Riding the New York City subway a few years back, I heard a pretty girl with an NYU backpack (and a lot of attitude) declare to her friend, “I’m going to move to Los Angeles soon and make a ton of money writing bad screenplays.” Good for her. I’d just arrived back from L.A., where I’d been in the trenches for a while, trying to learn my trade and get past the gates to where the working writers lived.
The gal’s comment had all the usual undertones—ones I would have probably agreed with at her age: Scripts were a bastard form of writing, certainly not as meaningful as the Raymond Carver knockoffs we were all churning out in college, and Hollywood was more about “the game” than actually writing anything decent. That town wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
It strikes me as funny now, the notion that Hollywood needed more screenplays when I was starting out—that my contribution to the heap was desperately in demand. I’d soon get a humbling sight every writer should see: As a reader in New York, I watched my bosses clear the cabinets out every month, witnessing thousands of beautifully bound manuscripts hit the recycling bin forever. Ouch. But even funnier—looking back—was the notion that me-me-me, my voice, the glory-that-is-me, was sufficient to kick the doors open. Sure, I was writing knockoffs of all the films I worshipped—some to sell for big bucks, others to direct myself—but they were my knockoffs.
Here’s all I’ve figured out in 20 years of banging the keys—and my head—against plenty of walls (none of which is remotely original, and many have said it better): Writing for the screen is bloody tough work. The brutal economy, the demands of structure, the interconnectivity of every idea to every other idea—you will never value and worship words more than as a writer of screenplays. You will never work harder to make words do their job. And when you take time off someday to do all that “meaningful” writing—the big, fat novel, the Chekhovian masterpiece, that little volume of poetry—you’ll have the most profound respect for words and their possibilities, not to mention a blessed sense of freedom that the screenwriter can only dream about.
The other grand lesson I dredged up: If you’re not telling a story that you think is the most incredible damn tale ever told—the funniest, the saddest, the most beautiful, that will literally change the way people think, act and feel—if you don’t care more than any person alive, then your script doesn’t stand a chance. The only thing anyone wants to read is what haunts your soul, makes you laugh the hardest, keeps you up at nights. No one is fooled if you phone it in. Despite what you may have heard (or would like to believe), there aren’t many dim bulbs running the movie business.
This staggering sense of belief in your material—the conviction that you have just written King *&@! Lear—is not oversized. You will need it, like a full tank of gas. You’ll burn much of it up during the blissfully hellish ordeal of writing the damn thing; then rewriting it; then facing the endless notes, painful feedback and blistering scrutiny of your peers. Then, if you’re lucky as hell, you can get through production on the fumes.
You better love this little bastard—this thing you’ve spawned—because eventually, you’ll want to kill it.
Sure, there are plenty of bad movies out there. But no bad dreams—the dream to tell a great story and connect with your fellow man. The dream that became Blade Runner. Or Chinatown. Yeah, the dream that became Porky’s, too. All were sacred in the mind of the dreamer—all were masterpieces when they were born. I admire the hell out of director Ed Wood, not because he was Orson Welles, but because his belief and his passion were just as towering. He loved his stories. He cared. That’s no small thing.
So here’s the 40-year-old me lecturing the 20-year-old me: Write that script that’s burning inside of you. Write five, if you can. Bare your soul, be truthful and tell your story in the fewest words possible. Dream huge (and dream your own dreams, don’t borrow someone else’s). Keep an even bigger sense of humor, especially about yourself. Don’t be precious. A script is not a holy text—it’s an invitation for others to share your dream, to be inspired by it, to build upon it (which will be golden when you finally shove your way into directing). The world is dying to be blown away by your stories, to see life and the universe in a way no one else has ever shown them. As a writer, you possess tremendous power—absolutely nothing happens until the blank page is filled and a whole world is brought to life. You’re the one who gets to make that world. Oh, and work hard. It’ll make you lucky.
Screenwriter Mark Fergus earned his first Oscar nomination in 2007, alongside Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy Sexton, David Arata and Hawk Ostby, for Best Adapted Screenplay for Cuarón’s Children of Men. He then saw massive box-office success with the screenplay for Iron Man, which he also co-wrote.