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Making Connections: An Interview with Derek Weissbein, writer of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

By Staff · August 23, 2017

By: Andrew L. Schwartz

“I wanted to do something drastically different,” says Derek Weissbein, the 29-year-old screenwriter of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, which takes its name from the 1970 album of the same title. The story focuses on the love triangle between rock and roll legends, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, and the infamous Pattie Boyd who was the inspiration behind some of music’s greatest compositions; e.g., Something and It’s All Too Much by The Beatles and Layla and Wonderful Tonight by Derek and the Dominos, and Eric Clapton, respectively.

As aspiring screenwriters, we’re often told to write about what we know and love, but the other side of that is to keep it within the confines of what the industry wants to read. Spec scripts that are period pieces based on historical figures are generally a no-no for new writers in the industry, but Derek made it work. Layla is prominently featured on the Blacklist, has an active 18-month option on it and has led to many other opportunities for the young writer, but it wasn’t easy for Derek to get to this point. While writing Layla, he was balancing a job working at a rehab center in Malibu with the life of a freelance writer. Times got dark, and the workload was heavy, but taking one look at Derek’s story proves that with some meticulous focus and hard work you can make any great script work.

Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? 

I spent my childhood in New Jersey — youngest of 3. I was always fascinated with movies and keeping up on things in pre-production, but never thought of it as a career. I planned on being a doctor. We moved to Florida for high school where I’d say I actually grew up — it’s in high school where I was fortunate enough to take a production class and realized that it was a viable career. I’ve been writing and busting my butt since then — I’m 29 now and I never stopped writing.

How did you get your start in Hollywood?

After college, I moved to New York to produce a friend’s feature, which was actually all improv based on an outline and that got some awards. At the same time, I was editing a documentary, so I spent two years living in New York thinking I could make that work. Eventually, I got an interview to be an assistant, and I didn’t get the job because I didn’t have any experience, but I did get a chance to send that potential employer a spec script. He read it and that led to him asking me to write a spec script for him, which I did for free. 

That spec script helped me get an interview with a production company looking for young writers in LA. I had a phone meeting with them and they loved me, and I waited a few weeks to hear back and never did. Finally, they got in touch with me and told me they passed on me to hire somebody based out of LA. Two weeks after that I packed my bags and moved to LA vowing that I would never let that happen again!

What was it like getting your foot in the door in a new city?

At first, I started working a lot of freelance jobs producing short films or web series, but not for very much money. I took on some writing jobs, but my biggest thing was taking on the writer for hire jobs. A lot of people will tell you not to do that because you don’t own the work, but for me, instead of going to screenwriting classes I just put myself out there and agreed to write features and shorts for very little or no money. That was a crash course in writing for producers and learning how to write a screenplay based on someone else’s idea and giving them a quick turnaround. I probably did another two or three of those while writing my own stuff and then I got a personal assistant job and kept that for two years. After that, I couldn’t do it anymore; I couldn’t freelance anymore, and I got a full-time job at a rehab center.

And how did that job affect you as a writer?

To each their own, but for me, I wanted to take jobs that gave me life experience and a topic to write about while learning about people and psychology. Working at a rehab center was hugely helpful for that, and so during those two years, I wrote Layla. 

That’s a really interesting perspective. At the time, how did you get people to hire you as an unpublished writer without any major credits?

I am very lucky because I happened to meet somebody who became my manager my freshman year of college. Until my senior year, I had always been kind of afraid of writing, and always found ways to get out of it. At the time, I had a few people write scripts for me based on my ideas, but they weren’t capturing what I had in my head — they weren’t bad — but it wasn’t what I had in mind. I told myself, “I can do this,” and did. After moving to New York and finishing my script, I sent it to my manager friend in LA, and he gave me lots of notes and finally submitted it to his boss at an agency who liked it but couldn’t do anything with it. She told me to keep writing, and I did, and through that writing sample, I was hired for other projects.

And that’s my biggest piece of advice: if you’re scared and you don’t think you know what you’re doing, just say yes, and you’ll figure it out later because you’re competent enough to get it and prove yourself!

Also, I can attribute my success to a combination of things: being in the right place at the right time, being friendly, meeting people, hitting it off and being friends with the assistants and working my butt off! I was my manager’s first client, which is a story that you won’t hear often. I am so grateful and lucky, and if you want to try to capture that as an aspiring writing, it takes networking.

So why Layla?

Layla came about because my father was a huge classic rock fan and turned me onto classic rock — you know, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, etc. — he got me into all that, and I fell in love with it. I probably wouldn’t be as good of a writer if I didn’t listen to that music. In my sophomore year of college, he handed me the Clapton autobiography, and I was just fascinated by him. He wasn’t the most sympathetic character, but he was so honest about it, and he took responsibility for his actions — I thought that was so awesome. He didn’t try to rationalize his actions; he didn’t try to throw blame at other people, which he did through out his life, but in his book — in retrospect — he was so honest, I was like, “there’s something here.” Also, our birthdays are two days apart.

The original cover art for “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”.

And Clapton is the central protagonist of the script, correct? There’s no outsider looking in on his story? Was there a decision to write about a specific moment in Eric Clapton’s life instead of making the script a birth-to-life biopic?

It’s interesting because it was always about Clapton, but when I started, it was this dual time line of Clapton and Harrison’s respective rise and them ultimately meeting and crisscrossing throughout the years until Pattie Boyd came into the story. But in that version it wasn’t really about Pattie Boyd, it was about a bromance between these two guys. So that version had everything in it, and it was almost 200 hundred pages. People were like, “it’s great, but what story are you trying to tell?” So the hardest part for me was cutting the coolest stuff in the world to focus solely on Clapton falling in love with Pattie. 

How did you land on writing about this moment in Clapton’s life as oppose to any other major life changing experience?

I feel as though I can look at his time with Pattie and George and take it as a microcosm of the way Clapton has lived his entire life. I know who Eric Clapton is by looking at this moment and it took a lot of chiseling away at a slab of marble to figure it out for him.

What happened after the script was optioned?

After John Lesher optioned Layla, a lot of doors opened, and I was taking meetings nearly everywhere, which was sort of surreal. Within the year, I made the Blacklist, landed my first open writing job, which has Olive Cooke attached to star, and I’m developing a TV show with a company. My biggest advice is to have lots of ideas ready to pitch and even better, have a few quality spec scripts ready to go. 

When did the script get on The Blacklist?

My team went out with it wide at the beginning of the year and word of mouth led to The Blacklist. The Blacklist was huge in propelling my career because it got even more people interested in me as a writer.

How did you find the time to write while balancing your freelance and full time work?

It’s hard. You have to have the discipline and motivation to push yourself. When I was freelancing and working as an assistant, I wasn’t making enough money, and it wasn’t leading to anything. It wasn’t helping me, and I applied to the rehab center where I was basically hired to babysit and make sure the kids were alive. I wanted more out of the experience so I actually pushed to do therapy writing with the teenagers and attempted to teach them how to write screenplays. It was honestly the most out of my comfort zone I’ve ever been, but it was also the most emotional I’ve ever been. I learned how to understand and write teenagers.

And that helped you find a new understanding of Clapton’s heroin struggle? 

I could only understand Clapton so much from his book and my basic knowledge of addiction, but being at the rehab center day in and day out, I got to truly understand what drives addiction. There’s a whole lot of emotional trauma that addicts don’t know how to deal with. Clapton was a kid when he was going through this so it was definitely helpful and the best decision of my life to not work in the industry and find something out of this bubble we all live in. 

Was it a struggle to visualize this internal conflict?

It was hard because George Harrison didn’t seem to care that Clapton was trying to sleep with his wife, which took out the conflict. Clapton’s guilt and character flaws made him want to have George be pissed at him, but George wouldn’t have it — he let him play on his new album instead. So that was my issue when trying to find conflict where George Harrison wasn’t allowing there to be any. Instead, I let the conflict come from within Clapton because George wasn’t penalizing him. Clapton hurt himself by becoming a drug addict, and I found a way to externalize that. 

Do you have any examples of that?

Yeah, when I was rewriting my first draft I knew I had to get rid of a lot of the exposition. There was too much tell and not enough show. I re-read each scene and said, “how can I visualize this?” In one instance, I did that by introducing Pattie’s sister who looks like her and then fetishizing her because she and Pattie have the same haircut. Once the sister cuts her hair, Clapton realizes that he loves Pattie and not her. Using that visual allowed me to cut 10 pages of dialogue from the script.

What’s your general process for rewriting?

I tinker. I don’t have a traditional writing process: I don’t write every day — I think every day and I think hard every day. If I have an idea, it just gestates and gestates, and I won’t write until I am ready to write —  until I see it. Some people will say you’re not a writer unless you write every day, which may be true for some people, but that’s not my process — at the end of the day, I need to do it on my own, but for me I can’t write until I am so confident with what’s in my head that I can sit down and write.

After I’m done with my first draft, I have the original draft in one document, one draft that I can mess with in another and the rewrite in a third. From there I copy and paste and move stuff around. I tinker and make things work by moving them around. Steve Jobs said, “creativity is making connections.” My script is a puzzle; if I move one piece it may affect everything else, but I am always rewriting to make sure everything connects.

What advice do you have for a writer who wants to tackle a historical subject?

If you’re going to write something based on someone, do your research and write the movie you want to see. If you’re going to write a bio, don’t write a sweeping birth to death story, find that moment in their life and write an intimate story, character first. I think the reason people responded so well to Layla was because they liked the way I honed Clapton’s character. He is five dimensional, he jumps off the page, and people relate to him and his complexities. 

Don’t just read Wikipedia — watch interviews, listen to them speak, look for their quirks, all that stuff — dig, dig, dig!

What about on character?

When you’re writing, find character moments — find a look, have them look at something in a certain way, have them say something to another character that may mean something else, have them do something repetitively. Find those moments that really show what makes them tick.

Forget the plot. The plot will come naturally. Write a great character — if you write a great character, I can watch him or her go to the bathroom, and it will be fascinating. 

I read scripts sometimes where there are two characters quipping back and forth, and they sound like the same person talking to each other. What makes your character say what they say? Differentiate your characters, and detail them; what are they wearing and why? Why is their hair a certain way? Do they look at themselves in a mirror when walking by it? Do they stutter when meeting a new person? Find those moments that really show you whats going on inside with action. 

On agents and managers — 

Regarding a manager, my manager is the most important person in my career. I have such a tight knit relationship with him that I trust him with my life, and I trust him with my career. Producers and other people come and go, but I met him so early that we’ve been and always will be in this thing together. 

My manager sent out my first script to two agents. The first guy said it was good, but I wasn’t ready to be represented. And the other guy, a junior agent, read it and we vibed well together, which was great because he was just getting his start. Starting with someone on the ground level is great because they’re hustling for success rather than someone who is an all star agent who has 20 large clients — find someone at your level who wants to fight for you!

On setting goals, writing what you love and keeping a positive outlook — 

During some dark times, one day I just woke up and said, “you’re going to be successful.” I never told myself otherwise and never gave myself a backup plan. When I moved out to LA at 24, I had told my self I’m going to find an agent in 3 years — I found an agent in one. Then, I told myself I was going to get something sold or optioned, and that happened. I kept giving myself goals that were reasonable but still hard, and I said it aloud, put it in the universe and they came true.

Never stop writing. Write what you love, write what drives you and if someone wants to hire you for something, take it on and see what you can do. Obviously, have some interest in the topic you’re hired for, but have some cool take on it that you can make it your own. 

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