Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2005
"How the hell did you guys do it?"
We get this question a lot. (Especially after people meet us. Although it’s usually more like, “How the hell did guys like you do it?”) We imagine that most people who read this magazine really want to know the answer to one question ... “How do I sell my script?” Okay, that’s easy. And it can be yours in two easy steps. First, write the most novel, jaw-dropping, page-turning, inventive, never-seen-before spec screenplay in existence. After you’ve done that, get it to Brad Pitt. See? Easy.
Accomplishing Step One: Writing a script that announces your arrival.
First and foremost, center the script on a BIG IDEA. We cannot overstate how important this is for your first script. An asteroid is about to hit Earth and oil drillers have to go up and stop it. That’s a big idea. Three documentary filmmakers get lost in the woods trying to find out if the Blair Witch legend is true. Tiny budget, but big idea. A psychologist helps a kid who can see ghosts, only to discover he’s a ghost himself. That’s a HUGE idea. You grew up in the suburbs and your father was mean to you and you are creating an existential piece on the ennui of living in the great middle class ... Not a big idea. What about American Beauty? Remember, we are announcing your arrival. And you aren’t Alan Ball. So save this one for after you’ve already made it and the studios will greenlight your grocery list.
Okay, so you have your big idea. Now, go forth and write the hell out of it. Write a script that gets people excited, that gets agents itchy to pimp it, that causes executives to stand at their kitchen counter and read the whole thing, forgetting to sit down until they have reached the final “Fade Out.” (This actually happened with our first script, we were told.) So how do you do that?
In 1998, we wrote a script called The Courier. Our big idea: A man delivers things to people who don’t want to be reached. Then, when we started writing, we dropped the axiom “write what you know” and replaced it with “write what you think is cool.” Write what you know works if you’re in the CIA or you hunt down missing children for a living. That’s not us by a long shot, so we made up our own rules. In our world (the script), the FBI was trying to stop our protagonist, “The Courier.” To keep track of all the nefarious people out there, the Bureau rated criminals by the color of the “page” in their file—with different colors representing different levels of danger. For example, if your page was declared “Blue,” the FBI was all over you. Real? No, a bald-faced lie. But it saved us days of doing silly research and let us write things like ...
You help us nail the
Capolillos, we’ll put
you on Evil Sivle’s trail.
If you knew where Evil Sivle
was, you’d have taken him.
I don’t think you understand.
We’ve got the Caps on the
I didn’t think there was
a Blue Page.
We bust them, Sordo and
me are off the Hitler detail.
You see, write what you think is cool. Hopefully, the audience will agree.
Furthermore, we wrote a script populated with characters we would want to see on the big screen ... a deaf FBI agent, a lisping heavy, a husband-and-wife gangster team who professed love for each other even when they were cracking skulls. Everywhere we could zig, we zagged. Everywhere we could zag, we zigged. We tried to make it funny and cool and thrilling and always ... interesting. Another example:
INT. MUSTY BOXING RING – DAY
A wizened old man, CORNERMAN, sits in the bleachers of a tawdry gymnasium, watching a black kid pummel a Mexican in a decrepit boxing ring. The Courier takes a seat behind him.
Mickey T. and No-Neck went
down while you was away.
Naw. Fifty to life.
What about Cisco?
Cisco ... Cisco got scots.
Marched fifteen fuckin’ firemen
into court, all swearin’ they
was eatin’ Moons over My-Hammy
at Denny’s with Cisco when Papa
Nillo was taken out. Defense
had a field day, all those uniforms.
Cisco walked easy.
Weren’t so easy for Mick and
No-Neck though. They ain’t got
the friends Cisco’s got.
The truth’s the truth.
You’re right about that.
Which brings up another thought: Always make the action-description as unique as the dialogue. Remember, you are trying to sell a screenplay, not a movie. Your screenplay is going to be judged at first on the most basic of levels: Did it entertain the reader? Since this is the case, then write for that person. Write with flair, and conversationally, and don’t be afraid to break a rule or two. Tell us what the character is thinking. Screw “Show, Don’t Tell” ... if you want to tell the reader something, then tell him! You are trying to win over someone who has 10 scripts to read on a Sunday and is just begging for reasons to pass so he can move on to the next. Entertain that person and you have vastly increased your chances. Another example:
INT. THE COURIER’S APARTMENT – DAY
The Courier steps out of his shower and wraps a white towel around his waist. His beard is gone, and his hair is sandy instead of jet black. The effect is dramatic as he looks like a different person.
He walks through his mostly-empty apartment. No television, radio, nothing. The Courier moves to his sparsely-decorated kitchen and is flabbergasted to find a man, LISPY, rummaging through his refrigerator.
Lispy is a thin, effeminate hombre who likes to wear baubles, lip gloss, and speaks with a well-practiced lisp. Ironically, his demeanor is extremely tough and edgy. He does not look up when the Courier enters.
I underth-tand you’re the
man who deliver-ths items to
Lispy backs away from the refrigerator with a dill pickle stuck between his thumb and forefinger like a cigar.
The Courier eyes his pickle.
My queth-tion i-th ...
do you deliver item-th to
people who do not want to
Then there are the three words that will change your life: “Here’s the deal.” Recently, we were looking back at our first three scripts, and each one had the idea of “here’s the deal” somewhere before page 30. Now, we aren’t structure guys, and we aren’t outline guys either, but on some level, we were using those words coming from a character to help tell the audience what the script was about. When you have one character tell it to another character, all the better. Picking up the above scene a little farther along:
Evil Thivle want-th thith
package delivered to himthelf.
The Courier just gives Lispy a look; he didn’t follow before and this doesn’t clear it up either.
He want-th to thee if he is ...
how should I thay ...
“findable.” If anyone can do it,
he thaid it would be you. I
thuggest you take histh offer.
Is that right?
Yeth. Although he may not be
findable, you obviously are.
Lispy rises to leave, dusting off his trousers.
Oh, and you have til Thunday
midnight. And like I thaid, that
case-th is to remain unopened.
We’ll know if itsth not. Otherwisthe,
the offer is re-thinded, and you
become a marked man. Nobody turns
down Evil Thivel. That’th the deal.
That’s not much of a deal.
Page 12 and we know exactly what the task is ahead. How ‘bout that dialogue, huh? Get it? The guy named Lispy has a lisp. Can’t believe this movie was never made.
A couple last thoughts regarding writing a great script:
Don’t outline. If you know where you’re starting (Courier is given a job to find some guy) and where you’re ending (Courier finds said guy), that’s plenty. We know this is not the conventional wisdom, but, to us, outlining is nothing but a tool for procrastination. Face the blank page. “But they said in this screenwriting book I should outline or I’ll write myself into a corner,” you say. Great! That leads to the next thought:
Write your character into a corner. If it takes you a week to figure out how to write him out, there’s no way the audience will see it coming while they are watching the movie or reading the script. Writing something unique takes time. The easy answer is usually the cliché.
Pace, pace, pace. Pace means everything to us. Pace makes scripts readable. Pace makes up for mistakes elsewhere. Pace makes people turn pages. Pace makes people stand at their kitchen counter for an hour without sitting. We can wholeheartedly promise you right now, four out of every five scenes in your script are a page too long. Get in, get out. Stick and move. Keep dancing. Everyone who reads it will thank you. Moving on.
Accomplishing Step Two: Get it to Brad Pitt.
Actually, it doesn’t have to be Brad. It’s not like we ever met him. But if you’ve accomplished step one, then step two works like reverse Reaganomics. Good scripts will trickle up from an assistant to an executive to a producer to a manager to an A-list superstar.
See, there are a million people in Hollywood who are making no money working at the desks of important shakers and movers who would love nothing more than to walk into their boss’s offices and say, “I just found the greatest script I’ve ever read.” These people are your targets. These are the people who don’t really want to direct; they really want to produce! Didn’t your uncle go to school with some guy who rigs lights on Will & Grace? This guy is a target. Doesn’t your fifth cousin know the sound mixer on the third Alien movie? This guy is a target. Didn’t the guy you played softball with know someone who knows Steve Guttenberg? Okay, so stay away from that guy. But we’re telling you, get it into as many people’s hands as possible. If it is truly that great of a script, it will break through the clutter; and someone who can do something for you will read it.
Now, back to us. We passed our script around ... in fact we gave the script to everyone we knew. Suddenly, people were asking to be involved with it. We had no idea what we were doing, but we were excited and anxious at every turn. Everyone had a different promise or a different take or a different deal for us, and we were overwhelmed. (This is all 100 percent because of the advice in step one, by the way.)
So, a friend gave it to a woman who worked for a producer who gave it to Brad’s manager ... and Brad Pitt said he wanted to play The Courier! This will do wonders for your screenwriting career, we promise. We signed with an agent, met with a lawyer and were soon on the front page of Variety with a big sale. The fact that the movie never got made will be the subject of a follow-up article titled “Don’t Count Your Chickens” or “Welcome To The Majors, Mr. Brandt And Mr. Haas.”
Do you have to live in Los Angeles to do this? No. But not living in L.A. is kind of like not buying Final Draft. If you aren’t willing to shell out the bucks for the software, then you aren’t serious about screenwriting; and you don’t have a chance in hell of making it. Moving to L.A. is the bigger version of that commitment. There’s nothing like a little financial or lifestyle pain to really test your devotion to this business, and there are thousands out here working harder at this than you right now. We always tell people if you can imagine yourself being fulfilled and happy doing anything else in the world, do that instead. This isn’t a world for part-timers. Writing is a full-time gig. Immerse yourself in it.
But, just as important is this: Writing is rewriting. If you’re not in L.A., you also don’t have a reliable network of readers to give you feedback. Our moms loved our stuff. A lot of good that did. In L.A., there’s a plethora of people waiting to tell you what’s wrong with your script rather than what a genius you are. It’s just going to increase your chances, that’s all. Plus, the weather is really great.
In the end, the life of a screenwriter is unbeatable. Money, women, parties ... we get none of that. But we get to tell stories for a living. And play golf during the week. (Michael note: Derek has lowered his handicap nearly 20 strokes since we sold The Courier.) Occasionally, we get to see words we write up on screen in front of a thousand people at Mann’s Chinese and, for a second, feel like we know what we are doing. For better or worse, those words will always be on that DVD. It’s worth it. And it can all be yours in just two easy steps.
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