The magical moments of screenwriting…
September 10, 2011 § 6 Comments
There are times during this journey in the screen trade when all the years of hard work pays off in magical ways. As writers, we spend so much time alone with our script, living inside our head, and then we hand it over and an entire crew of talented people spring into action and go to work to make the actual film. When the film goes into production and I visit the set, unless I’m asked to do production changes, I usually feel so completely useless because my work is done. Now, up to 100 people scamper about doing their best to make what I’ve written into a reality. I’ve only really worked with the producer and director on the actual project. Everyone else came on board after the script was locked. Most of them have no idea who I am, but eventually as I hang around we get to know each other and I always find everyone to be respectful. I completely understand they have work to do. As I finished my contribution to the production, they need to get on with their various jobs. It’s a really cool process being surrounded by such talented artisans, all with the same focus on one project.
When my first spec screenplay “I’ll Remember April“ was produced, I visited the set in Los Angeles nearly every day and felt the sweet triumph of satisfaction. It was a long road from script to screen and the journey was perilous at times, but I stayed the course, never stopped believing it could happen and my dream became a reality.
The film went on to open the Palm Springs International Film Festival where it had its première, then a cable première and eventually a worldwide release on DVD. I attended the gala film festival première with the lead actors, producers and director and we sat together in a row reserved just for us. Over three hundred people attended the sold out show and the film was received with thunderous applause during the ending credits. I can’t explain in words the satisfaction knowing my film touched so many people. Also having a real, non-Hollywood screening tends to attract the average movie going public who respond to a film with their hearts and not with a Hollywood insider’s viewpoint. Many times, a hometown Hollywood screening has jaded industry types who have “seen it all.” They’ll smile, give your film gushing praise, and then grumble under their breath at how much of a stinker they think it is.
After the lights came up, I remember star Academy Award acting nominee Pat Morita leaned over and whispered to me, “Great job, Mark.” That was amazing by itself, as I was a big fan of Pat’s since I was a kid myself. After the screening, we participated in a question and answer session in front of the audience. It was surreal being up front with the key players fielding questions. When one audience member told star Mark Harmon how much she enjoyed a particular scene and his dialogue, Mark put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Everyone tells actors they enjoy what they say and how smart they sound, but without the writer — there would be nothing to say.” This was a moment that I will always cherish. Mark gave me my props. He is one of the nicest, most genuine and classy actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet or work with in Hollywood.
Later I participated in several large benefit screenings of I’ll Remember April one at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills for the “Vietnam Veterans of America” hosted by actor Troy Evans who played Chief Harrigan in the film. There was nother benefit screening was at the Laemmle Theater in Santa Monica for The Season of Non-Violence. I participated in the panel discussion that night with the actors, producer, director and the curator of the Japanese American National Museum. These are the special moments for a screenwriter, long after you’ve written the script, when you receive the much deserved praise for your hard work. I am grateful to the producers for inviting me to take part in these type of screenings.
These adventures took the sting out of the seven-year slog it took from script to screen. The script had been around Hollywood for years to all of the wrong people and read by the wrong companies. I made the mistake of allowing just “anyone” to read it hoping to hook the right producer. This wasted time with producers and companies who would never make this type of movie. It also allowed any negative comments about the script to circulate and that’s never good. The script was optioned by a company for very little money and they couldn’t get it produced. I was a hip-pocket client of a major agency at the time and the agent was trying to get producers or production companies interested but the marketplace didn’t appear to be making WWII period films that starred ten-year old kids. What was I to do? Change the story or the time period?
I pressed on like any good screenwriter should do, but the journey continued to be long and arduous. Several years into pushing the script around Hollywood, I entered it in the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship and it placed in Semi Finals and was one of the top 25 screenplays overall according to the fellowship’s coordinator who personally called me to tell me just how close I came to being one of the nine fellowships. This gave me renewed energy and an impressive accolade to pursue a new plan of attack. Having placed so high in the fellowship, it was easier to get agents and producers to read the script because it had made “some noise.” Again, I was hampered by the script being a “period film with kids.”
My ex-girlfriend at the time had a friend who introduced me to her friend and he was the assistant to a producer who was looking for new projects for his new company. My script fit exactly the type of movies they wanted to produced, they optioned the script and renewed the option twice, and then executed the option agreement by purchasing the script. As they were securing financing and locations, it took another year before the movie went into production. A really long haul for sure, but I finally found a home for my baby and the loving creative care of producers, a director and actors who worked for less than their usual salary to make an important film they actually cared about.
It reinforced my belief to “never give up on my dreams.” I am proof it really does happen if you stay in the game. If you give up, you’re certainly guaranteed never to succeed. You’ll only make it through the rough times by never losing sight of your goal, being extremely patient and unwavering in your faith. Trust me, there will be plenty of soul-searching moments along the way that will tempt you to give up. If I gave up years ago, I would not have been up on those stages, talking about this little idea I had in a dream and later decided to write into a screenplay.
On another film that I wrote and was produced, I also recall living a “magical moment” when I was asked by the director to fly to Hawaii and be on the set of my submarine naval drama. The director wanted me close for rewrites, so he had me audition for a part in the film so the production company would send me over on location as an actor. It was good for me because I was being paid as an actor for two weeks and I had already been paid as the screenwriter. It was a tremendous experience being on location and doing rewrites on the set and having to work with the actors changing dialogue and scenes. I had acted before, but in this film I secured a featured role and I had five scenes with the stars.
One day the director became frustrated barking out directions to the actors from the other side of the wall of the submarine set and they couldn’t hear him. Since I was on set every day, he had me go onto the conn next to the camera and during the scene read aloud the dialogue that would come through the PA system of the sub in post-production. I also directed the actor’s reactions when the sub was being rocked by depth charges in the film and yelled “BOOM!” every time there was to be an explosion and they needed to react. It was very surreal—I was the screenwriter reading aloud my written words and the scene came alive right in front of me.
Another magical moment happened when one of my films was being shot on location in my hometown only a mile from my house. I visited the set on the beach and I had to laugh that I wrote the script in the same town where it was being filmed. These are the magical moments that get you through the hard times of the journey. I still get a kick from being on the set of a movie—especially a movie that I wrote.
Yes, the journey has been a tremendous amount of hard work and some luck, but I believe luck is just talent meets opportunity. Always be ready for the day when your special moment arrives to jump-start your screenwriting career. It might be a long and arduous journey, but never give up. I mean never give up. You don’t want to miss the magical moments of screenwriting do you? I didn’t think so. Me either. I have to get back to my blank pages. My characters await.
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“Breaking into this business, making your first sale is an incredible event. The most important thing about the first sale is for the very first time in your life something written has value and proven value because somebody has given you money for the words that you’ve written, and that’s terribly important, it’s a tremendous boon to the ego, to your sense of self-reliance, to your feeling about your own talent. I remember the first sale I made was a hundred and fifty dollars for a radio script, and, as poor as I was, I didn’t cash the check for three months. I kept showing it to people.”—Rod Serling
“Your screenwriting career is not a Dali-esque delusion, but the result of work, talent, focus, sacrifice, patience & luck.”—Scriptcat
“Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. If you succeed, keep working. If you fail, keep working. If you’re interested, keep working. If you’re bored, keep working.”—Michael Crichton
“Having spent too many years in show business, the one thing I see that succeeds is persistence. It’s the person who just ain’t gonna go home. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to go home. This is what I’ll be doing until they put me in jail or in a coffin.” —David Mamet