Going Behind the Screen with Steve Cuden

Steve Cuden Headshot

Steve Cuden, author of Beating Hollywood: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Screenplays (December, 2015), has written teleplays for many familiar TV series, such as X-Men, The Batman, Iron Man, Xiaolin Showdown, Loonatics Unleashed, The Mask, Goof Troop, Bonkers, Quack Pack, Gargoyles, Beetlejuice, Pink Panther, RoboCop, Extreme Ghostbusters, Stargate Infinity, ExoSquad, and Mummies Alive.

Steve directed and co-produced the cult-favorite horror-comedy feature Lucky, winning the award for Best Director at the Nodance Film Festival. Lucky also won awards for Best Feature at the New York City Horror Film Festival, Shriekfest in Los Angeles, MicroCineFest in Baltimore, and The Weekend of Fear in Nuremberg, Germany.

Steve also authored the popular book, Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations.

Steve is perhaps best known for co-creating the hit Broadway and international musical Jekyll & Hyde, writing the show’s original book and lyrics with noted composer Frank Wildhorn. Steve and Frank also co-conceived the internationally produced hit musical Rudolf, Affaire Mayerling, which has been staged throughout Europe and Asia.

Steve is proud to have earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting from UCLA, where he learned from the master’s master, Richard Walter. He currently teaches a wide variety of screenwriting classes to the many talented Cinema Arts students attending the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

beat hollywood

Steve talks and signs his latest book Beating Hollywood, in a free event open to the public at The Writers Store in Burbank on Saturday, May 21, 2016 from 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm. For more about Steve, please visit stevecuden.com and beatinghollywood.com.

In this Q&A Steve shares what led him to pursue professional writing and his advice for aspiring writers.

Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?  

Steve: Show business has been in my veins for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a storyteller. I love to hear stories and tell them. I began acting in plays at my summer camp when I was a small boy. In high school I participated for two years in a children’s theatre group in my hometown of Pittsburgh. So, I guess you could say that the theatre bug got into my system at a tender age, and I have been permanently infected ever since. I have been mesmerized by flickering images on silvery screens for just as long. Movies, TV, and theatre have always been my main passions. I set a goal while still a teenager to work in Hollywood, and of course I managed to achieve that for a reasonably long time.

Q2: How did you start your writing career?

Steve: When I first arrived in L.A., I was sure I would be an actor. That all changed with my first real taste of writing as I was earning my B.A. in Theatre from USC (sorry Bruins, I straddle both camps, and have fond memories of both). I was extremely fortunate to have been able to take two semesters of playwriting from the extraordinary Norman Corwin, who was a phenomenal writer in the theatre, as well as a screenwriter, poet, essayist, and perhaps the greatest radio playwright who ever lived. Those two semesters changed me, setting me on a trajectory toward my life’s work.

When I left USC, I was convinced that I would be an instant success, and that Hollywood would come calling. Flash forward nearly thirteen years to when I actually began earning a living as a writer. During those long years I pounded away writing many scripts, none of which caught fire at that time. It was during that period that I met the composer, Frank Wildhorn, and began a collaboration writing shows for the musical theatre that would last for close to ten years. In those years we wrote a number of different things together, including two entirely different versions of Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical, which we worked on for eight years. Our second version of the show came close to being on Broadway, but after the stock market took a tumble the backers backed away. Nine years later Jekyll & Hyde would appear on Broadway for the first of its two productions there so far. If you do the math you’ll realize it took seventeen years from when I first dreamed up the idea of adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s great work to a production that actually reached Broadway – just another overnight sensation.

A couple of years later, I was asked by a friend if I was interested in writing a script for TV animation, and I accepted the offer. Since then I’ve written ninety or so TV animation scripts, including for such series as The Batman, X-Men, Goof Troop, Iron Man, The Pink Panther, Extreme Ghostbusters, Quack Pack, Xiaolin Showdown, The Mask, RoboCop, Biker Mice from Mars, Godzilla, and many others. I’m proud to have put words in the mouths of some of the most beloved, iconic characters the world has ever known, including: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Tweety Bird, Sylvester, Batman, Superman, Goofy, Donald Duck, Wolverine, and lots more. It’s been a lot of fun. And a lot of hard work, too.

Starting a career can be challenging to do. Maintaining a career can be a far more difficult trick to pull off.

Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why? 

Steve: It’s a tossup between Chinatown and The French Connection. In my book, Beating Hollywood, I break down forty of the greatest movies of all time into their narrative beats, three acts (which I call “Movements”), seven plot points, and eight sequences (which I call “Chapters”). Frankly I really love all forty of those movies plus a whole bunch more that I just couldn’t fit into the book.  But Chinatown written by Robert Towne and French Connection, screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, are two of the smartest scripts ever written, executed as wonderfully well as any films Hollywood has produced. Chinatown in particular is a rich, multilayered tapestry, with some of the most complex characters ever created. Evelyn Mulwray’s troubled story with some of the finest dialogue ever written (“She’s my sister AND my daughter”) is definitely one of a kind. I admire that movie more each time I see it. And everything about The French Connection, from its sheer grittiness, to Hackman’s Popeye and Scheider’s Cloudy relentlessly hunting Charnier, the smuggler, to perhaps the best car chase ever filmed. Always worth a watch.

Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?

Steve: I get asked this question a lot, and it ignited my writing Beating Hollywood. It always boils down to a few important things: 1) A writer writes. You cannot get to where you want to go as a screenwriter unless you write. A lot. Endlessly. I don’t know how many thousands of pages I churned out before I felt like I knew what I was doing and others (producers and story editors) felt the same. I believe the secret to writing success can be found by following this regimen: Butt liberally applied to chair. 2) Make a lot of friends. Hollywood is as much a social business as it is one of talent. Talent is the easy part.  Everyone in Hollywood has talent of some kind; those who don’t probably aren’t going to stick around for long (unfortunately, there are some real exceptions to this). When you take a meeting, the people in the room will assume you have some kind of talent or you would never have gotten in the door. What they want to know is if you’re someone they can stand to work with. It’s social. It’s a who-you-know business. So, make friends. Join groups. Donate your time to causes near and dear to your heart.  3) Read everything including all books on screenwriting. Know the business and the world. The more you know the more likely it is that you will “discover” stories that others will want to see.  4) Be patient. It takes time to develop a career.  Most careers do not happen overnight.  Set a few goals and pursue those. Then set more goals and pursue those. 5) Be persistent. The unwritten rule at UCLA is that only those who give up fail. This last one can be really tough to swallow if you’ve been grinding for a long time with nothing to show for it. The business is not for the faint of heart, but if you keep writing, writing, writing, make friends, keep abreast of everything going on in the world, have a lot of patience and persistence, you stand a real chance at beating Hollywood.

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