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Interview with Blake Snyder

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 comedies?
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 big sale.

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?
SNYDER: I 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 very creative.

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 Shoot
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 best.

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 script.

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 making it.

SSSD: Your agent at the time, Hilary Wayne, sent out the script in a nuclear waste container?
SNYDER: Yes.

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 today.

SSSD: Would you also say that for a writer trying to get an agent as well?
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 out?
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 partner?
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 assignments?
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 working?
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 outlining?
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 Grade?
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 person.

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, too.

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 sale?
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 with.

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