MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #13
Not Jack London, neither Sinclair Lewis nor Theodore Dreiser were above making money. If you want others to treat you as a professional writer, you have to treat yourself as a professional writer.
A LETTER FROM
Perhaps forty years ago, even more naïve and foolish than I am today, I wrote an eight-page treatment for a screenplay called Barry and the Persuasions, an adolescent coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence, rite-of-passage movie set in New York City in the late ‘50s, loosely based on my experiences singing doo-wop in an a cappella street choir with several pals. I say ‘naïve and foolish’ because writing treatments, as I argue elsewhere, is a loser’s game. Screenwriters should not pitch their tale, nor should they write treatments.
Screenwriters should write screenplays.
Dorothy Parker opined famously that Hollywood is the one place on earth where you could die of encouragement. I peddled the Barry and the Persuasions treatment to agents and producers across the town and received tons of encouragement from, among many others, Steve Bach who at that time headed development for independent Palomar Productions. What I didn’t receive from anyone was an offer of even merely a nickel.
When my fellow USC film school alum George Lucas approached me to write the earliest drafts of American Graffiti, I tried to talk him out of that and into Barry and the Persuasions. “Who cares about your gentile, white-bread, cornflake life growing up in bland and boring Modesto? Let’s do Jews singing doo-wop on Manhattan’s upper Westside.”
There is an old joke: How do you say “fuck you” in Hollywood? The traditional answer is: “Trust me.” There is, however, another answer: “We’ll make that our next project after we do this one,” which was George’s response to me. Of course he had every right to tell his own story. Still, when you consider how successful American Graffiti was, and how splendidly it launched his astonishing career, just imagine how successful George Lucas might be today if instead he had made Barry and the Persuasions.
Several years later there was a writers strike and it was impossible to market screenplays. I decided to use the Barry… treatment as an outline for a novel. When it was done, I called Steve Bach, who by that time had become the head of United Artists. He referred me to a book agent, J. Stephen Sheppard, at the venerable Paul Reynolds Agency in New York.
I sent Sheppard the typescript.
Six months went by without a word.
Finally I called Steve Bach again. Of course he said, “Richie, why are you calling me? You’re wasting a call to a studio head. Call the agent.” I called the Reynolds agency and asked for J. Stephen Sheppard, who came on the line. “Yes, I did indeed receive the novel,” he told me.
There was a long silence.
He continued, “Actually, I liked it a lot.”
“Wow! Thanks!” I said.
Another long silence.
“Actually,” he said, “we have an offer from Warner Books.”
I was speechless.
My guess is that since the book had been referred to him by a studio head, he figured it was probably not embarrassing and, probably not even bothering to read it, submitted it to a publisher. Had they turned it down, which is always the likelihood, he would simply tell me that he declined to represent it.
Was I angry that, without a word, he had made the submission? No author is angry to learn that a major New York publisher wants to buy his novel.
I flew to New York to meet with my new agent. The Reynolds office is in midtown and has a leather-furniture, walnut-paneled reception area replete with framed letters on the walls from former clients on the order of authors such as Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder and, my favorite writer, Jack London.
I arose from my oxblood chair and made the rounds of the room, examining the letters. Here I was privy to material from legendary American voices that had never been available to the public. My excitement was palpable. Eagerly I contemplated the poetry that I was surely about to discover.
Instead, each and every letter had one or another version of the same message. It is the premier communication between any authors and their representatives.
Revealed for the first time, here are the eternal words of Jack London: "Cable five hundred immediately care/of my address at Port of Alameda.”
As Oscar Wilde said eons ago, “Amateurs talk about art; artists talk about money.”
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Paul Castro
Writer-director, Paul Castro, a veteran member of the Writers Guild of America for over a decade, has extensive professional experience in film, television and digital media. He has been a hired-gun for the major studios as well as independents, an expert witness on literary cases, and an educator. While still a UCLA MFA grad student, Paul landed a three picture, million-dollar deal that included his original screenplays, one of which became the Warner Bros. feature “August Rush,” starring Robin Williams. Paul won a MovieGuide Award for "August Rush."
Paul’s original script “Eileen’s Ice,” soon to be starring Shirley MacLaine, is in development with Anton Yelchin attached. Paul is also slated to direct his original screenplay "Archery Lessons" starring the very talented Elle Fanning.
Paul has been part of the UCLA family as a student and faculty member for almost 15 years. He is often a key note speaker at the World Screenwriting Expo, and one of the most sought out experts and lecturers on the craft of screenwriting, film, and visual literacy. Paul is also an Associate Professor at Elon University.
Read on to discover who helped Paul get his start – and how he advises writers to achieve long-term success in ‘the biz’.
Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?
Paul: Richard Walter inadvertently led me to pursue a career in our business. I was in a suit and tie job back east and saw him in a video series that was produced in the 90’s. His deep knowledge and passion for the craft was intoxicating. I shared that passion for writing and knew we spoke the same language even though we’d never met. I eagerly wanted to be around that tornado of creativity.
Q2: How did you start your writing career?
Paul: I was very fortunate to have been selected to attend UCLA’s graduate program in the film school. I was even more fortunate to land a spot in the advanced screenwriting class 434 unofficially known as “The Great Eight!” They only allowed eight students in, and Richard taught the class I attended. I wrote a script called “Noise” what would eventually become “August Rush,” and then wrote “A Gift for Mom” in another Richard Walter 434 class. Richard was good enough to say, “I would like to show this to a producer I know.” I quickly responded, “Absolutely not!” I’m kidding. I said, “Of course, and thank you, thank you, thank you.” I almost hugged his leg. His act of kindness and championing his students is what he is all about and that led to a three picture deal.
Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
Paul: Most would escape that question by saying, “I have so many favorite movies I just can’t pick one.” That’s what I want to say but I’m not sure that’s a satisfying answer. So here you go… “An Officer and a Gentleman” is one of my top picks for a number of reasons. The Zachary Mayo lead character played brilliantly by Richard Gere is flawed and seemingly tragic in many ways. The notion that his quest to become an officer in our fine United States Navy seems insurmountable if not ludicrous. This character is coupled with the very talented Debra Winger character of Paula. She’s a factory worker who dreams of a better life. After falling painfully in love with Zach, she wants that new life to be with him. Her unflinching love eventually opens the vault to Zach’s heart.
At the time this movie came out many felt offended that this handsome Naval officer sporting choker whites at the end of the movie saves the working class girl from the factory. In reality it was she who saved him. Screenwriter Douglas Day Stuart expertly and seamlessly weaved a deeply emotional journey that involved a love story, a friendship story, a military action element, and tragedy, at times comedic, masterfully authentic on many levels. Copious Oscar nominations were bestowed upon that film and its actors and rightly so. Louis Gossett, Jr. won an Oscar for his riveting performance as Sgt. Foley. As with all great movies there is an exchange of gifts and this is indeed the case with Foley and Zach. Here are two characters that battle in this high stakes game of military training, yet at the movie’s conclusion both have evolved and the metaphoric gift exchange is complete. I found this to be a special movie and one that showed me all the many aspects of visual storytelling that is of course skilled screenwriting.
Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
Paul: I would advise them to reframe their approach. Instead of desiring to “Make it big in Hollywood,” consider asking yourself the question, “How may I contribute and add value to this industry using my talents and creativity?”
“How may I add value” is something I continually remind myself to ask before sitting down to write, before getting behind the camera, before teaching, and before entering a high level meeting. I once sat down in a one on one meeting with the legendary Michael Eisner and those were the first words out of my mouth and I meant it. We’ve been friends ever since, because that’s how he’s been so successful in his career.
People say write about what you know. I say write about what you know that hurts. The reader feels emotional truth on the page. I learned that at UCLA and it was an invaluable lesson.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars: