Interview: Christopher Lockhart, Part 2

In Part 1 of this interview Lockhart offers an insider look On the Job as well as what it was like working with Ed Limato. In Part 2, the focus is On Writing.

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.

On writing, Lockhart says, "You don’t have the luxury of doing this part-time. You really can’t. It is a full-time pursuit – even if you live in Iowa or have a full time job – [you need to put] full-time effort and full-time hours into this… it’s too difficult to succeed with a part-time attitude."

When asked what makes a great screenwriter minus the writer, Lockhart says, "While writing and after you are done writing, what are your goals?… Writing is only half of the work of what the writer does. Then there is pitching and talking about story and networking… With aspiring writers, we talk too much about writing and not enough about the other things. Then these writers have scripts and don’t know what to do with them. Every script is different so will have its own unique path.

TSL:  Before writers discover that path, do you think unknown writers in Hollywood should work at agencies, or other industry jobs, to develop relationships? Or does it not matter what their day jobs are as long as they write an amazing script?

CL:  It’s really an individual choice. I always feel like I took too long getting into the business. As a writer, you are struggling; you are on the outside. It took quite a few years for the writing part and to sell a script. I always wonder if I had taken an assistant job somewhere if things would have been different. [It would have been] a whole new opportunity for me that was not at my disposal. But I came out here when there was no internet, a much different place. The walls were much higher; there were not [writing] conferences going on all the time. Now, there are all these events to put you that much closer to execs and people in the know.

It is a personal thing. I think people make it all ways – because they are in the business and not. It is all about someone’s personality. Not everyone is cut out to work at a talent agency. But it is a tremendous education. You will learn so much more about the business and how to present yourself. Writers, actors, you can go onto any of these message boards…

[Someone may have] written 15 scripts, but when they talk about the business, they don’t know anything about it. They have never taken a moment to know how the business works. It drives me nuts.

Success is understanding strategizing, not strictly sending out a query, someone will love it, and buy your script. Odds of that are slim to none. Strategize in advance, lay out groundwork, and lay out ducks in a row. Make your own luck versus just getting lucky. Some people do. Luck is involved, no doubt about it.

I put in a lot of hard work [and there were] a lot of things that transpired, and I made my own luck. But there was always a little bit of divine providence in there that maybe I did not have anything to do with.

My documentary [Most Valuable Players], I was making it with blind bliss – like neophytes that come to town with screenplays. I got a really fast education. In the end, Oprah Winfrey acquired the documentary. That was through a lot of our hard work, but also through luck, too. I stop and laugh at myself – I was just as bad as these guys who have written 15 scripts and know nothing about the business. [Like the] documentary business, I felt, “Why do you think anyone will be interested in this idea?” The writer is thinking – isn’t everyone interested? When my film was done and I started to pitch it to people, those were the kinds of looks I got from people – “Five years ago, that kind of documentary would have been very popular…”

In the end, everything worked out. Being tenacious, passionate, and courageous, to practice what I preach. We do sort of get lost in our projects. Eight months in love with the idea does not mean anyone else will be in love with the idea.

TSL:  And you have a website (The Inside Pitch) that caters to people pitching you their projects, right?

CL:  [On the] website, people pitch their ideas in advance and we run them off the flagpole a little: “This will be a tough sell, but if you want to do it and take a chance that it may never sell, if [you have] the desire and need to tell the story, do it. But understand what the stakes are.” If writing a movie about some small relationship 500 years ago, it is a different sell than a Transformers movie. We see today what is being made, not made. It’s not hard to see where the majority of the market is. People need to write about what they are passionate about.

TSL:  Just like structure in the acts of a screenplay, do you think people should have their writing lives planned out — they will move to Hollywood by page/age “x,” write a script in “y” months, rewrite it in “z” months, then spend a certain number of years out here…? Should they give themselves a deadline? Or just keep persevering, no matter how long it takes?

CL:  “People plan, God laughs.” I’ve made plenty of plans that have gotten fucked up. It’s most important that writers write. I do believe that at some point living in L.A. is essential; this is where the business is. You have to meet the people that do the hiring and the buying. You have to have relationships with these people. People like to work with people that they like. Trying to forge with [a writing] career through distance and anonymity is very difficult.

When I came out to L.A., I had never been here before. I recently said to my parents, “You guys must have really wanted to get rid of me.” I didn’t have a job or a car and didn’t know anybody. My dad said, “You are not the first person to do that.” I don’t know if I would tell people to do that today. If you are young, 22 or 23, you can. Take a chance. If you are older, 40s and 50s, you are more established and it’s harder to move.

Commit to writing; don’t commit to all the other things. Also commit to networking. If you have the right project, it’s not impossible to sell scripts if not in L.A., but [these people] have also done their footwork, laid out the foundation. You need to be strategizing, not just expecting to land on a friendly desk. You have to make friends. [People] expect the script to do all the work instead of them doing the work; too many people are not successful because of this. People make their own work, they make their own connections, they make friends and maintain those relationships.

If you are going to be hired for a job, executives have to like you, you have to be someone they want to work with. It’s not different than any other job. Like McDonald’s – there are a million other guys who can flip hamburgers. In Hollywood, there are a million others, too.

In a recent article [LA Times, July 1, 2011], there were only 1,615 WGA members that worked last year and made any money. Crazy.

There are a lot of things that go along with getting work. You can still build those relationships from far way even if that means going to an event where execs are – a screenwriting expo. But don’t spend all your time in lectures. They have a lot of great advice, but go to the panels with executives who you can meet afterwards. Then you can drop them a note: “It was really great hearing you speak, you had a lot of great stuff to say, thanks a lot for your time…” Maybe he remembers you later, maybe he doesn’t… I am not saying everybody will. You have got to make the effort regardless – that’s what this business is about. Most people understand this. The minute you have something that that guy wants, he will want to be your friend.

TSL:  Similarly, I read an interview with you once where you talked about Diablo Cody and how her “overnight success” was not truly overnight as many people across America – and Hollywood – had suspected. I think this concept can never be repeated to new writers too often, the idea that “overnight successes” are not the norm. Would you care to elaborate on this, the keys to success – patience, perseverance, whatever you think…?

CL:  Of course they have to be patient. Writers say, “I can’t pay my rent and am about to be evicted from my apartment. I really need to sell a script.” It will take eight months to a year before you see the money. Everything in this business is so slow. Contracts come – so slowly. I know people who actually start jobs before they sign contracts. [Others say,] “If I don’t make it in 10 years, I’m going to get out.” Maybe I am too OCD, but what happens if you stop after 10 years and you would have made it 10 years and one day? Everything in this town is really slow.

TSL:  “Overnight success” sometimes happens though, right? I believe you have an example from when you were teaching at UCLA…

CL:  [At UCLA], I had a high school student… and three years later, he ended up selling a script for $1.3 million. The youngest showrunner in history: Josh Schwartz. He is directing a feature film right now in Ohio. Literally, he was an overnight success. He gets more successful every day.

[Schwartz] is like the guys who win the lottery – they buy a ticket and a week later they are a millionaire. You’ve got to have patience and tenacity – buzz words on a resume – and you have to keep writing or directing… Did you make any movies? You have to be out there making movies. Acting, you have to be acting, if not getting roles in films, then you need to be doing theater. You need to constantly be working.

I always have stuff in the hopper. A horror movie now, the documentary airing in September, and thinking of future projects. You don’t have the luxury of doing this part-time. You really can’t. It is a full-time pursuit – even if you live in Iowa or have a full time job – [you need to put] full-time effort and full-time hours into this. It does not tolerate anything else. It is not sustainable because this business moves too fast. Every week, there is a new “it” girl and new “it” guy. What was hot today, gone yesterday. Shelf life is short; attention spans are short. It’s very cyclical like a monarch butterfly… People need to put a lot of time and a lot of effort into it; it’s too difficult to succeed with a part-time attitude.

TSL:  What about going to film school?

CL:  I went to film school; it would be hypocritical to say don’t go – and I also teach. Film school is for a certain kind of person. Ultimately, if you go to film school thinking it will make you better or smarter, you are mistaken. But what it can do is put you in an environment talking about the craft, being forced to write constantly, constantly being judged. It fills a certain sort of professionalism and [gives a] writer some confidence; whether it was real or not, confidence is confidence. They only take [a couple handfuls of] people out of thousands. I would not have given up my education for anything. I valued it – a remarkable time. I would say absolutely, but would not convince someone who did not want to go to go. I would never talk someone who wants to go out of going.

TSL:  We know you have done several interviews and blog posts on what makes a great screenplay. But what makes a great screenwriter, writing aside – perseverance, thick skin, etc.? In other words, what encapsulates a good writer minus the writing?

CL:  Clichés are based on truths – no excuses. People say, “I really cannot write every day.” Listen, in the last three years, I have produced three films – not student films – but real moves while I am holding down a demanding job, while keeping a marriage together, and raising a three-year-old.

Don’t sleep so much. You don’t need eight hours. That’s always been my attitude: no excuses. If this is something I want to do and am passionate about, I am going to do it and I am going to make it happen. My successes have been fruitful efforts for me – the only person I am trying to please. I want results, want my projects to be seen, want them to be purchased, acquired, released in movie theaters. I had very specific goals in everything I wanted to do, even small, even if seemingly unattainable.

It’s really about having very specific and realistic goals. Never set goals that are outrageous. [Instead, ones] out of my reach, but potentially attainable. With my first film, my goal was to get it released theatrically, not to be the most successful movie of all time. I knew that it was not impossible [to get it released]. I think everyone should be doing that in this town. While writing and after you are done writing, what are your goals? Prepare for your script to be introduced to town. [You] need to consider and really think about this. It is half the work. Writing is only half of the work of what the writer does. Then there is pitching and talking about story and networking and…

With aspiring writers, we talk too much about writing and not enough about the other things. Then these writers have scripts and don’t know what to do with them. Every script is different so will have its own unique path.

To read more of Lockhart’s commentary and advice (On the Job and On Ed Limato), check out Part 1 of this interview.