For creative minds, being a professional screenwriter seems like the quintessential dream job. What could be better? One common perception goes a little something like this: You get to sit in your bedroom all day, every day, wearing a bummy T-shirt, old basketball shorts, and slippers while doing nothing but hammering out scripts, and getting paid to do so. Once a new screenplay is finished, you mail it out to a big-wig producer, who then brings it to a studio, they love it and sign a zero-filled check, which is promptly mailed to your apartment, where, yes, you’re still wearing those same unwashed Jordan shorts.
Seems like the good life, right? It sure does, but too bad the reality of screenwriting in Hollywood couldn’t be further from the truth. As those who lose sleep, receive constant rejections and confidence depletions, and watch their beloved scripts about serious life issues get trashed in favor of Katherine Heigl-starring romantic comedies will confirm, screenwriting can be a hellish grind.
In their new book Writing Movies For Fun And Profit, Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, the writers behind both blockbuster Night At The Museum flicks, explain the grind of working within the major studio system as writers in a compelling, hilarious, and candid tutorial. With their step-by-step approach, written in a loose and energetic style, Garant and Lennon, who got their start on the MTV sketch comedy show The State before blessing Comedy Central with the long-running hit Reno! 911, have conceived a manual that’s much more enjoyable and true-to-life than most available screenwriting books. Case in point: One chapter is titled, “Why Most Hollywood Movies SUCK Donkey Balls.”
Designed for those who aspire to write hit films for big studios, not small independent projects for the art-house crowd, Writing Movies For Fun And Profit (which hits bookstores tomorrow) couples practical advice (the best ways to obtain agents, specific script formats for each major studio, the best hamburger joints in a screenwriter’s necessary home of Los Angeles) with legitimate horror stories about the ways Hollywood can neuter scripts, turn once-strong products into wretched cinematic turds, and green-light movies that never should have been made in the first place. After all, Garant and Lennon are the same guys who wrote such gems as Taxi and Herbie: Fully Loaded, crappy flicks that the guys themselves attack in the book.
Complex recently spoke with Garant and Lennon to discuss their intentions with Writing Movies, why screenwriting can be both the greatest and most punishing job imaginable, how Lindsay Lohan’s smiling car lost them an important gig, and why it’s key to remember that movies have always sucked donkey balls.
Complex: I’ve read a few of the more straight-laced screenwriting books in the past, and, after reading yours, those all seem like wastes of time, at least in the sense of not preparing anyone for what happens after you write, finish, and sell a screenplay.
Thomas Lennon: Oh, that’s great to hear. That was one-hundred percent the intention we set out with. We looked out at the entire landscape of screenwriting books, and we thought, Who are all of these people? What hit movies did they write that gave them any sort of expertise on how to write big, hit movies?
Robert Ben Garant: And then you IMDB them, and the answer is none. [Laughs.]
Thomas Lennon: Exactly, it’s none. Or almost none.
Robert Ben Garant: We started this during the writers’ strike, because we write constantly and had to write something during that time. And we thought that the stuff that people in these screenwriting books opine on for pages and pages and pages is all theory. Like, “What makes an interesting character?”
I would say, A, you can’t really teach anyone how to write good characters, because it’s something you have to teach yourself or already have innately in you as a storyteller, and, B, coming up with a good screenplay is a very, very small fraction of what it takes to be a good screenwriter. We wanted to do a book that really covered what it is, what it takes, and what happens to you if you come here to Los Angeles and work for the studios.
Which some people might never consider when they set out to write a screenplay. It’s more so, Oh, I’ll write this, get it sold, and then I’ll be able to sit in my room and write more of them while having tons of money in my pocket!
Robert Ben Garant: Yeah, it’s interesting. Tom is much more funny and gregarious than I am; I’m like a writer writer, in the sense that I’m bordering on being a misanthrope. [Laughs.] I’m the guy you just talked about, who loves sitting at his computer and writing with his cats. I don’t have people skills, and you need them. What I hope this book explains is that people skills are just as important as writing skills. Like, you really need to be likable, and have a good sense of what the executive is saying even if the executive his or herself doesn’t know what they’re trying to say.
It takes a lot of hustle and shoe leather; that’s one of the reasons we say in the book that you really have to be in Los Angeles. You really need to be here to meet the people who run this town, and we assume, before you read this book, that you already manically write every day; that you already love being at your computer and writing, and then rewriting and rewriting. Good. Good, that will help, but it’s not the whole ballgame.
And the other thing is, that brilliant spec script that you write at home and it takes you years and it’s about your grandpa at Auschwitz, and you’ve poured everything into it—odds are, that movie will never be made. That first script is really your business card; it’s your writing sample. Make it great, pour your life into it, make it fantastic. But, odds are, people are going to say, “Yeah, that script is great—bring this guy in, because Julia Roberts wants to do a movie about Julia Child. Let’s get that person to do that.” So, yeah, you need to know the business side. Hopefully that’s what we covered.
Do you think it’s unrealistic for aspiring screenwriters to dream of writing serious, Academy Award-winning scripts and only those? To think that they’ll never write a paycheck-grabbing studio movie just for the, well, paycheck?
Thomas Lennon: No, not necessarily. Here’s the thing: Writing is something you get good at only by doing it. It’s a muscle that you can flex. Ben and I, I think we’re just hitting our writing stride now, ten years into our screenwriting career. There’s an enormous amount of possibilities with your screenwriting; the only thing is, there’s also a fantastic amount of pitfalls. It is a massive minefield out here. Honestly, getting one movie made that you’ve written is almost impossible; getting two, you’re in the, like, one percentile. So, in this book, we tried to highlight the pitfalls a lot, too.
Robert Ben Garant: And I would also add, and we say this in the book pretty clearly, that if you want to get Oscars, this isn’t the book for you.
Thomas Lennon: Yeah, there are other books for that.
Robert Ben Garant: If you have a tale that you’re going to go to your grave regretting that you never got to make on the screen, like some true Oscar-winning thing, don’t read this book and say, “How am I going to get that tale through the system?” You’re probably not. There’s a very different route to make those cool, indie, Oscar-winning things that, honestly, I know nothing about. [Laughs.]
Thomas Lennon: When I see art-house movies, I know I like them.
Robert Ben Garant: Yeah, my Blu-rays are all of that.
Thomas Lennon: Also, I never see those big double-page ads in Variety saying that an art-house movie made, like, a billion dollars.
Robert Ben Garant: And I hope those guys take what they can from this book. A lot of this stuff is still going to be very useful to those guys, but if you want to win Oscars, don’t read this book and get discouraged, because it’s really a different path. Either that, or, what we do, we accidentally fell into this family movie business, and that’s our wonderful pigeonhole.
[With screenwriting], you really need to stretch your ego to a place where you can watch your ego get ripped to shreds without crying or kicking up dust. - Thomas Lennon
So, if you’re successful at writing studio movies, you can write Oscar contenders, or rent cigarette boats, or start your own modeling agency.
Thomas Lennon: You can start your own marionette theater. [Laughs.]
Do you guys wish that you had a book of this type back when you first got started as screenwriters?
Thomas Lennon: Yeah, I don’t know who would have written it, though. You’ve really got to be in the trenches for a long time to have figured out some of the stuff that we’ve figured out, I think.