I decided it was time to do a couple of interviews with people I have worked with in the film/TV business.
Sheila Gallien is the first out of the blocks.
Paul Bernard is a director/cameraman who shot behind the scenes documentaries for films as diverse as: Empire of the Sun, Gladiator, Harry Potter, Hugo and Fury (Brad Pitt) will be along shortly.
Sheila Gallien is a screenwriter, writer and consultant who worked for six years alongside Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. on projects including: Unfaithful, Cast Away, Entrapment, and Planet of the Apes.
A few years ago I bumped into Sheila Gallien online. I have worked with her twice. It made a nice change for me to be be asking Sheila the questions rather than trying to answer her.
Do you think there is one thing which marks out the writers who are successful in getting their scripts into production?
If you have a screenplay where the reader cannot stop turning the pages, you have a real shot. No one knows the rest. The market, the economy, and, I would argue, a mysterious alignment of the heavens, will decide the rest. I have not read very many scripts in my life that I could not wait for the next page, all the way through. Of those, some got entangled in the complexities of making a movie, and have not been made…yet, but have had actors attached, producers involved, money exchanged.
One that did get made was Hysteria, by Jonah Lisa and Steven Dyer. The draft I read was totally entertaining. I read it in one sitting. Another may be turned into a TV show. Another I read recently, in the faith-based arena, is going into production this month. I don’t mean to sound flip, or to make it sound easy, but your script has to be loved by people. If someone loves it, that someone might become your champion, or find your champion. Then comes the process of putting together an extremely and increasingly complex puzzle to make a movie
How did you get your first job the film business?
I was laid up on vicodin after getting my wisdom teeth out and watched the major league baseball playoffs. I had been job hunting in the film biz for six months, with no success, and decided to answer an ad for a receptionist at a top sports agency. In the cover letter, I made a clever and specific reference to a shocking loss, then mis-named the player “Dave” Eckersley instead of his correct name, “Dennis.” That quirky letter led to a meeting with the president of the sports agency. He later made a call to CAA and gave me a recommendation.
I started as an assistant to a writer’s agent, Bradford Smith, who then repped John Singleton. Then moved to Jon Levin, who repped writers, producers, directors and actors. I left CAA to work for Bill Broyles, right as Apollo 13 started shooting. It’s now been 21 years!
For six years you worked with screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (Apollo 13, Castaway, Entrapment) Did you ever think about setting up your own agency?
No, honestly, having worked with the most successful agents in the world, I realized I didn’t have the drive for the business aspect of Hollywood that I would need. And I need too much sleep. When I worked at CAA, I interviewed the really successful agents. They all slept 4-5 hours a night. They started their mornings reading, had coffee meetings, rolled calls on the way to work, worked all day, lunch meeting, dinner meeting, screening, gym, read some more. You cannot believe how hard these people work. I thought about producing, because I love working with the writing, but after working on set on Entrapment, around the clock, watching the producer and her endless, tireless drive, working 20 hours a day, sometimes more, never giving up, I didn’t feel that was my place either. Unless, maybe, it was my own project. I am a writer at heart. I am grateful for the birds-eye view I have had in the business, and you never know what will happen. There was a CAA t-shirt when I first started. On the back it said, “what I really want to do is direct.” You never know.
You have been in many script meetings with A list actors and producers. What did you learn in those situations? Is there any one aspect of script development which continually rears its head in those meetings?
I keep referencing how hard people work. How relentless they are. How absolutely tireless. The script meetings on Entrapment, which was in production, with two different directors, would go for eight to ten hours. There could be an hour spent on four lines. Brainstorming, arguing, reinventing. Whole chunks of story will be dumped just to imagine a different, better way. The writer will ultimately have to make sense of it all. It is an amazing balance, to be open to totally reinventing, to not be attached, but to hold the structure and backbone, however it shifts, and make sure all those creative minds don’t explode the piece. So I would say you have to be masterful in the story process, totally open, totally unattached, but know that you are the one that will have to make it work. You have to have unwavering confidence. Then, when everyone has gone home, and you hold your head in your hands, you have to have chops, commitment, and courage.
What would you say is the weakest part in the majority of scripts by new writers? Tone, structure, character, pacing, scene length, description, introduction of characters?
There is the problem with story, then there is the problem with execution, and they are, of course related. I would say, in general, what I see is a problem with the lack of compression which comes from a deep understanding of your story and characters. This is why rewrites, and distance, make writing so much more powerful. This is true even for seasoned writers, but it is really true for newer writers. A “seasoned” writer’s first draft, is the cumulative product of thousands upon thousands of hours of practice. Even then, a “first draft” is usually, for a pro, more like a fourth, or sixth, or tenth draft. The first challenge is constructing a story that has power. It starts with the heart of the idea. What does the character go through and why do I want to see the movie? What will it do for me?
I think we forget to imagine ourselves in the theater and wonder, am I enjoying this movie? Am I holding my breath? What scenes do I see? Am I going to run home and tell my friends about it? Will I laugh or cry? It comes to scope, in a sense. This is why producers and buyers want loglines and the “one-sheet,” the picture of the movie. It’s not because they don’t want complex stories. They want the crystallization of the story. I think, number one, writers don’t think big enough, grand enough, and REALLY see their movie on the screen. It doesn’t have to be a “blockbuster” story. Little Miss Sunshine is a classic example of a small story that made a big movie. The scenes were entertaining, surprising, moving. What it really means is questioning if your story will really MOVE people. Entertain them. Capture them. If you have that story, that is the beginning. You should have studied structure enough, through screenplays you love and books that speak to you, to have internalized how to create the story, then you learn by trial and error as you go. You build it, and things happen as you build it, and surprises come, and you find out more about your characters. The story changes. Then you refine it. You test it against the structures you understand. You can use Aristotle, Chris Vogler, Save the Cat, your own poetics. Everyone has their own process. Some people can do this in their heads. But most writers stop far short of refining their work until it is so compressed the story literally bubbles out of the scenes. I actually think screenwriting is more akin to poetry than it is to any other kind of writing, because done well, a picture paints a thousand words. I love this quote from Stephen King: “An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
To directly answer your question, all of those things you mention: tone, structure, character pacing, scene length, etc…these are all the tools of the trade, and you have to be good at all of them. That said, I would probably rank tone as the least realized aspect of writing for new writers. A great writer friend of mine said, “tone is the fence within which you build your story.” If you don’t know your tone, you don’t know what your story is about, you don’t know who’s telling it, you don’t know your genre, you don’t know what you expect people to feel, and I would say you don’t know how YOU feel about your story. I have spent many a conference devoted almost entirely to answering those questions.
Do you think a writer can learn everything from one source / influential writer or do you feel writers are better at being scavengers, grabbing what they can from anywhere?
Read screenplays. Lots of them. Read great ones. Read them all from one writer, and then read more. Watch movies. Break them down..
During those years working with William? How did a normal day work out?
Bill cut his teeth as a journalist, and has a tremendous work ethic. I kept regular hours, 9-6, Monday through Friday. During regular research and creation time, his hours were similar, structured around meetings, research, initial writing, ideas. I had assignments, and would put together chunks of research for him, depending on what we were working on. We worked on lots of projects that didn’t get made–westerns, World War II movies, a Vietnam movie, a story about teaching creationism in the schools, a submarine movie, and others–as well as Cast Away, Planet of the Apes, Entrapment, Unfaithful. As he would get closer to building his early drafts, he would work in greater, longer spurts, often before I got there, and long after. I would find a draft on my desk when I arrived in the morning, completed in the wee hours. Sometimes he would ask me to read specifically–for one character, a story arc, a story line. Typically, though, he would just say “read for everything.”
As for his process, sometimes the studio wanted an outline, sometimes not. He wrote in chunks, sometimes acts, sometimes other sections. He would print it, read it, take another pass, give it to me. I would read it, give notes, give it back to him. It was a loop. Then he would add more, go deeper into the story. Finally it would turn to whole drafts, and the whole process continued, in an expanded version, usually up until the very last deadline. Bill is a layering writer. His early drafts are more sketches, then the characters and story deepen as he goes. After he turned in a draft to the studio or producer, he would get notes, and I would do notes on the notes. I was privy to the vision of the studio, the director, producer, and Bill, and my job was to try in any way I could to support, remind, or, possibly, gently suggest if something didn’t seem to be working. Bill thrived on deadlines. We would work until the very last moment on every script, and I can’t tell you many times, I am not kidding, I literally chased the FedEx driver down the street to catch him in time to get Cast Away off. When we were in production, as on Entrapment, it was totally different. Fox flew us to London, twice, where we had story meetings with the actors, producers, directors. They might go, as I said, 10 hours. We went to locations. Bill had personal meetings with different principles. We worked until 3 in the morning, up at 5, back at it again. Then back to meetings, more feedback, more ideas.
The film ‘Castaway’, you have written about the many drafts that were written for that film. What was it that nailed the final version?
Cast Away was a very complex movie to make, and a lot of factors contributed to its ultimate production. The very first draft Bill turned in was “greenlit.” That draft was beautiful and poetic, but not enough of the story was externalized. Tom Hanks responded to every draft, as one of the producers. He knew he had to carry the whole movie. I have said there were a hundred drafts to Cast Away, and there were. When I read it now, the pieces are just so incredibly compressed, explosive. In earlier drafts, we saw Chuck try to kill himself. In the shooting script, it is told in passing, as Chuck has to go to the scariest place he knows, the scene of his own near death, to find not only the metaphorical strength but the material goods to fight his way off the island. The scene, structured this way, gave his character something to show in conflict, by arguing with Wilson, by revealing. It took an actor of Tom Hanks’ caliber to play these moments. There are many more like this.
There used to be a Good Chuck/Bad Chuck on the raft. All of those fears and conflict got rolled into the scenes on the island, just bubbling out. The first draft took Chuck through all the stages of creativity, including music, not just cave painting. In the shooting script, you see the weight of the senselessness of his creativity if no one is there to experience it. The whole series of paintings shows his endless long days, and how long it had been since he gave up. Other pieces–visual pieces–added so much to the story. Bob Zemeckis drove by a truck full of portapotties on the 101 near Santa Barbara, and called Bill to tell him he had the inspiration for the sail. The irony that the waste of humanity, in every form, would save Chuck, is just nauseatingly delicious. It also gave a nice story point, why then, why was he able to escape then? Years of development, six of them, distilled the story until every scene, especially on the island, crackled. Not all of the drafts were productive. I am sure Bill would tell you it did not always feel like it was moving in a good direction. It was painful. But the details just kept getting stronger.
When I was on the set and saw Chuck swimming up from the airplane crash, and saw he had only one sock, I was awestruck. It was so visceral, to know that he would be facing four years with only one sock. No socks. Bare, naked, tender feet. When Chuck has to take Al’s shoes, the shoes of a dead man, and cut them so his feet will walk in them…these moments are, I think, what made the movie work. They are powerful story points, but the metaphor creeps inside of you. It was there from its first draft, but the powerful, visual details that had to emerge, the compression and explosion of the story, that moved it forward. And yet, even when the script was there in every way, the movie fell apart again. It took the creativity of the business side of filmmaking to make the movie happen. I won’t pinpoint who deserves the final credit for this, but the producers and filmmakers finally realized that the real stopping point was in the physical production. How can they shoot a movie that requires such a huge weight loss, that is not gradual? The lightbulb went off, the earth shook, and they put together a deal for Bob Zemeckis to shoot a movie in between, giving Tom Hanks the time to make those changes. It was a miracle.
In your own work, how many weeks do you spend on research before you start to write? I find that one can prevaricate by spending another day or week in the library.
I tend to research as I build the story. I have written so much that is personal, so much of what I already know, that I don’t always do much initial research. I research as needed. Nothing is more satisfying to me than struggling for a line or an idea, googling it, and nailing it! It might be more useful to know how Bill Broyles did it, as he is a master. He had an amazing capacity for absorbing material. He also, perhaps because of his journalist background, had a very strong radar for what he needed. He was incredibly disciplined and did not waste time on what he did not need. He did not get distracted. I learned so much from him that way. I developed a laser sense of what I need for a story, and it translates to a sense of what the story needs for itself. I would say do not spend more than three weeks researching. Then get to work, and you will find what you need.
When you worked in Los Angeles you must have seen a script or two going nowhere turn into something exciting? What was it that ignited the script? A new character, a single scene … A simple addition to the plot?
Actually, I can’t say I saw that happen. Mostly I saw really good scripts that couldn’t quite find their way to financing. What I did see was the power of tenacity. When I first started at CAA, the Farrelly Brothers were hip-pocketed clients, and Dumb and Dumber was a script that was trying to find its footing. The producer, Charles Wessler, was an absolute ramming machine. He had a great script, lots of people loved it, but it couldn’t quite find the right packaging, and was not being prioritized. He was relentless. The agents worked at it, but he found an ally in one of the assistants. She has her own story and I won’t tell it here. Suffice to say that with a great script, and the power of tenacity, Dumb and Dumber went on to be the blockbuster we know it as.
What is the biggest mistake made by writers who are trying to break in?
Thinking it has to happen right now, that you are running out of time, that you are getting too old, that other people are taking your place. That belief is what gets everyone in trouble. Think about how you would approach screenwriting if you did not think you were running out of time? Or that someone would steal your idea? You would read great scripts, lots of them. You would see movies. You would break them down. You would see the ones you love over and over. You would steep yourself in the craft of it. You would invite your movie idea in and enjoy it, roll it around in your head. You would sit in the movie theater and imagine your scenes up on the screen. What do your characters need to be doing that will thrill your audience? You would take the time to write the story you love, know your characters. You would not be afraid to change things, let go, rewrite. You would believe in yourself. Don’t be in a hurry. Just do the work. Deeply.