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Richard Finney MAXIMUM RISK screenwriter

Hollywood Screenwriter Richard Finney Interview

by: Christopher Wehner

RICHARD FINNEY, W.G.A. Producer/Writer In the last three years, producer/screenwriter Richard Finney has sold four pitches -- the most recent to director Steven Spielberg, titled "Alien Zoo." "Alien Zoo" is currently in development at Dreamworks with producer Robert Lawrence ("Clueless") as producer and James Bonny as co-writer.

Also currently in development with writer James Bonny is "Guardian," an ABC TV movie for director Joe Dante ("Gremlins," "The Howling"); "Microbe," a Fox TV movie in association with Saban Entertaiment, and an adaptation of the high-tech action novel, "Sunstroke," with producers Jeffrey Neuman and Martin Wiley ("Under Siege II").

Previous to "Alien Zoo," and "Sunstroke," Finney teamed with Daniel Petrie, Jr. ("Beverly Hills Cop") on two film projects: a production rewrite for the Columbia Pictures release of Ringo Lam's "Maximum Risk" starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and "Ground Zero," for Castle Rock, which begins shooting in October, 1997.

Finney began his screenwriting career at Disney in 1992, writing for the project that became "Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters," starring Donald Sutherland. He followed that assignment up with pitch sales to Touchstone ("Evolution," currently in development with Phase One Productions), Cinema Line ("Vexers," for the producers of "Anaconda"), and Mel Gibson's Icon Productions ("Fire Mountain"). "Fire Mountain" was the first volcano project set up at a studio, and the only one that has not gone into production. A sure-fire way to provoke Mr. Finney into a rant is to ask him about his experience developing "Fire Mountain."

Utopia: Mr. Finney, you have worked with some of the biggest names in filmmaking. Could you please give us some background information about the time you first started to write, to where you are now? How has hard work, and maybe a little luck paid off for you?

Finney: As long as I can remember I've wanted to be a writer. When my family would leave for weekend outings, I would stay home and write. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to everyone, but it worked for me. The only way I've been able to progress within my craft is to work at it for years. Short stories at first. Then I worked on scripting individual scenes. In high school I wrote plays that my drama class performed. In college I wrote TV scripts that were shot in the school's studio. I wrote only one full length script and two thirty minute scripts before I met James Bonny while working at a small TV station in Oxnard, a town sixty minutes out of L.A. He was also a screenwriter wannabe and we decided to write a script together. That first script got us an agent and a lowbudge producer optioned it. We thought we were on our way! And we couldn't believe how easy it all was!! We also couldn't have been more wrong. The producer never made the movie, but we kept on working on one script after another. In a two year period we wrote and rewrote and rewrote (etc.) four scripts. Even though each script would eventually get optioned, none got made. Then in 1989, I met producer/director/screenwriter Dan Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop, Big Easy) and interviewed him for a TV show I produced on the Santa Barbara Film Festival. We struck up a friendship and he eventually looked at my scripts and offered Jim and I a chance to write a studio project. The movie was Robert Heinlein's The Puppetmasters. Before Hollywood Pictures would hire us to rewrite the existing script they wanted to look at a script sample of ours. We showed them the first script we wrote. They liked it, but they wanted to see another, just to make sure. We showed them our second script. They liked that too, but they wanted to see another, for insurance. We showed them a third script and the third one was the charm - we got the job! Thank God we had written at least three presentable scripts for the studio to look over or we wouldn't have gotten the job. That's a great example of hard work paying off - and I never would forget it.

Luck is so much an important element in this business. When I was a kid I would play poker with my friends and got pretty good at it. One day I was leaving to play and my father wished me luck. I told him I didn't need it - I was so good at playing cards that I could win even if Lady Luck wasn't on my side. Of course I got my ass whipped that night and learned in important lesson - no matter how good you are at anything, luck goes a long way. A career example was our project Fire Mountain, a pitch about a volcano threatening a resort town that James Bonny and I sold to Icon Productions. Even though the company was high on the project, along with the studio, Warner Brothers, we needed Mel Gibson to commit to star to get the green light. But Mel was working on Braveheart and Warner Brothers was afraid to go forward because of the huge budget. One year after we had sold the pitch, several other volcano projects got set up at the other studios. Eventually two films were shot about volcanos, Dante's Peak and Volcano. Even though we were ahead of the game in concept and development, our script never got shot. Lady luck had let us down. Other times it would be our friend. You never know.

Utopia:What was your first paid gig?

Finney: My first paid gig was when James Bonny and I worked for an old Hollywood producer who optioned our first script, a horror story, then paid us to rewrite it. We learned a lot...and suffered with each lesson. The producer would read our dialogue out loud, making fun of it. He would throw the script across the room if a scene he read sucked. He would threaten us on a daily basis if we didn't come up with a novel way of visualizing a sequence. It was punishing, but it also kept us on our toes. Once in a while he'd throw in a compliment, so we wouldn't slash our wrists.

Utopia: Who are some of your favorite writers?

Finney: I have several: Dan Petrie Jr. of course. James Bonny of course. Goldman, Towne, Schrader, Allen, you know the usual suspects. But the writer that immediately comes to mind is James Cameron. Recently there's been a lot of talk about how his script for Titanic doesn't equal the direction. Bullshit! His script for that movie is awesome. Many people make the mistake of thinking good dialogue is the only criteria for a great script when that is only one element. Furthermore, I won't concede that Cameron's script had inane dialogue (as one critic puts it). I thought the dialogue was always fun, revealing, and by the end of the story, very poignant. His script, overall, was remarkable on every level. How many movies have a story that everyone essentially knows how it ends, but because of the expert writing, leaves the viewer on the edge of the seat all the way up to the closing credits?

Total sidebar If anyone wants to study the art of screenwriting I recommend they check out the annotated script to Terminator 2 which is a published book that contains not only missing scenes from the movie, but enlightening notes on the way the script was written and shot. Notes written by Cameron himself.

Utopia: Favorite Directors?

Finney: Obviously Cameron. Also Steven Spielberg. There's at least twenty other amazing directors that I will go see anything they do, but those two are on another cloud above everyone else.

Utopia: Favorite Actors?

Finney: There are generally two kinds of actors: ones that bring star power and ones that inhabit their characters. Clint Eastwood is a great example of the first and Robert DeNiro is part of the latter group. Harrison Ford walks the line between the two.

Utopia: There are tens of thousands of wannabe writers surfing the net. Most think they can write, and hope to find help via the internet. I know Terence Michael (Finney's producing partner) has actually found a couple of good writers on the net (For example: Michael Addis who wrote Die Wholesale a project that Terence Michael is producing). What's your advice to writers who want to post samples of their writing on the internet?

Finney: The internet has been a valuable way for us to discover new writers that have trouble getting exposed. Geography may prevent a writer from getting his script read in Hollywood. Just getting the script read by someone of consequence in this town must seem like trying to get through a steel vault without the combination. Having had to hustle and work hard to get where I am, I'm more than happy to help anyone get a rung up the ladder if they deserve the break. I read any and every synopsis or query letter that is emailed to me personally. I know that Terry or someone at our company reads any correspondence that is sent directly to our office. If we like the premise, we ask for the script. Either Terry or I will read any script we ask to be sent. I'm proud of this fact. I hope my company never gets too big that I can't continue to read scripts sent by freelance writers. I don't know about writers posting samples of their work on the internet. A good query letter to a reputable company should eventually get one exposed. Talent and luck will eventually take care of the rest.

Utopia: Do new writers have a better chance of trying to pitch their idea briefly via email to a producer, or should they try and call him/her at the office.

Finney: When I was first starting out I would cold call producers and talk to them about a script I was trying to sell. If you present yourself in a professional manner, you might get lucky and get to talk. Mostly though there are too many gatekeepers that deny you the chance to meaningfully pitch your story to someone who matters. The internet is a great way to get producers to pay attention to your a convenient time for them. But some development executives, producers, agents, etc. couldn't get on the internet to save their careers, therefore, sometimes the only way to get in touch with them is by phone, or by writing them a letter. The letter is better. Something about the act of writing a graceful letter makes the recipient take your proposal more seriously.

Utopia: The early nineties is often considered to be the ascendence for SPEC writers. Is that true and what is the market like today in your opinion?

Finney: The market moves in cycles. A few years ago pitches were king, then specs. Now I think buying the rights to Novels are the rage. It doesn't mean that pitches aren't being bought or that the spec market has dried up. Both are still thriving and both will make a comeback. What a writer has to say to himself is this: what form of selling my story will have the best hope of getting it made. If it is a big budgeted project, and working with a studio to develop the story seems the best way Alien Zoo. We were too scared to write it as a spec because we were afraid that it would be so big that if we went down the wrong road it might kill any chance of a studio coming near it. Dreamworks bought it as a pitch and is working with us to develop it as a story that they can get excited about both creatively...and financially.

Utopia: What mistakes do you see writers make most often? What ones have you made?

Finney: Most writers don't work at coming up with original ways of telling a story. Remember, the Greeks put on plays that everyone knew the plot to. The art was in telling the same story in an interesting and novel way. I love reading scripts where I say to myself, I couldn't have written this because the writer's vision, his fingerprints are all over the telling of this story. Most of what I read are just regurgitated movies, or worse...regurgitated TV. The mistakes I make are numerous and unending from not taking good notes during development meetings to not committing to a daily ritual of writing (I tend to write in mad spurts, then not write for days). I also tend to be an emotional slut during meetings with studio executives and producers. When I first started out, I was a little narrow minded on the development of scripts. I didn't want a reputation, so I tried to change. Now I tend to bend so far backwards to please the other cooks in the kitchen that I need a spinal transplant. I need to be firmer about holding onto things that I know are essential to bringing forth a great script. No doubt you have to pick your battles, but sometimes I'm so interested in just getting along that I'm like Neville Chamberlain selling the project down the river in the interest of having peace in our time.

Utopia: What are you currently working on? Any comments about what the pros call development hell?.

Finney: As a writer, I have the following projects in development the aforementioned Alien Zoo for Dreamworks. Ground Zero, a project for Castle Rock. An adaptation of a novel Sunstroke for the producers of Under Siege II. An ABC TVmovie for Joe Dante called The Guardian. Microbe, a TVmovie for the Family Channel. And Westport a period piece for Warner Brothers TV.

Development Hell has been written about in so many different ways that the only new aspect I could offer is the weird notion that many times you don't realize you're stuck in DH until it's much too late. It's not as if you're traveling along a highway and there's posted signs. By the time you realize you've stepped into a quagmire, you're already neck deep...and the sides of the swamp are covered with alligators. Usually the only thing left to do is sink with your script, brads and all.

Utopia: What would be your favorite characters you've created and why?

Finney: In my Westport script the heroine is a vivacious, rebellious woman named Sara Donner. Whenever an actress reads the script, they want to play the part. I think whoever ends up playing the part will have a great time. I wrote her as the kind of woman that a man would obsess over for the rest of his life. It was my Daisy Buchanan.

Utopia: What tips would you offer the struggling writer?

Finney: When I was in college, I went to see a screenwriter speak on career day. He asked the audience how many of us wanted to be writers. Everyone in the room raised their hands. He then said, then why aren't you home writing? The point being: Write! Write everyday. Rewrite every other day. Learn from the process. Never stop learning your craft. Don't take your tenth course in creative writing. Screw the writing structure classes. Stop seeing too many movies.Don't watch a lot of TV. Write. Write. Write. Spend some time on the business side of marketing your product, but the ratio is 10 to 1. Spend ten times as much writing as you do selling your wares. I've seen people write only one script and then spend years marketing that one script. Most of all: Write something you love, because at the end of the day, that may be all your left with - you and your script. No buyer. No movie. Just your script. It better keep you warm at night.

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