An Article by James Jordan
When I interviewed Larry Kaplow, Executive Producer of House, I was curious how his expectations of the Writers Room differed from its reality. His answer was insightful. “Everything changed for me when I got in that room. From the outside, one can’t really understand. But when I was finally looking at a show from the inside, I realized that everything I previously thought about the Industry was different.” For example, Larry and his writing partner currently do their own medical research for House episodes. It is not uncommon for them to spend approximately one hundred hours on the research and writing of each 44-minute episode that airs (without commercials).
Steve Zaillian explained his writing process to me during an interview at the ArcLight Cinema. Since he mostly does adaptations, he usually researches his projects quite extensively. The research can take months. Although Zaillian only writes a couple of drafts, it generally takes Zaillian approximately 6 months to 18 months to complete the script before he turns in the work to producers, studios, or directors. All “A-List” Hollywood writers have their own writing process, but generally they work from extensive outlines, they usually know the script’s ending in advance, and they often do many, many drafts of the script before the final product is circulated. Zaillian, like so many other professional writers, works an eight hour day, five days per week. It is his job, and he is completely committed to it. Anyone wanting to work in the Industry needs to be equally committed in order to succeed.
I asked Ronnie Shusett how many drafts he did for Paul Verhoven on “Total Recall.” Ronnie’s answer shocked a crowded audience of writers. “I did 32 rewrites, varying from complete drafts to polishes. I believe I was paid for 28 of them, but that is rare. Usually, I do many drafts for free during a project.” Ronnie’s answer didn’t surprise me. Bruce Joel Rubin mentioned that he did over 20 drafts of “Ghost” for director Jerry Zucker. These were wonderful experiences for the writers, because they enjoyed enormous respect from their directors. Usually, writers are removed from their own projects after turning in the first rewrite, replaced by more experienced writers (or writers who work frequently with certain directors or actors).
In fact, almost every writer in Hollywood has been replaced and rewritten at some point, including Steven Zaillian, Robert Towne, and William Goldman. Why does this happen? Because, to use Goldman’s famous quote: “No one knows anything.” But that statement requires explanation. No one is actually sure what movie will open to a profitable box office run at the Cineplex. So, studio executives and producers who fear losing their high paying jobs will often buy an “insurance policy.” Namely, they will hire an A-list writer to rewrite the script before shooting begins. That way, if the movie tanks, then the executive can cover his/her ass by saying, “I got an Oscar-winning writer to doctor the script. What else could I have done?”
But where there is often no consensus on what constitutes a commercially successful film at the box office, there is generally consensus among industry professionals of what is an example of superior writing. Pick up any random television script of West Wing written by Aaron Sorkin, or a Picket Fences script by David Kelley, or one of the many award-winning NYPD Blue scripts of David Milch, the superiority is self-evident. Why? Because great writing isn’t really subjective. Sure, whether something gets high ratings is uncertain. But generally, one can tell brilliant writing by the bottom of the first page.
Equally, industry professionals can tell terrible writing on the first page as well. They rarely are rewarded as they continue reading a bad script. They never improve if they are awful on page one. Interpreting what is in between brilliant and awful is more difficult to do. That means reading more of the script. But the problem with most writers is they are not tough enough on their own material. Steven Cannell, speaking on a panel explained it this way: “Usually when I speak with published and produced writers, they believe their current material is horrendous. They are really hacks with no talent at all. But writers who have never sold anything in their lives, for some reason, believe they are naturally gifted talents. Of course, in truth they are universally terrible. But they won’t see it. I find that fascinating.” The rest of the successful panelists agreed.
Steven Barnes, who has seventeen published novels, explained the problem suffered by most non-professional writers. “New writers don’t appreciate the difficulty in learning the craft of writing. It takes years of dedicated discipline, reading, writing, and re-writing.” There are no shortcuts to the path of becoming a great writer. One needs to learn the craft one step at a time. Ray Bradbury felt the same way, adding “I felt like a complete fake for several years as a writer. At some point, I realized I had become a professional at the craft. But I estimate I had likely banged out over one million words from my typewriter by the time I reached that level of confidence.”
Writing as a profession is unlike most other professions. Certainly, if one needs a plumber, one would steer clear of any plumber who only completes 33% of his jobs successfully. Yet, in the ranks of professional baseball, any batter who can manage one hit out of three times at the plate is considered a fantastic hitter with a .333 batting average. In reality, there are far more athletes who can hit a major league fastball than there are writers who can produce a professionally written Hollywood screenplay. If you question this, then consider how many novels that Stephen King has cranked out over the years. Yet, when one examines the most successful of King’s movie adaptations, they were not the ones written by King himself. Those successful ones were penned by the brilliant Frank Darabont.
Writing is hard enough to begin with, but now throw in the costs of Hollywood productions. According to ex-agent, now literary manager Victoria Wisdom, the average cost of a studio financed motion picture is nearly $100 Million. That includes the routine $20 Million to the film’s star. Do you imagine the studio and producers will be excited at the idea of risking that much money on hiring a writer with no big credits?
Television is no different. Networks and producers are striving to get a show on the air that can run for five years, so it can sell as a full syndicated package for big bucks. When each one-hour episode can cost between $1 - $2 Million, that adds up to over $200 Million on the line. What showrunner will be entrusted with that amount of financial responsibility? The answer in today’s corporate environment is usually someone who has successfully done it before. That is why one sees the same producer’s names on television over and over… John Wells, Darren Starr, Aaron Sorkin, David Kelley, Dick Wolf, Mark Burnett, etc.
So, considering that the writers mentioned above are your competition, are you ready to go head to head with them at this point in your career? Agent Bruce Bartlett would strongly suggest you wait until your talent has matured significantly. “I have a mortgage payment and other bills. I am trying to make a living as an agent selling decent material. But what do I spend most of my week doing? I spend it reading total crap from writers would aren’t yet ready. But they don’t mind wasting my time. Well, they will only waste my time once. I’ll never read those bad writers again. My time is too valuable.”
Writer-Producer Bo Zenga agrees. “If you want to tell everyone in Hollywood that you totally suck, then just waste people’s time by submitting terrible material. You are guaranteed to never be read again.” At a recent coverage panel at the Alameda Writers Group, readers from ICM explained “Studio readers now have online Industry reference databases that the studio readers review. They post coverage summaries on them. Executives and others in the Industry can consult these databases.” So, guess what – if you have a terribly reviewed script at one studio, other production companies, studios, and literary agents around town might decide the script wasn’t worth a read either.
When I read for FR (Fred Roos) Productions, producer for Francis and Sofia Coppola, I was shocked at how mediocre most of the scripts were, even the ones submitted by large agencies like ICM, William Morris, and CAA. My honest coverage was sufficiently descriptive to inform the development executive that these scripts were not worth her time to read. In fact, future submissions from those same agents and writers would not likely be read as quickly, because time is too precious to have it wasted more than once.
So how do writers improve their craft? Patrick Shane Duncan would frequently work on four to five different scripts at once. Over a two-year period, he would realize that perhaps four of the scripts didn’t work as commercially viable. He would chalk them up as writing experiments that didn’t come together, but made him a better writer all the same. However, he did complete “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Nick of Time” using this technique. Certainly those scripts worked out wonderfully. Paul Attanasio suggests taking an acting class. “It will teach you how professional actors approach scenes. You’ll need to truly understand this if you ever expect to write for professional actors. James Cameron told me to write something short, get a camera, and shoot it. One can learn so much from the process, and it costs almost nothing to shoot digital these days.
At a panel of new staff writers that I moderated at the 2007 Sherwood Oaks All Access Weekend, all the panelists suggested doing stand-up comedy as a way to test one’s comedic abilities. Can you make a live audience laugh? Doing short videos for distribution on the Internet is another way to gain exposure and solicit feedback from strangers, especially for comedy. I’m writing some short political satire scripts for the Internet now as well. But most important of all, one needs to continuously write and rewrite scripts with what David Milch calls “an open mind and a humble heart.”
I present these anecdotal quotes to support my belief that you need to be patient as you develop your craft as a writer. You will accomplish more by slowly cultivating your talent, building valuable long-term Hollywood relationships, and preparing yourself for what will be a psychologically challenging career path as a professional writer.
Good luck and keep writing!