NPR

For Would-Be Screenwriter, Enough False Starts To Fill A Book

There's a running joke in Los Angeles that everybody — from your dog walker to your dry cleaner — is writing a screenplay. Curt Neill is one of those aspiring screenwriters — a sketch comedian who has tried to write screenplays, but never finished one. "I've never even gotten close," he admits in Caffe Vita, an LA coffee shop where he writes.

But he's full of ideas for scripts. So many, in fact, that he started a blog for all the ideas he can't deliver on — he calls them "idea seeds." Finally, in a fit of frustration, Neill wrote a book titled This Movie Will Require Dinosaurs, in which he presents a collection of (intentionally) dreadful beginnings of screenplays — which don't get very far. Here's an example:

EXT. WAREHOUSE

Anywhere from 20 to 25​ GUYS are involved in a gunfight. Some of the guys are GOOD GUYS, some of them are BAD GUYS, and one of them is AGENT JOHN MACKEY (good guy).

Mackey's a great shot, so he's just taking out Bad Guys one by one.

He shoots BAD GUY #7, but he doesn't die right away.

BAD GUY #7: If I'm going down, you're going down with me, Mackey!

He pushes a red button on a DETONATOR and the whole place blows up in flames. But not before Mackey and the remaining Good Guys get out just in time.

This fake screenplay continues with this life-or-death question from Agent John Mackey: "Who wants tacos?"

AGENT JOHN MACKEY: Who wants tacos?

Stupid question. Everybody does. END SCENE.

Who wouldn't want tacos? But can they afford it? Unless they have trust funds, screenwriting hopefuls like Neill usually nickel-and-dime their way through the day. Neill was earning money delivering pizza, but he recently quit that job. Risky, but now he's a published author.

"This is the first thing I've been paid to write," he says. "All I do is point out how bad I am, and that's what worked for me."

This amuses Neill's friend, fellow writer Sandeep Parikh. He has written lots of screenplays, and even sold some. But he's had plenty of duds.

"Most of my furniture is made out of crappy screenplays I've written," Parikh says. "It's cost-saving. It's how I get by."

LA is full of writers who never finish; writers who finish but never sell; and writers who finish, and sell their screenplays, but never get them produced. Parikh is one of those. He once sold a script to Comedy Central.

"It was nice to get paid," he says. "It was a big payday."

Five figures — the most he'd ever gotten. It paid the rent for months.

"[But] I ended up spending a year and a half on it," he says. "So who wants to live for, effectively, $15K-a-year salary?"

Parikh has had quite a bit of success as a writer, but he knows that once a script is sold, the decision to actually make it or not is out of his hands. The buyer owns the script. So it can sit on a shelf somewhere — forever.

Justin Becker, another of Neill's writing pals, has had a different frustration after having sold.

"My experience so far," he says, "has been that every time you move onto the next stage, it presents an exciting opportunity for it to fail or die in a new and exciting way."

Everyone has an axe, says Becker. And they are just waiting to chop the script. An executive, a programmer, a director — eventually, they just stop getting in touch.

"It's a slow no," Becker says.

A successful screenplay, according to Neill — although, really ... how would he know? — must grab readers on page one, and never let go.

"Everybody reading it at any stage has to be able to see it," he says. "So you have to paint the picture properly without making it too obnoxious or boring to read. You got to be able to really put the picture in the people's minds before they've ever seen the actors who are going to be in it."

So what are his favorite opening lines of a screenplay that actually got made? Neill picks page one of Ron Shelton's script for the 1988 baseball movie Bull Durham:

FADE IN: A series of still photos. Black and white. Ancient.

BABE RUTH SWINGS — An icon of American history. His giant upper body balanced delicately on tiny ankles and feet. The huge bat in an elegant follow-through...

DISSOLVE TO: TY COBB ROUNDS THIRD — The most vicious ballplayer of them all, a balletic whirling dervish.

DISSOLVE TO: JACKIE ROBINSON STEALS ROME — Yogi Berra applies the tag. Too late.

DISSOLVE TO: JOE DIMAGGIO WITH HIS SON in the Yankee clubhouse. Walking down the runway, Joe in uniform. Number five.

PULLBACK REVEALS: A WALL COVERED WITH BASEBALL PICTURES behind a small table covered with objects and lit candles. A baseball, an old baseball card, a broken bat, a rosin bag, a jar of pine tar — also a peacock feather, a silk shawl, a picture of Isadora Duncan. Clearly, the arrangement is — A SHRINE — And it glows with the candles like some religious altar. We hear a woman's voice in a North Carolina accent.

ANNIE (V.O.) I believe in the Church of Baseball.

In coffee shops all around Los Angeles, there are people who believe in the Church of Screenplays. Writers and writer wannabes, fixated at their laptops, typing out scenes and dialogue and brilliant ideas. Neill's book This Movie Will Require Dinosaurs salutes those efforts — and makes hilarious fun of them at the same time.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hollywood has been struggling to put out hit movies this summer, but writers all over this country hope that maybe, just maybe they will be the ones to dream up the next big film - or the next big TV show, for that matter. In Southern California, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went in search of some of those dreamers.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Every coffee shop makes fancy brews and grinds. In Los Angeles, we were told every coffee shop has double latte, half-caff, no foam customers at computers writing screenplays. Are you sitting here, in this coffee shop, with your laptop writing a screenplay?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No. I'm a Ph.D. student. I'm writing a dissertation.

STAMBERG: Caffe Vita in Silver Lake seems to be the exception.

STAMBERG: Are you writing a screenplay in the coffee shop?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No. I'm designing a game instead.

STAMBERG: Are you writing a screenplay?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No.

STAMBERG: OK, so, a game, a dissertation.

CURT NEILL: I think they're lying. I think those are actually what their screenplays are about.

STAMBERG: This is Curt Neill. He is a writer. So is his friend, Sandeep Parikh.

SANDEEP PARIKH: I guarantee you the window right behind their Ph.D. thesis is a screenplay.

STAMBERG: Sandeep has written lots of them, even sold some. Although...

PARIKH: Most of my furniture is made out of crappy screenplays that I've written. It's cost-saving. It's how I get by.

STAMBERG: Curt hasn't written enough to make a footstool.

NEILL: I've written two pilots. And I've never even written a screenplay. I've never even gotten close.

STAMBERG: But he's full of ideas for scripts - bombarded with ideas he can't deliver on. He calls them idea seeds. In frustration, Curt's just written a book with the ridiculous title, "This Movie Will Require Dinosaurs." In it, he presents a bunch of perfectly dreadful beginnings of screenplays - none of which gets very far. The first one in the book begins as all screenplays do - with the location.

NEILL: Interior - I don't know, an apartment?

STAMBERG: Then comes the action. Dave sits down on the couch or whatever - maybe he's standing - it doesn't matter.

NEILL: And that's where it stops.

STAMBERG: What do you think? Oscar potential? The next screenplay in Curt's book is longer but, sadly, no better.

NEILL: Exterior - warehouse. Anywhere from 20 to 25 guys are involved in a gunfight. Some of the guys are good guys. And some of them are bad guys. And one of them is Agent John Mackey - good guy. He shoots bad guy #7, but he doesn't die right away. Bad guy #7 pushes a red button on a detonator and the whole place blows up in flames.

STAMBERG: This fake screenplay continues with this life or death question from Agent John Mackey - who wants tacos?

NEILL: Stupid question - everybody does. End scene.

STAMBERG: Ah. But can they afford it? Unless they have trust funds, screenwriting hopefuls, like Curt, usually nickel and dime their way through the day. Curt was earning money delivering pizza. He just quit that job - risky but now he's a published author.

NEILL: This is the first thing I've ever been paid to write. And all I did was just point out how bad I am. And that's what worked for me.

STAMBERG: Justin Becker, another writer pal of Curt, said the Caffe Vita coffee klatch has actually been paid for his writing.

JUSTIN BECKER: It's a script - half an hour script to TBS. And then I've sold a couple animated shows to Warner Bros. and Disney.

STAMBERG: So he's not in Curt's book, although Justin has had his failures.

BECKER: Certainly not as spectacularly as Curt did here, but I definitely have done a lot of - a lot of nonstarters.

STAMBERG: L.A. is full of writers who never finish, writers who finish but never sell, and writers who finish and sell their screenplays but never get them produced. Sandeep Parikh is one of those. He once sold a script to Comedy Central.

PARIKH: It was nice to get paid. It was a big payday.

STAMBERG: In the five figures. The most he'd ever gotten. Paid the rent for months. But...

PARIKH: I ended up spending a year and a half on it. So who wants to live for, you know, effectively, $15K-a-year salary?

STAMBERG: In fact, Sandeep Parikh has had quite a bit of success as a writer. But he knows that once a script is sold, the decision to make it is out of his hands. The buyer owns the script so it can sit on a shelf somewhere forever. Justin Becker has had a different frustration after having sold.

BECKER: My experience so far has been that every time you move onto the next stage, it presents an exciting opportunity for it to fail or die in a new and exciting way.

STAMBERG: Everyone has an axe, Justin says, and they're just waiting to chop the script. An executive, a programmer, a director or whatever, as Curt would say - eventually, they just stop getting in touch.

NEILL: A slow no.

STAMBERG: A successful screenplay, according to Curt - although, really, how would he know? - must grab readers on page one and never let go.

NEILL: Everybody reading it at any stage has to be able to see it. You have to visualize. So you had to paint the picture properly without making it too obnoxious or boring to read. You got to be able to really put the picture in people's minds before they've ever even seen the actors that are going to be in it.

STAMBERG: I asked Curt to pick favorite opening lines of a screenplay that actually got made. He chooses page one of Ron Shelton's script for the 1988 baseball movie, "Bull Durham."

NEILL: (Reading) Fade in. A series of still photos. Black and white. Ancient. Babe Ruth swings - an icon of American history. Dissolve to Ty Cobb rounds third - the most vicious ballplayer of them all, a balletic whirling dervish. Dissolve to Jackie Robinson steals home - Yogi Berra applies the tag. Too late. Dissolve to Joe DiMaggio with his son in the Yankee clubhouse. Joe in uniform, number 5. Pullback reveals a wall covered with baseball pictures behind a small table covered with objects and lit candles. A baseball, an old baseball card, a broken bat, a rosin bag, a jar of pine tar - also a peacock feather, a silk shawl. Clearly, the arrangement is a shrine. And it glows with candles like some religious altar. We hear a woman's voice in a North Carolina accent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BULL DURHAM")

SUSAN SARANDON: (As Annie Savoy) I believe in the church of baseball.

STAMBERG: In the coffee shops all around Los Angeles, there are people who believe in the church of screenplays. Writers and writer wannabes fixated at their laptops, typing out scenes and dialogue and brilliant ideas. C.W. Neill's book, "This Movie Will Require Dinosaurs," salutes these efforts and at the same time makes hilarious fun of them. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR West. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular