Interview with screenwriter Jim Vines
by Dylan Bruce
July 18th, 2007
Dylan Bruce: Your new book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter – An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today’s Film Industry has been out for a few months now. Who are some of the screenwriters you interviewed for the book?
Jim Vines: I interviewed sixteen working writers, including Allison Burnett, who wrote Autumn in New York; Katherine Fugate, who wrote Carolina and The Prince and Me; Brent Maddock, who wrote Tremors and The Wild Wild West; John Rogers, who wrote The Core and also contributed the story to the recent hit movie The Transformers; David J. Schow, who wrote The Crow; Neil M. Stevens, who wrote Thirteen Ghosts; and Stephen Susco, who wrote The Grudge and The Grudge 2. I also interviewed Rolfe Kanefsky, a very talented writer and director who’s carved out a nice niche with fun, quirky, lower budget movies. He sure had some interesting stories to tell.
DB: What made you decide to write Q & A?
JV: I’m a big fan of interview books. They inspire me. I love hearing other writers’ war stories and I love hearing about their process. To me, it’s exciting stuff. I wanted to do a book that contained interviews with a wide spectrum of writers. I’ve got writers who’ve written big budget/big star movies, and I have writers who have written more direct-to-DVD/cable fare. But they’re all working writers and they all have interesting stories to tell. Believe me, we can all learn something from their “in-the-trenches” tales.
DB: I interviewed you a couple years ago when you were wrapping up your horror flick House at the End of the Drive. What is the current status of that movie?
JV: Awaiting release. The producer is dealing with it, so I don’t know all the details, but I think we’re looking at early next year (2008) at the latest. These things can take a long, long time. We had a screening at a theater here in Westwood Village a few months ago and it went well. The audience seemed to be kinda freaked out by our little ghost story.
DB: Were you allowed on the set while they were shooting?
JV: Oh yeah. I pretty much demanded it. Since the producer, David Oman, was an old friend of mine, there wasn’t any problem. He wanted me there. But I was on set about 85-90% of the time. Good thing, too. There were a handful of times when my input became necessary and I was able to effect some sort of positive change. David was sure happy to have this input. I’m not too sure the director (David Worth) was entirely thrilled having me floating around, but we got along just fine. I know the second unit director was a bit unsettled by my presence and input. But hey, too bad.
DB: What are you working on now?
JV: Let’s see…I have one project, a horror script, that’s very close to starting pre-production. Another script is under option and I’m waiting for the producer to make the next move. I recently completed a sexy thriller I was hired to write. The producer just sent it out to the money people. I have two other scripts making the rounds and there’s some solid interest in both. A couple weeks ago, a hotshot young filmmaker I know hired me to write three short films. So I’m keeping busy!
DB: What’s your daily writing routine like? Do you write every day?
JV: I might not actually write script pages every day, but I do write something every day. Even if it’s just notes. Every day I try to do something that brings me closer to my goal of getting a script completed. Writing something every day…it’s a really good habit for writers to get into.
DB: How long were you writing before you finally sold a script?
JV: I started writing professionally in about 1992. I optioned some things early on, and I also did some script doctoring on some smaller independent movies, but my first sale didn’t come until 1997 (The Perfect Tenant). I’ll admit, I was rather timid with my scripts during the early days. I’d write something, then stick it in a drawer. Friends told me the scripts were good, but I really didn’t trust their opinions. I knew deep down those scripts were just not ready to be sent out. Re-reading one or two of them recently, I can say they weren’t all that bad. But I was right, they weren’t quite ready to be sent to anyone of any stature in Hollywood. I’ve come to rely on my gut instinct. It rarely proves me wrong.
DB: Screenwriting can be a rough way to make a living. Do you ever wish you chose another career path?
JV: Doing what? My fate was sealed when I was eleven. I picked up a Super-8 movie camera for the very first time and that was it. I love the film business. Even if I’m having a bad day, I realize how lucky I am to be a participant. It’s really quite a thrill to come up with an idea for a movie, then sit down to a blank canvas and just start painting. I mean, if you’re a writer, that’s pretty darn exciting stuff. That’s something I’d tell anyone who wants to be a screenwriter: love it. If you’re writing just for a paycheck, or the perceived glamour of it all, then you’re probably in the wrong business.
DB: What’s your favorite part of the screenwriting process?
JV: Pretty much all aspects of writing a screenplay are exciting. Coming up with a great idea is pretty exciting. Fleshing out a coherent outline is exciting. Starting the actual script is fun. One of the biggest thrills for me is getting that first draft done and having those 110 bound pages in my hands. Wow. Another big thrill is when a producer says, “Love your script. I want to do it.” When you get that check from the producer ain’t such a bad feeling, either.
DB: What’s your least favorite part of being a screenwriter?
JV: The rejection. But hey, you have to expect that sort of thing. Fact is, not everyone is going to love your script. I’ve had quite a few scripts that were rejected for one reason or another. Just because twenty people reject your script, it doesn’t necessarily mean your script sucks. It only means the script wasn’t right for those people. Just keep sending that script out. With some luck, you’ll eventually find a home. There’s also the disappointment that goes along with this career. You can get so close on things, then it all just falls apart and you’re back to square one. It’s ultra-disheartening. All I can say is, take it and move on. Just suck it up. Put on your game face and press forward. If you’re not willing to do that, you will not survive. Guaranteed.
DB: How does a person know if their script is any good?
JV: Well, I think you’ll just know after you’ve been at it a long while – and after you’ve heard enough comments about your work from agents, producers, development execs, etc. I think I’ve become a pretty good judge of my own material. My gut instinct tells me if a scene still needs work or not. But for those writers who have only written a script or two, they really need to get a professional eye to look at their work. Not their parents, not their significant other, but a professional screenwriter. Look in Creative Screenwriting magazine and you’ll see ads for several consultants. Or go on some of the screenwriting bulletin boards and ask for referrals. I don’t recommend spending a fortune for a critique. If you can get it done for under a few hundred bucks, you’re in good shape. After all, most novice scripts typically need more than one or two critiques, so why break the bank by blowing hundreds and hundreds on each critique? Sorry, but I think that’s just a little bit crazy. But once again, selling that spec script should not be the ultimate goal. Most specs serve as a calling card. For instance, a producer will read your spec, not be crazy about the story, but they love your writing. Based on this sample, they’ll offer you an assignment. So your goal should be getting work, not selling specs.
DB: Speaking of assignment work, what’s been your most difficult writing assignment?
JV: There were two that I can think of. One was an adaptation. An east-coast novelist wrote a book (unpublished) and he hired me to turn it into a screenplay. I had to boil this huge manuscript down to a manageable screen story. It took several months but I got it done. That was quite a learning experience.
I also did a rewrite on a script for a writer in Paris, France. The guy knew the English language well, and his writing wasn’t half bad, but every so often I’d come across words that just didn’t make any sense. I’d have to e-mail him with passages from his script, asking, “What does this mean?” We went back and forth for quite a while. Had I known it was going to be such a pain in the rear, I would’ve charged him three times what he actually paid me!
DB: There are many Internet sites for budding screenwriters. Why did you decide to start your own site (TheWorkingScreenwriter)?
JV: I’ve been somewhat of an “answer man” on a few of the screenwriting sites over the last several years…and I kept answering the same questions over and over. I wanted to put up a site that answered the most frequently asked questions. Instead of always writing the same responses, I could just say, “Go take a look at my site.” My book was coming out about the same time I got my site up and running, so it became a place where I could also do a little publicity. I’ve only been up since the start of the year and I’ve already received something like twenty-bazillion hits. Well, not quite that many, but it has become a very popular site. It’s worked out quite well, actually.
DB: So what would you say are the three most common questions you get from budding writers?
JV: “Do I need an agent to sell a script?” would be one of the big ones. “What genre is the hottest seller?” is another. “How much money can I make selling a script?” is another one I hear far too often.
DB: OK. What are your standard answers to these questions?
JV: No, you do not need an agent to sell a script. As for what genre is hot? Well, it seems comedy, horror and thrillers sell well. But I think you should write what you truly have a passion for. A well-written script is a well-written script. As for the money aspect, there’s no standard payday for a screenplay. Much depends on whether you’re selling the script to a WGA signatory production company or not.
If you’re not selling to a WGA signatory company, you might get a relative pittance. I know people who’ve sold scripts for $100, and I know people who’ve sold scripts for half a million. Funny, most writers seem to be more interested in just getting their script sold. What they should be concerned with is how they can make their story more interesting, or how they can make their characters more interesting and intriguing, and how they can improve their dialogue and tighten up the narrative. They’re more interested in achieving success; learning how to get there is secondary. Sorry, but that’s bass ackwards. And oh yes, there’s another question I get all the time: “Do I have to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter?”
DB: And what do you tell them?
JV: I tell them they can write scripts from anywhere in the world, but if they want to start a career, they’ll more than likely have to come to L.A. I can’t imagine trying to break into this business and living somewhere like Dayton, Ohio. Like it or not, L.A. is where the film industry is anchored. This is where the big deals go down. This is where the “powers that be” live, work and play. And you sure can’t beat the creative vibe that’s here in L.A.
For instance, just the other day, I was at a Starbucks and Ron Howard was standing in line. After he got his drink, he went outside and sat at a table with a gentleman. They were working on a script together. They were really into it. That sort of creative energy permeates this town. I don’t know, I just think it’s great. Look, it’s tough enough getting a career going when you’re actually in L.A., so why make it that much more difficult? Get two or three really solid specs written, save up a pile of cash, get yourself to Los Angeles and hit the streets. Get involved. Meet people. Impress them with your writing talent. That’s sort of how it works here. But… don’t make the big move unless you’re absolutely sure this is the career you want to pursue. This can be, and generally is, a very rough road to travel.
DB: So this really is about who you know?
JV: Yup, but it’s also about who knows YOU. Most of the jobs I’ve had and contacts I’ve made came from referrals. Somebody who’s a fan of my work turns me on to someone else. So yeah, meeting people – people who can potentially open some doors for you – should be a big goal for budding scribes.
DB: From what I’ve heard, you don’t have to be in L.A. to find success. Do you think that’s true?
JV: I think that’s truer for directors than it is for screenwriters. I think there’s a prejudice against screenwriters who live outside L.A. If a producer, agent, or reader sees the cover page of your script and it reads, “Anytown, Minnesota,” they immediately think, “Uh oh, novice.” That might be enough to get your script shoved to the bottom of the pile; perhaps overlooked completely. Something people need to realize…this isn’t necessarily about selling your spec script. It’s about impressing producers with your sample spec and hoping they hire you to write something else from scratch or perhaps even polish up another script. They’ll want to have meetings with you. It’s just inconvenient for them if you’re not in Los Angeles.
However, if you’re a writer/director, and if you aren’t willing to make the move to Los Angeles, you still have great opportunities to break into this business. Thanks to digital video, home computer editing systems, and the Internet, you can do so much right from your bedroom, no matter where you live. Man, I wish it was this easy when I was a kid. Back in those days, we shot everything on Super-8 film. Each cartridge was fifty feet (or about 3 minutes). Then we’d have to drop it at the drug store or camera store and wait a few days for it to get developed. Then we’d have to thread the film into a projector and see if what we got is what we wanted. If not, we’d re-shoot. Then the editing process was rather messy and time consuming. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED Super-8 and the editing and all that, and I certainly learned a lot, but nowadays, it’s amazing what you can get done in such a short amount of time and relatively inexpensively. It’s all very exciting.
In fact, a couple years ago, my friend Scott and I shot a ten minute video for a tribute we were putting together for our former high school media teacher, who had just retired. We shot a series of brief sketches, then cut it all together, added music, graphics…and it just took a few hours.
So if you have a script that would make a great little movie, get a camera and an editing system, or find someone who’s got it, and go make your movie. If it’s really good, try to get it into a few festivals. Again, you can do all this from anywhere. So get yourself out there, get your name and your talent known. Make it happen.
DB: What are some of the biggest mistakes budding screenwriters make?
JV: I cover this in greater detail on my website, but I’ll briefly touch on a few of them here. Let’s start with choosing stories that just don’t warrant a 110-page screenplay. Do I really need to spend 90 minutes of my life watching some goofball wandering around his house looking for his car keys?
Another big problem is on-the-nose dialogue. If a husband and wife are having marital problems, you have to cringe when the wife says, “I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce.” There’s a thing called sub-text. Learn about it. Also, you’d be surprised how many people pour a 30-page story into 120-page script. Not only should you come up with an interesting and cinema-worthy story, but one that fills out a full-length screenplay. Also, writing descriptions that don’t translate on screen. You can’t write something like, “Joe walks into the den. He remembers back to when he first came here; when he met Loretta.” That sort of thing works fine in a book, but it’s a big no-no in a screenplay. Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you go to my website (in the “Fatal Flaws” section) you’ll see a couple dozen more.
DB: You once told me there’s something novice writers do that really upsets you.
JV: It’s not something they do, per se, it’s something a few fall victim to – and yeah, I get a bit upset by it.
DB: Which is what?
JV: Okay…writers send their script to a so-called literary agency, then this agency contacts them and says, “Your script is soooo good. We want to represent you.” The poor writer gets all excited. That’s when this agency tells them, “Send us a hundred bucks and we’ll get the ball rolling.” The writer is very vulnerable at this point and it doesn’t take much for them to whip out the checkbook. But if you have your doubts, feel free to test the waters. Go ahead and contact the agency. (They probably won’t provide a phone number, so you’ll have to do it via e-mail.) Tell them, “I’m so pleased you liked my script. I have a policy never to pay an agency to represent me, so if you’d like to rep my script and not charge a fee, that’d be wonderful.” I can virtually guarantee you’ll never hear from them again. So, to all you writers reading this interview: If an agency asks you to pay a fee – for maintenance, for script copies, for whatever – turn and run. This has been said a million times before, but here it is once again: You don’t pay the agency; the agency pays you when they option and/or sell your script or get you employed. They take their percentage and cut you a check for the balance. Never forget that. In fact, write it down and paste it on your computer.
DB: Should a literary agent be the first thing on a budding writer’s shopping list?
JV: Agents are a fact of life and they eventually become a necessity, but when you first start out in this business, very few, if any, agents will be interested in you. You haven’t proven yourself yet. So how do you prove yourself? Have at least a couple great scripts in your briefcase, or have one or two low budget sales under your belt. These agents need to know you mean business. They need to know you have the talent and that you’re not just another one of the half million wannabes trudging up and down Wilshire Boulevard. Until they’re sure they can make a buck off you, you more than likely won’t get their attention. Concentrate your efforts on honing your craft, getting better and better with each script, and not chasing down agents.
DB: What advice would you like to pass along to budding screenwriters?
On the personal side: make sure you have a life outside the writing. My motto has always been: I write to live; I don’t live to write. I’m lucky – between family and friends, a bit of traveling now and then, and the various extracurricular activities I get myself involved in, I really enjoy myself. That helps when you hit those speed bumps in the ol’ career. Even if I don’t have huge success as a screenwriter, I’m still a happy guy. But on the business side, don’t send your screenplay out into the world before it’s ready. Sure, you might think the script is ready, but chances are great that it just isn’t in any shape to be seen by the folks in Hollywood.
Also, learn patience. Success in this business – any kind of success – does not come quickly. It takes you months to write the script, then it takes months or years to get it read by someone who can hopefully do something with it. If you’re lucky and get the script optioned and/or sold, you’ll have the development process, securing financing…all of it. Believe me, it takes time. Don’t write just one or two scripts. Write several. Get ‘em written and send ‘em down the pipeline and keep writing. Also know that when you try to enter the gates of Hollywood, you’ll meet a huge wall of indifference. That’s not the time to turn tail and go back to wherever it is you came from. No, you need to put on your blinders and get creative. There are cracks in that wall. They’re hard to find, but they’re there. Go find them.
DB: On behalf of the folks at Two Adverbs, Jim, I want to say thanks for the interview.
JV: Thanks, buddy. As always, it was a pleasure.
* * *
Jim Vines’ book Q & A: The Working Screenwriter – An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today’s Film Industry is available at The Writers Store and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the like.
Check out Jim’s website: www.TheWorkingScreenwriter.com
Check out Jim’s blog: theworkingscreenwriter.blogspot.com
Dylan Bruce lives just outside of Los Angeles. He’s married, has two cats, a regular day job, loves horror movies, and when time permits, toils at various non-screenwriting projects. Oh yeah, his wife Karen is having a baby in November!
To contact Dylan Bruce: DylanBruce70@hotmail.com