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Coffee Talk: Screenwriters – 2011 LAFF

By Ryan Mason · June 20, 2011

Aside from the dozens of screenings, the Los Angeles Film Festival also offers a number of industry panels, where filmmakers discuss elements of their craft – and they usually include some sort of question-and-answer at the end. I made it a priority to head into the SNL-titled “Coffee Talk: Screenwriters” on Sunday evening to see Josh Olson (A History of Violence), Diablo Cody (Juno), Dustin Lance Black (Milk), and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America) wax realistic about what it’s like being a working screenwriter in today’s cinematic climate.

Being a writer myself, I’m always fascinated to hear about other writers’ processes. Especially screenwriters, since so much of their craft – and to an extent, their ability to be successful doing what they do – hinges upon how well they navigate the studio waters where notes come at you from multiple people, all with different ideas on how to fix the script. To which Olson provided some of the best advice I’d yet heard: “Behave like a professional, but always write like an amateur.” Everyone on the panel had their own level of cynicism that seems to just be endemic to the profession, all looking back fondly on their abilities to be just working on one script at a time and to be just writing on spec without a barrage of notes coming at them. (Granted, they all admitted that that usually means not making any money, either; however, from the sounds of things, they’re not making a ton of money even now.)

The LAFF and the WGA picked a nicely diversified group of writers to populate this panel, all of them carrying their own unique voices and working in all different genres, having their own memorable origin stories. Aside from Cody (whose first-spec-script-wins-Oscar-gold rags-to-riches tale is widely known), the others all seemed to have found different ways toward working their way into the business. Black started in documentaries, only to realize that you can only make money doing that in reality TV, which he tried and found to be “soul sucking and abusive.” So he worked on specs, which led to him getting a job on Big Love. That paid the bills while he worked on more specs during the hiatuses. Markus and McFeely met in college, then both got jobs answering phones and doing the regular industry jobs, wrote specs and got an agent from there. The main advice they could all offer about their beginnings was to write what you know, something you hear all the time yet people still ignore. Olson warned that if you try to write something because it’s popular now, that by the time you finish it, the market will have changed and whatever was hot then won’t be now. Better to focus on what makes you happy.

Another area in which they were all in agreement was on the art of pitching to studio execs. Easier than it sounds, the general rule of thumb is that you can’t come across too eager. “They smell fear,” said McFeely, going so far as to say that some of their best (he’s in a writing team with Markus) pitches were for projects they didn’t even necessarily want. Cody likened it to dating: that if you appear too interested too soon, it will turn them off. Olson called it a “performance.” Black, however, took a slightly different approach, suggesting that you should “let them know what you can bring to the project, that you’re the only writer who can do it.” His notion is that an exec has already heard every story idea out there at least a thousand times, so the way to set yourself apart is by showing just why you’re the perfect person to be telling this particular one.

Naturally, as these things tend to end up, the writers briefly offered some advice to any aspiring screenwriters – which was most of the audience, naturally. Cody summed it up with what I’m sure many screenwriting teachers would love: “Write everyday.” Plain and simple. She said that the momentum created from writing everyday is very important to her process. Black reinforced the notion that you need to be writing about something you love, whether it’s the characters or the subject matter or the genre. That if it’s not your passion, someone else will do it better. And then Olson brought it all back down to Earth, reminding everyone that there’s a ten-year trajectory from when you start to when you look at yourself and go, okay, I’m pretty good.

And also to have no other marketable skills. This garnered quite a few laughs yet there’s more truth to it than humor. Despite all the struggles they’ve endured – and are still enduring – something inside of them all keeps them going, keeps them writing. As if there is no other option. To tack onto Black’s advice, not only do you need to have a passion for your subject material, but also to be passionate about storytelling in general.