Ahmer Allauddin is a freelance writer based in Hollywood, California.
Two very successful screenwriters, Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen, share their advice on getting started in the industry, writing with a partner and treating your writing as a career. Originally published in Script magazine.
Films with good stories and memorable characters are becoming rare in the film industry today. In 1995, two of the most memorable characters in film history were created. They are Woody and Buzz Lightyear from the movie, Toy Story. The amazing screenwriters who introduced us to those two unforgettable characters are Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen (Oscar®-nominated for Toy Story). They also wrote Money Talks, Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield and Daddy Day Camp.
I recently had an opportunity to sit with Alec and Joel to discuss their journey to success in Hollywood. This interview is broken into two parts. In the first part, Alec and Joel talk about their careers, backgrounds and how they started writing together. They also share their wealth of knowledge about the screenwriting process. Later, they discuss writing the movie, Garfield and how the writers teamed up with Jim Davis (creator of Garfield comic strip and movie producer) to bring the crazy, comic feline to the big screen.
Q: What influenced you to become a screenwriter?
Alec: I grew up in a household in New York City where I was exposed to a lot of screenwriters and writers and it kind of took the myth away from what it meant to be a writer. I saw these people, even if they didn’t really see me back. So, writing was more than just a mystery that appeared out of nowhere. There were small human interactions where it slowly became a fact. And, in those moments, I was always drawn to the writers. They were the wittiest. The smartest. The most opinionated. And they were all successful. I longed to be like each one of them. Writers like Marshall Brickman, Peter Stone, Bruce Jay Freedman, Andrew Bergman, Neil Simon, Nora Ephron, Avery Corman, Lynn Grossman, Nick Pileggi, Gay Talese, Robert Kaman, Walter Bernstein and David Newman. They were more than just names. These were my role models. I would hang on every word they spoke and, being young and cocky, I came to believe, if they could do it, so could I. The combination of this experience and the fact that I’m a Jew from the upper west side of Manhattan left me two choices. Join the Communist party or join the Writers Guild, so I joined the Writers Guild. Lastly, I would say obviously on a personal level, I always had a super strong connection to movies I saw as a kid. I have really close memories connected to watching them. Like I said, being exposed to writers, when I find out what they have done in the film, even at a young age I could identify that’s the person who wrote this and that’s the person who wrote that. All of sudden, that knowledge becomes very attractive because it’s not a two-dimensional name on the screen, it is a human being and that definitely was an influence to me.
Joel: My experience was when I was 19 or 20, I spent a summer out here in Los Angeles, staying in somebody’s house who was in the entertainment business. They would leave and I would stay at the house and they would come back, this went on for the entire summer. Shortly after I got there, I opened up the closet door that was next to the pool. There was a stack of scripts that was this high (about four feet high). I spent the summer sitting by the pool reading the scripts and this was in 1974. You sit there and you read and you learn. I knew other people who would learn Spanish or French out of a book. It was kind of just the same thing except that it's learning screenwriting out of screenplays. I read an entire stack of scripts. I read two a day, because there was nothing else to do.
Alec: Any time you read your first script, you should see the form. You have computer programs that help you write, but always look at the form and that goes further to understanding. Another writer, Steve Gordon (funniest guy ever), writer and director of Arthur... I think I was maybe 17 or 18 and I was bartending at a party and he was there and cracked me up all night. He wrote and directed Arthur and he died six months after. You have guys like him and whether you read their work or you see them... It's pretty hard not to want to be them or do what they do. I have always been drawn to the people who wrote comedy. For whatever reason those handful of people who wrote probably lighter stuff, they always seems to be the finest. They had the nicest car, big houses, you know, all the things you wanted. (Laughs).
Q: Every writer goes through extreme life conditions before breaking into the industry. Do you have any such story to share with us?
Joel: The first script Alec and I wrote was the script called Money Talks. It had a black lead and we wrote it in 1990. At that time, the only black actor that could really open a movie was Eddie Murphy. Times have really changed in that way, but that was the reality then. The script kind of bounced around and people always responded to it, but it always came about who was going to be in it, and finally our agent sold it to Carolco, which was the company that made the Terminator movies. We were basically told we had a deal and they were just kind of putting finishing touches on it and it was something we desperately needed. This was so far into the life of this script and we hadn’t sold it and we were really hanging everything out on it. Evidently, Carolco had spent a lot more money on Terminator 2 or something like that and we got a phone call saying that they were not gonna buy it. I remember that being really like a low-point. It was just a crushing thing to get that phone call because so many things have to take place to get to the point where they were saying that your script is gonna be bought, and then it just kind of went away. It crystallized in a moment. I went through a period after getting movies made before I met Alec where I didn’t work for two and half years. But that was a day-by-day kind of slide. I was living on the money that I had made on these other projects. But this thing, the deal really needed to come together, and it was a critical time and it just didn’t happen. I remember hanging up the phone and sitting there, staring into space thinking, now I have to start over and make this entire thing happen again with a different ending.
Alec: My wife was pregnant. One Saturday, I wanted to take $20 from the bank to eat and I couldn’t do it because I only had $11 in our account. I owed the IRS money, probably about $25,000 to $30,000 and credit cards up about the same. I just remember I was looking at my wife and we went back to our apartment and we asked ourselves what we could hawk. We scrounged the apartment for CDs we didn’t want and old day-timers. It was truly a low point as we went to the pawn shop on Saturday so we could buy eggs — without a doubt probably one of the worst moments of my life. Eight months later, Toy Story came out and I was at the Academy Awards and dancing with my wife at the Governor’s ball.
In another story, In 1993, Joel and I moved to New York to work on a new TV show, which we thought might change our lives. I had just gotten married and bought a condo out here and now I moved to New York and spent four or five months living with my mom. My wife and I were newlyweds, we were paying a mortgage on a condo in L.A. For her, it was like in a bad sitcom. She was struggling with me and my mom in New York in an unbearably hot summer. The show doesn’t ever get put on and it ends after three or four months. I remember driving through Tennessee on our way back to Los Angeles thinking, “I am broker than when we drove east and we’re going back with nothing.” There was no TV show for me to get on. There was no movie script, the agency that time was CAA and they couldn’t sell us anywhere. I just remember driving across the country thinking, “I'm in purgatory.” In that situation you feel so isolated and emotionally destitute.
I think we both could say this... One of the most humbling aspects when you are going through the process — even now, but especially during that period — is everybody you grow up with, everybody you kind of see yourself with, have taken more traditional career paths. After a period of time they all start getting significantly ahead with their lives. They get job promotions, become partners, graduate degrees, the whole nine yards. It’s awfully tough to say, “Well, I am still trying to be a screenwriter or I am a screenwriter but I don’t have any movies coming out quite yet.” Even if it was never said, the feeling was like, “Okay, when are you going to stop goofing around and get a real job.” I would say that definitely is something you have to navigate and in a way to understand that you are planning for something completely different. What you plan for you almost have to keep score in terms of decades and not in weeks or months or years. You are working towards a body of work that you will have and it will grow with you so that one day, you'll be able to look back at it. Now, it seems all those people that didn’t want to be us for that entire period are now clamoring to say that we have it so easy now. (Laughs).
Q: When and how did you start writing together?
Alec: Joel and I both had previous writing partners and there was a producer, Peter Callabrese, who produced a late-night comedy show that I had written on and Joel had worked with previously. I got released from the Arsenio Hall show and that was a blessing in disguise. But, at that time, I needed a job really bad, so I called Peter and said that I needed a job and what did he have. Peter was working at Madison Square Garden Productions, producing Miss Teen USA. He said he needed a prospective for a new TV show, but he wanted to put me with somebody. So we met (Alec and Joel) at the farmer’s market in Los Angeles and had a cup of coffee. We worked on a seven to 10-page prospectus. It went nowhere, but it began a dialogue and a half-year later we said, “Why don’t we work together?” and so we wrote Money Talks. I remember we used to say we are not partners, we are doing this and we are taking one by one. After Money Talks, we said, “Let's do another one,” and then we did another one and now 15 years later we are still writing together (laughs).
Joel: In the macro, we are in-sync in terms of what appeals to us as a story and that’s a big part of it. I’ve worked with different people and some of them are very talented. We are interested in other things. We don’t know its degree, but we have a kind of sensibility and it is a really good match.
Alec: The dialogue, which is a really philosophical dialogue on storytelling, on character and on film. We are drawing specifically from our own lives, and people that we have known and it goes into the stew. It is amazing how even now, we are pulling up new stuff when it is appropriate, when we are trying to solve some problem or unlock some story point. I can say without a doubt — and I think it is fair to say that Joel and I are very different and very similar at the same time. We are at a very good place mentally.
Joel: What's interesting, is that the first thing we did is kind of a thing that defines us even to this day. Money Talks was a character-driven comedy with some action. The movie became more of an action movie with some comedy, but our point of view there really is a through-line in Toy Story and even Garfield.
Alec: I think that's true, but I would say even more true about Money Talks, especially as a spec script. There was more of our imprimatur on the first draft that would not be in a finished movie with regards to comedy and tone. I don’t think by looking at the movie, I would say that but by looking at the script, I would agree.
Joel: We kind of hit the first time out. It was a very lucky thing... The thing that we can mine for the rest of our career.
Alec: I can remember having conversations during writing Money Talks, where we specifically were going through the process of learning about the business. Do we want to do a $10 million-dollar movie or a $100 million-dollar movie? What business do we want to be in? We want to be in the $100 million-dollar box-office business. If we are going to spend the time and effort to work in Hollywood, we want the potential for the product to open for the final audience. It was a very conscious decision to make that the one we were going to write together. If we’re going to play the game, let’s play it to the fullest.
It’s been our experience... We know people who have done this. Neil Simon said to me once, I didn’t believe him, but I have come to believe him and that’s the worst thing any writer can do is sell the first thing they have written. It sounds so easy to say, “Oh! you write it, you gotta sell it, and you gotta get paid and all that stuff.” But look at Shane Black, who I remember being 23 and having sold Lethal Weapon and I know nothing about his career in the last 10 years.
Joel: I just read he is going to direct a movie after a 10-year period of writer’s block.
Alec: I could remember thinking I don’t know who Shane Black is, but I wish I could be Shane Black. I would say the same thing with the other people, when they get a million-dollar check, they say, “Wow! I got a million-dollar check!” Money ultimately is not the goal, even though it is a significant goal. You can spend the money, and you do spend the money. You get taxed on it, you give it to your agents and it gets diminished in some drastic way. What you are hopefully left with is your craft and the fact that you can actually do something again and again in many different forms. I would say keep scores by decades and don’t keep scores by script.
If you are using writing to become a director or to push yourself into the industry, that’s a different story. But if you want to be a career writer, my Dad use to say, “If you are still writing in 20 years then talk to me.” Basically, he was trying to say that’s it — that’s what being a writer really is. It's not a quick fix. The first script that I finished, it took me three years to write the next one because I was walking around saying, “I am a writer.” I wrote a script. No. A writer writes and writes and writes.
Joel: I think we both know people that will write the script and then decide, “Well, I don’t have to write another one until this one gets made.” It’s become like a hostage drama where they have so much more time invested in the script than the actual time it took them to write it.
Alec: About four years ago, I finally started to understand what we were trying to do. Before it was very conscious and we had to talk it out. Our instincts weren’t honed. Then, a light went off after we had written 30 or so scripts together. But who knows? Maybe I’m just a slow learner (laughs).
I do think, first and foremost, show business is like a meritocracy in certain ways. One of them is if you can do something, the system will exploit you in a good or bad way, but they will find a way to use what you can do. The whole key then, is to be able to make your own expressions in the system, but that’s a different conversation.
Joel: We know people that have gone out there and sold the first thing that they wrote. They either are not working now, or completely out of show business for one reason or another. But I think the thing about us and the reason that we have been able to do it for 16 years and hopefully longer is that I do think that we are kind of reliable. We can go back, do it repeatedly and hopefully deliver something (with the rare exception) and if we haven’t gotten the movie a green light, we have pushed the rock up the hill that much further and the next guys who come along don’t have that hard to push it.
Alec: I would also say in a way, that what you think is a good idea has to be a good idea 25 to 50 years from now. That’s kind of what you plan for. If somebody sees your movie that’s 50 years old whether it is in black and white, or with a different moral code, you know a good movie from a bad movie. The good ones are somehow about things that are organic to them but also to life.
Joel: It is like discovering gold after panning in the river for weeks at a time and all of sudden it is exhilarating.
Alec: That’s worth more than any check. That’s about something down to the core when you know you have something. There are enough of those moments and they are tangible where you really do feel like you are mining for gold. When you get it, it seems so seamless — like it is always there. Joel knows this because one of my biggest complaints when we work is the first draft becomes more onerous to write because you just know you are kind of laying bricks. You know you’ve got to do certain things, you’ve got to put it in certain structure, but the last 10 percent of the process of writing the first draft is still the most exciting thing because that’s when you have enough in hand. Then you can really look at it and start to have fun. That’s when writing becomes really exciting.
Joel: To go back to something that Alec was talking about earlier... That 16 years into it, we now realize what we’re playing for. A career. You don’t start out day one and say, “I would love to have a career.” You don’t really know what it means. Then you start to accumulate some credits and you hope they are good ones, and you realize in the case of one or two of them, they actually go into the culture or in some kind of shorthand where everybody is familiar with it. The real thing is, you know I am an avid reader of the obituaries and to me, writers have the best obituaries. You are always reading about some 90-year-old guy who was blacklisted in the 50s, but here are his six credits and they are all gold standards. The guy may have worked 40 or 50 years and it all boils down to like three movies, four movies or six movies — but that’s an amazing achievement. The longer you work at it, the longer view you take of it, and its kind of a very healthy thing also.
Q: How do you collaborate on writing a screenplay? What advice do you want to give aspiring and beginning screenwriters about honing their writing skills?
Alec: Well, again the process is an ongoing dialogue. Where we are now is at a place where we can use shorthand in conversations we might not have been able to have before. We are not really big on outlines or treatments or any of that stuff. In fact, the times we have been forced or asked to do that, I think the scripts are all really flat because it kind of forces the creative process before the fact. We talk about the biggest idea and what the underlying biggest theme is, then we try to hit certain signposts along the way. We know how we want to introduce the world and the characters. We talk about that, how we are going to get there, how we are going to get to the end of each act. For the most part, we know the ending, there have been times when we kind of know what we want to achieve emotionally, but that’s how we do it on the big level.
Joel: Just to add to that, a big part of it is the discovery process — when you say what the ending is, we kind of know it, but the best stuff is always the stuff that gets figured out in the process.
Alec: For those writers who are starting or struggling in a partnership, a huge part of working a partnership is making sure or allowing both partners to breathe in the process. That means subverting your egos, admitting that you are wrong sometimes, which is never easy (smiles). But I think we have both done a really good job of seeing that the end goal is always to create the best product. The end goal is to look at the script as its own entity. There are so many different ways to get to the right thing. It is kind of amorphous to some level, but in partnerships, that’s a big thing. We've both had partners before, and we know a lot of people have been in partnerships and they stopped. I think one of the biggest things is it always comes down to ego about little things... Not ego about big things.
Joel: I would also say that civility is the key word. We don’t always agree, but we will kind of table the issue. We will come back to it, and just keep the conversation going rather than get our backs up. This is not a political thing. When you watch the Robert McNamara documentary, his whole message is if you can’t convince your partners, you are probably wrong. If one of us is excited about an idea and after making three or four passes without convincing the other guy, I think we both have enough maturity to walk away and think, well let me rethink that idea because some part of it is just not flying.
Alec: I would also say that in day-to-day work, there are 8 million ways partners can work together. Again, it is all about what people are comfortable with. As we have gone along, there are some projects where Joel's thought process is so much better than mine and there are some projects where I think my process is better than Joel’s. I think we both know, well this is one you are going to carry the load and that’s cool. It's about the ego that you want to put into a moment. Choosing not to — if you understand what the greater goal is — that is the key to the success. What’s going to happen to your script? It is going to be read by creative groups? People doing coverage? A consensus will form and in the dialogue we have, we are already forming a censuses that we can apply logic to. In a writing partnership, don’t get hung up on the wrong stuff. The right stuff is, “Are the ideas good?” Are we getting farther on? Because if the ideas are good, then we will put it out there. You birth the script out to the world. For the most part, it will be read by people and they will start saying these ideas are good and all of a sudden you will be making headway in your career and also individually... And hopefully your little baby (referring to script) is making head way.
Joel: As far as advice to the young writer... I know a writer whose name is Arnie Cogan, he's a television writer (father of Jay Cogan). He was asked the question of what advice would he give to young writers, and his thing was during rush hour, take Ventura Boulevard and not the freeway to the studio (laughs).
Alec: Other advice is that young writers should make writing a part of their every day or every week schedule. It's something that is time-intensive. If you're taking shortcuts, then you're just saying you are writing, but you are not really a writer. You have got to put the time in. I've done some math in my head... It takes us about 90 to 100 hours of writing to get the first draft done. One of the biggest problems is all the distractions. Where are you finding those hours? Even now, you are managing careers and not just writing. There is so much more emotional energy wasted or used in other aspects of managing the career then just writing, but I would say you have to just go for it. Write because you have to figure out the process, you have unlock the process by yourself and the only way to do that is to write. You can’t read about it... You can’t hear people talk about it because it might be the insight, but nothing will get to your role more than actually writing every day.
There's a huge difference between “writing” and “writing for a living.” When you don’t rely on writing for your income, you can deviate. You can say I am not in the mood today... I have something better thing I want to do today. You can hold out for the perfect idea or the perfect script or whatever. When you are writing for a living, you are under a time constraint. You are under pressure from people who are paying you. The first of the month comes up quickly. It’s amazing, I remember especially the first seven or eight years that we were going on how quickly the first of the month always came around. You have to balance these emotions in your head, but the only way to really come at it is to write, because every day we are working, is a day closer to salvation.
The scripts are either the most important or least important aspect of any movie that gets made. They are most important because good scripts give movies the chance to be good. A good script is not visible on the page, it is about the idea and the big stuff that is invisible. Scripts are also the least important because every other element that comes onto a project needs to feel that they can easily own it and change it and make it theirs. Most business that happens, happens in spite of the script. It’s two actors who want to work together, or it’s a director who's told someone at the studio, “I'm looking to do this kind of thing,” and all of sudden you say “I have one of those.” Then you are in business. Nobody even has to actually read the script.
We’ve had meetings where we’ve seen producers buy spec scripts on the phone that nobody else is bidding on and they haven’t read the script yet, but they think it fits their mandate. It’s so harsh from a writing point of view that they so disrespect the work. But from a business point of view, you just want to be on the other side of the phone because then? It’s not a bad day.
Joel: One other thing you find out along the way, is that the industry is driven by hits and hits are the things that define you and make your life easier. If you write a script and you are fortunate enough that somebody likes it and they buy it and they go and make it, there is a huge amount of energy and money that goes into all of that. If the movie is not successful at the end of the process, and you have to start all over again. It doesn’t really advance your career and sometimes it even hurts it. If you have a flop, people that hire you don’t say, “Lets go to them because they are bad at that.” (all laugh).
Read Part 2 now ...
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