From about 4.5 years ago... and just in time for the new TV series!
Okay, I hate the trailer for the new movie LIMITLESS, because it looks like some slacker’s fantasy. Bradley Cooper takes a pill and can access 100% of his mind and - after not writing a single word on his novel - pounds the thing out in 4 days and renegotiates his deal for more money! No hard work involved. Okay, is there anyone left in the world that believes that crap about only being able to use 10% or 20% of their brain? It comes from an advert for a self help book from 1936, and it’s complete bull shit. Though we can’t use 100% of our brain to *think* with, that’s because a large part of our brain is being used for unimportant activities like remembering to breathe and making sure your heart beats and blood flows and limbs move when you want them to move. If you really want to use 100% of your brain for thinking, that would be at the expense of your heart beating and stuff.
But, if we can get past that completely wrong fact, there already exists a pill that will allow you to work to your full potential - and it’s *free*! It’s called Get Off Your Ass And Do Something, and no prescription is required. Nothing prevents you from working at your full potential... except you. The problem with this pill is that it’s bitter and hard to swallow. Most people avoid it. Can you blame them? There’s nothing fun or easy or stylish about Getting Off Your Ass And Doing Something. It’s, well, WORK. That’s the four letter word most people hate. Would you really want to watch a movie where Bradley Cooper sits at his desk every day and *types*? Even if he did it shirtless, I don’t think many people would find that very exciting.
Can I be honest with you? I don’t much like that Get Off Your Ass And Do Something pill myself. I’ve taken them now and then, and it’s not pleasant. That work thing is boring and sweaty. Plus, I look silly typing in Starbucks with my shirt off.
There are lots of people on message boards who think they will sell their first screenplay for a million bucks and date underwear models while sipping champagne and floating around in Spielberg’s pool. That’s the LIMITLESS version. The more realistic version involves writing a stack of scripts, rewriting them, doing all kinds of hard work and networking, and maybe landing an assignment that never gets made. Sure, I know a couple of people from messageboards who worked their asses off and actually sold their scripts (not the first scripts for either one) and the scripts actually got made into theatrical movies with stars. Cool. Those are the couple that I know who *seem* like overnight successes - and I know a whole lotta people.
There’s a great guest blogger entry on John August’s site
who tells her story of working her ass off and becoming a professional writer. She’s done some series work on the 90210 reboot and wrote the sequel to MEAN GIRLS. It’s a great story, an inspiring story.... and a bunch of LIMITLESS people in the comments section are tearing down her accomplishments. You see, in the LIMITLESS fantasy land, earning a living as a screenwriter is just a bunch of crap if you aren’t floating in Spielberg’s pool with those underwear models. It’s not about the reality (work) it’s about the fantasy (being a rich and famous writer). To the LIMITLESS crowd, you start at the top! And there is only the top!
Okay - I’m maybe not impartial, here, because I’m not floating in Spielberg’s pool, but the percentage of screenwriters who write big blockbuster movies is small. Look at all of the movies made every year for cinemas, TV, Cable, DVD, etc... now add in all of the TV episodes... now add in all of the stuff you may not think of like reality shows and game shows and talk shows and soap operas and upscale online content and... well, there are a lot of working writers in the biz who will never write a summer tentpole movie starring Will Smith or even Bradley Cooper. They are still professional screenwriters and still earn a living doing what they love to do. None of them are likely to be floating in Spielberg’s pool, unless it’s some sort of SUNSET BLVD. thing, and they’re face down. (Sorry - a moment imagining Spielberg walking down the stairs in that slinky Salome dress, asking if they’re ready for his close up.) Hey, we all dream of writing that script that sells for millions and makes us suddenly attractive to underwear models, and that’s okay - but we also dream we will wake up and gremlins will have rewritten our Act 2 overnight. Unfortunately, neither has happened to me. I have to do that damned rewrite myself, and underwear models still don’t seem to care about me.
But I’ve been writing scripts for a living for the past 20 years, now.
And it’s a lot of work.
But I get paid for doing what I love to do - mentally playing “dress up” and being a spy or a tough cop or whatever cool fantasy *I* come up with. So I love my work (even though some days I don’t really like it). Would be nice to have the millions and underwear models, but at least I’m not cleaning the bathrooms at the Rossmore, CA Safeway Grocery Store. And I’m not stacking pallets in a warehouse. I’m not working any sort of day job - just writin’.
But if you were to find one of those people who might be floating in Spielberg’s pool surrounded by underwear models, that Cinderella story of their that sounds a lot like LIMITLESS? Fiction. 99.9% of those overnight success stories had some very long and very dark nights. The LIMITLESS people like to point to those folks... without ever digging very deep into their legends to find out of they are true or not. LIMITLESS people would rather believe the fantasy than search for facts they’d rather not know...
Hey, Frank Darabont got to direct his first sale SHAWSHANK, so can I! Except, Darabont co-wrote NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3, and THE BLOB remake, and FLY 2, and then worked on a bunch of TV shows writing numerous episodes, and had already directed a TV movie before SHAWSHANK. But for PR purposes, we’ll just start with SHAWSHANK.
Stallone and ROCKY? Myth! Complete PR fabrication - the hot script was PARADISE ALLEY, not ROCKY... and Stallone had done 13 acting gigs before ROCKY including *starring* in two films... and he was a writer on LORDS OF FLATBUSH made two years earlier. But we’ll just start with ROCKY for PR purposes, and sweep the whole PARADISE ALLEY thing under the rug.
My favorite of all of these overnight success stories is Jeff Maguire who wrote IN THE LINE OF FIRE. If you haven’t heard the PR version of that one, he was broke and Tom Cruise wanted to buy IN THE LINE OF FIRE and star in it, but Maguire turned that down because Cruise was too young, and the script got to Eastwood and the rest is history. Overnight success. Cinderella story. LIMITLESS! Except, Maguire had something like a dozen *produced credits* before IN THE LINE OF FIRE, including one starring Stallone (VICTORY - directed by John Huston!). The PR people have erased all of these films from his bio, but his first produced credit was a horror movie called VAMPIRE LUST.
There was no overnight success for these people - they worked hard! They took that other pill and Got Off Their Asses And Did Something. I think it’s disrespectful to ignore all of the work they did before that overnight success (even if their PR people have erased it... like those missing days from Bradley Cooper’s life in LIMITLESS). But it’s crazy to think the fictionalized version will happen to you, when it didn’t even happen to them. It’s difficult enough to sell a script or get an assignment, let alone start at the top!
MY APPLICATION TO BE CEO
Love him or hate him, Paul Haggis is the only screenwriter to write back-to-back Oscar Best Picture Winners, and he picked up a Best Original Screenplay Oscar while he was at it. He’s got that new film on DVD - THE NEXT THREE DAYS - and lately he’s been in the news for dumping Scientology and talking about it in the press. But he’s another overnight success, right? He took the LIMITLESS pill, right? Well, before CRASH, Haggis was a TV writer - and the *creator* of WALKER, TEXAS RANGER. He often jokes that he makes more money on Walker rerun residuals than on CRASH and his other movies combined. So, if you’re one of those people who commented on John August’s site and don’t think you could ever write something like WALKER, TEXAS RANGER... that’s a route to an Oscar! Haggis wrote on a bunch of TV low-profile series like DUE SOUTH (that Mountie show on CBS that usually aired over summer) and YOU TAKE THE KIDS and FACTS OF LIFE and DIFFERENT STROKES and WHO’S THE BOSS... also some good shows like LA LAW and EZ STREETS and THIRTYSOMETHING. But he didn’t even start on those junky TV sit-coms... he started on Saturday morning cartoons writing SCOOBY-DOO. Because that’s where the doors open for a TV writer. I know a bunch of people who started out writing animation TV or syndicated stuff - things that are not glamorous and underwear models have no interest in. But it’s a start. It’s a foot in the door. It’s writing for a living. And if you end up with a career like Paul Haggis’ *before* CRASH and that’s all there is? Hey - you have earned a living writing screenplays for a living... and those WALKER, TEXAS RANGER residuals are pretty good!
I think the reason why people on August’s boards poo-poo this professional writer’s career is that it’s the unglamourous hard work stuff - no fantasy! And they don’t want to even consider that they might have to dirty their hands writing MEAN GIRLS 2 or something. That’s *work*. They just want to take that LIMITLESS pill and skip all of that.
CUT TO: THE CHECK
The thing that amazes me is the LIMITLESS fantasy people. It’s as if they want to just cut to the Spielberg pool thing and avoid that whole *writing* part... and to me the writing is the fun part (well, you know what I mean). I didn’t want to become some generic form of rich and famous, I wanted to be a professional screenwriter - to write screenplays for a living. To make up stories and great lines of dialogue and cool scenes. I wanted to write! The part they don’t show in LIMITLESS, because it involves a lot of work typing and stuff. I may fantasize about cutting to: script finished, but I suspect if that really happened I would hate it. I love coming up with that killer line or story twist or bit of character. If I was in life just for the money I’d be doing something with much better odds of making a pile of money - I’ve joked that the guy who was hired as a bagger the same day as I was at Safeway is now a Regional Manager for the West Coast and probably making much more than I am and maybe working less. But I would not be happy doing that.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim high and try to be floating in Spielberg’s pool surrounded by underwear models (I hope they can swim) - always do great work and always aim for the stars - but allow for a bit of realism: know that you may not sell your first script for $2 million... instead you may end up getting a gig writing DVD sequels to movies or some other non-glamourous and non-famous gig... And you want to do your best work when you get those gigs and *enjoy them* (even though there’s a lot of typing involved) because professional writers don’t only write those Will Smith blockbusters, they also write SCOOBY-DOO cartoons, and TEEN WOLF TV show on MTV, and UNDISPUTED 3, and all kinds of other jobs where you get paid to write. All of that is *work* - no fantasy pill that you take and suddenly have the finished screenplay and a pile of money.
BLUE PILL OR RED PILL?
So, here’s is the pill: bitter and hard to swallow...
You need to look at your life. You probably have a family and kids and a job and all sorts of other responsibilities. You may not have much free time. Well, figure out just how much time you can spend writing every day - an hour? Half an hour? 15 minutes? Your lunch hour at work? Whatever you can spare. You know your life. You may have to organize your time better to find that half hour or whatever. But once you’ve figured it out, stick by it - that is your writing time. You are going to focus on *writing* during that time. Explain to the kids how important this is, and lock a door if you have to. But once you commit to that writing time - write (with a shirt or without - your decision). I’ve said this before - if you write 1 page every day, you have 3 first drafts by the end of the year. You know what the hard part is? Writing a page a day. Keeping that going. You will fail at first... or, more likely, you will get a page done every day for a while and then fail. Guess what? That’s okay. There is no such thing as permanent failure. Miss a few days (or months) and you can still go back to writing every day. If you keep screwing up and don’t write for two weeks for every week you do write? That’s a screenplay by the end of the year. How is that failure? You have given birth to a screenplay! But the more you stick to writing every day (yes, you can take weekends off if you want), the better. Everything is a habit. If you writing every day, when your time comes to write - your brain is ready to write.
Some people find that rituals help - I don’t mean sacrificing goats, I mean background music, having a beverage ready, maybe even wearing certain clothes. Whatever tells your mind that this is writing time. The important thing is to take that writing time and use it for writing. When I worked at the warehouse, I thought about my scene all day while I was on the clock, so that I could spend my writing time doing as much writing as possible - scenes already in my head. If you can find those moments in your non-writing time that allow you to think out a scene or exchange, that helps in many ways. For me, getting pages done is a form of reward. Momentum is a big thing. If I can write my pages today, it helps me write my pages tomorrow. I think it also helps if you can look forward to your writing time - if you can get excited about the scene you are going to write later that day or tomorrow morning while everyone else is asleep. If you find yourself spending your writing time *not* writing, you need to figure out why that is happening and change something. If you only have an hour a day, or 15 minutes a day, you need to spend that time putting words on paper (or computer screen).
I’m not going to lie to you and say that the Get Off Your Ass And Do Something pill tastes great and you’ll want to take one every day - it’s *work* - but in the real world we need to use the rest of our brain for stuff like breathing and making sure our heart keeps beating, so that LIMITLESS pill is probably not a good idea in the first place.
Maybe the film will address this?
In a speech where Bradley Cooper is not wearing his shirt.