Monday, March 23, 2009
Spotlight Interview: Blake Snyder/Part 2
Blake Snyder, Screenwriter/Author
Mike: Should the screenwriter pursue the artist within his or her soul, or simply go after what’s commercially hot at the moment?
Snyder: Depends what you want out of your career. My goal is to make a sale and get a movie made—and I like the big, pop movies that travel internationally.
The job priority of a screenwriter, let’s face it, is to entertain strangers in a theatre; they don’t care about your growth as an artist. They want to laugh and cry and be dazzled.
When I speak to writers at seminars, I tell them to work on the one line that’ll hook people! With all the things competing for an audience’s attention—TV, movies, books, Internet—you’ve got to grab people with a compelling idea.
But if you’re still intent on pursuing art in your movies, my advice to you would be to first write a commercial hit.
I mean, the guys who wrote Problem Child—Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—went on to write Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt. They started with a very high concept, a very saleable script. But that wasn’t their ultimate goal. They had grander artistic goals than I have. They wanted to make higher-quality films. But by selling a script, they became a known, viable entity. From there, they re-channeled their career to something else. For them, the early stuff was just a means to an end. Smart strategy. Great writers. Two clever guys with a well-executed plan.
Mike: What do the best screenwriters have in common?
Snyder: Humility! In person, even the most outrageous voices of our era are surprisingly self-effacing. True confidence comes out on the page. In the room, workmanlike cooperation and being a team player is a must. I have acted like an artiste in my time, standing on some point or clinging to a scene I love; it has not served me well.
The really big screenwriters are the ones who talk less and listen more. They are the ones who quietly observe human behavior, think first and speak second, and are most open to hearing criticism, taking notes, and being cooperative in this very cooperative undertaking we are all involved in.
Mike: How can you spot talent immediately?
Snyder: Again, humility in the room—combined with confidence on the page. The No. 1 thing I hope when someone sends me a script is that I feel when I’m reading it that I am in good hands. If I find myself using body English to move past one or more uncomfortable spots in a script, I know that confidence is not there. And the writer loses me for that script. I must get the sense that this is easy for the writer, that he or she is comfortable telling me this story (without being cocky) and surprises me along the way with turns I did not expect. I guess the easy answer is: If I lose myself in the script and forget I’m reading one, you've won me over.
Mike: What are your working habits like? Do you work days or nights, on a computer or in longhand?
Snyder: I work early morning, on the computer, and write 1,000 words a day—that’s all we ask for!
Mike: How important is originality?
Snyder: Very important. The screenwriter’s job is to constantly scour our writing looking for the cliché—and stomp it out. Whether it’s the hackneyed idea, the dull turn of phrase, or “the been-there-bored-by-that” character, it’s our duty to make everything about our screenplays—and our writing—POP!
And that means never settling for what is less than fresh and new.
I’ve just finished reviewing my usual 1000 words a day and found them laced with phrases like “when push comes to shove,” “the be all and end all,” and “don’t go there.” Ugh! But instead of beating myself up—for too long, anyway—I see these “place holders” for what they are: an opportunity to liven up my writing with a fresh way to say the same thing—by saying it my way.
Odds are if it feels like you’ve seen it or heard it somewhere before, it’s time to re-think and re-write. That comforting feeling that “It’s like a movie, therefore it’s safe for me to use it” is in fact misleading you into the world of Cliche Alert! And as they say in the now tired words from my writing today: Go there not!
Mike: How do you attract a top agent?
Snyder: If you have the stuff, they will find you. I really believe that. And, yes, I did have good connections. But I found them myself. I found friends with similar interests who would introduce me to agents or agent trainees. Finding an agent is not as mysterious as you think. It may be frustrating. It may be a Catch 22 scenario. But it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is getting good at what you do.
If you have a great poster, a great hook, a great logline, if you have that winning idea, and if you have a script that’s well-executed and well-structured, agents will find you. Trust me on this.
Mike: How long did it take you to find a top agent?
Snyder: Actually, I got one fairly early in my career—Hilary Wayne at Writers and Artists Agency. I was going out with a friend of hers, and we just kind of hit it off. Like me, she was very enthusiastic, very creative, and very willing to try anything.
Unfortunately, she recently passed away.
Hillary sold a lot of my scripts and built my career from scratch. She was a huge influence on how I see the business and write for it even now. She encouraged me to think more commercially, to write the poster first, to think in terms of the target market (who is this movie for?) and the target studio (which studio is trying to fill that need?). And she backed it all up with results—she loved to sell. She knew how to position the script and me as the writer. She liked to say all the time that “Every sale has a story”—a compelling reason to buy beyond just the script. Her most reassuring advice to me was: “It just takes one person to say yes,” meaning that a hundred people can say “No” to your script and it doesn’t matter if one says “Yes.”
Eventually, with Hilary’s help, I learned about the marketplace and satisfying the marketplace and broke through. I started writing movies that were necessarily my favorites personally—even though I liked them a lot—but they met certain commercial criteria. They clearly made you think of a poster right away. They had a clear target market. And they were a style of movie that could be executed within the budget that would make it profitable.
I know a lot of people wonder when they hear this. They wonder if I’m selling out, if I’m being too commercial. To me, I saw it as yet another creative challenge, and I continue to this day to find that challenge interesting. You think it’s easy to create a commercial hit? Try it someday.
I challenge people who think it’s easy to rise up to the craft that it takes to write a commercial hit. There’s definitely snobbery involved with various films, such as indie film versus studio and artsy versus commercial. It’s ignorant. It takes a great deal of craft to write an entertaining, popular, successful movie. Anything else you want to try, good luck to you.
Mike: How do you see the relationship between screenwriter and agent?
Snyder: In a perfect world, I’d go in and pitch a list of ideas about 2-3 times a year. To which my agent stops me at some point and yells, “That’s the one!” What you need is someone trustworthy and honest and blunt, someone who’s not afraid to tell you when something’s really bad. Someone who knows the current market well enough to know what I can deliver. Bottom line, it’s a partnership like any other. I've been very lucky. I’ve learned something from every agent I’ve had, and nearly everyone has made a sale for me.
Mike: What do you think of all the screenwriting contests these days?
Snyder: Amazing, huh? It’s the fad right now. Everybody seems to love sending their stuff to contests. My thought on this: Why? The key ingredient of knowing whether you’re a successful screenwriter is when someone buys a script from you, not winning some contest. When you make a sale is when you know you’re onto something, when you know you’re on the right path.