Thursday, March 8, 2012

Screenwriter Interview - Allan Loeb

Allan Loeb embodies the dream scenario for any screenwriter.  Well, sorta.  After having inconsistent success in Hollywood for awhile, he fought through a crippling gambling addiction that nearly sent his life spiraling out of control. He eventually recovered, writing two scripts, The Only Living Boy In New York and Things We Lost In The Fire, that finished Top 4 on the inaugural Black List in 2005.  The buzz around those scripts began an insane hot streak for Loeb, who sold six projects in a single year. He's since went on to write many movies, including 21, Wall Street 2, and Just Go With It.  In addition to feature writing, he has moved into TV producing, and is looking to have the same success in that medium.

SS: I originally heard it took you 12 years to finally sell something. Is that accurate? Can you tell us how you fought through that and were able to keep writing?

AL: I actually sold a pitch my fifth year writing, then a script two years later (guild minimum) and another (guild min again) a few years after that. So my career has actually been lived in three stages, five years of total rejection, about six or so of being on the bottom rung as a “baby writer” and finally eight years now of success. I didn’t actually fight through it, I -- more or less -- avoided the scary real world by doing the only thing I felt comfort in doing… making shit up.

SS: What did you do to pay the rent and what do you suggest other writers do job-wise to pay their rent yet still have time to work on their writing?

AL: I’m reluctant to say how I paid the rent for fear some of your readers may try it. It wasn’t smart and it should’ve ended in disaster. I gambled, day traded, ran through an inheritance and lived off credit cards. I sold my car in 2002 to pay rent and spent two years walking/taking the bus in LA. I sold an X-Box to a UCLA college student in 2005 for $90 and signed at CAA a week later. If I didn’t sign there or sell Only Living Boy shortly after… that $90 would’ve been my net worth.

SS: There seem to be levels for a writer. There’s the “get noticed with a good script” level. There’s the “get an agent level.” There’s the “sell your first script level.” Those are the levels I’m familiar with. What levels come after that? How many are there?

AL: There are so many levels after that. Most people are so consumed with the initial three that they never consider all the rungs in the middle. I’d say after “sell your first script” there’s the “do the rounds around town and get these people to like you” level. Then there’s the “get a job or sell something to them” level.

Then comes the most important level of all… “DELIVER!” This involves making your partners (producer, studio, director, movie star) feel heard and happy without compromising the quality of your work and your voice. It’s extremely delicate and challenging and if you can do it… you’ll work for a long time. It’s my opinion that most writers get spit out of the business at this level by the way.

From there the result in the market place matters. So the levels are “the box office gross level” and the “critical acclaim level” I have failed up at this level many times (but fortunately succeeded a bit too) and it’s extremely painful.

SS: My favorite script of yours is “The Only Living Boy In New York.” What inspired that script for you and when am I finally going to get to see it?

AL: I wanted to write my version of my favorite movie “The Graduate” with kind of a “Manhattan” love-letter to New York flourish to it. I went to New York in 2004, leased a loft for the summer with no air conditioning, cable or internet. The shower was a big sink I had to climb into. I just read everything I could about the city, met some really cool New Yorkers, partied till morning on the Lower East Side and somehow came back to LA with that script.

I’m hoping you’ll see it soon… it has new life to it that may finally get it made. Stay tuned.

SS: "Things We Lost In The Fire" was an independent movie script. But I remember it was very celebrated at the time. Without getting into specifics, can you sell those types of scripts for a lot of money or is every independent script more likely to result in a small sale?

AL: You can sell dramas like Things We Lost but you really need big talent attached. What drove that sale for me was Sam Mendes and his sway at Dreamworks. Sam loved the script and at first wanted to direct it. (He ended up producing it with me) 

SS: Can you take us through the specific process that led to Things We Lost In The Fire being found, bought, and ultimately made? It's always fun to know the details of how these things come about.

AL: I gave it to my agents on Friday. Sam had read it and was attached by Monday. Dreamworks paid me a lot of money for it with-in a week. I’ll give credit where credit is due… CAA.

SS: When you first break out as a screenwriter, you're the new guy and everybody wants to meet you and know what else you have and if there's some way you can work together. What can you tell us, from your experience after your break out, as far as what opportunities came up and how future screenwriters should handle that situation should they break in? Should they be taking advantage of every opportunity and trying to sell every pitch they can because they're hot, or should they just focus on meeting people and developing relationships?

AL: Yes, yes and yes. This is such an important part of the business. It’s as important as the words on the page. Connect with these people you’re meeting on a human level. See what movies they love and where your tastes align. Get their email addresses and follow up and update them to what you’re doing… stay on their radar.

Most of them are smart, most of them are perfectly nice, most of them want to make good movies… they are not the enemy. If they believe in you, if they genuinely like you, if they think you’re going to make a good partner… they will stop at nothing to pay you real money to make shit up on a computer (while drinking coffee in between naps.)

SS: What do you think is the toughest thing about screenwriting?

AL: Handing the shit in.

SS: I'd love to get two pieces of advice from you. First, what's the most important lesson you learned about the craft of screenwriting? And second, what's the most important lesson you learned about the business side of screenwriting?

AL: The most important thing about the craft… economy/befriend the reader.

Say it with economy… don’t over describe. They get it. They’re reading quickly. They want to know what happens next. They don’t give a shit about most of the things you think they do… they just want to know what happens next.

The most important thing about the business… fun, enjoyable collaboration/be a pro.

Be open, be collaborative, they’re your partners, this is not poetry or Ibsen… it’s a business and you’re building a product with a team of people. Have fun, don’t freak out and be open to what your partners need or they will find someone else. Now you have to do that without totally killing your voice and particular story and that’s the dance… that’s where the game gets really fragile and difficult. You have to defend what makes this story great and make them happy. You have to play offense and defense… you can’t win by just playing one.

And it’s critical to be a pro. Hit every deadline, be calm, be available, be Kevin Durant at the foul line, don’t be an emotional basket case. You’re their doctor. Be their doctor… don’t be their frantic child.

SS: Now I don't know this from any personal experience but I've heard that once you have a couple of hit movies, people just throw gobs of money at you to write their screenplays. I imagine that presents some dilemmas for you. Like getting offered, say, a million dollars to write something big and marketable yet artistically unfulfilling, and $250,000 to write something smaller and less marketable but very artistically fulfilling. Have you been in that situation before and how do you handle it?

AL: This is an issue for many writers but not for me so much. I’m a lover of movies of all genres and I write in all genres. I’m not precious and I see as much merit in a big rom-com as I do in a Terrence Malick film. There’s something for everybody and people simply get too judgmental when it comes to what stories they believe people should be told. It becomes a personal thing. I’m lucky that I get as excited about a big commercial idea as I do a small character piece… they’re just two different types of food to me. One is not inherently better than the other. I’m just as proud of “Just Go With it” as I am about “Things We Lost” -- who’s to say which has more merit? To me… that’s arrogance.

So I can cash a big check and be fulfilled at the same time… I guess that’s called being a hack :)

SS: Having spent that early part of your career struggling for so long, what advice can you give writers from that experience so that they don't make the same mistakes that you did, and can break out sooner?

AL: Don’t chase the market. Work on your specific voice and not what you think they want. Keep your day job.

Don’t get to the point where you’re selling your X-Box to a UCLA kid because getting lucky from under that stupidity only happens once and I already cashed that chip.

SS: Now I know you do a lot of assignment work. Are you able to still find time to write your own material? Are you still putting your own specs out there? What are you working on now?

AL: It’s a good question. I don’t spec. I’m transitioning a bit into writing a script a year for me and seeing where the chips fall but it’s been hard. I truly love what I do and most of that is incoming work.

I’m currently rewriting an action movie for Universal, finishing up a baseball comedy for Disney and working on a pilot for 20th/NBC.