capital city of every single country in the world, and every U.S. state as well.
To learn more about Shane Weisfeld, follow him on Twitter @ShaneWeisfeld.
By Sean Tuohy
This Friday, the world will come together and try to save stranded astronaut Mark Watney from the Red Planet.
Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, The Martian, comes to life on Oct. 2 with famed director Ridley Scott behind the camera and Matt Damon in front of it. I was able to catch up with Weir to discuss the movie.
Sean Tuohy: When you first sat down to write The Martian did you ever think it would become Hollywood film?
Andy Weir: No, I had no idea it would even have mainstream appeal.
ST: What were your first thoughts after seeing the film? What struck you the most?
AW: I’m so happy! It's an incredible film. My favorite part was the visuals. You can't really describe a landscape in a book. You can try, but it doesn't really come across. Usually it ends up being a few really boring paragraphs. But in a visual medium, you can really show the sheer beauty of the environment, and Ridley really gave us an experience. We get to see Mars in all its glory.
ST: Matt Damon plays Mark Watney in the film. What do you think he brought to role?
AW: He absolutely nailed the character. The way he talks, his body language, everything.
ST: How did you feel the first time you saw the ads and movie posters for the movie?
AW: It was really exciting!
ST: What is next for Andy Weir?
AW: I’m working on my next book now. It's a more traditional sci-fi novel with aliens, faster-than-light travel, etc.
To learn more about Andy Weir and The Martian, listen to our podcast with the author:
By Sean Tuohy
There are now a lot of great resources for inspiring screenwriters, but one of the most useful can be found at the Writers Guild Foundation. The WGF is a nonprofit institution designed to help screenwriters learn and better their craft. Managing director Joanne Lammers was kind of nice to sit down and discuss the WGF’s resources and how to help the institution.
Sean Tuohy: What is the history of the Writers Guild Foundation?
Joanne Lammers: The WGF was founded in 1966 as a nonprofit philanthropic institution separate from the Writer’s Guild of America. The WGF Library opened in 1984 as a non-circulating public resource for aspiring writers and scholars. The WGF Archive was created in 2011 to care for the rich history of writers and the WGA. The WGF's mission is to preserve and promote the art, craft, and history of screen storytelling and storytellers. In addition to the library and archive, we also have writing programs for veterans and high school students.
ST: For an inspiring screenwriter what some resources they can find at the Writers Guild Foundation?
JL: We are only the library on the planet devoted solely to screenwriting. We have scripts that range from the dawn of early cinema dating as early as 1908 to classical Hollywood and the golden age of television to the most current web series and video games. We're known for having rare show bibles and development materials such as Shonda Rhimes' pitch outline for “Grey's Anatomy” and scripts for hot new shows such as “Empire” and “Transparent.” The crown jewel of the library is Billy Wilder's personal desk set of every script he ever wrote from “The Apartment” to “Sunset Boulevard.” The members of our enthusiastic reference team all have backgrounds and degrees in film and television history and writing, as well as advanced degrees in archival studies.
ST: What are some upcoming WGF programs that writers could use?
JL: We're currently planning our programs for the fiscal year, but typical events include TV Craft Day, Film Craft Day, and Serial Dramas. Past events have featured panels with the writers of “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Mad Men.” We have also held several Write-a-Thons where we kept the library open until 11:00 p.m. during contest and fellowship deadlines. You can check out past events highlighted in our podcasts at iTunes, our WGF Blog and on our YouTube channel.
ST: How can writers give back to the WGF?
JL: We are a non-profit without an endowment and rely on donations to stay open. Even $5 can help us provide more events. Information about how to donate is at our official website. Writers can also volunteer to assist during programs. Additionally, when a writer becomes a showrunner or writes a feature that is produced, she or he can donate their papers to the library and archive to inspire future writers.
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.
By Sean Tuohy
Goh Nakamura has been constantly writing music and honing his craft since the 1990s.
During his impressive career, he’s arranged music for award-winning director Ridley Scott, released critically acclaimed albums, and toured the world. Nakamura has even played a parody of himself in two films directed by David Boyle: "Surrogate Valentine" and "Daylight Savings," both of which were met with positive reviews.
Nakamura was nice enough to take time away from touring to sit down and talk with me about music, how he writes songs, and how he never feels that his music is ever finished.
Sean Tuohy: When did you begin writing songs?
Goh Nakamura: I had a 4-track cassette recorder in high school, but I was only recording guitar instrumental pieces, nothing with lyrics. It wasn’t until well after college that I wrote a song that I was happy with. That’d be “Daylight Savings.” I was 30 years old.
ST: Who were some of the artist who influenced you? Was there a song that made you think, "Hey, I want to write music?”
GN: I studied jazz and mostly guitar improvisation way before I attempted to write lyrics, so my influences in that realm are Miles Davis, Bill Frisell, and Chopin. As far as songwriting: The Beatles, Elliott Smith, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, and Neil Finn. So many songs made me want to write, but one that comes to mind is “Between The Bars” by Elliott Smith.
ST: How much of yourself do you put into each song you create?
GN: I’m not sure, to be honest. I don’t consider myself to be a confessional songwriter. I write more from wordplay and making the syllables match the structure and architecture of the melody.
ST: You have some of the most fun, playful, and funniest lyrics of any artist I can think of. How did you create this lyric style? Was it something you worked at or did it just come naturally?
GN: Thanks! I don’t think I’ve created anything new stylistically or anything. I’m still working on it, and will always be working on it. The songs never quite feel finished to me. I revise my own lyrics live all the time. If I listen to old stuff, I have to think of it like a photograph…they’re (hopefully) the best I could do at that time, and I have to accept that.
ST: “Surrogate Valentine” is my personal favorite song by you. It's sweet and charming and I will hum it out of tune all day. What is the backstory of the song?
GN: I think I first recorded a demo of that around the late 1990s. I lost the cassette (yeah, I’m dating myself here!). It sounded a lot different. I wish I could hear it, because all I have is a fuzzy memory of it…the melody was the same, but the chords where different and heavier.
ST: Do you know if Natalie Portman has listened to your song "Natalie Portman" yet?
GN: I hope not. That song is/was a joke. Embarrassing.
ST: You have played a fictional version of yourself twice on film, "Surrogate Valentine" and "Daylight Savings." How did you get involved with these projects? Was it difficult to play a version of yourself on screen?
GN: I met a director named Dave Boyle at a film festival in San Francisco around 2009. We hit it off, and wanted to collaborate on something. I wrote a song to help promote a film of his called “White on Rice,” and he made a video of me singing it on a rooftop in San Francisco in black and white. I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess that was an audition of sorts for a movie idea he had of a traveling musician. He pitched it to me, and I said “sure” without having any idea of what was in store. I ended up playing the lead role, which is basically an alternate reality version of myself. It was definitely difficult to act, even playing “myself.” I have nothing but the utmost respect for professional actors who do this for a living.
ST: Several of your songs have been featured in Hollywood films, such as “Body of Lies” and “A Good Year.” Has licensing your music been positive for your career?
GN: None of my songs have been licensed, but I did a bunch of guitar work and some co-writing, and arranging on the scores to five Ridley Scott films. The films I did the most on were “A Good Year” and “American Gangster.” Both were incredible experiences, and I hope to do more if I’m going to survive as a musician. I’m still trying to license my music, but it’s akin to winning the lottery.
ST: What is your song writing process? Do you start with lyrics or the music?
GN: It’s different almost every time. Sometimes I intentionally start with one or the other, but most of the time it’s about equal. I’ll change the lyrics to fit the melody and vice versa. They feed on each other.
ST: What advice would you give to young and upcoming singer/song writers?
GN: Learn and write as many songs as you can. Pick them apart and find out what you like and don’t like about them. I wrote so many crappy songs before I was happy with one… I still write crappy songs. It’s okay though, it’s just music. It’s sort of like writing an essay or something, write as many drafts as it takes to strengthen the song. Be able to recognize things that are disposable lyrically, melodically, or architecturally. Not every song needs a “chorus” or a “bridge.” If it gets your message across just with one section, then why dilute it?
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
GN: I usually don’t take my own advice. I’m trying though.
By Daniel Ford
At 10 years old, I was awkwardly trying to make friends in elementary school.
10-year-old Erica Rhodes was sharing a dressing room with Allison Janney.
Rhodes, an actress best known for her work on “A Prairie Home Companion,” has barely taken a breath since her big break (which I guess you aren’t allowed to do when Garrison Keillor is your mentor), and has been featured in everything from a cult horror flick to a viral Web series.
I caught up with Rhodes recently and asked her about her early career, how she gets into character, and why it’s important to be creative every day.
Daniel Ford: When did you first realize you wanted to be an actress?
ER: I can't remember not wanting to be an actress. My Mom used to rent lots of old movies for me when I was a kid. I remember watching the Shirley Temple movies over and over thinking I could do that! But I think the moment I remember best is when I was 5 years old and I modeled a water bed. And I thought, "This is the life."
DF: You essentially grew up while working on NPR's “A Prairie Home Companion.” How did you land on the show and what lessons have you learned from Garrison Keillor and the rest of the cast?
ER: My mom is from the same hometown as Garrison Keillor (Anoka, Minn.). She is a violinist in Boston and asked Garrison to come and do a fundraiser for her Orchestra (the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston). He kindly agreed. They got along very well and she invited him to see me in the Nutcracker (I played a party girl that year). Then we had dinner afterwards and the next day my Mom said he wanted me to be on his show. I had no idea what it was, but the next day I was sharing a dressing room with Allison Janney and performing in front of thousands of people. I have learned so much from Garrison and the rest of the cast Garrison has always pushed me as a performer and a writer. He has always believed in me. And he has taught me almost everything I know about comedy and performing for huge audiences. The rest of the cast also helped me every time I performed with them. Sue Scott especially took me under her wing a lot. Allison Janney taught me my first "vocal warm-up." I've also acted with Meryl Streep and Martin Sheen, so I learned how to hold my own with these great performers. I feel very lucky to have had the experiences I had on the show in so many different venues all over the country. It's really where I've felt the happiest over the years. Also whenever I have felt particularly low or frustrated with my career, Garrison has invited me back on the show. He has really been a lifelong hero of mine.
DF: Your career has spanned from cult horror films to award-winning indie films to television shows. Was your goal setting out to have a varied career, or did it just kind of work out that way?
ER: I think in the beginning, a performer wants to perform. So I wasn't very particular about what genre or format. But now I am choosing to go back to my comedic roots and just focus on that. Horror is fun, but can only take you so far. I would like to do more television in the coming years. That is what I am focusing on. Television and comedy.
DF: What’s your acting process like? How do you ease yourself into a character? What things do you think about or do while reading a script?
ER: Man. I used to do so much preparation and thinking. Now I try to think less and act on my instincts more. Because my instincts are usually closer to "right" especially for comedy. Now I just try to be myself and say the words or say my words. Just simply "be" I guess. And listen if it's a scene. And even in stand-up there is a lot of listening that goes on. For funny scenes, I try to find the funny moments between the obvious moments. I try to be surprising and unpredictable.
DF: You’ve been a part of three popular Web series—“Apt. 45,” “Upstairsgirls,” and “Sandy's Channel.” What attracted you to the roles and how was the experience different than working on a television show or movie?
ER: You've done your research! There's actually one more called “FourPlayinLA,” which my sister wrote. Apt. 45, I created with my friend Ileana Chan when I first moved to Los Angeles. I didn't know anyone and she was my neighbor. And we were friends from acting school in New York City. We came up with the idea of a newbie actress trying to get her non-actress neighbor into "the biz." Ileana did most of the work on that. But we co-created it and I starred in it. It actually helped me book “Upstairsgirls” which ended up being a much bigger Web series in the long run. I auditioned for “Upstairsgirls” and my role really wasn't invented yet. They were just looking for a "blonde" girl in her 20s who was good at improv. Sandy sort of evolved into the character after many episodes of experimenting and working off of the other actors. Sandy had a following so the producer, Scott Zakarin decided to have a spin-off channel just for Sandy. I liked working on web series, because I had a close and direct communication with the fans. But now I really prefer television and film, because there is usually a higher production value. Though I did learn a lot from all the hours I spent improvising and experimenting on the Web.
DF: What made you want to become a stand-up comedian and how has it shaped you as a writer and an actress?
ER: Stand up is very new for me. I've only been doing it for about a year and a half. But I am really enjoying it. I've always wanted to try it, but last year I felt frustrated with the audition process. And I wanted to take my career into my own hands. So it propelled me into stand-up. Because I have been performing since I was a kid, I really feel lost and aimless if I can't do it. It's truly what I feel most fulfilled doing. So I had to find a way to do it without someone granting me permission. I am also very lucky that my manager, Bruce Smith, is very helpful with the writing process. He reviews and edits all of my material before I bring it to the stage. I think I've grown so much as a performer and writer since last year. And I find it very rewarding to make something out of nothing. I learn something new every time I get on stage. So I am always growing as a writer and performer.
DF: You’re very active on social media. Do you find yourself using social media to interact with fans, test out material, or just have fun?
ER: I think I use Facebook for letting people know about my shows and maybe a little for fun. Twitter I use more for attracting fans and testing out short jokes. I read an article where Joan Rivers said if she were a new comic today, she would stay online all day every day, because it is such a good way to gain exposure quickly. So I do try to use them in a proactive way. Though occasionally I probably waste an hour or two here and there posting something stupid. Social media is a tricky thing to navigate. I'm still trying to figure it out. I wrote some jokes about it. Like, "My friends think I spend too much time on Facebook to get anything done in my real life, but my Twitter followers know how productive I am."
DF: If you could co-star in a movie with any actor/actress (alive or dead), who would it be and why?
ER: Peter Sellers! He was a comedic genius. I bet I would have learned a lot from him. I love him in every movie he was in, especially, “Being There,” one of my favorite films.
DF: What’s your best advice for up-and-coming actors and actresses?
ER: I always tell up and coming actresses to travel, travel, travel. That way I can have their auditions!
I'd say just make your own stuff as much as you can. Make stuff for yourself, make stuff for other people. Don't be a bump on a log. Do the Artist's Way and write every day. You're a creative being and you need to water yourself daily. So find ways for creative expression. Auditioning is just one way to get seen. Find the other ways, if that's not working for you. Also, it's really hard. Everything is hard. It's hard to get an agent, it's hard to book a job, it's hard to stay afloat. It's really, really hard. Give yourself credit for every little achievement. Don't look to others for approval. Give it to yourself. And mostly, take care of yourself as a person. As a human. Love yourself. Is that corny? Probably. But really. Figure it out. You'll be fine.
DF: Name one random fact about yourself.
ER: When I was a kid I took a gymnastics class once and I could stand on my head longer than all the other girls. I guess I have a flat head. I won a pack of gum.
By Sean Tuohy
As we’ve mentioned on this website numerous times, a great editor can make a world of difference for an emerging author. The same rules apply to screenwriters.
Linda Segar, author of several how-to books for budding film scribes, has been in the screenwriting consultation business since 1981. According to her bio on her official website, she has consulted on more than 2,000 scripts, including more than 40 produced feature films and approximately 35 produced television projects.
Segar’s mission statement is to “identify, analyze, and help solve elusive script problems while nurturing your creative process.”
What more can an up-and-coming screenwriter ask for?
I was lucky enough to ask Seger a few questions about navigating the screenwriting process and she gave scriptwriters plenty of helpful advice.
Sean Tuohy: How did you become a screenwriting coach and consultant? What is the backstory?
Linda Seger: Out of desperation! I was so well educated that nobody wanted to hire me, and I wasn't a corporate "type." I could see that there were so many scripts that didn't work, and I had developed a method as part of my doctoral dissertation about what the elements are that make a good script. I tried this method on some scripts that didn't work, and found that it pinpointed the problems very well. So, I placed an ad in the Hollywood Reporter and started getting clients. Then I went to a career consultant, Judith Claire, to figure out how to make this a full-time business. The plan worked, and I've been doing this now for more than 30 years.
ST: What is the most common error that you see among first time screenwriters?
LS: It used to be an inability to structure the script, but now it seems to be a lack of focus, which is related to structural problems.
ST: As far as style goes, who is the most original screenwriter, in your opinion?
LS: I think the Coen Brothers have a marvelous sense of style, and I'm particularly fond of “Fargo.”
ST What is the best way to learn the art of screenwriting?
LS: Write. Read books. Go to seminars.
ST: Do you believe it comes to some naturally or is it learned over many years?
LS: It is learned over many years, although some people have more natural talent than others. However, if they don't work at it and keep learning, they're still not going to become a great screenwriter.
ST: Has there been any screenwriters or scripts in the past ten years that have really wowed you?
LS: Absolutely! One of the best screenplays I've ever worked on that left me breathless is stuck in "development hell" in a studio. I have just completed working on a screenplay from a first-time writer from Austria. She amazes me and I love this script and hope she sells it. I recently worked with a Canadian on a first-time script that began as a muddle and has really found its way. I'm so impressed about where she's come through a process of about five drafts. I worked on a script years ago that left me breathless. I think the writer became ill, and I haven't heard from him in many years.
I have worked on many, many scripts that I think are really terrific, and I wish they'd make those into films instead of some of the others that are made.
I can't disclose the names of any of these, but I worked on several scripts that were made into films that I think are quite wonderful. One, called "Courting Chaos," has been winning a number of awards recently in film festivals, and two others were made in Italy that I'm very eager to see. They are titled, "Last Summer" and "Anita B."
ST: What is the most difficult part about writing a full length screenplay?
LS: Having a writing discipline and being willing to continually learn about the art and craft of writing.
ST: What do you believe is the most difficult part about making a good story into a great screenplay?
LS: Knowing the craft of writing so you know what you are doing.
ST: What are some of the first things you notice about a script when you are analyzing it?
LS: I can tell if it's great writing on the first page, but it might take me many pages to realize that what doesn't look like good writing actually has tremendous potential. My job is to bring out that potential in the writer and make that the best script it can be.
ST: What advice would you give to a first time screenwriter?
LS: Write and write some more, and write some more! And if you find great joy in writing, then continue writing. If you don't find joy, then stop.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
LS: I live in my dream house, a 1921 log home, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
By Daniel Ford
I started listening to “The Tony Kornheiser Show” on ESPN980 when I was graduate student in New York City.
I was working full-time and going to school every night. It was a backbreaking schedule that gave me just enough time to eat and sleep before the process started all over again the next day.
Tony Kornheiser and his gang of rotating radio show guests became more than just a distraction from the never-ending bus and subway rides to and from Queens College. They became friends I could count on to make me laugh until I cried and ponder the important questions of the day (for example: How will the weather report in Washington D.C. affect Tony’s ability to play golf?). It was also comforting knowing that the show’s fan base—lovingly called Loyal Littles—was as much a part of the show as any of Mr. Kornheiser’s high profile guests.
One of his most endearing and exuberant recurring guests is Ann Hornaday, film critic for The Washington Post. I don’t know how I watched or thought about movies before I started listening to her reviews, but I imagine my mind was like a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” The best part is she usually brings to light movies that I necessarily wouldn’t have found on my own—“Mud” is one great example.
As Loyal Little luck would have it, Hornaday excitedly agreed to answer some of my questions about her writing career and the movies she’s reviewed over the years.
Daniel Ford: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or is it something that you discovered or grew into over time?
Ann Hornaday: My wanting to be a writer has its roots in the simple fact that writing was one of the things I received praise for from an early age. It's a matter of tender ego, pure and simple! I remember a little poem I wrote earned a coveted spot on the bulletin board in my second grade classroom, and I think I was hooked after that—like a precocious little stage moppet hearing applause for the first time. Obnoxious, but true.
DF: According to your bio, you started out in the magazine world and eventually became a freelance writer in New York City. What were those years like and what lessons and skills did you learn about writing?
AH: My very first job upon landing in New York after college was being a fact-checker at Ms. Magazine, which taught me just about everything I needed to know about writing, from my beloved boss Della Rowland, from an enormously gifted copy editor named Cathy O'Haire and from Gloria Steinem, who role modeled the best ways to procrastinate. I wound up being Gloria's assistant for two years that probably still qualify as the most disorganized of her life; but she was an invaluable mentor, and she's the one who urged me to go freelance. That's how she started, and she said it's the best way to hone your skills vis-à-vis reporting and writing on deadline.
I supported myself during those years by freelance fact-checking (which you'd never guess from the number of unconscionably sloppy mistakes I still make); it was hugely valuable for making contacts at magazines I ended up writing for. Those years taught me perseverance, self-preservation, the importance of internalizing the voice of the outlet you're writing for (you're not there to indulge your muse, you're there to advance that magazine or newspaper's mission) and simple professionalism, i.e. never blowing deadlines, and balancing several stories simultaneously without letting editors know that they're not the only ones you're working for.
DF: What led you to reviewing movies for The New York Times, and eventually The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post?
AH: I didn't review movies for the Times, although I did do occasional book reviews; I wrote features for the Sunday Arts & Leisure section. That gig led directly to my first staff job as a film critic, with the Austin American-Statesman. They were looking for a critic who could also report on the burgeoning film industry and culture down in Austin at the time, which was the mid-1990s. I loved Austin and still can't believe I ever left. I went to The Baltimore Sun at the height of that newspaper's commitment to enterprise journalism and deep, literary storytelling, and I'm very grateful that I got to work there when I did. I still live in Baltimore, even though I've now been at the Post for 10 years!
DF: What's your process like for writing a movie review? Do you take a lot of notes while you watch a film? After seeing a movie and finally sitting down with your notes to write a review, what helps you get into the writing groove? Do you need it to be dead silent, or do you listen to music?
AH: I do jot down notes in a notebook, mostly words that will help bring back the sensory experience of watching a film—or, if it's a comedy, maybe a joke or two. My aim is to help the reader get a sense of what the movie's like (of course, with a minimum of spoilers), and whether or not they may want to give it a shot. Any examples I can give them – again, without spoiling the movie – are helpful. This is going to sound pretentious but, since I really try not to fall into the trap of over-synopsizing (one of my pet peeves in movie reviews), I almost think my job is more like a poet's, in terms of using language to convey a feeling and a vibe more than "what happens" in the movie.
I don't listen to music while I work, but I probably should! (I used to in college, why did I stop?!) I usually try to write first thing in the morning, ideally the day after I've seen a movie—soon enough for my sieve-like memory to function, but after enough time has gone by for the film to "settle." It's amazing how films kind of wax and wane as they burrow their way into your consciousness. I'm having that experience today with a film I saw yesterday, "Under the Skin," by Jonathan Glazer.
DF: What's the best movie you've ever reviewed and what's the worst? And what would you consider your least favorite movies of all time and your top five most rewatchable movies?
AH: Oh boy, this is the toughest one…The list always changes depending on the day.
The best movie I've ever reviewed: It's got to be "The Hurt Locker." A stone cold masterpiece. Full stop. Least favorite movie of all time: “The Hobbit.” Bored me to tears (Hated “Lord of the Rings” even more, but I didn't review any of those!).
Most rewatchable movies: "Goodfellas," "All the President's Men," "Apocalypse Now," "Sweet Smell of Success," and "This Is Spinal Tap."
DF: You seemed to have loved "Inside Llewyn Davis" as much as I did. It told a universal story about reaching the limits of potential in such a refreshing and real way, so I was surprised that it didn't get more awards love/buzz. Why do you think that was the case?
AH: Stay strong, brother! I was just thinking about my beloved "Llewyn" this morning…What a great film. Judging from my email inbox, a lot of viewers found the main character too unsympathetic, too misanthropic, and sour to relate to. And a lot of people found the film's Coen-esque structure off-putting. I find that astonishing since, like you, I saw his journey as such a poignant evocation of self-awareness and failure…It still gets to me. There was absolutely nothing about that film that wasn't perfect, in my opinion. Glad you're helping me fight the good fight on that one!
DF: What is one movie that no one saw last year that they need to see immediately, and what's one that you're excited for coming up in 2014.
AH: Last year was such a stunner…So many great ones that were probably overlooked. I could say "Short Term 12," or "Mud" or "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" or a wonderful documentary called "Medora," but I'll go with "All Is Lost," JC Chandor's film starring Robert Redford. It's just an amazing film, with an astonishing performance from Redford. I was heartbroken that he wasn't nominated for an Oscar for that one. Robbed, I tell you! Robbed! (He's good in the new "Captain America" movie, too).
As for this year…Of course I can't wait for Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of "Inherent Vice"! I admit to my shame that "The Master" kind of left me cold—but I adore PTA and can't wait to see what he does next.
DF: You were named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in criticism in 2008. What was that experience like?
AH: That was one of the greatest days of my professional life, hands down. Our then-publisher, Don Graham, walked over to my desk, told me how proud he was of me, took me by the elbow, and walked me through the newsroom, beaming. Keep in mind, that day the Post won six Pulitzers—so, technically, I was the chick who lost the seventh one. Don treated me as if I was the day's biggest winner. I'll never forget it, and I'll be forever grateful to him for treating me so kindly.
DF: I consider myself a Loyal Little of the Tony Kornheiser Radio Show on ESPN 980 based out of Washington D.C. I remember hearing on a podcast a couple of years ago that you two have actually never met in person. Is that true? And what's your favorite Tony Kornheiser moment since you became a regular guest on the show?
AH: Well, for a long time I hadn't met Tony—but we did finally meet in person, at a screening a couple of years ago. Still, I have yet to do the show in the studio with him and Jeanne and Gary and the gang—something I dearly want to do one day. I kind of inherited that gig when my predecessor, Stephen Hunter, left the Post, and I think there was some wariness on both sides—demographically and temperamentally, I'm not exactly in the TK show's wheelhouse. But it's turned out to be the highlight of my week. And he has the best fans. Every time I speak or appear in public, a Little comes up and says hello, and he (sometimes she) is always the nicest person there!
As for moments…That's a tough one. The shows go by so fast! Probably me and Jeanne swooning over Mark Ruffalo. Le sigh.
DF: What's your best advice for young and up-and-coming writers?
AH: Although it's important to develop your own voice, it's just as important to come to your work in the spirit of service: How can I be a useful part of the conversation I'm either starting or diving into? Give yourself time to think before you start to type. Oh, and outline! I still do it, with Roman numerals, capital letters and everything.
DF: Name one random fact about yourself.
AH: I play the ukulele (sorry, John Goodman).
By Sean Tuohy
For the better part of a decade screenwriter/novelist Derek Haas has entertained and thrilled audiences across the globe with his adrenaline-pumping writing skills. Haas helped pen “3:10 To Yuma,” arguably one of the best westerns of the last 10 years, and is the co-creator of NBC’s “Chicago Fire.”
When Haas isn’t lighting up the silver and small screen, he is busy exciting readers with his Assassin Trilogy, which follows international hit man Columbus. His latest novel The Right Hand chronicles C.I.A. Austin Clay’s investigation into a deadly mystery and is one of best spy thrillers of recent memory.
Haas graciously answered some of my questions regarding his life as a writer.
Sean Tuohy: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get your start as a professional writer?
Derek Haas: I always wanted to be a writer. I went to school at Baylor University and stayed for graduate school in English Literature.
My now partner Michael Brandt was doing the same thing, only getting his MA in Film. We teamed up soon after college and started writing together.
A screenplay we wrote fell into Brad Pitt’s hands and he wanted to make the movie. He never did end up making it.
However, that got us our start.
ST: Was there a time as a writer that you felt hopeless about the craft?
DH: There have been times when I felt like the machine that is Hollywood would chew us up and not let us get any of our scripts produced, but to be honest, I haven’t had self-doubt about our writing.
Don’t get me wrong, we may not have always turned in the greatest draft, but I have confidence we’re strong writers.
ST: Who were some of your early influences?
DH: My earliest influence was Stephen King. I just think he’s a master storyteller. He knows how to manipulate pace and make his readers keep turning pages. He’s the greatest campfire storyteller of all time. On the movie side of things, I’m a big admirer of Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola.
ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?
DH: I think the first time I wrote something that got the reaction I wanted—laughter, emotion, or a lump in the throat. I started writing stories when I was still in elementary school, and it seemed that I could always surprise people with my words. I still try to do that.
ST: Your Assassin Trilogy follows world-traveling hit man Columbus. Where did this character come from?
DH: I’m always attracted to characters that are gray; just when you want to like him, he does something to turn you away from him, and just when you want to condemn him, he brings you back. How could I make readers cheer for a contract killer? It was a great challenge. I do love writing him.
ST: You write about the unseen underworld—assassins, gangsters, and spies. Where does this interest stem from?
DH: Brandt and I spent a little time with FBI agents in Quantico and I remember one of them talking about a hit man—a contract killer—and it piqued my interest. I started to wonder about what twists and turns a life might have taken to put him in that position to where he kills people for a living. I just love crime stories. Elmore Leonard was also a big influence.
ST: All writers have a great work that is unproduced and sadly may never see the light of day. For example, Doug Richardson’s “Hell Bent,” Quentin Tarantino's “40 Lashes Less One,” and Lem Dobbs “Edward Ford.” Do you have a screenplay or novel that has yet to be produced or published?
DH: Michael and I wrote a movie called “MIAMILAND” that we’ve been trying to get produced for a dozen years. We love it. It’s a crime story where two overeducated con men have to go to Miami and separate a mobster from his money. Some day!
ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?
DH: While other kids were drawing pictures, I was writing stories. I asked for a typewriter for my 10th birthday. It was innate. I just had to do it. I pinch myself every day that I’ve made a living from doing it.
ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline your work before hand or just jump in to it?
DH: With screenplays, Brandt and I outline pretty extensively.
It’s the nature of the business. The producers or studio or network want to see what they’re going to get ahead of time. With novels, I just have a vague idea of what I’m going to do. I generally know my beginning, middle, and end in broad strokes. Other than that, I just plow ahead and let the story take me wherever it wants to go. That sounds like hippy-dippy writer-speak, but it’s true. I don’t want to get bogged down with an outline to which I have to adhere. No thanks.
ST: You are both a novelist and a screenwriter, which do you prefer to write?
DH: I love them both. I get to flex different muscles. Prose makes me happy, but when an actor or a director makes a scene even better than you imagined there’s no feeling like it.
ST: What is your best moment as a writer?
DH: Brandt and I were on a rooftop in Miami and it was hot as hell out and 300 people were standing around a set and then the director yelled action and two actors said the words that were in our heads. And it was three-dimensional and real and not just words on a page sitting on someone’s shelf. I almost started crying. (The scene never made the movie.)
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
DH: I piloted the bullet train between Paris and Marseille once. True story.
For more interviews, check out our full archive.