Sunday, November 10, 2013

The 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.


Brian said...

Robin Williams as an announcer in Bull Durham - now that would have been funny.

Dixon Steele said...

You're not the first to do this.

In Garson Kanin's HOLLYWOOD, he describes being at an A-list poker game with producer Sam Goldwyn and writer/director Leo McCarey.

While playing, McCarey pitched a story about a "Cowboy and a Lady" (which is what the picture ended up being called).

Goldwyn liked the pitch so much, he bought it on the spot.

The next morning McCarey called Kanin sheepishly and told him he couldn't remember what he pitched the night before. Did Kanin, and if so, would he be interested in writing it?

Brian Drake said...

Plus one, Ken. I once pitched an agent on a script, she said send it, but I hadn't written it! What I turned in was not necessarily sub-par, but not very good, either, and she passed. The biggest lesson from that, for me, was how much I could actually get done if I put my butt in the chair and worked every day. I think i did the 100 pages in a week.

Dan Ball said...

In a pinch, it's definitely good to have a story, but if you've got time I think it's more fun to have the concept then chisel away the story from there.

A while back, I just gave myself an exercise to, in ten mins or less, jot down the first seven story ideas that came to mind. All of them were really off-the-wall, but only about three of them were usable. In the time since then, I've been trying to figure out just how to flesh out those three concepts and it's been a lot of fun. Challenging as hell, but I feel like it's made me think outside all the formulas from Robert McKee, Syd Field, Save the Cat, Writer's Journey, etc. and focus on my story as a unique creation with its own rules and requirements.

BULL DURHAM meets GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM would've been a good movie. I think it would work even better today. Baseball's a nostalgic game, radio's a nostalgic medium, and small towns are just nostalgic. There's something at the crux of all three of those things that holds some secret wisdom that we've lost as a society in recent years. You should tell that story if you ever got the rights back. I know baseball movies were so 1989, but I think that's why this is an even better time to tell this story.

Howard Hoffman said...

PARENTAL GUIDANCE may have killed the minor league announcer genre for about three more years.

Igor said...

This question may seem merely in jest, but seriously: Why is it


rather than



Angry Gamer said...

I would have gone a different way with this.

And frankly I think it's possible to pull off today.

Disillusioned solder Ted comes back from 6 in years Afghanistan to find his town that used to be rather small is now a part of a megacity.

It has a minor league baseball team where his dad is the ballpark manager. Ted takes a job doing doing Audio Visuals for the ball park scoreboard. But the scoreboard is not just any setup... turns out it's much more capable that the locals have been doing with it. Also it's the civilian equivalent of the military command and control displays Ted worked on in the military.

Soon the scoreboard entertainment is the talk of the megacity... and Ted is somewhat famous

Ted's dad is ex-CIA (think Col Flag)
Ted's ex sweetheart is separated and now likes Ted again
Ted is being recruited to work for the local NFL mega display place
Ted is just getting over his military experiences.

So all the minor league funnies can come... all the Col. Flag gags work... it's great.

The Mutt said...

My Dinner with Ryan O'Neal.
"Oh God! Oh man! Oh God! Oh man! Oh God! Oh man..."

Johnny Walker said...

I think you'd have to show that his success in his job has some merit outside of his own life, so presumably his baseball commentary does something amazing, like bring the small town together around Baseball. Families are reunited, town spirit is restored. So when the team loses at the end, the town folk realize they have actually won... each other. (*sniff*)

Now how you do that with any degree of believability is another question :)

Mike said...

"So the best screen writing advice you can give... yes, if you are selling a screenplay... is - is to have an actual screenplay to sell... No - no, I can see how that would be relevant - yes... Wow... You teach courses on this?"
So, armed with a random number generator and a list of recent successful films, does actual money change hands at these meetings? Do I have to give my real name?

ScottyB said...

Friday Question for Ken, regarding having a story first:

Have you had occasions where you actually do have a story, but you get to a point where you just can't figure out an ending for it? What do you do with those -- move on to something else and hope you get an idea months/years later? Come to the realization it might've been a half-assed idea in the first place?

I imagine having a longtime writing partner helps keep things like this from happening, but if you're working alone, you start wondering whether you should maybe think of a different line of work.

Capstone P. Bollink said...

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE meets BARRY LYNDON: two guys meet to fight a duel and end up having a very deep discussion about the vagaries of life and death (for three hours). At the end they shoot at each other. Sounds good; a little different from your usual thing, maybe.

DBenson said...

Maybe there WAS a story in the guy being married, with the focus on how the wife wished her husband was the dreamer he used to be, and then dealing with the results when he did up and pursue the dream.

The steadfast wife is an old Hollywood cliche, but there's something in a wife trying hard to be supportive when the dream is frankly hard to make glamourous or heroic.

Does she even like baseball? Does she learn to? Is there some tradeoff regarding her own dreams?