TERRY ROSSIO is probably the highest-paid screenwriter in the history of the medium. He prefers to write with a partner, which is almost invariably Ted Elliott. Together, they’ve written the screenplay and/or story for films such as: Aladdin; Godzilla; The Lone Ranger, Shrek; the Pirates of the Caribbean, Zorro, and National Treasure movies; and far too many others to mention here. Terry also co-wrote (with Bill Marsilii) the record-breaking Deja Vu spec script—which sold for $5 million–and Lightspeed, which sold for $3.5 million. Terry is also a producer. (Read Terry’s official bio here.)
I interviewed him for the book, Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood. And while much of Terry’s adaptation-specific advice appears there, it just wasn’t possible or appropriate to include (in that format) the wisdom he was kind enough to share on other topics. And so you find it here…
JRM: How did you break in, and how did you come to be where you are now?
Terry Rossio: I’m going to try to not give the usual boilerplate answers in this interview, and that means not going along with false presumptions, no matter how seemingly benign. The question about breaking in seems perfectly legit, but really it’s not. A writer must create compelling work, and then try to sell it. Once sold, the writer has to do the same thing again. It’s really not true that the writer ‘breaks in’—that’s an artifact of the belief that the person is being judged, not the work, and also of the belief that there is an inside and an outside, which I don’t think exists. There are too many screenwriters out there with only a single credit for there to be an inside, and too many writers on the outside making sales, to too many markets which are either new, changing, or undefined.
In truth buyers are just not that organized, your buyer is not my buyer, or in some cases, you can become your own buyer. Courtney Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award this year for best screenplay for Frozen River, and she’s never sold a screenplay. Is she on the inside or the outside? In truth, anyone, at any time, can come up with South Park or Superman or Sandman, and that’s all that matters.
I know writers want to think it’s all about access, and it’s true that for me, at this point, I can get a screenplay read, far easier than most. But that doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, and no writer is so inside that anything they write sells. Lawrence Kasdan has three unsold specs. Shane Black has films he wants to get made he can’t get made. When every studio passes on your project, let me tell you, that feeling of being on the inside disappears fast.
Sure, of course, when it comes to breaking in, there are techniques to market work, which should be used. Any single avenue is possibly correct, but you only know the right avenue in retrospect. In our career, we broke in through sending query letters and spec screenplays, but so what? New writers have to try every technique, all the time. This includes query letters, phone calls, networking, contests, seminars, internships, working on spec, blind submissions, creating your own website, making films on your own, working as an assistant, targeting an agent first, targeting a production company first, working in other media, optioning properties, etc., etc., you get the idea. One approach will eventually be effective, but that doesn’t mean the other attempts could have been avoided. You can’t fire just one pellet out of a shotgun.
As to the second half of the question—how did we come to be where we are—I guess the thing that gets overlooked is that we picked projects that had built-in high audience awareness. Aladdin. Godzilla. Zorro. Sinbad. Pirates of the Caribbean. And now Lone Ranger. We’ve created some cultural awareness as well—Men in Black, Shrek, National Treasure—which is more difficult, but great when it happens.
JRM: You make it look easy. You say you chose projects with high audience awareness—but how did you come to be in a position to do that in the first place, when those properties were owned by others? I guess what I’m saying is, that may be how you and Ted became the 800-pound gorillas of screenwriting—but how were you able to convince the plantation owners, so to speak, to hand you the big bananas?
Terry Rossio: It’s not as impossible as it seems. Stephen King gives up rights to his stories to filmmakers for a dollar, if he is approached with the right level of expertise and passion. That’s how Frank Darabont got started. There are many, many titles in the public domain. Anyone could write a Medusa film, or Aphrodite, or Shakespeare in Love. Look what Broadway did with Wicked, based on Baum’s novel. New books are published all the time where the film rights are available. There are board games, obscure comics, foreign films where the rights are unwanted. Heck, you could even approach Disney and try to get them to make a film from a theme park ride, which we tried to do in 1992.
There are treasures to be found on the open assignments list. Ted and I were shocked to find Mask of Zorro was an open writing assignment. Any writer with an agent had a chance to go pitch on that. There are historical events (such as Titanic), biographic movies, such as Walk the Line or Ray, or Milk or Nixon. Look what Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have done in their careers writing household name biographies.
Short of that, writers can choose to work on projects where at least the topic is universally known. Do a disaster film about the moon crashing into Earth, for example. Or a horror film about the monster under the bed. Or a kid catching cooties. Everyday common knowledge is potential pop culture. It’s not up to me to be creative and point out all the possibilities, that’s up to the writer. I don’t mean to say that it is easy, but there is so much mental real estate out there, a screenwriter should be able to grab onto something.
It does no good for writers to take a helpless stance.
JRM: Being probably the highest-paid screenwriter in history—what does it take to get you excited these days?
Terry Rossio: Oh, my. You say that like money is now out of the equation. I wish that were true.
Honestly, I don’t expect to get any sympathy on this point at all, because I’ve made so much money, and even great writers in other fields make relatively little, but let me walk you through it. Let’s talk money, because no one ever does. A top tier screenplay deal these days might be for a million dollars or more. Most are far, far less, but let’s work with those crazy high numbers, in fact let’s say 2 million dollars, though nobody is paying that any more. Wow that’s a lot of money. But consider. With a writing partner, that gets cut down to $1,000,000.00, and after taxes, lawyers, agents, managers, and the WGA, let’s hope you get to keep $400,000.00.
That’s still a truckload of money, life changing, but they don’t give you that all at once. It might take six months to a year just to get the contract done, and the deal is contingent on the film going into production, and if it does that might take a year or three or five, and also the WGA has to grant full credit at the end of it all, which often doesn’t happen. But let’s say it all goes well, which means the ‘highest paid screenwriter in history’ is actually taking home around $200,000.00 a year, at least on that one deal. Which is good money, real good money, more than I ever imagined making, and let me tell you I do own a dream home in the hills … but it’s not in the fly-a-Learjet-to-your-own-private-island-in-the-Caribbean category.
So hey, yes, the money is great, yes, and let’s hope we can all work on more than one project at a time. But it’s also easy to put a couple hundred thousand down on a house, give some to mom and dad, pay off a loan, hire an assistant, put some in savings, loan some cash to starving writer friends … and in a year or two or five it’s clear you’re not through still needing to work for a living, hopefully as a writer, back trying to sell a new pitch.
Of course, writers don’t want to hear this. It makes them angry. They get suspicious, like you’re some kind of financial idiot, or you have a secret drug problem. They want to keep alive the fiction that the top end of financial reward for screenwriters is up there with the actors, directors, and producers. But there is a brutal glass ceiling for screenwriters. If Keira Knightly gets $15 million and a piece of the gross for just one film, that’s more than I’ve been paid in my entire 18 year career, every project combined.
So money is still a motivation. Because money is power in Hollywood. The deal structure of a director, actor or producer can give them the resources to open a production company, option a best selling novel, or finance a low budget film. You don’t see writers doing those things.
But to answer the question. What gets me excited is the same thing that has always got me excited—inventing a story. More precisely, heaving a big heavy idea into the pop culture pond and seeing if it’s good enough to send ripples all around the world.
JRM: If you could go back and spend an hour with yourself before the Big Doors opened, what advice would you offer? Put another way: what do you wish you’d known when you started out?
Terry Rossio: You can guess the first part of my answer. There are no Big Doors. There is only the challenge of writing Network, or The Sting, or Cabaret or Harry Potter. The project is the challenge, always.
But what do I wish I had known? I would tell myself: become a director. My fear was always that as director, I would have to know what I was doing. Over time it has become clear to me, that was a useless worry. Yes, of course, talent, knowledge and ability are valuable assets, but they are not strictly necessary. While many directors are brilliant, for example, Gore Verbinski and Steven Spielberg are so capable and competent they’re like beings from another planet, it was dumb of me to hold myself to that highest standard. Not when there are so many directors out there who are clueless—with ten times the power, ten time the control over content, ten times the rewards of any screenwriter. You can get by in this town, quite often, by appearing confident and yelling. The bad idea from the bully often beats the good ideas from the reasonable person. Faint heart ne’er won fair lady.
This is a key point for screenwriters, because your only hope of success, renown, residuals and more work comes from delivering stellar content to an audience. And the director controls the content. So no matter how well you write it, if the director prefers shit, the audience will be forced to eat shit.
JRM: How do you approach writing—do you have particular habits or working environments that you find helpful, and how does the collaboration process work for you?
Terry Rossio: The only odd thing I do is take frequent long drives. For some reason, story solutions seem to come to me while I’m on the road. This may go back to when Ted and I started out, and every meeting began with a 2-3 hour drive from Orange County to Hollywood.
Longest drive I ever took was from LA to Washington DC, leaving late Friday and arriving early Monday morning for the cast and crew read-through of National Treasure. But that was more about my fear of flying (and relative love of driving) than the working process.
Regarding the collaboration process, the best part of it is story invention through discussion. When you articulate a story problem to someone else, you have to frame it, prep it for the solution. Sometimes your framing is off, and you’re making presumptions you shouldn’t, and your writing partner can spot that. Sometimes the framing is done so well the solution is readily apparent.
Also, alone, the mind can wander. But if you’re locked into a discussion, there is a discipline, a commitment to not quitting until some kind of answer is found.
JRM: It’s been said that nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. So other than the obvious—an abundance of talent—what do you believe makes you different from other writers?
Terry Rossio: Ah, great question. I don’t know the answer to that right off. But you’ve made another questionable presumption. I do believe there are writers with “an abundance of talent” … that would be Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, David E. Kelley, Theodore Sturgeon, Rod Serling, etc. Their first drafts are brilliant and they have a high level of output. Let me tell you, I do not belong in that category.
I’m just an average writer. But I’ve learned the trick of applying what talent I possess many times over to a project, elevating it a little each time. What you do is create from a personal, subjective viewpoint, and then assess what you’ve done from an objective, audience viewpoint, and then switch back to creating, and then back to assessing, etc. Essentially, I am an abundantly talented editor.
But that doesn’t answer the question. It should be noted that all of the success I’ve had has been in conjunction with others, with very talented writing partners. Maybe I’m just good at picking talented partners?
But no, that’s not an answer. A couple things jump out. We’ve never turned in a draft where we felt it couldn’t go into production the next day. There is such a thin membrane between done and worth doing. It takes a certain insanity to achieve the needed level of denial and believe what you’re doing is worth the pain, because most drafts get rejected, most drafts get misread, and every draft gets changed. But we never became jaded, we always managed to tell ourselves this is the one, this is the one they’ll want to make, as-is.
The other thing that comes to mind is we’ve never cared so much for dark, bleak, and cynical. Though the entire town here seems to think that’s what audiences want. And so dark, bleak and cynical screenplays get attention, and dark, bleak and cynical films get made. Fine. That leaves the top of the box office to us, and Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron, and David Koepp. What’s really going on is producers, writers, development executives, directors and actors are overly worried about looking not-cool. They fear “corny” so profoundly they err on the side of long dark coats, neon lights, reflections in the water, smoke, blue lighting, black sunglasses, and sneering looks. They are so afraid of heartfelt they take refuge in dim and bleak and ugly. You’ve never seen anything as funny as a producer wax all excited about how they’re going to reinvent Superman, give him a costume of chain and black leather.
How else am I different? I think I have commercial sensibilities. Of course everyone in town says that. But I truly want to write a film about the monster under the bed, or a window that looks three days into the past. Those ideas seem good to me, more worth writing than, say, a husband and wife struggle to survive a series of affairs and find meaning in their lives.
And I’ll go ahead and add—I never thought of myself as having a great work ethic, I’ve always felt lazy, indulgent and slow. But I’ve discovered over the years that’s not true, I’m a pretty hard worker. I work every night, on weekends; we’ve worked over the holidays; I’ve given up travel and parties and poker games, you could argue I’ve traded having adventures in life for having adventures on the page. Not sure at times whether that’s a fair exchange, but it sure helps with the career.
And I will also add: one does not face this task alone. I have on my side Heinlein, and Bradbury, and Poe. Ellison, Shakespeare, and Chandler. Serling, Asimov, and Christie. Twain, Bach, and Tolkien. Sturges, Simon, and Vonnegut. King, Sturgeon, and Chayefsky. Gaiman, Ashman, and Matheson. You get the idea. Not to mention every episode of the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Night Gallery, Dark Shadows, heck, all the great television shows I’ve seen and all the great films I’ve watched, all the great comic books and comic strips I’ve read. You have to come at this job with a background in popular works of fiction, from all media.
JRM: Why did you choose to collaborate, rather than going solo—and what made you decide to continue that practice?
Terry Rossio: Lack of that ‘abundance of talent’ you referred to earlier.
JRM: What goes through your head when you sit down to write—what are you thinking?
Terry Rossio: Well, okay. Starting from the beginning … the first issue to me, and most important, is whether the concept of the movie is intrinsically compelling. I like to feel with absolute certainty that the fundamental idea for the film is, without a doubt, an exceptional premise, one that implies that a film must be made from it, without question. You want to cross the finish line at the beginning of the race.
Next, I would ponder exactly why the concept is compelling. This is kind of like examining a diamond from every angle under different lighting, against different backdrops. Yes, you know it’s pretty, but what makes it so? And how does it achieve its beauty, and could it be enhanced even more?
Once you know, perhaps, the several different ways a premise is compelling, you can attempt to know how best to present it … would the ‘interesting stuff’ in it be better explored as comedy, or a drama … a police procedural, a western? Even if you have a genre in mind that seems obvious, it’s worth thinking about how the idea plays in other genres.
Right away Ted and I start to see key images. There is nearly always a series of filmic images naturally associated with every good film idea. As those images come—trailer moments—we try to think of ways to link them or group them, to write toward them and away from them … a plot starts to form. (It’s sad when—much later—one of the early, key images drops out, or falls away from the spine of the eventual storyline.)
Next I would spend some time thinking about the all-important second idea. Since I fear working on something that isn’t great or compelling from the start, I want to stack the deck in our favor by taking the first inspiration and going past it, add to it with a second inspiration. This is hard to describe because it could be ‘adding’ or ‘merging’ the first concept with another concept from another movie idea, or it could be coming up with some twist that derives from the original idea and pushes it further. I guess at all times we keep thinking, ‘how can we push this’ more than what we have already. Can we do the entire concept in the first thirty pages, and then go from there, and really blow the audience away? Again, this is all fear-based … is it good enough? No, not yet, it can get better, we can do more …
I shouldn’t go too far without starting to think about the main character relationship or relationships in the film. (Note, not the main character, or characters, their histories and such. That’s not so important. To me, the relationship between characters is what needs to be defined, those are the moments audiences want to watch, and the actual characters can be adjusted to make the main relationship or relationships the most interesting). That leads to thinking about what kind of character, and character situation, is best to mine the concept, or take best advantage of the concept or story arena.
As always, I would try to think of ways to push the characters into extremes, because this is my personal weak point, and I would worry that my characters are too timid, or bland; too much a reflection of myself, meaning my actual self or the self I wish to present to the world, and not enough a reflection of my hidden self, my fears, experiences, dreams, wishful thinking, intuition, hang-ups and psychosis; or at the least, not compelling or unique enough in an external-to-myself sense, as in, the world’s greatest detective (Sherlock Holmes) or a man ages backward from birth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) or a man who lives 2000 years (Lazarus Long); etc.
I try to think of situations, or evolving situations. I would start to explore what I would visualize as possible ‘umbrella’ situations (overall issues that are simple, and so allow for complex exploration) as well as interesting sub-situations. My goal is from page one to present whatever the story is in only a series of ‘characters in situations’ where the information and issues appear as a side effect of people dealing with immediate problems, with no relief.
I ask myself: have you made the mistake of making the secondary characters more interesting than the leads?
Early in the process I want to focus on the ending. Nothing else matters, nothing will happen, no project will be begun or get anywhere or make any progress at all until the ending is known. If there is no satisfying ending, or at least the glimmer of one, then the idea will sit on the shelf. Good endings are hard. But once you have it, then everything else derives from the ending, because it’s all, in a sense, setting up that final twist, or emotion, or feeling, or thematic statement, or rush of excitement, or chill, or brilliant payoff, or sublime wisdom, or whatever.
You always ask—what is the tone? Again, as part of that, back to genre … are there genre conventions that can be mixed, or used to advantage? Is this really a Romeo and Juliet story, hiding, in disguise? Is it really the Count of Monte Cristo? Is it Guns of Navarone? Once Upon a Time in the West? Is it an innocent on the run like North By Northwest? Is it a combination of story patterns, or, is it something that’s not been done before, or at least, I don’t know that it’s been done? If so, how do I see the pattern in my head?
What’s the title? If the project doesn’t call to mind a cool title, then I start to suspect that it’s not a good project, or I’m not ready to write it yet.
Has a theme emerged yet? It’s almost impossible to have the makings of a story without a theme implied, but then you ask, is the theme trite, or is the opposite of the obvious theme more interesting, or is there an entirely different theme that is actually better, more sublime, more compelling? I would also explore whether all aspects of the theme, or central question of the screenplay, can find form in the story—perhaps characters or character relationships can be invented by assigning them different aspects of the thematic argument.
What is a compelling opening image?
At some point, after having a few scenes and images in mind, some characters, I would start to wonder—what is the point of view? It usually starts off flying all over the place to explore the story, but is there some way to limit the point of view that would actually enhance the telling of the story. (What if we revealed stuff from this character instead, how does that change the emphasis, how does that change the unfolding narrative from the audience’s point of view?)
At some point I would double check—is the setting right? What if I changed the gender of my lead, would it matter? What if I opened at the end instead of the beginning? Would the whole thing be better if the leads were ten years old? These are just routine questions used to double check the whole creative process, shake things up, and make sure I’m fully exploring all options.
I might ask—is this all really best suited as a screenplay … is it really a novel, a short story, or a play, or a comic book or a television series just masquerading as a feature screenplay?
I would double check—is this castable, is the budget under control, is it something that a director might like to make … are actors going to want to be in these roles … I want the thing to get made!
I would also double check—have I fulfilled, and also exceeded the genre? If it’s a horror film is it actually scary, if it’s a romance is it actually romantic? What are the reference films the audience will bring to this?
I would wonder—does it require a character as villain or is it not that type of film, is the conflict not imbedded in one person? What if there were two villains? What if the villain turned out to be the hero? What if we told the story from the point of view of the villain? Again, these are just questions I would ask to assure myself I’m not missing some obvious opportunity.
I guess at this point the process of generalizing breaks down … hopefully I’d have enough answers to start getting into specific problem issues and story problem solving. I would start to generate ongoing patterns—character relationships, setting up reversals. I would want to build in surprises. I’d play around a lot with the ‘lines of force’ which is just tracking each character through the story, understanding that each would continue toward the path of what they want, unless their wants change; but all actions are a result of intent and intent comes from desire. So if I want the plot to work the character’s desires have to be designed such that as a by-product the plot works.
Over and again, I would ask: what’s cool? What’s a cool sequence? Character? A cool line of dialogue? A cool set, a cool exchange, a cool sequence? A cool relationship? What’s a cool demise? What’s a cool fight sequence, a cool visual? A cool opening image? (And by cool I mean actually cool, as in Superman becoming Clark Kent in one shot, or Jack Sparrow stepping off a sinking ship, or Howard Beale yelling “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more,” or Elliott and E.T. riding across the face of the moon, not the Hollywood version of cool as mentioned before, all wet streets, neon lights, long black coats and grim-faced killers shooting each other.)
Repeat this whole process several times, as needed, until in an excruciatingly slow process, each solution asserts itself and declares itself, ‘good’ and finally, when everything is good or you run out of time, it’s done.
THEN you can start writing the screenplay …
JRM: What are the most important things for a writer to know?
Terry Rossio: The first impulse is to say ‘the difference between good and bad.’ But that’s not right, because there are many, many people who can recognize the difference between good and bad. The most important thing for a writer to know is how to move something from bad to good. This may be different for each writer. But unless you have a method, a process, a technique, or an ability to move your work from not so good to better to okay now it works, you’re in trouble.
The first step of knowing what’s cool, I guess, is recognizing what’s not cool … which is very rare when it comes to your own writing. The worst thing a writer can do is be finished and all satisfied with the work, and be delighting in how good it is, because that means the work will stop, and if it in fact sucks it will never get to not sucking, and your work will turn people away rather than attract them.
My second impulse is to say … www.wordplayer.com! (But then I have to add John August’s site as well.)
JRM:> What gets your attention and makes a script stand out from the crowd?
Terry Rossio: There are buyers and sellers in Hollywood. Writers, agents, even most producers, are sellers. I’m a seller. The opinions of sellers don’t count, this question is more properly asked of a buyer. I don’t look at scripts to buy them, I don’t look at other people’s screenplays much at all.
Having said that, when I see a writer accomplish something I have trouble doing or I can’t do at all, of course I’m impressed. Karey Kirkpatrick understands how to write those minimal scenes, and uses a straightforward, clean style to great effect, cutting through all the unnecessary embellishments and getting to the heart of a story. Damn him. I admire that. John Logan writes performance dialogue so well; his dialogue is both natural sounding and reveals character. Love his work.
The times I have read spec screenplays and been impressed, I have noticed, those screenplays have a voice from the very first line, a sense of control, a sense of purpose. Every line is a statement to a purpose. The writer leads and the reader follows.
JRM: What makes you think a script will be a chore to read, and is there anything you find particularly lacking in today’s scripts?
Terry Rossio: It’s far too difficult to try to catalogue or characterize ineffective writing. It comes in so many varied forms.
But … I will point readers to a recent Wordplay column, called Scene Character [linked below]. So many screenplays, professional and amateur, execute scenes that are just kinda basic. They look like scenes and smell like scenes, and the writer no doubt feels a sense of accomplishment because writing anything coherent is difficult, but the real work of screenwriting hasn’t even been attempted. Anyone can write a scene. The job of the screenwriter is to give scenes character, make each scene distinctive, the way characters are unique and distinctive.
We all know the basic forms. So if that’s all you’ve accomplished, then why does anyone need to hire you? In the article I make the argument, if you take the trouble to give character to your characters, then go to the trouble of giving character to your scenes. Push past writing the basic scene the basic way, try something ambitious and memorable.
I will also add that many screenplays out there seem woefully deficient regarding character patterns. That issue makes up the largest category of screenplays that demand rewrites. Great stories examine evolving and interesting character relationships; the character interaction patterns are as important, or more so, than the plot patterns. Too many writers, I think, don’t even consider their stories from this point of view—too bad, because more than anything else, that’s the part of the work that will be judged, by the studios, producers, actors, directors … and the audience.
Finally, I will say … beware of timid characters. Polite is your enemy. Meek is a fiend. Go for it.
JRM: What are some of the mistakes you see writers make in their approach to people or the industry?
Terry Rossio: The most idiotic approach will work if the writing is genius. The best approach in the world won’t work if the writing is mediocre. The biggest mistake a writer can make regarding their approach is to worry about their approach. Win the game by having better content than anyone else, and the whole approach issue goes away.
This especially applies to when you get ‘in the room.’ Have an opinion, and make sure you can back that opinion. Essentially, be right. Be the person who has solutions, or at least the path to the solutions. Be the person overflowing with character ideas, plot structures, filmic premises, references to relevant novels and short stories, or works of nonfiction, applicable foreign films, etc.
It’s crazy to expect the big contract unless you can actually slam dunk the ball. And hit your free throws. And make three point shots, and box out for the rebound. For writers, that means providing ideas, answers, possibilities, solutions. We are the content creators of the town, so ultimately, that’s how we will be judged. I hate to say it, but most writers I know who are not successful don’t actually have Shawshank Redemption sitting on their hard drive, and can’t speak with confidence about point of view to executives, or haven’t come up with one or more of those instant-sell high concept ideas. Given that harsh truth, why waste time worrying about your approach?
Essentially, don’t try to be Peter Benchley if you don’t have Jaws. Don’t try to be Michael Crichton if you don’t have Jurassic Park.
JRM: Aside from the script itself, what says to people in the business—”Hey, I want to work with this writer?”
Terry Rossio: Humor. Making people laugh. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe not the most important, but it’s a factor. Funny is appealing.
Perhaps the most needed ability a writer must possess is the ability to instill a sense of confidence in the buyer. They need to believe you have the answers, they need to believe the solution to all their needs has just walked into the room. You have to alleviate their fears. They need to believe you are not crazy, that you’re not on drugs, that you’re fast and capable. It makes them feel more secure if you can show that you know the film must be marketed, that they are going to have to attract a director, and movie stars, that the budget can’t get out of control. That you are willing to take on their problems as your problems. They want to know that you will work with them on notes, that you can work with a director, or the studio head, or an actor, on notes. They want to believe that you have a legitimate, successful take, and that choosing you will never be a mistake, will never make them look bad … that you have the solution and can deliver the final shooting draft next week. And there’s where the need for good content comes back, only good content can truly, effectively allay their fears.
JRM: What says “I don’t want to work with this writer?”
Terry Rossio: Well, the opposite of the above. The kiss of death is when a writer thinks something is really super cool that just isn’t cool at all. If the aesthetic doesn’t match, then, to quote Jimmy Buffett, it’s over from the start.
JRM: What are the odds of selling a spec as opposed to getting work from a spec that doesn’t sell?
Terry Rossio: There are no odds. Not in either case. That question presumes a reality that is in no way connected to actual reality, making it difficult to form a response. (Have you noticed a pattern? I’m challenging the presumptions behind many of these questions.)
Consider that most projects don’t sell and most writers don’t get hired. The existence of those projects and people does not increase, or decrease, anyone else’s specific chance of getting any type of sale or job … meaning, then, the very concept of ‘odds’ (which requires a playing field) is a delusion.
Even trying to speak comparatively, you can’t arrive at a conclusion. The first problem is with the concept, or term, ‘a spec’ … as if all specs are one thing, as if they are all similar, like jars of peanut butter lined up on the shelf. In the real world, there is no generic ‘spec;’ there are only individual screenplays of varying quality, read by individual people with varying ability to understand them. LeBron James is not in competition with Ron Jeremy to make the starting roster of the Cleveland Cavaliers, even if at some point they might have passed each other on the street. Some screenplays can’t miss selling, which gives them (I suppose) a 100% ‘chance’ while other screenplays won’t sell, and have a 0% chance. Does that mean together, each has a 50% chance? Nope.
Then there is the problem of the buyer. One buyer may have a 100% chance of not hiring anyone, because the budget has been spent that year. A different buyer just sold a series and is looking to ramp up a staff. Yes, there are more ‘assignments’ available than sales, but that means nothing on a case-by-case basis. In the world of film, something happens or it doesn’t … mostly the latter.
We all have an impulse to try to generalize and spot patterns, but asking that question is like asking what the ‘odds’ are of ‘a creature’ coming into your house through ‘either the front door or a side window,’ when the actual task at hand is specifically to go outside and paint a fence.
JRM: There’s a widespread perception that a big part of making it in Hollywood is “who you know.” How true is that—and how does “who you know” stack up against “what you know” and “how good you are?”
Terry Rossio: Here I go again. No, in fact that is not a widespread perception. It is only claimed to be widespread perception. At least not at the point of breaking in. The prevailing opinion I am familiar with is that your level of talent is what matters, because that determines who you get to know. And of course that is correct.
Now, after you get to know people, yes of course, it’s important to know people, this is a town of relationships. You must put together your team, or become a part of a team; that is the only path to success. No film gets made without at least a dozen key people choosing to lay their careers on the line to push it forward.
But that’s like saying a big part of flying up to the space station is ‘who you know.’ We don’t speak that way in the context of astronauts, and it makes just as little sense with screenwriters.
JRM: Related question: It’s been said that there are three crucial elements to breaking in: talent, access, and timing. Can you rate their relative importance—or would you alter the equation in some way?
Terry Rossio: We have to talk about ‘necessary but not sufficient conditions.’ Talent is necessary but not sufficient, because there are many talented people who never break in. Access is necessary but not sufficient, there are hundreds of thousands of people who have access who can do nothing with it.
Timing only seems important in retrospect. If your project is great and it sells, then the timing was perfect. But timing alone won’t make a sale—there are tens of thousands of projects that have equally perfect timing, but their projects go nowhere. In the end, timing is usually something that only works against you—the executive who loved the project gets fired, a similar project is set up just before yours goes out, etc.
So what are the crucial elements? This is a very hard concept to truly appreciate, but Hollywood is a place that grants huge rewards to the exact right thing and exerts disinterested punishment on great stuff that is even just the tiniest bit off, as well as all the bad stuff. It’s a lot like writing a hit song; the difference between “she loves you, yeah yeah yeah,” versus “she loves you, ooh, ooh, ooh” (to steal a moment from Peggy Sue Got Married) is profound. One is not almost as good as the other, one works, the other doesn’t.
This idea is so hard to convey because it’s so counter-intuitive. You think if you get something 90% right you should get 90% rewarded. It doesn’t work like that. The world will give gobs of money to Star Wars to watch Luke Skywalker, but it might not have been interested in The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills.
In the end you have to come up with the one single exact thing, and it has to be one hundred percent exactly right. Sherlock Holmes. The Cat in the Hat. Mary Poppins. Napoleon Dynamite. In the final analysis, the only element that matters is coming up with the exact thing that can catch fire in the public consciousness. We are kin to the purveyors of the Pet Rock, The Macarena, Catch-22, and the Hula-Hoop. Pet dirt would not have worked. The thing is the thing and only the thing, and not some other thing.
JRM: How does a new guy or gal make contacts?
Terry Rossio: Contacts aren’t really that hard to make, and not really that important. Content is what counts. Having said that, make contacts through—
Internships. Film festivals. E-mails. Message boards. Query letters. Phone calls. Entry level jobs. Parties. Friends. Family. Church. School. Seminars. Since you don’t know what will work, you have to do everything.
I will mention a few little known avenues that most people won’t ever try, but they would work.
1. Offer to work for free with the people in the business you most admire. Sure it sucks to have to work a second job to pay the bills, but this is your career we’re talking about, and you don’t have to do it forever. Six months working at a company you admire, even sweeping the floors, and you leapfrog ahead in terms of learning and contacts.
2. Write a book, or start a newsletter, or author a series of interviews, on the people or companies you admire. Best way to learn about anything is to write a book about it.
3. Throw a series of parties in Hollywood. Only a series of parties will work, and they have to be really good parties. But I will tell you, there is no better way to meet a lot of people.
4. Create something—webisode series, graphic novel, short film, micro-budget film, novel, play. After all, it’s really not so much about getting to know them, you want them to want to get to know you.
JRM: What are the chances of making it in this business without a good rep?
Terry Rossio: Everyone in this business who ever made it, made it without a good rep, at least at the beginning. So the odds are absolute that you can, even if it remains unknown if you will. Really it’s only after you get something to happen, that’s when the agents start to circle.
I think of agents as the water skiers behind the speedboat. It’s up to me to get us all up to speed, and to decide which direction to go, not run aground or hit a pier. I have to aim us toward the ramp. After we reach the ramp, they are free to do their tricks back there, woo-hoo. But the agent doesn’t drive the boat, that’s the writer’s job.
This is true even with an ongoing career. Agents are frighteningly incapable of making anything happen, if the thing just doesn’t want to happen. And I love my agents and my manager, we have the best in town. But agents are not buyers, they’re sellers. An agent can’t make a sale happen if there is no interest, or get a film into production if a studio balks, or stop a director from ruining a movie. What they do very, very well, is manage interest to your best advantage, when the interest is present. Agents can’t really make hot out of cold. But they can turn hot into yummy soup.
JRM: Agent vs. manager—which is best, or does a writer need both?
Terry Rossio: A writer has to get access, somehow, to that open assignments list, compiled by each of the major agencies. And then the writer needs to get meetings to pitch on the best of those assignments, the ones the writer believes can become hit movies, the ones the writer can solve. You have to get in the room.
So I guess I will come down on the side that a writer needs an agent, because you need the agency. But even a hip-pocket arrangement with an agent is enough. Even the most tentative relationship with an agent can work. You just have to get to that binder, somehow. Once the writer spots the job he wants, it’s up to the writer to get into the room (if the agent can’t set it up) and then, once in the room, get the job.
As to the question of agent vs. manager … again, agents do not come in six packs. A good manager is better than a bad agent. What matters is building a team, finding that person who is competent and is truly on your side. That can be an agent, manager, or producer; that can be a studio executive, that can turn out to be a production assistant who eventually goes on to run a studio. Individuals matter, not titles.
JRM: Thoughts on manager-producers?
Terry Rossio: Most of the best producers are not managers, and most of the best managers are not producers. There’s a generalization for you. But the exact right manager-producer could work wonders for a writer.
Keep in mind agents, managers, and manager-producers are sellers. They may try to act like buyers, but don’t get swept up in that. There’s nothing more pointless than a bunch of sellers in a room hyping each other up, with nary a buyer in sight.
While it’s good to have anyone out there on your side working for you (the business is that difficult) ultimately you need a buyer on your side. You need a buyer and a great entertainment attorney. An agent is great, but you can’t fall into the trap of thinking that just having an agent will cause deals to come your way.
JRM: What makes a good rep, and what are some of the things that tell you you’re dealing with a keeper?
Terry Rossio: A good rep takes your phone calls at least half the time right away, and never lets 24 hours pass without returning your call. There are other qualities, of course, but all bad reps violate this rule and none of the good ones do.
Good reps don’t give story notes. Sorry, they just don’t. They may give a reaction to the read, and they should give information to the screenwriter that may help the screenwriter better understand the market at that particular moment, and they can be a sounding board for concepts before a script is written. I don’t know how the tradition of getting notes and doing unpaid rewrites for reps started, but that’s the last thing a writer needs, another hoop to jump through, another opinion to battle. You can make the argument that many writers give drafts to their reps that are terrible and in need of help—fine, but the solution to that problem is not notes from the agent, the solution is for the writer to get better, and to get better on their own. You can’t bring the agent to the story meeting.
JRM: What are some signs of a bad rep—things to watch out for?
Terry Rossio: When you meet an agent, if one of the first things they mention is how good they are at developing material, and giving notes, I say run. They’re just giving themselves an out, a way to excuse not being able to effectively market your work. Everyone wants to be in development, because it takes the pressure off. A lot of agents give notes to help cover the fact that they haven’t done anything else for their client. But if a project can’t be automatically marketed and sold, it’s far better to skip the make-believe that something is actually happening with the agent-rewrite, and just move on to something else.
A writer needs to have the same attitude the Coen brothers had from the beginning of their careers. “Everyone wanted to talk about the screenplay. We told them, ‘No, the screenplay is finished. We’ve handled that. Now we need help making the movie.’”
Now you might point out, that only works if the writer has written something great, if the writer has written something that really works, that doesn’t actually need changes. And my answer to that is a resounding yes. Exactly right. If the screenplay is anything less than that, the effort will fail anyway—and rightly so.
Of course, I do a disservice to all the times an agent read a draft and offered some fantastic suggestions and insights, and the writer went on to reassess their own work, and do a much-needed rewrite, and the work was vastly improved for the exchange, and then went on to sell. There is nothing wrong with that, if it happens. But that should never become the target. You can’t count on co-writing something with your agent. The writer needs to be the expert on the writing. If someone fixed your work for you, with an actual great idea you missed, that should make you really pissed off, and you should endeavor for it to never happen again. The writer should be vastly more capable than any agent, or anyone else in the world, when it comes to a particular screenplay, else how could the writer ever hope to be hired?
JRM: Big agency vs. boutique vs. small agency: what’s your take, pro and con?
Terry Rossio: Big agencies are better, because their open assignments list is more comprehensive, with individual agents covering individual studios, then sharing the information. Having said that, the most important aspect is really the person, not the company. The right person can be found anywhere, better to have a responsive agent who is into your work at a small agency than an agent you don’t like at a large agency.
JRM: And of course, the eternal question: how does a writer get repped?
Terry Rossio: Create popular product.
JRM: How important are loglines, pitch-sheets, and treatments?
Terry Rossio: As important as the letter ‘e’ and the proper use of the word ‘as.’ Meaning, you can’t write without them, and you should endeavor to execute them to perfection.
JRM: Many writers believe it’s all on the page—that once the script is in the right hands, the writing will sell itself. In your opinion, how important is it to be “good in a room,” and to be able to pitch the work in person?
Terry Rossio: All right, here we go.
There is a big problem in this field of screenwriting, and it has to do with the very word ‘screenwriter.’ What is meant by that term, exactly? Not what everyone seems to think. Not even what screenwriters seem to think, for the most part. And it’s the cause of a huge amount of disappointment, disillusionment, frustration, and grief.
People tend to believe this: as novelist is to novel, and playwright is to play, screenwriter is to movie. And that’s just not the case.
But it’s a compelling, persistent notion. The novelist or the playwright gets to define the content of their projects, right? So it follows the screenwriter gets to define the movie, yes? No. The screenwriter may only suggest content, or provide content that is subject to change, or revise the content of other screenwriters until another screenwriter comes along, etc. The screenwriter may have the opportunity to argue what the content should be, but quite often, has to execute the best possible version of the content as defined by others.
As with the novelist or playwright, you’d like to say the screenwriter at least gets to invent the concept of a movie, but that doesn’t happen as often as one might hope. They (studios and producers) have plenty of ideas, they’d rather get your help on one of their marginal ideas than put their weight behind one of yours, even if yours is clearly superior. And consider, there are so many millions of books and short stories written, so many plays, and remakes, sequels, television shows, and old spec scripts, etc., such a monstrous glut of material, in their world, new content is not much valued.
So the only power a writer might have lies in the ability to provide superior content, but in a world where few people can even recognize superior content, this power is greatly dissipated.
So what, then, is a Hollywood screenwriter? What is the more true, actual working definition of that term? Something like this:
1. Person who writes screenplays, but cannot get them read.
2. Person who writes screenplays, but cannot get them sold.
3. Person who sells a screenplay that is considered in need of revisions.
4. Person who, when selling a screenplay, gives up copyright.
5. Person who is forced to sign a ‘work for hire’ agreement, even on a spec screenplay that was not written as work for hire.
6. Person who cannot get their sold screenplay into production.
7. Person who does free revisions, based on notes by non-filmmaking development executives, whether those notes are good or bad, in order to get past that executive and to the actual decision maker.
8. Person who writes and revises screenplays who cannot get a studio to send their screenplay out to directors.
9. Person whose screenplay is passed on by directors and stars, thus stalling the project, but generating more free revisions.
10. Person whose screenplay attracts a director, who is then replaced the day the director shows interest.
11. Person who spends a lot of time preparing pitches on open assignments.
12. Person who pitches open assignments, but does not get hired.
13. Person who, without being hired, agrees to do free revisions on their open assignment pitch.
14. Person who writes treatments and outlines as part of a pitch or step deal, then gets let go prior to the screenplay step.
15. Person who revises their spec screenplay, for free, according to their agent’s notes, in order to get the agent to send out the screenplay.
16. Person who revises their spec screenplay, for free, so a big name producer might agree to attach themselves to the project.
17. Person who revises their spec screenplay, for free, so a big name producer will agree to send it out to directors or stars, hoping this path will lead to a studio deal.
18. Person who options their work for free to independent production companies who then show the screenplay all around town, hoping to interest a director or star, often after the free rewrite step, based on notes that may or may not be helpful.
19. Person who takes meetings with ‘money people’ who in fact have no money.
20. Person who, when eventually working with a director, must execute the director’s notes, whether the notes are good or bad, and even when everyone in the world knows the notes are bad.
21. Person who is the only person in the room not getting paid, even when everyone else in the room has come to the room because of the project created by the screenwriter.
22. Person who gets no credit when writing the final version of a film, but who will be guaranteed credit on a film that is vastly rewritten, and not reflective of their abilities or sensibilities.
23. Person who creates work that can become the source material for other people to make a film.
24. Person who is forced to co-write screenplays with people who don’t know how to write screenplays.
25. Person invited into the room to offer an opinion to directors, producers, actors, editors, storyboard artists, animators, and special effects people, without any ability to enforce that opinion.
And so, finally, we come to the answer to the question—how important is it to be “good in a room,” and to be able to pitch the work in person?—which is a resounding very. The writer has to be ‘good in the room’ because that is really the job description. Nobody wants to follow the screenplay; the screenplay (unlike a play) is always suspect. It gets in the way of people doing what they want to do, which is define the content of the film.
(In Hollywood, defining the content of a movie is like sex, everyone thinks they can do it, and do it well. And they’re not inclined to give up the chance to do it just so someone else can do it.)
Yes I know I belabor the point, but while the job description of screenwriter does involve writing screenplays, it never involves leaving them in a fixed form, ready to be produced. The real job of screenwriting is interacting with the group mind of the filmmaking process.
(Now, yes, I know, there are those who will happily point out exceptions, such as Juno, or Grand Torino, projects where the screenplay reportedly was the exact description of the final film. Those are the zebras of the horse world, and I must argue from the common case rather than the rarity, the same way I refuse to say all horses have black and white stripes, even when the occasional zebra runs past.)
JRM: For the writer, how important is it to read scripts—good, bad, or indifferent—as opposed to watching movies?
Terry Rossio: Do both. But … my opinion is that volume is more important than format. If you can watch 10 movies or read 2 screenplays, I say watch the 10 movies.
JRM: What do you see as the pros and cons of television vs. feature work, from a writing and a directing or producing standpoint?
Terry Rossio: If you can stand to work in television, you should. If you can handle the unique requirements of television, then by all means you should pick television over features.
How do I justify this bold claim? Simple. Feature writers are generally unhappy, television writers are generally happy. If you go the features route, the most common experience is to never make a sale of any kind. After that, you may make a sale or two, but your life is wasted because nothing ever gets produced. If something does get produced, in the majority of cases, it’s not the way you would wish—the director screws it up, or there wasn’t enough money, or the casting was wrong, etc. If it does get produced in a halfway decent manner, great, but now you’re at the bottom of the hill again, trying to get a second thing produced. (Unlike directing or acting, having one produced credit does little to get you your next produced credit.) At no point in features—ever, doesn’t matter if you’re the number one highest grossing screenwriter in the world—does your creative opinion count, unless the director decides to empower that opinion.
And, as a final insult, if you do actually get something up on screen that resembles what you intended, there is a good chance the WGA will endeavor to leave you uncredited for your work. That is, if a strike doesn’t happen, and the one break you might have had to make your career is gone forever. Meanwhile legions of new, talented, creative people arrive every day, crowding into the overcrowded marketplace, making it more and more difficult to sustain a career.
At least in the world of television, once you’re in, there is slightly more job security, slightly better creative control, and more accurate credits.
JRM: I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to be a liiitle less encouraging here. And, hey—is this the same guy who spoke out against “dark, bleak, and cynical,” who “never became jaded?”
Terry Rossio: One has to be precise in one’s thinking. Audiences crave films that are not dark, bleak, and cynical. Therefore the product need not be dark, bleak, and cynical. That doesn’t mean I can’t assess the Writer’s Guild of America as idiotic in its strike strategies or unfair in its credits arbitration process, or that I can’t hate the tendency of directors to alter good film content to bad. It’s the difference between choosing a strategy and acknowledging a reality. As for ‘jaded,’ as I mentioned before, it takes a supreme act of self-deception to believe that the next project will turn out well, that the next draft will be shot as-is, because it never happens. Screenwriters are the Charlie Browns of Hollywood, and everyone else holds the football.
JRM: What’s your best advice on finding a writing partner?
Terry Rossio: I’m not sure it can be done. Finding a writing partner is like trying to be struck by lightning. My radical position: your best luck is a spouse, or a brother or sister, or a childhood friend, or a close friend who you like to hang out with anyway. Hooking up with a talented person you don’t really know very well so often leads to conflict, legal battles, and wasted time. Most endeavors between writing partners will fail, so you at least should be spending time with someone truly on your side, someone you want in the trenches with you.
The real trick is to find an arrangement where each writer secretly thinks the other writer is better.
JRM: Should writers want to direct or produce—and if so, why?
Terry Rossio: Of course. In features, the only good viable job opening for a writer who is just a writer in Hollywood is ‘screenwriter who has hooked up with an empowering director’ which is very worthy, only it’s just so damn rare. Every other job for screenwriters in town, as mentioned above, lands somewhere between court jester, royal food taster, nursemaid, and political advisor to the King (with a secret agenda to assassinate the bastard).
Be careful, though. You don’t do it the way you asked the question. You can’t be a screenwriter who also hopes to direct, or produce. If you love to write, you should decide quickly whether you want to be a “director who writes” or “a producer who writes.” Don’t position yourself as a screenwriter who wants to do something else, or doing that something else will become very difficult.
But definitely yes, especially when you consider the rewards. Become a director and you have a chance at first dollar gross and creative control. If you have a few hit movies, you even get your own production company, and ‘digs’ on some studio lot. Check out Spielberg’s Amblin’ facility, for example, or Gore Verbinski’s offices. They don’t hand that stuff out to writers, ever.
JRM: What industry trends do you see that writers should be aware of right now?
Terry Rossio: The industry is moving toward the big and the small. I think studios will always want a few of the high-budget high-profile projects. And there will be more and more of the micro-budget stuff. Everything in between is getting cut back, the marketing costs and production costs are too high, they don’t make sense in a world of YouTube, video games, cable programming, etc.
By all means, try to make your way to one of those big-budget projects. But also take time to write and produce on the micro-budget scale, because that’s where we’re all going to live in a few years.
JRM: Any tips for those looking to follow in your footsteps?
Terry Rossio: Not all of those footsteps are worth following. We wasted a lot of time. I would say to have enough faith in yourself to bail when the project goes bad. And have the faith to leave bad people. You can tell when a project isn’t going to be what you hoped it would be, and throwing another couple of years at it really doesn’t make sense. We would have been a lot more successful if we had just learned to move on.
I think of it like this … it’s always worth doing the first draft, or the last draft. All the in-between drafts are suspect. People will insist on them, but rarely are they important. You can tell what the project is trying to be from the first draft. And the last draft is crucial, the one where you’re making all the final creative decisions. The middle drafts, for the most part, those are just babysitting.
JRM: Any suggested resources, other than Wordplay?
Terry Rossio: You know what? Read the books on screenwriting if you want, read Wordplay if you want, but get through that stuff as quickly as you can and then scrap it all. Move on to reading about playwriting, songwriting, novel writing, comic books, directing, special effects, ancient myths, photography, children’s books, performing magic … you get the idea. That type of instruction is superior, in that it forces the writer to think and assimilate and theorize, to explore how those techniques can be used and adapted to screenwriting, rather than read books that promise answers.
JRM: What’s next for you?
Terry Rossio: Oh, no, I refuse to tempt the fates like that. Not in a world of plane crashes and carjackings and flesh-eating bacteria. There’s no telling in this business whether anything I work on will get completed, or produced, or be successful. I’ll keep trying to invent pop culture, through plays, books, scripts, and webisodes, via the studio system and independently, that’s the only claim I’ll make.
JRM: Anything else you’d like to say?
Terry Rossio: Lately I’ve come to appreciate the importance of productivity. As ScriptGirl says, “You can’t sell it if you don’t write it.” You can think you’re being productive, but when you look back over the last few years of work, it’s scary how fast time goes by and how little actually get accomplished. Writers have to write, every day if possible, and you have to finish work, put it out in the marketplace, and move on. In a world of disinterest and disdain, creating product is our only weapon.
The Wordplay website—run by Terry Rossio and longtime writing partner Ted Elliott—contains a wealth of information for screenwriters.
This interview edited by Terry Rossio.
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