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.
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.
Thomas Lennon: You know, it was sort of accidental. We didn’t write together that much on The State. Ultimately, I think, it comes down to the compulsive nature of how both of us write. We both write luminously; we write tons and tons of stuff. And that was also true on The State.
Thomas Lennon: Yeah, and then we sort of accidentally wrote a movie that ended up being called Let’s Go To Prison, but the spec script we wrote was completely insane. No one wanted to make that, but everyone thought it was really funny. That got us established as people who could write a movie, even though, at the time, we had no idea what we’re doing. We hadn’t really followed any structure rules yet or implemented them.
Robert Ben Garant: And we wrote that movie not having any idea of how a movie actually gets made; we wrote a movie that was 100 pages and was just funny. As a result, nobody wanted to make it. [Laughs.] But that got us into all these doors, where people said, “Wow, you guys are really, really funny—how about this other project we have going? You want to try and write that?” That’s a really important lesson about your first script; keep writing it, and have a really tall stack of specs, but that’s really almost more for practice to get into the studio system.
Thomas Lennon: Though, it certainly doesn’t hurt for the first thing you write, even if you know it’s going to get made, to be a little bit shocking. Something that people talk about.
Robert Ben Garant: Yeah, something that stands out, because the people who read your scripts in Hollywood are so bored. On the weekend, they take home fifty scripts….
Thomas Lennon: Oh, and most scripts are so bad! [Laughs.]
Robert Ben Garant: You’re writing a screenplay, and the screenplay isn’t going to be read by somebody who’s dying to read your screenplay; it’s going to be read by a tired, bored guy who’s read forty fucking terrible scripts before yours and has to pick yours up, read it, and love it. That’s the studio system; the sooner you get into the mindset that, “Screenwriters aren’t precious artists carving angels out of Marzipan”….
Thomas Lennon: Screenwriters are contractors making bathrooms.
Robert Ben Garant: We’re writing scripts for people to pick up and go, “I’m going to make this movie so we can make money,” and that’s the business.
Going back to the point about your spec script that was too insane to ever get made, there’s a really interesting chapter in the book about your original Herbie: Fully Loaded script that never got made, and was ultimately refashioned into that not-so-good flick with Lindsay Lohan….
Thomas Lennon: Yeah, that was a real lesson. We learned a ton, but the short version was, “If you don’t make the car smile…”
Robert Ben Garant: “…you’re fired.” [Laughs.]
Thomas Lennon: Seriously, yeah. We were still young at that time, and we were still figuring the system out, but it was the one thing that we couldn’t budge on. Like, “There’s no fucking way that they’re going to make this fucking car smile!” After a day of arguing about it, we just found out that we had been fired. [Laughs.] We got a call, like, “You guys know that you’re no longer affiliated with the project, right? Because you would not make the fucking car smile.”
Robert Ben Garant: “And we found two guys who will make the car smile.” [Laughs.]
Which brings me to another point. One of the main things I took from this book is that you can’t always blame the screenwriters for shitty scripts. It’s easy for critics and movie lovers to insult screenwriters when a movie sucks, but, as your book details, often what’s seen on screen isn’t what the screenwriter ever intended.
Robert Ben Garant: More so than even critics or people in the regular world, if you work here in the studio system and go see a movie that’s actually good, it’s a fucking miracle. When I walk out of a movie that’s actually good, I write emails to anybody I know who was involved with it.
It’s a huge committee/clusterfuck; the more money you spend on a movie, that’s more people who are going to have an opinion on it. The movie star gets a draft, and then the director wants to do something different from what the movie star wants to do. It’s a miracle anything turns out to be good. If a movie has three decent scenes and a decent character, I think, OK, at least they got that guy right.
And the other thing is, and I think we say this in the book, now that there are millions of critics on the Internet, people bitch and say, “Oh, movies are terrible these days!” Most movies were always terrible. [Laughs.]
Thomas Lennon: You just remember the good ones.
Robert Ben Garant: You remember the good ones, yeah. Like, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind was brilliant!”; they came out with over a hundred movies that year, though, and you remember Jaws and Close Encounters, but there were a lot of terrible films that came out. They make more movies now than they used to be, but….
Thomas Lennon: I’m not even sure if that’s true; I think it’s less….
Robert Ben Garant: Yeah, I think you’re right. It might be even less.
In that sense, the book should be very interesting for people who don’t necessarily want to write screenplays, but, rather, just love movies in general and love to get on their soapboxes and diss shitty movies.
Thomas Lennon: Yeah, although sometimes they’re right. [Laughs.] To us, the best movie about screenwriting is Barton Fink. If you want to really get the sense of what it’s like to be a studio screenwriter, watch Barton Fink.
Robert Ben Garant: [Reciting dialogue from the movie] “We don’t need you, Barton, to give us that Barton Fink feeling—we have a hundred guys on this lot who can give us that Barton Fink feeling.”
Thomas Lennon: Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like. We quote that movie every day.
Robert Ben Garant: In that movie, one character says, “Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. What do you need, a road map?” And in reality, it’s just like that. “Lindsay Lohan. Herbie. What do you need, a road map?” Or, “Keanu Reeves. The Matrix. What do you need, a road map?" [Laughs.]
Considering how difficult of a grind it is, would you immediately encourage aspiring screenwriters to even stick with the dream? The book begins with a step-by-step outline of what it takes to get to do such things as hire a good agent, and it all seems so daunting.
Thomas Lennon: If you have the stomach for it, it’s the greatest job in the world. It’s an amazing job that we both really, really love; that said, you really need to do a couple of things. One, you need to write compulsively every day, and, two, you truly need to stretch your ego to a place where you can watch your ego get ripped to shreds in front of you without even crying about it or kicking up dust.
Robert Ben Garant: And still being invested in making it good, but you’re just ready to move on….
Thomas Lennon: Or, throw away Act Two and write something better.
Robert Ben Garant: I would compare it to an Olympic sport. Like, Lance Armstrong in cycling; if you’re a big cycling fan, that’s very different than, “Are you willing to get on your bike and ride thirty miles a day?” Even if you never make it big, will you still write thirty pages a day? And if the answer is, “Yes,” then come here to L.A. and give it a shot. Unless you love biking thirty miles a day, even in the pouring rain while you hate your life, don’t try to be in the Tour De France. That being said, Lance Armstrong and the two of us have the best fucking jobs.
Thomas Lennon: And, for us, there’s no drug testing, which is fantastic.