This week’s interview is with writer William C. Martell and one that has been worth the wait here on The Mighty Dragon. In this interview he gives a real insight into the life of a writer – from selling scripts to the struggle to get films made.
Thank you Bill for giving such a great level of detail about your writing journey, from watching and studying films in the movie theatre you worked to selling scripts to Paramount, Universal and 20th Century Fox.
Bill’s an actor and producer too but I focussed on writing Q’s for this interview. It’s a fascinating read for any writer with very helpful suggestions to focus on scriptwriting.
Vikki: When did you know that you wanted a career as a writer?
William: I loved reading as a kid and told scary campfire stories and put on little shows for the neighborhood kids… but I never thought you could make a living doing that. Our family business was water wells and farm irrigation – which translates to ditch digging. I figured that I would be doing some form of manual labor for the rest of my life. I loved movies, most of which I saw on TV, though my aunt worked at a movie theater and sometimes snuck the family in to see some family film. My parents forbid comic books, so I secretly drew my own and gave them to my friends in grade school. Two characters I created: Fly Man – a human fly who could climb up buildings, and Secret Agent 21 – who went on all kinds of adventures. I wish I had any of those, but my friends in the 5th and 6th grade got all of them!
My grandmother subscribed to TV Guide (we couldn’t afford it), and in the back there was an advertisement where you could buy the scripts from your favorite TV shows. So I sent away for some “Columbo” and “Rockford Files” scripts using paper route money… and they sent actual scripts that someone had collected from the set. Colored pages and everything. I read them, and realized that someone wrote movies and TV shows and that someone could be me. It seemed possible.
In High School I was making short films, and began writing the scripts in correct format. I was working full time at a movie theater as acting manager (the manager was a drunk, so I was really in charge) and going to high school, and in plays (drama nerd), and making short films. I have no idea how I managed to do all of that. Working in the movie theater meant that I could really study films – I saw “The Exorcist” 144 times and can tell you where every cut is in that film and probably quote most of the dialogue. I operated the projectors on the projectionist’s days off, so I did crazy things like count the number of frames between cuts in films.
No money for college, so I went to Diablo Valley Community College which had a Film Appreciation Class where you watched movies and did book reports on them, and made a 3.5 minute film (the length of a roll of 8mm or Super 8mm film). I made a 35 minute parody of all of the films we were assigned to watch. I kept taking the class… for 3 years. Made an ill advised Super 8mm feature – a private eye action movie where I blew up my mom’s car. But film was expensive and paper was cheap, so I wrote a bunch of screenplays.
Vikki: Which script was your breakthrough piece which got you noticed?
William: Which time?
1) My 35 minute parody film “won” student film night and got me noticed by the success stories from Diablo Valley Community College film program, a guy who made commercials for local car dealers, the infamous Mitchell Brothers who made pornos, and this guy named Paul Kyriazi who was making kung fu movies for drive ins locally. I gave Paul a screenplay of mine, he called me with a job offer! Working for no pay on weekends on his new kung fu movie “Weapons Of Death”. I hit the big time! Heavy manual labor for no pay on a film that you had to be really drunk to enjoy! A couple of years later, Paul calls me again with a job offer. More no pay crewing? Nope – they had a script they were about to film that had problems, could I do a complete rewrite in 2 weeks? If my rewrite was better than the script they had, they would shoot my script. Oh, and the film was cast and all of the locations were already rented and most of the props had been assembled, so I would have to write my script using all of those things. And nothing else. It was like a puzzle – I had all of these pieces and had to turn them into a story. Handed it in on time, they started shooting the film… and ran out of money. Three years and three directors later the film was finished, and is now a cult film with a special edition Blu-Ray. “Ninja Busters”. Some of it is my script.
Then came ten years of manual labor, working in a warehouse full time and writing 3 screenplays a year (plus a few novels and some short stories). I optioned a script for real money in there, but not enough to quit.
2) A local actress who was in one of Paul’s later films was attractive and single and I gave her a thriller screenplay (“Courting Death”) and told her that there was a part in it that was perfect for her. I was hoping for romance… but I am unlucky in love. She promptly moved to Los Angeles.
She was cast in a low budget horror flick where she took off her top and was killed by the monster, and gave my script to a crew member and said there was a part in it that was perfect for her. Three years later my phone rings, some guy who claims he was at a company at Paramount and he wanted to know if my script was still available. I thought it was my friend making a practical joke. Nope, it was a company at Paramount. They bought the script for real money, I quit my warehouse job (I think I gave 6 weeks notice, though – because they needed me), and eventually moved to Los Angeles. They never made the movie, though some guy who had directed a couple of Madonna videos named David Fincher was attached at one point.
3) I had 2 years worth of rent and expenses in Los Angeles from the script deal… and was running out of money, and I went to American Film Market with the intention of selling a screenplay before I missed a rent payment and was evicted. Nothing like a ticking clock to get you off your butt! I sold a thriller script called “Treacherous” to a producer who set it up at Hemdale (“Terminator”, “Platoon”) with Mickey Rourke and Brian Dennehy starring. Then Hemdale went bankrupt. The producer set it up at Universal Pictures, now with Rutger Hauer in the lead. Our executive at Universal died in a plane crash and the new executive didn’t want to do any of the previous guy’s projects. The producer set it up at ITC, who had a deal with 20th Century Fox to make films for HBO and Cinemax. New cast was Tia Carrere, Adam Baldwin and C. Thomas Howell. This time it got made and was a Cinemax Premiere Movie that was released internationally by 20th Century Fox… and got totally screwed up on the way to the screen. But that time I managed not to have to go back to manual labor, and continue to sell screenplays.
Vikki: What are the main errors that you see from newbie writers?
William: 1) They don’t write enough. An old WGA survey said that the average screenwriter wrote 9scripts before making a dime… and I was average. Too many writers think they only need to write one script instead of thinking of writing as a career where they will write more than a hundred screenplays.
2) Small ideas. Movies are shared dreams, an escape from our crappy lives where we have a terrible job that barely covers the bills. So you need an idea that transports us into a big exciting dream for 2 hours. That idea shouldn’t be expensive, but it needs to be amazing. I have this thing called the 100 Idea Theory – you come up with 100 ideas, and then select the very best and write that. You want an idea that other writers wish that they had come up with.
3) Not writing for a market. That seems hacky, but I always say to write the kind of movie that you regularly pay to see in the cinema every week. I see all kinds of movies, but I am first in line for action movies and thrillers. I love those genres, so I write in those genres. I joke that I write explosions, but I really just write the kinds of movies that I regularly pay to see. When I am on the jury at the Raindance Film Festival in London, they have a pitch night and I am usually on the panel… and hear 75-100 pitches, and I often wonder if any of these people have ever *seen*a movie. The stories are nothing like any movie out there – no specific genre, nothing that would get me to buy a ticket if that pitch were the trailer, no star role… just not a movie. Look, the average USA film cost $106.7 million dollars a decade ago before the stopped releasing the data… and you need to make 3 times that amount to break even… and that’s a lot of ticket buyers! So you need to write something in a currently popular genre that not only hits all of the beats, but does it in a completely original and unusual way. Something that is the same, but different. So what is the market for your screenplay?
4) Too expensive. You look at $106.7 million and wonder how anyone can spend that muchmoney… well, the answer is movie stars. They tend to get $20 million a film, and sometimes there are deals in place so that Robert Downey Jr ends up making $80 million for the second “Avengers” movie. If you are spending $20 million each for a couple of stars, and $10 million for a couple of supporting actors… that $106.7 million is being cut down more and more. So you don’t want to write a script that will cost a lot of money before you add the stars, you want a script that is affordable… so that they can add the stars. The great thing about a script that can be made inexpensively is that if it doesn’t sell to a studio as a big theatrical film, it can sell to a streamer or a cable network or even sell as a low budget genre film. Blumhouse makes horror films like “Get Out” for $5 million or less. 90% of “Get Out” takes place inside or outside the house with a handful of characters. Limited locations, limited characters… maximum excitement.
If you write something expensive, you have seriously limited the number of reads you are going to get.
Vikki: Which films or TV series would you recommend all budding writers to study off-script and on-screen?
William: Since you are going to be writing the kinds of films that you regularly pay to see, start there. But remember to consider the source. If you make a list of all of your favorite films and they are based on novels, then the route that a similar story will take to the screen begins with a novel…and you need to write that story as a novel. If your favorite films are written and directed and produced by the same person, you need to find the money and make the film yourself. If you are planning on just selling the screenplay, you need to look at the types of screenplays that sell as specs.
Aside from that, just read every script you can get your hands on.
Movies answer all of life’s questions… and reading screenplays will answer all of a screenwriter’s questions.
Vikki: Do you feel a lot of the ‘rules’ given in writing scripts can often stifle creativity? Or are they the foundations you should take a steer from?
William: I believe in Tools Not Rules. But screenwriting is like no other type of writing in that we are creating a part of a larger work – a movie. And when we create that part, it has to fit. So we are people who will be making the movie. We may be alone when we write the screenplay, but we are still part of the team that is making the movie… and if our screenplay is not something that works for the rest of the team, it will remain a screenplay. The key to screenwriting is to create amazing art while coloring inside the lines.
I recently added a section to my Ideas Blue Book on coming up with new versions of “required” scenes – using horror movies as an example. Horror has always been a hot genre, which makes it one of the “entry level” genres for screenwriters. But horror scripts require you to deliver the horror scenes and set pieces that audiences expect., but in a new and unusual way. That takes creativity. Instead of avoiding a cliche type of scene, you must find the original version of that scene. There’s a production company I know that makes ten slasher movies every year – they have 3 or 4 different series. Okay, you are making the 13th slasher movie in the series – what makes it unique and different than the previous 12? What is the *concept* for #13 that hasn’t been done, yet, but it still the slasher movie that the audience paid to rent? That’s where imagination and creativity come into play.
A friend of mine got an assignment to write a screenplay for an aging movie star, and the rules were: it had to be action, and the star needed to be in 75% of the screenplay. So instead of trying to figure out how to create an action script for an old guy, he wrote an action script for a young guy and then put the old star in 75% of the script just standing there and not doing any action. Um, my friend was fired. He couldn’t figure out how to come up with an action story where the old guy performed the action… and that was the job. The “rules” of that job. Though you probably meant “rules” like 3 act structure, etc – it’s the same creative skills required. If you are writing a TV movie, you need to have a cliff hanger just before each commercial break to keep people from changing the channel… and that needs to be built into the story so that it happens “naturally”. That takes creativity.
All screenwriting is some form of coloring within the lines, but creating art that we haven’t seenbefore. All of those “rules” are just tools to make sure that your screenplay works. Nobody cares what “rules” you break or ignore as long as the screenplay works.
Vikki: From your impressive list of writing credits, is there one piece that you are particularly fond of?
William: I wrote a thriller script called “Hard Evidence” that I sold to a company that was making films with Warner Brothers for USA Network. The script had a bunch of great plot twists and some intense suspense scenes and they cast Gregory Harrison in the lead (he was in at least a dozen Made For TV movies every year during this period – a star) and had me do a rewrite that changed one of the locations from Mexico (with the threat of spending the rest of your life in a Mexican prison) to Canada (where the prisons didn’t sound as bad). They would be shooting the film in Vancouver. They sent my script to the physical production company in Vancouver with a note saying that this was the writer’s final draft. That meant they would have to pay someone else for any rewrites. They misunderstood and thought it meant that they couldn’t make any changes. So they added a couple of scenes, but shot the script almost exactly as I wrote it. That’s a miracle, by the way – usually things get mangled on the way to the screen. So the film plays about a million times on USA Network, and then a few months later Warner Bros releases it on video… where it became the #7 rental in the United States, beating a Julia Roberts movie which came out the same day. I got meetings all over town after that! The film is a typical blandly directed movie of the week, but it managed to get great reviews in the two magazines for video stores… and video store employees recommended it to customers, who liked it enough to recommend it to their friends… and I had a hit! Which had already played a million times on TV for free. Many of my produced films were for cable networks like HBO or Showtime or USA Network…but all of those screenplays had gotten me meetings at studios beforehand… and sometimes a script that was almost bought by a studio like Warner Brothers gets handed to Warners Home Entertainment and is made for a cable network. Again, this is why you want a screenplay that can be made inexpensively – so if that $20 million star drops out the script can still get made by the studio as a cable movie or streamer or whatever. Getting any screenplay made is close to impossible – only 1 in 10 screenplays that a studio buys or commissions makes it all the way to the screen. Hey, “Gemini Man” just came out, and that script sold in 1997! It was sitting on the shelf collecting dust for 22 years! 90% of the other scripts that the studio bought will still be sitting on the shelf long after the writers are gone. Heck, a bunch of Orson Welles scripts sitting on the shelf for all of these years are now being looked at again.
Vikki: Do you work alone, or with a writing partner? What are the benefits of both?
William: I do not play well with others.
The two times I have tried to work with a partner didn’t work out of me – the partner didn’t want to do their share of the work. In one case I had a “partner” who had watched the old DICK VAN DYKE SHOW too many times and thought that he would be the guy who paced the room, throwing out random ideas and I would type them up into a coherent screenplay – which doesn’t work. The other “partner” we were going to alternate scenes, I would write a scene and send it to him and he would write the next scene and send it to me. We had a producer waiting. I wrote my scene and sent it to him… and nothing happened. I ended up having to write the whole screenplay to get it to the producer on time! I work better alone.
Vikki: Who are your favourite writers and tv shows?
William: My favorite screenwriters are “the usual suspects” – Lawrence Kasdan (BODY HEAT, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE), Ben Hecht (NOTORIOUS, GUNGA DIN, THE FRONT PAGE), Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS) – so here’s the unusual one – Dan Mainwaring (INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS, OUT OF THE PAST, ROADBLOCK). I believe in writers as auteurs, and Mainwaring’s screenplays always explore trust issues in interesting ways. He wrote a stack of Film Noirs and all of them really explored trust – making them something special. I think the key to a great script is what you bring to it that nobody else can.
Vikki: Is there a genre you’d still like to write for – or have you covered the lot?
William: Aside from action and thrillers, I have written a family film starring Dee Wallace (“E.T.”) that managed to spawn 5 sequels that I had nothing to do with. A couple of my action films were in the science fiction genre, and one was originally a horror script that lost most of its horror on its way to the screen. But I have written a bunch of horror, including the remake of one of the top 80s horror flicks for a mini-major… that didn’t get made. I have a couple of Westerns – onealmost got made, once. I have never written a romantic comedy, but I have written a couple of comedies – I have one called “Married Alive!” that was written decades ago and has some similarities to “The Hangover”… but told from the missing groom’s point of view. I think I have written something in every genre that I want to write in… they just haven’t been made. Which is normal.
The most important lesson that a screenwriter can learn is the writing needs to be its own reward, because you probably aren’t going to ever see the film version and you probably aren’t going to sell the screenplay.
Vikki: Have you anything in the pipeline now you can share with us?
William: There’s always a chance that one of my shelved screenplays will get pulled from the shelf, and I still get the occasional studio meeting on some spec script or other; but most of my focus right now is on books. I am slowly getting through my Screenwriting Blue Book series, which began as 40 page pamphlets and are being expanded to books (one is over 400 pages), and next year
I begin novelizing all of those scripts that didn’t sell – I have created a handful of series characters and am “assigning” old spec scripts to each series. I wrote a handful of novels when I was in my 20s, and am going to have fun getting back to that. Of course, all of that changes if one of my scripts sells and gets me meetings and job offers all over town. Back to the water bottle tour (which is often pitchers and a glass these days). I am tinkering with an old screenplay that didn’t quite work, about an ambulance driver who picks up a dead political candidate who continues to make live speeches on television. That script was going to be made by Orion Pictures, but they went bankrupt and I got the script back… and maybe it has another chance. But nothing in production as I write this. Of course, all of that could change tomorrow!