This is the second instalment in an interview with Rick Ramage, the creator of The Screenplay Show.
The Screenplay Show is a ten episode web series presented in a fun and unique narrative style. Crafted like no other writing series. Rick will expertly guide you through every aspect of the art, craft and business of screenwriting.
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DtS: On method. Can you give us a concise understanding of your method?
RR: The screenplay show is for new writers. People who want to know if they're doing it right. When I started out I was fascinated by the method of writers, actors and even athletes. I wanted to know how they prepared. I deal with method in the screenplay show in two parts.
One is the physical method. Most of us have jobs when we're starting out. Most don't have the luxury of being a writer all day. An uncle of mine told me the rule of one degree, which is, most people who are working have a routine. When I started out, I was coming home from being a salesman, driving my territory all day, I had a little boy, I'd come home, play with him, put him to bed, eat dinner, then I would try to get an hour or two of writing done before bed, but it was at the end of the day and I was exhausted.
My uncle said to me, if a plane landing in Honolulu is off by one degree it's not just going to miss the runway, it's going to miss the whole island. He related that in terms of the way I was preparing to be a writer.
One little adjustment was going to mean the difference between hitting the threshold of opportunity or missing it completely. So I did it. I started to get up earlier in the morning and give myself that extra hour. And I'm not sure writers understand how protective they need to be of that one hour or two hours where they're not going to be bothered and they can really focus. I also have certain rules that I follow, that's my physical method, how I go about the business of making sure I get the work done.
Then, I also think the method is intellectual, because if you have a consistent way to solve the problems you've got a really valuable secret. So, in part two of the screenplay show I talk about finding the way you solve problems when you're writing and that's the intellectual approach to method.
DtS: It's interesting to hear you break it down into the physical vs the cerebral. I have many friends that work long hours while trying to write and force themselves to get up early to write before they have to go off to work. I know a lot of writers who I would call part-time writers, they love the idea of being a screenwriter, but I don't think they realise the dedication required. Do you come across many people like that?
RR: Yeah, and it always makes me sad when they have genuine talent but they don't have the discipline to stay with it.
DtS: What's that maxim? 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.
RR: Yeah. I have this saying, there's no such thing as a part-time producer, because when you have a project on the line you've got to give it 110%. I've always looked at my career that way too, the minute I could sustain my life as a writer, I treated it like a job.
I was writing from 4am 'til noon. Because the other side that people don't realise is that writing is a business and once you get a manager and lawyers and agents and producers in your life your phone starts ringing. They don't care if you're writing, they'll call during the day at any time, so I would work the early hours, knowing that I was going to have a lot of calls in the afternoon.
DtS: On the note of finding the time to work, how do people close to you deal with your dedication to writing. Are they understanding?
RR: I took the time to explain why I was doing this. If you're living in a house with your partner and children, they need to understand. I used to have this joke where my son would walk into my writing room and say, 'Hey dad, I don't mean to interrupt, but...' and I'd be like, 'Well come on in, it's too late now...' But I never got shitty about it because that's stupid. Life happens. But for the most part, once people see the work happening, then they're respectful of it.
DtS: Having people around you that understand how important writing is to you, is super important.
RR: It's funny, because, I tend to watch the scene in my head, then write it down then I work with it from that point on. But you wouldn't walk into a theatre and tap someone on the shoulder, and say, hey, come outside for 5 minutes.
DtS: Good analogy.
On producers. A producer I work closely with loves meeting new people, going to events and rubbing shoulders and working the crowd, I'm a lot more introverted when it comes to that. Are you extrovert? Do you enjoy going out and meeting new people? Are you introvert? Where do you lie on the spectrum?
RR: I'm shy. It's always very fun for me once the meeting begins, because I lose those nerves. I think the first producer I met, Richard Zanuck, (producer of Jaws) I was scared to death of, but he was so utterly welcoming it put me at ease. It's hard to explain to new writers, but these people really want your success. If you're in that room, there's a reason. You wrote something that intrigues these guys.
DtS: And they read a lot of screenplays.
RR: If you're there, they want you to succeed. And I think that once you accept that then working with them becomes easier. You see, I've always embraced notes, I've always thought of them as protection, because I want my work to be the best it can be. It can be pretty hard to look at someone like Richard Zanuck giving you notes and say, 'I disagree.' He's forgotten more than I've ever known. So I always embraced notes. And going into those rooms, once I got in there, I was always fine. It's like being an athlete, you better have a few butterflies, because you want to be at your best.
DtS: If you're too confident about the meeting and you go in too calm and composed, you're not taking it seriously enough, that will come across.
RR: Yeah, and the other thing is, these people are paying you a lot of money. I never wanted to let anyone down. Because if anything, after you sell a script, the pressure on you is greater. It doesn't go away.
DtS: How do you deal with notes? I've had notes where I thought, that's a bad note, but I'm going to incorporate it to appease the producer that gave it. Have you had that situation?
RR: There's three phases, there's the honeymoon phase, where they've just optioned it, or bought it, and you need to ask questions in that room to find out what they like about it, because you know that what they don't like about it is coming.
Then once I start hearing the notes - I'm always very aware that I'm in a highly political environment. There are assistants, there are producers, executives, so I would never argue with a note. Not in that room. I would listen and say, 'okay, let me work with that, that's interesting.' Which really meant, 'that sucks and I can't imagine doing that,' -- and it's not kissing ass, because you've got to remember, these guys just paid a lot of money for your script, and to embarrass the executive is absolutely a mistake because they're going to remember it.
Just be political, I'd say, 'yeah, let me work with that, I'll see what I can do.' And then I would go home, and as far fetched as some notes would be, I would actually try to see if I could get the note to work, and then I would make a private call and say, I'm working with the note you gave me, do you want to take a look at it. And 9 times out of 10, they'll admit, 'yeah, that doesn't really work does it.'
DtS: That's a really great point you've raised. Bringing the producer that gave the bad note in to reject it, you've done their work, and you've shown it to them. Now let them make the decision to cut it. That's a really important thing.
RR: I've sat down with some really smart story executives, and the really good ones will know when they gave you a bad note. And they'll be like, 'yeah, let's move on. But thanks for trying.' But you've got to give people credit. And I think it's important because they're in this business for a reason as well. Now, the key to all this, is that if you're not careful, you can write yourself out of a job on your own script very quickly if you're obstinate or hard to deal with. I work really hard to stay with my script. I want to make steady progress so I stay with it as apposed to them turning to someone else.
DtS: I've seen scripts out there, that have started off in a great form, but for what ever reason, they've been handed over to a second writer, who has, not necessarily butchered the script, but taken it in a different direction and I've always felt sad, watching that, especially when I know the original writer, and even with people I don't know the writer. I'll read the original script and love it, then see the film on the big screen and it's completely different, and I wonder what the hell happened? It's very important to realise that you're working for these people -- I recall someone saying once that 'no one sets out to make a bad film' - everyone sets out to make the best film they can.
RR: I had a producer tell me something really interesting once, we were talking about how some of these films even get made, because there's these fantastic scripts circulating, but they don't get made, but instead, some idiotic film will get made, and we were going to one of the few Hollywood parties I've ever gone to, and he said, 'Oh, you want to know how that happens?' And I said, 'yeah, I do, how does it happen?' And he says, you're about to find out.' And we walked in the door of this fantastic mansion in Beverly Hills, and there was Salmon pink shag carpet with lime green drapes, and he said, 'you see Rick, it's a matter of taste.' And I'll never forget that, because I was like, 'Yeah, this is a subjective business and taste matters.'
DtS: Talking about subjectivity, that's a really important note, I was in an environment recently where a guy was talking about the film John Wick, which I wasn't a massive fan of, and he turned to me and said, 'Hey man, have you seen John Wick?' And I said, 'sure I've seen it,' and he was like, 'How amazing was that film?!' But I didn't think it was great. Then I was looking at this guy, he was a 20 year old kid, to him seeing Keanu busting up some Russians was the greatest thing ever, but here's the thing, he's a vote - he's got money and he votes where he spends his money, to him, that was a great film, it is really important to be aware just how diverse tastes are.
RR: Of course, there's the old axiom, what's the one thing you leave a movie theatre with? An opinion. Everyone is entitled to theirs.
DtS: When I was in LA, at Universal Studios for Halloween night, there was thousands of people going to this horror event, and I suddenly understood why horror does so well in America. There’s this huge cross section of society that loves it. Horror doesn't play so well overseas, not compared to the US domestic market, and I was looking at this crowd of people going in to the Halloween night, and thought, wow, that's a demograph, they've all got money, and they all get to vote.
RR: That's an interesting way to put it, 'they all have a vote,' because they're all buying tickets. And you've been in those rooms, it's about buying tickets.
I'll leave the interview there for now... up next, Rick talks about the influence of STAR POWER.
A recap of some of the insights Rick has offered in this part of the interview and how to apply them to your writing...
THE TAKE AWAY...
1) Method. The break down into the physical Vs the cerebral. It's really important to realise just how much effort is required to become a successful screenwriter. There's no golden rule, but on average, most screenwriters don't find success until they've written 10 screenplays. That's not ten polishes of the same screenplay, it's ten original scripts written from scratch, each one with several re-writes. A major problem I encounter with screenwriting is - people spend their lives watching films, and there's this misconception that somehow by watching loads of TV and movies that is an education sufficient for you to then go and write your own movie or TV show.
Let's apply that analogy to cars to show just how misguided it is. I've ridden in cars countless times. Driven for hundreds of hours. Does that suddenly make me an expert on how to design and build a car? The answer is obvious. The same applies to screenwriting. If you want to write scripts successfully, you have to study the craft, you have to get in and understand what STORY ENGINE is. What drives story. That's only the beginning. There are at least 20 other major elements of screenwriting that you need to become intimately familiar with before your writing will stand out.
Rick's main take-away regarding the physical act of writing is to make time to write. If you're time poor, and you really want to write, it's on you to find that hour or two where you can put the words on the page.
2) Explaining and communicating with those that are close to you. When you've made the decision to devote a large amount of your time to writing, it's important to make sure that those people close to you understand your decision. This note obviously varies greatly depending on each person's individual circumstance, but it's a valid note to consider, and not something that is discussed much in screenwriting forums.
3) The visual writing process. Rick envisages a scene in this mind, then writes it down as he saw it, then uses that as his starting point to meld clay. This is a process I also use. You might think this is the process all writers use, but I have spoken with many who say they don't work visually. If you fall into this camp - try visualising a scene before you write it.
Then even when you have visualised it once, try to address what didn't pop in that scene for you, then re-visualise it over and over until you feel you have it playing out as best you can in your mind's eyes. Then and only then write the scene down. But don't think that's your scene written to perfection. Good writing is good editing. Take your lump of clay and re-work it until it's as good as you feel you can get it on the page. Then move on. But also keep in mind, that you will come back to that scene and re-work it again, when you have the next scene written. Each scene before and after will shape the way your current scene will look. There is no scene that sits in isolation. Every scene lives within context.
4) Notes, and the hierarchy of the producers. Rick raised a really important note that the majority of emerging screenwriters don't realise - once you have sold your screenplay - it is no longer yours. You really have absolutely no say what so ever in the direction the producers want to take with it. And if that means bringing in a different writer to re-work your script - they can do it. So as Rick said, it is incredibly important to appease those with the power to remove you from your script. Work hard to incorporate all notes, don't be obstinate.
5) Nerves. It's great to hear someone as accomplished as Rick say that he gets nerves going into an interview. In fact, it's a good thing, as it means the STAKES of the script meeting are high. If you're going into a script meeting and you're nonchalant about it, that's going to come across as arrogance. No one wants to work with an arrogant writer.
6) Taste. It is important to understand there are a plethora of varying tastes when it comes to film. A lot of writers will get caught up in their one genre. "I only write drama.' Are you a stick-in-the-mud writer? Or do you embrace the challenge of writing outside of your comfort zone? Once you understand STORY, you should be able to write in any genre. The principles that make for a compelling story work across all the genres. Horror, thriller, drama, comedy, sci-fi...
It's really important, especially when you're starting out, to be realistic about what scripts are likely to be picked up and made.
If you're focusing on a $100m sci-fi - odds are your script will never get made. But if you can re-write that same story for a sub $5m budget, suddenly you open up the playing field. Your chances of success have increased manifold.
Perhaps you've been working on a rom-com for 4 years and over 10 drafts - but still no one is interested in it. Perhaps it's time to put it on the shelf and start working on another script in a different genre. It's important to be aware of what films do well at the box office.
You can do an easy breakdown yourself. Go to a website like boxofficemojo.com and look at the films that had the highest profit to cost ratio then break down the genres. You'll see definite patterns emerging right away. From there you are aware of the market before you've written a word. You might just even save yourself 4 years and ten drafts of writing.
More insightful knowledge soon from Rick Ramage - creator of The Screenplay Show.