Thoughts on Writing in Hollywood

Post by Mark Cullen –  Screenwriter of “A Couple Dicks” aka “Cop Out,” studio punch up guy and Creator/Showrunner of a bunch of series that went one season.

I was asked to put down thoughts on a few questions about writing.  Remember, you get what you pay for.

My former manager, the late, great Bernie Brillstein told me that in Hollywood, “Always have ten projects going, kid, because nine will fall through and you’ll get fucked on the tenth.”

Writing in Hollywood is a dance between art and commerce.  I think that if you want to be successful you have to have a need to write, a love for movies/TV, and the ability to put up with and outsmart some of the biggest creeps, connivers, and crooks on the planet while making them think you like them.

What inspired me to be a writer?

My father was an Irish confidence man who had an affinity for a good fiction.

My mother would take me to completely inappropriate and great movies like, “Catch 22,” “Blow Up,” and “Harold and Maude” when I was six.

Charles Bukowski told me over martinis at Musso and Frank, “I like your stories. You should be a writer.”  In his defense, he was drunk.

Mostly I didn’t want to do anything else.  Writing helped me understand my place in the world.  I had no back-up plan if I didn’t succeed in becoming a working writer.  Working without a net is often inspiring.

What continues to inspire me to write?

Seeing great films that I wished I’d written.

Reading an original voice, and/or a great story.

Paying my mortgage.

Knowing that after learning my craft for nearly two decades that I still know very little about storytelling.

I haven’t written my signature opus yet.   I don’t want to be the guy whose plane goes down and then described as “one of the writers of Cop Out.”  

Are there things you do, places you go, people you talk to for inspiration?

I read tons of newspapers, magazines, and non-fiction.

I also find inspiration in great writers.  I read a lot of poetry.

I watch a lot of movies.  I love French cinema.

I have a lot of great cheerleaders who like my writing.  It’s always nice to get a call asking what I’m working on.

I talk out all my ideas for TV shows and movies with my brother/partner.  It’s essential to have someone whose opinion you can trust.  

Technique – What is the most challenging aspect of writing for you and how do you deal with it?

Telling a compelling story with just the right pacing is always the goal.  It’s tough.

I struggled with certain aspects of scenes until I noticed that a few of the actors I worked with – Jimmy Caan, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Willis, and Michael Keaton all came to their scenes looking for the connecting emotion that would bridge them from their last scene and take them into the next.  I started looking more at the emotional content of the scenes.  That helped my writing and the pacing of my stories.

Routine – Do you have one? Has it changed over the years? Any tricks, quirks, superstitions.

After deciding the next thing to write, I do extensive research and take a lot of notes.  I then take long walks, talk out the plot, babbling like a crazy person as I stroll the streets of Santa Monica and Venice.  I put the story on the forefront of all other thoughts and let it gestate until it just starts pouring out and I can’t stop writing until it’s finished.

I write the first draft very quickly, but re-write it at least five times before I show it to anyone.

I outline pretty thoroughly but once I start writing I use the outline as a strong suggestion and let the characters take me where they want to go.  The characters often dictate a change in the plotting.

Research:

I love doing research.  It’s one of the great parts of my job.  I get to be a temporary expert on a particular subject.  But, I don’t just do Internet searches or wander into the library stacks.  I like taking an active role in my query. I’ve done ride-alongs with cops; had coffee with clandestine, black-op CIA agents; cased Harry Winston’s with a world-renowned jewel thief, and gambled in Vegas with high rollers.

It helps me to understand and write a character if I’ve been in situations he’s been in.

General Thoughts:

I wish I’d been nicer earlier in my career, and meaner later.

I’ve been represented at WME, William Morris, CAA, APA, Broder, Kurland, Webb, Ufner, Writer’s and Artists, and Genesis.  I’ve had at least fifty agents – It’s the agent not the agency.

Always be nice to the agent’s assistant. It’s good business.

There is no better feeling when you have characters in a room and you become a stenographer because you can just “hear them talking.”

Agents don’t have your best interests at heart.  They’re employees and you should treat them as such.  When they start to stink, just like underwear, change them.

The worst decision I ever made was handing over the first show I created to more experienced showrunners and then working for them.  It was like watching someone kick my puppy to death every single day.

Have the courage to ruin your own material.

I’m glad I got into a shoving match with Gerard Depardieu and Francis Ford Coppola at the Governor’s Ball after the Emmy’s.

I should NOT have thrown a desk at a Paramount TV executive and threatened his life.

I should not have let my drunk brother make-out with the married head of drama at a major TV network (and call her by the wrong name all night).

I should not have sent back the gift that the head of TV studio sent to congratulate me on a show after I found out he really didn’t like my show.

Never ask Les Moonves, “Who the hell are you and why should I care what you think?”

Executives are getting younger and dumber and pretend they know what they’re doing although they’ve never made or written anything.

It’s getting harder to find jobs because studios are making far fewer movies and TV shows are hiring smaller staffs.

Relationships are crucial in working in Hollywood.  Be loyal to your friends.  Help them.  Hire them when you get a chance. Be generous with your time and talent.

Don’t do single step movie writing deals.

Don’t believe a producer when he tells you that if you do one more free pass on a script that they’ll guarantee you’ll get the second step from the studio.

The weekly re-write business is great.   Funny equals money.

Very few people in Hollywood really know what they’re doing.  Most are faking it.

Talent usually wins, but not always.

Stephen J. Cannell once shared his secrets of writing a one-hour, four-act structure with me.   Act One: Tell the audience the story so they can relax, then BLOW SOMETHING UP.  Act Two: Complicate, then have a cliffhanger and if you can… BLOW SOMETHING UP.  Act Three: Complicate some more until the hero starts to turn the tide, then blow something up.  Act Four: Solve the problem and save the day.

When you take their money they get to tell you what they want.  It’s your job as a writer to give your client what you both want.

You have to sell it in order to write it.  Learn how to be good in a room with executives.

Don’t write specs of other TV shows.   Write samples that showcase your voice and have a chance of selling if people like it enough.

If you’re having problems in the third act, go back to the first to find your problem.

I love being a writer.  I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  I like having ten things going.

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