Interview: Screenwriter Ryan Condal, Part 2

Part 2 of our interview with Hollywood screenwriter, Ryan Condal. For Part 1, click here.

You came from writing spec scripts to adapting ideas that are pretty much out there, whether they be from comic books, or mythology, or anything like that. What do you think is the difference between writing spec scripts and adaptations? Do you ever miss specs? Do you prefer adapting material?

Of course. There’s this sort of cruel reality of working in Hollywood, that you need to work on assignment. Most of your career is doing something on assignment, whether you’re adapting a book, a comic book, whether you’re rewriting somebody else’s work, whether you’re just taking a producer’s original idea and turning that into a script. Whatever it is, you’re working for somebody else. Very little of even the best, even the top writers’ income in screenwriting is based on their own original material. Original material is very fun, it’s important – it’s important to continue to generate new ideas and come up with them because if you can sell a spec as a working writer, it elevates you again, it gets everybody interested in you and excited about you and that’s where you can make your real money, just on the financial side of things. Spec sales, the reason that they tend to be worth quite a bit of money is because they’re very rare and because you’ve taken the risk upon yourself to sit there for 4 to 6 months or whatever it is and write your own original thing under the guidance of no one. But with that comes a sort of a freedom – and a fun artistic freedom that you’re not writing for somebody else. You can write what you want, but you have to be aware that whatever you are writing you need to do with a commercial sensibility or no one’s going to buy it.

Can you give me an idea of the process of finding work; from the moment that you know you’re going to have a meeting with someone regarding a new project to the moment that you close the deal to deliver that project? What’s that process typically like?

Usually my representation will send me either a script or a comic book, and they’ll ask me to read it and tell them whether I’m interested in it or not. Other times there’s a bigger producer involved, or it’s one of the golden projects that everybody wants or the ones that are open writing assignments in the studio and the studio execs specifically wants to meet you on it, in which case you just go and meet him or her. And the he or she tells you what the project is, what they’re looking for.

When you say open writing assignment what does that refer to – the fact that anyone can do it?

Well, open writing assignment means that it’s officially been registered with the agencies as, “We are looking to fill this assignment,” and that could be a rewrite of this existing script, or it could be “We need someone who could make Green Lantern into a movie.” That kind of thing. But it means that the project is set up, meaning there’s real money behind it, and it’s a job. And they’re going to call in, in this day and age, 6 to 7 writers and have them all give their take on it, and then choose the one that they want to go with to hire. So you’ll go in and meet on the assignment, assuming you’re interested in it, they’ll talk about the project, they’ll tell you generally what they like about it, what they want, and that’ll be varying levels of detail. Some people will give you a setup that they like, that they think is a good way into the story; other people will just tell you “We’d just love to hear your take on it.” Producers and studios always have sort of an idea of what they want or what they’d like, but they don’t want to necessarily taint the writer by telling them that because they know they’re going to get that back if they do. Sometimes they tell you very little, wanting you to go off and do your true original take on it and come back and tell them what that is, because they like to be surprised – sometimes.

And so if they’re into your idea they’ll hire you? Or they’ll just say “Work on it, and then we’ll read whatever you write.”

No, you go off and work up your take, which usually takes 1-2 weeks, and that in itself is a whole new experience to writers – I mean that’s something that I’m still very new at because it’s like a new skill set – it’s like developing a take to pitch to a studio on an existing project. What you do is you end up developing a twenty-minute pitch, which is essentially character and story, who’s your protagonist, who’s your villain, what’s your story. Heavy on the setup, sort of the first act, and then good detail through the second act, midpoint, and then the third act is usually like a quick “this is your third act” wrap up at the end to excite them – which is tougher than it sounds because writers tend to think in the full story and it’s tough to get it down to that twenty minute pitch, which is much much shorter than you think it is.

So you spend your 2 weeks preparing that, you go back in, they schedule the meeting with you and usually the producer or the junior executive or whoever – you pitch them, they give you feedback on the project. Assuming they want to keep working with you and bring your take in to the studio or whoever else, you go back and rework it with their notes, develop it again, refine it, and then you go and pitch the studio, meaning you’re going to the decision-maker.

They call it the job meeting, and you go down and sit down with the decision-maker and you pitch them. And then they take your pitch and they could sit on it for 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 6 weeks, whatever, while they hear from the other writers that are involved in the process, and at the end of that, they pick somebody. It’s a very long process. It’s very slow. Now more than ever, it involves multiple meetings. I mean, there’s a project right now that I’m still working on pitching that I still haven’t gotten to the studio meeting, which I will eventually, but it’s been four months and it involved me pitching producers, then the producers’ boss, and then the video game company that owns the property, and then the director that’s attached to the material, and then it will be the studio.

So, there are a lot of meetings, a lot of refining, a lot of waiting around. I mean it’s been four months, but during that time I’ve probably done 4 weeks worth of legit work. But that’s 4 weeks of work that you’re not going to get back unless you get the job. But that’s all part of it, you have to chase multiple things at the same time.

Is it your representation that sets up all these meetings?

Yes. They’ll be scouring the face of Hollywood for jobs for you, trying to find something that you’re interested in, that works with you, that’s a good job with good producers. And then they put you up for it, meaning they’ll call and they’ll say, “My client wants to go up for the job,” or “I’d like to put my client up for this job.” Then on the studio/producer side they call it, “Going out to writers.” So, when they go out to you that means they have officially put you on their list of writers, which is now, I would say 4 to 7 writers, and you develop your take and then you go in and pitch them. And then usually they’ll take in probably 2, maybe 3 to the studio, and let the studio decide from those best 3.

Besides the take, are there any other materials that you take with you to a pitch? Any other materials that are involved in the presentation?

No, I tend to do it all just verbally. I know some writers have done the index card thing where they visually post up… to keep the executive engaged, and secondly to keep them on track and keep them timed because writers can ramble. It helps structurally. I just see myself as engaging enough in a room where I can sit down and just talk story and keep everybody interested enough.

Earlier, you were talking about Galahad. What has that experience been like for you?

One of the nice things about screenwriting is that it’s unlike other things, like med school and law school and things that have long roads ahead of them, in the sense that everybody has a different story of how they break in and how they get there. The nice thing is that there are many different undefined paths of how to get there, which also can be frustrating because it’s not like med school where you just sign yourself up and go to school for ten years and you come out with your doctorate assuming you worked hard enough. This is a little different.

One of the things that occurred to me, being a boy from New Jersey who had no Hollywood connections to speak of at all is, how do you get somebody interested in you? And I was always a big proponent, and continue to be, of writing as a meritocracy. And I really believed that, and it was important to me that I get noticed based on the merits of my work, not based on having an uncle in the business or getting a hookup by working as someone’s personal assistant or something like that.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing because people have succeeded that way, it’s just, it was important to me that the first meeting that I ever took in Hollywood was based on the fact, that they had read my script and that’s all they knew about me was my writing. I wanted to get my writing to that level that it was good enough to get me in that way.

One of the great ways for writers to be discovered or found in this business based on the merits of their writing is the contest circuit, specifically the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting which is the premiere contest. It’s run by the Academy of Motion Pictures and it’s the only contest where not winning can actually get you representation. Just being a semi-finalist in that, which is the top hundred out of about five to six thousand scripts, can get you representation, because those scripts get read by important people, at least important representatives.

So my approach five years ago or so became “Ok, I’m going to get noticed in the contest circuit. I don’t care what it takes, that’s how I’m going to get found because it’s the only way I know how; I’m not a good networker and schmoozer and all that.” So I sat down and wrote a script, a very personal, character driven script that I thought highlighted a number of the skills that I had, that I did well in writing, and I would tell an engaging story that would be kind of cheap to make and people would be interested and it would maybe go somewhere.

I wrote that script, and it ended up being a semi-finalist in the Nichol Fellowship, and I got thirty or forty requests based on that, from managers and producers – mostly managers. And I sent it out and I had a couple nibbles and all that, and during the next year I refined the script and entered that and another one into the Fellowship again, and then got new kinds of requests and things like that – because after they read your script, people are always going to ask you, “What else have you written?” They’re not usually going to want the script that you’ve written, they’re going to want you as a writer.

So you put 2 more scripts…

Human Resources again, and then one other…

And they both got into the quarterfinals?

Yeah. This was 2007. And based on that, I actually got a meeting with a manager out here, and this was during the writer’s strike, so things were very slow, and he sat down with me and said, “We love your writing, this script isn’t for us, what else are you working on? What other ideas do you have?”

And I pitched him a number of ideas – one of the ideas I pitched him was Galahad. Essentially I just said, “I have this idea to reinvent the Arthurian legend and tell a very brutal sort of Rome-like retelling of the Arthurian myth, where there’s a lot of murder and betrayal and rape and all those things. And he loved it and he said “Go write that” so I said, “Well I was going to write this script anyway.”

I had this big manager (this was Energy entertainment, which was and continues to be one of the big management companies out here) excited about it, so that excited me, and gave me all the motivation I needed to write the script, and I just wrote it during the writer’s strike. So I spent the next 3 months writing it and came back to him, said, “I finished the script, would you like to read it?” he said “Absolutely.”

Within a week I was repped. He and his boss had read it, and they loved it, and they said, “As soon as the strike ends we’re going to take this thing out and sell it.” And I didn’t believe them. But then sure enough, I think a month after that, they had sold the script.

So you had to write that during the strike?

Guild writers were free to go out and write spec scripts, write their own thing. The strike was, “We’re not working for Hollywood. We’re not working on assignment.” They were free to go write novels, whatever else they wanted to do.

Galahad ended up on the Black List. How did that happen?

Yeah… that was my entrance to the Hollywood scene. And there were a couple of us that actually might have benefited from the strike because there were about four or five writers that broke in during the 3 months or so after the strike, because the strike was long enough so there was a major thirst for material from buyers but it was short enough that the Scott Franks and the Akiva Goldsmans of the world weren’t sitting down and writing spec scripts. So there was this interesting vacuum of material when the strike ended and they needed stuff and a lot of newbie writers had stuff waiting.

It was a good time to go out with material because they needed to put stuff in development. And actually, the reason movies are so bad this summer, I think, is a result of the strike, because this is about two years later, and the movies this summer are a reflection of the development time that did not go on during the strike. So that’s why they needed material, and my script was very well received. It sold preemptively, meaning it sold really before a lot of other people had read it, and by the time a lot of people got their hands on it, it was already a hot script, meaning it had sold and people were like “What’s this Galahad? Who’s this writer?” It’s the natural kind of response in any business where something exciting is going on, like the new pitching prospect that comes up, everybody wants to go see him, check him out you know, that kind of thing.

It resulted in my managers just getting pounded with requests for the script, which they sent out as my sample, because yes the spec script was great, the spec sale was great, and all that, but we needed to go out and get me work as an assignment writer. So they sent it literally everywhere. And the Black List thing I think was a combination of people liking the script and also, pretty much everybody that makes those kinds of movies, from producers to studio executives, having read it. And it was still fresh in people’s minds because not a lot of people write in that zone, and not a lot of people write scripts in that zone that people respond to. It’s kind of a tough thing to get right tonally.

And it was in the public consciousness. I had Queen Guinevere murdering King Arthur. People know she’s never killed him before, so they’re interested in that. It sticks in the mind, and then the voting comes around and people remember the script and they put in a good word for it. I’m sure there was a good bit of lobbying from my representatives too, but that was very exciting, that was a huge honor to be on that list.

And do you think the Black List, once that was published, you became even more of a hot commodity?

I think it helped. I think at that point, almost a full year after I sold Galahad, I had already gotten my mileage out of Galahad in a way, but certainly it was another rush. It gets published everywhere: online, and in media channels, and where people that aren’t deeply associated with the business, where new people would see it. So you just don’t know… I mean, Topher Grace read my script and loved it, and I actually sat down and had a very nice meeting with him at some point along the way. And I don’t know that he found it through the Black List, I don’t know how it got to him, but it’s just odd moments like that where you meet someone that you know that doesn’t necessarily know you… but that’s the kind of publicity that you get out of it.

So any good publicity is great, in terms of screenwriting, and the Black List was just one of those weird places where you get it, because it’s the only thing specifically for professional scripts that are unproduced. It’s where to get noticed as a screenwriter, without having a movie made out of it.

So what is going on with Galahad at the moment?

It’s in development, as they always say. But it was purchased by The Film Department, which is a smaller studio – they’re sort of like the way Miramax was back in the early 90s when Tarantino was doing all his work with them – so they’re not really set up to make the $100 million dollar movie. And they knew that when they bought Galahad, but Galahad would be an Avatar-scale production for them in terms of the kind of money that they had to put towards it.

Galahad would be the most money they could and would possibly spend on a movie, so they were in the process of trying to figure out how to set themselves up to distribute movies and make them and all that, and over the last two plus years since it’s sold they’ve been finding their way into becoming a full service studio meaning they would distribute and market their own stuff.

And it looks like it’s all coming together, they have an IPO that’s out there – an initial public offering – so they would become a publicly traded company, and they were doing some recapitalization stuff to try to get money in so that they could go out and make these big movies. So it looks like the rest of 2010, 2011 is going be a big time for them and it’s exciting. I mean, you want to see your movie get made, and it’s still very much alive, it’s right there on the assets list for when they made their IPO, so it’s still alive and well, and we hope to see it go out and happen.

Go on! Continue to the exciting conclusion of this interview by clicking here…

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