Deal Interview w/Bill Martell
by World Wide Will
at the Showbiz Expo
Bill has written 17 produced films
for cable and video, including 3 HBO World Premiere Movies,
2 CineMax Premiere Movies, a couple of films made for Showtime
and a couple of films made for USA network. Plus numerous
direct to video movies. The Washington Post said, "William
C. Martell is the Robert Towne of made for cable movies"
in a review of one of his films, and he was the only non-nominated
screenwriter mentioned on Siskel & Ebert's IF WE PICKED
THE WINNERS Oscar show a couple of years ago. His family comedy
INVISIBLE MOM won the Santa Clarita Film Festival's Best Family
Film award. In his opinion, his best film is HARD EVIDENCE
(WarnerVision) and it out rented the Julia Robert's movie
SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT (Warner Bros.) when both were released
the same day... got better reviews, too (but that may not
be saying much, the Julia Robbers movie wasn't very good,
Bill feels). Blockbuster Video featured HARD EVIDENCE in their
monthly flier as a sleeper title.
IMDB only lists 13 or 14 of his films...
they only list the films that have his name in the credits
and have been released in the USA or England or Germany. There
are a couple of films that don't have his name on them that
are on video in the USA... he won't tell you the titles even
Where are you from and where did you
Concord, California - I was born in the same hospital, the
same month as Tom Hanks. Concord was this small town between
Oakland and Stockton. My family business is water wells and
farm irrigation - so I'd really be digging ditches if I weren't
writing scripts! Now I go back to Concord and don't recognize
it. In my life it went from being a bedroom community to the
San Francisco Bay Area to it's own little city. When I was
a kid we had to shoo the horses off the field to play baseball....
now there aren't any fields left!
When were your first interests in films?
In writing? Also was it something that came naturally?
My parents used to go to the drive-in, lets the kids see
the cartoon, then put them to sleep on the back seat of the
car. I was the oldest, and remember watching "Dr. No"
reflected in the back window of the car. I saw a bunch of
movies reflected in the back window of the car... and thought
all people in movies were left handed. Later, my Aunt managed
a movie theater in the neighboring town of Orinda, so we got
to see all of the Disney films for free. I also watched old
films on TV. Bogart, Flynn, Robinson, Cagney, William and
Dick Powell... I had a big crush on Ann Sheridan - the redheaded
girl in all of those black & white Warner Bros. films.
I also watched Bob Wilkins' "Creature Features"
(out of Oakland) on Friday and Saturday night, and the sci-fi
movies on "CPM Theater" (out of Sacramento) on Sunday
afternoon. I just thought movies were a way to escape my working
class life and go on an adventure.
At the same time, I was writing short stories and drawing
my own comic books for my friends ("Fly Man - The Human
Fly!"), but when I was in junior high school I saw an
ad in the back of my grandmother's TV Guide selling scripts
from your favorite TV shows. I bought scripts for "Rockford
Files", "Columbo", "The Law", and
a bunch of others. I realized that people actually wrote TV
shows and movies. Here were the words that Jim Rockford actually
said. Here was a description of a car chase. Here was that
great scene with Columbo, the Hypnotist, and the Blind Witness.
That's what a script looked like. So I wrote a couple of scripts...
really bad stuff. Longhand. But in format.
Where did you go to college and or
did you ever study film/writing?
Flat broke blue collar kids don't really get to go to college.
I had a 30 hour a week job working in a movie theater as Assistant
Manager (and Acting Manager) my last two years of high school.
My grades were okay, but nothing that would get me a full
scholarship. So I went to a community college, DVC, on the
other side of town. They had a Film Appreciation class - watching
movies, making an 8mm film. I had already made a bunch of
8mm films in High School, and ended up buying the first Super
8mm Sound camera in the Diablo Valley (camera shop special
ordered it). The class was a joke, but it was the only film
class in town.
On student film night, past class graduates came as honored
guests. My chance to show my work to INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS!
One guy was shooting documentaries. One guy made used car
commercials. One guy was editing local TV. But there were
actually three guys who were making movies. Jim and Artie
Mitchell, the world famous pornographers, invited me to the
World Premiere of "Autobiography Of A Flea" and
this guy Paul Kyriazi who was making drive-in movies with
limited partnerships. I gave Paul a script, later he offered
me my first movie job...
As a manual laborer. I was building sets at 5 am on WEAPONS
OF DEATH... not my idea of Showbiz. But it was cool to be
on an actual movie set. I cracked jokes from the sidelines,
made everybody laugh, and two years later when Paul called
he asked me to write a script. In two weeks! They had some
money to make a film, some actors, some locations, but their
script was dumb. I had to write a brand new script around
the cast and locations already secured. I wrote it, for a
couple of months they continued to collect money from investors,
then they shot NINJA BUSTERS. I quit my job (then at Safeway
Grocery - midnight to 9 stocking shift) and worked on the
film. Paul was going to roll this into a second and third
film, and we talked about the next story between takes. It
was a GODFATHER-like epic about San Francisco's Columbus Avenue,
which separates Chinatown (Tong gangs) from North Beach (Italian
gangs). At the core was a Romeo & Juliet love story between
a Chinese girl and an Italian guy... in the middle of a massive
After NINJA BUSTERS wrapped, I wrote the script. But NINJA
BUSTERs had gone through some financial problems, and the
investors were no longer interested in films. Plus, changes
in the tax laws made limited partnerships a bad deal. The
epic, LIGHTNING STRIKES, was never made. I wrote scripts for
some other locals trying to put together movies: a disaster
script called HIGH RISE for some real estate guys, a great
script about a rape trauma center called TAKE BACK THE NIGHT,
a script about illegal barn fighting called FIGHTIN' MAN,
and an epic kung-fu sci-fi script called RONIN. None of these
were ever made, and I most of them I don't even have copies
of (this was the time of carbon paper).
Tell me about writing your first script?
What was your approach like?
I had seen so many films before I wrote STRYCHNINE GRIN that
I knew structure by instinct. This was before Syd Field, so
all we had was movies. I noticed that most movies had a three
act structure, and any time a screenwriter or film director
was interviewed they always talked about the three act structure.
So my stupid Rockford Files/CHINATOWN clone was structured
just like 95% of those old Warner Bros. films I'd seen. The
first feature script I wrote was about a smart ass private
eye solving a murder in San Francisco... and I filmed it in
Super-8 sound! I blew up my mom's car, had fist fights under
the Golden Gate Bridge... it cost me most of my Safeway earnings!
My second script was a Hitchcock chase called ONE FALSE STEP
about a janitor who overhears a terrorist plot to take over
the Concord Naval Weapons Depot and steal the nukes.
What was getting your first agent like?
How did that come about?
After my first career writing Drive In Movies ended, I got
a job working for Safeway in their liquor warehouse. Driving
a fork lift and Big Joe stacker. I did that full time for
almost ten years, writing scripts in my spare time and on
my days off. I wrote just under 30 scripts in that decade...
and got an agent on one of them.
Now I had a Hollywood agent! Cool! I had sent out 100 query
letters, got 3 responses, sent scripts and signed with the
first agent to say "yes" (a mistake). My agent kept
asking for scripts, but didn't sell any of them. After I pressed
him to get something done and gave him a list of Agents Looking
For Scripts from Variety, he actually got my adventure script
TREASURE HUNTER optioned to some Germans for $5,000 against
$40,000 if the film had been made. That was a lot of money
back then! (The option expired and they never made the film...
I got my script back).
But that was also the beginning of the end for that agent.
I flew down for the deal, and he picked me up in this beat
up old Datsun 4 door. After making the deal with the Germans,
I asked if we'd be going back to his office. "NO!"
Instead he'd buy me dinner. Do I drink? A weird question,
I thought, but he took me to a crappy bar with a buffet, bought
me a beer, pointed at the buffet and said "Dinner!"
Later I found out his office was an 8 by 8 room without windows
over a motorcycle repair shop in the slums of Reseda. By that
point in time he had ruined a couple of deals I had set up
for myself. I had met the brand new head of development for
a low budget company which had just co-produced their first
theatrical feature... this horror movie. They were looking
for scripts. I pitched them my new script, and the guy said
"Have your agent messenger it to me on Monday."
I told my agent, he said he'd do it. I kept calling for progress
reports, my agent didn't know anything. MONTHS later my agent
admitted he still hadn't gotten around to sending my script!
By that time the film had come out, become a huge hit, and
the window of opportunity had closed. The horror film was
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, the company was New Line Cinema.
I fired my agent. I have not had an agent since.
Tell me about your first script sale?
Who was it for and what happened?
My first HOLLYWOOD script sale: One of my DVC buddies, Jan
Van Tassell, was going to drive to LA to see this actress
from one of Paul's movies. She had a new film debuting at
the American Film Market. I offered to drive and tagged along.
When I first walked into the Beverly Hills Hotel for AFM I
was amazed. The place was wall-to-wall movies! Hundreds of
independent films, from genre flicks to Oscar nominated indies.
And the producers TALKED TO ME. I said I was a screenwriter,
they said "Send me your scripts". I ended up having
meetings all week! More meetings than my agent had ever gotten
me! By the end of the week I had two different producers who
wanted the same script. But the script ended up selling to
a third producer - a company called Spectacor Films that was
going to make films for cable and PPV (before PPV existed).
Spectacor got the script through a weird series of events.
That actress from Paul's movie read the script and thought
she would be perfect as the female lead, so she gave it to
the line producer on this horror movie she was in. The line
producer read the script and thought it would help him move
up the Hollywood ladder, and gave it to a guy he knew at New
Century Vista Productions. That guy took it to Spectacor.
Next thing you know, I'm getting a phone call from some guy
I've never even heard of who has no idea where this script
came from... but he wants to buy it. I flew down and closed
the deal - stayed in a hotel while they gave me story notes,
did a rewrite, returned home and put in my notice at the warehouse.
Do you have a manager and or entertainment
lawyer? Are they necessary and what do they do for you?
I just signed with Rob Gallagher for management, and I've
had an entertainment lawyer for a while. You really need a
lawyer in this biz to go over your contracts. My lawyer has
put stuff in my contracts that I never even thought of. I
now get bonus checks if a film sells a certain number of video
tapes, if a film plays on certain cable networks, etc. I signed
with Rob because I am in the process of changing my focus
to theatricals, and I need access to theatrical producers.
Weird as this sounds, I was the only non-nominated screenwriter
mentioned on Siskel & Ebert's IF WE PICKED THE WINNERS
Oscar show a couple of years ago, the Washington Post calls
me "The Robert Towne of made for cable movies",
many of my films out-rent studio films, those that are theatrical
overseas often beat them in the box office... yet studio based
producers have never heard of me. I wrote WarnerVision Home
Video's top renter for 1995, yet parent company Warner Bros.
has no idea I even exist. You'd think these companies would
be looking to the home video divisions as a great place to
find new talent, but they aren't looking there at all! Rob
got one of my scripts out, and I ended up having meetings
all over town on it. Now they know I exist.
You've written a number of scripts
for what are called B-movies? How are scripts for these types
of films different?
Budget. The average studio film costs $78 million, but B
movies are usually made on a TV movie budget and schedule
- $3 million (or less) and 18 day shoots (or less). All of
that trickles down to the script. B movies have a limited
number of locations and a limited number of speaking roles.
You have to use imagination instead of expensive special effects.
I do a whole class on this at the Script Magazine site (www.scriptmag.com),
but here's the quick version:
You are writing a high concept genre film (usually action,
thriller, or family comedy) with only 8 locations and 15 speaking
roles, no crowd scenes, no FX (or limited FX in sci-fi, I
once had to write a sci-fi film with only 8 laser blasts),
no weather, no big stunts, no expensive locations... and it
has to be "actor proof" so that when they hire some
B movie star who was a professional football player (and has
no acting talent) he won't destroy your dialogue. You can
write terrible dialogue for Morgan Freeman, and he'll make
it sound brilliant... but if you write brilliant dialogue
for these guys they'll make it sound average. Your film needs
to at least be average!
I call this "chain saw juggling". On an A movie,
you have to juggle character and plot and dialogue and actions
and story and sub-text and theme and a bunch of other things.
Well, on a B movie you have to juggle all of those chain saws
PLUS limit locations, limit cast, limit effects, limit night
scenes, remove crowd scenes, etc. It's twice as many chain
B movies have nothing to do with quality... in fact, most
of my films are better reviewed than studio films. The reason
The Washington Post compared me to Robert Towne is that one
of the film reviewers there named David Nuttycombe noticed
that I had written a bunch of films he gave 3 stars (out of
4) to. I got e-mail from somebody in Maryland asking if I
knew I had this critic-fan at the Washington Post... what
a surprise! Since then I've found other reviews of my films,
many of them citing the quality of the writing (without ever
mentioning my name). I had a meeting at Warner Bros. a few
years ago on a B movie script that everyone at Warners thought
was an A movie script. Same thing happened with this guy who
has produced two Ah-nuld films... he thought my script was
an A picture, when it was written to be made on a B movie's
limited budget. B = Budget.
Can you make as much money doing films
of this nature?
An interesting question. The two things that cable films
and DTVs have that theatricals DON'T have are opportunity
and volume. They make about 800-1,000 cable and DTV films
a year and only about 200 theatricals. So there's a much better
chance of actually selling a script. Those 200 studio films
tend to be written by established writers, and the cable and
DTVs are written by inexpensive writers. You can't afford
to pay William Goldman $1 million if your total budget is
$2 million and half of that is going to the star! So you have
a much better chance of selling a script. If you took all
of the writers writing scripts aimed at studios and averaged
their income, and took all of the cable and DTV writers and
averaged their income... I think the cable and DTV average
would be greater. We just work more often, and a much higher
percentage of our material sells and gets made.
But not only is there a much better chance of selling a script,
there's a much better chance of selling two scripts or three
scripts. This is a volume business. I've had years where three
scripts sold and actually got made. That's three checks in
one year! If you are a good writer, you will build a relationship
with a bunch of producers who will be CALLING YOU for scripts.
While I was writing DTVs, I turned down twice as many jobs
as I took. I even gave away stories because I didn't have
time to write them. How many theatrical writers sell three
scripts in one year? How many sell one script every three
On a DTV or cable film you make about 2% of a film's budget,
but the producer usually subtracts the star salaries before
figuring the 2%... On most of these films half the budget
goes to the star! So you can't get rich writing cable films
and DTVs, but you can earn a living...
By the way, the writer of a big studio film seldom sees 2%
of the film's budget in his pay envelope.
What has proven beneficial about writing
scripts like this? Things you've learned?
I've learned how to do more with less. If you can just throw
in an expensive stunt or effect to solve a story problem,
you haven't really solved the problem. On DTVs you are forced
to solve the actual problem. No location change to a different
character to take you away from the problem, you're stuck
in THIS location with THIS character and you have to make
I've learned how to streamline and distill a story to its
essence. In a DTV every single eighth of a page of your script
counts... so you have to get right to the point.
Because most of these films are designed as foreign theatricals,
I've learned visual story-telling and characterization. I've
learned how to write a script that really sells foreign. CRASH
DIVE climbed to #3 on one of the Hollywood Reporter territory
charts, selling more tickets than the big theatricals from
the studios! Studio producers and development folks often
don't understand how to create a product with an international
audience. Every single film I have written did well foreign.
At AFM one year a Polish distributor actually knew my name
and wanted to have his picture taken with me. I've written
films that did well in Japan, the Far East, Eastern Europe,
I've even had theatrical hits in Germany.
The strangest part of foreign territories is that my films
go head-to-head with big studio films, and frequently out
perform them! They also usually are better reviewed. I have
a review of GRID RUNNERS on my homepage from a British magazine
that favorably compares it to VIRTUOSITY and JUDGE DREDD (two
other sci-fi films that were released in England at the same
time). In fact, when Entertainment Weekly reviewed VIRTUOSITY
they said GRID RUNNERS was a better film.
Now that studios are becoming more aware that 60% of a studio
film's income is from the international audience, the tools
I have learned may come in handy.
I've learned how to keep budgets down. My cable film STEEL
SHARKS is a good example. I had read in Variety that the Navy
and Department Of Defense will give you free access to aircraft
carriers and other heavy equipment if your script is technically
accurate. I took this article to a producer along with my
technically accurate script. We ended up making a huge Tom
Clancy-style techno thriller on a MOW budget. We had Billy
Dee Williams on an aircraft carrier, Gary Busey on a nuclear
submarine, and followed around a Navy SEAL Team on exercises
to get some amazing footage... no stuntmen, these were the
real guys jumping out of helicopters in SCUBA gear! I used
all of the money saving tricks I knew on this film (details
in an article on my homepage called "Blockbusters On
A Budget"). This film could have been made by a studio
with a $20 million star and STILL cost LESS THAN HALF of the
average studio film's budget.
In fact, many of the money saving tricks I have learned (confined
cameos, centralized locations, etc.) can be used to make less
expensive studio films. These tricks were what kept studio
films from the golden age like KEY LARGO and CASABLANCA inexpensive
to produce. It's almost as if the studios have forgotten them!
Now that everyone is trying to find a solution to escalating
movie budgets, it really surprises me that studio based producers
aren't hiring low budget writers... guys and gals who KNOW
how to make a $3 film that can compete with a $78 million
studio film in the foreign market.
Are there any pitfalls in working in
the world of B and C films? Are there really the shady producers
There are shady producers EVERYWHERE. Remember David Begelman?
How about Paretti at MGM?
Anyone with $20 can get business cards printed that say they
are a producer. Bottom line - what have they actually produced?
Can I go down to my local video store and rent it? I only
work with real companies that have real offices (often own
their own buildings). Deal with real producers.
Do you recommend more writers take
a shot at writing for less expensive features to cut their
teeth and hone their writing skills?
John Sayles first produced script was "Piranha"
for Roger Corman. Patrick Shane Duncan ("Mr. Holland's
Opus", "Courage Under Fire") broke in with
"Beach Girls". The first sale for Jeff Maguire ("In
The Line Of Fire") was a script called "Vampire
Lust". Robert King ("Speechless", "Red
Corner", "Vertical Limit") wrote a script about
killer cockroaches for Roger Corman. Ferris and Brancato ("The
Net", "The Game") wrote almost a dozen films
about killer babies, vampires, crazed killers, and genetic
mutants for the B Movie market. The list goes on and on. Name
any big time writer... they probably started writing low budget
What were your experiences like working
on these projects? Did you work closely with the director
and or producers?
The good news is - you are the only writer on the film. The
bad news is - that means you will be destroying your own script
in rewrites. You work closely with producers, directors, actors,
foreign sales guys, and often gets notes from the cable company.
All of these people have input on your script. A star once
had me rewrite an entire script so that he could wear his
lucky leather jacket! The original character in the script
wasn't the kind of guy who would wear a leather jacket. You
get to go out on set... look for me in movies that I have
written! I often do cameos. You can see me in INVISIBLE MOM
and NIGHT HUNTER in full-screen close ups!
Do you do much research when preparing
to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries?
Tons of research. You have to know everything your characters
know, so I'm always in the library reading books and articles.
Since almost no books are on the internet, you still have
to use the library. I read five books on cloning and a stack
of articles for my HBO World Premier Movie GRID RUNNERS. I
had submarine specs for my HBO World Premiere Movie CRASH
DIVE and knew every room onboard. I actually toured a submarine
and aircraft carrier for STEEL SHARKS. I sat at the launch
controls for the nuclear missiles, but they wouldn't let me
push any buttons because I'd blow up San Diego.
A screenwriter has to be an expert on everything. I always
say I'm an "instant expert" - give me a subject
and a month to do research and I can tell you all about how
stealth coating absorbs radar, and the two types of design
technology and do a fair song-and-dance about how "active"
stealth might have been created to make a completely invisible
warplane (research for a made for Showtime film I wrote a
few years ago called BLACK THUNDER). I'm currently working
on a script about salvage divers and I've read a dozen books
on the subject. I'm doing a script next year on dreams, and
I've interviewed some folks on the Stanford Lucid Dreaming
Project. Another script I have planned takes place on the
International Space Station, and I have diagrams of the space
station and a contact who was a Soviet Cosmonaut who spent
more time living on MIR than anyone else... He knows what
living for long period of time in space is like. Research
actually opens the doors to great story ideas. After touring
the aircraft carrier for STEEL SHARKS someone gave me this
script called AFTERMATH that took place on a carrier. It was
laugh-out-loud funny! It's like this guy had never even seen
a PICTURE of an aircraft carrier! The worst part about this
script is that you will NEVER get the Navy to let you onboard
a carrier after reading it, PLUS this guy missed all of the
really cool real stuff on an aircraft carrier that would be
fantastic in a film.
On STEEL SHARKS the Navy accidentally gave me a DOD Intel
report when they were Xeroxing a bunch of information for
me... I turned that Intel report into a script called SHOW
OF FORCE about an aircraft carrier group surrounded by enemy
aircraft... with the President of the United States onboard.
It's kind of THE ALAMO on an aircraft carrier... and it really
Are their any screenwriting books you
Read a bunch of screenwriting books, then throw them away.
I learned the three act structure just from watching movies...
there weren't any screenwriting books. That may make me sound
old, but you have to remember that Syd Field's book didn't
come out until the early 80s! Before that, screenwriters were
on their own. I think there's good basic information in screenwriting
books, but not much about actual writing. It's mostly theory
by guys who have never sold a script. That's one of the reasons
I wrote my book SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING - because
there were no books about TECHNIQUES rather than theories.
You have to actually write scripts to learn techniques. SECRETS
OF ACTION is currently out of print, but should be back out
early next year. I've also been tinkering with a low budget
book and one on character building tools... I teach online
classes at Script Magazine's website on both subjects and
have at least 200 pages of
material on each. Might as well turn that stuff into a book
Since I write for Script Magazine, I think everyone in the
world should read it, even if they have no plans to write
What's a typical writing day like for
Sleep late, caffeinate, write about 5 good pages, see a movie,
go to sleep.
Do you outline all your scripts first?
Always outline. You need a road map! Without a road map you'll
be spending so much time trying to figure out how to get to
your destination that you'll miss all of the scenery! I think
of it as two creative steps - the outline is one creative
step, the writing is another. Trying to take two steps at
once means you'll fall on your butt.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method
or path that you typically follow?
Dig into the material for answers rather than trying to graft
on something from the outside. The biggest problem with rewrites
for producers at ANY level is that they usually try to solve
a script problem by grafting something on, rather than going
back to the central concept of the script and solving the
actual problem. You end up using what I call "script
spackle". It covers the crack, but hasn't solved the
foundation problems. That crack is still there, under the
spackle. I was up for a rewrite on a cable film recently,
and my take was to just solve the script's problems without
grafting on weird subplots or changing the central high concept.
The script had a great idea, but was poorly written and seemed
to forget what that great idea was after a couple of pages.
It took a side-road instead of the road the high concept would
take. So that great idea was MISSING from the script! The
very reason they bought the script wasn't being used! The
producer was more interested in grafting on a NEW high concept
that had nothing to do with the central high concept... and
allowing that missing original concept to remain missing!
Now when they pitch this script it will take an hour! It's
so needlessly complicated! I decided not to take the job.
You teach a lot and give a great deal
back to the writing community, why?
The real reason probably has to do with my deep-seated need
to be... Screw that psychological stuff! I had to learn everything
through trail and error, so I'm just trying to save everyone
else all of those dumb failures that I had. Also, I actually
learn when I teach. I was doing an online class recently on
beginnings and endings of scripts, and somebody brought up
the end of a film that didn't seem to fit the pattern of movie
endings I had discussed. So I had to sit down and analyze
why and how that ending really worked. I realized there was
a pattern that I had never considered before, and noticed
other films that fit the pattern. You learn something new
every day! Now that pattern is part of the class. Every time
I have to break a script down into elements, I learn how to
build a script.
The Ft. Lauderdale Film Festival had me out for a screenwriting
seminar last month, and I'm going to be at the Santa Fe Screenwriters
Conference in May. I write a column for the Independent Film
Channel's magazine on screenwriting, and do regular online
classes at the Script Magazine site. Every time I do one of
these, I really have to study the craft of screenwriting to
find the answers to student's questions... and I come away
knowing more than when I started.
You also do writing for magazines?
Which ones and do you enjoy writing articles?
My articles for Script and Hollywood Scriptwriter and IF
Magazine are part of my learning process about scripts. It
all began a decade ago when I subscribed to the newsletter
that spawned Script - all of the articles were from Gurus
who had never sold a script... some of their advice was dead
wrong. I wrote a letter to the editor saying that I could
write better articles... and they took me up on it! Until
5 years ago, I didn't even get paid for my articles. Though
I'm getting paid now, it's beer & pizza money every two
months... I'm not a Guru, just a guy who writes scripts and
shares what I've learned. I just want to see good movies when
I pay my $8, and the only way for that to happen is to have
What's the one thing you wish more
writers knew or recognized about themselves and the industry?
Two things that are related:
a) Screenwriting is not art. A film costs $78 million to
make, and no one spends $78 million on art. Those producers
want to make their $78 million back, plus make a profit. Screenwriting
is just one part of a film... the script isn't the finished
product and isn't intended to be seen or displayed in any
way. So a FILM might be art, but a SCREENPLAY can't be art
any more than an artist's model can be art before the artist
paints her. Whether something is art or not isn't ours to
judge... that takes the test of time. What we see as art today
may be seen as pretentious crap ten years from now (if you'd
like, I'll name some movies). William Goldman has a chapter
in ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE about the golden year of
film 1939 (a similar article in November 1999 Premiere Magazine
on 1950) that has this huge list of great films from 1939.
The thrust of the chapter is that they just don't make them
like they use to. When you look at this never-ending list
of great 1939 films you may notice how many of them made the
recent AFI list of 100 greatest movies ever made, or you may
notice that most of them are classics that still play on TV
today (GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ and STAGECOACH
and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and GUNGA DIN) but what you
may not notice is that every single film on his list of great
films was made by a studio as popular entertainment. They
are popcorn films. GREAT, WELL WRITTEN popcorn films, but
the primary reason they were made was to entertain a mass
audience. That's the reason why they survived - they were
both entertaining and well made. Ever hear of a movie called
Dr. EHRLICH'S MAGIC BULLET? It was made in 1940, script by
John Huston, and is about the guy who found a cure for syphilis.
Very serious subject matter, a great film... forgotten because
it's not entertainment. A film CAN be art, but it MUST be
b) We are in a partnership with the audience. We are storytellers,
which means we are telling stories to other people. If you
are only interested in telling stories to yourself, please
see your nearest psychiatric professional. Talking to yourself
is what crazy people do.
Being in partnership with the audience means we are trying
to share our emotions with them. Make them feel what we feel.
My friend John Hill (QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER) says that films are
EMOTION pictures, and he is right. Our job as screenwriters
is to transfer our emotions to an audience or reader through
the medium of the written word. Think of it as three gears.
The writer is the first gear. The "writer gear"
moves the "Script gear" which in turn moves the
"reader gear". Our job is to move that reader. To
create an experience FOR THEM. Every word we put on the page
should be working to move the audience... to create emotions
within the audience. If you have a sentence which isn't moving
the audience, get rid of it. Remember that the audience is
out there... on the other side of your computer screen. They
are your partners... don't let them down!
Note: Most of Bill's articles can be
found at Script Magazine's online site, where he also frequents
their message boards.