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Screenwriting: Interview with Rich Whiteside: The Screenwriting Life

Interview with Rich Whiteside

by: Christopher Wehner

Utopia: Your book "The Screenwriting Life: The Dream, the Job and the Reality" captures the essence of the business, is this something writers tend to forget? (Great interviews by the way).
Rich: I don't think that screenwriters, whether aspiring, struggling or working, tend to forget the business end. It's that it's hard to pin down the political maneuvering that goes on behind the scenes. It's a vast morass of foggy relationships that boggle the mind when you try to get a grasp on it. I see a lot of writers flailing around wildly, throwing query letters out to every name they can find and sending unsolicited scripts to every address in Hollywood hoping that if you throw enough crap on the walls some will stick. Well, plain and simply, that doesn't work (statistically). Yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. You'll have to find another way to get noticed.

If you send an unsolicited teleplay or idea or treatment (or whatever) to a major studio or to a series production office, it will be forwarded (unread) to the legal department. Your letter and the material will then be returned to you with a formal cover letter that says something to the effect that because of the many unfounded claims we cannot read any unsolicited material. I know this because I work for an attorney at Paramount in the network television division. I draft these "unsolicited" return letters every day. It's wasted effort.

If you want to get your spec script read, then you have to land an agent with a company that is signatory to the WGA. Then the agent has to contact the show and get permission to send the script in, otherwise, it will be returned unread.

So understanding politics will help you be more efficient with your efforts. It's like the old joke about the retired electrical worker who used to keep the power running in New York City. One day the lights went out and no one could figure out the problem. In a panic they called in the retired worker. He grabbed a hammer and climbed down into the bowels of the city, walked to a certain pipe, took out his hammer and smacked the pipe. Instantly, the city lights came on. When the city managers got the bill it was for $1,000.25, and the breakdown went like this: $.25 for tap; $1,000 for knowing where to tap.

It's worth the money to know where to put your effort and where your efforts are wasted. If you don't play the game properly, you're more likely to take it in the shorts. Here's another example. I screwed myself this season, and I know better. I didn't follow the lessons in my own book. I figured that because I'm here at Paramount that I could circumvent the system. After all, I am kind of inside the system. Instead of working to land an agent, I got permission to send my spec script writing sample to the creative exec who's responsible for finding new writing talent for our drama series. Now, my script is a good. I've gotten pitch meetings with major producers off of it. Well, because I didn't have an agent behind my script pushing it, needling the exec to read it, it didn't get read, and staffing season came and went. I now have to deal with the frustration of writing up the deals for the other new staff writers knowing full well that I should be in that group.

I didn't go the proper route; I didn't play the game. Even though the execs assistant read the script and loved it. (He even put it on the top of the pile). It was the active, aggressive agents who got their writers material read first. I never even got considered. So I pissed away a year. Maybe I can be considered for a mid-season series, but that's not likely. I have to get back to basics and land an agent. The advantage I have is that I can get referred to a number of people from the contacts I have here, and that's what I'm doing now.

When I started to publish and edit the UCLA Writer's Block newsletter, I thought I had a comprehensive understanding of the politics. I came from business, and business is business, right? Well, after only a couple interviews I realized that I was truly ignorant when it came to Hollywood. Each interview opened new doors and illuminated different aspects of the nature of the business-'The Reality." Just like the business world, it's 95% politics and timing (who know you and wants to work with you, etc.) and 5% pure raw talent. Especially in TV. Series television is built on apprenticeships. You start out as a staff writer and learn as you go. As one interviewee said, "You get paid to learn."

One final example of how people miss opportunities to make inroads to Hollywood. When I took over the newsletter, it had been dormant for about seven years. Not one other student saw it as a vehicle to go out and meet with the very people who they want to get to know and to pick their brains. I was shocked that there wasn't some ambitious student jumping to take up a pen and tape recorder. Then when I got the newsletter back up on its feet, for two years I offered to let others step up and do some interviews. It wasn't my newsletter and others should take advantage of the opportunity. In seven years since I took over, not one student wanted to get their fingers dirty. So now I have a book, dozens of contacts, and a ton of insight. And they don't!

Look for opportunities. The direct route is not always the most effective or the fastest.

While my examples here are about getting started as a writer, the interviews in my book look at the politics all the way up the food chain to Show Runners who deal with the networks. It also looks at the career path of a TV writer going from staff writer to story editor to co-producer to producer to supervising producer, etc.

How did you pick or choose who you would interview for the book? Your choices are very interesting, is that a fair analysis?
Thanks for noticing. I worked hard on the selection. After a number of years of interviewing industry professionals, I had amassed a sizable number of feature articles to chose from. But what was most challenging was editing the interviews down. The book would have been three to four times as large had I not edited the hell out of all the interviews. I cut away nearly all of the fluff to get to the core of the message. And most of the interviewees helped to make it appear seamless. I wanted each chapter to have the flow and a stream of consciousness feel. I didn't want the reader to have to wade through a ton of rambling sentences and incomplete thoughts. Each interview was treated like a story-they all have beginnings, middles and ends that are clear and-more important-information dense.

The one criticism of the book is that it should be titled "The TV Screenwriting Life." It's true that the book leans heavily toward TV writing. That's because my experience is that there is not a lot of diversity in feature screenwriting politics, whereas TV politics varies wildly. I believe the book adequately covers feature writing. You either go the major studio route or the independent route. In either case the politics is fairly straight forward, not easy, but it varies considerably less than TV politics. In my chapter with two literary agents, the feature agent gets right into the politics and talks about how he gets a new writer started. And what he has to say is brilliant.

However, TV is made up of a lot of different camps with diverse political structures (sitcoms, dramas, MFT's, animation, etc.). Then at the studio level there are the creative execs who interface between the shows and the studio and the networks and agents. They are the bottleneck for new writers trying to break in-and they are constantly looking for new talent to recommend to the heads of the writing staffs.

When I was putting the chapters together and deciding which interviews to use, I also wanted to make sure that the views were as broad based as possible. The book has men and women, successful film school grads and successful non-film school writers, as well as young, amazing, successful writers who have skyrocketing careers and older writers who got into screenwriting as a second career after retiring from another filed. I wanted a variety in ethnic backgrounds and points of view, and to deal with film school and with creating TV series and working with the networks and staffing and keeping the shows fresh. I really wanted to cover as many bases as possible. I think I got a lot in a few pages.

How did you come up with the idea for the book? For over five years you've been the editor/publisher of the UCLA Writer's Block newsletter, "Fade In."
Two factors came together to accomplish this. On the one hand, after several years of interviews and writing 12-20 page feature articles, I had amassed dozens of articles that were filled with information that I did not find in books or magazine articles. And I thought it was information that both fans of film and television as well as aspiring screenwriters would enjoy reading.

On the other hand, I had done a couple of guest acting gigs on "Quantum Leap." I also helped shape the stories. In one of the stories I got up front acting credit and hind end technical advising credit. (I used to be in the SEAL Teams and they wanted to do a story that dealt with that.) Then these two episodes are in the top of the fans favorite episodes, and I've been asked to speak at almost all of the "Quantum Leap" conventions. Well, there are a series of novels based on the show and I got to know the editor. So with that personal contact in hand, I approached her with the idea of turning the feature articles into chapters in a book. She loved the idea and that's how I landed Berkley Boulevard, which is part of Penguin Putnam.

Half the book is rewritten feature articles and half was written just for the book.

What was interesting was the journey. She had me write a letter that stated the nature of the book, a list of chapters, and samples of my newsletter. They liked what I sent and asked me to write four chapters before they would consider doing a deal. After I turned that in, they reviewed it and decided that the hardback division was not interested, so they sent it to the paperback division. Six weeks later the editor called and said, "Let's talk money." I love to hear those words.

Any regrets about your approach?
None. It's been great, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey. I feel like I've earned my doctorate in literary politicsnow it's down to dedicated application of what I have learned.

Okay, a little about you, why writing? You started at a young age.
I don't have a simple, easy answer to why. Most of the writers I've interviewed and others I've gotten to know over the years all seem to have caught the bug around age 9 or so. Partly I found that I had ideas and stories that I wanted to tell. Partly it's because I want to leave a legacy. If it's good enough, it can effect a lot of people, and if it's really good it can out live you. Mostly I remember reading books and watching TV and finding that I had stories within me that I started to write down. I don't know if I can explain it any better than that.

How has your experience as a UCLA student, and your involvement with UCLA shaped you as a writer, if at all?
First and foremost, it forced me to write consistently. I had to deliver new pages every week for class and therefor I had to keep writing. In the program you write scenes and have them read at a table and then you get immediate feedback in the discussion that follows. I got to debate my story ideas with 8 to 10 other aspiring screenwriters and a professional every week. It was also the encouragement. We all encourage each other to keep going and helped each other get over road blocks.

It also exposed me to Egri and Aristotle as well as the myriad of books on screenwriting. Being around other writers helped shape my views. We often debated the various approaches and that forced me to define what I believe in while staying open to new ideas. Mostly, it was the discipline of having to write new pages every week to bring to class. That discipline is where the greatest learning comes from.

Switching gears a little, how has the internet helped you as a writer? Do you utilize it for more then just email and discussion?
I've used it for some research for my stories and to connect with more writers. I've emailed police in Virginia to get technical advice for a story. So I've used it a bit.

Advice to the struggling writer?
Write every day. Even if it's not new screenplay pages, do some creative writing every day. Write letters. Write articles. Write short stories. If you discipline yourself to write pages every day, you will continue to improve as a writer. Read scripts. You learn a lot from good and bad scripts. When I read bad scripts, it's embarrassing when I see things that I have done that are not working. Good script inspire me to improve and I pick up tips on the way the writer handled certain things.

Okay, back to the book, how have your "Dreams" of screenwriting or writing success intersected with the "Reality" of the business, and what has been the outcome of that experience?
Working at Paramount I am faced with many realities every day. I get to draw up the deals for other writers. It's exciting and frustrating. I don't want to be here putting time into someone else's writing career. I want someone else to be drawing up my overall deals and writer contracts. I read pilot scripts that are far inferior to my first draft ideas, only these writers are getting a ton of money for their work, and I have calluses. Every day I go home and have to find a second wind to write so that one day I can move on to a screen/teleplay writing job.

Rich, I want to thank you for the interview, and please tell us what is coming up for you that you would like us to be aware of?
There's a series of articles in Script magazine that I'm doing titled "Structure Wars." It a four-part look at some of the teachers of screenwriting structure. Kind of a debate. It's been another great learning curve for me. I highly recommend that if you haven't read it yet that you do.

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