Interview: Christopher Lockhart, Part 1

Christopher Lockhart spent over a decade working for renowned agent Ed Limato, who represented actors such as Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, and Goldie Hawn, among others. At ICM, Lockhart ran the Story Department; currently, he is the Story Editor at William Morris Endeavor. But he also teaches screenwriting, gives lectures across the country, produces, writes, created The Inside Pitch, a televised writing workshop that earned him an L.A. Area Emmy nomination, and just completed his first documentary, Most Valuable Players, set to air on OWN this fall. And let's not forget his blog, The Inside Pitch, where Lockhart offers valuable insider perspective.

When asked for an example of a key thing Lockhart learned from having worked with Ed Limato, Lockhart says, “I think that he really enabled me to be an individual… he was very supportive of whatever I did. He himself was an iconoclast. Ultimately, it was about serving him – but he still didn’t expect you to not be true to who you were.”

Along the lines of being true to who you are, Lockhart believes that, “Things [one is] passionate about in terms of scripts are generally things you are passionate about in life.” On his aforementioned blog, there is an excellent piece by Lockhart on loglines. When I ask him what his logline would be, he says, "I often use the word 'struggle' in a logline because it connotes conflict. I think my logline might be that 'I am a guy who struggles to stay alive and alert in a very tough business yet is always able to reinvent myself and explore new options out there – like producing.'" In addition, Lockhart adds, "It is about constantly re-strategizing and seeing what the next move is, like Survivor – trying to stay alive in the motion picture business… [It is] very political, a very real analogy. My life, like the life of many of the people that I know, we are all contestants in the game of Survivor. I’m just trying not to get voted off, just trying to stay on the island."

TSL:  Speaking of staying on the Industry Island,in your life, how many scripts do you think you have read? In the thousands? Tens of thousands?

CL:  I have read over 30,000 scripts since graduate school, over 20 years.

TSL:  What percentage do you think go from read to produced? I know this varies depending on what kind of company one works at…

CL:  In my job, I tend to get scripts that are much further along, [ones that] have been greenlit, coming out of studios. My percentage might be higher than other peoples’. Because I read so much, it also pushes my percentage down. [So] I don’t know – maybe three percent.

TSL:  To put that into perspective, how many out of one hundred get made?

CL:  I can say one out of every 100 or so that I read are eventually made. It is important to understand that because I am working with people like Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, projects coming to them are much further along than someone at a pitch fest.

TSL:  You do many things: produce, speak, teach, write. Which is your favorite and why?

CL:  I really love to teach; it’s probably my most favorite thing of all. I like to hear peoples’ experience, peoples’ eureka moments, see students have epiphanies in regard to their own work. [I like to] watch them learn how to crack a story.

I always loved teachers when I was growing up. My first real job was as a New York City high school teacher. Teaching is my first great love. All the other things are great and fulfill me in other ways. If I was not teaching, there would definitely be a real empty space.

TSL:  Perfect. That flows right into my next question of if you grew up knowing you wanted to do what you do now? Many of us, when in kindergarten – or even college – do not say, “When I grow up, I want to work at an agency in Hollywood…” or “I want to read other peoples’ scripts for the rest of my life…”

CL:  I think when I was really, really little, I wanted to be a lawyer or, like every kid, wanted to be a vet. [Even in]elementary school, I was acting and writing. I always had a creative end. It was so important to me in my formative years. I wanted to teach high school drama and English. As I got older and I was writing more, and I was being more creative, things sort of took a detour.

We are constantly reinventing ourselves. At least I hope so. It is not about doing one thing and one thing only – but trying to do all the things I like to do.

TSL:  So you went from teaching high school in New York to working at an agency in L.A.?

CL:  The agency came [up] in a round about way. I was writing out here, had a writing partner. He left the business and I was writing myself, which was not satisfying. Writing is, for the most part, a lonely art. And all of the sudden I did not enjoy spending 12 hours alone in a room. I am kind of gregarious, which is why I like to teach. Through happenstance, I ended up at ICM as a story editor. That was a reinvention. I was reinventing myself again.

TSL:  On your blog (The Inside Pitch), I once read your piece on loglines. What would your logline sound like if you were promoting Christopher Lockhart to somebody?

CL:  I often use the word “struggle” in a logline because it connotes conflict.

I think my logline might be that “I am a guy who struggles to stay alive and alert in a very tough business yet is always able to reinvent myself and explore new options out there – like producing.”

[It is] about the constant struggle to stay relevant. In this town, it is very easy to become irrelevant; you can become irrelevant in the snap of a finger. That is scary. Especially my side of the business. I’ve had some blows in the last year – my boss Ed [Limato] died; I was with him 13 years and all of the sudden my future looked sort of bleak.

It is about constantly re-strategizing and seeing what the next move is, like Survivor – trying to stay alive in the motion picture business… [It is] very political, a very real analogy. My life, like the life of many of the people that I know, we are all contestants in the game of Survivor. I’m just trying not to get voted off, just trying to stay on the island.

TSL:  I love that analogy and there probably is not a more perfect one about trying to make it in L.A. On a related note, I know you have done coverage on tens of thousands of scripts over the years. If you had to do coverage on you, what would you say are your strongest attributes and how do they help you do what you do?

CL:  I would definitely give myself “excellent” in that category on the back page. (Laughs.)

I really think that you have to understand and be able to work with people. For the most part, I have worked with a lot of personalities, but have not pissed off a lot of people over the years. Even if I was not seeing eye-to-eye with another person, we still managed to get along.

One of the most important things for me is how do you stay in this business and be the person that you want to be and not evolve into a dick? We can all be dicks. One of my strongest attributes is that I have grown in my ability to understand material and be able to communicate with people about that material. Denzel cannot read every script that comes his way. I have the communication skills to be able to enable people to understand why the material works and doesn’t work without them having to read the project; what we can do to bolster the script so it can be an even stronger piece of material.

In the beginning, it was very daunting working with people who are very professional and have been in the business a long time. When you are dealing with Mel Gibson, for example, he is a fucking genius – he’s very smart and will call you on your shit. It really is about rising to the level of the people you are with; I had no choice. That has been really terrific. I am very, very grateful for that experience and to work with all these people over the years.

TSL:  What, then, would you say is the most challenging part of your job?

CL:  Probably one of the most challenging aspects of this part of the business is having to deal with very strong personalities. The other stuff, all the creative stuff for me, every once in a while there could be some kind of challenge – how do you present a negative stance in a positive way instead of saying something sucks? But for the most part, it is having to deal with very strong personalities.

The more successful people are, the stronger their personalities are. When you are someone like me, the lowest man on the totem pole, you have to have an opinion and stick to your opinion. A lot of people don’t have their own opinions – they have other peoples’ opinions. My boss, Ed, encouraged this. He gave me confidence to sit across [from someone] in a room – say Mel Gibson – and say, “I really liked this, but I think you could do this to it and this to it.” This guy is a client – and now I am going to present to him the pros and cons of a script he had been writing and how it is that I am feeling. That took a little bit of time, to learn how to do that. At this point, I have been doing it all so long, it comes very naturally to me. Most people know my experience in this business and they respect it and me – which makes my job much easier.

TSL:  If you were teaching someone in Hollywood to be a “you,” what would you teach them?

CL:  When I ran the Story Department at ICM, I trained a lot of readers. It is kind of like teaching screenwriting – you don’t really teach screenwriting, you attempt to facilitate a learning process. You want to motivate people to learn because this kind of stuff – creative endeavors – are really intrinsic processes. [It is] instilling confidence in people and really allowing them to work their own creativity.

I don’t think I have ever taught anyone what I do, but it’s about helping people discover what they can do. It is a very one-on-one process. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with people like Patrick Melton. He has written quite a few of the Saw movies [and is] certainly the most successful horror writer working right now. He started as my intern at ICM and was eventually reading scripts for me. I did not teach him anything, but guided him and enabled him to find his own voice.

When looking for material, it is often about your own voice. Things [one is] passionate about in terms of scripts are generally things you are passionate about in life. Scripts may hit all the right marks. Other scripts you fall in love with and are passionate about… that can be scary, telling someone you love a script. And when they in turn read it, they may say it sucks. That happened to me before. [An actor] never connected with the material. The movie never got made. I still never backed down. It was a project I was passionate about and he wasn’t, but that didn’t deter my passion for it. That takes some courage, I think [and] that’s what you want to instill in executives, passion and courage, to stand up for the things you believe in. That is the only thing that wins out in the end. If not, projects die. [You] have to hold on to projects for years perhaps. Writers, actors, too. Have passion for what you do, be courageous.

TSL:  Do people ever approach you outside of work to read their script?

CL:  I respect writers when they come up to me [outside of work]. My wife and I will be out somewhere, at the movies or park with our son, and someone will say they saw me speak and they would love for me to read [their script]. It drives my wife nuts. “They’re all doing their job,” I say. It takes a lot of guts to approach someone at the park with their kid and not at work.

That doesn’t mean I will say yes [to read the script]. But that’s the kind of courage you have to have and the belief, too. With 99.9% of every writer who has said I have to read their script and will love it – I have felt the complete opposite. But still, I am honest with that person. I did not respond to it and here are the reasons why. I am very specific. Often those people get it, they understand. They say they think I am wrong or they say they will take these things into consideration.

ON ED LIMATO…

TSL:  I remember Ed Limato from my days at Brillstein Entertainment Partners, connecting calls between my bosses and Ed. What are the key things you learned from Ed that you incorporate into your work ethic today? I know there are probably hundreds but…

CL:  First and foremost would be loyalty. He was undyingly loyal. There is not a lot of that in this business, there is very little of it. Believe me, he could be difficult and temperamental, but he was loyal.

I was always impressed with that because that certainly wasn’t the impression I had of the industry coming into it. Ed was loyal to clients and friends sometimes loyal to a fault.

I think that he really enabled me to be an individual; he certainly encouraged that. He was very supportive of whatever I did. He himself was an iconoclast. Ultimately, it was about serving him – but he still didn’t expect you to not be true to who you were.

He could be both selfish and selfless. He knew how to take care of the people who took care of him. He was terrific. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. What an amazing experience to come into the business and work with [him]. [I had] such a love of Old Hollywood, then to be able to work with someone like him who really was Old Hollywood. But then on the flip side, it’s almost culture shock because I am now working with Young Hollywood. Patrick Whitesell and Ari Emanuel [are] very boldly taking this business and are going to reinvent [it]. They are amazing, really amazing. It’s been a ride.

TSL:  On your blog, I believe you once wrote that to Ed Limato, his clients were less business and more family. Do you feel this way, too? And why do you think having this perspective is key?

CL:  When you are family, you tend to trust your family more. Denzel and his wife would go to Ed’s house, drop in on him. Ed’s mother would make them dinner. Here you have one of the most powerful agents in the world and they are just hanging out and drinking and eating and laughing and telling stories. I don’t think you see too much of that anymore.

When Ed was on his deathbed, people were coming in to say good-bye. Denzel was in New York on Broadway and won a Tony Award [shortly] before Ed died. Denzel’s wife, Pauletta, was reminiscing and crying. It was really amazing to think that even the wife of a client had such a relationship with Ed. His relationships with people were pervasive. He remembered their birthdays, Christmas…

At his house, Ed did not have pictures of his family, but pictures of his clients. It was as if they were his family and they knew it. He had very interesting and powerful relationships with his clients.

TSL:  I also once read – I believe on your blog – how Michelle Pfeiffer felt safe when in Ed’s office. Would you say something along those lines, too, of how you felt around him, in his office, in his space? How would you describe it?

CL:  Definitely not safe. I always held my stomach muscles tight. He could be really demanding. When he was at play, you could be very relaxed. At the 2009 William Morris Endeavor Christmas party, my wife and I hung out with him the whole night.

But when I went into [Ed’s] office sometimes, I was always tense, which was amazing. He was a yeller, but he never raised his voice to me. Ever. I knew I would not get yelled at or fired, but I still knew I was in the presence of Ed Limato – and that’s the way he wanted it. He was like the benevolent king, but he was the king, so you still genuflected to the king even though he was the good king.

In Part 2, Lockhart offers insider advice On Writing…