Interview With a Hollywood Screenwriter
This is day one of a three-day Q&A series on the Eugene International Film Festival. Each interview will feature insight from a different perspective on the process of filmmaking. Today’s perspective is writing.
Writing is hard. Staring at a blank page, or word document for anyone under 40, is terrifying. Luckily there are people like Tom Sawyer to help guide us down the right path. Tom has a rich background in writing as a screenwriter, novelist and playwright. He was Head Writer/Showrunner of the classic CBS series, Murder, She Wrote. Emmy-nominated, Tom has written 9 network TV pilots, 100 episodes and was Head Writer/Showrunner or Story Editor on 15 network TV series.
Beginning Friday, Oct. 19, Sawyer will begin his sixth annual EIFF Screenwriters/Filmmakers Retreat. Recently I had an opportunity to ask him some questions about his involvement with the EIFF and the process of writing.
EDN: How did you become involved with the EIFF?
Sawyer: I’d been a guest-presenter at several MOPAN events, teaching screenwriting. Festival Creator/Director Mike Dilley and I became friends, and shortly after he launched EIFF, we came up with the Screenwriters Retreat concept.
EDN: This is your sixth year doing the EIFF. In that time, what has been a common theme in the writing material and in the writer’s themselves?
Sawyer: Among the writers, an impressive, very welcome passion for – and belief in — whatever they’re trying to write. Or – if they’re uncertain about subject matter, their true desire to learn.
And about the material, interestingly, reflecting what’s been happening in books and film, an increasing focus on fantasy. This is something I find somewhat personally fascinating, because I sense that – triggered by global uncertainties and insecurity – there’s an increasing demand for magic – as a way of providing “answers.”
EDN: What’s the most common mistake or misconception you find with writers who attend the workshop?
Sawyer: I suppose it’s a quite understandable belief that if you write something of quality, it will be recognized. As in, bought and produced. Unfortunately – and one has only to look at the tiny number of good movies and TV series released each year – the opposite is true. The house-number about Hollywood is that there are very few buyers who would recognize a good script if it bit them. Or, as so succinctly put by screenwriting great, William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”
Put another way, I’ve long had this belief that the average creative person spends much of his/her life secretly – or not so secretly – very grumpy that the world hasn’t discovered, all by itself, how beautiful and talented they are, and carried them off on its shoulders like they deserve.
The truth: that almost never happens. It isn’t enough to do good work. The artist has got to be willing – after the work is finished, to – metaphorically anyway – grab people by the lapels – or throat – and demand that they look at – and appreciate — what he’s created.
EDN: How has the workshop evolved from year one to now? What can writers expect this year?
Sawyer: Our Screenwriting Retreat has more to offer than ever. In addition to respected Hollywood literary agent, Ken Sherman, who represents screen, television and book writers, and myself, several years ago we added a successful national film-and-video distributor, Mike Katchman (RiverCoast Films), and this year, Terryl Whitlatch, an acclaimed concept illustrator specializing in fantasy creatures.
EDN: Has any of the stories that have materialized during your workshops at the EIFF gone on to become successful?
Sawyer: I wish I could say that they have. I know there are several currently being marketed in Tinseltown, but none have yet made it onto the screen.
EDN: Is writing the hardest part of the film and television business?
Sawyer: Since – except for “Reality Shows” – everything must start with a script, I’d say that writing is very demanding. The hardest? I don’t know. I started out as a director, and that, too was difficult. Plus, one has got to be aware that because it’s a “jackpot” business, with big rewards for the winners, it attracts a lot of very driven people.
In fact, part of my advice to those who want to give it a shot is that their toughest competition won’t be from people with more talent than they might possess. It’ll be from people who want it worse that they do. Which is not to say that talent doesn’t matter. But know that while one won’t be penalized for having talent, it is not a requirement.
EDN: What’s harder to write, comedy or drama?
Sawyer: Difficult to answer. I think it depends more on where one’s particular gifts are. I started out writing comedy, but they wanted three one-liners (jokes) per page. Yes, they actually count them. And that wasn’t my strong-suit. In fact, when it came to writing comedy pilots, I used to warn them, going in, that while I would write funny characters for them, I would not write jokes. For those, they’d have to get someone else. Eventually I moved into drama, where I was initially regarded as a guy who could write “funny” for shows without a laugh-track.
EDN: You’ve written TV shows, novels and operas. Which do you find the most enjoyable? How is the writing process different for each of them?
Sawyer: The process definitely differs, as does the experience. I find all of it difficult. If it was easy, I wouldn’t want to do it. In novels, and in my opera about JFK, I have the pleasure of getting more deeply into my characters. But I do love the immediacy and the energy of the script-form.
EDN: How do you view the state of film and television today? Is the writing getting better or worse?
Sawyer: While it wasn’t the case 15 years ago, I feel that today, overall, there is far better stuff being done for TV than for the product turned out by the major studios. I also find it very exciting that because of newer technologies, such as hi-def, movies and webisodes can be produced for almost no money. I mean – 30 years ago, for my Hollywood debut venture/calling card, I wrote and directed a movie (ALICE GOODBODY). It cost $105,000. Two years ago an excellent feature film (BREAKING UPWARD) debuted at the Tribeca Festival in New York. It cost $15,000.
EDN: Screenplays seem like they would be more difficult to write than novels because you have to be tighter with the material since you have basically 120 pages to work with. Do you agree?
Sawyer: Absolutely – and then some. Compared to the latitude one has with a novel, it’s a whole different – and yes, demanding – form. And for many beginning screenwriters, while they may already have a solid story in mind, the need for economy, for merciless self-editing, is probably their biggest challenge.
EDN: I recently read a book called “Tales From the Script,” about screenwriters and the process they go through. Many times what they’ve written ends up being rewritten and by the time the movie comes out, the story is a shell of what it once was. Have you experienced this? Is it really frustrating or at this point, is it just part of the business?
Sawyer: It does happen, though I’ve been lucky. Working mostly in TV, where the writers control the medium — as opposed to feature films, where directors have greater control – I have almost never been rewritten. And yes, I would find that enormously frustrating.
EDN: In your experience, which is harder, making the actual film (Writing, directing, editing) or selling it to distributors and producers?
Sawyer: In my single experience with a feature film (ALICE GOODBODY), and being an “indie” production, finding a distributor was somewhat time-consuming, and certainly not as much fun as making the movie. But also, it wasn’t really hard work. And in selling stuff to TV, that has definitely become more difficult in recent years. When I started in that business, we pitched to one person. And that individual had the authority to say yes or no, often on-the-spot. Today, we pitch to a committee, comprised of people who do not have that authority. Ergo, in selling to them, one must consider their insecurities, and play to them.
EDN: What’s the most important thing you want people to take away from the workshop this year?
Sawyer: That success in showbiz, while difficult, is achievable – in large part requiring a realistic view of the challenges, both at their computers, and in terms of marketing themselves and their work.
It’s Ken Sherman’s and Mike Katchman’s and Terryl Whitacth’s and my passionate hope that by attending our Retreat, we can help propel them in the right direction.
The writing workshop runs from 6-9 pm Friday, 9 AM – 12 Saturday and 9 AM – 12 Sunday. For more information on the workshop and ticket prices, visit the festival website.