Barri Evins interviews writers David Diamond and David Weisman on their new book revealing the art and the elbow grease essential to a successful career.
When it comes to having a long and prolific career as working writers, David Diamond and David Weissman are the real deal. An unabashed fan of their writing – The Family Man is on my Forever Films list – their book on screenwriting, Bulletproof: Writing Scripts That Don’t Get Shot Down, caught my eye. I filled it with notes and post-its highlighting what I felt were “nuggets of wisdom” on how to write a screenplay and how to build a career as a screenwriter. I’m convinced there is a great deal to learn from these articulate and hard working gentlemen, from idea, through development, to submissions. They dig into both the art and the elbow grease that goes into turning storytelling into a successful career. You can read my review of their book, “Something New and “Bulletproof” Under the ‘How to Write A Screenplay’ Sun”here. Once I read the book, I definitely wanted to sit down with them and talk about it. I had a great time interviewing “The Davids,” as they are often referred to, armed with lots of questions that they batted back with deft and articulate answers.
Here’s a quick rundown of their career and credits:
David Diamond and David Weissman’s partnership is rooted in a 30-year friendship dating to their high school days in Philadelphia. The partners sold their first spec script, The Whiz Kid, to 20th Century Fox in 1994. They followed with a series of original ideas for comedies, including Universal Pictures’ The Family Man starring Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni. Diamond and Weissman next wrote the DreamWorks Pictures sci-fi comedy Evolution, directed and co-produced by Ivan Reitman. In 2005, the team partnered with Wedding Crashers producer Andrew Panay on a series of feature comedies that yielded five consecutive pitch sales and two additional produced credits: the farce Old Dogs, starring John Travolta and Robin Williams, and the romantic comedy When In Rome, starring Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel. Their first television pitch sold to 20th Television and CBS; the resulting pilot starred John Leguizamo and Claire Forlani. More pilot sales at NBC, ABC, FOX, and TBS, for both half-hour comedies and one-hour dramas, followed. Together, Diamond and Weissman have conceived and contributed to over a dozen movies yielding a combined box office gross of over a billion dollars worldwide.
Evins: I loved the title, Bulletproof: Writing Scripts That Don’t Get Shot Down, and the cover photo with the book getting shot. Where did the inspiration for the title come from, and what makes an idea “bulletproof”?
Diamond: The whole premise of the book was to view the process from the perspective of the people who have to say yes to your script in order to sell it and get it made. So we just kind of threw out, well, “What if it’s called Bulletproof: Writing Scripts That Don’t Get Shot Down?” Then we took that to Michael Wiese Productions who became our publisher. The idea is for writers to write something that was impervious to being shot down. Scripts nowadays have to be bulletproof.
Evins: As you say, you don't offer a “magic formula” in the book. It’s a very hands-on, comprehensive and practical guide that’s interspersed with real-world anecdotes over the course of your career. You are fiercely honest about your own learning curve through your experiences in the trenches. Why choose this approach?
Diamond: We’re not story gurus. We haven’t devoted our careers to studying story. We just write movies and television. That's what we do. Our experience runs the gamut from coming up with ideas, to selling ideas, to writing scripts, to rewriting scripts, and doing it over and over again until, hopefully, you get them made. We were interested in sharing our experience and our point of view.
Weissman: It took us almost 25 years to master all the elements we cover in the book, maybe if an aspiring writer can learn these lessons early in their career, that would be helpful. Learning it as you go along is great, but it's hard to sustain a screenwriting career. It would have been helpful to us to have this book as we were as we were coming up.
Evins: I think it's very cool that you were working on a script as you were working on the book. That's dedication to your career!
Weissman: It forced us to clarify certain things that we do. There were points in the screenplay that we said, “OK, let’s bulletproof it,” and “That’s not bulletproof!”
Evins: I really liked your discussion that there's a difference between an idea for a screenplay and an idea for a movie. I think it’s an important distinction for aspiring writers who are hoping to get their story heard.
Weissman: It's hard to define the difference explicitly, but if I had to say, the difference between an idea for a screenplay and an idea for a movie, is that an idea for a screenplay is something that interests the writer. And an idea for a movie is something that interests the buyer, or the audience. We specifically talk about buyers because before something ever gets to an audience it has to appeal to a buyer. By the way, this is not to devalue the importance of an idea that appeals to the person writing the screenplay. You have to be interested in your own idea or else, why are you doing this? But if it's not also interesting to a buyer or to a market or to an audience, all it will ever be is a screenplay. If you can live with that, then go write a screenplay. But if your goal is to get a movie made, then you really need to consider in the earliest phase of conceiving the idea how and whether it will appeal to a marketplace.
Diamond: I think we all start with the impulse to write something, but it takes more than the impulse and the software. An impulse is a very good place to start, and probably a necessary place to start. But if that's all you have, you know I have this impulse to write this thing and now I have Final Draft or whatever app I'm using that's not the end of the process. That's just the kernel of the beginning of the process.
Evins: You said that it took you five years of writing to grasp what it took to be writing for a studio, to get to a "Yes," to get to “I've gotta have it.”
Diamond: Yes, 1989 to 1994.
Weissman: We were faced with failure, which is an incredible motivator. Failure is brilliant at getting people to think of things differently. So we were faced with failure because we had the best chance that we ever had of getting an agent, who was a really good agent, and we were about to lose it. We said, “We can't let that happen.” And the epiphany came to us about how to how to write for the marketplace.
Evins: So tell me about the epiphany moment.
Diamond: The epiphany moment was with a script called The Whiz Kid, which we eventually sold to 20th Century Fox. We had shared the idea with an agent, Jordan Bayer, who responded to the idea. We brought him a draft of the script, and we just didn't do it right.
Weissman: We were lucky because Jordan was at a very similar place in his career as we were in ours.
Evins: He was hungry! I’m always telling writers that the best way to get an agent is to target the people who are hungry.
Weissman: It’s very smart advice. Either you want somebody hungry, whose ability is decent and matches yours, or you want an 800 lb. gorilla who, for some reason, has taken interest in your writing. Either way, you can be okay. Jordan was hungry. So he put in the time. He read a draft of this script. He gave us notes. We did the notes, thinking. “All we have to do is do the notes and then he'll love it!” We handed him another draft. It took a little bit longer to read this one. His reaction was, “Guys maybe this isn't the one.” And when he said, “Maybe this isn't the one,” we were faced with that existential moment where you have to think, “Maybe this isn't the career. Maybe this isn't something that will that will happen for us.” And we said to ourselves, “No, we know this is the one.” And we went to Vegas. We got out of the headspace of L.A. And it was in the Fashion Show Mall, in the food court, that we had the epiphany. It was summed up in one phrase: “How would Disney do this movie?” And that was it.
Evins: Such a romantic story!
Weissman: I know. It’s commerce. You don’t want your epiphany to be that this thing that you love to do more than anything else is commerce. But it's an important epiphany if you already have the love part. You started with the romance, but the realization that it’s a business too, is the second half of the equation. It didn’t take long to rewrite once that happened. Three weeks later Jordan went out and sold the script.
Evins: One of the things I like about Bulletproof is that there are a lot of very practical, effective tools, tips and techniques for developing before you write. I know that the more you write, the more facile you are with the medium and the process. But how much time would you say you spend on something from idea to outline, before you even think about “Fade In”?
Weissman: It takes a long time for us. It used to be shorter. Now we spend a lot of time just talking about the idea.
Diamond: It's hard to answer the question succinctly because we often are working on more than one thing at a time. It takes us a while – whatever that means – to figure out even what the idea is that we're talking about.
Weissman: That’s the longest almost, to figure out what the idea is.
Diamond: What is this idea? We usually start with some inspiration that seems like it's an idea, but very often there's an aspect to it that's completely ridiculous. Because most of the things we talk about, not always, are kind of larger-than-life. There's a little bit of “a buy” coming into it. You could say that they’re concept-driven, but there's a thin line between concept-driven in a good way, and concept-driven over a cliff. Completely unhinged.
Weissman: That’s good!
Diamond: Left to our own devices, we can be concept-driven over a cliff. So, a lot of what we end up doing in the first week or two is figuring out the idea. Okay this is a really fun idea. There is obviously something interesting, or some potential here. But how do we make this not be crazy? What is the actual value of this idea? So then we have to talk about it a lot. It takes a really takes a long time.
Diamond: Once we really know what the idea is, at that point it doesn't take us a crazy amount of time anymore. Then it's like a puzzle. And that's kind of fun. Sometimes you put the pieces in the wrong place, but then you figure it out.
Weissman: Once we get the character and the tone it gets really clear. When we talk about, “A movie is a concept that involves this or that character in this or that context.” The context is really the tone. We almost always get the concept first, and either we get the tone second, or we get the character second. But it usually isn't until we get the character that we are really launched.
Diamond: Then things come into focus for us.
Weissman: We had an idea, and we sold it, eventually, to New Line, called Playlist. You came up with this concept maybe five or six years before we sold it. We always loved the concept. The idea was, “You know the feeling you get when you hear a song and it takes you back to a certain moment in your life. But what if you really went back to that moment? What if you went back in time to that moment? What if you were somehow transported to that moment?”
Evins: That’s a perfect idea for you guys. It hits your Personal Thematic that I talk about in terms of how to identify and define your message as a storyteller. I can see it in your work. Certainly in The Family Man.
Weissman: We’re big “what if? guys. He had this notion, and we talked about it a lot. We just couldn’t get the character and we couldn’t get the tone. Was it a comedy? Was it not a comedy? We didn’t know. Then it came back up with one of our agents many years later. He really responded to the idea and challenged us to figure it out, but we couldn’t figure it out. Then, finally, many, many years later we figured out a way to do it that made sense to us. We wrote it on spec, but it didn't sell.
Evins: What was the tone you chose?
Weissman: The tone of Bruce Almighty. It was a little broad, and I think it didn’t quite work. It was a little past its time. But then we figured out a way to do it with a very different tone. Ultimately, we sold it as a Christmas movie at New Line with Mariah Carey. The musical component turned out to be a real selling feature of the idea. It didn’t get made, but I don't think that was the fault of the idea; it was actually other circumstances. So when you ask, “How long does it take?” the answer is either eight years, as it did in that case, or eight days. It all depends on when you get all three of those elements – Concept, Character and Context. For us, that is really when we know we have it.
Evins: You really clarified the Three C's for me. Context equals tone – perhaps in a broader sense of the word – perhaps it also encompasses the world of the story – but just doesn’t have alliteration!
Weissman: I think tone is a term of art. It is used in a specific way in the movie business. It probably is crying out for a better definition for all of us to use. We are particularly sensitive to tone because, as you said, there's a signature tone that writers have. Ours is something that is a dying art. It's hard to find original, high-concept movies with magic these days. They're getting harder and harder to make, but that is where we probably are most natural. We’ve certainly sold a lot of those.
Evins: At what point in your process do you write your one-pager, with the nine major story beats you describe in the book?
Weissman: The truth is, when you have the one-pager, the movie is essentially done. The secret is: It’s over. The other stuff, I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s comparatively easy.
Diamond: Remember the moment in Searching for Bobby Fischer?
Weissman: When he says, “You’ve lost, you just don’t know it yet.”
Diamond: If you have enough experience to be able to see a few moves ahead, you know you’re done. For us, it doesn’t take a lot of time. Twenty-five years ago, it took us a hell of a lot of time.
Weissman: When you’ve written a hundred of them...
Weissman: The character and the concept and the context have to be bulletproof first. The idea is everything. The idea is the gateway to everything. If that’s not right, you can do a one-pager, but every step along the way is going to suffer from the failure of not being a bulletproof idea. In the book we use the architectural metaphor. The foundation is everything. The foundation is the idea. You’ve got to have those bottom bricks. If the foundation is not right, the whole thing is going to be a little crooked and skewed.
Evins: I use the metaphor of architecture too! About digging deep to lay a foundation first. That’s part of my template that has to be completed before you try and figure out the beats of the story. It pops up at the top of each page to keep you focused on the idea, the tone, the character, the theme.
Diamond: Those are crucial things to remember.
Weissman: We never say in the book, “If you do this, then you will sell your screenplay or you will have a movie.” What we’re trying to communicate to the novice writer is, “If you do this, and you do it enough times, with enough experience and learning the right lessons as you go along…”
Diamond: And the right idea!
Weissman: “And the right idea, we think good things will happen.”
Diamond: Trying to do the one-pager without the steps before, is like trying to complete a puzzle when don’t know what the picture is. The idea for the movie is the picture on the front of the box. When you see the picture on the front of the box, you know what the puzzle is. Then it just a matter of putting the pieces together. Well, it’s not just putting the pieces together, that’s where the analogy falls apart a little. But if you don't know what the picture is, it doesn't matter what shape all the pieces are, how you going to get it?
Evins: One thing that struck me about the book is how much you talk about the realities about the business. I was an executive for decades, and I try to infuse that real world perspective into my columns and blog. I loved the story of your project,Minutemen. You sold it as a pitch to Marc Abraham, who you knew because he produced The Family Man. The script is completed, goes and turn around, and is set up at Disney. The script gets read by Ivan Reitman. He then hires you for a rewrite on another project and then a rewrite on a second project. Meanwhile, Minutemen goes nowhere for years, then comes back to life and ultimately gets made at The Disney Channel.
Evins: You took the journey of this one piece of material and deftly turned it into a story that illustrates how the industry works. Projects come together, fall apart, and come back to life again. Building relationships is an essential component of advancing a career. This script launched a thousand ships. It lead to three jobs and two produced credits, including Evolution, directed by Ivan Reitman. I feel you’re trying to disabuse aspiring writers of the notion that they're going to have a big spec sale, and ride off in a limousine. You show that it’s all a process, with lots of ups and downs. Is the use of real day-to-day industry machinations intentional, to help your readers, or is it just your style of taking your experiences and weaving them into a narrative?
Weissman: We were trying to be helpful. They aren’t all high points, there are the low points too – the failures. I think, as my partner always says, we wrote the book to be a mentoring text. To not just teach the lessons that we've learned about screenwriting, but also the lessons that we've learned about conducting our career. One of the things we’re most proud of is that we've been doing this now for 25 plus years, and we feel like we may not be the most successful writers in town, we may not be guys that have won Oscars, but we've done it professionally a long time. It's been our only job. And our reputation to this day is just as good as it was when we started. We’ve always conducted ourselves in a very professional and, we think, ethical way. We think that's an important part of it. If you’re a genius, then you can have a genius career, but most of us aren’t geniuses. If you want to do this professionally, you can have a great and rewarding career if you conduct yourself in a certain way. That's the mentoring aspect of the book. I think people who want to do this – their goal isn’t to sell one script. Nobody’s goal is, “If I could only sell one script, I’m fine.” Well, maybe. But your goal should be to have a career. Because it’s a great career if you can get it.
Diamond: This is the added value we can provide. There are a million screenwriting books out there, many more than we realized when we started this. But the number that are written by people who’ve actually had a career writing movies, I think you can count on one hand. That’s what we have to offer. So wherever we could, we tried to illustrate the points that we were making, based on our experience, with anecdotes from our career, because that's the reason we're writing the book. That's what we have to contribute to the genre of screenwriting how-to books.
In my next column, we’ll dig into the truly innovative tools and techniques that Diamond and Weissman offer in Bulletproof: Writing Scripts That Don’t Get Shot Down.