Write or die
March 14th, 2004
I stumbled onto Daniel's website, and asked him for an interview. I wanted to know how he got started, what the web has done for him, and what advice he could offer "newbies". Enjoy! -- Webmaster Chris.
Write or die.
Why screenwriting? I didn't exactly set out to be a screenwriter. Although I always loved movies, my early interests ran toward fine art. I drew and painted my way through high-school and early college.
In my second year at Pasadena Community College (ahh, yes. PCC. The 13th grade), I took my first creative writing class with Jerene Hewitt and discovered that I had some talent. There, I had an epiphany (whether it was due the class or the vast quantities of illegal drugs I was ingesting, I'll never know), namely, that the human mind is the biggest canvas of all, and words were the medium of choice.
So I changed my major.
It was also in Hewitt's class that I met my first fringe-Hollywood shark--this odd, older guy who approached me during a break and told me how "terrific" and "visual" my writing was and what a "great ear" for dialogue I had. He then offered me money to remove my shoes and allow him to sit on my bare feet for the duration of class.
No. Just kidding. Although, in a way, the truth is even seedier.
After complimenting my work, he asked me if I'd be willing to write a screenplay based on one of his "ideas." I told him I'd think about it. That evening, I called him and asked how much he'd be willing to pay me for the assignment. He went totally ballistic, shouting that he was offering me "the opportunity of a lifetime."
This is interesting, I thought. I wondered if he'd ever tried that line on a plumber or an auto-mechanic. "Five-hundred bucks for a rebuilt transmission? You asshole! I'm offering you the opportunity of a lifetime here!"
I decided to give him the same answer the mechanic would likely give him: "Thanks for the opportunity, but, uhm, fuck off, okay?"
The truly absurd thing about my first little adventure is that it was repeated (and is still repeated) regularly by various players and non-players alike. From parking-lot attendants to seasoned producers, everybody's got this "great" idea for a movie. All they just need is somebody to "connect the dots."
Since I'm a native Angeleno--that is, I grew up in L.A.--I knew what every native knew: The movie-business is for saps and misfits. So I focused on writing poetry and prose, steering well clear of anything that smacked of "screenwriting." Consequently, I steered well clear of anything that smacked of "income."
That changed when I decided at a ludicrously young age to get married. I set aside my dreams of being the next Bukowski and worked a series of real jobs until I was twenty-seven or so. At that point, I was fairly successful, wearing expensive suits and making scads of dough as an insurance broker. I had a lovely wife, a house and a wonderful son.
I also had fallen into the habit of waking at two in the morning every night, slipping into the guest bedroom and sucking on the muzzle of a loaded shotgun for five to fifteen minutes.
Now, the obsessive desire to paint your final masterpiece on the ceiling with your brains is definitely a sign that something is amiss. Either that or a radical piece of performance art.
I decided to seek help for what turned out to be a pretty clear case of major clinical depression. Talk-therapy helped, but only to a point. I tried anti-depressants, but they were about as effective as bullets on Superman. But, finally, I did find some Kryptonite: I started writing again.
I've heard it said that one does not "choose" to write any more than one "chooses" to breathe. For some of us, it's a necessary function. It certainly was in my case. Write or Die, that's my motto.
So I churned out short stories, still steadfastly avoiding anything that involved shots and sluglines. I'd finish one, send it off to to a few magazines, then start another. When the rejection slips came, I pinned them up on a corkboard over my computer. I didn't care. My primary motivation was strictly to exercise the craft. Publication was really only an afterthought in those days.
Write or Die.
Finally, I did get published. The title was "Bess." It was a dark story about a young man whose apartment is haunted by his landlord's daughter. A few months passed and I received a check for $13.50 US from 2AM Magazine.
Thirteen dollars and fifty cents. I was a pro. Yikes.
As I mentioned, I'm a depressive. But I'm a pragmatic depressive. And I realized that as long as I'd been doomed to roll this particular rock up this particular hill, I might as well get paid a living wage for it.
I decided to try writing a screenplay.
Ironically, that sleazeball in Mrs. Hewitt's class was right. The form played to all my strengths--visuals and dialogue. As I wrote, I began attending classes and seminars, reading books. I finished it in three months.
Fortuitously, at an AFI workshop, the speaker that week was a development person for a company that produced cheapie movies. Someone asked what they were looking for, and she blithely described exactly what my script happened to be: low budget, high concept, horror.
I approached her afterwards and said (with brazen confidence borne of utter cluelessness), "I've got something you're going to want to read." I was right. They bought it. Four-thousand dollars. Then they hired me to rewrite another one.
None of those movies got made, thank God. I had no idea what I was doing. Just raw talent, really. No finesse or real craft. But I learned. And the cool thing was that I got paid to learn.
Five specs later, I wrote a movie called CAANAN'S WAY. I had just picked up a pair of very cool retro sunglasses. Not 1970's retro. More like 1870's retro: Small, round black lenses in gunmetal frames. I was driving home on the freeway when I glanced in the mirror and thought, "Ooh. Blind cowboy glasses."
Upon articulating the thought, I immediately got an image of a tall, unshaven guy in a black duster and a preacher's hat standing against a cobalt blue sky (lots of my ideas start as random images). I then flashed on these cool Japanese movies I used to see at a revival house about Zatoichi, the blind samarai. An amended thought: "Ooh. Blind gunfighter glasses."
The resulting script, CANAAN'S WAY, was produced by HBO (retitled BLIND JUSTICE). It starred Armand Assante and Elisabeth Shue. They paid me $125,000 US. No! Correction--they paid me $125,000 for something I'd be doing anyway for free. They paid me $125,000 for breathing!
Write or Die.
Since HBO was the first signatory to buy my work, I finally got my Writers Guild card. James Bond may have a license to kill but, if he had a WGAw card, he'd have a license to steal, too. Plus he'd get to take Pussy Galore and Felix Leiter to tons of free movies during Oscar season.
God, I love this job.
Well, most of the time . . .
For instance, read http://home.earthlink.net/~dknauf/swt.htm to find out about my experiences in the big-budget development game with NON-STOP.
Now, up to BLIND JUSTICE, I'd never been represented. Afterwards, I signed with an agent. "Great," I thought, "I finally have someone to hustle for me."
As soon as I signed, I abdicated my progress into the hands of a third party. And the third party in question (i.e. the agent) must've felt he wasn't in the business of setting up deals. To make things even worse, he wasn't actively marketing the specs I was writing. My career came to a screeching halt.
It took me two years to figure out that having no agent at all is better than having the wrong agent. So I fired him and moved back to square one--hustling myself like crazy. This included the development of my website ( http://home.earthlink.net/~dknauf ) plus following up on every contact I'd ever made, plus every contact I'd never made.
The website has been a mixed bag. I've made a lot of new friends plus I've actually gotten some serious queries from agents and producers. Best of all, I'm getting read.
As far as "pitfalls" go, I haven't stumbled across any, so far. It's like most businesses on the web. A presence is not really beneficial in and of itself, but it's a great tool from the standpoint of using it as an online resume/catalogue that actively involves the user.
Let's see . . . what have I learned? What great advice can I give to the newbie:1) Never talk about writing. Just shut your mouth and do it.
2) Learn to write poetry. Study it. It teaches you how to create evocative and economical prose (emphasis on "economical").
3) Listen to people speak in conversations, especially how they structure their sentences.
4) Never use the words "very," "quite," "so" or "really" as adjectives.
5) Never use the word "goes" as a verb.
6) Never start a block of dialogue with the words "Look" as in, "Look, I love you."
7) Don't drop the "g's" off the ends of your verbs in dialogue to make a character sound "real." It's distractin'.
8) Avoid passive voice. Instead of "John is digging a hole," write "John digs a hole."
9) Delete adverbs entirely unless absolutely necessary. Especially in parentheticals.
10) Learn the difference between text and subtext and...
11) Find a mentor. I did, and her help was invaluable.
As far as mentoring goes, I've only worked with one protege so far, a writer named John Meyer who I met through a mutual friend. He's a shrink in Lancaster and likes writing sci-fi scripts. I'm happy to say he just got his first paying gig with a direct-to-video company. Yay, John.
That said, please don't send me scripts or unsolicited manuscripts. If you do, I'll hunt down and kill everything you've ever loved.
These days, I have several screenplays in active development as well as two specs working their way through my computer. I have a feeling the next year or so is going to be very interesting.
I'm still married to that wonderful woman I met twenty years ago. I have three kids who routinely delight me more than anyone will ever know. And every time I smile, it's one more good moment noted and logged.
Closing thoughts: The wisest thing anyone ever told me about getting through life was imparted by an Oregon fishing guide named Dennis who, when explaining what to do if the boat capsized in rapids, explained, "Don't struggle. Cover your head to protect it from hitting rocks. Keep your feet pointed downstream. Eventually, the river will bend and the current will carry you to shore."
Live those words. And keep writing. Everything'll be okay.
Daniel Knauf, June, 1999