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”.

Them: "Sold!"

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.


Todd said...

Hollywood has solved your story problem. From now on, all movies will be based on one or a combination of the following:

- Comic books.
- Juvenile literature.
- Video games.

Example: "Harry Potter and the Ironman of Persia"

Problem solved.


Tom Quigley said...

Ken said:

..."But the moral is this: Always have the story FIRST. Without that you’re just wandering in the wilderness."...

Good analogy. Maybe that's why the Book of Exodus is so long... I can imagine Moses sitting under the shade of a palm tree, writing it all down on parchment, and thinking out loud to himself "Man, how do I end this thing?"...

Danny said...

What if you were to have the characters and the premise first? I would imagine from those two the story would come easily, given that they are clear characters who would react to being in that premise.

carol said...

Um...any chance you'd ever pitch the movie again? Because it sounds like something I'd want to watch, actually.

I have Friday question, too. Hohw does one write a pilot show that explains who is what and why without it coming across as a exposition-a-thon?

Just for fun I once tried to write a television script (Former rock star owns a music shop) and I couldn't figure out how to write a 'first' episode that wasn't deadly dull and full of too much 'as you remember, blah blah blah.'

Tim W. said...

Maybe the first regime was fired because they bought pitches without actually hearing what the story was.

And, yes, I've had that exact problem, where I've got a great premise, start writing and realize that the premise is all I have. That's when I started outlining first. Saves a lot of time.

Sandy Koufax said...

Ken...When all is said and done, "be careful what you wish for".

Your Humble Correspondent said...

Did you see Hank "Hey Now" Kingsley that night at the Smokehouse? I remember he hung out there, sometimes with Ray Combs.

Jared said...

Have you ever had a problem with too much story or plot?

I am attempting to write a spec and it's slow going because I feel like I am getting so caught up in plot that I can't figure out where to start or how to end it without the script being 300 pages long.

Sent from iPhone so forgive grammar/spelling.

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

Ken, great story and not all that different from a pitch WE sold. It was so crazy we later turned the experience into a short film! We took some poetic license and gave it a Hollywood ending;) Here's a link if you and your readers wanna take a look.


Love the blog!

Bob & Rob

gottacook said...

"MY DINNER WITH ANDRE meets BARRY LYNDON": Actually, any Kubrick movie would yield a funny result, no? "MY DINNER WITH ANDRE meets THE SHINING," "MY DINNER WITH ANDRE meets FULL METAL JACKET," etc.

Mike Bell said...

I think I still have an unpaid bar tab at The Smokehouse.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, the FIRST idea that you figured you couldn't do (i.e. the REAL story) could have been a great way to go. Folks that have seen a lot of movies have seen the one you planned thousands of times...with the right writing, the real story (with wife, losing team that doesn't get better) could have been fantastic and not as predictable as the usual formula. It would just have to be something about other than the main themes, like how about a movie that shows that it doesn't always go like it does "in the movies"? In Europe they would have made THAT film, in Hollywood it always has to be a BIG deal...and "winning" in the end.

Karel said...

Nice one.

But what's wrong with selling an idea?

I mean, you did get paid, right?

Some people get away with this for a lifetime.

Anonymous said...

And the nominees for Oscar® for Best Lines of Dialogue from the following movies are…

Lawrence of Arabia meets Clerks
“Without Gatorade the hockey players will die…and in 20 days they will start to die.”

Patton meets The Big Lebowski
“No bastard ever won a war by rolling on Shabbos. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard roll on Shabbos.”

The Silence of the Lambs meets My Big Fat Greek Wedding
“What do you mean he don’t eat no meat?”

scottmc said...

Ron Shelton has written a book about the making of Bull Durham. It is called ‘The Church of Baseball’. From what I have read it could be a great book. I learned that Shelton wrote the big ‘I Believe’ speech, in part, as a way to attract a star to the film. I also learned that in the speech’s first draft Susan Sontag wasn’t the author mentioned. It was Thomas Pynchon. It seems Pynchon heard about it and threatened legal action. Shelton also said that baseball movies are tough studio sells because it isn’t an easy foreign sale. A movie theatre in New York is showing the film tomorrow and it is a sell out. Definitely a more than seen three-times movie.