Monday, August 1, 2011

I Learn a Lesson: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit

Apologies for the absence: last weekend I was dreaming up ideas for my brilliant (ha) fiction at a phenomenal Little Writers Retreat on the Prairie. Now I have returned to wrap up State Month (or technically, State Five Weeks) with a review of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's latest opus! And no, it's not Taxi 2.

Some families bond by playing board games. Mine goes to movies. One May in 2009, my siblings and I were all visiting my parents. Not much in the theatres looked interesting, so we decided on Night at the Museum 2, even though we were way out of the demographic (my youngest sib was 19 at the time). It was cute: clearly for younger kids but still fairly enjoyable. I never pass up a chance to see Hank Azaria semi-shirtless.

Anyway, about three quarters into the movie, which took place at the Smithsonian, there was a cameo by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Ever the trivia dork (thank you, discovery of IMDb during a bout with insomnia sophomore year of college!), I elbowed my mom and whispered, "Those are the guys who wrote the movie." The "guys" were Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, scribes of both Night at the Museum movies, which did very well at the box office; Taxi, which did not; and Herbie Fully Loaded, which was a disaster of Titanic-epic proportions (and which I sort of want to watch while drunk).

Say what you want about these State and Reno 911! alums (Lt. Jim Dangle and Travis Junior, if you don't recognize them by their real names) and the quality of their work: they're out there, they're writing, and they're making a pretty nice living while still doing their own stuff and being funny. Recently, they co-authored Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, where they hold forth on everything from pitch meetings to stage directions to parking in L.A. to why In-N-Out burgers are the yummiest ever (they are).

Even if I weren't a State devotee interested in writing, I'd still have enjoyed the hell out of Writing Movies for Fun and Profit. When it comes to working the Hollywood system, Lennon and Garant know their shit. No two ways about it. Granted, they write like, well, screenwriters (there are a LOT of CAPITAL LETTERS and underlined phrases....and ellipses) and they talk about boobs a lot (sometimes I sighed and said out loud, "Good heavens, boys, I hope you are being satirical!").

But weirdly enough, in between laughing at their bossy-yet-silly collective voice and occasionally saying, "hm, that applies to all types of writing, thanks guys!," I learned some LIFE LESSONS (and how to use Caps Lock, apparently). So here they are, The Top 5 Life Lessons I Learned from Writing Movies for Fun and Profit (Besides the Fact That I Want to Do Naughty Things With Ben Garant, Which I Already Knew):

1. Jump In.
What I found most interesting about Writing Movies for Fun and Profit was its structure: Lennon and Garant tell the reader how to SELL a screenplay, THEN how to write one. Business first. To sell, you need to know the ins and outs. You need to live in Los Angeles and be on speaking terms with words like "arbitration." And most of all, you need to "ALWAYS BE WRITING."

I hate driving, so I could never call L.A. my home, so I will probably never be a screenwriter. But I like the idea of jumping in. As I've gotten older, I've grown more cautious, and it's good to be reminded that sometimes risk-taking and throwing oneself into what others might call a shitty pipe dream could really pay off in the end. Or not. Which brings me to Life Lesson No. 2:

2. Sometimes Things Go to Crap. Deal With It.
One of Lennon and Garant's first films was Taxi. Remember Taxi? Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah in a cab having adventures? The total box-office bomb that Adam Carolla has dubbed "the worst movie of all time"? Yeah. They wrote that. They own that most of the writing in that film was, in fact, theirs. And then came Herbie, Fully Loaded. Lennon and Garant wrote this as a fun family movie, like the  ones they used to watch at the drive-in as children. It was greenlighted ON THE FIRST DRAFT, which almost never happens. And then...yeah.

And they dealt. They kept working. They own their failures every bit as much as their successes. While working on Taxi, they got to hang out at Luc Besson's estate in France, and Gisele Bundchen hugged them. They tell the reader, "Even the poop clouds that bring shit storms sometimes have a silver lining." Who the hell can't learn something from that quote?

3. Always Be Nice and Easy to Work With.
Apparently "the industry" is made up of the same seventy-five people who just rotate jobs. Today's intern can be tomorrow's vice president. So you better not be an ass to any of them. Now, Lennon is a native Midwesterner (from the suburbs of Chicago, in fact!) and Garant hails from the South (and has the adorable drawl to prove it), so it makes sense they'd be big on politeness and manners. But really, it's not just Hollywood: it's a teeny tiny world wherever you go. So be cool. Don't be a pushover, but establish a good reputation and maintain it. And people will remember.

Even if Billy Crystal is really mean and makes fun of your Southern accent (I learned that on the Internet. All Lennon and Garant say in their book is that Crystal's a dick).

4. Love What You Do.
Early in the book, Lennon and Garant outline one of the very basic tenets of writing for the studios: "ALWAYS BE WRITING . . . You should feel COMPELLED to write every day. Always. It's that simple. If you don't feel the desire to write every day--skip it. And let everyone else in the world get rich writing screenplays."

Again, I'm not an aspiring screenwriter. And you, my superawesome reader, might not want to write for a living. But I like this advice. Even if it's not your day job, if you have a passion and want to get ahead, you need to be disciplined. (Especially if your passion and your day job are not one and the same.) This advice is so important that these two even restate it in interviews promoting the book. Garant once said something like, "I'd write all the time even if I weren't getting paid. If you feel that way too, you know it's the right thing for you to be doing." I have no doubt horribly mangled that quote, but you get the sentiment, right?

5. Don't Be a Dick.
"Hey Unpro, you covered this in #3!" you might be saying right now. Maybe, but it bears repeating. "Don't be a dick" is also the life philosophy of the forever-cool Wil Wheaton. It seems so simple and clear, but it's astounding how many people in this world don't follow this rule. Whether you're negotiating with the studios to put your name in the credits of Starsky and Hutch or trying not to whap someone with your purse as you hurry to work, just don't. Be. A. Dick. Not only could this help your career, whatever that may be, it's good karma besides.

Oh, and Ben? Please call me if your impending marriage doesn't work out. You sexy Southern nerd, you.


  1. Don't be a dick is a great motto, one I wish Wil Wheaton had managed to follow in the leadup to the 2008 election, when he wrote a blog post about how Clinton was a crazy jealous exgirlfriend.

  2. Aw, boo Wil Wheaton! That makes me sad, because I really liked his Nerdist podcast too.

  3. Hey, you can't call yourself Unprofessional anymore, can you? Now that you're getting paid. :)

  4. Touche, Nikki. Touche. :)

    I actually thought about that the other day! I think I can call this blog Unprofessional still, because I'm not gteting paid for it specifically.

    And there I go, taking a joke literally. Because I'm a NERD.