Skip to main content

INTERVIEW: Bob Sáenz, Screenwriter of Extracurricular Activities, Discusses Breaking In, Rewriting for Hire, and Much More!

Screenwriter Bob Sáenz takes us deep into the world of a professional screenwriter, with an extensive discussion on networking strategies, the mindset needed for rewriting, his upcoming movie, Extracurricular Activities, and so much more.

Click to tweet this interview to your friends and followers!

 Bob Sáenz

Bob Sáenz

“I didn’t write my first script until I was 40.”

You read it right here, folks. Yes, writing success after 40 is possible!

Meet Bob Sáenz, screenwriter of 14 produced films. This hardworking multi-hyphenate challenges all the rules that naysayers tell you not to break. While his career path has more twists and turns than a race course, speed is not his objective. Longevity is.

Not only has Bob forged a unique path, but he also takes the time to share writing advice and inspire writers via social media. Always wanting to dive into writers’ minds, I asked Bob to sit down and share his insights into every aspect of screenwriting we could dare to discuss.

Sit back, get comfortable, because we’re gonna be here a while.

Jeanne: First script at forty. What took you so long?

Bob Sáenz: Easy answer. Because I had no idea that writing was in me. From early childhood I wanted to be an actor. And I was a professional stage actor from the time I was about 16 until about age 22, then I met my wife and decided that I couldn't marry her and give her a good life while being an actor, because well… actors don't get paid. 98% of all actors don't make enough to live on, which is a sad thing but true. I didn’t return to acting until I was 40.

Jeanne: What did you do in between?

Bob: I worked for a large furniture manufacturing company, selling furniture wholesale to furniture stores and to big furniture chains. I did very, very well. I was good at my job, but the multimillion-dollar company I worked for got sold. I told my wife the company who bought them out was going to pillage it, and it would cease to exist in a year. I was right.

Jeanne: There are many businesses that don’t survive.

Bob: I got out of there and told my wife, "I think I want to be an actor again. I'm going to try it, if that’s OK." When I picked her up off the floor, she said, "Well, I want you to do what you need to do. We’ll give it a couple of years, and then if it doesn't work, you have to go out and start working again." I said, "Okay."

I went and registered myself to be an extra in any movie that came to town. Almost immediately I got my SAG card after having a line in Angels in the Outfield.

Jeanne: Let’s talk more about being an extra and on set.

Bob: I threw myself into it. It didn't matter what it was, I wanted to be on set, and I wanted to learn. I got on all kinds of movie sets as an extra, and I slowly networked my butt off to get principal acting work. I ended up getting an acting agent out of it. I still did extra work. I worked overnight. Sometimes I would do two films in the same day, go from one to the other, without sleeping. I would stand in the corner and watch everything that was going on and get an education on how all this worked.

In the meantime, I ended up auditioning for a bunch of commercials. I was in a Sprint commercial and a McDonald's commercial and few others. If you know anything about Screen Actors Guild and commercials, residuals are fantastic. Taking some pressure off.

Jeanne: Great.

Bob: Then I got called me to be an extra on Nash Bridges, playing a uniformed cop. On the very first episode, Don Johnson walked by me and said hi, and we talked for a minute. I made him laugh. Then somebody on set came up to me and told me I would never work again as an extra because I had spoken to the star. I said, "Okay, whatever." Then they called back, and they said I was requested to return for another episode as a cop, only this time I would be in the station house where Don Johnson is, and I said, "Okay." By episode eight, I had a name, and I was talking.

Jeanne Awesome.

 Bob on the set of Nash Bridges

Bob on the set of Nash Bridges

Bob: I did 122 episodes of that show. Mostly as a glorified extra, but I was there. On set. Learning.

Jeanne: That’s incredible.

Bob: During that time, I networked my butt off, and about the second season I looked at all these Nash Bridges scripts and thought, "You know, I could write better scripts than this," which is really funny because people like Damon Lindelof and Shawn Ryan were writing for Nash at the time. So, I wrote an episode of Nash Bridges. When I gave it to them, Carlton Cuse said, "We don't accept outside scripts. We have WGA writers who work in the writer’s room and that's not how this works, but actually, this is a pretty good script. You should keep writing."

[Networking 101 - How to Grow Your Network Online and Off]

Then, my 10-year-old son said something off-hand that gave me an idea for a film script, and I wrote it. Through an act of absolute God, it ended up in the hands of a production company at Warner Brothers, who optioned it.

Jeanne: Wow.

Bob: The production company liked it enough to where it ended up at Polygram. Polygram was in pre-production on it when Universal bought Polygram, and then killed their film division. I ended up getting the script back. That experience was a huge education for me in that I had let my ego go wild thinking, "This is easy, I can be a screenwriter in a minute and a half. I'm going to be famous and make millions…. wait a minute, what happened?" I learned the biggest lesson ever.

I am so glad now, looking back at it, that that movie never got made because it made me a lot more humble, and came the next 15 years. The learning curve was very, very steep. But I also learned at the same time that it takes most people that long. It's so easy to get discouraged with all the rejection and say, "Oh forget it." But if you really want to do this, you have to say, "Okay, I got rejected, so what? Let's move on to the next person. And let's write another script, and let's learn some more, and let's network some more." So I wrote more. The second script I ever wrote was Extracurricular Activity.

I wrote it to write something controversial and different, that would act as a resume for what I can do. I never really thought it would get made because of the subject matter, but I pitched it to one of the producers on Nash Bridges in a casual conversation, he said it was a really cool idea and wanted to read it. For the next four months on set, he kind of ducked me. I thought, "Okay, he's read it, and he doesn't want to tell me he didn’t like it."

Then one day, a PA came up to me on the set and said, "Hey, this producer wants to see you." I walked over, and he had a couple of the director's chairs set up in the middle of the parking lot, away from everything else, and said, "Sit down, let's talk about your script." I said, "What's going on?" He said, "First of all, I finally read it this weekend. I'm sorry I waited so long. I get so many scripts from people." And it's true, everybody on set was talking about the scripts that they were writing, even the guy that watered the plants wrote a script.

Jeanne: That classic Hollywood joke.

Bob: Absolutely. I mean everybody has a script. Everybody. And so he said, "I'm stunned by how good this is, and I would like to figure out how we can get this made." That was the start of Extracurricular.

Jeanne: Do you remember what year that was?

Bob: I think it was 1999, 20 years. It sold 18 years after I wrote it. Before that, it was optioned eight different times by eight different producers or production companies, and I'm talking some big production companies, and they just couldn't get it made. There were producers who would call me and say, "Is it available yet?" And I would say, "No, but it doesn't look like it's going to get made again. It’s yours if it doesn’t." I had directors who wanted it, and in one case, a DP wanted it to be his first film. After all those options, it finally got made and 1091 is going to distribute it.

Jeanne: That’s great! You mentioned the concept was a bit controversial. Can you tell us about it?

Bob: It's about a high school student who has an after-school job that isn't working at Yogurt City. He kills parents for the kids at the school.

Jeanne: I love it! Total opposite of your Christmas movies.

Bob: It has been my calling card for 20 years. While it's the anti-Hallmark movie, it's the script that got me my first meeting with one of the production companies that works with Hallmark.

Jeanne: Let’s talk a bit about getting that first gig.

Bob: After a producer read it as my writing sample, she wanted me to look at a script they had bought but needed help with. The anti-Hallmark movie got me my first Hallmark job. They wanted to see what I could do with it. I did a page-one rewrite. Not knowing any better, I made it my own script, top to bottom. It was Help for the Holidays. It ended up being the seventh largest Hallmark movie audience premiere of all time.

Jeanne: That’s a great result, especially for a first writing assignment.

Image placeholder title

Bob: Very funny movie, and I'm proud of it. That’s how I became a Hallmark writer, again even though my sensibilities, if you read Extracurricular, or my newest script, which is called The Business Trip, are very twisted and dark.

Jeanne: I’m a fan of versatility and writers who don’t want to be boxed into one genre.

Bob: As a writer, I think you need to be able to write anything. I don't want to have people think, "Oh, all he can write is Hallmark movies. Or all he can write is dark, twisted movies." I want people to think, "Hey, this is a guy that if we go to him, he's going to be able to write what we want him to write."

I think the biggest mistake writers make when they get hired to rewrite, or when they read other people's scripts to give them notes, is instead of looking for what the original writer intended, or what they want out of the notes, they say, "Oh no, this is how I would do it." That's not a way to constructively criticize someone. I made that mistake with Help for the Holidays, I think. It worked out, but I was lucky they loved it.

Jeanne: Taking the ego out of rewriting and giving notes is an art form in and of itself. You need to serve the story first.

Bob: Agreed. You work to give people what they want, not your personal version, unless they happen to match up. Which actually happens sometimes.

Jeanne: It's not about you, it's about the story.

Bob: It's a fine line you have to walk, but you have to really subjugate yourself and look at the whole picture of what the company intends for it to be. You have discussions with them, "What do you want out of this?” The first question I always ask when I'm given a script to rewrite is, "Why did you buy this script?"

Jeanne: That's perfect. Regarding notes, when I ask for notes on my own work, I always clarify, "Don't tell me what you think I want to hear, tell me what I need to hear."

Bob: Not only that, but don't tell me how you would do it. Tell me how I can improve what I'm trying to do.

Jeanne: There is a skillset that people have or don't have, to be able to look at a screenplay and to give guidance as to what they thought the person was intending to write, as opposed to just injecting their ego into it.

Bob: You have to take your ego and put it someplace else.

Jeanne: What's it like to be on the other side... to be the writer who being rewritten?

Bob: Oh yeah. I've been rewritten in the past, majorly. I know the drill. There is one of my Hallmark movies that has my name on it, that hasn't got a single word I wrote. It's just the way it is.

Jeanne: Indeed. We have to get comfortable knowing we will be rewritten… and often fired.

Bob: Every script, every script gets rewritten. I don't care who it is. They all get rewritten because there are a million reasons to do it—actors, locations, all kind of things happen where scripts need to get rewritten. Budgets. "I'm sorry, we can't afford this." You know?

Jeanne: Absolutely. Budgets can make or break a movie. How much do you consider budget when you’re writing?

Bob: The studios are no longer buying spec scripts. Okay? At all. It's just not happening. And if it does happen, it's something like Arrival—that took ten years from the time that Eric [Heisserer] wrote it.

Jeanne: Also, Eric had already broken into the system in the horror genre. Another example of a writer stepping outside of the box.

Bob: Yeah. And Arrival still took ten years.

Jeanne: Right.

[Top 10 Things You Need to Know About Writing a TV Spec Script]

Bob: Big-budget spec sales just aren’t happening. They don’t sell because there are only about six entities that can buy one and make it, and those six entities aren't buying spec scripts. On the other hand, if you write a five-million dollar budget, or under, spec script that's horror, or romantic comedy, or thriller, or something that can be done in that price point, and it's really good, you have a good chance of selling that script. 98% of all spec scripts are awful. They're awful for all kinds of reasons. Mostly because the subject matter they've chosen to write about is not anything that any moviegoer would want to see.

The budget can go up after. If a big star decides they want to do it, or more stars want to do it, then they can add to the budget that way, but it needs to originally be budgeted for five-million dollars or under. That's what producers are looking for right now. There are thousands of producers out there who will look at a script for five million or under, and there are six entities who can buy a hundred-million dollar movie. Now where do you want to take your chances?

Jeanne: People forget that this is a business. This is not 100% art.

Bob: It can be art though. Just write art for a budget. People say, "Well, I want to write big Hollywood movies." Where do you think all those writers came from? I can tell you where they came from. They all had successful, low-budget movies that got them noticed.

Jeanne: Indie, low-budget films entered into film festivals is a great way in. Look at Ava Duvernay.

Bob: Yes. Then, they moved up to the more expensive stuff. There isn't one who just started in the expensive stuff, because that's not how it works. It's just like any other job, in that you have to work your way up from the mailroom. And in the case of screenwriting, writing low-budget movies is the equivalent of the mailroom.

Jeanne: I'm loving this advice, Bob.

Bob: Hey listen, I'm still writing low-budget movies. When Extracurricular comes out, and if it does well, then there will be, I hope, some people that notice and want me to write bigger things, which would be wonderful, and I would love to do it. But in the meantime, I have to keep writing lower-budget films to get them out there, to get producers to notice, and to get new people to look at them. I have 14 produced under 5-million dollar budget films since 2012, with my name on them. 14.

Jeanne: I think it's important to make a statement about how low-budget does not mean low quality.

Bob: Absolutely not. You never skimp on story. You just have to understand what stuff costs. To give you an idea, I've made myself very familiar with expenses in films. I've paid attention on screen, I've talked to producers, and when I was on the set for Extracurricular, I asked them what specific things cost. The director wanted me on set, so I was on set most of the time it was shot. I was very fortunate and that's another thing, you have to be cooperative, and we'll talk about that, too.

Jeanne: Definitely.

Bob: Now, because I understand film costs, I get producers, and this is the truth, who will hand me a script and say, "We don't want you to mess with the story. Take a million dollars out of it." And I will go through and combine characters or change locations, or whatever it needs. The rewrite I just finished, I literally took all kinds of one-line characters out because those cost a lot of money, if it's a SAG film.

Jeanne: You’re getting rid of people's SAG cards. (laughs)

Bob: (laughs) Listen, the other actors wouldn't work because the movie wouldn't get made.

Jeanne: Good point.

[Four Ways to Control Your Script’s Budget Without Compromising the Film]

Bob: By combining characters, getting rid of entire characters or entire subplots that don’t feed the story well, and getting rid of locations and taking scenes that took place in a single location and making it happen at one of the locations that's already there, you save a fortune. Plus, I ask them which locations they get for free and change a lot of the scenes to take place in those locations. Night scenes are expensive. Stunts. A scene shot in a parked car is way less expensive than a moving one. I go through and take money out so they have a budget they can afford to make the movie on. Too many writers believe they can just write what they want, and then after it gets bought, then producers can cuts costs if they want to. Except producers look for scripts they can actually afford. They don't want to go through all those steps of, "Can I make this movie for less?” They look to find one that’s already there.

Jeanne: Also hiring you to rewrite it costs some money, too.

Bob: That, too. There are times where I've been the first person hired to rewrite scripts and there is four writers after me, or I'm the third person, and there's two other people after me. Or I’m the last writer. That's how this business works. You can't be precious about anything you write. Anything. Because you'll end up in an insane asylum. People will ask me all the time about Extracurricular, "When is it coming out? Where is it going to show?" And all this stuff, and I always say, "I have no idea, I am just the writer." I do know now. May 17th.

That said, it’s time for my shameless plug of Extracurricular Activities. May 17th in theaters. Yes, it’s an under five-million dollar budget film. Colin Ford, from We Bought a Zoo and Supernatural and Under the Dome. Ellie Bamber, from Nocturnal Animals and the Les Misérables mini-series. Timothy Simons, Jonah from Veep. Danielle Macdonald from Dumplin’ and Patti Cake$.Angela Kinsey from The Office. Patrick Fabian from Better Call Saul. Bobbie Lee and Arden Myrin from Mad TV. The list goes on… and on with recognizable actors. It’s pretty amazing. And the film is funny. When it comes out, I need everyone to go see it. Please. End of shameless plug. That said, I still had no control over what hit the screen from my script. It’s close, very close, but like I said, everyone gets rewritten.

Image placeholder title

Jeanne: I think this speaks to the need to focus on the things you can control, because there is so much in this industry you cannot control. Staying focused keeps you sane.

Bob: You know what you can control? You can control how you operate as a business person. Screenwriting is a business. Your screenplays are not your product, you are your product.

Jeanne: Amen!

Bob: You are what they come back to, not your screenplays. You are your product, so you have to learn how this business operates, and you have to learn how to cooperate and understand what the screenwriter's role is in getting a film made. A lot of people say, "There is no movie without the screenwriter." Well there is also no movie without the grip either, or the script supervisor, or the actors, or the director, or the production designer. Yes, it starts with a script, but it certainly, certainly takes a whole heck of a lot more than a script to get a film made.

Getting a film made, any film, any television show on air, is a miracle. It is an absolute miracle every time it happens, because a thousand things have to go right, but if one goes wrong, it can go away. And as it’s made, a million things need to go right, too. To make it come out well. Which is why I don't like things like the Razzies. I don't like people who dump on movies just because they enjoy it. The people who made those films wanted to make a good film. They didn't set out to make something that ended up being bad. One thing goes wrong; bad sound, bad lighting, bad direction, bad dialogue, whatever. Bad acting can kill something. Bad story that they didn't concentrate on. There have been so many films, especially independent films that were bad because they were so intent on getting a movie made that they didn't make sure that their story worked. Their intentions were all good, and you have to honor that as somebody in this industry. You have to honor the fact that they did that.

Jeanne: It's so true. More than ever, people just love to point out the bad things instead of focusing on the miracle of it.

Bob: Yeah.

Jeanne: Part of that miracle of getting something made, and getting interest in it is when you were talking about being on set years ago and telling this producer about the concept of Extracurricular Activities and how they're like, "Oh my God." So, let’s touch on some networking tips, specifically about the fine line between successful networking and awkward interaction.

[Navigating Hollywood—11 Ways to Develop Your Screenwriting Hustle]

Bob: I knew that producer for a couple of years before we talked about my writing. Going up to a stranger, who happens to be successful, and saying, "Hi, what can you do for me?" is something that makes people run away from you—fast. Nobody has an obligation to help you become successful. Networking is all about building relationships—real relationships with people, where they like you, and they like who you are, and you know who they are, and you know what their interests are.

You become friends first and have relationships that transcend the industry. That's real networking. That's building friendships with people so that after a while they're interested. "Oh, you write? Well what are you writing?" "Oh, this." "Well gee, I'd like to read that." There’s no instant gratification in networking. So, you don’t do things like this… Like, going to a Blacklist monthly meeting at a bar and carrying your script with you, hoping to give it somebody. Or going to the Austin Film Festival, the mixer, and having your script on a thumb drive to hand to somebody. Handing out a ton of business cards to everyone you meet at an Austin Film Festival mixer, or South by Southwest, or anywhere else.

People who are there, are there to socialize. They're not there to be approached by someone saying, "Hi, wanna buy my script?” If you have a great script, they want to do something with it to help themselves, too. But in order to get them to look at your great script, you have to be genuine and real and honest and be interested in them as a person.

Jeanne: Yeah, it's so funny. As we're talking right now, Doug Richardson is texting me, "Hey, can you do me a favor?" How you network is exactly how I do it. I become friends with people first, I build a relationship first. You've got to develop a relationship with someone. Earn their trust and respect.

Bob: That is what networking is all about.

 Bob with Bobby Lee on the set of Extracurricular Activities.

Bob with Bobby Lee on the set of Extracurricular Activities.

Jeanne: One of the first times I spoke with Doug, probably nine years ago, was to get some advice from him for our readers on how to handle notes.

Bob: I was in a production meeting one time, and one of the development execs gave me a fantastic note for the script. It was really good, and I said, "Wow, that is a great note. That's going to make the script way better."

She looked at me like I shot her, and I said, "Are you okay?"

She goes, "I've never had a writer say that to me before."

I said, "Well, I'm still going to take credit for it." And she laughed.

And if there is a note that's awful, you do your best to persuade them not to do it, but if they say, "Look, this is what I want." Then you do it to the best of your ability, and you shut up, because that's what they're paying you for. And you have to understand that there is nothing in any script that can't be changed, because that's the way producers and directors and stars look at scripts.

When you sell a script, it's like selling a car. If the person who bought that car from you wants to paint flames on it, you certainly can't stop them. It's the same thing with a script. If they bought the script from you, they own it. And if they want to paint flames on it, and you want to be the one that paints the flames because you don’t want anyone else doing it. That's what I do. You know what? Being surly and arguing will get you nothing but fired. But being honestly understanding, nice, and cooperative gets you hired again. You can’t fake it. That can come back to bite you.

You know, you can always tell what somebody is really like by the way they treat people that they're never going to see again. Watch how somebody treats a waitress or a waiter or somebody that they're dealing with at any store. I always told my daughters, "If you ever date somebody that treats people like that badly, you run away, because one of these days that will be you."

Jeanne: That is a tip of the day, Bob, right there.

Bob: Treating people the way you want to be treated makes everybody's life better. That's the way I try to live my life. I don't always succeed. And it took me a long time to learn.

[HBO Exec Chris Salvaterra Offers Perspective On the Business Side of Screenwriting]

Jeanne: I'm sure that helped you in selling furniture before you started writing.

Bob: Absolutely.

Jeanne: People don't realize when they have a day job, there are skills you can learn on that job that also apply to a writing career.

Bob: Let me tell you the difference between the movie industry and the furniture industry. Are you ready?

Jeanne: All ears.

Bob: There isn't any. Big business is big business, is big business, is big business. There are good and horrible people in all businesses. Sometimes after getting replaced on a project, my wife will say, "Well, they really treated you awful." And I say back, "You remember the furniture industry, when this happened?" And she says, "Oh, yeah." There's no difference. Big business is big business.

But the other thing that I tell people when they say, "Hollywood is this and Hollywood is that," I say "There is no Hollywood.”

Just like there is no overriding automobile industry. They're all separate companies that operate independently. But there is no big entity where they all meet behind closed doors and twirl their mustaches and make decisions about those things. "We've all decided, we're going to keep new writers out of the industry, ahahaha." That's never happened, and yet you run into writers all the time who say, "The industry is conspiring to keep us all out." That's just ridiculous.

Every production company I've worked for has had its own individuality and ways they approach things. Pay attention to people, listen to what they have to say, work hard, and adapt. That's how you learn to get along with each individual company, or production company, or producer, or whomever. You learn what they're looking for, and what they want. There's no big Hollywood.

Jeanne: Again, just like in any business. That's the same advice I would give to my kid working in engineering or psychology.

Bob: Yeah. Look, and 95% of the production entities in Hollywood don't even know I exist. There's a lot of reasons for that. Mostly because of a lack of an agent.

Jeanne: I have to ask, with all the success you’ve had, do you want an agent?

Bob: Yeah, I would love to have a good agent. I know I'm losing out on assignment work and getting my scripts in front of some of the people I'd love to get them in front of. I know I can't do it all myself. Why? Because of the people that drop scripts on producer's laps in restaurants, because of the people who throw scripts over the walls of producer's homes, because of the people who have their scripts delivered in pizza boxes to production companies, because of all these desperate people, there are some real walls up to keep writers out who aren't repped. It’s only for their own self protection. I get it.

There are no ends to the things desperate writers would do to get noticed. They make producer's lives hell. I have a major producer that I know, and I called him after I wrote my latest script and I said, "Look, I've got a script. You've always told me you would read anything I write." And he said, "Absolutely. Have your agent send it." When I told him I didn’t have one, he said, "I don't accept unsolicited scripts, however I will have my guy send you an NDA."

I was lucky. But I still had to go through all that with somebody who had already optioned a script from me in the past. If I hadn’t known him. No way.

Jeanne: Wow.

Bob: And it's because of all the legal problems caused by all these desperate writers with no boundaries.

Jeanne: And the desperation can be smelled a mile away.

Bob: There are two things this industry hates, making them cringe and run away: Fear and desperation. They hate it from writers, they hate it from actors, they hate it from writer-directors, they hate it from everybody. Those two things are the things that they hate more than anything in the world. They don't want to see it, and they don't want to be around it. People don't realize that producers built all these walls around themselves for these specific reasons. If you decide to learn how it all works, you can get your stuff to people through networking, query letters, or through a couple of reputable contests.

Jeanne: I often see some screenwriters succeed time and time again in contests, but never crack the code to breaking in. My gut is, while their writing may be wonderful, their concepts aren’t marketable. The first thing a producer reads in a query is the logline.

Bob: The fact is, before you write any movie, any movie at all, you have to ask yourself, "Who is the audience for this movie?" I've read scripts about auto repair and painting a mural. All kinds of things. The worst is the cop movies that you read. They're all episodes of Law & Order that have already been made. Why would anybody go see this on the movie screen when they can watch it on reruns every day?

Jeanne: High-concept ideas is something my writing partner and I discuss often. What will people want to pay money to see?

Bob: I understand why the contests are not important to producers, except for maybe the Nicholl, because it's run by the Academy. But… There are just so many of them now it becomes kind of meaningless. It's a tough expensive road going that way and doesn’t really pay off unless you win a big one, and I always really, truly believe this, if you write an amazing script someone will find it. But… you still have to do the work to market yourself. Marketing your great spec after you write it is equally important to writing it. You just can't write something and then say, "Okay, it's a great script. I want somebody to make it now. How do I get Hollywood to notice me?"

[The ‘Magic Trick’ to Selling a Screenplay]

You have to go out there and find out yourself, and do it all yourself, no one is going to do it for you. I got a note from somebody that said, "Is there a service that will take your script out and get it sold for you?" I wrote back telling them that was their job. You have to figure out how to do it. It's long, hard work. The average time between writing a script and having it get made, if it ever does, is about eight years. In the case of Extracurricular Activities, 18 years.

Image placeholder title

Jeanne: I always maintain that it takes about eight years to really learn how to be a great writer.

Bob: I would agree with that. There are people who have natural ability, and they're going to get there faster, and there are people who are never going to get there. Not everybody can do this. It's just like not everybody can act, and not everybody can direct, and not everybody can sell furniture. It's just like anything else. There are people who will claim there is no such thing as natural ability. Of course there is. Everybody has different talents for different things. What sets each individual apart is recognizing those things that they are naturally good at, and working at those.

There are lots of people out there who are writing scripts who are never going to get it and they are never going to be able to succeed. But there are also some people out there writing scripts right now that are writing something amazing. And somebody is going to find it. It might not get made, but their ability to write will be recognized. That, again, is what's the most important thing. Getting your script made is not as important as having people recognize that you have the skill to do it. I figured that out early.

Jeanne: You’re very generous with giving so much advice to writers online. What do you think is the most common thing that people don't understand?

Bob: When I first started writing, I got some help from some amazing professional people. From producers, directors, and other successful writers, who for no other reason than being kind, gave me an education that is beyond life. I went to Don Johnson when I was on Nash, about the second season, and asked, "Hey, I have a request, and you can turn me down if you want to, but I would like to be able to go around and learn from everybody on set how they do their jobs and what it means and why they do it. I'm talking about the sound people, and the lighting people, and the camera man and everybody. I just want to learn how all of this works."

He said, "That's exactly how I did it. And you absolutely can do that." So, I went to all these people who didn't have to give me the time of day, but they did, just so I could learn everything I could about how things work and why. It's made me a much better writer. And just like being an actor has helped my writing. I still work as an actor. I'm supposed to do two movies this year, as an actor. I'm holding my fingers about four inches apart, and that's my range as an actor, okay? I'm not a great actor, but if you get me within that range I'm great, and I'm relaxed in front of a camera. So now directors or producers will just call me and say, "Hey we have this small part, it's one scene, it's five lines, come and do it." And I do.

All these things have added up to me being a better writer. I got all this free advice from so many wonderful people, the least I can do is give it back.

Jeanne: And it's very welcome. You help so many people. I don't get to see all of your exchanges, but I pop in and see you’re in a lot of the Facebook groups where people get a lot of flack. You always remain patient, but what I like about the advice you give is, it's like I always say, "Don't tell me what you think I want to hear, tell me what I need to hear." You deliver it in a way that's not cruel.

Bob: My wife says I'm a blunt instrument.

Jeanne: Exactly, but you’re not rude. Just honest.

Bob: You have to be honest. That’s the only way to help. Like one guy asked, "Which Starbucks in L.A. is the best one to leave your script in for somebody to find?" I said, "None. What will happen is, one of the baristas will pick it up, and they'll read it to each other, and make fun of it for the rest of the day, and then it will go into the trash." I’m not trying to be mean. I’m honest because I was given so much wonderful, free, blunt, and good advice when I was trying to get going in this industry.

[A Writer's Guide to Getting Past Production Company Readers]

Jeanne: Do you feel like there is a common element that people just don't understand?

Bob: A common thread in a lot of things is that the industry and the people in it are all horrible because they won’t read every script, and we need to change the industry because we don't have free and easy access. I'm thinking, "Why don't you learn how the industry works? Because it's a private business, and they get to run their businesses the way they see fit. You are not going to change the way they do anything." You can educate yourself about how they do what they do, and why they do what they do, and work within those parameters, and you'll find you're a lot more successful than standing on the outside and screaming at them about how unfair they are.

Jeanne: I hear that a lot, too. When a writer finishes their first script, they don’t know where to begin to get their work noticed.

Bob: Let’s be honest, what people are really saying is, "No one will read MY scripts." They're not trying to open the industry for anybody else. It's not a benevolent thing. It's, "I want my script read. I want it read now. And I want to be walking the red carpet in six weeks." But that's not how it works. I also tell them every year, about 80,000 scripts get registered, and the scripts from the year before don't go away. So, in ten years there are 800,000 scripts out there, and how many scripts get made and distributed every year? Maybe 600? Total.

Jeanne: I remember thinking it was more like 400.

Bob: With streaming services now, maybe it's 800, you know? 800,000 vs. 800 is an uphill climb, but there are films that get made. And yes, they're not looking for new writers, they're looking for great scripts. If it happens to be from a new writer, then that's wonderful. Truth is, they don't care whether you're a new writer or not. It's all about your content to start with. Then it becomes about you.

[Download step-by-step tips on how to create a high-concept idea!]

Why do you think that when you write a great script that the producers what to meet you? They want to see if they want to work with you now or in the future. Remember, it's not just about the script. If a producer says, "Come to my office and sit down with me." That means he thinks you belong there, so don't walk in there fearfully. You walk in there and understand that you do belong there. You can walk in there and not be afraid. It's a big learning curve. I went through it. I made all the stupid mistakes that everybody makes, and I made all the wrong assumptions that every new writer makes. I just decided I was going to learn from them and not do them again. I put my head down and took the rejections.

Jeanne: Rejection can cripple some writers, but learning how to handle it is a huge part of surviving as a writer.

Bob: Here’s another truth. Know that every rejection you get is not personal. They don't look at your script and say, " I can't wait to see how awful we can make this writer feel." They reject it because it's, A, not good, or B, it's not what they're looking for. Sometimes they just have something else in the pipeline that's too much like it. Again, there are a million reasons to get rejected, and none of them are personal, unless they like your script a lot, and you go meet with them and you're a jerk. Then it is personal. But you get around that by not being a jerk.

Jeanne: Which is very hard for some people to do.

Bob: It is definitely hard for some people to do.

Jeanne: That might be the answer to the last question I typically ask people, which is, if you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Bob: It would have been to realize that my strength was in writing and not in acting. I should have started writing a lot earlier in my life. I made a huge mistake not realizing that my natural ability as a creative person was writing.

Jeanne: Although you could argue that everybody's path is different, and by you taking the route in the furniture business, you were able to create the economic stability you needed to really dive into your craft of acting, which then led you to writing. You are achieving the dream and who cares if you didn't achieve it until later? You're living it now. You're a perfect example of how you can continually reinvent yourself.

Bob: Not completely. There are things I didn’t reinvent. I have a complete and full life outside of the film industry. I have a lot of other outside interests. I play music. I was in a working rock and roll band until a couple of years ago. I still play guitar and mandolin out once a week. I love to travel with my wife. We do that a lot. If my life was just the film industry, I’d be crazy from the ups and downs. It all comes down to attitude anyway. You look at every experience good or bad and take away something positive from it.

Image placeholder title

Jeanne: Your belief that attitude is everything is spot on. I think is a really important thing to share with our readers. If writers don’t keep a positive attitude and add a sprinkle of blind faith to their writing skills and business knowledge, they’ll be in peril. Attitude helps outside the writing room, too.

Bob: When I was 13 years old I made my first bucket list. The things I wanted to accomplish in my life, which included climbing a mountain and whitewater rafting the Colorado River. I wanted to act in a movie. I've done all of these and more on my list. There are still things on that list I haven’t accomplished yet. All these things make you a better writer. The more you experience life, the more you have to draw on.

If you just sit in a room and just write, then you don't have anything to draw on. Same for research. Going on the internet to research what you're writing about is the biggest mistake you can make. You miss all kinds of things that can make your script richer and more complete. You go out and find people that do what you're writing about and interview them. I've done ride alongs with cops. I've interviewed tons of people, I go to places, I've experienced things, I've learned how things are made, I go out and I try to do them myself, so when I write about them there is an aura of authenticity that is in that writing.

I've been in production meetings where they've said to me, "This doesn't make sense because I don't know if this would really happen." I will say, "It not only does, I’ve done it." And they go, "Really?" And I go, "Yeah, here's where and when I did it, and here's what happened." And it ends up staying in the script.

 Bob with his family.

Bob with his family.

Jeanne: Oh, I love that. I have to ask, how do you balance family and writing?

Bob: I've had unwavering support from my wife and children though all of this. My wife has been unbelievable, and she is the least Hollywood person in the world. She came to the set and met the actors, and that was nice, but she wanted to see how all the other stuff worked. She hung mostly with the crew. They loved her, everybody loves her. My wife was a nursing administrator at Stanford hospital for 35 years. She’s a scientist at heart, she is not an artsy person. One of the reasons we are so compatible is we come from two different places, and we kind of cancel each other out. We get along incredibly well, and I'm madly in love with her. We've been married 44 years, going on 45. She was the woman I gave up acting for and married, and I'm now acting again. You never know.

It hasn't always been easy and when I was getting rejected, and rejected, and rejected, I'm sure she thought maybe I should be doing something else, but she didn't voice it. She just supported me, knowing what I wanted.

Jeanne: That's amazing.

Bob: My kids all said, "We couldn't believe you were doing this, and it was really scary." My youngest daughter came back not long ago and said, "I have so much respect for you because you did it. You set your mind to doing something, and you did it." And I just want to say, I hope that sets an example.

Jeanne: You are indeed a great example that if you really want to do something, you have to do it… and it’s never too late to try.

Follow Bob on Twitter @BobSnz, and check out Extracurricular Activities, premiering May 17, 2019. 

bob saenz book

UPDATE: Since our interview, Bob released a fantastic new screenwriting book that's full of must-read advice - That's Not The Way It Works: A no-nonsense guide to the craft and business of screenwriting

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman
Download Free Writing Resources

Want to learn more about screenwriting from the comfort of your home? Check out the upcoming courses at Screenwriters University!


Image placeholder title