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Interview With Screenwriter Shane Salerno

By J. Freedman,
Dec 7, 2004, 13:48

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One of the most informative and straight shooting chats I had at Expo 3 was with actor/writer Shane Salerno (“Criminal Behavior” “UC Undercover” “Shaft” “Armageddon”) whom I caught up with between seminars and panels. I asked Salerno what he though about the general tenor of the conference and the aspiring screenwriters he was meeting.

“There are a lot of hungry writers who are trying to get in the door,” he said. “You can tell by listening to these people that they have stories, they have voices and I wish there was a legal outlet to provide these people with a way to get their material read but there are so many legal restrictions that are necessary but ultimately they really stimey these people.”

I asked him what he meant by that and he talked about the precautions studios have to take before they look at a script, in particular one that isn’t represented by an agent or lawyer. One of the consistent frustrations I heard from attendees was how hard it was to get legitimate representation if you were unknown in Hollywood and how you couldn’t get known in Hollywood without legitimate representation.

Salerno agreed with how formidable it is just to get to first base these days in the industry.

“It’s so hard to get in the door…I don’t know if I could do it today,” he said candidly.
“There are also a lot of people who are taking money to read these scripts which I have a real problem with fundamentally. You have a lot of people who are working as waiters and waitresses and struggling and you have to pay $500 (to get a script read or analyzed). I remember what $500 was because I grew up with a single mom and we were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination.”

It’s another kind of double bind situation. You need feedback on your script but can’t afford to pay for a script consultation until you’ve made enough money writing so that you don’t need feedback on your work anymore. (It should be mentioned there are legitimate, reasonably priced script doctors out there but you have to be cognizant of what distinguishes them from the pirates and rip-off artists).

Salerno said he didn’t have the answer to this dilemma but he did say it is worth hanging in and struggling for the acceptance and success the people they admire have achieved..

“I just hope these people stay persistent because sometimes it’s six or eight scripts before they have that great script,” he said. “All the people they admire went through these things and had adversity. Oliver Stone wrote 10 scripts before he wrote “Platoon” which got him all of his first jobs which got him “Midnight Express” and then he waited10 years to get “Platoon” made.”

Salerno said it’s kind of like what Kevin Costner said in “Bull Durham”: What you need is fear and arrogance.

“It’s weird, you have to have an arrogance because when people tell you your work stinks and no one is ever to going to make this that’s a really hard thing to hear all the time,” noted Salerno. “So what I hope is that people stick with it and write unique stuff.

What we need are more “Lost In Translation” and “Narks” and these voices as opposed to these bigger budget pictures and, granted, that’s mostly what I’ve done but my favorite films are these smaller movies.”

That’s not easy to do when so much of the industry is focused on the bottom line and the next blockbuster. But as Salerno suggests, it is the individual voice that stands out from the rest of the herd when it comes to getting attention in Hollywood.

Another indispensable component of success in the industry, as so many of the speakers at the Expo said, is self-promotion, networking, schmoozing, whatever you want to call it. You have to be able to get out there and meet the right people and get your work in front of those who can do something for you.

“Unfortunately I think self-promotion is a big component,” Salerno agreed. “I think there are guys who are brilliant writers but are horrible in a room. You should not be judged by whether you can move ‘em or wow ‘em or move ‘em in a room but it is a component of it and rather than dismiss it people have to become better in a room because there are a lot of these idiots who don’t read and maybe you hook them on a pitch or meeting or something instead of having them read a whole script.”

Not being able to excel at networking, working the town, working the trade etc. does not preclude success as screenwriter, it just means you have to find another angle to get noticed.

“As far as networking goes, I was raised by a single mom, I didn’t go to college, I wrote documentaries and got right in when I was very young, didn’t know anyone so there are a lot of examples where people have succeeded without knowing all the right people or aggressively marketing. The best thing you can do is put yourself in an environment to succeed. If you can get on a television show as a PA or as an extra you’re going to learn something from that and maybe something will happen. If you’re in Oklahoma writing screenplays and sending them around and hoping things are going to change, that is not going to happen,” Salerno said.

This raised another question about whether or not it is necessary to come to Los Angeles when you are trying to get your big break. I would say the preponderance of speakers I heard at Expo 3 said it really helps if you do. Some of them said you won’t get to first base if you don’t. Others said the right breaks and the right connections could obviate the necessity of relocation to SoCal.

Salerno is of the former camp. “I do believe you have to be in Los Angeles when you start out,” he stated matter of factly. He also did all the do things to launch his own career when he first got in the game.

“I attended all these functions, the classes and the bookstores reading all the time. I have a 10,000-book library in my house from collecting books over the years. Young writers and beginning writers need to stay persistent and understand what the odds are against them succeeding.”

This isn’t just his opinion. Salerno had some hard, cold facts about the competitive nature of the industry to back up the claim that this business is not for the non-competitive or complacent stay-at-home mom or college graduate.

“Someone told me recently there are more people in film programs today than in any other major in the United States so the numbers or overwhelming,” noted Salerno.
As an example of how competitive and daunting the numbers are, Salerno related the following facts about what producers and studios go through when they are looking for a pilot for a new TV show. “They listen to 600 pitches, they buy 30 to 40 scripts and they make three to four pilots and they put two on the air. Those are real numbers I just gave you. Think about that. When you realize from that standpoint you have to have the confidence and find a way to break in and go around the system. You need an in. One of the best writers I ever worked with on this last TV series I hired was an AIDS counselor at Riker’s Island who does not have the warmest personality for everybody but we got beyond that. You have to find an avenue. First you have to get your script truly read. Also find someone who is incentivized to help you.”

By insentivized, he means someone who has a vested interest in finding good material. Not someone who is reading your work because they like you or want to encourage you. He means someone who looks for good material as part of his or her job.

“The senior vice president of Paramount is not incentivized to help you,” he said.. “He’s supervising five movies that are in production and juggling $400 million dollars and has a lot of pressure on him. He’s not interested in watching your screenwriting career. But the lowest level (executive) who reads 20 scripts in a weekend because it’s his or her job, they are incentivized because they move up the ladder by finding “American Beauty” or “Shawshank Redemption.” This approach of machine gunning and hoping you hit oil is not as smart as targeting someone who is in a position to help you. It’s really about sniper mode as opposed to machine gun mode. “

The upshot of all this, as Salerno emphasized, is that, although we are talking about film and art and creativity when we talk about screenwriting, we are also talking about money. As he said, if you are not cognizant of this you stand very little chance of getting your screenwriting career kick-started.

“If you go to enough of these conferences you start to understand this business,” Salerno said.” It’s called show business which is not just some cliché. It is a business and writing is a craft. That means it’s business and people ultimately want to make money but it’s a craft so that means it takes a number of years to do well. I find a lot of people don’t understand those two things. The advantage of seminars and things like this is to be around people who are doing it and maybe hearing one or two things where you go ‘That’s what’s wrong with my script’ and you make that adjustment or ‘That’s a great way to get to an agent.’ But again, it’s a numbers game and a lot of people give up too early. It’s humbling even when you’re successful. William Goldman has 20 unproduced screenplays and he says that’s some of his best work. It’s a weird business. They pay you a million dollars to write it but they wont’ make it.”

Millions of dollar?! So whose’ gonna’ complain?
The point is, you can be at the bottom of the heap or the top of the heap in this industry and still suffer rejection and disappointment. What Salerno was intimating was that, if you hang in long enough and do the do things, there’s a good chance you will eventually get paid for your efforts, maybe not for this screenplay and maybe not for the next one but for one of them if you remain persistent and refuse to accept anything less than success.

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