The Eight-Year Itch

George Wing
Screenwriter George Wing

In 1994, in our very first (print) issue, MM spoke
with a young man in Seattle who spent his days as a legal assistant
and his nights as a screenwriter. A decade (and several MM contributions
as a writer later… George wrote our first annual “Top 10
Cities for Moviemakers” article), George Wing is living the
life that he then only dreamed of—with a hit film in theaters
(50 First Dates was number one at the box office during its
opening weekend) and a host of opportunities ahead of him. Along
the way, he’s learned a number of valuable lessons about what
it takes to navigate the Hollywood waters—all of which he’s
happy to share here with MM readers.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Okay, so you made it clear that you’ve been asked to death about how you got started as a writer. What I’m more interested in is how you kept at it as a screenwriter? Success rarely comes overnight to a writer. How do you maintain your focus and commitment in an industry that’s full of rejection?

George Wing (GW): If you can be talked out of screenwriting, you should be. The people who cannot be discouraged are the only ones who will see their passion transformed into a livelihood. You have to love movies and be instantly bored by the thought of doing anything else.

MM: What is your typical writing method? It’s such an individual thing, but what are the things that you do that make you feel you’re writing more effectively, i.e. do you write every day, in the same chair, at the same time, take a break once an hour, etc.?

GW: I rent a tiny space, which is basically a storage unit with just enough room for a window and a desk. No phone, no Internet. When I’m there I have nothing to do but create—and no excuse not to. I spend 90 percent of my time writing on paper, in notebooks, outlining, generating material, scribbling down ideas, drawing pictures. When I have a complete outline, and I do mean complete—every scene, in order, each with a nice kicker at the end and the key dialogue figured out—then I turn on my computer and write the first draft of the screenplay. It happens pretty fast, and it’s no more than 10 percent of the time spent on a project.

As for my chair: my chair sucks and I want to throw it in a dumpster. I am looking for a new chair.

MM: I know that when MM first interviewed you way back when, two of your scripts were optioned, Mr. Hector and Cat Soup. Did anything ever come of these two projects, or are you still working to get them made?

GW: My mentor, a wonderful old guy named Ian Hunter (who wrote Roman Holiday’, used to say that you had to write four or five scripts before you sold one. Those two are among my pay-your-dues projects. Not quite movies, on paper. I got nice boosts of encouragement when they were optioned, but they were never made.

MM: Many new writers seem to think that the day after they type “Fade Out” on their screenplay, there is likely to be a line of producers (or studios) just waiting to write a check. In your own experience, and based on the success of the other writers you know, how long do you estimate a talented writer may have to toil away until his/her brilliance is recognized with an option?

GW: Hmm… I’m not sure an option means someone has recognized your brilliance—it means someone thinks they can make money off you. It took me and my most committed screenwriter friends an average of eight years to start making a living at it. I know one guy who did it in two. And once you achieve that, there’s no guarantee you’ll keep making a living. There’s no security.

Also, selling the first screenplay you write can be disastrous. Those people tend to implode when they try to write the second, because their skills haven’t risen to the level of what’s expected of them.

MM: Let’s talk a bit about 50 First Dates: First, it’s such a great idea for a comedy—what inspired you to write this story? When did you complete the first draft of the script?

GW: I read a newspaper article about the actual memory dysfunction that was the basis of the story. I thought it could be a wonderful romantic comedy: what if you finally meet the right person but she’s going to forget you every night? From the day I sold it to the day it was greenlit was about two years.

MM: What has been the process of seeing this film from script to screen?

GW: Long story. The short version is: I was hired by the studio to do two rewrites, after which five other writers worked on it. The end result was kind of a shock to me.

MM: What were some of the most surprising things you learned about the Hollywood studio system

GW: The studios are desperate for great stories. “But I have a great story, and they don’t want it!” you may be screaming right now. Well, maybe you do, and when it’s read by the right person, good things will happen. But maybe you don’t, because you have no idea what kind of pressures a studio-based producer works under. Do you have star roles, trailer moments, a marketing hook, a truly fresh concept?

I would urge writers—especially MovieMaker readers—to consider the studio system to be only one of a menu of options for seeing a good story to the screen. There are so many interesting independent companies these days, and the studios have their specialty divisions. Not to mention opportunities in other countries. Or making it yourself!

MM: So the word “rewrite” was something you learned a lot about. There seems to be a divide of screenwriters who think of that term as the ultimate evil—and others who really like the rewrite process. What’s your take on the topic?

GW: When going into a rewrite, you have to do two contradictory things: first, admit that other people’s feedback may be absolutely right, and second, fight for what you know is good. Really try to listen to the notes you’re getting, and more importantly try to read between the lines and feel what the other person wants or lacks but can’t express. Remember, they are not writers themselves, or they wouldn’t need you. They can’t always articulate their thoughts. It can be disastrous to take them literally.

MM: What’s the most important thing you would suggest new writers remember about the rewriting process?

GW: The most important advice about rewriting I can give is: you must fiercely renew your passion for a project.

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