Every day dozens of novice screenwriters are born, ideals fully intact. They carry visions of the ultimate cinematic experience, along with their laptops, into Starbucks to pour ideas onto the page. Almost all of them are doomed to fail. Not for the reasons you might think, though.
Becoming a successful screenwriter is about more than having an original idea and being disciplined enough to write a feature-length script. Unless you plan on going the DIY route, your best chance at actually getting your movie produced is through the major studios—a byzantine system with a counterintuitive set of rules. Luckily, a proven screenwriting duo from that system has written a book about the harsh realities of navigating its tortuous path.
“In the studio system, the stuff you love will get ripped up in front of your eyes over and over and over again,” says Thomas Lennon, who is not only a screenwriter, but an actor and a director. “People will throw away weeks or months of work on a whim, because the actor won’t wear overalls.”
Brutal truths like these can only come from people who’ve actually had movies produced, unlike other, more theory-based screenwriting gurus. Lennon and his partner Robert Ben Garant (also an actor and director) have been writing together since 1988, when they met at NYU and formed influential sketch comedy group, The State. Although the pair made waves in comedy over the ensuing years, most notably with Reno 911, their greatest success has been in screenwriting, where they’ve written a number of hit films including the Night at the Museum series starring Ben Stiller.
Lennon and Garant will be the first to assure you that what they do isn’t high art, however, there is an art to how it’s done. On the eve of the paperback release of their book, How to Write Movies for
Fun and Profit, the pair offered Co.Create six simple tips about writing big budget studio features without compromising your artistic integrity. (Um, actually, you should probably only read on if you are definitely willing to compromise your artistic integrity.)
Lennon: “Always be writing for a very specific movie star. At any given time, there are only about 14 people that can get your big studio movie made. Make sure your screenplay is good for one of them.”
Garant: “You can avoid doing that in your head all you want, but most movies cost at least $25 million and if somebody’s going to spend that much on a movie, Will Ferrell had better want to do it.”
Garant: “You have to be incredibly original in your idea for the movie, but the formula needs to be a movie formula. You have to think of a movie that the trailer will explain in 30 seconds, and movies like that all have the same structure.”
Lennon: “Ben came up with a pretty simple way to express it: You take a guy and put him up in a tree, then you throw rocks at him, and then you get him down from the tree. Die Hard, The Matrix, Casablanca: all of these movies have heroes pulled into a situation against their will, who then end up winning. That’s structure. It can be liberating, though, because following structure gives you less to have to worry about.”
Garant: “The first 10 pages are what sucks the audience into the movie, but also in Hollywood, if your first ten pages aren’t great, that’s all anybody will read. And if the first 10 pages of your first screenplay to get passed around aren’t great, that’s all anybody will read of yours ever.”
Lennon: “Those pages have to be original, and grab you, and yank you in the movie in such a fun way. The reader will care about that more than the ending. If you really think about good movies’ endings, they’re usually pretty obvious. Bruce Willis defeats the bad guy, they blow up the Death Star, they blow up the shark, etc.”
Lennon: “I don’t think anything is as important as learning to pitch. If you’re going to be a screenwriter, you’re not just a screenwriter: you’re a performer and a salesman.”
Garant: “You have to, in 10 minutes, get the person you’re pitching the movie to completely see what you see and also love it. In many ways, it’s more important than the first draft. You should be taking acting classes, improv classes, and practicing your pitch over and over until you have it nailed.”
Lennon: “We’ve had executives hire us to rewrite movies and then not even show us the script. They just show us the pitch they got.”
Lennon: “A lot of starting-out writers spend a lot of time working on their dialogue to make sure it’s really zingy and great. The fact is, your dialogue on the entire movie will get thrown out on the day of shooting by the actors. They’ll either do a version of it, or completely rewrite it.
Garant: “Especially in comedies.”
Lennon: “Your script should be the cheese that gets Will Ferrell to do the movie, but then you should cross your fingers and hope that he’s going to come in there and do whatever the fuck he wants, and stays in the character you created and writes all-new dialogue on the set.
Garant: “With science fiction and other genres, it’s more important, because the dialogue is key to explaining the reality, but in comedy and a lot of drama, you really want the actors to make it their own. What good actors do is inhabit a character and create their own way of speaking, and that’s a good thing.”
Lennon: “Make the dialogue fun to read, but don’t fall in love with it.”
Garant: “Dialogue is not the plot.”
Lennon: “If we seem to be blocked on something, we just get drunk.”
Garant: “Really drunk.”
Lennon: “It’s worked for my people for hundreds of years. There are answers lurking at the bottom of those pints. Go look.”