There's an old story about Picasso. At dinner one night, a man asked him for a drawing.
Feeling frisky, Picasso drew the man’s face on a napkin, then asked for a million dollars.
The man got angry. “It took you thirty seconds to draw that! You want a million dollars?”
“The drawing took me thirty seconds,” Picasso said. “But it took a lifetime to learn how.”
If you send me your script, I'll begin reading it for free. If it's great, I'll continue on to the end.
Of course, if it falls short of "great," I'll stop reading it, then tell you why. But there's no charge.
Now, the "My Story" section provides a partial justification for this being a terrific notes service.
Here’s the rest. It’s long, but in starting a business, I don’t want to leave a single stone unturned.
You don’t need to pay anyone to get notes on your script. While a screenplay isn’t a movie, a 12-year-old can tell you why “Dirty Dancing,” for example, is a modern classic. The average film student can extol the virtues of lesser-seen gems like Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming” or Rod Lurie’s “The Contender.” The fact is, you can get thorough, actionable notes by showing your work to a parent, teacher, student, or friend. Online, there are any number of people who -- through mutual support and reciprocal reads -- can work wonders for you, on and off the page.
With that said, I’ve paid for notes both before and after I sold the script that changed my life. I’ve paid so many outlets between contests, programs, and services that I’ve lost track of a few.
I’ve spent thousands of dollars on Sundance, ScriptShark, Script Blaster, Scriptapalooza, Screenplay Mechanic, Scott the Reader, Amanda Pendolino, Nick Assunto, Nicholl, Nantucket, Film Independent, PAGE International, Tribeca, InkTip, BlueCat, and Big Break, along with ten discerning Black List readers. I even threw some cash at the notorious Carson Reeves.
When asked for advice, I used to say, “Avoid paying for notes” and “Avoid paying for access,” ostensibly because most of the people providing those services were devoid of qualifications. While my advice holds true in the aggregate, it was partly informed by a privileged upbringing. Before my script sold, I received free notes from an NYU friend who went on to create one of the most critically-acclaimed television shows in recent memory. I received free notes from a future partner at WME, and before that, a trainee on his desk. While I didn’t attend film school, living in New York exposed me to well-heeled scions and self-made strivers. Together, they shaped my personal and artistic growth. Most writers don’t enjoy that privilege, yet I still paid for access, as it’s tough to even get read.
In some ways, writers pay for access by attending expensive private schools like NYU, USC, AFI, Chapman, and Columbia. It’s easy to avoid paying for access when one can afford to go to these schools and forge valuable connections. It’s also easy to move to L.A. and score that low-paying assistant gig when one has family money (and youth). Franklin Leonard’s Black List aimed to bridge that gap, and for many users, it’s been something of a godsend.
When I advise people to avoid paying for notes or access, it's meant with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, it scares off
qualified readers -- those who don’t want to be thought of as charlatans. In turn, the effect is akin to removing an Arab state leader from power. This creates a vacuum in the entire region or space, one that gets filled with readers who are either stupid, dangerous, or oftentimes both. Now, that's a flawed analogy, and I’d rather not compare script consultants to ISIS, but the comparison is not without merit.
When I paid ScriptShark $200 in 2006 money, I signed a contract. If they had given my script to a manager on its way to a sale, I would’ve owed 10% (in addition to legitimate manager fees). It was a steep price to pay -- I knew it at the time -- but since it’s so hard to get read, I gladly signed up. While their reader's notes were helpful, Scriptshark passed on the script. Had they not, I might’ve cut them a check for $40,000. By contrast, when I paid Amanda Pendolino ~$139, it wasn’t for notes, but for proofreading. That was money well spent, while others charge high rates, but can’t even spell proofreading. (Previously, I posted a screenshot of a "proof reader" charging triple those rates, but I don't need to kick the hornet's nest.)
Your screenplay probably isn’t very good. I know this, because most of mine aren’t very good, and out of the eight scripts I’ve written, I’ve signed contracts on six, and turned down a seventh. Now, if your script isn’t very good, obtaining free notes is the way to go. The main reason to pay for notes -- again, on a bad script -- is if you want a legitimate reader to deliver a guilty verdict. Meaning, if you’re going to abandon a script, that advice should come from a voice you respect. And more often than not, the best note you can get might be the most painful note you can get:
Move on to the next script. Address the notes and make changes, but move on to the next script.
One reason I pay for notes is because I want several opinions to inform and develop my writing. To me, a screenplay is a machete, a knife one needs to cut through the dense underbrush of the film business. And every time I’ve paid for notes, I was hoping that my blade would get sharper. Again, when giving advice, I rarely recommend the practice, as most people don’t have cash to burn on the aforementioned questionable readers. I also like to pair paid notes with free notes, which are often sourced from complete strangers. It makes sense for me, because even my bad scripts are of professional quality. Three suggestions from this reader, four adjustments from that one, and a new project is born. For example, after I sent a script to a produced writer in The Screenplay Mechanic, he gave me a note which helped turn a good story into a great one.
People pay those who have skills. GRE tutoring costs $200 an hour, yet books can assist for free.
One can learn how do a French manicure on YouTube, yet people still pay to get their nails done.
Despite their expertise in the weight room, pro athletes fly out to trainers at off-season facilities.
Actors who earn $10,000,000 per film hire accent/dialect coaches with less impressive résumés.
Renting a tennis court can run $70 an hour, yet public courts are free. Private lessons? Forget it.
People pay for lessons, tutoring, and all manner of instruction. At best, we’re being taught, but a tennis instructor or golf pro can’t step onto the court or green and help guide our swing. With a script, however, one can influence the actual document. My script wouldn’t have sold without the notes I received from my NYU friend. At 30, neither of us were “writers,” but when our respective screenplays went out around town, his script had a side character based upon me. The secret to creating three-dimensional characters is being a three-dimensional character, and at times, that’s what people are up against -- talented writers eyeballing one another’s scripts. Until my friend got traction, I was unaware of the degree to which I benefited from his counsel. At 30, we were unaccomplished, though in retrospect, I was a skilled writer who was given help by a future show creator. As such, I didn’t make it on my own. I was born on third base, and was driven home on the very next pitch. Now, that doesn’t mean you should pay The Screenplay Mechanic or anyone else for their notes. I choose to pay for them, and I’ve also paid readers who are less perceptive than Andrew Hilton. In any case, I firmly believe that I can offer as much insight into a given script as anyone online. The overwhelming majority of people charging for notes have never written a decent screenplay. They’re not clever, funny, or particularly bright, but hey -- they definitely have books to sell you.
Granted, there are consultants who have knowledge to share and are worth paying attention to. Michael Hague is one of them, as even his free, online help has been an influence on my writing. As stated by Will Smith, “No one is better than Michael Hauge at finding what is most authentic in every moment of a story.” In addition to that testimonial, there’s a video on Mr. Hague’s website in which Will Smith speaks about story, creativity, and their work together. Also, one of the all-time great screenwriters in Shane Black provides testimony: “In a field choked with alleged ‘script doctors,’ Michael Hague remains the surest, most sensible alternative. When I pick up the phone for help, he’s the call I make.”
Wow. That’s impressive. Unfortunately, Mr. Hague’s notes cost $2,250, which is a lot of money.
“All additional hours purchased after completion of this package will be offered at the discounted rate [of] $350/hr.”
That’s a lot money, too. At the same time, if Shane Black calls him for help, is it all that different than an NBA basketball player who hires a shooting coach? When it comes to breaking through, if you’re a doctor with a dollar and a dream, you may be willing to pay $2,250 for quality notes. That doctor may love her job, but she may also be willing to give it up to work as TV writer on a bad network sitcom. $2,250 is unfathomable to me, but there’s obviously a demand for Mr. Hague’s opinion. While he doesn’t provide access, he can sharpen the knife, which gives the writer their best chance at making an impression.
Mr. Hague also works with story analysts who -- for 7 to 10 pages of notes -- charge $650 a read.
Frankly, I’d rather pay $2,250 to the guy who’s on the phone with With Smith and Shane Black.
Frankly, I’d rather pay neither. Jane Espenson used to charge $600 to $800, but she’s a writer. That gave potential clients some assurance that she could make highly-specific suggestions, or even on-the-page changes. And yet, Mr. Hague’s lessons helped me become a better storyteller. In fact, building on his structure template -- and a "Hero's Journey" template by Christopher Vogler -- I’ve developed two templates of my own. I encourage every writer to click on these, save them, then distribute them far and wide. One of my dreams is to learn that someone's written a script with the help of my template.
The Internet is littered with writing consultants who are charging hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to read our scripts. And unlike Mr. Hague and Mr. Vogler, they don't have a track record of...
You know what? Let’s not pull punches.
This is me at a batting cage. I’m closer to playing center field for the Chicago White Sox than most consultants are to being writers, much less talented writers. In fact, I can hit a baseball left-handed better than some consultants can read or write.
I’ve watched thousands of baseball games, but no one's hiring me to coach hitting, because I’ve never shown an aptitude for it on any respectable level. In fact, when I was 23, I was working at a batting cage. I briefly worked at Frozen Ropes on the Upper West Side, and I did provide hitting tips, but really, I was just a guy. I’ve never stood in a batter’s box and thrived; I’ve never stood in a batter’s box and failed. To be a coach, you don’t need to be a Hall of Famer -- or even a star -- but you do need to have played the game on some level beyond Little League. Many consultants rarely use Fade in or Final Draft. They’re comically bad writers, and that’s if they write at all.
As a kid in 1987, I could tell that aging Mets catcher Gary Carter was late on the high fastball, popping them up because he couldn’t get on top of the ball. The Mets never offered me a job, however, as my knowledge of hitting was rather limited. Similarly, many consultants can look at a script and tell you what’s right or wrong with it, but only to a point. They’re not much better at giving notes than the folks I mentioned in my opening paragraph: the parent, teacher, student, or friend. While they do have more experience with reading scripts, they also lack vision. They don’t know how to turn a phrase, tell a joke, or construct a story worth sharing. And if they can’t work magic on their own pages, they can’t work magic on yours.
Granted, that’s not to say that there aren’t top-notch script readers who are just as talented as established writers. Often, their scripts didn’t get into the right hands, weren’t given a fair shake, or the stars didn’t line up. And you can tell which studio and production company readers are the real deal -- in terms of intelligence and integrity -- because they often frown upon readers charging an arm and a leg for their services. They’re vocal about this, and have been for years.
Before you consider sending me your script, I want to share some advice that would've been lost in the “My Story” section. It was meant to appear near the end, after earning goodwill from the reader. However, I can’t expect people to get that far, so I’ve moved the advice to this “Notes” section.
There were several factors that were instrumental in getting my breakthrough script on the map. I used to think it was about hard work and talent, and while it’s definitely about both of those things, any success I’ve enjoyed was a result of several intangibles. As mentioned, I’ve achieved nothing on my own.
1) Try to be born into an upper middle-class family. For me, that was half the battle. I wasn’t born into a “wealthy” family, per se, or else writing a check to reclaim my script would be a no-brainer. But for all intents and purposes, I was born with tremendous advantages. Family money afforded me the free time to write, plus the opportunity to make connections.
In some ways, the arts are a rigged game. When you go to the most prestigious museums in New York, you’ll see Gaugin and Rembrandt, but you’ll also see Garbage and Refuse. Many artists are just rich kids who have time and money to burn. Their work is ambiguous, it’s not up to par, and sometimes, the emperor has no clothes:
It’s disheartening to see the rich get richer, but just as with nepotism and cronyism, take comfort in the fact that if you can find the time and produce the work, you’ll be competing with mediocre talents. Sure, there are people who have talent and a head start, in film, television, and beyond. Theo Epstein won two World Series with the Boston Red Sox, then one with the Chicago Cubs. His father teaches Creative Writing at Boston University, and his grandfather and great-uncle won Oscars for writing “Casablanca.” David Benioff wrote The 25th Hour, then later adapted “Game of Thrones.” His father was the chairman of Goldman Sachs. People like Epstein and Benioff have the skills to match their pedigree, while others are quite average. So if you have talent, you’ll shine. Most Hollywood writers are beyond brilliant and wildly talented, and they stood out against Garbage and Refuse. If you have serious skills and a ferocious work ethic, people will recognize your gift.
2) Try to be born a man. When I was 18, and working on my first screenplay, people thought it was cool. By contrast, my female friends traveling down the same road were met with discouragement or flat-out contempt. When you’re a woman, people often laugh at your ambitions -- particularly your artistic ambitions. Continuing with the museum theme, this is “Painting Bitten by Man” by the great Jasper Johns:
This is hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. I'm not at all surprised that it’s called “Painting Bitten by Man,” because if it were called “Painting Bitten by Woman,” no one would hang this thing anywhere.
Even when society supports their goals and dreams, women are “mommy tracked.” Before that, they’re pressured to give up artistic or entrepreneurial pursuits in favor of something grounded. Before that, they’re dissuaded from couchsurfing in their 20’s and subsisting on Ramen noodles. If women do make it to Hollywood and are in a position to get hired, further challenges await them. There’s a reason why the first woman (of color) wasn’t hired on a late-night talk show until 2014. Some men feel they can’t be themselves with women around, which often entails the telling of offensive jokes or displays of offensive behavior. And while enlightened, evolved men in television writing rooms outnumber insecure, piggish men, it remains a challenge for women to stand on equal ground. Some men insist that women have an easier time getting hired, but there lies another problem. From what women (and men) tell me, one has to be the “right kind” of woman, in the same way that I’m the “right kind” of Indian guy. This isn’t to say that being a white male writer is a cakewalk, because it’s not.
Each journey is different. I’ve had it far easier than the majority of white male writers, but for women, the struggle is real.
One of the saddest aspects of the restrictions placed upon girls and women is that they rarely get to tell their own stories. My “Duck” script attached Callie Khouri as its director at one point, and she compared the project to Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me.” It was so appreciated, as I paid homage to Lonergan by stealing an exchange from that very film.
Years later, I wrote a script that focused its lens on two women. I believe it’s one of the better scripts I’ve ever read about two women. That’s quite the claim on my part, until you examine the statement. Of all the scripts I’ve read, how many were even about two women? Callie won an Oscar for writing “Thelma and Louise,” but as she once pointed out, how many scripts written by women get championed? Given the historical underrepresentation of women in film, the unfortunate, infuriating truth is that -- more often than not -- stories about women are told by men. It calls to the mind the fact that women get paid less than men for the same work. As men, we often fail to recognize that women rarely get the same work. Meanwhile, women themselves implicitly understand that they’re penned off from some of the better career paths. And if they do manage to get on the path, the opportunities available to them are less abundant. As an example, I was reading a longform article about the damage a bullet does after it enters the human body. What stood out to me was that the chair of Temple University’s Department of Surgery was one of only 16 women in the country to hold that position at a hospital. And there are a lot of hospitals around.
In sum, the myriad advantages granted to me by familial standing were only superseded by the advantages granted to me by gender privilege. When combined, the two formed a potent cocktail on a path toward success, writing and the arts aside.
3) Don’t be difficult. It doesn't matter how talented you are, how cool you are, or who you know. Life is too short -- and the business is too tough -- to work with difficult people. If you’re inclined to read the “My Story” section, you’ll eventually come across the following paragraph:
“Well, in 2012, on a day when one of my two agents was let go from UTA, I was dropped, too. It was painful, though mitigated by the fact that I wasn’t writing, nor was I thrilled about Harvey Weinstein and the death of “Duck.” Plus, Barbara begged off in 2011 after I confessed to slow-dancing with CAA. Any way you look at it, in four years, I wrote only two pilots and one screenplay, which is not what I would call an acceptable output for one year, much less four. That said, UTA has been generous enough to consider two of my scripts on three occasions -- in 2013, 2015, and 2016.”
Writers can be prickly pears -- we can even be difficult -- but there’s a line we shouldn’t cross. We can be combative, we can be unproductive, and we can even write poorly, but we can’t be difficult to the point where people don’t like us. I made very little money for Barbara [Dreyfus] in the grand scheme of things, but I was a nice person, so she was down to read my 2012 script, “Great White Men in Black History.” Again, UTA read the next script, and a third one after that.
There’s one way to tell if you can make it as a writer: Throughout your life, people have wanted to spend time with your writing, and they’ve wanted to spend time with you. It’s not that simple, but in some ways, it kind of is. For my money, it’s not just about the writing, it’s about the writer.
Most writers were recommended by someone in light of their prodigious talents, but also because they weren’t difficult to work with. And since so many of us are Grade A, dyed-in-the wool nerds, we’ve had many opportunities to be difficult. The first boy to call me a Schedule I racial slur with consistency would sing “No niggers allowed” when I got on the bus in elementary school. I took it like a champ, internalizing the humiliation, and a rapier wit emerged as a defense mechanism. The boy who humiliated me became a Civil Rights Attorney for The Justice Department, so one can guess how some of the less fortunate kids had their fun. This was in the early 80’s, mind you.
Though my hometown was (and still is) a great place to grow up, Soledad O’Brien has written about the struggles her family faced there. In the following interview, Ilana Glazer shared her thoughts on the matter. The Mercer family -- who finances Steven Bannon’s Breitbart -- has an enormous estate by the water (in a part of town I didn’t even know existed). Finally, one of the Nazis from Charlottesville -- Chris Cantwell, from this VICE documentary -- grew up just a few minutes from us. While our town is quite lovely, it’s not always welcoming for everyone. As such, I understand why artists can be difficult. We often create to heal our wounds, and for some, those wounds remain open. The ups-and-downs of this business can pick at those wounds, or even rub salt in them. Again, I’ve been difficult, too, so I won’t lecture anyone as if I can claim the moral high ground. Here I am after getting cross-outs on one of my scripts. Like, the best parts were literally crossed out.
Netflix documentaries aside, you can’t be difficult to the point where people despise you. In every business, internships and jobs come by way of referral, and this holds true for film and television. Writers perpetually ask, “How do I get a manager? How do I get an agent?” Well, the surefire way is to write a great script. I realize, however, how frustrating it is to hear that. As discussed, agency doors opened for me, in part because I went to a costly private university. Given the relationships developed there, I was able to work at Barbie magazine, then at “SNL.”
I also write about this in the “My Story” section. In high school, I had more friends than I knew what to do with, but once I got to college, I was simply “Neeraj Katyal,” or Indian boy #2,100. New York in 1995 was rather lonely in some respects, as there was no social media to facilitate friendships, and no quad to meet other kids. A volleyball player from high school asked me to join his sports fraternity, and seeing that I was being bullied a bit by a group of Indian kids (!), there was no way I was turning down a bunch of jocks who boasted the kind of diversity I coveted when choosing NYU in the first place. Once I crossed over, I learned how to coexist with people I wouldn’t usually mingle with, and vice versa. Again, in the long “My Story” section,” I explain this all over the course of 1,000 words, not because I’m keen on letting the world know I was involved in frat life, but because the aforementioned WME partner was in the fraternity, too. He saw me as an 18-year-old, and watched me mature through my 20’s before offering me agency representation at 30. Many writers believe talent alone will carry them through, and they grow understandably frustrated when marginal talents take off. But filmmaking is highly collaborative, and people want to spend time with fellow creatives who have agreeable dispositions. Heck, one of the most important figures in the “Law & Order” universe was in our fraternity, and for years, he's worked closely with Dick Wolf. We were all in the same frat, so maybe Mr. Wolf thought he could handle contrasting personalities. It would make sense, given that our friend oversees casting across several shows, and the drama that must surely entail.
Now, if you’re in college, that doesn’t mean you should run out and join a fraternity. Please don’t. Yes, people of color in particular often turn to fraternities and sororities because they don’t have institutional connections, but other people of color -- along with white men and women -- have somehow survived without pledging. Okay, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in a sorority at Northwestern, and as the heiress to a great fortune, she didn’t need the leg up. People adore Ms. Louis-Dreyfus, but don’t join a frat. I made a poor decision that turned out well for me, but I was 18 and foolish. If you have a minute, I’d love to tell you about the other terrible life choices I made as a teenager.
When I speak to writers who’ve “made it,” many of them talk about wanting to kick themselves for worrying so much about whether or not they could’ve made it. They wasted too many years worrying and wondering, when all the signs were right in front of them. And it bears repeating: To make it as a writer, people have to want to spend time with your writing, and they have to want to spend time with you. When exploring a writer’s past, you'll find stories similar to mine. Their writing ability or their power of observation manifested itself early in life. Also, the people in their orbit either encouraged them or advocated for them -- both their talent and their person.
4) Ask for help and offer help. Everything good in my life -- writing-wise -- is a direct result of either asking people for help, or asking to help them. I learned the latter from a great book written by Ted Hope. People in power are often asked for their help, but they’re rarely asked if they can be helped.
Based on the lesson learned, I now try to seek help or advice from people who are older than me, but also from people who are younger than me. I ask 70-year-old’s for advice -- and to partner up -- as many of them worry that they’ll never enjoy further success. I also ask 20-year-old’s for advice, as many of them worry that they’ll never enjoy any success. When the partnerships form, I think about the fact that nothing would’ve materialized had I not taken a small chance in reaching out.
I now subscribe to the idea that “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” That’s not to say that if you’re a single guy, for example, you should ask every girl in your path out on a date. Sure, the odds are in your favor that some will say yes, but don't do that. Instead, keep in mind the following advice Terry Rossio picked up from his message board. It comes from a man named Tom Scott:
"The so-called gatekeepers don't want to help you. They want to see if you can help them. You have to be a train streaming down the tracks with room on board, instead of a stranger asking for a ride. No easy task, but that's why I trust it."
Whenever writers or directors ask to co-write with me, they’re trains streaming down the track. When I asked to co-write with a writer who’d sold an action script last year, calls to a top agent were being made on my behalf by a studio-based producer. I would never ask someone to write with me unless I had something big brewing. So use your judgment, but fortune favors the bold. If you have something solid to share -- if you’re a train streaming down the tracks -- ask for help.
With that said, someone who doesn’t respond to you or receive you warmly is not in the wrong. If someone you reach out to is unhelpful -- or even flat-out rude -- you have to respect the fact that they’re under no obligation to help you. Whenever I contact someone, I'm imposing on them, even when sending a short, friendly note. The good news is, I notice that the more successful a filmmaker is, the more likely they are to respond positively to my letter. Part of it is because I usually bring something to the table. Another part of it is that successful people are generous, and generous people are successful. If you’re a student who’s just graduating from film school and you have a short film to share, a lot of people will gladly give you 20 minutes of their time. Just don’t expect them to like it. That’s the trade-off. No one's ever obligated to like our work.
Also, save some bullets. I’m never shy about asking for a script read. If you’re a film person on any level, and I haven’t contacted you at some point, you should almost be offended. If you haven’t received a letter from me, well, it’s only because I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m kidding, but not really. Now, with respect to saving bullets, don’t write to everyone. Whenever I’ve sent out a script, it’s usually been -- unbeknownst to me -- slightly undercooked. Submitting a new draft was a non-starter, so the script was better, but I was fresh out of bullets.
Work on your script a little longer. In the meantime, offer to help someone. It’ll make them feel good, their appreciative response will make you feel good, and your script will grow stronger.
5) Keep writing. Some of the smartest people in the world want to be writers in Hollywood. Some of the most talented, fortunate, and successful people are working toward the dream. Athletes, models, Vanderbilts, and Kennedys -- even the elites would love to be filmmakers. Actually, some of them already are. James Vanderbilt and Rory Kennedy do fine work.
Making it as a writer isn’t just about talent and persistence, it’s also about the wants and needs of industry gatekeepers. Who do they want to hang out with? A Vanderbilt or a Kennedy, or a Neeraj Katyal? Well, the good news is, the flashiest people in the world write the most atrocious scripts. Plus, some of the smartest bloggers, novelists, and journalists can’t tell a story nearly as well as you can, so if the gatekeepers can get their hands on a great script, they don’t care who you are.
Still, you have to keep writing and you have to be patient. Your ability will improve as you age. Most aspirants quit in their 20’s and 30’s, because life gets in the way and rejection is hard. However, if you have undeniable talent and you keep writing, the seas may part for you. After all, I didn't add those baseball videos simply to illustrate a point about consultants and their questionable utility. This is a picture of me during my first year of Little League. This is a picture of me during the peak awfulness of my Indian-American experience.
Right before this picture was taken, one of my teammates made a wisecrack about, well, Iran. You can see the anguish in my face, as it was the first time anyone used a country other than India to dehumanize me. (Sort of like in "Jurassic Park" when the velociraptors learned how to open doors.) I went 0 for 43 during that first and last season of Little League, and I was the only hitter in town with a batting average of .000. Worse, not only did I fail to get a hit all year long, I also struck out in each of my 43 at-bats. I never once made contact with the ball. And while the humiliation never left me, I kept going, and today, playing baseball brings me the kind of inner peace most people only get from yoga, meditation, or death metal. The key, however, was that I never stopped hitting. I know how maddening it is to hear this, but you have to keep writing.
Beyond all that, here’s something that’s rarely, if ever, talked about. Even for writers with obvious, blinding talent, it’s incredibly hard to write a good script, much less a great script.
Look at musicians. On his 1987 album “Faith,” George Michael wrote and composed three hits: “Faith,” “Father Figure,” and “One More Try.” The other five songs on the album aren’t as good, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I’m sure he wanted them all to be great. But the fact of the matter is, a musician like George Michael laid eggs more often than he spun gold, even when producing his best work. Now, when you’re writing a screenplay, you’re writing a symphony. I don’t care if it’s bad writing, it’s still a symphony. There are violins, snare drums, and cymbals; violas, trumpets, and tubas. I’ve written eight feature scripts -- eight symphonies -- and I’m only happy with three of them. So if you think I’m going to like your script, well, I probably won’t. And that’s to be expected, due to the enormous degree of difficulty. Continuing with the artwork and sports theme, here I am writing a screenplay:
I also don’t like talking about “competition” or the idea of “competing,” because ultimately, you’re competing with yourself. Since it’s so hard to write a great script -- even for top writers -- you only need to compete with yourself. If you keep after it, and eventually write said great script, you’ll find that there is no competition. When my “Duck” screenplay was discovered, it didn’t matter that Johnny Producer may have owed a favor to some real estate developer in Malibu. That developer didn’t have a great script, so all his networking and elbow-rubbing proved useless.
If you have the talent, don’t ever give up. But you have to keep writing, because we all lay eggs.
Okay. Let’s get to the main event.
There are several reasons why writers should share their work with me. Here are five of them:
1) I put the .PDFs of my scripts online. There’s no reader or consultant who does that, and I’m pretty sure there’s no reader or consultant who will ever do that. Why? Because by putting our work out there to be judged, we open ourselves up to criticism, misinterpretation, and ridicule. I could easily say something like, “If you have the courage to show someone your scripts, they should have the courage to show you their scripts.” Makes sense. When you get a landscaping flyer in the mail, there are pictures of lawns for you to consider. If a top stylist wants to charge you $300 for a blowout, she’ll have a lookbook of cuts. So why won’t readers share their work?
They shouldn’t share their work. It’s a suicide mission. Judging a script is both easy and hard, and even experienced evaluators can make mistakes. Readers don’t want assessments of their own scripts out there, as negative coverage can torpedo a potential project. Nothing good can come of it. (Edit: This has changed via a producer's advice. He said that I shouldn't share my work, but if you want to take a look, I'd be more than happy to share the scripts with you.)
On the other hand...
I started writing my first script just after turning 18, and finished writing my last script just before turning 38. I signed contracts on both, and almost every one in-between. During that time, I received such extraordinary feedback on my work that I have no qualms about sharing it. Still, I’m putting myself out there. I’m sharing my life -- my heart and my soul -- with the world.
People will mock me for my miserable, failing battles with “Show vs. Tell.”
They’ll criticize me as I struggle to fight the long war of “Text vs. Subtext.”
As they should. It literally pains me to show five of the eight scripts to anyone, but in general, I have confidence in myself. Writing a screenplay is akin to performing a magic trick of sorts. The goal is to turn a hundred pieces of paper into a fluid, ever-changing blueprint, sure, but that blueprint doubles as valuable intellectual property. I think a script is a work of art. Okay, it may not be art in and of itself, but it's the special sauce that leads to a work of art. And if this is actual art in a prestigious museum, all bets are off:
This isn't art, it's a mattress, and it's the worst thing in the world. It's worse than racism. A few years ago, a man at the airport told my mom that she should “go back to where [she] came from.” I have more affection for that man than whoever did this. If anyone says that your scripts aren’t works of art, kick them, then show them this picture.
In all seriousness, you shouldn’t come to me because I’ve sold a script, as selling a script can (sometimes) be an indicator of a middlebrow effort. You should come to me because I'm a good writer, and I’ve got the receipts. My scripts are a click away.
Here are the rest of the reasons why -- if you're in the market for notes -- you should consider sending me your work:
2) When you go through my scripts -- even the misfires -- there’s obvious joy on every page. There's never a moment where I'm mailing it in, and I have a love of writing that’s readily expressed. You’ll see it in my scripts, in this "Notes" section, and in every other section. I love to read, I love to write, and I'll treat your script with respect. Also, this quote speaks volumes:
"There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself." -- Akira Kurosawa
If you read “The Amazing Adventures of the Monogamous Duck” or you read “The Destroyer,” you can tell exactly what kind of person I am. Those scripts feature heart and wit, and they’re supposed to be straight-up dramas. By contrast, “Murder in London” has no heart at all. It’s cold and calculating. Still, I believe “Duck” and “Destroyer” are funnier than 80% of comedy scripts, and “Murder” is, too. So send me your script, not just because I’m a talented writer, but because I’m a funny person.
Comedy = Tragedy + Time.
Many writers are Jews and African-Americans who've suffered through unspeakable horrors. Some writers are white men who were beaten by their stepmothers, beaten by their siblings, or just beaten by life. Other writers are women who’ve been dealing with the indignities foisted upon them since birth. I mentioned my hometown, and how it was both so wonderful and, well, kind of intolerant. That environment -- while filled with warm, loving people -- shaped me in some strange ways. Recently, I read a Chris Rock quote: “They say that tragedy is easy and comedy is hard. Know what's harder? Both at once.” Mr. Rock was discussing his childhood, and the Italian and Irish kids who threw bags of urine at him. Given my experience, I was surprised they used bags.
Though I may or may not add jokes to your script, you'll know that I can write them. If you can tell from my work that I’m legitimately funny, and that I can create serious, poignant moments as well, then you’ll trust me when I tell you that your jokes won’t land with a reader. You’ll trust me if I tell you that your sad scene won’t move a reader. And you won’t hear it from someone who's unqualified or anonymous, you’ll hear it from a fellow writer.
3) I have range. I don't have range in terms of style, but I do in terms of subject matter. I’m proud of the stories I’ve told, even if I’m not always proud of the execution. Now, your potentially arcane subject matter may not work for Reader X, but it'll probably work for me. Here’s a list of all my scripts -- dating back to 1996 -- and a description of their subject matter.
(Romantic comedy about a Jewish boy and a Puerto Rican girl)
The Amazing Adventures of the Monogamous Duck
(Dramedy about a novelist, his editor, her family)
The New Yorker
(Drama pilot about five young con artists, one elderly man)
Peaches and Cream
(Feature version of The New Yorker)
Confessions of a High School Bus Driver
(Comedy pilot about bus drivers)
Great White Men in Black History
(Romantic comedy about two black teachers, white student sidekicks)
(Slasher drama set in Puerto Rico)
The Pool Boy
(Drama about a battered spouse who finds work at a male escort service)
Murder in London
(Murder mystery about fashion designers)
Shiva the Destroyer
(Crime drama about a South Asian boxer)
Irish Never Quit
(Dramedy about a minor league ballplayer and a turbaned Sikh boy)
That’s ten scripts, the last of which I’m only about 13 pages into, yet you can still have a look. Again, most consultants will never show you their scripts -- if they even have any -- forget about the ones they wrote at 18. With me, you can see the lawns I’ve cut and the hair I’ve styled. And given the varying subject matter of the stories told, I’m down to read anything.
4) I may not have the most comprehensive notes service, but its legitimacy is absolute. Why? Aside from the fact that I’m a talented writer, there are two reasons: 1) I won’t overpromise (and underdeliver), and 2) I won’t offer bad or generic advice.
I can’t give your script to CAA. The man who’s helped me there is too high up on the totem pole. I know a great manager who’s down to read picks -- two of them -- but I’d rather deliver a well-populated list. Still, I'll open every .PDF I get.
One of the top sites uses the Fox Searchlight logo, intimating that they’ll take your script there. (A good friend confirmed that the site won’t, in fact, take your script there.) I can’t take a script to Fox Searchlight either, but I can show you a text in which an actor says that he’s pitching my script to Searchlight. Meaning, I’m just a writer. I can’t go to CAA with your script, but I know someone who can. For now, I believe I can grow this site into something helpful and impactful. Maybe more reps will help me, and maybe some writers will help me, too. They’ve seen opportunists prey on dreamers. They’ve applied to contests that rake in so much money, but give away so little.
The most important quality I can offer is my talent, because it means that I don’t need to fill up twenty pages with notes in order to justify my prices. I’ve given notes on what turned out to be a Black List script, but the sum total of my effort was a half page of chicken scratch. There was no fluff or filler, I just told the writer everything he needed to know about the script. I’d rather pay a gifted writer $200 for four pages of notes than pay a dilettante $300 for six or seven pages. When you get reams of notes from Reader X, a few will create needless doubt in your head. There’s nothing worse than getting a bad note which makes you second-guess yourself. I've received bad notes that I knew were bad, but as an open-minded perfectionist, I kept returning to the badness.
The only way to disarm readers who charge more than they’re worth is to offer a better service. That’s what I intend to do. I’ve thought about running a concurrent, fee-based contest, but I’d like some outside input. I do know that I’d give away a much higher percentage of the revenue than any writing contest around. Since I’ve been on The Black List, maybe I can start a White List. I’d prefer to save the name for when I look to tackle the college admissions process, but it works. For now, I’m looking to start out small -- at some point -- with The Little Raj 500, and we’ll figure it out from there.
In terms of advice, much of what we hear -- in most every field -- is rooted in survivorship bias. I’m not going to advise an aspiring writer to do something simply because it worked out for me. For example, just because I was able to sell my script without moving to L.A. doesn’t mean you should stay in New York. If you have the financial means, and you don’t have a career or family that would be uprooted, it’s my opinion that you should get to L.A. as soon as humanly possible. It’s where the business is, it’s where the connections are, and frankly, it’s where your future lies.
Similarly, I was planning on telling people that they don’t need to go to film school. If I didn’t go, you don’t need to go, and that’s that. Then again, if your folks have money, maybe you should go. Most of the students at the big film schools -- even the graduate film schools -- don’t sell scripts. That’s not to say they don’t become producers, editors, and directors, or score other terrific jobs. But if you’re set on being a writer, you don’t need a film school or dramatic writing degree. Now, as stated above, maybe it’s a path you should take. Friendships are made, and they do bear fruit.
In the same vein, I won’t give you generic advice. I won’t tell you to write every day, because even though it’s solid, universal advice that you’ll get from the greats, I didn’t write every day. It’s important that you think about writing every day, since your daily thoughts are future currency. Also, I won’t assume that your character’s musings and opinions are your opinions. My characters often make statements that in no way jibe with my personal beliefs. I won’t tell you to outline, because even though I outline, successful writers like Shonda Rhimes and Aaron Sorkin don’t.
I won’t offer false hope or empty promises. And I won’t tell you that you should do what I did.
Do what you do. And keep doing it.
Often, writers just need someone to tell them that they have legitimate talent. Before breaking through with the blockbuster success of "Prisoners," Aaron Guzikowski had a good experience with BlueCat. The same sort of encouragement carried me through my lean years. People believed in my talent, and they also believed in me.
Trust the process, and trust yourself.
5) Finally, come to me because I’ve experienced rejection, not because I’ve experienced success. The success I’ve enjoyed has been so life-changing that it had a permanent effect on how I walk.
My physical gait literally changed, not after selling a script, but after being told that a pair of A-list producers -- I’ll call them Harper and Dylan -- would earn credits on a more recent script. Mr. Harper was going to read it during his Oscar campaign tour for an acclaimed film. Mr. Dylan is an actor, and after hearing the news, I watched about eight of his movies in a row.
Just two hours after I finished the last movie, I was informed that their producing partner changed their mind. (It happens.) In any case, don’t come to me because I’ve enjoyed a level of success, come to me because I’ve experienced crushing and everlasting rejection. I know what it feels like to have the light go out in your soul.
January 8th, 2016 was one of the worst days of my life. I thought Mr. Harper and Mr. Dylan’s company was going to
produce my work, but the roof came crashing in. It hurt, and though I experienced so much disappointment with “Duck,” it didn’t prepare me for the pain. The (unnamed) script is now a far better script, and I’m glad I was able to further develop it with the person who set us up. Still, every morning and every night, I feel the rejection in my bones. It’s a waking nightmare.
Most consultants haven’t had much success, but in my view, they haven’t failed enough, either. I’ve been rejected so many times -- and I’ve come close so many times -- that I’m going to have real compassion when it comes to criticizing your work. Sure, I'm going to get things wrong, but I genuinely care. I know the pain of being rejected from a contest with a script that Harvey Weinstein eventually bought, and so many producers chased. I know what it’s like to follow “Duck” with a pilot, have it be developed by Peter Chernin’s team, then watch it fall flat. I know what it’s like to turn that pilot into screenplay, have an agent flip for it, only to strike out once again. I've been rejected by so many people that I rarely comment on filmmakers. When we do that, all we're admitting on Twitter or social media is that we have zero connection to anyone they may know. It's fine that people tear into "Bright," as Max Landis tears into people. But that movie was also made by a powerhouse of a producer who's done yeoman's work on my biggest project. Hell, I've had lunch with one of this woman's chief collaborators:
In 2010, if you had told me that Lena Dunham would win a Golden Globe, I wouldn’t have been surprised. If you had told me that she’d earn a three million dollar book deal, I wouldn’t have been surprised. If you had told me that she’d land on the cover of VOGUE? Nah. Still not surprised.
If you had told me that Lena Dunham would sit next to NFL star Odell Beckham, Jr. at the Met Gala, and more or less out him in the process? Yeah, well, that would've surprised me. I did not see that coming. In fact, I've never been more surprised by anything in my life. It took me two days to process that one. In any case, I’ve been rejected by your favorite punching bag. It forced me to become a better writer. Similarly, when I was dropped by UTA in 2012, it lit a fire under me. One of my two agents was let go on the same day, so it wasn’t like I was singled out. Still, I should’ve worked harder (and smarter).
For me, having an agent was cooler than selling a script, because as a college student, it wasn’t girls or money that I fantasized about, but having lunch with an agent who, say, bet on the horses. I dreamed about tweed suits, pantsuits, and stern admonishments about finishing up my novel. While I thought I had the talent to sell a script, I didn’t think the stars would line up. Having an actual, official agent, therefore, was the true goal. It would mark me as an actual, official writer.
Predictably, after I was let go, that’s when things started taking off for me. Instead of writing only two pilots and one screenplay in four years, I ramped up production. I always said that -- given my success with “Duck” -- I could find someone on Craigslist who would pay me to write. Well, a friend challenged me to do just that. So in late 2012, I hopped on Craigslist, and within a month, I found someone. A successful entrepreneur needed a slasher script set in Puerto Rico. We signed a contract, and he paid me in advance. Having quickly grown chummy, the man laughed in my face, because he was willing to pay someone twice as much. Then I laughed in his face, because I had no idea how to write a slasher script. But as you can tell from the initial pages of the script, I figured it out fast. Apparently, in 2013, Luis Guzmán took a shining to it, and I wrote the lead role with him in mind. After financing fell through, I wrote Mr. Guzmán last year with respect to a different concern.
A Craigslist challenge led to cash money, which turned into a funny e-mail for a first response:
By the way, that is the most on-brand Luis Guzmán e-mail a person could ever hope to receive.
Anyway. After “Vieques,” I moved faster, writing “The Pool Boy” for a wildly talented director whom I admired. It was probably a mistake, if only because I was writing with money in mind. “Magic Mike” had come out a year earlier, and I wanted to be bold after a series of near-misses. My plan was to write a romance novel called The Pool Boy. With a broad title, it wouldn’t be execution-dependent like my previous work, and it could sell at Walmart. I figured if I combined “Magic Mike” with “Sleeping With the Enemy” -- a movie I adored a kid -- I’d have a best-seller.
My version featured a battered spouse who goes to work for pool-cleaning service, only to find that it’s a male escort service. (One run by a domineering woman.) The enthusiastic director convinced me to write it as a script that he could shoot for peanuts. I wrote it in weeks, and though I optioned it to a producer, nothing came of it. (I should’ve written the manuscript.)
Again, I saw it as a mistake, as I was writing from the outside in, not from the inside out. The same holds true for “Vieques.” It was a serviceable script, but it wasn't written from the heart. Failure and success, rejection and acceptance, it’s all pretty tough to navigate. People should work with me because I can relate to their struggles, allay their fears, and most importantly of all, I truly believe I can offer an incisive, impartial read. I’m here for black nerds, white geeks, and everyone inbetween.
Most consultants have never explained a rejection to a loved one. They've never stared into the abyss. They've never fought their own battle with the blank page, yet they're comfortable passing judgment on the fruits of our labor.
Come to me not because of “Duck,” but because I fell flat after sparring with Harvey Weinstein. I got back up, threw some punches, and even landed one on A-list producers in Harper/Dylan. Sure, my happiness only lasted 16 days -- and the pair didn’t even read it -- but that’s okay, too. The happiness I felt is something I wish I could bottle up and share with the world. The night I was told they would produce my script, I went to a dinner in the middle of some horrible weather. Rather than take a cab home, I hoofed it in the freezing rain. I was so excited that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I needed to burn some energy off, as I felt like I was going to explode. Selling “Duck” was more of a relief than anything else. It meant that my life wasn’t destined for disappointment. But the acceptance of this script brought me unfettered and unparalleled joy -- the kind of joy you seldom feel unless you’re a teenager, when everything's pure and new.
Work with me because I’ve been rejected and I’ve failed. Yes, I’ve skipped along in the freezing rain like an eighth-grade boy, but that didn’t teach me about empathy. In the end, it comes back to my initial point: I've posted each of my scripts online. And if you want to read through one script to judge the quality of my writing -- and the range of my intelligence -- it should be “Murder in London.” “Duck” is sweet, and “Destroyer” offers a window into my soul. But “Murder”? It's my favorite child.
So that about covers it. If you’re in the market for notes, do let me know. And thank you for reading this.