Thursday, August 31, 2006

How I Sold My First Screenplay...(or How NOT To Pitch A Movie)

This is another trip down memory lane, but I'm beginning to see a reoccurring theme of lucky incompetence rearing up in these stories, and am seriously questioning the value of recounting them.


Rewinding the tape, it's the late 80's and I was just finishing up film school. A writing class required an original idea so as to write a half hour script. The text book for the class was Syd Field's 'Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting'... probably one of three scriptwriting books on the market at the time.

I went home and scanned the book. And I mulled. Ideas are easy. Good ideas are not so easy. Great ideas are really few and far between. But who's to decide what constitutes a great idea for a story/film? Most times it's when someone else tells you it's great, but sometimes you actually know for yourself.

I remember jotting premises on napkins and in notebooks but nothing really leaping out. The day for presenting to prof arrives. I went for coffee prior to class. Panic setting in. Need. Something. Good. And then I came up with one that I could live with, and it was...

'24/7' - a small town deals with a twenty four hour convenience store opening up across the street from the old time general store.

I believe I had 'Local Hero' on the brain...that quirky Bill Forsythe dramedy about a small seaside town in Scotland dealing with a oil refinery from Texas wanting to open up shop there... and used it as 'inspiration'. So 24/7 - not bad – at least not embarrassing (my measuring stick for all things creative).

But still...

During the week, I'd also been noodling with notion of adapting or contemporizing an old play - something from Shakespeare...Moliere....and from that I moved to notion of contemporizing fairy tales or fables...Hansel & Gretel....Rapunzel....

And so, when I was walking to class, I can honestly say --- a lightbulb went off.

I stopped in the middle of the hallway and frantically scribbled on a sheet of paper:
...contemporary Pied Piper story...rock music...grasshoppers....

I went back and actually found what I pitched my prof that day:

A modern retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin set in a small prairie town where the rats are replaced with a plague of locusts and the Piper is now a mysterious rock n'roll guitarist. When the mayor refuses to 'pay the piper', the Guitarman takes the children of the town away with his music, leaving the townspeople alone and trying to rectify their horrible decision.

And the title? 'Guitarman'.

I pitched both ideas to the professor and they were well received but went with the Guitarman idea.

An interesting aside: a good friend/fellow student of mine asked if he could run with the other idea and he actually went on to write it and shoot it as a low budget feature entitled" 'The 24 Store".

But 'Guitarman'...there it was, all wrapped up in a neat little box with a bow on top. I guess it was a high concept idea, without me really knowing what high concept meant back then. But I can honestly say that, at the time, I knew I had hit a home run.
Knew it.

I wrote the script as pretty much a literal retelling of the fable - ends up around 30 pages - got a good grade - graduated film school - put script in a drawer --- moving on....

Then the next year, my graduating short film entitled 'Heartline' won several awards at some film festivals - including the best script prize at one which was sponsored by Superchannel at the time (now known in Canada as Movie Central). Very cool.

A few weeks later I got a call from the head of development at Superchannel...a wonderfully supportive woman named Gerri Cook. She congratulated me and then asked if I had any feature length story ideas kicking around. If so, would I be interested in pitching them to her to see if there was any she could put into development. I said I didn't have anything standing by, but would put something together and send to her.

And now we get to the 'what was I thinking?' lucky incompetence part of the post.

I handwrote two one page pitches on sheets of yellow foolscap (I can't even remember what the ideas were I think was about a mailman who discovers a Nazi war criminal living incognito on his route) - folded them up into a letter size envelope, and mailed them to her.

This was pre-computers(or at least I didn't have one), but for crying out loud Dix, you had a typewriter!

Oh yeah, I also included the first page of the Guitarman script and in my cover letter explained that it was from something I'd already written - a modern retelling of the Pied Piper - and here was a script page to show I knew what screenplay format looked like.

A week or so later I get a call from Gerri. She rips me a new one almost immediately... "Are you for real? What were you thinking? Sending pitches to the head of development at a pay television network hand-written on foolscap? And furthermore, the ideas aren't even that interesting!"

I choke and stammer: ", um...sorry, didn't realize...must go and hide..."

And then she chuckles and says " tell me more about this Guitarman - now THAT got my attention."


So I give her the thumbnail version of the story, she digs it but says she needs it to be expanded into a feature length...I say, sure....and within a couple of weeks a contract arrived at my little apartment in the middle of nowhere Western Canada commissioning me to write a script.

BIG fast forward here.

It's five years later, after many versions and drafts, a co-writer, deals with US distributors that came and went away, the CBC also coming on board, correspondence with managers of Sting and Angus Young from AC/DC, failed negotiations with Canuck rockers Kim Mitchell, Colin James...the financing came together and I directed the provinces first more or less indigenous feature length television movie. From a script I co-wrote. From a story that was mine.

With a poster and everything. Pretty cool.

Sidebar: A good clean high concept pitch is key, but realize it only gets you in the door. How those in greenlight positions turn around and pitch it to their higher ups is as important as your pitch. Most times more important. So it is crucial that the concept is clean. I remember being at a marketplace and listening to Gerri pitch it - and though the core elements were still there, her version...the version she saw in her head...had a very different focus. But her passion and the clarity of her vision was evident. And then I was there when I heard CBC pitch it to a potential US distributor, and their version was similar but they had their own unique vision/spin on it. They had taken the bare bones of the concept and run with it in their own heads/imagination. That's the power of a good logline - not just what it conveys quickly and efficiently, but what movie it creates in the mind of the reader/listener.

The turned out okay, not great, just okay. I was pretty green, crew was pretty green - and though it was co-written with one who's become a great in tv writing and was beautifully shot by good friend Barry the dp, I'd love to remake it again now (I do remember a scathing scathing review from John Doyle at the Globe & Mail that was like a punch in the gut...until I realized he beat up on most everything Canadian-made, at least back then. Meanwhile the Toronto Star gave it 3 stars and called it 'delightful'. Go figure).

We had some wicked music by local shit hot guitarist Jack Semple, and it starred Canadian acting stalwarts Nicholas Campbell and Donnelly Rhodes (Divinchi's Inquest) We also introduced world to Shawn Ashmore who has gone on to great success, notably the X Men trilogy. Here's a mention of Shawn at 'But it was Shawn that stole the hearts of many with his wonderful performance in "Guitarman" in which he played the main character at the age of 14, and was nominated for a Gemini Award. Since then, Shawn's career has skyrocketed.'

The story became much more character driven with a father son relationship that needed mending and a dying town that was willing to sell its future (including their children) for some present day glory - but the title and basic premise lived from day one.

And sadly, you can't find it anywhere. The little Canadian distribution company the won the very little bidding war over the picture went bankrupt shortly after its airing and it was seized and has been locked up in some vault somewhere ever since. Or so I've been told. So no video. No dvd. Nada.

But the script got bought and it got made. And I'll always be indebted to Gerri Cook. Sadly, she passed away last year - but her passion and commitment to my project and other independents on the prairies will never be forgotten.

I'm not sure what the point is, other than never underestimate the value of really knowing your story and being able to convey it clearly and succinctly and efficiently (read Denis McGrath post on knowing what you have)...

...and I don't know if there is a cooler feeling in the world than striking upon an idea for a movie or TV series, and knowing its a keeper.

SONG & ARTIST? - "The other nite, dear,
As I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms.
When I awoke, dear,
I was mistaken
And I hung my head and cried."
(closing credits tune, done uptempo R&B style)


Anonymous said...

Great post. Great story. You are a lucky bastard to have had it survive those five years of development.

Anonymous said...

wow, that is one cool re-telling... thanks.. I lived in Canada from birth until 2001 and sadly I never saw this, I wish I did

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Thanks for sharing that great story, Will. It was very inspiring and informative. But, dude, hand-written on yellow foolscap? Oiy!


wcmartell said...

Great story... but that's not luck, that's having a great idea (and the short version of the script) when someone asked you if you had any feature ideas. I think everyone stumbles into every job they get in this business - but without that idea and script, you just would have stumbled.

Thanks for sharing that!

- Bill

Crashdummie said...

Wow, that was a really inspiring post Will. Walking down the memory lane is always, well, kinda bittersweet & nostalgic.

No film, no nothing huh? Well at least you have the poster of Guitarman, & the story to tell … :)

Thanx for sharing it!

wcdixon said...

To clarify for Crashy...of course there are BETA-SP's and VHS copies of the movie kicking around - I still have's just not on dvd or for rent or sale at the local video store.

A lucky bastard indeed...thx

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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Systemaddict said...

Great story man. Love it. Just love it.

I think you stuck with it, even through the green and wet behind the ears. Something many can aspire too...


justacoolcat said...

The end of the story kills me, the thought of remaking a high concept remake that was a secondary scribble. It seems a little "Being John Malkovich". Orcourse, I'm strage, so there you have it.

wcdixon said...

woo hoo - Bill Martell left a comment....I've finally arrived!

And the tune? 'You Are My Sunshine'...written by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell - perfect because it fit the bill and was in public domain so no use or copyright fees.

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Dan said...

That's incredibly cool. Thanks. I am so glad I happened across this. I produced the grasshoppers for Guitarman,and provided some of the science and lore. I wish I had a copy.