For every movie that has ever been made, there are 14,023 writers who think they can pen something better. All right, maybe I’m exaggerating about that number but I’ve done script coverage on more than enough that have made me want to respond with the exact phrase William M. Akers so aptly snagged for his latest book. Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great is clearly one of the best checklists for aspiring screenwriters I’ve ever encountered. With 20 years of studio and network experience behind him, three films produced from his scripts, and 15 years at Vanderbilt as a screenwriting instructor in addition to globe-trekking workshops and story consulting, this consummate professional was enthusiastic to share his insights with aspiring screenwriters on how to hone their craft.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: When did the movie bug first bite you and what do you know now that might have been helpful to know at the beginning?
A: I went to graduate school at USC. One afternoon, I was sitting in the chairman’s office and he came out, having no idea who I was, and said, “Are you a screenwriter?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Come in here.” A producer had called and wanted one of his top screenwriting students to write a script. I got paid $1,500 to write a screenplay. It didn’t get made, but I was pleased to get paid. For my second script, I adapted a book that had been read to me in the third grade. That film did get made. It’s called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It did nothing for my career, other than be able to say, “Hey, I got a movie made!” Three days before the film came out, the releasing company went bankrupt.
Basically, all I’ve ever done for money is write movies, teach screenwriting, and do script consulting.
What I wish I’d known then was how to be the writer I am now. There’s a conundrum.
Q: Which movie in your youth left the most indelible memory on you?
A: Sorcerer written by Walon Green from the novel by Georges Arnaud, and directed by William Friedkin. That’s the movie that got me into the movie business. It’s about guys hauling dynamite (that had sweated nitroglycerine) through 200 miles of jungle to blow out an oil well fire. The sequence where he drives the truck across the swinging bridge in the rain is still one of the finest pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. I saw it at the Green Hills theatre in Nashville, which had the largest screen of any theatre in the city. Friedkin has a documentary filmmaking background, and the movie seemed more real to me than anything I’d seen. When it was over, I felt like I had to go home and take a bath. I remember thinking, “I want to do that!” My screenplay, 105 Degrees and Rising (and which Jon Amiel is attached to direct) is the closest thing I’ve ever written to that kind of material.
Were I to remake Sorcerer, I’d go back to the book’s title, The Wages of Fear and cast Benecio Del Toro for the Spanish hit man. I’d want Amidou, again, for the Arab terrorist. Thierry L’Hermitte would play the French financier and the lead, the American gangster, would be Robert Downey, Jr. We’d shoot in Mexico, end up great friends, and buy villas next to each other in Puerto Vallarta.
Q: Who were your mentors as you developed your craft and what were the takeaway lessons that you learned from them?
A: Wish to God I’d had one. Well, that’s not true. Ken Robinson, my USC filmmaking teacher, is someone I still go to with questions. Far and away the greatest teacher I ever had. I dedicated my book to him. Naturally, USC, in their immense wisdom, fired him.
Q: If you were stranded on an island (with electricity and all other amenities, of course) and could only take three movies with you, what would they be?
A: Hmmm. Do I want to tell the truth or do I want to look fancy-pants brilliant? Well, naturally, it would be My Ain Folk directed by Bill Douglas, Floating Weeds by Yasujiro Ozu, and Trains by Caleb Deschanel. “What an impressive list!” you’re saying, “I’ve never heard of those movies! That Akers guy must be killer smart!” And you’re no doubt correct. Okay, now the truth. Let’s assume I’ve got a 70 foot screen and my own projectionist, not just a DVD player and 52″ plasma TV. Ergo, Sorcerer, Lawrence of Arabia and Les Uns Et Les Autres.
I’ve seen Lawrence at least 10 times in theaters, in 70mm, and it always delights. Amazing everything – acting, editing, story, camera, character, scope. It’s my favorite movie and always has been. Les Uns Et Les Autres is the only movie I went to see two days in a row. I saw it on the Champs Elysées in Paris and it blew me away so I went back the next day. The fractured story style, told over generations, really works. I saw it in my twenties and was thrilled by every single frame. It’s not high falutin’, but it works for me.
Q: What are the three biggest mistakes wannabe screenwriters make when they set out to pen their first script?
A: They write something they don’t care desperately about, so when the going gets tough, they don’t have the yearning required to take the time to get it right. They underestimate the appalling competition, so they don’t realize how much honing it takes to get it right. They think this stuff is easy and don’t take the time to get it right.
Q: Somewhere along the wayside, people of all ages have lost sight of the importance of having good manners and/or thinking that rules apply to everyone else except them. Tell us about some of the protocols that absolutely have to be observed by writers if they’re serious about breaking into the business.
A: Everything your mother taught you, basically. Thank-you notes. Be polite. Don’t think you’re special and that the rules don’t apply to your screenplay. Understand that these days, silence means “No.” Don’t bug people who are doing you a favor. Don’t get irritated at someone if they take six months to read your script. They’re doing you the favor, and you must never forget it.
Q: Where do good ideas come from and how do you really know if you have one that’s commercial?
A: If I could answer that, I’d live in a much bigger house.
Q: Are certain genres easier for new screenwriters to break into than others? If so, what are they?
A: Beats me. New writers should write in genres they like to see in the theater. If you like to watch heist movies, write three or four of them. Because you understand the genre, you’ll know when you nail it.
Q: Which is worse – describing a character or setting in too much detail or leaving the reader to wonder?
A: What’s the worst is being confusing. What’s the worst is making people read any words they don’t have to. Using too much detail in scene description is the #1 mistake beginning writers make. Tell us barely enough, and move on.
Q: Define “good clean writing” and what steps or exercises writers can do to achieve it.
A: First, start with poetry, or the Alien screenplay by Walter Hill and move in that direction from whatever style you’re using now. In my writing workshops, I’ve learned that too much detail is the bugaboo of all beginning writers. They see the movie in their head and want to put it on the page, which is admirable but wrong. Good, clean writing is: If you take out one more word, the reader won’t understand what you’re trying to tell him. To clean up your writing, you have to go through it over and over with a red pen, reading it aloud, having other people read it aloud to you, until you can’t take anything out.
When I first started writing, I’d read a page out loud three times in a row before I’d move to the next page. If I made a single change, even a comma, I’d start over and read it again three more times. If I was on the third read and changed a word in the last line, I’d start over and read it three more times. It was unbelievably tedious, but I certainly tidied up my writing and sold the script, and it got made. So, gosh, it must be a good hint!
Q: Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.
A: Because I critique scripts for money, I read a lot of scripts. I found that most people made the same mistakes repeatedly and I began to feel bad telling people repeatedly not to have character names that rhyme, etc. The idea is that the client reads the book, performs the checklist, and then sends me a script that’s in way better shape. We can then discuss plot, character, and story construction, as opposed to cutting the flab out of their action description.
Q: With so many sequels, prequels and remakes being churned out by Hollywood, it would be easy for writers to think that producers prefer to play things safe and not pursue anything fresh and original. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I can only write what interests me or what someone pays me to. What producers pay other writers to write affects me only when I go to the movies. Some producers (though fewer these days) still want interesting material. It’s never been an easy business. If you want it easy, marry money and divorce before you have children.
Q: Technology is shrinking the globe in terms of access to film production. Do you think it’s inversely expanding the opportunities for new screenwriters or making the playing field that much more competitive?
A: There are only so many slots in theaters. There are only so many movies people will find online.
You can use a flip cam or you can shoot in Super Panavision. Just because everyone can use a pencil to draw, doesn’t mean there are heaps of Michelangelos. No matter what, it all comes down to the screenplay. No matter how low the production cost, it’s still, on some level, expensive. If your script blows and you decide to make a movie, you’re about to waste your investor’s money.
Q: What do you love most about this business?
1.) Writing is a wonderful way to pass the day. I spent last Saturday hauling creek gravel in a dump truck. While I waited for the truck to be loaded, I sat in the cab and line-edited a script. How great is that!
2.) That I can retire and have health insurance for the rest of my life. Yay!
3.) Working with talented people is the greatest thrill there is.
4.) That so many stunning women want to have sex with screenwriters.
Ah, well… three out of four’s not bad.
Q: Given the youth-oriented emphasis in Hollywood, does anyone over the age of 30 really have a chance of getting their script sold and produced? Why or why not?
A: I’m over 30. I just finished a rewrite for a producer and that film stands a good chance of getting made. When it goes out to talent, the actress may say, “This is a piece of garbage. I won’t be in this.” What she will not say is, “This is fantastic material. I never get stuff this good to read. I can’t wait to be in this movie, cause– Oh, look. Wait. Ewwwww. The writer is over 30! Forget this project. Next.”
At least, that’s what I tell myself. Do keep in mind, they shouldn’t be able to tell how old you are when they read your script.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing up a romantic comedy around the world of ballet during the Cold War. I’m starting a children’s novel about a wicked third grade teacher. I’m finishing a YA novel about a boy who accidentally brings pirates back from the past, and I’m part-way into a screenplay about a young couple who just can’t get ahead and come up with a novel way to earn a living that doesn’t go quite as they had planned. Helps to have different stuff cooking on the griddle.
Q: Any last bit of advice you’d like to offer aspiring screenwriters (besides, of course, buying your book!):
A: Get good at sales and marketing. Make movies, don’t just write them. Writing a great script is half the battle. Nobody tells you that. Final advice: Your first idea may not be your best one. Spend a lot of time coming up with the idea you’re going to take time to write and make sure it’s something someone is going to like and that, in theory, will be easy to sell. Don’t write something if you’re the only person in the world who wants to read it. This sounds like the opposite of the “write your passion” cliché, but if your passion is completely unsellable, maybe you should be a poet.
Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great is available at Amazon as well as Michael Wiese Productions (http://www.mwp.com).