How to Ride an Alligator and Not Get Eaten

One of my screenwriting clients recently expressed the concern that although he’s wildly enthusiastic about creating movies, he’s worried that his work will never be taken seriously because he wasn’t able to go to college and get a formal degree. As can be said of almost any field of endeavor, having a piece of parchment is no more a guarantee of overnight success than lacking one is automatically a fast-track to failure. What gets anyone from Point A to Point B – regardless of the real or perceived obstacles – is the passion, the discipline and the confidence to know that your dream is something you want to do more than anything in the world. To that end, I instructed him to run, not walk, to his nearest bookstore and buy a copy of Pen Densham’s new book, Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (and not getting eaten).

If there’s anything this iconic writer, director, producer, USC adjunct professor, and genuinely nice guy hasn’t done to bring his visions of cinema magic to the rest of us, we’d be hard-pressed to know what it is. A school dropout at age 15, Densham was sent by his father to an interview at an electric blanket factory that he might learn a useful trade to support himself. “Luckily, the owner saw through my feigned interest in thermal bedding,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “and told me he was doing me a favor by passing on me (and probably saving a few people from electrocution).” It’s this crackling wit that not only prevails throughout the chapters but also comes through in an insightful interview that attests to his generosity in helping new screenwriters find their way through sometimes treacherous waters.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


Q: When did you first know that writing and producing movies was in your blood and something that you absolutely had to pursue?

A: As a small child, my folks made 35mm theatrical short films and used me riding a live alligator in one of them –

Q: Excuse me, but did you just say a live alligator?

A: Uh-huh. I tell people it was “my first job in show business” and came to be the title of my book.

Q: Okay, this begs an obvious question about what your mother and father must have been thinking to endanger a toddler.

A: My parents both worked in the British film industry, making short 35mm movies for the British theaters, documentaries on strange sports or, in this case, on people who owned weird pets.  The alligator was owned by a woman in Chelsea who kept crocodiles and alligators in her apartment.  I was filmed at the age of four riding one of these creatures, a seven-foot female alligator named “Peter”, strangely.  I jokingly say that my mother could not have been present that day!

Q: When and where did you get your first big break?

A: My partner John Watson and I ran an independent TV specials and short films company in Canada which won many awards including Oscar nominations.  But my real big break was when I wrote and directed my first drama called If Wishes Were Horses, which caused Norman Jewison and the Canadian government to fund him mentoring me in Hollywood.  This high-level introduction led to us carving a great career in the years that followed creating features and TV series. 

Q: Tell us about the first film you ever wrote or produced. Looking back on it, what do you know now that you didn’t know then and how might this knowledge have changed your approach to the project?

Having never written a drama script – and only working on documentaries when I created If Wishes Were Horses – I used the team that I was familiar with which was all my documentary crew, etc.  I was literally trying to invent how to shoot a drama, how to work with actors, how to edit drama…and I barely survived the experience.  I can assure you that there are reasons why the people in our industry have the jobs they have! 

Q: For you, what defines a film’s success – its box office return, its legacy or the appreciation of its audience?

A: At the end of “Riding the Alligator”, I have a small commentary called “Was it Worth It?”.  My belief is that the best material I write comes from the heart and these scripts get made more frequently.  I have found that my passion for them pushes me to take more risks and face more rejections etc.  But no matter what, you cannot please everybody and even my most treasured movies received one or two scathing reviews.  This is inevitable, but the real question is, did you make the best effort you could to translate your words to the screen, can you live with the result, and would you do it all over again?

Q: There’s no question that technology has improved the “look” of films but has an excess of CGI and special effects diminished the quality or strength of the stories themselves?

A: I think the new technologies are liberating the imagination.  A film like Inception would be unthinkable 10 years ago.  At the other end of the scale, it’s possible to shoot a feature-quality movie on a consumer Canon still camera, edit it for free, and possibly see it released theatrically.  No matter what – there will be no audience for either end of this cost spectrum if the stories themselves do not communicate with the human beings in their audience. 

Q: Where do you see today’s writers having the greatest creative freedom?

A: Ed Burns recently released a movie he made for $25,000 and is working on his next feature at this level.  Once you are able to find a business model that actually returns the cost of your production, you have true freedom to express yourself.  And as film vanishes and digital technology lowers the production costs, we are probably going to see some truly liberated and amazing creations.

Q: Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

A: In the way Norman Jewison helped me at the beginning, I feel it is important to follow his example and give back.  A few years ago one of my ex-staff made an effort to convince me to write a book and more recently I was asked to teach an MFA class at USC. I decided to share essays with my students on topics I could not find in other books and asked them literally to grade my work.  I assembled these chapters along with essays by 12 other major Hollywood writers into the kind of heart-felt, supportive, encouraging delivery that I would have wanted when I was starting out.

Q: What do you want readers to take away from its content?

A: The thesis of my book is that the most powerful thing you can do is write from an inner conviction and not try and guess what others want.  I have seen more scripts made of mine that I was impassioned to write – by far – than projects that the studios paid me to write.  It seems something special happens when you pursue your voice.  If my book helps others create movies that would have not existed then I will consider my efforts well worthwhile.

Q: Technology is shrinking the globe. Do you believe it is inversely expanding the opportunities for new screenwriters or making it even more competitive to break in?

A: The unique thing about screenplay writing – like painting and composing – is that these art forms are free to practice.  Unlike plumbing or being a doctor, there are no criteria that one must pass in order to be accepted.  As the world grows and changes as Joseph Campbell said “so do the myths that mankind needs”.  Those new, exciting myths will not come out of studios trying to clone the third remake of a comic book character – as entertaining as those might be – but as new technology frees the distribution up so that anyone can access it. Like YouTube, it will open a giant, human landscape for storytelling. 

Q: In recent years, a proliferation of indie studios has emerged. In your view, is the dog (major studios) still wagging the tail or is the tail now wagging the dog?

A: We are hopeful that there will be more independent distribution systems coming online soon.  At this present time the studios are still the key business channels and their distribution is eagerly sought by private financiers in order to justify their risk.  But this process is changing and within 5 years there could be a giant revolution, whether it’s iTunes, VOD, or screens the size of your wallet. 

Q: With so many filmmakers turning to 3D, what’s your prediction for where moviemaking will go next?

A:The concept of 3D needs some technical innovations to truly capture the market.  Wearing glasses that cut down the amount of light and interfere with your freedom of viewing is an inhibition to 3D.  I have seen demonstration models of televisions that require no glasses and technology is quite remarkable, and I believe we are highly likely to see that widely used on our computers and TVs in the near future.  The true use of 3D, however, is not to shove things into the audience’s faces but to create a deeper sense and involvement in the story.  When done with creativity and subtlety – and with no eye-strain –  3D will not seem anymore unusual than stereo sound or the move from black and white to color. 

Q: Given the volume of sequels, prequels, remakes and adaptations, do you think there’s a lack of fresh ideas in Hollywood?

A: It’s very hard for corporate employees to justify the vast expenditures of the very large tent-pole movies.  In the old days, film companies were owned by eccentric individuals who charismatically gambled on their gut about which stories to tell the audience.  With the bean-counters always looking for justification for expenditure, the need for pre-existing elements like books, graphic novels, TV series made into features and remakes of features becomes a way of justifying the investment.  But our discussions with the studios’ marketing analysis department is that the audience is always seeking the novel and the fresh as the most stimulating way to be entertained. 

Q: Which classic film would you most like to remake and who would you cast in the lead roles?

A: I actually had the privilege of making the movie that, as a child, truly excited me. It was Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, and I was lucky to work with my partner John Watson to make our revisionist version starring Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman,  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Morgan Freeman,  and see it succeed. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two of my current favorite projects are quite diametrically opposed – one is an Oscar caliber drama called Land of Enchantment about a cop with a tragedy in his past investigating the murder of a Navajo artist.  The other is a 1700’s steam-punk historical swashbuckler called Rogue, with all the fun and energy of Robin Hood. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Send money. 😉   And thank you for your interest in ‘Riding the Alligator’!