Thursday, November 04, 2010

Interview with Bill Martell, part three

Here's part three of my interview with Bill Martell. Checkout parts One and Two.

What screenplay(s) do you wish you’d written?

EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, BODY HEAT, THE LAST OF SHEILA, 48 HOURS, a whole bunch of others. There are scripts that I read and realize I will never write that well. And, of course, many others that I read and wonder why the heck someone bought it. When I was starting out I read a lot of Lawrence Kasdan and Walter Hill and Paul Schrader scripts - those guys wrote my favorite movies, so I studied their screenplays. 

Why haven’t you written a book about your experiences yet? You have some ridiculously good stories.

I have a blog where I often tell some stories - often disguised so that I can keep working in this town. That ends up being the real problem - I can’t put a story about some idiot producer in print and still be on his list of writers he may want to hire on some future project. You may think - well, that would be a very good reason for insulting that producer, he will never hire you again! But Hollywood is a small world and you don’t want to burn your bridges in front of you. I already do way too much of that. At a screenwriting conference I was hanging out with some of the other panelists and told a story about a development guy for an Oscar nominated producer who gave crazy notes, and a couple of the writers (both who have had big hit films) guessed who I was talking about because they have dealt with that same devo on projects. I didn’t even have to say the name of the company and they figured it out!  If that story were in print, they’d never read another one of my scripts again... and even with the crazy notes, that producer was nominated for an Oscar!  There are many crazy people in this business - you don’t want to offend them because then you are closing doors instead of opening them.

When I tell stories on my blog, I disguise names and change enough stuff so that I hope I can still work in this town.  Recently I did a blog entry that included a friend of mine in a “supporting role” in the story, and he later talked to me about the blog entry and mentioned how similar the story was to that thing that had happened to us on that project... not recognizing that it *was* that project. When I told him, it all came together and he recognized “his character” in the blog entry and suddenly it was obvious to him. But I thought it was funny that he didn’t recognize himself before I said anything, when there were things he actually did and said in the entry. I just hope the producers who might hire me have the same problems not recognizing themselves!

But there are plenty of stories I can not tell on my blog, so I have a “retirement plan” where I will tell fictionalized versions of those stories (so I don’t get sued) in a series of mystery novels about Mitch Robertson, Hollywood Screenwriter. I’m doing some short stories about the character in whatever spare time I have now. The first novel will be about one of my films that went really really wrong when the director blew part of the cast money on cocaine - so the film is not just completely on crack, but half of the characters from the story are missing! In a fiction form I can get into details that would probably get me sued... and Mitch can hook up with the ultra-hot leading lady - who I wish I could have hooked up with (but I am a screenwriter in the real world, not the fictional one). It will be fun to use all of the stories I *can’t* tell in these books.  

Why do you think it is that a guy with your experience and regular paycheck doesn’t have representation?

If I knew the answer to that I would fix it. You have to ask agents and managers that question, because I don’t know the answer. Several years ago I was at a Sherwood Oaks Experimental College “Meet The Agents” event, and the guy who wrote ANACONDA was there, also looking for representation. Now, you might think that’s a cheesy movie, but it was a huge hit for Columbia and turned J-Lo from a singer to a movie star. And he couldn’t get an agent! I don’t know if he’s represented now, but he just sold a spec for big money... through his production company. Anyway, at that event I asked an agent at MTA (do they still exist) why I was having trouble getting an agent to *read* something when (that year) I had three films in production. She told me if I had three films in production I didn’t need an agent... and went on to the next question and never talked to me after the event. What’s up with that?

I think a big part of the reason is that agents (and managers) like to discover new talent, or steal talent from the competition... but I am neither of those. I am a freak. My friend Harry Connolly (whose excellent books CHILD OF FIRE and GAME OF CAGES can be found in a book store near you) had a great link on his blog a few days ago to a fiction writer who had broken in without an agent, had a bunch of books come out through a major publisher, but when the economy went south and the publisher began publishing fewer books she found herself with no publisher and no agent... and no one wanted her. None of her books had been bestsellers, so she wasn’t that hot writer everyone wants to sign, just a typical working writer. And I think that typical working writer things is kind of a no man’s land in fiction and screenplays. An unsold writer has a better chance of being signed by an agent than I do, because they may become a hot writer. Even though I could also become a hot writer - I have all kinds of nice big high concept tentpole scripts - my track record so far is just a bunch of cruddy MOWs and cable flicks. An agent or manager might think that is the best I can do... and see 10% of a bunch of small projects as *not* that big score spec sale deal. But I sell a script or land an assignment every year - which is better than the average WGA writer who works every other year - and I’ve have 19 of those suckers hit the screen in the 20 years since I quit the day job. It’s kind of a tortoise and the hare thing - I’m the tortoise and agents seem to be looking for hares. 

I’m sure much of it is also my fault - I could probably give a manager 10% of the fee from my current assignment as a way to open the door, but *I* landed that assignment myself. I want an agent or manager who do something that I am not doing for their 10%. I also do not ask friends for referrals ever - and I have some pretty famous screenwriter friends. I think *my career* is my referral. If some agent or manager can find some other potential client who has been earning a living for the past 20 years writing scripts and has 19 of them on film, they should sign that person too. I feel (and this is my flaw) that I should be able to just walk in to some agency or management company and dump a pile of DVDs on their desk and get signed instantly, based on my work. But it doesn’t seem to work that way.

The possible good news is that I talked to a couple of managers at a recent event and they seemed interested in having a client who is actually getting paid to write scripts when most of their clients are not getting squat. So the bad economy might get me representation. 

How do you find so many jobs without a manager or agent?

Like Blanche Dubois, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” My career depends on someone reading one of my scripts and liking it enough to pass it up to their best connection. A few years ago I had a new spec script, and gave it to a couple of friends to read and give me some notes on. One of my friends never read the script, he left it on the coffee table of his apartment. His roommate, in some garage band, started reading the script and liked it. He took it with him to some gig in some crappy club, and ended up giving it to some other member of his band when he was finished with it. That script got passed from band to band all over Los Angeles, and then I got a call from some band’s manager who read the script and really liked it and had a connection with a big company that has made about 5 films that opened at #1, and you have probably seen all 5. The band manager asked if he could pass it to his connection at the company. Um, why not? Though the company did not buy it, they had a meeting with me. And that is usually how my scripts get places - people pass them around. 

The other way I get gigs is kind of passed around scripts in slow motion - someone remembers reading one of my scripts years ago and recommends me. The assignment I just finished happened that way. Over 15 years ago Cannon Films (all if those Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies) read something of mine and called me in to meet with an upcoming action star they needed a script for. At the meeting was the star and their attorney and a foreign sales guy and the producer and development people. I pitched some ideas and gave the star something I’d written as a sample (and a possible “back door spec sale” - if the star likes the spec sample, maybe they just buy that instead of having you write a script for them). But Cannon was on its way out and the project crashed and burned before we had a contract. Cut to last year, when that now-retired action star’s attorney calls me - he has remembered me from the meeting and the script I gave them and has a client who needs a writer, can we meet? Absolutely. 

I also do some query letters and stuff like that, but usually it’s someone reading a script and liking it enough to call me in for a meeting. The problem with studio meetings that come this way is that there is no one to close the deal. I can’t exactly call them and push them, and because it is only me - no agent’s list of clients that the producer wants to work with or keep working with - there is no leverage. But I’ve had all kinds of studio meetings that did not result in work, from Tom Cruise’s company when they were at Paramount to the guys who make the Tom Clancy movies - just to cover the T/Cs. Every once in a while something does go through, like the remake thing from the end of 2008/beginning of 2009 or the MGM things I had a few years back... and this top secret remake/reboot 1980s action project with Sony/Columbia I have a meeting on next week. But it is hard to get a big company with a bureaucracy of people who need to be onboard before they hire a writer to say yes when you don’t have your own bureaucracy of an agency behind you. Much easier for me to get a gig or sell a script to a independent producer who may have a DVD output deal with a studio - that’s only a couple of people who have to say yes, and the “leverage” is that the film from the script will make them money.    

I think another way that I continue to be employed as a screenwriter is that I write commercial scripts - I write the kinds of movies that I regularly pay to see. I love action and thriller and horror movies and that’s what I write, and while writing them I imagine that I am sitting in the cinema watching the film - am I bored? Or is this the most kick-ass movie I have ever seen? Also, I often write with budget in mind - I try to come up with the coolest idea I can that won’t break the bank. So a script like CRASH DIVE may seem expensive because it’s submarine warfare, but I knew it could be made on a budget because of the Navy cooperation angle, and the sub interior is a set. Most of the film takes place on that set - not a bunch of scattered locations that would be expensive. And that script had less than 20 speaking roles and every few extras. When you have a script that looks huge, but can be made inexpensively, that is a big plus for producers. They want to get the most bang for their buck, so I try to remember that when writing a script. 

Though, I do have a bunch of *huge* scripts like SHOW OF FORCE (WW3 breaks out when the President and other heads of state are on an aircraft carrier to sign a peace treaty) and PAST LIVES (a 12 year old girl tracks the serial killer who murdered her in her past life through San Francisco) and HARD RETURN (kind of FANTASTIC VOYAGE inside a computer when a virus knocks us back to the stone age) - things that can only be big studio films. I have one on the slate to write next year that is huge fantasy adventure that won’t be cheap to make. 

But usually I focus on things that can be made on a reasonable budget so that if a studio adds an expensive star the film will still be affordable. Though agents and managers may not notice things like that, it is often exactly what producers are looking for. So I might have a script like ALTITUDE (kind of DIE HARD meets SPEED on a plane) that seems huge but is actually inexpensive to make because most of it takes place inside the plane (contained) and can be shot on one of a handful of existing sets. A producer knows that script can be made at a price, but not look like it was made for that price. That script was written 15 years ago, got screwed up by 9/11, but I just did a page 1 rewrite on it for 2010... hopefully someone will buy it!

What do your parents think of your movies?

After 20 years of being a professional screenwriter, I think my parents finally understand that I am not going to be getting a “real job”.  This is a very recent change - I swear, last year at the holidays they were still pushing for me to get something with a regular pay check and 9-5 hours. Like that’s going to happen! 

One of the strange things about this business is that it is easier for me to get another $20k from a producer than get another copy of the film on VHS (or DVD now). They usually just give you one copy... and that’s it. On HARD EVIDENCE I had my lawyer hard-ball them to get a total of 3 copies, and it would have been easier to get money! I probably should have just asked for $50k more, then bought extra VHS copies with it. I had already seen the movie on TV, so when the copies came I mailed one to my mom & dad. A couple of weeks later I was wondering whether a specific line made it into the finished film, popped in the VHS tape and... wholly crap! 

It was common back then to shoot extra R rated footage for the VHS release with TV movies, the famous example was the LONG ISLAND LOLITA movie with Drew Barrymore where after the film aired they shot a bunch of nude scenes with a body-double for the VHS release and Drew got mad because she wanted to do them herself.  Anyway, they shot *a lot* of nude scenes for HARD EVIDENCE. On TV it had “lingerie nudity” - soap opera level stuff - on the VHS the lingerie came off and the scenes really began. I grabbed the phone and called my mom... “You haven’t watched the movie I sent you, yet, did you?” Hoping I could stop them, or at least prepare them. “Yes, Bill, we had all of the relatives over last Friday...” Swell. 

Why do you always apologize for them? The movies, I mean.  Not your parents.

Do I have any choice?  I mean, I’ve seen my own movies, I know they suck. 

Here’s the problem: Even with a movie like HARD EVIDENCE that is mostly what I wrote, the film was directed by a TV movie guy who was just getting the coverage (long shot, close up, medium shot) and not doing anything creative. Oh, and they shot a pile of nudity for the video release so that people who might have seen it on USA Network would still rent the film. So, the film is not exactly PRESUMED INNOCENT or BODY HEAT. It’s kind of blah. Now, if I tell you that this is a great film or even a good one, and you watch it... you will think I have no idea what “good” is. So, I don’t want you to be disappointed in the film or think I have no taste.  I want you to go in knowing that there were *many* challenges getting that script to the screen, and it didn’t turn out exactly as planned.  

Part of this is my website and book and classes.  Say you watch CYBER ZONE and then discover that my out of print book is selling on Amazon for $990... why would *anyone* want to buy a screenwriting book from the guy who wrote CYBER ZONE for $20, let alone $990?  Well, if I tell you upfront that CYBER ZONE is a stupid movie about robot hookers from outer space - that I know the film is not all that good - then you might check out my free Script Tip every day and see that I actually *do* know how to write a good screenplay, and maybe even join the Cult Of Bill that I plan to form someday, which would be kind of like Scientology but with Tom Sellack’s MAGNUM PI moustache instead of space aliens. You should not pay $250 for my out of print book, because I don’t get a cent from that.

One of the accidental features on my blog is my apology for the films of mine that are showing on the U.K.’s Movies4Men channel (kind of the British version of Spike TV) - because they *constantly* show my movies. There was a week where I had 9 movies in 7 days!

I’m kind of like a father who’s daughter got a full-face tattoo.  You still love your daughter, but need to warn people about the tattoo before they meet her.  My 19 produced scripts may be kinda crappy movies, but they all began as *screenplays* that I am proud of, and it is not easy to get 19 scripts that go all the way to the screen. Hey, it’s not easy to *sell* 19 screenplays (I’ve actually sold or written on assignment over 40 screenplays - everything from adapting a New York Times best seller by Stuart Woods to a remake of a hit 1980s horror film for a studio last year to a giant killer frog creature feature that was supposed to shoot a couple of years ago). 

Even though the stuff that has gotten made is in the $1m-$3m range (with one $15m exception), and some people think selling a script in that range is easy - try it! It is just as difficult, and maybe even more difficult in some cases. There are a bunch of screenplays out there, a limited number of movies made every year, and when you add in budget considerations it becomes very difficult to write something like BLACK THUNDER which is an airplane dogfight script that was made for a couple of million bucks. You need to limit the number of locations and speaking roles.  

Hey, to bring it back to the amazing Oscar worthy film CYBER ZONE, the waterfront bar had to be a full day of shooting because we could only afford so many crew moves. So you are forced to set about 10 pages in that location... and 10 pages in the Boss’s Office location... and 10 pages in the Submarine/Space Ship location (by turning the set on it’s side we turned the space ship into the submarine). Usually you have around 8 locations (total) to work with, and 15 speaking roles. So you have to write some screenplay that works - is entertaining and is the one they choose out of the stack of half a million or whatever - *and* has 8 locations and 15 speaking roles and can look like a much bigger budget than it will be shot for (has airplane dog fights and huge explosions or something).  This is not easy.  You may watch one of the more expensive looking films that began with my screenplay like STEEL SHARKS or BLACK THUNDER or CRASH DIVE and think there are more that 15 speaking roles and more than 8 locations... but count them! 

But I don’t want you to think just because BLACK THUNDER may look like an expensive movie, that it’s going to be as competently made as the kind of big budget movies you are used to seeing in the cinema. Just look at that crappy CGI plane gunfire!

How do you stay so nice when you’re surrounded by so much foolishness? You are like the nicest guy I know, seriously.

I think you go through a period of anger and frustration and wanting to bring an automatic weapon to story meetings, and then eventually... you still want to bring that automatic weapon to the story meetings, but realize there is no shortage of idiots in Hollywood, so if you kill these idiots they will just be replaced by other idiots... and calm down. Still, you might not think I was nice if you were a development executive with crappy notes.  I will argue and explain and generally be a pain in the ass. I will attempt to show you how foolish your notes are.  And in one case, once the film is made and stinks, I will send you reviews that say the problems with the film are those notes I argued against.  I *can* be an a-hole. 

But I do not believe that I am in competition with other screenwriters, my “competition” is to get my scripts on screen closer to the way I wrote them. So, I want other screenwriters to succeed - just so they can feel my pain. The purpose of my website (and now blog) is to have someplace where I am in control, and give some helpful advice on how to write the script that is good enough to sell, so that they will give you those stupid story notes and turn it into crap by the time it reaches the screen. You can read the Script Tip and disagree with it, that’s cool with me. I always try to give enough examples and explain them well enough so that you understand whatever lesson I’m trying to teach. My focus is on commercial writing, because that’s how you can quit your day job - write something that someone wants to buy.

But after a while you look at the way things work and realize you aren’t going to stop fighting for things to get better, but aren’t going to turn into some angry bitter dude who hates the world.  Better to be a nice person who says please and thank you and treats others with respect... until they give me a stupid story note.  

The mustache. How do you keep it so elegant?

Absolutely no care at all. It gets trimmed with scissors when it gets in the way of eating.  It’s funny, when I worked at Safeway Grocery I had zero facial hair.  When I sold the brilliant Oscar worthy NINJA BUSTERS I quit my day job and grew a full beard. I wanted to look like Scorsese. I did not... but it hid my weak chin. (The choice was - send my chin to the gym or grow a beard.)  When NINJA BUSTERS crashed and burned and I had to go back to work, the warehouse forbid beards, but said moustaches were okay... and I’ve had the moustache ever since. Now, along with the bicycle, it’s kind of become my trademark. That is more on the moustache than I have ever shared in an interview before!

I remember you once talked about a frog movie project to be shot in Hawaii. Can you tell about the story with the frog movie? It sounded awesome.

It’s about a giant frog!  

This is one of those projects from hell. A director of photography on one of my films recommended me to a producer-director who was looking for a writer. One of my rules is to try to only work for producers who have actual offices in actual buildings - and if it is a company that owns the building or leases out a couple of floors, that’s where I am most comfortable.  So, this producer had a *floor* in an office building and regularly made or acquired movies. He wants to do a creature feature because they sell well overseas, and he has some connections at SyFy Channel. The producer is a nice guy, we get along... but his ideas are screwy. I try to pitch him my SPLICERS script about those half-dog half-scorpion gene-splicing things the U.S. Government created to go after Bin Laden in the tunnels of Afghanistan, but he had his own idea: frogs! He’d read an article about this problem Hawaii was having with non-indigenous frogs, and because he owned a house in Hawaii, thought it would be fun to shoot a movie there. I mentioned that I thought frogs may not be the ideal creature for a SyFy Channel movie, but he basically told me he’s a producer and knows what sells and I’m just a writer. We make a deal, he cuts me a check on the spot, and I’m writing a movie about giant killer frogs. 

The cool thing is - there is this old horror movie from the 70s called FROGS! that I saw at the drive in that stars Sam Elliot and the poster has a giant frog with a human arm sticking out of its mouth (the rest of the human between its teeth) but the movie was just about regular sized frogs. So I could write the movie that posted didn’t deliver on. I watched FROGS and a bunch of other monster movies from the 70s and 80s, plus some of my favorite creature features like the original PIRANHA and JAWS. I wrote a fun creature feature about the Chief Of Police in a small Hawaii town dealing with a giant frog that is killing people. I loved the idea of this long tongue shooting out and grabbing people as if they were flies. As usual, because this was going to be some cruddy killer B movie, I was free to really explore the characters - and tried to make it one of those movies that you would watch again and again, because it wasn’t just fun, it was also good. Like SLITHER. 

So, I do a couple of drafts of the script, and the producer sets a start date for shooting in Hawaii, and my contract gives me a free trip to Hawaii for the duration of the shoot, which is cool because it’s a vacation where I watch them make my film. But then a potential SAG strike hits, and the film is postponed until the actors negociate their contract. Can’t fly a bunch of actors to Hawaii first class, put them up in first class hotels, only to have a strike kill the film. Everyone thought this whole thing would be over in a month... but the potential SAG strike dragged on and on and on... and the frog movie ended up shelved. I think part of the problem was that by the time the potential for a SAG strike was over, the producer had discovered that the SyFy Channel wouldn’t be interested in a movie about giant killer frogs. 

I still love that script, and I’m thinking about asking the producer if I can try to set it up somewhere. I hate having dead scripts all over town. I have dead scripts at Paramount and MGM and a few other studios, and my big 1980s hit film remake project that I wrote last year for a studio appears to be shelved. Since only about 10% of the screenplays *bought* or *developed* by a studio ever get made, that means 90% of the work a professional writer does will never be seen by anybody. They just don’t make the film, and shelve the script in that warehouse from the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Imdb credits are like an iceberg - they only show the 10% that gets made. In my case, that 10% are usually films like the frog movie - genre things that can be made for a couple of million and star Gary Busey that have a built in audience.

Which is the better movie: Mansquito or Zombie Strippers?

ZOMBIE STRIPPERS. The thing about MANSQUITO is that it’s suppose to take place in America but was shot in Eastern Europe and all of the people on the street are white Slavic-looking folks which is kind of weird. I have a whole review of ZOMBIE STRIPPERS on my blog somewhere - I saw the film in a cinema! The cool thing about that film is that there is much more to it than meets the eye, it’s really a reworking of Eugene Ionesco’s philosophical stage play RHINOCEROS and explores the horror of conformity - all of the strippers *want* to become zombies because the zombie strippers like Kat get the most tips. Though ZOMBIE STRIPPERS has boobs and zombies and ping pong balls, it is also a film that deals with serious issues in our society - which MANSQUITO never does. 

This is the thing that most frustrates me about cruddy low budget films - they *could* be good films as well, but the producers don’t care - and usually even do not want anything they do not understand in the film... which makes the films stupid. And as much as you argue that a genre film that is also smart, like SLITHER or ZS, will not only appeal to the genre fans but get good reviews which opens the door to an audience that might not see the film otherwise, many producers would rather *lose money* that make a film that has elements that may be over their heads.  

I think screenwriters are *story experts*, just as the cinematographer is an expert. The producer doesn’t know which lens to use for this shot, that’s why they hire the cinematographer. But when it comes to the screenplay, the producer hires a writer because they are the expert and then proceeds to not listen to that expert and force their own stupid ideas into the script, or not allow the expert to just do their job and write the best script possible. If the producer doesn’t understand it, they don’t want it in the script, even if it will result in a film that will make the producer more money! Of all of the movies made from my screenplays, the most successful one financially was the one that stayed closest to my screenplay.

My advice to writers - write. Don’t talk about it, do it. And keep writing. The race is not to the swift or the strong, it is to those who are too stupid to know when to quit.


  1. Since I have nothing else on my plate for the afternoon, I am going to construct a mile high statue to this man. Seriously. These past few days of interviews, Emily, rank up there with the BEST STUFF I've ever read about writing and selling screenplays. Thank you both so much for this.

  2. A MASSIVELY entertaining interview. Many thanks to both of you.

  3. Little late getting to these.. but they're great.. thanks Emily & Bill..

    "I’m kind of like a father who’s daughter got a full-face tattoo. You still love your daughter, but need to warn people about the tattoo before they meet her." - love this!! haha


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