This is the third and final instalment of 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.
Go ahead - check it out, and sign up to get updates.
Click here and get involved.
DtS: What's your writing experience with star power, where ultimately a project being green-lit hinges on a star saying yes or no.
RR: My first film, The Proposition got made because of Kenneth Branagh's willingness to do it. They went to him first and he said yes and therefore, green light. And by the way, Patricia Arquette for Stigmata, as soon as she said yes, the studio said yes. I don't write with actors in mind, so I'm always surprised when a director starts to put names up and I'm usually pleased, but it tells me a lot about how the work is perceived. When a producer or director says, 'what do you think about so-and-so for this role?' Because then it's like, alright, now I can tell how they're thinking about my material. Is it going to be a low budget indy, or is it going to go to a studio? And that's the difference, it's the name of the star that drives the film.
DtS: Coming back to the notion of why bad films get made, there was a film that got made, without naming names, the room-mate of a famous actress' boyfriend wrote a terrible script. The boyfriend, said, hey, I'll direct this, so he convinced his famous actress girlfriend to sign on. When she signed on to it, she convinced a bunch of her famous actor friends to also sign on, and that's how this incredibly bad film got made.
RR: That defines the indy market. The indy market is fluid, it's all about finding a package and money, and sometimes it doesn't work. The difference between a studio movie and an indy movie is that studio script is going to go through many machinations, and sometimes an indy feature can be as much luck and helter skelter as it can be a well thought out business plan.
DtS: How many scripts did you write before you sold your first one?
RR: I had six short films made while I was going to the AFI. Which doesn't really mean anything, as they're student projects. At the time I was working on a thriller feature screenplay and a producer saw it and picked it up for $5000, and it wasn't the money, even though it felt like $5 million at the time, it gave me the confidence to keep going. Then six months after film school, I was running out of money big time, then a friend I was going to film school with managed to take a script of mine called Shakespeare's Sister into an exec at Disney, and Disney was never going to buy that script, but they ended up giving it really great coverage and word got out. I tell new writer's all the time who ask 'how do I get an agent?' I say, you write a script that people want, you get a script that will travel the town because it's well written, then agents will find you.
The person at Disney said, 'this is great, you should show this to an agent,' and we said, 'we don't know an agent,' so she picked up a phone and that's how it went. Then your script has credibility. I call the process friendly eyes. You put a script out and someone likes it, and - you don't order spaghetti at McDonalds, some production companies get a script and there's no way they're ever gonna buy it, it doesn't fit their wheel house, but that's a valid come-back, because they don't sell that kind of widget, but if it's a great writing sample, they might just go, you know what, we're not going to buy it, but we have another project that we'd love for you to look at, because it needs a re-write.
Now you're talking, now your name is getting out, your script is travelling and it's actually travelling in front of you, because there was no internet when I started out, and my script was getting around town faster than I was. So that's what I tell new writers all the time, take the time to get a really great writing sample, because even if they don't buy it, you might get a job with that writing sample. So -- Shakespeare's Sister went out, agents found me because of it, they put it out and there was a small bidding war, and I think I had $17 dollars of my $5000 option left, and it ended up selling for $400,000.
RR: Yeah, it was a dream, when I look back, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and say, wow, that was amazing. From there I never looked back, because suddenly everyone wanted to know what I was working on.
DtS: Tarantino talked about when you do break through, be ready, because the first thing everyone asks, is what else have you got?
RR: Yep, that's it, you better be able to pitch, or back it up with an outline, or let's hope you have other good scripts in your saddle bag, so you can pull them out right away, because you want take advantage of that heat. Most readers and producers are looking for a reason to say no. But when they hear there's a good writer and they've got good material, they want that next piece of material, so they'll lobby for it, they'll work your agents so they can see it first.
DtS: On agents, have you had the same ones your whole career?
RR: I'm only with a manager now, I could point to two or three agents that literally made my career, but now, without trying to sound arrogant, I don't really need agents. I now have a lot of contacts, and as a producer I can pick up a phone and pretty much talk to anybody. Having said that, I do, on occasion lean on a few agents when I really need something to go to someone, luckily I have those relationships, where those agents will do me that favor, but they're quick to point out that they're gonna make a fee, but hey, that's cool, it's a business.
DtS: Is your manager the first manager you started out with?
RR: I've always been with her. She's phenomenal, and she's a producer too, so it's not like we have that daily grind, where we talk about what Universal's looking for, but I definitely count on her for her good taste.
DtS: The longer you've known someone, the more honest they can be, there's a certain friendship licence.
RR: There is. There have been times where she has picked me up and said, 'you can do this.' I reached a point in my career where I took a few years off, I really burned out. I had two TV shows go back to back and TV can be a meat grinder. It's not like the luxury of being a feature writer, where you're told I'll see you in six weeks with a first draft, and then everyone leaves you alone, in TV it's constant, it's turning a draft everyday with notes, there's pressure, it's a much different experience, and so I began to wonder if that was what I wanted, because, once again I got really lucky, the first TV pilot I worked on was picked up, filmed as a pilot, then we went to series, and before that series ended, I helped another pilot out, I did another re-write, well, I actually co-created it, then that went to pilot and then that got picked up, so then the pressure got even more intense, because people are like, hmmm this writer has something going - so here comes more projects, and I really began to wonder if that's what I wanted.
My son was in high school and I was missing soccer games, I wasn't living at home, I was in the Hollywood hills renting a house and I never left because I was doing most of the writing for the shows, and I wasn't very happy. So I said alright, I'm outta here for a while, and it was a big risk.
DtS: That's good that you value home life so much though.
RR: My wife is my muse, my family is my sustenance, you reach a point where if you can't reach back in the well and rejuvenate then something's wrong. And the other side of it as well, is, that I used to meet these writers that were sooooo cynical, I mean, we make such a good living, if you're in the stream the money's so good and you're doing what you love and your dream is coming true, then I'd meet these cynical writers and I told myself, you know what, I'm not going to be that guy, and the day I start to feel that coming on, I'm not going to do that anymore.
DtS: On pitching. What's been your experience?
RR: I had the worst experience ever in Hollywood with pitching. At my very first pitch I went brain dead. I even forgot the title of the film. I was shown out the door real quick. It took about 2 more years for me before I could even think about pitching. But I eventually figured out a method and I'm going to talk about it in my show, of getting through a pitch in a very systematic way.
Going into TV you have to pitch. So you've got to get a method for your pitch that you can rely on. So from there, I pitched Haunted in the room at CBS and they bought it in the room, and the same with Peacemaker. Then I pitched another show that never got made, but they bought it in the room.
DtS: What films of yours that haven't been made are gems in the rough waiting to be made?
RR: I've sold 10 or 12 specs' and I've setup or sold over 40 scripts. I sold a script for $2.5 million and it never got made. So you've got to keep that in perspective because in the grand scheme of things if someone pays that kind of money for a script you would think that they're going to follow through and find that other $50 million, but guess what, it's a long way from the cup to the lip, and people don't really think of that. People are like, okay, I sold my script, now it's going to be made into a movie, but Hollywood is a career charged place, the person that bought your script has moved on. So keeping your script aloft and in front of people becomes a real art form. So when you're working with that producer you have make sure he knows you're on his team. It's such a process from packaging to financing and now days, marketing can green light movies, if they don't know how to sell it, forget it.
DtS: So the majority of your work that has gone into production has been writing assignments.
RR: Yeah, book adaptations, re-writes, and I've had my spec sales. A writer is one cog in the wheel. You can deliver a really good script, but there's no guarantee it's going to get made.
DtS: We've been chatting for over an hour now, just one more quick question -- do you have a method for developing ideas?
RR: Part of having a good idea is being able to discern whether or not it's a good one and if it's worthy of spending a year of your time on. I'm drawn to a premise where I don't know the answer. So I can work through the premise dramatically and arrive at an answer. The premise of my first film was based on the idea of a couple hiring a surrogate to give them a baby in the 1930s. A husband was sterile and so he hired the surrogate to impregnate his wife. And the question to me was, do I love my wife enough to let that happen? And I didn't have the answer to begin with. So that became a mission for me to work through that. This way I have my through-line. I know what I'm trying to solve. It was the same thing with Stigmata. I'm really drawn to movie premises that I don't automatically have an answer for.
DtS: So your ideas are motivated by the unknown.
RR: I write character pieces. I don't write the big action adventure scripts.
RR: I would have to agree. If you can hook your reader in those first 8 pages to say what would I do here? Then you've got 'em, they're gonna stay with that script to the end.
DtS: I talk a lot on this blog about how important it is to connect the audience to your characters via the use of empathy beats. Do you consciously do that? Or is that something you just find yourself doing?
RR: I go out of my way to do it, because I want to hook my reader right away. How do you grab someone's attention? There's this great old saying that we write in search of ourselves, and I think new writers often try to invent a completely new person than they are, and if you begin with that initial question, if you're in search of an answer then 9 times out of 10 you'll hook someone because they identify with it.
There in lies the end of a most insightful interview with screenwriter and producer Rick Ramage.
QUICK SUMMARY OF THE TAKE AWAY... from this part of the interview.
1) Star Power. If you can write a script that a Star will love, you have a much better chance of it going into production. It doesn't matter if producers love it, ultimately it comes down to will a name actor will like it? With that in mind, look at the actors out there that get films made because of their name. Think about what films they're making, then write with them in mind. Don't just write a script that you love, then automatically think that the star will love it because you do. Look at the actor's most recent 10 films - what have they done? What don't they do? Then write with them in mind.
2) Don't rush breaking in. When you do get your foot through the door, people will want to know what other projects you have ready. If you don't have any other scripts, you're going to lose an opportunity to cash in on the 'heat' you have as a hot new writer.
3) Pitching. Everyone gets butterflies. Don't worry if you screw up a pitch. Just practice and practice and work on developing a method for your pitches.
4) Hollywood is career charged. Just because you sold or optioned a script, don't think it will definitely go into production. More often than not, it won't get made. It's up to you to do what you can to keep your script alive and in front of the producers - to try and get it green lit.
5) When you have an idea, be critical of it, try to discern whether to not it's worthy of you spending a year working on. Is it a concept that could sell?
6) Go out of your way to hook your reader in the first 8 pages of your script. Go out of your way to create empathy beats for your hero.
Rick Ramage's Screenplay Show has an indiegogo campaign that's just been launched.
Click here and get involved.