When Screenwriters Swim With The Sharks

Hollywood movie writers have never gotten much respect and still don’t. Lessons learned talking to the writers of War Dog, Mother’s Day, Through The Looking Glass and Barbershop: The Next Cut

The poster for the gathering of press and summer movie screenwriters, put on annually by the Writer's Guild of America, West

SCHMUCKS WITH COMPUTERS

At an annual press reception to promote writers of summer movies held this week in west Los Angeles, Writers Guild of America President Howard Rodman recalled the line famously attributed to Jack Warner, who called writers' “schmucks with Underwood’s.”

For the uninitiated, “Schmuck” is a derisive Yiddish word for an idiotic person, and an Underwood was considered the best typewriter in the studio system era.

Today, screenwriters have computers but some things haven’t changed that much. Writers still have to be wildly talented and overqualified to face a great deal of rejection. They may also experience the occasional success, and in the ocean of movie making screenwriter’s are still the tasty tuna, not the sharks, no matter what allusions the guild promotes.

WGA West President Howard Rodman

Rodman noted there is now a great divide in Hollywood between those who write for television, which is a medium driven by writer/producers; and those who create the written blueprint for motion pictures, which are driven today largely by directors and it often seems, special effects.

“In television writer-producers are treated like gods,” said Rodman, whose credits include the movies Takedown and Savage Grace. “On screen it varies. We can be treated extraordinarily well or people can forget us when the movie gets made.”

That sparked the questions I asked some of the writers on hand. My interest was in the process they must survive to be successful.

Stephen Chin

STEPHEN CHIN

He is one of three credited writers on War Dogs, starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, which hits theaters on August 19th.

“It was a Rolling Stones article which Todd Philips, who directed the Hangover movies, optioned,” Chin said.

A former studio executive and indie film producer, Chin said it took five years from when he first heard about the two characters in the movie, until it was made.

“The writing was very short,” said Chin. “(Todd) brought me and one other writer in to talk about it. I think he actually wanted the other writer, not me, but the other writer didn’t want to do it, so I got the call.”

Chin flew to Miami to meet one of the two real life subjects (“the one who wasn’t in prison,” he noted), to develop the story for the action comedy about two guys who get a $300 million Pentagon contract even though they don’t really know what they are doing.

“I came back and wrote the screenplay in about six weeks,” recalled Chin, “and I turned it in and everybody was extremely happy with it. I thought we were on our way to the races.”

But at a big studio like Warner Bros. there is a development and pre-production process that can give those racecars the yellow caution flag . At the time a lot of the studio’s resources were going to big action, special effects movies based on cartoons or big books or games, and War Dogs was a different breed.

One he turned in his script, it was also essentially the end of Chin’s direct involvement.

For the next three or four years Phillips took over work on the screenplay, collaborating with Jason Smilovic.

“I had a little input but Todd’s experienced at doing this,” said Chin, without rancor, adding: “It’s a glorious experience working with him.”

Chin said he turned to writing because as an independent producer, and while working at Miramax in the 1990s, he found it difficult to locate good scripts.

“If you’re talking about the structure of the business,” said Chin, “I always find it perplexing that the core of our business is creating and telling stories…but the role of the writer seems less and less important.”

Having been on the studio side of the table, he finds being the writer an eye opener: “It’s an odd business in that I think writers are considered pretty fungible. And while I’m now being pursued for different things, and I’m nicely treated, its amazing that the kind of things I once saw in Hollywood that were important in development of movies, such as seeking out the best writers and scripts, now seems to be lost a little bit.”

Tracy Oliver

TRACY OLIVER

She is one of three credited writers on Barbershop: The Next Cut, which opened in the U.S. on April 15, with a $20 million gross and then stalled at about $53 million. It has done negligible business outside the U.S.

She is a 30-year-old former actress who turned to writing because it gave her greater creative control and more predictable paydays.

“As an actor you book the part or that’s it,” said Oliver. “As a writer, if you create an idea, even if it gets rewritten, you get paid for that work. It’s still sad in some ways but I do think there’s more opportunity and more creative control with writing than acting.”

When the first Barbershop movie came out in 2002 and became a cult hit, Oliver was still a schoolgirl in South Carolina. She heard about the opportunity to write for the third Barbershop from her manager, who also handles Kenya Barris, who is the showrunner for the hit TV sitcom, Blackish.

Oliver learned that both she and Barris were being considered and they decided to team up instead. She had worked on a TV project with Barris previously and while it never aired, they developed a relationship.

“He’s very smart and socially conscious and socially aware and not afraid to talk about race issues,” said Oliver of Barris. “He’s never afraid to go there, but in a really smart comedic way.”

So the third Barbershop became the first released movie for both.

They came up with the idea of making it the first in the series with both men and women in the shop, which created opportunities to tell stories about gender as well as race.

“A lot of it came from Kenya and I bantering back and forth about men and women,” said Oliver. “In some sections we’re talking about the double standards and expectations for women. For example in my life, I work as hard if not harder than a lot of male colleagues but you’re still expected to look pretty or a certain way. I’m like, ‘Why do I have to do that when this guy can come in in sneakers and sweatshirt or whatever,’ and I have to put on heels. So that stuff is in the script and the movie.”

Oliver admits she learned her craft on the job: “There weren’t any rules. I kept going, ‘is someone going to come in and tell me what I’m supposed to be doing?’”

Her biggest lesson, added Oliver, was that you, “can’t be precious with your work, meaning you can’t be personally attached to every singe word because it’s going to get cut, or rewritten.”

If you don’t have that attitude, said Oliver, you can be “emotionally devastated.”

“You have to be cool to change it,” she added, “when you’re writing for other people or a studio. You just say, ‘of course, whatever. I’ll change it.’ I’ve never gone through so many notes in my life.”

Oliver and Barris weren’t complete forgotten once the script was done. They were occasionally consulted on casting and were invited to visit the set. “I wasn’t really cut out,” said Oliver, “so it was a great experience.”

Still, the process of writing challenged her. “By the time a movie is made and put out people forget that none of that would have happened without the writers,” said Oliver.

“That’s the hard part,” she added. “You know personally how much you agonized over every single piece of dialogue, every description, and even coming up with ideas in the first place that inspired them to make the movie. By the end it’s forgotten. Writing is like banging your head against a window repeatedly. It’s a very tortured existence.”

Linda Woolverton

LINDA WOOLVERTON

Credited as writer of Alice Through The Looking Glass along with author Lewis Carroll. The movie opened in May and has grossed $178 million worldwide, a disappointment considering its high production cost.

She came to Hollywood after graduating as a theater major at Cal State Long Beach to try and get into children’s television. She wrote scripts for cartoons and that led to an opportunity to write features for Disney.

Her credits include the animated blockbusters The Lion King, Beauty and The Beast, Maleficent and the 2010 original Alice In Wonderland.

She spent about a year writing the script for her Alice sequel, and then was mostly out of the process as it went through two or three years marching toward production and distribution.

“These are films that are a director’s medium not a writer’s medium,” says Woolverton. “so if you’re really smart and you’re a writer, go work in television, because features are a director’s medium. It’s a visual medium. The director sort of runs the show.”

While she is the only credited (living) writer, Woolverton shrugs about the reality of this kind of big movie: “There are many writers besides me. Many, many, many, many. Sure I would have preferred to work on it myself but that isn’t the process.”

Anya Kochoff Romano was accompanied by her dad, Chris Kochoff

ANYA KOCHOFF ROMANO

She is one of three credited screenplay writers on Mother’s Day, along with two others given story credit, including director Garry Marshall. The movie’s stars included Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston. It opened in April and grossed just over $32 million (a disappointment).

“My girlfriends called me and said I have a script that needs a rewrite,” recalled Romano. “She said it’s a Garry Marshall movie. I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ I didn’t even know what it was. But Pretty Woman (Marshall’s 1990 megahit with Julia Roberts) is the reason I’m in the film business.”

She had worked as an executive for producer John Davis when it came out and she thought Pretty Woman was “the most romantic movie of all time. It made me laugh and cry, and whenever I was sad, I would watch this movie.”

It was her second credited movie. She wrote Monster In Law with Jane Fonda which was released in 2005.

She worked on the Alice sequel script for about a year and it was made, she recalled, “fairly quickly.”

She said having strong female roles attracted top actresses, “because there aren’t a lot of good parts being written for women.”

Unlike many writers when production was starting, they wanted her involved again. She did rewrites for the first three weeks of production for Jennifer Aniston’s character, working closely with the Friend’s actress.

Jennifer Aniston in "Mother's Day"

“She’s very collaborative and really smart,” said Romano. “She has amazing instinct and delivers comedy the best. She knows what she wants to say and what she didn’t want to say. She knows where she is funny.”

Aniston was open to considering a lot of different ideas. “As a writer its fun to work with her,” said Romano, “because I can write a couple different ways. She has a strong point of view but she will listen.”

After Monster In Law, Romano had taken time off to be with her husband, a real estate developer, and have three children. Her career took a back seat.

“After Monster In Law there was a time I couldn’t get arrested,” said Romano. “It happens. But if you tell passionate stories about things you love and write from your heart, and write funny stuff, it will find a home, if it’s meant to be.”

Her father was an executive with Carsey Werner when they were the hot TV shop doing Cosby, Roseanne and Third Rock From The Sun. “I grew up on the set,” said Romano. “that’s why I’m in the film business.”

She is also in it today because it fits her lifestyle and schedule. “This is an amazing job,” she said. “I love that I can take my kids to school and go home and write.”

“I’m a storyteller,” she added. “I write middle American comedies. I love it and can’t wait to do it more.”

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