Interview: Screenwriter Ryan Condal, Part 3

Part 3 of our interview with Hollywood screenwriter Ryan Condal. Click here for Part 1, and here for Part 2.

Recently there was news about you potentially adapting the comic books Queen and Country and Ocean. What was that experience like?

Oh, it’s great, anytime you get a job, it’s great. Somebody likes you enough to put some serious money behind you and have you write something for them, and you’re doing what you love, and you’re getting paid for it, so it’s great. And I’ve actually had very positive experiences all along the way, and neither of those movies is getting made right now, but that’s always for one of a thousand reasons or no reason, or it might come alive again.

Knight and Day is a great example of something that took eleven years to get made. It died many times and changed its title and changed writers many times – it’s just the way the development process goes. I mean, saying yes to hiring somebody for a script is about one one-hundredth of the cost of saying yes to green-lighting a movie. And there’s a lot more yes’s that are involved with that, so those things are all in varying levels of development. So we’ll see.

Were those jobs that you got through the pitch process that you described?

Yup, absolutely. It was a result of having written Galahad, then going out there and people liking your work and liking you enough to bring you in to serious job meetings, and then you coming up with your take and pitching your take and then writing it.

And how many pitches a year do you think you do? I know it’s only been a couple years, but how many do you think is normal for you?

Well, this year, I’ve been doing a lot of pitching. The process has changed, it’s gotten longer, so you’ve had to chase more leads just to get something. This year alone, I would’ve guessed, I’ve either already done or am still working on some eight pitches or so – some of those are still alive, I’m still chasing them, others are dead, the project didn’t go anywhere, or they hired a different writer, but that’s eight through probably half the year.

When you were first writing, before you became successful, before you sold anything, before you even had Galahad out in the public eye, you were working a day job. How did you keep yourself writing in spite of a typical nine to five?

Cocaine. No, just kidding. Coffee, actually. Lots and lots of coffee. I would come home from work and I would not allow myself to sit down on the couch. I would immediately go eat dinner, and then gather myself up and go out to the local coffee shop and just become a little cliché of myself sitting there with my laptop. And it was a place where I could go where I wasn’t alone in the house. You’re out in this busy public place where exciting things were going on, and people were moving in and out, and you just have your headphones in and you zone in to this little world, and it was a home away from home.

So every night I would go there and spend 2-3 hours every night of the week, and then again on weekends, just writing. Over the last two to three years or so before I broke in, I tried to make a real second job out of writing, and that was inspired by Stephen King and his memoirs where he just said that essentially the first million words are free and you have to just sit there and make a job out of it. He was a teacher, and everyday before he’d go to work, he would sit down and try to write two thousand words in the morning at the typewriter that was next to the washer and dryer in his shitty basement of the trailer or the one bedroom ranch or whatever that he was living in Maine at the time.

He just made it very clear that a big, big part of succeeding at writing, at any kind of professional writing, is professionalism, and that involves working when you don’t want to work, just like any other job. You have to go and put your ass in the seat, and make yourself do the work. So I just made a job out of that and that’s helped big time, because now for me to force myself to sit there and be productive every day is not a stretch, because I only have one job now.

For young writers, what do you think the most common mistakes they make are?

Self-delusion, I think, in believing that material is ready, you need to find an agent, you need to find a manager. It’s really going out there too early, like I said, “You have to love the process, you have to love sitting there and writing.” And do that, and read, and write, and just watch movies – I put myself through a self-taught film school between reading books on movie making and writing and memoirs and all that, and then reading screenplays, and then going to the AFI’s top 100 movies of all time and going down the list, and anything I hadn’t seen, which was quite a bit of those, going back and watching it, and watching these greatest hundred movies of all time – you know, Citzen Kane and Casablanca – and making sure that I had seen all of those things.

You know, I just really embraced the process and I was in no rush – it was like, I need to get very, very good at this in order to be competitive, and everybody does. And I think the biggest mistake is that impatience. Yes, it’s all very exciting and yes, you want to do well – but you have to focus first on making yourself an excellent writer. And that should be your focus, and once you’re an excellent writer you can worry about all the other stuff, and believe me, you’ll know.

When you’re an excellent writer, people want to read your stuff and are requesting things from you, and friends read it and they get excited about it, and they want to talk to you about it, there are all of those signs. But that’s a very long path to take to get there.

Do you think you’ve reached the point where you can say you’re an excellent writer?

I think I was excellent among amateurs, which is what got me to the next level. Now it’s a whole new world. I’ve worked harder in the 2 and a half years since I broke in than I did anytime before that, because now I’m competing against the masters. Now, I’ve been up for jobs against some big-time writers, writers that I know their name and they do not know mine. And that’s just the reality of this. I’m going to be chasing jobs that big, big people are going to be going after, and I have to be able to hang with them, and my work, when it goes in as a sample, needs to be able to hang with theirs.

One of the biggest things that you need to be prepared for when you break in, is you need to be prepared to work as a writing professional, which is why writers should not want to break in until they’re ready to break in and work, because you don’t want to just write that one great spec script that everybody responds to, and it’s like some personal story to you, and you sell it, and you do the big round, and tour and all that, and everybody’s excited about you, only to find out that that was lightening in a bottle and you haven’t really written that much and you don’t really know movies and structure and all that, because that will kill your career.

So you need to break in and you need to be ready to work – meaning you need to know all those things and have seen hundreds and hundreds of movies and read tons of scripts and know the business, because your bread and butter comes from working on assignment. You need to be ready to go in, be a professional, pitch in a room, and then take that and write a script and write it professionally and write it within 8 to 12 weeks and turn it back in and have them be excited enough about it do notes with you and go back and do the second draft.

I think my biggest recommendation, and all it goes back to this – the people that are meant to write, will write regardless. So you don’t worry about everybody else because if you’re a real writer, you know that it doesn’t matter. You know, “I’m just going to keep writing, and I’m going to write that next script, I’m going to…” and you’re not worried about the other guy, breaking in or writing a script or whatever, because you’re just going to keep going, and you’re going to work harder than everybody else, and you want to write. You want to write.

And you’re going to do it and do it and do it and it’s fun, it’s all fun. That’s why we do this, that’s why we chase this thing – it’s fun sitting there and working without representation and nobody knowing you, and all that, it’s all part of it. Everybody starts there. So embrace it, and have fun with it, and learn. Don’t be so crazy that you have to get an agent or you have to find a manager or you have to sell a script, you can’t be like that – you just have to focus on making yourself great.

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