Crossing the Line
From “writer” to “Screenwriter for Hire”
Making the distinction between being a casual good writer and a Screenwriter for hire happened over two decades ago for me.
I’m going to start blogging about my early years as someone people call when they want to hire a screenwriter. The stories will open the eyes of people that want to enter the business as a screenwriter, and those considering how to start being a screenwriter for hire.
In October about 1985’s I moved to Los Angeles. I met a blonde actress in Chicago working a tv show called Private Eyes, where I modeled for David Lee Agency. She talked me into moving to Los Angeles to live with her. A few weeks later my modeling connection here got me onto a show called Paper Chase the last season, mostly as a Silent Bit but sometimes SAG. I stuck with Fox when I acted in L.A. Law. On the set I began to study scripts. Realizing I could write at least as good a script as the ones in the theaters, I started on a comedy. It was called “86 Restaurants” and was a modern version of The Producers, the story revolving around two guys that plan to open a restaurant that fails so badly no investors question their books, and they sneak off with millions. But I wasn’t even thinking of being a Screenwriter for hire yet.
I started writing it on the set of The Outsiders, where I pulled in a mild stunt double gig for the lead. I did some stand-in for him too, so I was on the set every day for about 4 weeks. There were a lot of great looking girls on the set, and I found that this was a great icebreaker. Scenes were funny standing alone, and a few laughs opened the door to dates. On the day it was finished, a gorgeous brunette told me, “Hey bring a copy tomorrow and I’ll read it over the weekend.” I didn’t know she was roommates with Heather Locklear. So the Brunette read it, loved it, laughed a lot. She gave it to Heather who read it, laughed a lot. She was dating an exec at Universal Studios, who read it Sunday night. On Monday I got a call from an assistant at Universal for this exec. They wanted to know who represented me. I wasn’t repped for lit. So they said they would make a call to The Swanson Agency, which was once one of the most impressive lit agencies in town. Swanson read it over night then called me into the office. They signed me, and sent me to Universal.
The exec told me I was funny, but that the screenplay did not follow the structure or formula of screenplays in all ways. I had to admire that I never studied script writing. He and Swanson told me to read a dozen buddy scripts, including 48 Hours, Butch Cassidy, Lethal Weapon, and others. I did a rewrite. It almost got picked up at Universal, but Swanson said it was not ready to go out. He asked me to write another script or two. I was on fire to earn some of those big numbers that were coming out of the Bidding Wars. I wrote two scripts in 5 weeks. But for Swanson, they were “nothing new and nothing exceptional.” I knew nothing of how scripts and writers are marketed, so I was a bit offended (I was in my twenties and full of myself.) If only I could be someone they could sell as a screenwriter for hire, as in, studio gigs paying about $50,000 back then.
I had to improve and also increase my odds on marketing myself. I had limited access to companies. I found out that Swanson (then in his late 80’s) was dying and his agents were moving on. I got creative in my approach to improving as a writer. I began clipping all the articles that said the names of agents that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter and L.A. Times. I went to the Writers Guild (which was on Beverly then) and asked the librarian for the 10 best screenplays she ever read. Among others, she had me read Body Heat, Taxi Driver, Raiders of the Lost Arc, The Graduate, and several others. The next script I wrote was a striking improvement over my first scripts. I knew it from the first sentence, and so did the Industry.
“Traders and runners rushed the sinks, prepping their engines with Bromo’s and uppers, ready to race the daily Fortune 500 we know as Wall Street.”
The script was called “Future Tense.” It was about a 24 year-old novice trader that gets seduced by a sexy female executive to use insider trading to make millions. I printed 21 copies at my dad’s office and mailed them to 21 agents. I was so new that I did not know what agency was important or not. I included a simple, humble cover letter.
I waited to get my rave reviews the next week, but none came. I waited so long I stopped waiting. Then one day my phone rang, and it was an agent named Tom Strickler. I had no idea I had sent my script to one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood, only months before he would break off to form Endeavor. “I can’t represent you because we only represent established writers here. But I wanted to tell you, you had me at the first sentence. You have the talent to be a big hit writer. Stick with it, make a sale or two, then come find me. Oh, and one other thing, there is a big film about to be announced called Wall Street. It’s gonna kill the chances of your script selling, but it’s a great sample.” That was just how it went down.
His words were so inspiring they filled me with courage. I had to stop doing all my other write and just go for it – I was going to be a professional Screenwriter for Hire. In the meantime, Swanson pretty much was in the dark about this, and was folding. I wrote Supertanker, which I sneaked to some guy I met at Hard Rock Café bar. He worked at a boutique agency. In five days I was signed and the script got Optioned at Silver Pictures. I was very naïve. I actually thought agents told the truth all the time and had no competing interests ahead of their clients.
I remember walking into the offices at Warner Brothers. The posters of Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Predator was being made. Down the hall was Steven Segal, and Dick Donner. Their spies were noting my arrival. The boss working in the office under Silver was a very hot blonde that was the secret mistress of the head of ICM. I forgot her name, but she and her male head of production met me and said, “Congratulations, we’re making your movie.” I couldn’t believe it … and shouldn’t have. They were talking about it being Die Hard 3. And I believed them when they offered me a paltry $10,000 option on it. I thought that was so low, since my talks with the agent at first said this should sell instantly for over $300,000. And I had meetings set up at Fox for it. The heat was on! What I had yet to learn was that agents would at times sell out a client to help a producer keep a script off the market. And that is what they did. They buried it so that it would not compete with Die Hard 3 since the scripts were so similar. They had me in for some story meetings, I did some script tightening, but the formula and action was all there. Then came the excuses that led to the inevitable, “Sorry, but we’re putting the script into Turnaround.”
That led to a year of poverty, not making one penny. I had always made good money, and had a nice car, an antique car, and a nice condo I rented in Century City. I sold the second car, and then sold the new car for a bad old car, then sold that for a $1,000 motorcyle, and sold that for a $500 piece of shit motorcycle. I moved back home. My dad had talks with me every day to reconsider my profession. My girlfriend left me. I was too broke to do ANYTHING.
The agent was losing interest in me. Then one day the assistant in charge of Supertanker got fired, and called me and told me how they sold me out. And that led to me being dropped as a client.
I talked to the librarian and a producer or two, and they said I should try to find some Indie writing assignments to get a credit. So I put out an ad for “Hire A Screenwriter” in the trades. I kept putting in the ads, and after about 6 weeks started to get jobs. The pay was “anything they had to offer.” I was WGA, but had not gotten work, so I was sneaking under the radar. I told NO ONE about this, because it would be so bad for my career. I wrote scripts for as little as $1,000. I needed money. I wrote them and gave them credit for the writing if they needed it.
One great things came from this two years of lowest level writing. I learned how to please clients that were going for a dream, had a decent idea, and just needed talent. I learned how to listen, how to share ideas, and how to fit good and bad stories into screenplay formula. My talent for words was there, I could turn a great phrase and make memorable lines. But I had no agent. The scripts went nowhere slowly. I was not obligated to help the clients, so I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I think I wrote about 7 low budget scripts in that time. Never knew what happened with them, never tracked them. Some I heard go optioned, and one got a big named writer on it and the rewrite was bought.
Then came my big break …
FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT IN THE SECOND BLOG ON THE LIFE OF A SCREENWRITER FOR HIRE.