Blake Snyder, one of Hollywood's most
successful spec screenwriters, sat down with us at Jerry's Famous Deli in Los Angeles to
discuss his illustrious career.
SSSD: In your early career you wrote
comedy and drama for TV. Why did you transition to movies, especially high concept
SNYDER: I did mostly children’s TV when I
first started. I got a break when my friend, Tommy Lynch, hired me to work on a show he was
producing called "Kids Incorporated." That was my main work. I really give credit for
anything that I’ve done to my great agent, Hilary Wayne at Writers and Artists Agency, who
recently passed away.
SSSD: I’m sorry to hear that.
SNYDER: She was really instrumental in
helping me figure out this business. For a long time, I didn’t quite understand what type of
movies [producers] were looking for. Then suddenly it just sort of hit me, and Hilary really
encouraged me to write more spec scripts. Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was our first
SSSD: When was that?
SNYDER: That was 1989. I was flat broke
and still trying to find out what the industry wanted when I just sort of discovered high
concept. I just sort of stumbled into it and eventually figured it out. Before, I was like a
lot of writers; I wanted to write character pieces, or pieces that were true events that
happened in my life, or adaptations of Greek plays. I tried all the things that I personally
loved and wanted to do. Then I realized that I’m providing a service, that I’m providing a
creative product, and I’m just like everyone else in this business; I’m trying to sell it to
the next person. If you are a studio, you are trying to sell it to the public. When you
figure that out, you will be able to fit into the business a bit better and really provide a
service. Again, Hilary was the one who first approached me, and I came up with this idea for
"Stop" and sent it to her. It was really just a six-week process -- I thought up the
idea, wrote the script, sent it to her, and it was sold within six weeks.
SSSD: When you came up with the idea, did
you discuss it with her while you were writing the screenplay?
SNYDER: Yes, and she was
one of the best when it came to knowing a good idea when she heard it. She encouraged me to
do it and turn it in right away, and she sold it right away.
SSSD: So, she told you, "That’s a movie...I can sell this."?
SNYDER: Exactly right. So, I get this call in the morning and she says, "Don’t answer the
phone. I’ve sent the script out and people are bidding on it, so don’t talk to anybody but
me." I waited and waited all day until she finally called at five o’clock, like eight hours
later, and she says, "Listen, I’ve got to go. I’m leaving the office, but I sold the script
for $300,000 against $500,000. They’re sending the check right now and you’ll get it by
Monday. OK, bye." And my whole life changed.
SSSD: How did you meet Hilary?
was going out with a friend of hers, and we just kind of hit it off. She, like me, was very
enthusiastic, very creative, willing to try anything. A lot of the marketing things were
SSSD: How so?
SNYDER: We just loved the idea of the selling process, the creative process and being
creative, and we worked very well together in that sense.
SSSD: How did you come up with the idea for Stop! Or My Mom Will
SNYDER: It was pretty
simple. At the time there were a lot of "cop and a blank" movies -- cop and the ex-con, cop
and a dog, you know, cop and a blank. I just went through the list. It was almost
mathematical. "Dirty Harry gets a new partner-- his mother" was the original concept.
SSSD: You studied the marketplace.
SNYDER: I studied my marketplace. I found out what was selling, what
type of movies.
SSSD: A lot of writers will take a year or six months to write a spec
script, and by that time the market for those types of movies has passed.
SNYDER: That’s true, but I also feel that there is a type of energy.
In my experience, I’ve found that some people do spend a long time on their screenplay, and
I’ve done that, too, but my best experiences have been with quick bursts of creative energy.
For me, personally, it is that first burst of creative energy that really proves to be the
SSSD: Did you do much rewriting with Hilary on the screenplay before
you sent it out?
SNYDER: No, but things have changed quite a bit. Although I still
believe in that first burst of inspiration, spec scripts have to be better crafted now; they
have to be much better written. They aren’t just looking for the idea. At the time, they
were really poster-driven, and if [the movie had the potential to spawn a great poster],
they bought it. If it didn’t work, they’d bring in sixteen other writers to go fix the
SSSD: Why do you think it has changed?
SNYDER: I think that a lot of times they got burned with the script.
I think that an initial concept, although it was strong, proved unworkable or was weakened
by multiple rewrites. I think that I am a much better writer than I was then. I was lucky
then, and I think that a lot of the stuff that we did then we couldn’t get away with now.
Now, they want better scripts, and I think that’s great. Like I said, I’m a much better
writer now, and I’ve learned a lot more in the last ten years. The marketplace has adjusted
to those go-go years of finding concepts when a lot of scripts were being sold for lots of
money but didn’t get made. I do think that we are moving into a new spec sale feeding
frenzy. It feels like that’s coming soon. It just cycles. For a few years it was just
pitches or books. But this time around, scripts need to be well crafted and well written, as
well as have a good concept.
SSSD: When you were writing Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, did it
ever occur to you that this was a movie for a movie star?
SNYDER: Sure, you know the same thing is true for Analyze
This – it has two strong character types. As perfect as Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal
are, I think that there are a lot of people who could play those roles, and it is the
character types that made it castable.
SSSD: Your father created the cartoon show Roger Ramjet in the
1960s. The show was a superhero satire. The main character, Roger Ramjet, was a dare devil,
crime fighter and all around good guy. What influence did this have on your writing?
SNYDER: A lot, actually. I think that Roger Ramjet is one of the
best-written cartoons out there. I think that it ranks right up there with Rocky And
Bullwinkle and a lot of the great cartoons. Gene Moss and Jim Thurman were the writers,
and they wrote very witty stuff and brilliant satire. They wrote jokes that I am surprised
that they got away with at the time. I used to sit in the writers’ room. I was a kid and
that’s where I would hang out when I went to my dad’s office. It was a big influence. I
thought that these guys had a cool job. They had fun and laughed all day long. But when it
came down to working, they wrote some great stuff. Just the job description -- out of all
the jobs in my dad’s office, theirs was the coolest to me.
SSSD: After you sold Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, you sold
Nuclear Family, an extremely high concept script about a family that camps out near a
nuclear dumpsite and starts to develop super powers. Spielberg read it and bought it the
same day. So, what happened?
SNYDER: It’s a really great script, one of my favorites because as
much as it is a high concept script, there is a real message in the movie. My partner, Jim
Haggin, and I tried very hard to make it more than just a concept. It had a real moral to
it, a moral about family values, and I think that moral came across. I don’t know why it
hasn’t been made. I know that they had a few writers take a shot at it and try to do
something with it, but I wish that they’d stop picking at it because, again, it’s one of my
favorite scripts, and I think it’s a terrific story.
SSSD: Were they thinking about turning it into a TV movie?
SNYDER: They were going to turn it into a TV series. At the time we
wrote it a lot of the advances with special effects hadn’t been made. This was pre-Jurassic
Park, and pre a lot of things, so I think that especially now they could do a great job at
SSSD: Your agent at the time, Hilary Wayne, sent out the script in a
nuclear waste container?
SSSD: And for Blank Check she sent out blank checks and then
backpacks filled with your script and fake money. Do you think that kind of marketing made
it easier for you to sell your script?
SNYDER: As marketing savvy as it sounds, and it was smart as far as
marketing, the real motivation for it was that we just thought it was fun. We thought that
it would get people as excited as we were. We had an idea that we were excited about, and we
wanted to get buyers to see the same potential we did. The canisters [of nuclear waste] for
Nuclear Family were beautifully done. Jim Haggin and I sat down and created them
ourselves. It cost like a hundred dollars each to get them just right, but we really had
fun. We had to call [producers] in advance to tell them that we were sending them because
they looked real. We didn’t want to have any bomb scares. We got these canisters from a
surplus store that were fuse containers, so they looked very real. The same with Blank
Check -- we were just so excited about the project that we had this idea and just did
it. I loved the idea of sending out a blank check and then following it up with this
backpack filled with fake money. The truth is that you can’t do that kind of stuff today.
The mood of the town is a lot more serious. I wouldn’t recommend that anybody do that
SSSD: Would you also say that for a writer trying to get an agent as
SNYDER: I think that [today] it is a lot less gimmicks, it is a lot
less sizzle, and it is mostly about the bottom line -- good writing. I think that’s much
more important than it was. Don’t do it now.
SSSD: The lead character in Blank Check is a little boy. There’s
no role for a movie star, and yet the studios showed considerable interest in the script.
Was the studio ever concerned about this, or did the success of "Home Alone" help you
SNYDER: At the time I think that the studio was looking for a "Home
Alone," and I think that at the time they thought of it as their "Home Alone." Even
though my partner Colby Carr and I had talked about this years earlier, I think that the
timing was essential. Again, I must credit Hilary. I went into her office and told her about
a few ideas that I was working on, including Blank Check, and she said, "That one."
If you want a great story about timing, Colby and I wrote and sold the script in five or six
weeks. It was made and in theaters in under a year. They were right to rush it. If it had
even come out a year or six months earlier, I think that it would have been an even bigger
hit. I guess that we just caught the tail end of that kid empowerment phase. There was a kid
empowerment vein of gold to be mined, and we were the lucky miners who got a sale. They’re
happening all the time now. There’s a vein of gold to be mined about teenagers. I would
encourage people who have a few ideas about teenagers to [write about them]. It is also part
of the job to be a little quick on your feet. I don’t see the teenager thing going away any
time soon, but you do have to be able to write fast. You should work with your agent to find
out what people are buying. I don’t think that you have to be told what they’re buying. It
just takes a gut instinct.
SSSD: You’ve worked with partners on a lot of your scripts. Why?
SNYDER: I love working with partners. I think that this job lends
itself to two people working in a room and kind of hashing it out. It is a really quick
sounding board of, "That’s a stupid idea." Especially with humor, if one person says
something funny and the other person laughs, then there’s a good chance it’s actually funny.
It’s harder to judge when you’re working alone.
SSSD: Do you work the same way with each partner?
SNYDER: It’s different every time. The thing is that whatever comes
out of the room when we’re all done is a mutual agreement. The most important thing to have
is respect for each other. If one person disagrees, then don’t do it. I respect these guys
so much, so if I say something and they disagree, then I really have to listen.
SSSD: How do you find your writing partners?
SNYDER: They’re friends, and we have similar ideas about movies and
what’s funny. I think that what’s great about this business is that you only need one buyer.
You may have ten people tell you that you’re crazy, but one person says, "I get it." It’s
just a matter of taste. Just stick to your own taste. If you think that it’s funny, that
it’s strong, and you like it, then maybe there’s someone out there that agrees.
SSSD: Do you have any preference between writing solo or with a
SNYDER: No. It depends. Sometimes I think that there is energy to
getting together with someone, and sometimes I think that it is nice to have something to
work out by yourself. It’s a change of mood, and I think that’s healthy. It is nice to be
working on a few projects at the same time so that you can leave one and then go try
something different somewhere else. If you are moving from a solo project to a solo project
and get stuck in both places, you have nowhere to turn.
SSSD: Do you prefer to write on spec as opposed to getting writing
SNYDER: Agents will tell you, and I agree that the hierarchy of
respect begins with the person who is called in to fix a script. He or she has a lot of
respect in this business, so getting an assignment, doing a good job, and writing a script
into production is a huge benefit. It is the brass ring, and you have to have that in your
list of accomplishments. For me, I just love writing spec scripts. I have a hard time,
personally, writing other people’s characters. I don’t know why, but I do think that it is
really important to have those accomplishments of being called in and getting an assignment
and writing something into production. I think that’s especially important now more than
ever because that is how relationships develop and how reputations grow. People are always
looking for writers who can fix something.
SSSD: Do you do much research for your screenplays?
SNYDER: No. I know a lot of people who love to do research, but for
the type of movie I write -- family comedies -- I don’t. I love the story of Lowell Ganz and
Babaloo Mandel about City Slickers. I think that they made one phone call to a dude
ranch somewhere in Montana and talked for five minutes. That was their research. I sort of
buy that because there is something that throws me off about knowing too many facts.
SSSD: You didn’t do any research for Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot
on police procedure or anything like that?
SNYDER: No. I think that for the screenwriter, you are always on
cliché alert, and it is better to give things a fresh twist than to be factual. I think that
is the screenwriter’s job, constantly being on cliché alert, constantly saying, "I’ve seen
this before, let’s not do this." It’s not that research interferes with that, it’s just that
it is less important to me than being fresh. If you can come up with a new fact, that’s
great, but there are all these fads happening all the time. Lately, I’ve seen movie cops
shooting guns sideways. Where that came from, I have no idea, but it is so cool. Is it
factual? No way. No professional would hold a gun like that. Now we see cops wearing their
badges around their necks by chains instead of on their chest or in their wallets. It’s like
a little fad. Head butting, a fad -- I don’t know where that came from. If I were to write a
cop movie those are the kinds of things that I would avoid because I’ve seen it before. I
don’t think that it makes it any less authentic because "authentic" has fads too, but if you
have seen it then it is no longer "authentic."
SSSD: You say that you want to write unique stories, but the problem is
that the studios don’t want anything too unique. Do you find that you have to work within
the guidelines of what the studios think unique is?
SNYDER: Colby Carr and I used to have a phrase for that: "Give me
the same thing, only different." I think that it’s true, and it’s true about the
innerworkings of the script, too. That’s constantly what you’re trying to do. But you are
right; you can’t step too far off base. I’m not saying don’t be original, or don’t try to do
anything new because that sounds horrible, but the nuts and bolts of getting out there and
selling the script, especially the first script, are to work within what is accepted. It
depends on what your goal is. I love what I’m doing. I love high concept comedy, and I could
do that forever. The people [Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski] who wrote Problem
Child and then went on to write Ed Wood and all these other great movies had
grander artistic goals than I have. I think that they are great writers, but I am happy
where I am.
SSSD: During the writing process, how do you know when a scene is
SNYDER: After a while you start to set up some rules for yourself.
What’s the conflict? How do you start off emotionally? How do you end emotionally? How you
satisfy that goal? It is kind of hard to explain, but I think that there is that thing about
what is boring and what is fun. It’s hard to do a scene analysis, but if you’re reading the
script and you can’t stop turning the page, that’s a good sign. For me, momentum is
important. If a scene is a problem for me it’s because it stops me from reading. Why that is
and what I have to do to fix it differs every time.
SSSD: Do you write the screenplay out on cards or do any sort of
SNYDER: Yes, I’ve done all the variations. Sometimes I find my way
through. Sometimes I really plan it out. Sometimes I plan it, and then change half way
through. Every case is different.
SSSD: Do you always do the rewriting when the script is sold?
SNYDER: It depends. I was thrown off "Stop" right away, and
that was difficult.
SSSD: How did you come up with the idea for Nuclear Family which
sold a few years back to Amblin?
SNYDER: I used to go to movies and sit in the lobby and talk to
people right after the movie, just to see what people’s reactions were to the movies. I was
in a lobby one day and I wondered about how I could make a movie that would please every one
of the people in this crowd. From that idea, Jim Haggin and I went out to malls and asked
people what power they would want to have if given an opportunity to choose. We got some
really good ideas. Actually the idea for the mom’s power came from this woman we talked to
in a mall in Santa Barbara. She said that she would love to be able to move things around
with her mind and not do any housework, and she was so funny about it that [in the script,
we gave that power to] the mom character. It was a youthful version of market research, and
it was fun. All of it has to be about fun. It can’t be calculated and just focused on
selling a movie. It was great and we learned a lot. There were four characters and they each
got a super power. It was like some sort of wish fulfillment; everyone got a wish. Given
that, they are taken down a road where they become selfish people [and ultimately] learn
that they are not individuals, but part of a family. When they come back together, they have
learned that lesson and find that their real power is as a family. Then they wish away their
powers. At least that’s how it was in the original script; I don’t know how it is now. I
thought that it was a great message -- the real power we have is as a family.
SSSD: Did you work on it with Steven Spielberg?
SNYDER: Yes, and it was a very exciting moment. We had a few
sessions with him, and I actually have the transcripts of our meetings because he wanted
everybody to keep notes, and it was the thrill of a lifetime. He had really studied the
script, and he knew every scene of every movie ever made. He could enthusiastically
reference what a guy is wearing in any foreign movie. That was a lot of fun.
SSSD: What’s happening with another spec that you sold called Third
SNYDER: There is renewed interest in that, and that also is one of
my favorite scripts. There are some really funny bits in that one. It’s about this hard
driving executive who has to go back to third grade for a few weeks because of a mistake in
the records. He designs video games, and he only knows them from the point of view that
violence sells. He always wants more violence. We had a really good rewriting process on
that, and I actually think that we made the script better. Once in a while you get lucky and
the script ends up better after the rewrite. We had really good notes and really good
feedback, so we were lucky.
SSSD: Can you tell us about the last screenplay that you sold?
SNYDER: Big, Ugly Baby! is the ultimate switched-at-birth
comedy about an alien couple and a human couple who accidentally swap kids at the hospital.
It’s a solo effort and I’m really proud of it. I think that it’s really funny.
SSSD: When did you sell it?
SNYDER: Last year, so I’m working on the rewrite right now. Marti
Blumenthal, my agent at Writers and Artists, sold it for me. I am now back at Writers and
Artists, and Marti Blumenthal is a long time friend. She is a brilliant, great
SSSD: To whom did you sell it?
SNYDER: Fox Family. I’m really excited because that one was a solo
effort, and I think that it is important to have those accomplishments along the way,
SSSD: Tell us about some of your other sales.
SNYDER: Drips, which Colby Carr and I wrote about two
dimwitted plumbers, is a great script. Poker Night was another one that I wrote for
Emilio Estevez. It’s Risky Business with a dad, basically. The guy looses his house
in a poker game and has to get it back before his wife comes home. There are no pyrotechnics
and no special effects. It’s like a funny little one liner. It all takes place in this
cul-de-sac, and they could do it for very little money. I know that’s a concern now, that
they want to do things with lower budgets. That’s why I think that there will be an upsurge
in the spec script market.
SSSD: Any last bit of advice to the spec screenwriters out hoping for a
SNYDER: Talk to people who go to movies. Really. Find out what
brought them to the theater. Was it a concept? The Star? The special effects? We’re all
working for the same goal – get the people into the theater and give them a great
experience. Go to the source. You’ll be surprised at what great ideas you come up
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