ComicMix at WWLA: The Screenwriter’s Panel
Sunday, Day Two at Wizard World in LA and this time around its the Screenwriter’s panel. Moderator Rickey Purdin introduced a distinguished group of successful screenwriters including Mark Verheiden, Carl Ellsworth, John Cox and Zak Penn. With the intros finished, Purdin launched into a short video montage featuring clips from some of the projects the members of the panel had written.
Some of these clips included scenes from The Mask, X-Men 2, Disturbia, Smallville, Red Eye and Battlestar Galactica. Following the clips, Purdin started in on the questions for the panel.
First up, how each of the writers got their various starts in the "business."
Cox started it off saying that, infortunately, he didn’t have a “sexy story" to tell. Instead, like many others, he went to film school with the intention of being a director. However, he soon found out that directing was “too much like working for a living" and decided to switch to screenwriting.
“My story is pretty sexy,” joked Penn. “I was a stripper for a couple of years. It’s a weird job. It was in a female strip club and I was the only guy there, and I stood out.”
"No, I’m joking. Obviously," he continued. "Actually, I got really lucky and wrote Last Action Hero pretty much right out of college and then sold it pretty fast. So that was it for me."
Verheiden then joked he was one of Penn’s best customers at the strip club but then went on to his real answer, explaining he wanted to get into screenwriting all along but ended up breaking in by writing for Dark Horse Comics first.
Ellsworth then chimed in, saying he always wanted to work in movies and worked his way up doing production. His first job was as a production assistant for the Suzanne Somers talk show. Later, he went on to write for Xena: Warrior Princess and during about three years of unemployment, he ended up writing the screenplay for Red Eye, which was his entrance into features.
Next, the panel was asked about the major differences between writing for the movies and for television.
Ellsworth said working in movies is much lonelier. "In movies, I sit at my desk at home without anyone else in the room to bounce ideas off of. On a TV show, you’re usually in a room full of other writers," he said.
Verheiden said the immediacy of television is the biggest difference: “I’m writing an episode of Battlestar that will shoot in two weeks. It’s interesting. You write them, you shoot them, you cut them and then they’re on TV.”
Continuing this discussion, Penn said that he hasn’t workd in TV yet, although he is developing a TV series now so "he’ll find out soon enough." In movies, it varies from project to project when it comes to how involved he is beyond the writing.
“You can be a screenwriter on a film and never meet the director or anyone involved,” he said. “It runs the gamut from worst possible situation to just okay.”
Verheiden said he had to usually ask permission to visit the sets of his feature films.
Next, the panel was asked about how many hours a day they end up writing.
Cox answered first saying: “I’ve gotten lazier over the years." Typically, he works three hours or four hours a day. "A little, but every day. Of course, if there’s a deadline or something I’ll put in more hours."
Penn joked that Cox was a lot more disciplined than he was. “For me, it has more to do with if there is a new Halo game coming out or not. If it’s a week or two after a new Halo I could go three months without writing at all."
Verheiden said he’s been forced to become more disciplined over the years. With television you have to do pretty long hours. "It’s get up, get started, cruise the Internet a bit then write," he said.
"Plus as a producer, there are a lot of other issues to deal with. The writer’s strike was interesting because it was, ‘Oh! I don’t have to write for three months.’ And I didn’t.”
Ellsworth said he averages four or five hours a day. “Sometimes when I’m having dinner with my wife, she’ll just ask me, ‘Where did you go?’ and I was off doing that scene.’” He joked saying that he also counts that kind of thing, thinking and brainstorming, as part of his writing time.
He also said that playing Halo might count as writing time for Penn as well.
"If that’s writing time," answered Penn, "then I’m writing pretty much all day long."
Next, the panel was asked to give advice on how to break into the business.
To this, Cox suggested entering screenwriting fellowships and contests to get yourself noticed. "Even if you don’t win, the top few people still get read by agents and people looking for material," he said.
Penn said that his best advice, “while incredibly obvious and annoying” is to just keep writing. “Assume the first two things you write are going to suck. Keep at it and be prepared to keep writing and writing," he said.
Verheiden said his advice for television is to try to become a writer’s assistant or intern. Although, according to him: "Those jobs are almost harder to get than being a writer on a show. There’s usually quite a few writers but only one assistant so that makes it harder," he said.
Ellsworth said that its best not to set any artificial timelines. He was out in LA ten years before he sold his first script. He also suggested to keep writing, but finish one thing before moving onto another. “Commit to a great idea, write it, and finish it. Don’t start a bunch of things and never finish any of them."
As to the question of how to get an agent, Ellsworth said he got his agent mostly through the connections and contacts he made in LA. Cox suggested looking for a junior agent or assistant looking to move up and become a full agent. "Those people are always looking for good material so both of your careers can build at the same time," he said.
Regarding the ever-present spectre of writer’s block, Ellsworth had some very succint advice:
"I go to Best Buy. I have nothing else. I’m blocked.”
Penn’s suggestion was even more interesting: "Hallucinogens," he joked. “No, I really don’t take those… for that,” he continued.
Actually, according to Penn, he really doesn’t doesn’t believe in writer’s block. “The idea that you don’t know what to write anymore… you either have a story or you don’t," he explained. "If you don’t have a story and you don’t know where to go then you were’t ready to start in the first place."
Next, the panel was asked about their upcoming projects and what they’re working on.
Ellsworth: "I just finished doing a revision of Last House on the Left and I’m currently adapting the comic Y: The Last Man into a feature film.
Verheiden: "I’m finishing up the last season of Battlestar and writing a live-action Teen Titans movie. I’m also writing a movie called The Ark."
Penn: "I have a movie called The Grand coming out, which is an improvisational comedy that I directed. I really encourage all of you to go see it. That would be great."
Cox: "I have a movie coming out called Boot Camp with Mila Kunis, and am writing a Sgt. Rock script which should be going into production this year. There should be some good news about that soon that I can’t share with you now or Joel Silver will break my legs.”
The panel then took question from the audience.
First question from the group: Is there any type of college courses or classes the panel recommends for screenwriting? Penn recommended Robert McKee’s class saying: “He won’t teach you how to write, but he will teach you to recognize good screenwriting.”
Cox said UCLA Extension is a big help and he sometimes takes some of those classes for fun. Ellsworth suggested reading good screenplays and watching good movies to help you start to see how stories work.
Furthering the question, Purdin asked the panel to suggest a screenplay or movie the audience should see or read. "Unforgiven is a great screenplay," answered Penn. “Obviously it’s a great story and it’s a solid Western, but it’s also a movie about storytelling," he continued.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the best commercial movies ever made," said Cox. " It’s also some of the best storytelling ever in the movies." Verheiden said James Cameron’s scripts for Terminator and Aliens are two great screenplays and are "really great to not only watch the movies but read the scripts." Ellsworth suggested that the first Die Hard movie was a great script and a movie that "had a huge impact" on him.
An audience member then asked Penn what would the experience be reading the original script of Last Action Hero and comparing it to the movie.
“The movie is an abortion,” said Penn. “I’ve had a lot of scripts rewritten badly, so it’s tough for me to talk about some of them. But that one is the worst.”
Another fan asked how Penn approached the script of a film which was intended to be more improvisational.
“I write something I call a scriptment. It’s half script, half treatment,” answered Penn. " I know where things start and end in a scene but I leave the dialog up to the actors, " he continued.
Lastly, Ellsworth was asked about the process he’s going through adapting Y: The Last Man into a film.
‘It’s tough to take a comic with a story told over fifty issues and make it into a two hour movie," he said. "I also think there’s some things about it to explore such as the reasons behind a group like Daughters of the Amazons, which sorta spring up in the comic with no real explanation."
"Really what I have to do is take the great aspects of the comic and put a more viable spin on it for a mass audience," he concluded.
And with that, the Saturday’s Screenwriter’s Panel came to an end.