Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Hopefully I'll have some new posts later in the week. For now, welcome and thanks.
If you aren't reading Amanda's blog, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Friday, June 26, 2009
He's running a great series on agency coverage, including the politics of said coverage. This is an area I've generally stayed away from since I don't want breach any confidentiality agreements I've signed over the years. As you'll see, while agency coverage is very similar to standard coverage, there are a few other factors that an agency reader might have to keep in mind as part of their job.
Anyway, check out the site. I'm currently going through the archives and enjoying many of the posts.
Part II – Getting an Agent and Selling the Script
Part III – Notes, Rewriting, Casting and SUPERBAD
Part IV – More Rewrites
Bitter Script Reader: Were you seeing dailies as they came in?
Dan Callahan: Well… Writers generally are not brought to set. The original director of College did like to have writers on set and we probably would have been on set the whole time. A lot of directors probably don’t like to have writers on because they feel like someone’s looking over their shoulder. So I understand. We went down for a couple days… and we had a good time in New Orleans… and that was the first time we got to see some dailies. And it’s hard to tell if it’s working or not… Dailies are so rough. It’s really hard to tell what you have, especially comedy because it’s so much about how it’s edited together, the pacing, the timing. And when you watch dailies there’s none of that there, so it’s really hard to get a feeling. So that’s all we saw, what we knew. Occasionally we’d get updates from the producers, but [after that] we didn’t see anything until we saw a cut of the movie. And the cut we saw was pretty far along so any issues we had wouldn’t have mattered. Not that they’d listen, but if we came in with a bunch of notes, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Once the project is sold and you’re done with the rewrites and it starts shooting, you’re done. It’s their movie now, which is tough.
BSR: Is there a part of you that was thinking, “Maybe they know what they’re doing? Maybe this will work?”
DC: With Deb [Hagan] as a director, [this was her first feature, so] we hadn’t seen any of her stuff. We had no idea how it was gonna look, how it was gonna be directed. [As far as the producers,] I liked [their earlier movie] Waiting… So you’re just hoping they can make something really good, really funny. At the end of the day you hope that the producers and directors know more about the actual making of the film than you do. It’s a collaborative process and you have to live with it, you have to deal with it. There’s things that they’re gonna do that you’re gonna like; there’s things that you’re probably not gonna like. It’s never gonna be your vision. So you just gotta live with it. That’s the way it is.
BSR: Did you end up seeing it in a theatre with an audience?
DC: We got them to show us a cut [ahead of time], so we kinda knew already what was coming out. We were told it was pretty far along. It’s hard because you’re so close to it, you could be overreacting to some stuff. Maybe it’s not as bad as you think it is. Maybe you’re just sick of it… and so it’s hard. You feel like “Maybe I’m not laughing because I know what’s coming. I know every joke.” So you chalk a lot of it up to that. That might not end up being the case in the end, but you end up trying to find a reason why you’re feeling the way you are.
BSR: When it came out, were you obsessively tracking the box office and the reviews?
DC: No, I didn’t look at the box office. Adam did. We both were in Chicago that weekend visiting family. A news channel wanted to do a story on us because we were local guys, and we flew home to do that. I did go see the movie with my parents sitting behind me, which… if you’ve seen the movie…
BSR: Yeah… I wouldn’t want to be in that position.
DC: It was my parents and two of their friends came also and I had already told them I didn’t want them to see the movie because it was obviously inappropriate for them. But they insisted on coming and it was… it was tough. It was tough literally having your mom behind you with some of the stuff going on.
BSR: I can imagine.
DC: Sweating bullets, you know? But I think we had an idea of what it was gonna do. We knew it wasn’t Superbad.
BSR: In that sense was it a relief that a few weeks before it came out, you sold Demoted?
DC: Yeah, Demoted was done quite a while before College so, yeah, it is nice to have something else.
BSR: You had the next one in the hopper before any reaction to College.
DC: The other thing is, at the end of the day for a writer, if people are gonna look at you for jobs, they’re gonna read your script. They’re not gonna watch the movie because it’s less about the writer when it comes to seeing what’s on the screen. So we felt confident that with the writing and the scripts and the drafts that they could get a good idea of what we wanted to do. So it doesn’t matter how College turned out for us. People are gonna try to blame you but people who work in the business are not gonna blame the writer.
If somebody’s looking to hire me for a job or wants to read my material, that’s what they’re looking at. They’re not going to go watch College – they’re going to physically get the script and read it. And they’re either gonna like it or they won’t. Writers, when it’s a bad movie, they get away with it. As long as it’s a good script. Now if it’s as bad as the film turned out to be, then you’ve got a problem. But we never felt that way. We always felt that College was a strong script and that people who read it would like it whether they’d like the movie or not.
So that’s a situation where you just try to write the best material possible. To laugh out loud reading a comedy is a hard thing to do. If you can get people to physically laugh out loud, that’s a sign you’re on the right track. I think College has some of those moments. Demoted definitely has those moments. That’s what gets people excited about something. So after College, you’re like “Can I do this again?” And it’s nerve-wracking because you’re not sure you can do it again. Was it a fluke? A one time thing? And after everyone of them it becomes that.
BSR: Are you happy with the process on Demoted?
DC: Yeah, strangely enough the shooting draft came very full circle to the original. We changed a lot, but at the end of the day, I was asked to put back a lot [of the original stuff.] Which was good, and it’s rare when you come back and the director says, “Put that back in.” It’s much closer to the first draft than College. It’s still different. There are still things that I have issues with, but it’s much closer to the original than College was.
But that’s also a case where there’s gonna be far more adlibbing because of your cast. You’ve got a guy like David Cross who’s… a thousand times funnier than me, he’s gonna come up with better shit than I came up with. So... you’re cool with that.
I had a much better relationship with the director on Demoted. Pretty good relationship with producers on Demoted. When I fought for notes, as long as I had a reasonable reason and came up with an intelligent rebuttal to a note, they’d generally say, “Okay, you’re right.” So there’s less of those holes where things were pulled out. I spent a lot more time on set in that movie, so I was definitely more involved.
But still, at the end of the day, they go off and they make their movie and it’s not about you any more.
If you're curious about Demoted, check out the trailer from Cannes in this the article at Collider. Demoted stars Michael Vartan (“Alias”), David Cross (“Arrested Development”), Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Sara Foster (“90210”), and Constance Zimmer (“Entourage”).
The synopsis provided to Empire Online reads:
Mike (Sean Astin) and Rodney (Michael Vartan) are mid-level employees with a fondness for playing pranks on office jerk Ken Castro (David Cross). But when their kindly boss dies, Castro is promoted to his place and Mike and Rodney are demoted to the secretarial pool. Where, unsurprisingly, they don't cope too well.
Thanks again to Dan Callahan for all his time and insight.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Bitter Script Reader: Taking out the subplot of Kevin (Drake Bell) constantly bumping into his ex during the college weekend is another huge change. That’s probably fifteen pages of scenes that now have to be replaced with something new.
Dan Callahan: It’s funny because I watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall and said we’d done all that in the original draft of College. If I’d known Forgetting Sarah Marshall was going to be such a hit I’d have fought harder for all of that stuff to stay in the script because in the original draft his ex-girlfriend is there with the new boyfriend, who goes to school there. And to me, it amps up the stakes of what’s going on…. He’s just like, “Can this get any worse?” To me it gives a lot more depth to what he’s going through and what he’s trying to overcome in the course of a weekend. Everything that can go wrong, happens and at some point he’s gotta come through it and learn from it.
BSR: And in the original script there’s no subplot about the high school kids lying to the college girls about being in college themselves.
DC: In the script they know. That was a note because they felt the college girls wouldn’t hang out with this guys. Our point was that these girls are freshmen, so there’s not much difference in age there. Literally a year apart in age. It’s not that big a leap.
BSR: And it sets up where the audience knows that when the main character tells a lie, you know he’s gonna get caught at the worst possible time. The girl is going to shut him out, and then he’s going to have to do some grand apology. And we’ve seen that before. And I thought it was neat in the first draft that you completely avoided the issue.
DC: Our attitude was like “Fuck it. That’s the way most people would go with it.” And that’s the note we got that we had to go with, but originally they were just honest about it.
BSR: They know from the start in your first draft.
DC: It’s more about them blowing off the girls and the girls getting mad… That’s another one of those big moments that got taken out and because of that you lose a lot of the heart. Him getting over the girlfriend and then going back to high school and saying "I’m over you…" that’s a nice moment to have. And it’s sold more in the original draft.
BSR: And the girlfriend is much more of a presence in your first draft.
DC: She’s got some funny moments…. There also is that sort of patheticness where he’s not over her. He kind of does want to get back together with her. Her being there makes it even worse, but at the end of the day he realizes it’s not the best thing for him… this girl wasn’t right for him. It took a really crazy, shitty weekend for him to realize that, but he did. As opposed into the movie, it becomes him trying to prove his ex-girlfriend wrong. “I’ll show her I’m not who she thinks I am.” I preferred him taking the weekend – I felt it was more original – taking a weekend to get over this girl, and he does.
BSR: So many of these changes ended affecting the second act. And in taking that out, all the stuff you got hit for in the reviews had to be added. There was a recurring theme in the reviews that attacked the movie as sadistic or homophobic. There was one review that said the filmmakers seemed to need to work through some kind of repressed homosexuality, and I read the draft with interest and can say that none of that stuff is in there. The whole bit where they have to do body shots off the hairy guy – none of that shit’s in there!
DC: The gay frat house was never in there. That was one of the producer’s ideas. That they thought would be funny…. There might have been a little subtext with Bearcat… Yeah, so, those are notes you get… and that’s where producers or whoever comes in and thinks they have a funnier idea than you and they tell you to go write it and you don’t have a choice.
There’s nothing wrong with actors coming in and improving. Particularly guys who are comedians because they might come up with something funnier than what you did. But I think it’s important to get what’s on the page so you’ve got those different versions… Certain lines are written for a specific reason. There are a lot of changes, as you saw, from our original draft. That first draft that we went out with was always my favorite, I think it’s the best version. And a lot of stuff that got taken out was stuff that I really miss when I watch the movie.
And the other thing that happens is in these writing sessions you’ve got a lot of people’s opinions and the script often becomes a mishmash of people’s opinions. And as the drafts go on it becomes a Frankenstein of all these versions. We went through two directors, so you’ve got notes from the first director that might still be in the script and then you bring on a new director and they’ve got their own notes. Then the guys from State Street who were set to produce ended up pulling out because of differences they had with the producers at Element so now you’ve got so many people coming and going. And you’ve got a draft with so many opinions in there that it really is a struggle to keep it fluid. It’s never quite what it was before… and that’s the hardest part.
But what are you gonna do? You don’t want to get fired. You want to get paid.
BSR: And if you won’t do it they’ll just bring in somebody else.
DC: And it would just slow down the process more. You know that if you stay and get the notes done, you’re a step closer to getting the movie made. If they fire you, they have to go to other agencies, pitch other writers, meet with other writers, hire another writer. You just put the project behind weeks, or months, which only increases the chances of it not getting made.
BSR: So if you want to get paid….
DC: Take the notes. Argue for what we can argue for… and do them as quickly as possible so we can just keep going, keep going, keep going. That’s all your goal is. When I’m some writer who makes a million dollars a script, then I can go tell someone to go fuck themselves. But I’m not. You do what you have to do to keep your job. We wanted to be the last writers on the project. And we were.
Tomorrow: Reaction to the final film, and new projects.
Part V – Release and Reaction
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Interview with COLLEGE and DEMOTED Screenwriter Dan Callahan: PART III – Notes, rewriting, casting and SUPERBAD
Part II – Getting an Agent and Selling the Script
Bitter Script Reader: What kind of notes did you get? Was it stuff you generally agreed with, or was it stuff you didn’t? You said you ran through a ton of options before [in the writing process.] Did you find yourself having to do some of those?
Dan Callahan: I think in general we probably didn’t agree with most of the notes. We’d never been through the process of getting notes from producers and because it’s your work, you think you know better. You think you know the material better, and at the end of the day, you DO know the material better… as the writer. You know the characters better, the story better. Anything they suggest you’re generally going to have an answer for right on the spot.
So a lot of the notes we had issues with. But what do you do? There are certain notes that we fought against, but if there were notes that made sense to us – we might not like them, but they made sense….
BSR: You pick your battles.
DC: Yeah, [if] they could potentially make the script better, we’re more than willing to try them. Also, you’re getting paid for these. Again, every step is a motivation, so you’re gonna do the work. You’re getting paid for it, so you have to do the work.
BSR: And it’s your first script so I imagine the incentive is there even more.
DC: The ultimate goal is getting the script done. I think on College we negotiated at least two rewrites so they had to give us two shots at getting the script right. I think we did more than that… I can’t remember exactly. Occasionally you end up doing free work in there. It’s hard to get those notes, hard to have those discussions, hard to hear those notes…
BSR: Was there a point where they gave you notes and were like, “Do they even get what we’re going for with this?”
DC: Oh yeah! Believe me... they’d email the notes and I’d call Adam like, “Did you see this note?” You’re just sitting there going through each one getting pissed trying to figure out how you’re gonna do this stuff. There were some big notes that were big changes we had issues with.
BSR: I noticed in reading the script that there were at least two, maybe two and a half, subplots that seemed completely pruned out. In the original script the set up is that they’re going to see his sister on campus at the sorority house and she sends them over to the frat house.
DC: Yeah, that’s a BIG change! Right.
BSR: You take the sister completely out and it leaves a huge gap in the second act.
DC: That was a note we were not happy about, but for whatever reason they wanted the sister out. We had a problem with it because it was the motivation. It gave the opportunity to go to that specific school. The original plot of College was very similar to Forgetting Sarah Marshall in that it was about a kid who gets dumped and needs to get away for a weekend to get over this break up.
BSR: And I liked the way you set that up in the original draft better too. In the first script, right on page one, he gets this self-possessed break-up letter from the girlfriend but in the movie she comes and essentially breaks up with him for being boring.
DC: Yeah and that was one of the first things I wrote too. Sort of a funny note…
BSR: I laughed out loud at it because it was such a strong voice for that character.
DC: [In the script,] as you’re hearing the note, he’s watching her blow some other guy in a car. In the first two pages, this guy is at his lowest point – where everything he thought is flipped on its head and not only that, this girl’s left him for a college guy, which is setting up something we pay off later and it was that sense that “Okay, I just went through the worst week of my life…” They hear the speech about the great weekend at college, and the kid’s like, “That’s what I need. I need a vacation. Because everywhere I go, I’m gonna run into her… And even better, I’ve got a sister already at college so that gives me a place to go, a place to stay and an excuse to tell my parents why I’m going up there.”
And the minute you take the sister out, it becomes “Why are they going to this school? Where are they staying? Why are they staying there?” With the sister in there, they assume they’re staying at the sorority house, which is like heaven to them. They get there, the sister’s like “You can’t stay here. We have these charter rules. Guys are not allowed to stay in the house. But I’ve set up with our brother fraternity house a place for you to stay.” And that gets them into the fraternity. It’s a logical reason.
BSR: Whereas in the film, he goes up for Morris’s (Kevin Covais) college visitation – which is also in the first version. I’ll admit I thought it was a little strange there were multiple motivations for the guys to go up.
DC: We wanted to give each guy something going in. In the original draft, it was: Main guy crushed over girlfriend. Totally about getting over her, like Forgetting Sarah Marshall – and this was WAY before Forgetting Sarah Marshall. That’s his reason. For Morris, it’s he’s got an academic reason. And the Carter character (Andrew Caldwell), who’s different in the script than he is in the movie…
BSR: Yeah, I was going to get to that one too…
DC: He’s purely going to get laid. He wants to fuck a college chick. So they each had their thing. The sister helped get them in the fraternity house in a logical way – because they can’t stay with the sister. The minute you pull the sister out…. That’s a big battle we had. How do we sell it [to the audience?] In the movie, they’re set up in the dorms…
BSR: Which is a logical enough reason.
DC: That’s logical enough, but then… [they leave because] the dorm sucks, and the vague notion that one of the guys has a cousin who used to be in that fraternity. So now you’re coming up with very loose reasons and logic for them to stay in this fraternity and it’s tough because we had a rock solid reason for them to be there.
BSR: And then the frat house is a much larger part of the movie than in the script. In the movie there’s this runner about how they don’t have any pledges to beat up on, so that’s why they’re so eager to take the guys in…
DC: And in the original draft it’s just a place to stay. These guys don’t love the fact that the high school kids are staying there, but because it’s their sister sorority, and they’re friends with the girls and they hook up with the girls and don’t want to piss them off, they’re willing to let them crash there. They still put them in the basement and they still sort of shit on them because they’re high school kids and they don’t really want them there, but they’ve sort of been pushed onto them. But it’s more than some other reason.
BSR: Like “we want to torture someone.”
DC: So what happens is when you start taking a piece out - by taking that sister piece out - you just named five problems that we had to answer. And we answered them, but none of them felt as strong as what we originally had.
BSR: And I think the other change that affected the script pretty drastically… I read a lot of the reviews and most of them go “Superbad ripoff.” But the original script doesn’t read like that at all because Carter is not a poor man’s Jonah Hill in the script.
DC: He’s the Stifler [from American Pie] of the group.
BSR: He’s the guy who thinks he’s a lady killer. He’s probably been laid a couple of times because he’s described as handsome and cocky. And a lot of the dialogue is the same, but the attitude behind it…
DC: It’s completely different and that was… we never wrote a fat kid in the movie.
The fat kid character was supposed to be Stifler. Supposed to be good looking. He’s a lady killer in high school. And the original draft is that when he goes to college, he’s not a lady killer there and he’s frustrated because he’s so used to getting girls, now he’s out of his league and he can’t get the girl.
BSR: Now he’s a small fish in a big pond.
DC: Exactly. Sort of the crossover from high school to college. Their lives in high school are one way and their lives in college are different. And the original draft had more of their lives in high school, setting up the things… like there’s a high school party that gets busted and they run away. In the movie, the high school party got taken out, but they kept the college version so when they get busted there [it’s a punchline without the set-up]. This is what happens when you take things out. Domino effect kills you.
Carter was one of those things in casting - we don’t even know - we just get one day “Here’s who’s playing Carter” and we look him up and go, “It’s a fat kid. This makes no sense.” The other problem is that once they cast the fat kid, they never came back and said, now that they cast a fat kid, we should probably go back and rewrite the character. So now you have a fat kid who ends up hooking up with the hottest girl in the group and it makes no sense! Having your character suddenly be a fat kid and not rewriting [for] that is a major issue. A major problem. Then you should cast the girl opposite him to be a fat girl… Or just throw in a line of dialogue that says she’s a chubby chaser. It’s funny. Make a joke out of it.
BSR: Once you make him a fat kid, it plays like Superbad. Especially with the new introduction to the group. In the movie, the first scene where Carter shows up he comes in, scarfs down food and makes some crack about Of Mice and Men being gay…
DC: And that was stuff the director put in that we didn’t even do.
BSR: You didn’t even write those scenes?
DC: I do not remember those lines. We had a new opening where he comes in, with the mom getting the kids ready. There was nothing about Of Mice and Men [in any of our scripts.]
BSR: I had the feeling watching it that it might have been an improv. I got the sense that there was a lot of letting that guy run loose.
DC: Our movie and Superbad shot really close together. Almost at the same time, I think maybe we were a month behind. When Superbad came out – a lot sooner because College switched from Lions Gate to MGM – it delayed the release again because why release on top of Superbad. But when I saw Superbad, I was like “the characters are identical” and it sucks because I knew that people were gonna think that we ripped off Superbad. I never read Superbad [before writing College.] I loved Superbad. I think it’s fucking hilarious. But it was definitely gonna play like we ripped off Superbad.
BSR: Especially with the first scene of the three of them together in the movie, with Carter ripping on Morris and complaining to Kevin (Drake Bell) about “Why do we have to hang out with this guy?”
DC: It’s a similar set of characters, but it was never meant to be that way. That was just something where the kid who played Carter came in, they liked him, and decided that he was just the funniest guy instead of going with it as written. It really was an issue when I saw the movie from a writer’s perspective, because I knew that there were certain situations that he was in in the movie that don’t make sense now because of who they cast. It would have been so easy to fix it. It just never got fixed. We were never asked to make changes.
BSR: It’s like they were unaware it was a problem.
DC: I just can’t understand watching it being filmed and not realizing you have to answer “Oh, this is a different kind of guy.” I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t get fixed. Change one little thing and [see] what a domino effect it has on him and the script.
Tomorrow: More about rewriting.
Part IV – More Rewrites
Part V – Release and Reaction
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Interview with COLLEGE and DEMOTED Screenwriter Dan Callahan: PART II – Getting an Agent and Selling the Script
Our chat with screenwriter Dan Callahan continues as he answers the question most aspiring writers want to know: “How do you get an agent?”
Dan Callahan: There’s all these levels to writing movies. First is coming up with a good idea, or a simple idea like College, that’s so simple that people are like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” That’s hard enough as it is. It’s hard to come up with something that’s original, or something that’s not so original but that you can put your own twist on it. Then you’ve gotta [write it up], and then you have to finish the draft, which a lot of people don’t do. Then you have to show it to people, and get notes, and make all those changes. Then finally it’s like “Okay, I did ALL that stuff and I have a script” and then it’s, “Shit. I don’t have anyone to send my script around. I don’t have an agent. I’m just sitting on material that I’ve worked months for and how do I get it out to the community?”
Getting an agent is impossible because there’s that Catch-22 everyone complains about where production companies won’t look at your stuff unless it comes through an agent. If I can’t get an agent, how can I get it in front of [them?] It’s very rare you can just query an agent – specifically at the big agencies – and they’re gonna take a look at this thing. It’s happened, I heard a story… I think Hitch was a query letter, so I’m told. So it does happen, but I think it’s very difficult.
Query letters for the most part don’t work. A lot of times there’s legal reasons for that…. At the same time [agents] are working with professional writers, trying to get them work, so do they really have time to read some dude from wherever who says he wrote the next great script?
The long story short is that Adam had a friend at an agency. It’s one of the easiest ways in – checking all your contacts and all you need is one. Whether it’s a friend of a friend of a friend who works at a production company or is already a screenwriter, or a director, producer… It’s finding someone you know, or have a connection to who’s in the business.
The fact that Adam and I moved out here, and lived out here for some years… we had contacts. One of the reasons he knew the girl at this agency [was that he lived out here in LA.] If he’d been in Chicago, he wouldn’t have known this person. So it’s important that if you want to be a professional screenwriter, you gotta live in LA. Spend numerous years out here and over the course of those years, you’re gonna meet people in the business. You’re gonna have other friends trying to do the same thing you do and eventually one of those people are gonna be in a position where they can help you out or they can at least pass the script along to somebody.
And that’s exactly what happened. We gave it to a friend at ICM. She had read pages earlier and liked it and then when we finished the script we went back and gave it to her. And it was sort of bad timing because she liked it… and then told us she was quitting [the agency business.] We were like, “Ugh… just when we think we’ve got an agent at a big agency, she says, I’m leaving to be a writer.” She’s gone on to a very successful career of writing books.
What was nice of her was before she left, she passed the script off to a colleague of hers at ICM. He was from Chicago. Adam and I are both from Chicago, so she thought we’d all hit it off. We thought that a guy would be good for something like College… She gave it to him, a guy named Nate Ross. He read it on vacation and came back and was like, “I’ll take it out next week.” It literally was that quick. He read it. He knew what it was. He liked it. I don’t even remember if he had any notes. If he did, they were minor. Stuff we could fix in a week. He basically said, “Fix this. Get it ready. We’ll take it out next week.”
Bitter Script Reader: Wow.
DC: But the reason we had our agent was because we felt we wrote a strong piece of material that was professional in every way, that was funny, and all that stemmed from all that stuff I was talking about. That all lead to this moment and we got our one shot with this guy and he felt we delivered and because of that, he took us on. Now, if he’d hated College… it would have been “Okay we need to figure out another way into the agencies.” Maybe we wouldn’t have ended up at a big agency. Maybe we would have ended up at a smaller agency. It might never have sold. But the fact of the matter is, when we had that opportunity, the script delivered and that was the start.
BSR: Did it sell fairly quickly once you went out with it?
DC: No. It didn’t. You’ll hear these stories about how something was a hot spec and every studio is bidding on it, but that wasn’t our situation at all. It went out to everybody and the way it usually works is your agent takes your script and he sends it out to various producers he has relationships with and the ones that like it come back and say, “We like College and we have a relationship at studio A… We’d like to bring the script into Paramount… or Sony, and that’s how it works. Generally scripts don’t go to studios. They usually go to producers first, who usually have deals or relationships and they bring it into the studio and say “Hey, this is a piece of material we’d like to do. Will you buy it for us?”
So we had multiple producers taking it out all over town. College took quite a while [to sell]. At the time there were a couple teen comedies floating around that we were competing with. A lot of studios had teen comedies that had been sitting around for a while that they were having trouble getting made, so why add another one?
BSR: Yeah, “We already have ours.”
DC: When American Pie hit there was a flood of teen scripts and it never stopped. So the studios were sitting on piles of teen comedies. They weren’t making them, but they had plenty of them so they didn’t need another one. And there were people that just didn’t like the script, for whatever reason. It’s a mixture of timing, finding the right producers and finding a studio that’s looking for a funny teen comedy.
BSR: A lot of stars have to align.
DC: And it didn’t for a while. What eventually happened was there was a producer named Rene Rigal who worked at a company called State Street, that did the Barbershop movies. He read College, thought it was funny… He actually called me and Adam and was one of the most passionate producers about it that we had talked to. The script had been dying down and we weren’t sure it was going to sell so, yeah, if there’s anyone that’s this excited about our work – that’s the kind of guy you want out there.
So Rene and State Street had a deal with Fox. They took it to Fox Atomic, who at the time was trying to do a Revenge of the Nerds remake, so they passed because it was the same thing. Then [State Street] took it to a company called Element that was independently financed. They did Waiting… they were working on Mr. Brooks at the time. And they liked it. They had money. Rene and State Street were the ones who got the ball rolling with Element and they essentially bought it.
And it’s not like they just buy it. They optioned it first, which is the normal process that happens. Now it’s “Can you get the script to where they want it?”
BSR: And it’s on you to bring it up to snuff.
DC: The general process is: agent takes script to producers. Producers take script to studios. They option the project. The reason they don’t buy it up front is, what if they don’t make the movie? The purchase price of a script can be very expensive. So generally studios don’t want to put out hundreds of thousands of dollars, or whatever it is – six figures generally – on something they may not make. What they generally do is put out a couple thousand dollars to option it, control the rights of the script for a certain period of time.
BSR: And you get paid when it goes into production.
DC: And you get paid when it goes into production. It’s not like people think when they read in the trades that something was just flat-out bought…
BSR: Yeah, Paramount just bought it and you walk in and they hand you your Ed McMahon-sized check…
DC: Yeah, [the perception is] they hand you a big check. [In reality] that’s not the case and it’s not smart business on the studio’s part. Why put up [a lot of] money when I could put up this much money, take the option and put the script in development? Now let’s see if we can get actors and a director. Now let’s get a start date. And they literally wait until that start date before you see any purchase price, because anything can happen before that.
There’s a lot of work involved when you get to that place and it’s one of the reasons you see writers making sacrifices, doing things in their script that they might not totally agree with because at the end of the day they want to get it made. At the end of the day, it’s a much larger payday.
BSR: The difference between five figures and six figures is kind of a motivating factor.
DC: Right, you want credit and you want to get paid. Now, there can be six figure options, so it can happen that you do hit the lottery on the option.
BSR: But not with two first-time screenwriters I imagine.
DC: In our case, that wasn’t it. There weren’t studios clamoring for the project. There were people circling but it wasn’t a case where people were so hot on the spec that people were just throwing money at us. We got a very small option and now it was a matter of us getting the project in a position where we could get a director. Because this movie wasn’t about cast.
Tomorrow: Dealing with notes and rewriting, and we’ll discuss casting and the comparisons to SUPERBAD.
Part III – Notes, Rewriting, Casting and SUPERBAD
Part IV – More Rewrites
Part V – Release and Reaction
Monday, June 22, 2009
His current project, Demoted, is in post-production and stars Michael Vartan (“Alias”), David Cross (“Arrested Development”), Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Sara Foster (“90210”), and Constance Zimmer (“Entourage”). Last year, his first feature College, co-written with Adam Ellison, was released by MGM. The film was directed by first-time director Deb Hagan and starred Drake Bell, Andrew Caldwell, and Kevin Covais.
The film was neither a critical nor financial success. (Rotten Tomatoes currently rates it at 6% fresh.) When I touched base with Dan, however, I asked him to send me the draft of the script that sold (dated January 6, 2006). During the read, I discovered interesting differences between the draft the studio bought, and the film that they released.
Dan was kind enough to sit down with me for a 90-minute chat that should be of interest to every aspiring screenwriter. Over the next five days, we’ll trace the entire experience of becoming a working screenwriter, from finishing the script, to getting an agent, to making a sale, to dealing with notes from producers and studios; the sort that could change the entire shape of a movie.
The Bitter Script Reader: Thanks for sending me the script. It’s interesting to see the version that sold versus the version that was produced
Dan Callahan: A lot of differences.
BSR: Yeah. Many, many differences. And some stuff that was totally verbatim. Half that trailer was verbatim from your original script.
DC: There’s moments that are, and there’s moments that are totally different.
BSR: We’ll get to this later, but I couldn’t help but notice going through the reviews that a lot of the stuff you got hit over wasn’t in the original script.
DC: Probably not. I could probably sit here and point out those differences and why it was a problem that they were taken out. And I think it affects the movie. But we’ll talk about that.
BSR: Was College the first script you wrote?
DC: I studied writing in college. I was an English major with an emphasis in writing. As a kid, I’d write stories, was always creatively inclined. Art inclined. I definitely leaned toward that kind of thing. I always liked the creative writing and I didn’t like any other type of writing. I’d never want to be a journalist or write research papers. That I sucked at and didn’t enjoy. Things like create a story, I’d love to do. So while College was basically my first script, it wasn’t like I’d never written anything before.
I’d studied many forms of writing. I didn’t realize you could make a living writing movies. I never thought that there was someone out there who made a living doing that. I used to make a lot of films when I was a kid, like in school when you had to build some sort of history project… more times or not I’d option for some sort of film-oriented project. So in a weird way I was already doing this sort of stuff. I just never thought about sitting down and actually writing a film until much later.
BSR: And as far as structuring it, how did you get started?
DC: It wasn’t like I just sat down and wrote a movie. There was a class in school, a director from NYU would come out and teach like a screenwriting course: the basics. We probably had to write a short piece or something at the end of the class, so I got an idea of that. Then for me it was reading a lot of scripts, which I think is the best thing.
BSR: Yeah, so you can see how other people do it.
DC: Yeah, you know. You read a lot of stuff and I’ve always been reading scripts. To this day I would read everything I could get my hands on. Bigger scripts and what’s selling so I know what’s selling and what other writers are doing. At the end of the day it’s hard to be too original [because] so many movies have been made, so many stories have been told. And there’s things you can learn from other people’s scripts like somebody’s style, or a device and it’s something you can incorporate into your scripts…. And also just the proper structure. Half the time you’ll read an amateur script and anyone who’s written or read a lot of scripts knows immediately if that guy knows what he’s doing or not. You know what I mean?
BSR: I know exactly what you mean.
DC: Like the structure’s off and you know that this is a problem. Odds are it’s not gonna be a good script because they’re not even gonna have it in the right structure, or format, which is all just part of being a professional writer. You’ve [probably] seen those scripts that have been randomly sent out and they’ve taken no effort to take the time to research how are scripts written. “How do I present them to people?”
BSR: “What font do I use?”
DC: All that stuff is really important to making your script look professional. And if your script looks professional, people are going to take it seriously and they might actually read it. But if your script comes in Word, or some other form, or it’s got some elaborate cover page… all that stuff [will probably keep it from being taken seriously.]
BSR: Yeah, it’s like “Strike One, Strike Two” before they even open the cover.
DC: This was stuff I didn’t even know until I was looking at professional scripts. It’s important to do that stuff so that it looks professional. So for me, reading scripts by professional writers who are out there selling, that’s the best education - that’s better than any screenwriting course or any of these books…. I’d rather sit down and read twenty scripts of working screenwriters and see what they do and try to mimic that as opposed to some guy who’s just teaching a screenwriting course, but never worked as a professional screenwriter. It’s two different things.
There’s writing and there’s the business and they go hand in hand. The more professional your scripts look, the more seriously you’ll be taken as a writer. Reading scripts was the first thing that got me… before I ever wrote College, I had read a ton of scripts. Nowadays with the internet and having access to scripts online, there’s no reason someone can’t go and find scripts and read, look at it, and go get Final Draft…. Access to interviews of writers, and some of my favorite books are just interviews with writers and how they did it.
[A short digression about DVD commentaries follows, leading me to remark on Star Trek: Generations commentary by Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga as a rare example of writers having the chance to be candid about all the different influences on the screenplay and why certain choices were made.]
DC: Yeah, and it would be nice to be honest about the process and why certain decisions were made. Why the studio wanted this, and this is how it turned out because of that, for either good or bad. [Most people] just watch the movie and that’s it. They don’t think about all the thought that went into every single line of dialogue, or every scene….
BSR: Or scenes that had to be cut, and so on. To get back to the writing, how long did it take you to write the first draft?
DC: I don’t know exactly, but it took a couple months. It was not a quick process. You’d think College is such a simple idea but part of that script was finding exactly how it was gonna work and where it was gonna go. It wasn’t something where we had a very big treatment. We had a really rough idea of what we wanted and essentially I just wanted to take high school and college and pair them together. The original idea was that it was gonna be a college town that was dominated by the local college and you have a group of high school kids and they’re always put down by the college kids that run this town. Never allowed into parties, they’re made fun of because they’re in high school and younger… That was the original idea… and they’re sort of fed up with dealing with this…
They want to meet the college girls and this is sort of how they do that. That sort of stemmed into “Is there another way to bring those two worlds together?” And that led to “What is something everyone has been through?” Most people have done college visits and once you open that up there’s many different ways. Is it with their parents? Is it not with their parents? Why are they going to this particular college? That opens up a whole new world of ideas, and the only movie that we’d seen that did that was PCU, which we liked, so we were surprised it hadn’t [been done.]… None of them had done the most simple thing you could do, the college visit.
BSR: Most everybody would relate to that. Everyone goes off for these weekends.
DC: PCU did it with a single kid and we felt there was more that we could do with the general idea. That was the start of it and then I’d say that after a couple months we had that first draft.
BSR: How did the two of you divide up the work on that? Were you always in the room together? Would you pick scenes? Would one of you write and the other rewrite?
DC: We didn’t write together. We wrote primarily by email. Some of the stuff I had written before Adam got involved because I’d had the idea for a while. Often when I get an idea, a scene will pop into my head and so I’ll write it down and it’ll give me a gauge as to if it’ll work.
BSR: Give you a tone to work off of.
DC: Yeah, it sort of sets the tone. For instance, there’s a scene where a kid in the cafeteria gives a speech about what happened to him…
BSR: The speech in the trailer.
DC: It’s this crazy, long speech that was the first thing I wrote for College. In fact, I wrote that before I even told Adam the idea. That speech kinda sums up the whole movie and it set the whole tone for the movie. From there it was “how do we take this speech?” Either we’d do the opposite of it and none of this shit would happen to [our lead characters] or they have an even crazier weekend. So then we just started bouncing ideas back and forth.
BSR: Figuring out the beats of the story.
DC: Exactly. Then the only time we sat in the room together was after the script was bought and [we had to do rewrites.] Mostly it was talking on the phone and shooting email back and forth. I’d write up a scene and send it to Adam. He’d do something and send it back. Just that process.
BSR: How do you handle disputes?
DC: I don’t remember any huge differences. The way that movie is, there are only certain things you could do. A lot of times you’ve written yourself into a position where your characters can only do one or two choices. You’d think there’d be ten different options but there’s really not because it wouldn’t make sense [for that character to do some of those things]... We work it out one way or the other. Often it was trying it one way, and you’d read it and it doesn’t work. So you go maybe the other way, and it’s like “Oh he was right.”
BSR: How many drafts did you go through and how long before you knew it was ready to be shown to people?
DC: There were a ton of drafts… because for me, I rewrite a lot. So by the time we did one or two or three drafts, we’d done so many options…. I went back through some of the College stuff the other day and we had about 200 pages of material that was alternate versions of scenes. I would take a scene and write it five different ways, and then go with the version I liked best. So in a way, my rewrites were happening all the time…. Almost to a fault because it slows me down.
I’ll spend days rewriting, where some people can just blow through a draft and get it done and fix it up later. I have a really hard time doing that because if it doesn’t feel like where it’s supposed to be, it’s hard for me to get into it. I end up rewriting until I get to the point where I feel it’s finished to me. Later, you’ll get a note that changes that, but at the time I’ve taken it as far as I can…. I could probably write two more movies out of the [extra] stuff I have. I tend to overwrite, just because I like to have options. Which also helps later when I get done because I’ve tried a lot of what people are going to suggest. I’m not saying it’s the best way. It’s not the quickest way. And with College it probably came because we didn’t have it so outlined out.
BSR: You had more of a wide-open playing field.
DC: There are a lot of different things you could do with that middle section [of the script.] It’s a long, long process. We waited a long time to show it to people. We waited until we felt like we’d taken it as far as we could take it, and were sick of it, that now it’s like “Let’s show it to people.”
The rewriting is important because when you do decide to show it to an agent or a producer, you’re not gonna get a second chance, so you have to keep rewriting this thing to the point… that you’ve got it locked down as much as you can. [The notes you get from friends] might be the same notes you get from the studio, so you might as well get them now and get them fixed, so that when you get the agent he’s not coming back with notes you could have gotten months ago. You might not get him to read that next draft.
It helps to write with a partner because you’re constantly giving each other notes. You’re fixing each other’s problems. It’s someone else to filter material through. By then you hope that you’ve got a solid enough draft to start showing people.
BSR: Which leads to the question everyone is waiting for… once you get it to that point, how do you get an agent?
And we’ll end today’s segment on that cliffhanger. Come back tomorrow for the answer to the question I certainly get asked the most often: “How do you get an agent?”
Part II – Getting an Agent and Selling the Script
Part III – Notes, Rewriting, Casting and SUPERBAD
Part IV – More Rewrites
Part V – Release and Reaction
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Or to put even a finer point on it - screenplays are written to be sold.
A novel or a poem is a work of art unto itself. A screenplay is merely the beginning - the blueprint for the film. If you want to work in Hollywood, never forget this.
I don't fault anyone for trying to make an artistic expression in their writing, but at the end of the day, this is a business and the sooner one embraces that, the easier their time will be. Writers like to get all huffy about their artistic integrity - and BELIEVE ME, as a writer I understand that impulse - if you're writing a spec script, someone is going to have to buy it.
So if your agent tells you, "You know, maybe you should rethink the graphic incest rape scene because it's going to scare off female viewers, which will scare off buyers," they're not necessarily trying to stifle your creative voice and tear the heart out of your story. They're just trying to make the script more appealing.
Don't assume take this post as advocating watering down and homogenizing your story. Strive to be bold, strive to be original - that can get you noticed too. But there will undoubtedly be times when rewriting in order to make a sale will be a necessary evil.
A good writer can take a story that means a great deal to them, and execute it in a way that will make that story meaningful to an audience. The difference between a writer with a sale and a writer with a spec often is that the former can balance their creative desires with the tastes and expectations of an audience.
Sometimes the most important question a writer can ask themselves is "Who will be interested in seeing this story?"
Monday, June 15, 2009
Among the revelations:
"As of the end of May,
- only 14 out of the 227 spec scripts that went wide had sold; and
- only one studio had bought more than 3 scripts so far this year (Warner Bros., with 5)."
"The conventional wisdom among the executives and producers I have been talking to is that the studios simply aren't buying as much material as they used to...
"For better or worse, the studios seem not to be buying things they don't intend to make, and when it comes to spec scripts, they're looking for projects that are ready to go (i.e., a script that is damned close to shootable, with an attached filmmaker with whom they know they want to work)."
More information in depth at the link. Check it out.
1) Members who don't read the materials - Big pet peeve of mine. There are always going to be weeks where someone will have read everything and still not have very deep notes. That's normal and it's bound to happen from time to time.... but if you notice several consecutive weeks go by without a particular person speaking up, it might be appropriate to talk to them one-on-one and see if they've given your work its due. Now, their silence might be due to something like...
2) The loudest members are the only ones heard. Every discussion has its ebbs and flows, with different people taking the lead. I'm fortunate that my group is generally pretty good about making sure everyone is heard, and that dissenting opinions are debated with respect. Make sure you don't have a bully. Nothing cuts discussions faster than someone who won't let others be heard, or who rudely dismisses the opposing viewpoints of everyone else. A group can't thrive if its members are afraid to express themselves.
3) Group-think. This is the more insidious result of a few loud voices. Eventually the group notes become a Frankenstein's monster. Let's say Person A comes in thinking only "Well, the dialogue can use some punching up and maybe trim a few scenes down." Then Person B expresses that the turning point into the third act is contrived, that the love story makes no sense and keeps repeating the same points over and over again without advancement, and that the problem isn't just that the dialogue is weak - it's that the lead sounds schizophrenic because the plot requires him to act all over the map. At that point, Person A says, "Oh, none of that bugged me before... but it does now!" Then, every other member starts realizing that Person B has a point.
Now, in a lot of cases this could be helpful. You want people to help improve your scripts... but what if Person B is just a relentless nitpicker who never bought into the story for one reason or another - and the other five people were so sucked into your world from the first five pages that these flaws barely occurred to them? Instead of being a celebration of how you got most of the group to suspend disbelief, you now find yourself...
4) Rewriting only to please the group. I've seen this happen before - one member comes in with a promising idea, but the tone and the style is ephemeral enough that each member has a different idea of how the story should be told. Is it a comedy? A thriller? A disturbing indie drama? The script takes on more personalities than Sybil as the notes after each submission push the writer into a different direction.
Rewriting JUST to please the group is a losing prospect. At a certain point, you should have a firm idea of the kind of story you want to tell and stick to it. If you're lucky, most of the group will see the merit in it. If you have a few passionate defenders, then you know you're onto something.
Now if all six people say, "This needs work," then my advice is not an invitation for you to say, "Fuck you! I know this is good!" The bar for script sales is set pretty high, and if the dislike of the script is that high, take it as a portent of how the script will be received in the industry. If you're going out on a limb make sure you've got at least one VERY strong defender with you.
The writers of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 used to say that they didn't stop themselves from writing obscure jokes out of fear that the whole audience wouldn't get it. They said that in cases like that, their attitude was "The RIGHT people will get this."
Groups are wonderful, helpful and great for motivation. Just make sure you know how to use them.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
I remember when I lived in Des Moines, I was in a group of mostly journalists who wanted an outlet for creative writing. It was fantastic.
Then when I moved to LA, I dropped in my friend's writing group a couple times. It was filled with people who were dedicated to becoming professional film or televisions writers. I eventually stopped because the quality of writing was so bad, I didn't want the feedback of the group.
I guess it's all about the people.
I couldn't have said it better myself. One of the most important things about taking any kind of feedback is knowing who's giving you notes. Every reader will bring their own biases and perspectives to their critiques. Maybe the guy who tells you to cut your romantic subplot doesn't just think the plot is weak - maybe he hates romantic subplots in any form! Or perhaps one member of your group hates your edgy, sexy thriller because he's a prude when it comes to sex and nudity.
The quality of the other members' individual writing could be taken as a warning sign. However, I'd argue that bad writers can still give good notes. Being able to pick out and critique weaknesses is a completely different skill set from inventing something whole cloth.
It's always useful and informative to see what kind of reaction your work gets, but if you're going to rely on that reaction to guide you in making changes, it helps to understand what provoked that reaction in your reader.
Of the seven other people in my writing group, I went to school with two of them, and have known three others for at least three years. Only one member of the group was a complete unknown to me, so by and large, I know these people. I know the movies they like, the movies they dislike and their personal opinions on a wide range of topics.
So if you have a member who's high-minded and prefers the comedies of Wilder to gross-out antics of Rob Schneider, then you might not need to heed his warning about your hilarious joke involving an outhouse, a snorkel, and a near-drowning. However, if the guy who swears by American Pie and Dumb and Dumber has an equally venomous reaction... maybe Mr. High Brow has a point.
Ideally, your writing group will give you an idea of how your movie will play to a wide audience. Hopefully there are a few people in there representative of the perfect target audience for your film, along with a few other people who could be won over with the right execution.
Or to put it in political terms - if you're lucky, there'll be people who represent your base and your swing votes.
This isn't to say that those who say your script "just isn't my kind of movie" should be completely ignored. They might very well give you some good insights. I just wouldn't waste all my energy on rewriting the script just to please that person.
The bottom line is, I trust the people in my writing group. It's rare that the group is in total 100% agreement about a particular script. However, on numerous occasions, MOST of the members have arrived with very similar issues to discuss in a particular script, targeting similar weaknesses.
As disheartening as it is to sit through some of those sessions when your script is on the block, it's much preferable to getting two people who love it all, two people who hate everything about it, one person who thinks the first act is brilliant and the climax is crap, and one person who hates the opening, but loves the ending. If you get a scattered reaction like this, and it's not something that can be explained by the viewing preferences of the individual members, then you might have to consider that the script's identity is so fluid that everyone read it expecting a different kind of film.
The bottom line is: when seeking feedback, know whom you're getting feedback from. If you're going to do a big rewrite to please one person, make sure that person is the kind of viewer you'd want to please in the first place.
Next time: the perils of a writing group.
Monday, June 8, 2009
By starting a writing group, we've been able to establish firmer deadlines. It's easier to make yourself write when you've got seven other people nagging you for your pages, and giving you feedback as you go. The way we started was everyone came in with a pitch or two or three. Some people had full treatments, others just had a premise, a logline and a vague outline of the structure of the film. We all gave our feedback, and either pushed the writers to turn in a fleshed out treatment, or helped them develop their idea further until they were ready for that point.
If memory serves, we started this the last week of January. To date, four of us have completed at least one full draft of our screenplays (one or two of those are already on draft two or further,) another writer is very close to completing his first draft, and the remaining three are hard at work on their first acts. Impressively, each script is developing differently, and - at least in my opinion - there are no "duds" in this bunch. In fact, I'm incredibly envious of at least two of the ideas being worked on.
Writing normally is a very lonely venture. One sits in a room alone and tries to fill a blank page. Sometimes it's all too easy to get stuck, and then fall into a rut of writer's block. A good writing group won't let this happen. If someone's stuck in our group, either they bring their problem to us on their own imitative, or the group reaches out and says "How can we help?" Already, the group has put its collective brain to use in getting several of us past our problem spots. It's like having an entire writer's room help you through a rewrite. Solutions are presented and debated, and often lines end up being drawn. The group doesn't always agree - some ideas have been met with equal parts enthusiasm and incredulity - but on more than one occasion, a struggling writer has gone home, and emailed the others to say "Thanks for the session tonight... I think I know what I have to do now."
Feedback. To some writers it's a dirty word, but a smart writer recognizes that eventually he's going to push his baby out into the world, and he's probably not going to be the most objective judge of its quality. So before Mr. Wannabe sends his script off to CAA, don't you think it's a good idea he has a few people look over it to make sure it all holds together?
Certainly, every writer is only hoping to get one kind of feedback - positive. This overlooks the fact that negative feedback can help make a script BETTER. One thing I admire about my group is that the criticism is never personal, but the other members don't mince words when it comes to weak points. I know that if I get a glowing review from this bunch, I've earned it, and it makes me feel more confident about the quality of my script.
And when it sucks... well, those people have been there to say, "You can do better - and we're going to make sure you MAKE this better."
Screenwriting groups - they're like AA meetings... but you can still drink!