Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Best screenwriting advice I could give
The hardest screenplay we ever had to write came as a result of the easiest, quickest pitch we ever made. It also taught us a very important lesson about screenwriting.
Fall 1988. I had just finished my first year of minor league play-by-play, calling the action for the mighty Syracuse Chiefs. I had kept a journal but didn’t know what to do with it. My agent suggested instead of submitting it for publication I should pitch it as a movie. TV comedy writer goes off to announce minor league baseball. He reminded me that I’d make a whole lot more money selling it as a movie rather than a book. That appealed to the “artist” in me.
My partner David Isaacs and I had just turned in a movie to Columbia and they loved it. (Not enough to make but still.) We were the “flavors of the month”. So we set up a pitch meeting with them first. The meeting lasted three minutes… and that was including the pleasantries. Here’s how it went:
Me: This is what we want to do – “GOOD MORNING VIET NAM meets BULL DURHAM”.
And that was it. Ten minutes later we’re in the Smokehouse restaurant toasting each other. And then something occurred to me. I asked the fatal question:
Me: "So, what exactly is the story?"
That was the end of the celebration. What WAS the story? We couldn’t do what really happened. My family moved to Syracuse, I broadcast the games, the team lost more games than they won, and the season ended. Not exactly riveting stuff.
We had to create a whole new scenario. First thing we did was make the writer single so we could concoct a love story. My wife said, “What?! I do all the work, raise two small kids in an unfamiliar city that’s either 100 degrees or pouring rain and I’m not even in the damn movie?!” She had a legitimate beef.
We had to create stakes for the writer, a plotline that was dramatic and funny, and dream up some theme so the movie was about something. I'd tell you what they were but they all changed twenty times. I don't even remember half of them.
Thus began a series of drafts, each different, each a bitch to write. I think we finally got it, but that was after years of dead ends. The writer/announcer saves baseball in the small town and provides it with an identity and hope. He learns lessons, matures as a person, and of course gets the girl.
Ultimately the movie was never made. By the time we solved it the regime that bought it was long gone. The regime that followed them was long gone.
But the moral is this: Always have the story FIRST. Without that you’re just wandering in the wilderness. And breaking the story is the hardest part so your natural inclination is to say, “let’s just sell it first and then deal with that”. Beware!!
Same is true if you’re writing a spec. More so actually because you don’t want to work your ass off for six months only to come to the sad realization once you’re institutionalized that you have nothing.
For us there's a happy ending. We learned our lesson and did not come in a few years later and pitch MY DINNER WITH ANDRE meets BARRY LYNDON.