Part One of an interview with multiple award-winning screenwriter Michael Tabb, author of “Prewriting Your Screenplay.
Other books on screenwriting “explain things but don’t provide their readers-who-would-be-writers a set of logical instructions to follow or exercises to complete that fill those gaping holes."
SCREENWRITERS WORLD: How did you break into the industry?
MICHAEL TABB: I didn’t get my first significant foot in the door at a Hollywood-networking event or seminar. The first screenplay I ever wrote landed me a fan that I met casually at Stephen S. Wise Temple near the 101 Freeway exit at Skirball / Mulholland Drive at the top of the hill. One minute, we’re dovening a few meaningful Jewish prayers, and the next, we’re chatting about film. I think it helps that I really know the Hebrew prayers and have a musical theater style singing voice. It’s not subtle. That fan sent my script to a manager that he knew. She signed me. The manager sent it to a production company at Universal Studios as a writing sample, who recommended it to agents at the top three agencies. One of them called my manager the next day and said they wanted me. The agent sent it to two people’s companies, a director and actor. Both of them signed onto the project. The director optioned it, and my first paycheck rolled in… and it all took about four years. In the meanwhile, I just kept my nose to the grindstone and continued writing all the while, creating about three screenplays a year. That’s how it happened for me. I did not know anyone in Hollywood when I started.
SCREENWRITERS WORLD: What advice would you give to an aspiring screenwriter seeking to break in?
MICHAEL TABB: First, you need to know whom you are and what kinds of things you want to write. Nobody can sell you if even you don’t know what you’re selling.Second, figure out how to make your work great before you try to sell it. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time, everyone else’s time, and sometimes wasting a perfectly decent movie idea by not knowing how to develop or execute it into a gripping script. It's so tragic. As a former script analyst for Alcon Entertainment (put deal at Warner Brothers), I can tell you most scripts I was asked to analyze were not very good. I would have been deeply embarrassed if my name was on a majority of them. I don’t know how someone can send work out like that.
SCREENWRITERS WORLD: If you were starting out fresh now, how would you pursue a screenwriting career? What would your first step be and what would your game plan be?
MICHAEL TABB: I’d have produced the low-budget feature I wrote in college for me to direct. Also, I wouldn’t be precious or hold out for more money when I was younger. If someone wants to drop a healthy check on your script when you’re starting out, don’t hold out for the Hollywood millions. Sell it and just write another. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be a writer. Now, when you’re not getting at least WGA minimum for your script and the contract isn’t union, you can always ask for a reacquisition clause to be added to the contract. There is a timeframe where WGA writers can buy back any sold material; it’s a standard part of the WGA MBA (Minimum Basic Agreement). It costs them nothing. So, if it matters that much to you, you might request to add such a clause in the contract allowing you to buy back your script at a guaranteed price if they have been unable to produce the film within a decade or something.
SCREENWRITERS WORLD: What do you think of contests? Are they of any value if you don't win but finish as a Finalist or Semi-Finalist?
MICHAEL TABB: I feel like I’m inadequately educated on such things. I don’t really submit material in that space. In the last decade, I submitted one screenplay to one screenwriting contest in order to see if a script I wanted to direct was ready. It wasn’t a big-time contest, but I won the contest’s top prize of Best Screenplay. I got what I needed to know out of it. Did it change anything for me other than giving me peace of mind? No. And I’m still trying to get that film funded.
It’s unrealistic to think if you submit to a contest that your struggles are going to be over. Take it for what it is. Any acknowledgement of your talent is confirmation that you’re on the right track. If you’re expecting more than that, you’re expecting too much from a $50 buy-in. You have to be realistic about what results you can expect to receive from anything outside of winning the very top screenwriting contests.
Also, don’t let it get you down if you don’t win. That first script I ever wrote… the one that got set up with a big film director and a two-time Oscar-winning actor… it only made the semi-finals in the Nicholl Fellowship back when I graduated NYU. Yes, it was the same script that attracted the first two A-listers that read it. You have to understand, beyond the semi-finals round a lot of those winners boil down to a reader’s personal taste. Now, if I had won the Nicholl Fellowship, I do believe that would have helped, but I didn’t need it in order to succeed. That said, it was worth a shot.
For that matter, you might consider paying a well-connected professional writer, script reader, consultant, or feedback service. It allows more one-on-one, personal attention. This costs a lot more than fifty dollars. Different professionals charge different amounts. We’re talking a few hundred to thousands of dollars, depending. You’re paying for hands-on assistance and a personal touch. Because of that, they might be more likely to help you succeed or advise you professionally beyond offering basic story feedback. It’s another option. You may make a professional contact if you use a person as opposed to basic contest script coverage. Look, all feedback has value. It really boils down to your budget and knowing what you really want from the money you’re spending.
SCREENWRITERS WORLD: You have authored a new book that will be released on or about July 27, which offers a unique method of planning and writing screenplays. How did you come by this approach and can you give us a hint of what makes it different?
MICHAEL TABB: There are so many books on screenwriting, but there are none like this for many reasons. Most screenwriting books try to teach everything at once, giving readers a grasp of the big picture: idea development, writing it, formatting it, editing it, and then sometimes even touching on the business side of things. In those cases, that information is so generalized it makes the reader a master of no specific part of the writing process.
Other books are more focused on a topic, but they really don’t walk the reader through the process of doing it very well, leaving gaps and questions on how to fill in the blanks in-between steps. They often explain things but don’t provide their readers-who-would-be-writers a set of logical instructions to follow or exercises to complete that fill those gaping holes. These books usually look at developing a story idea from the outside in, which means it’s not rooted in something the writer is bound to care about after a slew of studio drafts.
My book on Prewriting (the script idea development and outlining process) does all of those things differently. Uniquely, this book does not tell readers to go out into the world and develop an idea based on potential what ifs, eavesdropping/people-watching, public domain intellectual property, or newspaper articles. If you develop a story based on something superficial and outside yourself, it’s not going to resonate until you make it personal to you. Prewriting Your Screenplay inspires the writer to look within for what to write about, explains how to do it, and expands into a story from there. At it’s core, it’s about bringing the writer’s own personal opinions into the story process, which guarantees that nobody else will write an idea like you will. There is only one you.
The book finishes by teaching writers how to reverse the whole process in case the writer is in a situation of having to fill in the blanks of a preexisting story idea (like when we’re hired to adapt a preexisting piece of material or intellectual property for someone else). This way, writers can develop stories from the inside out (starting without so much as a story idea) as well as from the outside in, and, in the latter, bringing the heart of the writer into the externally generated story idea. This way, a writer always has an avenue to create fresh and uniquely personal material, whether he or she is starting with a story idea or nothing at all.
Another differentiating factor is that Prewriting Your Screenplay is a true-to-form, step-by-step process by which you construct an original story (starting with absolutely nothing at all) through answering questions and completing exercises at the end of every chapter until you have a fully-realized and original story idea with the characters perfectly designed to serve that cohesive story. It's an instruction manual for putting together story by intelligent design. Each story element is added to the whole in a specific order so it fits perfectly together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, creating a strong and solid story foundation.
Honestly, I have this very eclectic and wide breadth of screenwriting education that very few people have had the opportunity to experience, including: being a script analyst for years at a fantastic production company, writing for Academy-Award winning actors, having acted in Off-Broadway plays, and studied at USC, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and UCLA’s professional screenwriting program. All of those things played an active part in my discovery of how to generate story ideas, nourishing a series of revelations regarding how to build compelling stories. There’s no replacing someone’s individual life experience and discovery process. It’s because of this approach I am sharing that I have never had writer’s block. The book is full of all the tools, questions, and knowledge I use every time I develop a new screenplay.
I’m on the WGA’s Writers Education Committee, and I co-created the WGA’s Mentor Program. I believe writers need to look out for writers when they can. This book was well over a decade in the making. The endorsements I have been getting fill my heart with so much joy. If this book helps writers half as much as they are saying, it was a decade well spent.
Check out the Editorial Reviews section on my book’s Amazon page and see who is saying those things. Not one review was paid for, and considering who’s saying it... I think the endorsements speak for themselves.
Please follow me on social media like Twitter @MichaelTabb, check out my Pinterest account Tabb Talk, and most importantly, please sign up on my website, www.MichaelTabbWGA.com. I appreciate it.https://amzn.to/2MnPsHG