I have publicly admitted that I am a storyaholic. Actually, I have proclaimed it proudly.
What I have not been as forthcoming about is that I don’t just adore great storytelling. I fall in love with great writers. Literally.
I relish those times when I have read a truly great screenplay. One that was:
Delightful, Delicious, Entertaining, Engaging, Skillful, Smart, Rich and Resonant
…I have fallen, head over heels, with the writer. Because for me, those qualities add up to sexy.
Who wouldn’t fantasize about being in the company of someone who was delightful, entertaining, smart and really, really good at their (very difficult) chosen profession?
In the past, this has led me to willingly make a fool of myself. And I probably will do so again.
Witness Richard LaGravenese. When I started as President of Debra Hill Productions, Debra was working on The Mirror Has Two Faces, adapted by Mr. LaGravenese, as a favor to TriStar, to help move the project toward production. Of course, I was already a fan of his work – The Fisher King! I was able to read his new script. Several different drafts, actually. He is particularly deft at the dialogue between men and women; from deep discussion, to witty banter, to barbed fights. His dialogue has a ring of authenticity to it that makes my heart pound and knocks my socks off.
Many years later, I was at a party, and there he was. Richard La-Gra-ahhh-vanese. He was standing beside his wife, Ann Weiss, looking a bit shy, unassuming, and slightly nerdish in an adorable way.
I walked straight over, introduced myself, and without so much as a polite pause, launched into telling him that I was absolutely in love with him – I don’t believe I ever let go of his hand. “I realize,” I pushed on, “that I am saying I love you while you are standing right beside your wife. Which is totally okay,” I added, never even looking at the woman. I hope, oh how I hope, that I managed to be somewhat nearly as articulate as I was above in explaining that it was because of his writing. I will likely never know for certain.
Same thing with William Goldman, only to my infinite regret, I was never able to shake his hand for an inappropriate length of time. I read the book The Princess Bride, which if you haven’t read, you really, really should. If you thinkyou loved the movie… well this is like having Bill himself by your side, telling you a fabulous story.
He is the narrator, whispering in your ear, under the pretense of presenting an abridged version of the “original” book, The Princess Brideby S. Morgenstern. Bill’s “the good parts version,”is a delicious mix of fact and fiction. Yes, as he wrote, he was in Los Angeles struggling through the adaptation of The Stepford Wives. But of course there is no original novel, set in the nonexistent country of Florin. Even when Bill is lying through his teeth and you know it, his clever commentary and wry asides remain endlessly enchanting.
How could you not want to sit across the table over a nice meal or lounge comfortably in bed and have Bill Goldman just talk to you? Seriously, click this link and buy the book already!
I moderation a panel of action writers at a conference many years ago, and the organizers asked me to “wrangle” Shane Black, so noted for his distinctive writer’s voice that draws you in as if you were his partner in crime, you the reader and him the writer, enjoying it together, that it became an adjective, as in “Shaneblackish.” (And mostly to refer to failed attempts at emulating his style.) Shane was the “whale” on that panel, the guy with the most chops, and could not have been more lovely and low maintenance. He then went on to say seemingly simple but brilliant things that left me rushing to make notes so that I might quote him.
And then there is Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby whose passion for my beloved passion project matched my own, and whose smart insights into the story quickly outstripped mine after I had devoted years to bringing the story to the screen with all sorts of A-List elements. They so got it. I was fortunate to have them as friends before working with them, but had I not been, I would have adored them forever for what they brought to that project.
Of course, it is not just writer boyz who make me feel this way. I remember reading the screenplay, Sense and Sensibility, by Emma Thompson and, like the best dessert you ever tasted, I just don’t want it to end. Trust me, those of us who have read Everest-high stacks of scripts would unanimous attest that this is very, very rare.
Jenny Wingfield, the writer of the beautiful, heart-wrenching, coming of age drama featuring a young Reese Witherspoon in her film debut, The Man In the Moon, had the entire audience at the DGA screening (that’s a jaded industry crowd, a tough audience indeed) sniffing so intensely by the end, that unless they were passing around heaps of cocaine, had to mean they were trying to hold back their tears. Jenny’s lovely work has actually made me cry on the page.
So what is it that makes these very different writers, with vastly varying styles, working in an array of genres, earn them ardent fans, or in my case, more like a groupie?
What do these A-List writers have in common? A voice.
That voice is distinctive. And that voice is confident. I realize that “confident” may give you pause. Perhaps confuse rather than clarify. Here’s what it means for me:
When the writing is confident, the reader can relax. I know I am in good hands. I don’t have to work to follow the story or struggle to figure out which supporting characters is which. No stress, no worry, no confusion. Nothing is extraneous. If it is on the page, it is significant. I can lean back and experience it as it unfolds. It feels like being taken by the hand into a new world on a wonderful adventure. The real world falls away. And for a time, I am swept up and away into the story world where my story-loving mind is in its happy place.
Those are the writers who make me fall in love with them. And thus, I walk up to total strangers, hold a handshake far too long, and wax rhapsodic about their work.
It’s not so bad, given that writers don’t usually have groupies, so they are more often pleasantly surprised than feeling the need for a restraining order.
…well, because, obviously…
I have been crushing long and hard on The Davids.
As I wrote in my ScriptMag column, Something New and “Bulletproof” Under the “How to Write A Screenplay” Sun reviewing their new book on screenwriting: Bulletproof: Writing Scripts That Don’t Get Shot Down, my connection to The Davids was circuitous until it wasn’t. Through sheer accident, serendipity or perhaps it was meant to be, I fell in love with their film, The Family Man. Suddenly, I was chatting with them on Messenger, asking questions about the movie, getting answers and soon we were sharing inside jokes!
In my article I promised you the story. Here it is:
I became a Diamond and Weissman fangrrl as a result of altitude.
That is not a typo. Altitude: Feet above sea level. In this case, more than a mile high.
(Nothing naughty there people. Don’t get ahead of the story.)
My first teaching gig was at the UCLA Graduate Producers Program where I created a course, From Ideas to Movies, for aspiring producers and writers to learn about how the studio system worked by following the path of an idea from writers, to agents, to development execs, to studios. Each night had a rocking panel of industry pros. I also taught practical skills, including coverage and pitching. Plus, I had everyone develop an idea and pitch it to a panel of pros. Which just happened to turn into a six-figure pre-emptive sale. (Watch here if your curiosity is piqued.)
As a result of that, someone offered me the opportunity to teach anything I wanted. Anything at all over a span of three days. No brainer. I wanted to teach ideas. Every aspect from idea generation, to concept, to a premise, to developing it into a story, to turning it into a marketable movie.
For that, I remain eternally grateful. It gave birth to the Big Ideas Weekend Intensive, which has been a joy, enabling me to work closely with writers all around the country, developing ideas into marketable, meaningful movies.
There was only one little catch, but it didn’t seem to be an issue to me: It was in Idyllwild, CA, a small community in the mountains East of Los Angeles above Palm Springs. At just over a mile high, it has more elevation than population. (Altitude, remember? One mile = 5,280 feet.) A tiny town with no traffic lights and no parking meters. It is also home to the world-renown high school boarding school for the arts, Idyllwild Arts.
I had been many times and loved it there. All the shops are Mom n’ Pops, offer artists’ creations, or both. It is in the tree line and the sight of towering pines and the sweet scent of cedars is wonderful. There is one movie theatre that shows one movie, twice a day and the lobby doubles as the town’s only movie rental spot.
As I got down to work with my group of ten students, it dawned to me that, regardless of their level of experience, each and every one of them was afraid of structure. I will admit that I am far from a structure savant, but through years of learning from the gurus and working in the industry, I had a solid understanding of the vocabulary, its function, and the sheer importance of structure in film.
I stay up late trying to figure out how to solve the problem of my students’ structurephobia. It is my solemn duty as their teacher. Aha! I will show them a film and we will talk through the structure as it unfolds. The first film that sprang to my mind was the The African Queen, directed by John Huston, based on the novel by C.S. Forester, adapted by James Agee & John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Two diametrically opposed characters, forced together on a dilapidated steamboat on a river in Africa during WW1, who go from hating each other to falling in love. Their goal progresses from survival to destroying a huge German warship. Perfect. It clearly had big internal and external arcs demarcated by sharp beats delineating the structure. Genius.
But for altitude.
Atop the mountain, as I’ve noted there was only one movie theatre with the video store in their lobby. And a Performing Arts school. Neither had a copy of this 1951 classic. No time to go down the mountain to try and dig one up.
Plan B: I would figure out another film where I would quickly be able to speak articulately about the structure without the time to review it first. Ouch.
Then another light bulb. I had a writer working for me as an intern. In exchange for his making my life easier, I was helping him develop a pitch to rewrite a project for another producer. And he was struggling. I suggested that he find a film comparable in story and tone, and break down the structure to learn from it. Either he or I came up with The Family Man. Not a clue as to who. I had his structure breakdown on my computer.
Eureka! The cheat sheet was right there on my computer.
And there was a copy of the film avail available at 5,413 feet!
But, when I looked it up, it turned out that the aspiring writer had not done a very good job of breaking down the structure.
So, I rolled up my sleeves, dug in, and found that indeed, there was a very well crafted and readily identifiable structure. Since 2007 or perhaps 2008, I have leaned on the brilliant work of Diamond and Weissman to enable me to be a much better teacher, to deepen my understanding the role that structure plays, and to articulate it with an excellent example, convincing writers that structure was not the scary monster under the bed, but their friend.
I also promised you an Industry Inside scoop:
I’m reading The Davids’ book, ambling along, and on page six, they mention one of their favorite projects. A pitch they sold in 1995, Guam Goes to the Moon, that has not been produced. Obviously, that is quite a distinctive title. And I have a crazy memory for story. I forget character names the moment I get to Fade Out. Writer’s names are apt to slip my mind. Titles… meh, maybe really great ones. But I remember story forever, and that title tells the story. Instantly, I knew for certain that somewhere, at some time, I read that script. Where, when, why? Not a clue.
Plus I have a giant “FU” file. Get your mind out of the gutter – that stands for Follow Up.
A 100,000-word document of every significant interaction I had with agents, managers and studio execs. Jam-packed with details, from what restaurant we met at to where they went to college. Why? Because all these breakfast, lunches, and drinks were business meetings, as well as the stream of phone calls that followed. And I wanted to be on the top of my game. Please, that was just one FU file, another for books, another for crewing up, deals, directors, meetings, writers… It’s an information-driven business.
So, at page six, I put down the book and hit the computer. BINGO there was the coverage:
Title: GUAM GOES TO THE MOON
Written by: David Diamond & David Weissman
Date: April 27, 1998
Submitted by/Agency: Matt Leipzig/ORIGINAL ARTISTS
Submitted to: Barri Evins
Elements: Set up with Mutual @ Paramount; Daniel Stern attached to direct
Reader: Barri Evins
Evaluation: LOW CONSIDER….CONSIDER
LOGLINE: An offbeat multimillionaire from Guam buys an old rocket and hires a group of ex-astronauts fly a mission to the moon.
EVALUATION: LOW CONSIDER…CONSIDER as WRITING SAMPLE
COMMENT: Very able writing keeps us interested in the COOL RUNNINGS-like story.
Good characterizations and relationships with able dialogue. Good structure and pacing.
Although this isn’t an out and out comedy, the premise would be well served as a movie by some bigger comic moments. These writers are worth keeping in mind for assignments.
Now don’t get snitty about that coverage. As president of a production company that coverage is for me and me alone. I didn’t hand this off to a junior exec, or an assistant or an intern. I read it myself. I have included everything needed to do my job.
Now for the “how the heck did that come to be,” a dive into the F/U File turns up the scoop:
MATT LEIPZIG ORIGINAL ARTISTS
was an exec at Weintraub
4-98 lunch at Pizzicoto with Patrick
GUAM GOES TO THE MOON by David Diamond & David Weissman LC…C
COOL RUNNINGS like story about failed astronaut who everyone thinks chickened out of a moon launch getting another chance in the ludicrous Guam Space Program. Good execution, characterization and relationships, structure, although not as many comic beats as we would expect. Almost dramedy.
Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the business of show and how it works IRL so this is a learning opportunity and not just a rambling, tell all, self-reflective piece.
I’m President of a production company, and go to lunch with this agent. I want to build a relationship with him. I want to get to know his taste. Therefore, I want to get to know his clients so I read writing samples. If I like their writing samples, I want a shot at getting their specs. When I have an open writing assignment (a paid job for a writer) is this one of the agents I’m going to call? I’d possibly like to send him potential clients that might match his taste, because when it works that’s a win-win-win. Agent is happy and is going to be good to me in the future. Writer is over the moon and is going to be good to me over the future. I am going to get specs and have made people happy and helped worthy people advance their careers. Read more on how to make the win-win-win happen.
So the question here is WHY DIDN’T I ASK TO MEET THE WRITERS? And trust me, it would not be physically or mentally possible to be kicking myself and harder right now.
- I was responsible for moving a slate of about two-dozen projects at any given moment. Ones that we set up at studios and cable networks, ones that I was packaging, ones in development, ones that were open assignments, ones that were pitches, ones that were ideas, ones that were in turnaround. And my job was to push them all uphill. All the time. In essence: There are only so many hours in the day.
- Here’s where the rubber hits the road. Look at that coverage again. Keep in mind, “recommend” is a rarity, and “consider” is a pretty high watermark in this world. I wrote “LOW CONSIDER… CONSIDER.” On the cusp. I noted plenty of positives about their writing ability. I even said “Worth keeping in mind for assignments,” which should have gotten them the meeting. But what else did I note. That as comedy writers, with a comedy premise, albeit tonally akin to Cool Runnings, (which was, however, based on a true story) I felt that they didn’t deliver on the promise implied in the title. To be viable as a movie, it needed bigger comic moments.
While I remain disappointed about my decision, as it was a HUGE missed opportunity, I will defend it and note that, in Chapter Six of Bulletproof, The Bulletproof Set Piece, Diamond and Weisberg explain that even though they were working writers, with two pitch sales under their belts one of which was The Family Man, plus assignments, they did not really, truly understand the function and necessity of Set Pieces in movies. They only gained this insight from a painful, real life pitch.
A successful set piece provides, in a single energizing scene or sequence, proof in action of the big screen potential of your movie. Trailer moments.
Once they fully grasped this, they went back and re-worked the pitch. Ultimately it sold in a bidding war, one of their biggest sales ever.
You should really buy the book, and learn exactly how to use Set Pieces, in any and all genres, to elevate your screenplays to bulletproof movies.