Do I Even Have Time To Blog?
Like I don’t have enough things to do!
My name is Bill, and for the past 16 years I’ve been working as professional screenwriter in Los Angeles. At this point in time I’ve had 18 scripts carelessly slapped onto celluloid, and I’ve got four different deals circling as I type this. By tomorrow all of these deals may have crashed and burned, that’s just the way the biz works.
I also write for Scr(i)pt Magazine - started doing that soon after I moved to LA. They were a newsletter back then, called Freelance Screenwriter’s Forum, that was 95% screenwriting teachers writing articles about how great their classes were. I wrote the editors and told them they needed at least one columnist who wasn’t trying to sell anything and had actually sold a screenplay. Someone who wasn’t a “guru” but an actual working screenwriter who had some experience in the subject they were writing about. I’d had one film made at that time, the Oscar nominated NINJA BUSTERS (which is so awful, when I find a copy on VHS I buy it and destroy it), and had just sold a screenplay to Paramount for twice my yearly day job income (forklift jockey in a warehouse). They told me that I was elected. By the way, there’s no pay and your article is due on Tuesday. That was in 1991... now they pay me $600 a year to be West Coast Editor *and* have an article in every issue. I’ll be a millionaire in no time!
I also have a website ScriptSecrets.Net where I put up a script tip every day. These tips aren’t some single paragraph thing - they’re usually 2,000 - 3,000 words (full length articles: 10-15 pages) and often takes some current movie that doesn’t work and shows you why it doesn’t work... or maybe takes some movie that does work and shows you some screenwriting technique you can apply to your own screenplay. Real nuts & bolts stuff that isn’t covered in screenwriting books, which mostly deal with simple theory. Oh, the Script Tips are free - it’s like a bunch of free screenwriting books! When I get to 500 Tips (about 20 free screenwriting books) the website will be “finished”. In a way, *that’s* my blog. So, I’m starting some other blog?
If that wasn’t enough, there are message boards on the Script Secrets site where I frequently blog when I’m away from the office (on location somewhere or on a film festival jury)... though now I will do that here. The reason why I started the blog was to have someplace to write about my upcoming trip to a film festival in Aarhus, Denmark... a city famous for providing free taxi cabs to any hooker visiting a handicapped person. The handicapped people sued because they could not get to hookers on their own, and Denmark agreed that was discrimination and came up with a taxi voucher system. I will report on that when I get there.
Oh, and I have a screenwriting book called SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING that seems to be recommended by Oscar winners and a whole bunch of professional screenwriters... You can buy a used copy on e-bay for between $300 and $700, because it is currently out of print because I haven’t found time to revise it between all of this screenwriting work... and now I’m starting a blog?
Plus, I have something like 6 new screenwriting books worth of material on my computer, waiting for me to edit it all into 6 books. Some of that is all of those screenwriting columns I wrote for Script Magazine, plus columns written for Hollywood Scriptwriter and Movie Maker and Writer’s Digest and the regular column I had in IFC’s online magazine for over a year. I know I’m leaving out some magazine or other that I wrote for on the craft of screenwritring, I’m sure I’ll remember when I hit “post”.
Also, these days I keep getting asked to go to Film Festivals all over the world to either teach screenwriting or be on the festival’s jury and watch movies 12 hours a day for 10 days. Heaven for me. I love watching movies. I’ve been on the Raindance International Film Festival jury in London a couple of times, Fort Lauderdale Film Fest (hung out with Lord Richard Attenborough!), Sacramento Film Fest (saw this 16mm feature by this guy named Joe Carnahan... who bought a copy of my book... and went on to make NARC), and Denmark is coming up, as is Hong Kong, and I’ve done classes in Santa Fe, Vancouver, Dallas, Phoenix (never again), Los Angeles, and just about everywhere else. The classes and film fests came about because of my now out-of-print book. In the same week, both the Chairman of the Raindance Film Fest and the guy who runs the Santa Fe Screenwriting Conference called to ask if I wanted to teach classes at their events. I told both I didn’t teach screenwriting, I just write screenplays. Both thought I might be okay teaching a class or two... and the guy at Raindance said he’d pay airfare, hotel, meals, and pick up my drinks. Hey, he’s gonna buy my drinks? I’m there! So a handful of times a year I go somewhere and teach a class. I’m not Robert McKee, I’m not in it for the money. It took a few years before it even occurred to me that I could do a class of my own in the USA. Most of the time my classes are for some film fest or event or the Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles where I’m one of their “gold” teachers. I’d really rather be working on a screenplay - but flying all over the world on someone else’s dime is a deal too good to pass up.
And one more thing - I am a professional *screenwriter* My job is writing screenplays (for movies you have never heard of and should not see sober). I have written a bunch of scripts that were made, a bunch of scripts that were not made but I was paid, and a bunch of scripts that I wrote because I just love writing screenplays and had to write those stories and no one has bought them (yet).
And now I’m going to start writing a blog?
Well, here’s the deal - I’m not going to post here every day, and I my re-post some stuff from my website. Mostly, though, this is going to be stuff about my Hollywood Adventures. Being a screenwriter is actually boring work - there’s a lot of typing and paperwork involved. But I’m often on studio lots doing meetings (a couple of years ago I had a flurry of studio meetings because I wrote a couple of hot scripts - I met with everyone in town at least twice. Tom Cruise’s company? Met with them 3 times. Much of the screenwriting biz is endless meetings on projects that will never get made, and I’ll probably blog about that.) I may tell some stories from my past, trying to get into the business or hanging out with friend and making movies. And I may use this blog to rant about how stupid the business is. Be prepared for lots of those rants! But I will probably mostly focus on the entertaining stuff and kill the boring stuff - you don’t care that I spent two weeks driving all over town to a bunch of meetings where nothing happened.
But why the hell is it called SEX ON A SUBMARINE?
Does it have something to do with Samuel L. Jackson in SNAKES ON A PLANE?
Not really. Well, kind of. I had to call the blog something, and though the ON A would be funny. But why SEX and why a SUBMARINE? If you’ve read my book (the out of print one) you know the answer. For the rest of you folks...
Back in the very early 90s I wrote this spec script (original screenplay) called CRASH DIVE about some Bosnian terrorists who hijack a US Nuclear submarine and aim the missiles at New York City. They plan to destroy the United Nations for messing around in their country’s politics. So the Navy sends this retired naval engineer who knows everything about the submarine - but isn’t any kind of hero - onboard the sub to take control away from the terrorists. The reason why I wrote the script was simple: I had read an article in Variety about the Navy’s film office in the Federal Building on Wilshire Blvd that said they would supply all of the toys for any film that had a technically accurate screenplay. Aircraft carriers, submarines, helicopters, fighter jets, etc. Real ones. Free.
Now, everybody thinks once you sell a script there is this gold star pasted on your forehead and from that point on you get to cut in line and get all of the screenwriting jobs. Completely not true. Screenwriters are freelance. The minute you sell a screenplay (and make all of their crazy changes - more on that in future rants, I suspect) you are instantly unemployed. Out a job. Now, you might make a nice chunk of money (though the average screenwriter makes under $100k a year) but the problem is, you have no job and there is no hiring office or even anyplace to hand in a resume. You have to go out there and find another job - *create* another job! And there’s no shortage of other people looking for work - half of the WGA (writers union) are out of work every year, and there are tens of thousands of new writers trying to break in! I did the math once, and there are somewhere between half a million and a million original screenplays in circulation... and you may have noticed that most films are adapted from books or comic books or TV shows. There are fewer than 100 original screenplays bought every year! So, to be one of those 100, you have to have a great script... PLUS something else. And I now had free aircraft carriers and submarines!
I called the Navy office to find out what they meant by “technically accurate” and discovered that meant basic research. Or, what *I* thought of as basic research. Seems many writers do no research at all. There was a script passed around where some idiot had no idea how the catapults worked on aircraft carriers (the device that launched a plane off the deck) and just made stuff up - gears that a character gets his arm caught in or something. Same script had a Navy pilot able to see a missile launch in Russia from halfway around the world - good eyesight! Anyway - the Navy guy told me it wasn’t difficult to get cooperation if you did research. Well, about the same time, Tom Clancy published *his* research for THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER as a book called SUBMARINE that included schematics of nuclear subs and all kinds of crew interviews. Hey - goldmine! I wrote the screenplay, was careful to stay accurate, and ended up with a really exciting story.
Okay, that’s the submarine, but where is the sex? Ah, I’m getting to that part.
HOME BOX OFFICE
The script lands on the desk of thge smartest producer I have ever worked with, Ashok Amritraj (Steve Martin’s SHOP GIRL and WALKING TALL remake and many other big studio films), who loves the script but doesn’t think he can afford to make it. See, at the time he had a deal with HBO to make original movies on a budget of $3 million. HBO was making 36 original films a year back then, a handful of them were those prestige pictures where they try to win an Emmy, and all of the rest were genre pictures. But here’s the problem with a made for HBO movie - they showed on Friday at 8pm, sandwiched between two big Hollywood blockbusters... and the average Hollywood film costs $106 million... and they want your $3 million film to look like those $106 million films. Which is why, even on one of these HBO movies, you not only need the script that makes them say yes, you need that something extra... like submarines.
I tell Ashok the Navy will actually give him all of the subs and aircraft carriers and stuff for free, but he doesn’t believe me. “That’s ridiculous, Bill, why would they give us an aircraft carrier?” “Well, you paid for it. Your tax dollars at work.” “I don’t believe it.” So I ended up writing a science fiction movie about cloning villains from video games that was an HBO World Premiere... and that spec script just sat on my shelf with all of the other scripts I wrote but did not sell.
About 2 years later the movie CRIMSON TIDE comes out and makes a pile of money on opening weekend... and Ashok calls the Navy number I gave him and asks about this free aircraft carrier thing. They say "Sure, if the script is technically accurate, we’ll give you the toys for free." There is a small catch - we can’t actually shoot on a submarine, but they are too small for all of the equipment anyway. But they will give us a full tour and let us ask questions of the crew. We can’t take photos, but we can *remember* things and recreate them on a sound stage. And we can either film submarines as they leave the base, or the Navy will supply us with all of the glamor shots of submarines they use in their recruiting commercials - suns setting behind submarines! Ashok likes that.
The Navy *will* let us shoot on an aircraft carrier while it does maneuvers off the coast of San Diego, but we have to pay for the fuel to get out to the carrier. We can also film Top Gun training and Navy SEAL training and just about anything else we need... free. That means Ashok can make the film on the $3 million that HBO is paying and it will look like a big Tom Clancy movie. Cool.
My phone rings. It’s Ashok. “Bill, you know that submarine screenplay you tried to sell me a couple of years ago? Is that still available?” And I have myself a deal!
The decision is made to *build* a submarine interior set... a three storey set with break away walls that is just like being on a real submarine. The set is built in a warehouse near the Mens Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, a place where you don’t want to park your car... and if you do park your car there, someone else may soon be driving it. The idea is to reuse this set for a few more movies... and that ends up a curse and a blessing. I will be either writing some of those other movies or providing ideas for them. I have now suddenly becomes Bill The Military Action Guy... even though I have never been in the military and most of my action involves sitting in Priscilla's Coffee in Toluca Lake typing.
Wait... you said there was gonna be sex!
So I get these script notes. You always get notes from actors, directors, producers, producer’s girlfriend’s, producer’s dog walkers, etc. Endless notes. Most notes aren’t about improving the script, they’re about *changing* it. My favorite note was from a producer at MGM - they were interested in this contemporary gritty armed robbery script of mine, kind of like HEAT, and he asked, “Why can’t they be cowboys?” “Do you mean, have the script take place in the 1800s?” “No. Still takes place today, but the robbers wear hats and chaps and spurs and ride horses!” Thankfully that project crashed and burned, but there is still a Village People version somewhere on my hard drive. Most script notes are crazy things like that, and that’s why when you see some dreadful film and wonder why they bought that script; well, they didn’t really buy *that* script - they bought a completely great script that was the one in a million... then *changed it* into *that* dreadful script. And then spent $106 million to make it. You’ll probably be hearing more about that in later blog entries.
So I get these notes from HBO... they want me to put a sex scene in the script. Now, you might expect to get a note to add a sex scene from some direct to video producer or maybe Roger Corman’s development person... but this is HBO! So I ask, “The script takes place on a submarine with a crew of 110 *MEN*, what kind of sex scene did they have in mind?” And they shoot back, “Well, not a Gay sex scene!” That was back then, today they would *want* a Gay sex scene (not that there's anything wrong with that). So I asked, “Um, where is the woman for the non-Gay sex scene coming from?” And they give me the standard answer, “Hey, you’re the writer - be creative!” Which just means they have no idea how there can be a sex scene in the script, either... but now it is *my* problem. Tag, you’re it! As usual, I argue a little, but you can never win. The golden rule. He who has the gold rules. When you sell a screenplay it is no longer yours, and they can make even the stupidest changes and you are powerless to do anything... and usually your contract includes 2 rewrites and a polish, so *you* are the one ruining your own script. You have to. It’s all part of the screenwriter’s job. Despite my logical arguments, HBO *insists* that I add a sex scene. With a woman.
Well, my script didn’t only have 110 men on the submarine, it also had a handful of terrorists who had taken over the sub, and one was already a woman. So, I write up a sex scene - and it’s still really stupid. We have these terrorists who are outnumbered but have a clever plan to take over the submarine, and right in the middle of this scene, the female terrorist sets down her gun and disrobes to get some lovin’ from a crew member who never asks who she is or what she is doing on the submarine. It is the dumbest scene I have ever written (the cowboys made more sense).
Okay, I’m a pro... I make sure that the scene before the stupid sex scene and after the stupid sex scene cut together perfectly, so that when HBO sees how stupid the sex scene is, the editor can cut the film together without it. Snip-snip and that scene is gone! The film won’t be stupid anymore.
But when CRASH DIVE airs on HBO on March 28 1996, the sex scene is intact.
Welcome to Hollywood.
- Bill (April 6, 2006)
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