“What’s your name?” I asked the wannabe screenwriter.
“Gerald,” answered the wannabe, shaking my hand. Okay, so his name wasn’t Gerald. I’ve only named him that for this post because he may read this and discover an embarrassed tingle over having been selected to star in this blog. So if you’re reading this, Gerald, I hope you learn something this particular go-around because you surely didn’t those forty-five minutes when myself and three other pros were hammering the point home.
“Nice to meet you, Gerald,” I said. “Did you enjoy the panel?”
“I did, yes,” said Gerald. “Very informative.”
“Great,” I said, inching closer to the edge of the dais.
I’m short and wide and not generally used to looking down on people. Because both exits to the left and right of the riser were blocked by other attendees clamoring for attention from my fellow panelists, I would’ve gladly climbed down to meet Gerald on level turf. Instead, I stood a good eighteen inches above him, hoping his neck didn’t blow a gasket gazing up in my direction.
“I wanted to tell you about my film,” Gerald began.
Swell, I said to myself. The fight or flight transmission in my brain was still in neutral, but the engine was already revving.
“You have a film?” I asked politely, already thinking of a thousand sharper responses that would’ve leapt the conversation closer to nice to meet you than my feigned surprise.
“It’s only a screenplay now,” said Gerald. “But I’m hoping to get it made soon.”
I wanted to say good luck with that and move onto the smiling pair who, for some odd reason, were patiently queued up for a photo op with me, but I felt strangely compelled to be nice. Because that’s what I am – most of the time – nice. Well, sorta nice.
“It takes place in the lonely world of cross-country trucking…” began Gerald, intent on telling me the story contained in his aforementioned screenplay. I say telling instead of pitching because I instantly knew Gerald wasn’t the least bit interested in selling me his movie. He wanted me to approve of it or be impressed with it or salve whatever doubts he had as to whether or not it was, in my opinion, a worthy endeavor.
Now, was Gerald’s script really about hairy men in search of life’s meaning while battling white-line fever as they circumnavigated America in their behemoth eighteen-wheel semi-tractor trailer rigs? I really don’t recall. That’s because I spaced out somewhere in the empty-headed space between “It takes” and “place in a.” Not that I’m necessarily so easily bored or suffer from adult onset attention deficit disorder. It was because I’d just finished a two-hour screenwriting panel, trying to be informative, funny, and generally worth the price of admission. That and it was neither the time nor place for verbal tale-telling beyond something meant to either elicit a laugh or put a hard return on a salient point.
Gerald droned on and, instead of my mind wandering to where we might land for dinner that night or the potential traffic snags I might encounter on my drive back to the valley, my mind retraced its way back to a question that had only an hour before been posed to myself and fellow word jockeys. The panel discussion that followed was the most animated and agreed upon of the night. So much so that I worried that we’d beaten the few hundred attendees senseless with our admonishments.
“Aside from an overabundance of hard work,” I’d answered a questioner, “I’ve noticed that the most common denominator that runs through this business is curiosity.”
I went on to explain like thusly:
“To a person,” I said, “Just about everybody I respect has this insatiable appetite for answering this question: ‘How did you get it done? How was it that you accomplished this really cool thing?’”
There was no specific thing to which I was referring. I was speaking to the importance of being tenacious and fearless in the questions you ask of other professionals. Why? Because they ask the same questions of other professionals. How? Why? When? Where? Who? Since we work in showbiz, we understand the constant and ever-changing landscape. That said, the only way any of us can figure out how to get from point A to point B is to be inquisitive as to how others have done it. And only through that process of gathering as much information as one can digest do we ever wind up with a plan of our own.
Brad Pitt read your script? How did you get that done?
Studio green-lit your picture then asked you to handle the bond for your drug-troubled star? Who did you call?
Your agent switched shingles, dumped most of her client load, yet still kept you as a client? Why so?
Seriously. You go to any party, backyard barbeque, official Guild function, or bump into a biz associate in the buffet line at an Idaho ski resort (and I have), the small talk turns to business and an almost inevitable Q and A that might lead to the unraveling of a procedural mystery and answers that had so far, eluded you.
Upon making the case for curiosity, my flanking panelists chimed in with a fury. Be fearless, they said. Ask questions. Read the trades. Understand the trends. Know your stuff. About this we went on and on precisely because we thought it was important.
I’ve had big time directors ask me what decisions went into a particular character’s development or subsequent lobotomy. Name actors have inquired if it’s better to overwrite the dialogue in a scene, or cut it to the quick. Executives seeking to understand if writers really want to “produce drafts” or if they’re just placating the producer.
As Gerald was winding up his string of “and then” and “next my protagonist”, I was looking for a polite way to express my own curiosity.
“So were you listening this evening?” I craved asking. “Did you hear each and every one of us up here on the dais?”
“When in the presence of a pro,” said one of my fellow panelists, “and the opportunity presents itself, ask questions. How did you do that? Why and when did that work for you?”
Gerald, I’d discovered, hadn’t quite gotten the memo to stick. Nor did about half the other attendees who, when it was their chance to have a one-on-one, chose to use what little time they had to share their own confused endeavors.
Middle-age is upon me. Yet as I continue to tilt daily toward the monsters I must slay to remain on that slog toward my ever-expanding goals, I try never to assume that I know how I’m to arrive there.
In other words, I continue to ask.
- Read more articles by Doug Richardson
- Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter
- The 'Magic Trick' to Selling Your Screenplay