Thursday, January 14, 2010

six easy steps to getting a movie made

I was listening to Terry Gilliam on a podcast talking about how he got to direct his first film. He said he simply went to London, became part of a hugely successful comedy troupe and then was given the opportunity to direct a film. He suggested other would-be filmmakers follow the same path. Of course every filmmaker has a different path, as is his point, but I've been thinking lately about the sequence of events that allowed me to get a script into production and ultimately into theaters as it's been a while, ahem, since I've repeated that feat. So, my thoughts, as a reminder to myself:
  1. You must LOVE the story you are attempting to tell. Anything less than total devotion will not do. The main reason for this is you're going to be in it for the long haul. How long? Maybe ten years. Ten years!? That's how long it took Snakes On A Plane to go from script to screen. Shakespeare In Love was another 10 year project. The point is, it takes forever to get a movie made and if you don't love what you're writing you won't have the desire to stick with it for the long haul. How do you get through the Aswan Dam of screenwriting projects? Love.
  2. Okay, so you love your story. What's the next step? Take chances. Put on your roller skates, put a pair of scissors in your mouth and head out onto the icy front steps and go for it. You absolutely cannot get your movie made if you're cautious with the story. This means not writing characters who get along all nicey nice with each other, but it also means doing crazy things and being stylistically edgy or fresh in some way. What's Juno if Diablo Cody didn't throw around a "homeskillet" and an "honest to blog" here and there? She took chances- and while her choices may not work for everyone they worked for her. Welcome failure into the room. Try a dozen takes on a scene or a character. Flip it. Turn it on it's ear. A scene isn't working? Try the opposite. As they said at IBM in the sixties, "The best way to increase your success rate is to increase your failure rate." Apply "crazy" liberally to your script. Put your unspoken obsessions and freakish inner thoughts into it. Admit your fears--just plain and simple go OFF on it. You doing the thing that you're not supposed to do is the thing that makes the script special and hopefully attracts a STAR who cannot say no to it.
  3. REWRITE THE SHIT OUT OF IT. I can't stress this enough. I know plenty of writers who write three drafts and then they're all like, "I'm done - they should see my genius and give me the moneez now pleez." It (the script) does not even start to get good until the tenth draft. You don't even have a script you can sell until you've done at least fifteen drafts and don't even think of shooting it before you hit twenty drafts. Something one of my screenwriting instructors, Mike Ellis, once said has stuck with me over the ten years since graduating, "there is always someone out there willing to work harder." I was not going to let my project die because I got all lame and said, "meh- good enough." You must love it--because if it does get optioned you are going to be living in the world you created for years.
  4. While you're rewriting the shit out of it, tell people about it. No, talk to people about it. Anyone. Your mom, your friends, the semi-coherent hobo that lives behind your dumpster. The more you talk about what you're working on the more you're forced to put into simple language the concepts of your story. The themes have to be reduced down to a couple of lines so that the people you're talking do don't glaze over and/or suddenly get involved in an urgent text-message situation. Talking about it reveals to you the strengths and the weaknesses of your script. Plus, added bonus points, every now and then the semi-coherent hobo has the story solution you've been looking for. The sure sign of an amateur is that they don't talk about their idea because they're afraid everyone is going to rip them off. Guess what, they're not. Why? Because getting a movie made is frickin' hard and it's not like your dentist can walk onto the Fox lot and say "idea for a movie: I want my boyfriend back" and suddenly be presented with the moneez.
  5. Network and socialize. I used to think this was not necessary and now I know it is absolutely essential. You have to get out there and meet the right people. How!? How you ask? You in Two Egg, Florida - you know somebody. You do. Everyone knows somebody who knows somebody. Sure it helps if you're in NY or LA but we're all on Facebook so, you know... get to it. True story: the current assignment I'm working on happened because of Facebook. Not my agent, not my lawyer. Facebook. The networking and socializing is also key because YOU have to make it happen. "It" being the movie. You've got to put it together one painful piece at a time. You've got to find the right producer, a collaborative director, talent who understand and support the project. You, you the writer have to do this. You have to stay engaged at every step because it will not happen on it's own. All of this requires that you get out there and meet people--the right people. And P.S., if you get the wrong producer or the wrong director or God forbid the wrong talent they will be a dead weight that you will have to carry or eject from the project. So fold up your snuggie, clean that chili stain off your jeans and go forth and join humanity my carpel-tunnel suffering friends.
  6. Get really lucky. A big part of any film getting made, particularly for a first time filmmaker is that somewhere in the process enough gate keepers forget to say "no." If you have the right producer they will know that "no" doesn't mean "no" until there's a lawsuit or a restraining order. Hopefully you have a producer who is a relentless cheerleader. I've worked with a couple of these but one of the best is Sandy Stern. United Artists must have said "no" to him a dozen times. They eventually said yes. Why? Well some people at UA who had certain problems with certain chemicals went away to certain places and were replaced by other people and then suddenly things started going from red to green. We got lucky. Which is great, but having Sandy there, watching and waiting, he knew that they could only say no for so long. Eventually something had to give.
There is one bonus step that I always forget. Tonight I was reminded, hence this entry: maintain a positive attitude. None of the above is possible if you don't keep that snark in check. Here's the deal, people like to work with people they like. You can't get the talented producer, director, actor if you're dickish or lame. You have to be that person that people want to hang out with. Also, maintaining an almost tragic faith in yourself and the certainty of the project is the only way to sustain you through the years (it will be years) of development. How can you face the Final Draft splash screen one more time if you don't have a positive attitude about your talent and the inevitable perfection of your screenplay? If you're all Debbie Downer it will not happen. Here's my secret; the coffee at LA Mill and Intelligentsia costs an absurd $5 a cup and it's worth it. Why? Because they have perfected coffee. I kid you not. Every time I have coffee from one of these two places it restores my faith in humanity. Somehow they managed to get Silverlake hipsters to brew the perfect cup of coffee. If you don't live in LA, find the place nearest you that has perfected something and visit it often. It's probably food related though it could be a garden, a work of art or something similarly gay. So whenever I'm feeling particularly "fail" or the especially terrible "lard-fail" I go get coffee and remember, with this latte anything is possible.


  1. Mike, this is the funniest most awesome and inspiring post EVER. You are simply the gift that keeps on giving. I have been doing the kitchen timer method all break and have been retardedly productive. Feeling the fail and I look at the timer on my iphone and I have 42 minutes and 36 seconds left and I know I can't get up. So simple, but so effective. I'm all "Thank you sweet and comforting arms of my Jenournal." Yes, I've named my journal document, Jenournal. Thank you Mike Urban, blog of Mike Urban and Mr. Don Roos.

  2. Regarding "perfection," I heard Patton Oswalt talk about a similar source of nerdy sports inspiration -- before he starts writing in the morning, he watches youtube videos of Gale Sayers highlights. He feels like it inspires him to attain the same level of perfection in his work that Sayers achieved in his.