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Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Cup of Ambition: The Hollywood Screenwriter

INT. Paradise Valley Mansion. Dinner Party. Night.
You’ve heard it from relatives, from your therapist… "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like. (To see our previous interviewees, click here.)

Enter TREVOR MUNSON, late 30’s, stubble. He sits at his writing desk, and is quickly deep in thought before his typewriter, teeth stained red with cheap burgundy, wondering what to tell aspiring screenwriters. Dare he tell them the truth?
What the hell?


I am a freelance writer/producer for television and film. Along with various assignment work for Fox and Newline over the years, I have had a movie entitled Lone Star State of Mind made by Sony Screen Gems. More recently, I was co-creator and co-executive producer of the CBS vampire show Moonlight which was loosely based on my novel Angel of Vengeance.

My professional writing career got started after finishing grad school for literature. I wrote a script my last semester (Lone Star State of Mind) which I then entered in a handful of screenwriting contests. The script did well in both the Nicholl Fellowship and the Slamdance Screenwriting competition, and as result I got my first Hollywood agent and my start.

The Good…
What I love most about my job are the hours (when not on deadline), and the ability to make a living basically entertaining myself by telling stories. I'm a tough critic, so my basic rule of thumb is if I like what I've done (and I often don't), then others will too. It's an amazing thing to see how the words I fashion into stories and characters affect and impact others I've never met.

The Bad… The Ugly…
The most difficult thing about the job is... well, that it's an incredibly difficult job to do well. There are basically two kinds of people. Those who can write and those who can't. For those who can, the fact that we can do it doesn't make it any easier. Every day you sit down by yourself and wage a battle against mediocrity. In my experience, you often lose that battle. Which means a lot of days where you end up feeling like crap after completing your day's work. That's rough. Writing can be incredibly rewarding, but it's a process. It takes as long as it takes, and the reward can sometimes be a long time in coming...

Surprise Me
Something you might be surprised to know is that I didn't initially set out to write in Hollywood. If you'd asked me growing up I would have told you I was going to be a novelist. I intended to write horror or young adult novels. I didn't even know that you could make a living writing movies.

Spin a Yarn
One of the best moments I've had as a screenwriter was walking onto the set of my first movie and seeing my words come to life. In the script I had described one of the characters as wearing a very specific pair of shiny, black gold-toed boots. When I got there, the actor was wearing the exact pair of boots I had made up in my head while sitting at my computer as a broke grad student two years before. It was an amazing moment because I felt the power of being a writer in a very tangible way. I had made something up and now here it was in the real world created to my exact specifications. I felt like a magician.

Who makes a good screenwriter?
The personality traits that make a person good for this job are a thick skin and the ability to suffer fools. I wish I was kidding, and I hate to sound cynical, but Hollywood truly is the only place I know of where the people who can't actually do your job get to tell you how to do your job. It's a strange way to do things. If I was getting married, I wouldn't hire the caterer and then tell him how to make the food...

Advice for someone interested in becoming you?
For those writers interested in screenwriting, what I recommend is reading as many scripts as you can get your hands on. Read the scripts and then watch the movies to see what was done, what was kept, what was changed. I also recommend reading the underlying novels and then watching the movie to see how things were condensed, streamlined, or made more visual. Then, go write some scripts. If you're like me it will take two or three attempts before you get the hang of it. If you're a novelist, I suggest taking one of your own works and adapting it. Don't be too precious. Get rid of any characters and plot lines you don't need. Make it cinematic. Boiling down a larger work into a more cinematic form can be a great way to create a more layered and complex screenplay.

Once you have a solid script, I recommend entering screenwriting contests. Do a little research and make sure they're "legit". Isolate three or four and then get your script out there. If you do well in a major competition, representation and calls from producers often follow. (Which of course requires a whole new round of research to make sure they too are "legit").

Thoughts about this job for writers...

I like having the option to write both novels and scripts. They are two different writing experiences, and certain stories lend themselves more to one than the other. I realized a while back that it can be a great thing to start out with a novel and then work forward to a script. For one thing, it affords you a greater amount of material to distill into a script. For another, you can get paid several times for the same material. (I learned this lesson after selling my first spec script). You can sell it as a published book, then sell the movies rights, then get them to pay you to adapt it into a script. Also, for whatever reason, buyers in Hollywood will often take a published book a whole lot more seriously than they will a script. As result, novels, short stories, and even articles are easier to set up and sell. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when Hollywood inevitably screws your story up in the movie-making process, you will still have the creative vision of your novel out in the world for people to enjoy.

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