Monday, June 01, 2009

Michael Lent's Belly of the Beast - INDIEWOOD

Boy, do we miss Michael Lent's Belly of the Beast column, which ran in "Creative Screenwriting" for years until 2007. We asked Michael if he could bang one out for us for old time's sake... and he did! Enjoy, folks!

Oh, and if you haven't checked out Lent's great BREAKFAST WITH SHARKS, do so! This is the only book on screenwriting that tells you how to navigate the dangerous shoals of Hollywood for those serious about making screenwriting a career. Highly recommended by Coverage, Ink.



Have the Career You Want Right Now

Recently, I received an industry email with a headline reading “Get it together. Start fresh!”

I don’t want a fresh start. I don’t want, um, “Change.”

Despite all of the Skittles and nitro java-fueled resolutions we make periodically, all that reorganization of the mental deck chairs can leave a writer as creatively fallow as the Siege of Leningrad. After seminars and pitch fests, we feel tremendous pressure to reinvent ourselves, to cast out the old in favor of the new. Often the problem goes beyond our typical writers’ malaise and lies in trying to make too many “jump to light speed,” across-the-board changes at once. A “hot” new spec written in a new style with a new partner intended for a new agent is a few too many quantum leaps, sure to slam us into the side of a high-rise building a few months from now. Much like the old analogy of the butterfly flapping its wings in China, I believe that a few carefully crafted micro-adjustments will reap the more dramatic effect. When our writing and business sense is 95% there, it’s that last 5% that can make all the difference in creating the right access, opportunity and result. In other words, you may be closer to the gold ring than you think. The right simple change can have a profound impact RIGHT NOW. Proof of this is all around us. In fact, I owe my career as a working writer/producer to this simple principle.

Put a group of writers together for an extended period of time and invariably one will break out of the pack. Some of the others will lament their sour grapes that “there’s virtually no difference between that writer and me. I’m just as talented as he/she.” And they are right. The distinction is infinitesimal. Four years into my foray to be a professional writer, I was subsisting on $500 indie prodco options, big budget specs that didn’t quite sell and studio assignments that I didn’t quite get. All of my friends were basically in the same boat. Then I decided to make one small adjustment: I would stop waiting for career validation from the Joel Silvers of the world and immediately be the writer I wanted to be with the career I wanted to have. That was the one change. To repeat, I would stop waiting and start treating my work with the respect it deserved.

Immediately, I slew those internal dragons that ostensibly guarded my self-esteem but in fact roared at me at all hours of the night with enough self-doubt to keep me from changing the state of my career. While I realized that some self-doubt can be a good motivator, from that point on, nothing was out of my league. And yet, the league that I was already in was chockablock with opportunity. So the gritty little $500 options and assignments I managed to scrape together were no longer depressing stop gaps, or as one colleague referred to them, “cabana boy gigs.” Instead they were legitimate opportunities to lock down future relationships. For the next one that came my way, I sought out an entertainment accountant, as well as a top-rated attorney who charged $250 just to look over the deal memo. That meant the lawyer got half of my contract. Meanwhile, the accountant charged me three times what H & R Block did to do my taxes. Yikes! But fine. The accountant soon had me form a corporation that got most of my money back including her fees. And the lawyer proceeded to put a couple of key protections into the deal memo - language that more than paid for itself in terms of peace of mind. Plus, our professional relationship was off and running.

Indiewood is a state of mind. It means that just like a studio production company, you have a slate of projects in various stages of development. Typically, the average prodco might have acquired pitches, specs, books to adapt, video games and comic books. They might also have their hands in webisode productions. Likewise, in the past two three years I have been involved in the following: producing a horror film; co-producing a documentary; writer on two video games; co-ghost writing a sci-fi novel; developing television and webisode series, writer/producer on 3 graphic novels, author of two books. I also write spec scripts; however, they are generally linked with compatible material like graphic novels. I’ve also written and produced three animated short films or trailers used in support of other projects. Sounds like a lot but isn’t much different than doing rewrite after rewrite on the same two or three spec screenplays in the same period. Of course, all of the above means learning about things beyond writing. It means actually being in production, working actors, directors, composers, animators, effects people, etc, all the while expanding my skill set, which is not a bad thing in a down economy. And when the budget doesn’t allow for hiring some of those people, it means being resourceful or sometimes doing it yourself. Above all else, Indiewood means lean and mean and taking chances. Many of my projects were produced for pennies on the dollar. Remember that anything worth doing involves a certain amount of risk. Without risk there is no reward. Recently, I sold a pitch to the publishing division of Disney. Within weeks it meant that I was on a plane headed for the Arctic Circle as part of my research. Talk about holy friggin’ wow!

Of course, I still write specs and pitch on assignments, but I find that I don’t have time to hold my breath waiting to see what happens. I move on and it’s on them to catch up. The balance of power has shifted. All too often the Bill Clinton adage of “Wrong & Strong will always beat Weak & Right” applies to us writers and our Gilliganesque “L’il Buddy” status in this hazy, crazy movie business. Having a team behind me felt different, better than having gel inserts in my boxer briefs, and more like having a special key to a suitcase of nitroglycerin. I also noticed that I was more confident and less inclined to be “Weak & Right” in meetings with “all-powerful” producers. Suspect personal hygiene was no longer my biggest private fear. Later, I even felt confident enough to assume the co-producer reigns on a feature film project when the opportunity came. But before that, I landed a studio assignment at Miramax - a tough place I’d already tried to crack a couple of times earlier.

Be the writer you want to be right now.

Lots of times we think the next level is about someone else having more resources or more access. Yet there are plenty of people bopping around this planet, with incredible access who can’t make a go of it. They seem to have it all and don’t do anything with it. Here in Hollywood, it’s common to come across the children of legendary actors, directors or producers. The personal legacy of many of these privileged progeny is little more than some compromising photos taken outside of the Viper Room.

We have to carry ourselves as the writer we aspire to be BEFORE we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, before we pick up that phone to set up our meeting. One time a producer who was stressing the importance of execution said to me, “Good ideas are like assholes, everybody’s got at least one.” Very profound. But I don’t agree with that idea, or even the idea that thoughts are in easy, limitless supply. Thoughts aren’t free in the sense that they take up space in the brain. We can only hold onto so many. Hence the invention of paper and post-it notes. Ideally, we want our brain filled with stuff pertaining to that amazing new project. Fine, but all too often our brain is filled with less inspirational matters like, “If I don’t sell this timely blockbuster on the dangers of acid reflux, how will I afford to be buried in a paupers’ grave?” or less charitable thoughts about how that aforementioned “friggin’ no-talent” colleague might be hit by a Mr. Tasty Ice Cream truck and thus, restore some sense of order in the Cosmos. Cynicism is a very dubious currency that’s only honored in the black markets of a tortured psyche.

Work on personal projects that are worthy of the writer you see yourself becoming.

We start our process of Indiewood and butterfly effects right now by truly believing we are gifted writers with limitless capabilities. Here those of us steeped in the Power of Negative Thought will say, “Hey, Mental Lental! None of that gifted shmifted stuff matters unless you’ve actually written a brilliant script.” Let me say this: to date I’ve been a judge of eight script and film competitions. For one contest alone I once read 135 scripts. One thing I noticed is that a disproportionate number of those screenplays featured protracted shootouts in warehouses. Seven utilized this one specific tired convention that seemed to go on and on. It occurred to me that if those writers truly believed they were gifted, would they really write about vampire rock bands or drug deals [with vampires] in warehouses gone bad? Or would they risk sharing just a little more insight with their audience? Wouldn’t they feel free to TRULY express themselves and trust their craft to deliver something no one had ever quite put on paper before? At the very least, a new way into Hitchcock or a screwball comedy? As a writing instructor I used to ask students to name their five favorite films. Often a student who was writing Count Chocula: The Movie would proclaim his favorite film of all time to be The Godfather. That’s a disconnect of confidence and ambition.

The well-known Sly Stallone story is apt here. As an actor, he was once so destitute that he reduced to doing porn and I’m pretty sure it was a non-speaking part. Yet, he had this one script that he truly believed in. Even when Stallone was offered $300,000 (big, big money back in the ‘70s) to sell the Rocky script and walk away from starring in it, his belief in himself as both writer AND actor was so strong, he turned down the money. The rest is history. Unfortunately, that history includes Spy Kids 3-D, Driven and Stop! Or Mom Will Shoot, as well as other films that may have included warehouse scenes, but that’s a different story. Bad things like Rocky V, or worse, or losing the opportunity to write Rocky V happen to us screenwriters all the time. But they don’t happen ALL of the time. Instead, these kind of Rocky (I) stories occur every day, all around us. That’s what we need to focus on instead of concern over losing a few heat shield tiles from one’s ego.

I realize that the idea of butterfly wings is a bit conceptual. Many writers have more immediate concerns like:

How do we land a meeting?
How do we make sure that it’s a good meeting?
How do we cement our reputation as a talented writer AND walk away with a deal?
How do we earn a consistent and good living with this craft, this hobby, this thing we love so much?

My book Breakfast with Sharks is filled with the answers to these game plan, taking action and taking chances sorts of questions. If it wasn’t, legendary studio head Mike Medavoy wouldn’t have written the Foreword. But going beyond A is to B is to C specifics, what we’re really talking about is turning our desire into our reality. What we’re talking about is going to the next level in our careers. We see it every day happening for others so we know it’s possible. And we’re right. It is our turn. And the good news is that we may be one small change away.

Michael Lent is currently writing 'On Thin Ice' for Disney. He is the author of the industry bestselling book, “Breakfast with Sharks” published by Random House. He has produced the feature films 'Hard Scrambled,' 'Witches’ Night' and 'Naked in America.' He wrote 'Prey: Origin of the Species,' published by Marvel Comics. He was a writer on the Xbox 360 game 'Vigilante 8: Arcade' released in 2008. As a screenwriter, he has sold, optioned or been assigned to ten feature film projects including 'The Hellseeker' for Miramax Studios.


Anonymous said...

"Cynicism is a very dubious currency that’s only honored in the black markets of a tortured psyche...."

Thank you, Michael! Brilliantly inspirational, and one helluva definition of cynicism (above) that I will use extensively -- with attribution -- in the years ahead...

Here's to that one small change...


Jason said...

You rock Michael! I've had your book for a while now and loved it, but I think I might just pull it out and give it another read to get my priorities back on line.