austin film festival
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg on not having a backup plan
Oct 18, 2011 | 2:00 pm
Scott Rosenberg has worked in Hollywood for two decades, on films and shows so diverse that his writing defies succinct categorization. The ex-Bostonite has credits on feature films like Beautiful Girls, Con Air and High Fidelity, and has also served as co-creator and showrunner for television shows like October Road, Life on Mars and Happy Town. This week, he'll be appearing on multiple panels at the Austin Film Festival to discuss his experiences and craft with aspiring writers.
We spoke with Rosenberg about the difference between writing personal stories and studio thrillers, the demands of television producing and the agonizingly simple key to becoming a successful screenwriter.
First, I just wanted to mention that while living in Wisconsin I watched Beautiful Girls with my friends every winter! You probably get that all the time.
Yes, I do. Thank you, I'm always happy to hear it. What's funny about that is that over the years I'll invariably run into kids in their twenties, and they always say the same thing: "Oh my god, me and a couple buddies, we all get together every couple months and watch that movie." And that's great because me and my buddies, when I was growing up, always got together and watched Barry Levinson's Diner—and all these kids are like "What's Diner?" So I had kind of a great realization that Beautiful Girls is kind of like Diner for the next generation. Diner was another movie that wasn't a big hit, but it launched a bunch of people's careers, and it's still sort of loved in that sentimental way. And obviously it was a huge influence on Beautiful Girls.
I had kind of a great realization that Beautiful Girls is kind of like Diner for the next generation. Diner was another movie that wasn't a big hit, but it launched a bunch of people's careers, and it's still sort of loved in that sentimental way.
After writing more violent, mainstream movies like Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead and Con Air, how did the very personal Beatiful Girls script come about?
Denver was what sort of got me noticed, and got my career on track, and the first thing it resulted in, oddly enough, was Paramount bringing me in and showing me this article about a thing called "con air" that the federal government uses to transport prisoners. And they said, “We want to make this into a movie but we don't want it to be Die Hard on a plane. Good luck!” They basically sent me off to write a treatment; I was so new that they could basically exploit me in those days and just force me to write one, which I did.
So after I turned it in I was just waiting for them to get back to me, I was in Boston and it was just all happening in my life: I had just broken up with my girlfriend of seven years and all my buddies were
those guys, still living in town driving snowplows. And yeah, I was tired of writing the violence and shit, which I felt like I had spent a whole year doing. So I went into my room, it was snowing like crazy, and I came out four days later and the script was written, it was amazing. Obviously there were rewrites, but that first draft just sort of poured out. I think when it's something very close to your heart, and when you're not beholden to a very rigid structure like you would be if you were doing a thriller or something more commercial, then you just write—you're just writing character and dialogue, so it show should fairly freely.
Is that something that you look for more these days, to be less beholden to commercial interests? Did that lead to your more hands-on work in television production?
It's interesting, because it certainly wasn't my design to take four years away from features. I did one show and then I did another, and then I did another—it just sort of happened back to back. And the great thing about television for a writer is that you're the boss; it's the closest thing to directing without a 4 am call-time, you're completely in control. That's the good news. The bad news is, honestly, that it's hard.
For a movie, first you come up with an idea, then you write it, and then you cast it. After that, you shoot it, and then you edit it, and then you score it and so on, whereas for a TV show you're doing all of those things at the same time. So you're coming up with idea for two episodes from now while you're writing the next one, during the shooting of the current episode, all while you're editing the previous episode—it's crazy. It was really amazing, and I would definitely do it again, but I was so happy to leave television and get back to features. Recently I sold a script to Paramount, and I'm doing a rewrite for Disney, and I thought "Oh my god! This is all I have to do, is write!" I spend all day writing, and I didn't have to look at any cuts, didn't have to look at any auditions, it's a completely different animal. I think all writers should have that TV experience, and again I'm not in any way dismissing it and I'd love to do it again, but there are these guys who run shows for nine years and I don't know how they do it. I was very lucky, my shows kept getting canceled.
A lot of people seem to ask your advice for 'breaking into the business,' but there's no one way to do it. You've said that you wrote something like 14 scripts before you had one produced.
Was it 14? I can't remember exactly what the number was, but it was a lot.
On a certain level I just had nothing to fall back on. I came from no money, I didn't have a family business and I really didn't have any skills, or discernible talent, which proved to be a good thing.
So my question would be what kept you going throughout that period, before you actually broke in?
I came from a place where, like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentlemen, "I got nowhere else to go!" I didn't really have any choice—I went out to Hollywood when I was 22 and decided this was what I was going to do, and all of a sudden I was 27 and nothing really had happened, and it wasn't as if I could say "I'm going to pack up, move back to Boston, and I'm going to become... a lawyer! or "I'm going to go work for Chase Manhattan!" On a certain level I just had nothing to fall back on. I came from no money, I didn't have a family business and I really didn't have any skills, or discernible talent, which proved to be a good thing. But if I didn't make it, when you go on vacation in Hawaii I'd be the guy who puts the towels out by the pool. That was my back up plan: if I was 30, and nothing had happened I was just going to become like the cabana boy.
But the thing is, the one thing that I had on my side was my youth, and the fact that when I was in my 20's I just kept writing and writing. And anything that occurred to me, even today I still have the same directive, even if it's an incredibly un-commercial idea, or there are 800 similar ideas out there, if I have the idea and I like the idea, I write it. I would never write an idea and give up on it 20 pages in, even if it was going terribly I would just forge ahead and make sure I wrote the end. And doing that is that you just become a better writer. So that was the key for me, when I was working shitty jobs, paying my dues, the one thing I was always doing was writing. I was always making sure I had a script going.
And not having a backup plan.
Right, and sucking at everything else. That's what can be frustrating about the seminars, the people always look to you like you hold the magic bullet or something. I used to do a fair amount of those things, and I remember giving them an answer that always caused a lot of consternation. I would say, "There's an easy, simple way of becoming a successful screenwriter for sure. It's so easy! It defies logic how easy it is." And you could see the whole auditorium waiting in silence, waiting for my answer, like I'm going to have the panacea. What is it? And I'd say "Write a good script." They'd look at me like I'm the biggest fucking asshole, but it's true.
The Austin Film Festival takes place October 20-27, with hundreds of screenings, panels and parties all week. Badges are still available online.