Rick is currently preparing a 10-part series on screenwriting and storytelling called The Screenplay Show, which will be made available for purchase as a web series.
• Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, but I’ve lived in Denver most of my life.
• What kind of a family did you grow up with?
I had a fairly “normal” middle class upbringing. My dad owned a tractor dealership, and I worked for him.
• Where did you go to school?
Right after high school, I went to Metropolitan State University in Denver for about a year. The truth is, at my age, I was already making too much money in sales to take marketing classes that didn’t interest me. I also thought I would one day take over the family business. But the best-laid plans can go awry. Within ten years I regretted leaving school big time. I did end up going to the American Film Institute in L.A.
• What was your first paying job (in any field)?
Since I was involved in a family business, I pretty much did every job. But if it’s the very first job that paid, I spent summers cutting weeds and cleaning the shop at my dad’s business.
• You started out as a college dropout, then tractor salesman, then screenwriter. What was the spark that took you from the plow to the pen?
Great question, because the answer is: regret.
My parents divorced, and the business broke up. Suddenly, I was left with no job and no education. Luckily, I was always a voracious reader, and when I left college, I promised myself that I would be well-read and well-spoken, so I committed to reading one hundred of the classics … I considered it to be an informal education in literature. (BTW, I know lit majors who haven’t read one hundred classics.) I consider that “self-taught” phase of my life the turning point; in that I began to admire the way the storytellers would work the elements in their stories. I was drawn to the writers as much as their actual tales.
While I was reading, I began to daydream about being a writer. My friends (especially the ones with degrees) told me I was chasing rainbows if I expected to be a writer, because I didn’t have a degree, but I decided to try and write a novel anyway.
When it was finished, I sent it to someone whose opinion I trusted, and he asked me if I wanted to be a professional writer, or if this was just going to be a hobby? I asked him why he needed to know?
“Because,” he said, “your answer will determine my review of your book.
So I said I wanted to be a professional. And that’s when he said, “Good. Then I’m going to treat you like one … and to be honest, your novel isn’t very good.”
It felt like someone punched me in the gut. But then he said something that changed my life. He said, “But are you ever a good writer. You’re very visual. You should try writing a screenplay.”
I turned my bad novel into a bad screenplay … but the fuse was lit.
• What was the first screenplay you sold?
While I was still in film school, I optioned a script for very little money called Triad. It’s a psychological thriller. But at the time, five thousand bucks felt like a million. It wasn’t the money, but the affirmation of selling something.
• What was the first screenplay you sold that got made?
My first major sale came shortly after film school. It was titled Shakespeare’s Sister, which was later retitled, The Proposition. It stars Kenneth Branagh, Madeline Stowe, and William Hurt.
• You are currently writer/director/producer of the upcoming “The Screenplay Show”. Lots of screenwriters have written books on the subject, what prompted you to explore it in a web series?
That’s a really good question – because lately I’ve asked myself that same question more than I care to admit right now! (smile)
Doing an actual show is a mountain of work and a huge commitment. (And we have just started getting the ball rolling with The Screenplay Show as it is currently in pre-production.)
As for what prompted me to do it: a friend. He’s a writer and an actor and he started the ball rolling a few years ago when he asked me to do a seminar for his writer meet-up group. At first, I said no way. Like most writers, I’m a guy who sits alone in a room most of the time, and the thought of speaking in public filled me with fear and dread … but he was very persistent and finally wore me down. I finally said I would do it.
That’s when it hit me: how could I possibly put on a seminar and keep other writers interested for 6 hours? I would bore them to death. I started to imagine them walking out! So in an effort to get around a typical “talking head seminar” I asked my editor to help me put together a long list of writing samples and clips covering every element of screenwriting so they could SEE what I was talking about.
For example, using stills from The Shining I put every moment of Jack’s character arc into a still photo sequence where you can track his descent (or arc) into madness. I then put the page number from the script beside each still. His expressions really tell the story. The audience literally gasped, because it was the first time they had seen a character arc develop beat by beat. I did the same thing for all the other elements of storytelling.
But one thing really surprised me: the audience had as many questions about the writing experience, as they did about the nuts and bolts. That got me thinking about doing a “seminar” like a narrative, where I could combine my experiences in Hollywood, with the nuts and bolts of screenwriting. After all, working with some of Hollywood’s best directors, producers and story executives has definitely informed and changed my approach to storytelling over the years.
After twenty-five years, I thought it was time to reach out to new writers and share what I’ve learned from people who were generous to share what they know with me for one purpose – to get the story right.
• Who was the writer who had the biggest influence on you?
Actually, there are several. But if I had to pick just one, I’d say it’s William Styron. When the family business was breaking up and I was lost, I read a short story he wrote called A Tidewater Morning. That’s the story that made me want to be a writer. In fact, it affected me so much, when I was in film school (at The American Film Institute in L.A.) I adapted it into a short film with Mrs. Styron’s permission.
Here’s a bit of trivia for you: When we were casting, we couldn’t find anyone with the chops to play the main character: a boy of twelve whose mother is dying of cancer. It was a heavy role and we must’ve auditioned about thirty kids. But just as we were about to call it a day, a kid walked into the audition and read for us. He was drop-dead amazing. We were speechless when he finished. … He was also good-looking, obviously smart, and confident – in fact he was downright cocky.
When we finally caught our breath, the director asked him his name, and he answered in a deadpan way. “My name’s Tobey Maguire … Do I get the part or not?”
• You choose to live in Denver, rather than L.A. What prompted you to move there, and what challenges has your location thrown up in your dealings with studios?
Even when I was starting out, I always adhered to the philosophy that we work to live, not live to work. Simply put, Denver was a better choice for me when it came to raising my son. The moment I got my first gig as a writer, I got out of Los Angeles.
My agents were a bit worried about the distance, but it ended up working to my advantage. Since studios had to fly me out, we always knew that meant they were serious. If anything, I’d have to say it did negatively affect the social aspects of networking; I was never really part of ‘the scene’.
• What are three things you wish someone had told you about screenwriting when you were starting out?
1) Don’t take notes personally. Ever. People will give you notes – copious notes – and there isn’t a lot you can do about it – especially if they’ve paid for the privilege.
2) Don’t order spaghetti at McDonalds. Or in other words, don’t send a horror script to Hallmark, because you think they may like a change in their menu. Producers and production companies have definite creative tastes and agendas. Doing your research can make a world of difference when it comes to finding the right home – and friendly eyes – for your script.
3) Read the third act as many times as the first act BEFORE you send it off. All too often, writers will tap FADE OUT and assume it’s finished. Let it cool off and concentrate very hard on reading that third act over and over. You’ll be surprised at the things you’ll catch.
• If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie filmmaker back in Adelaide, which one would it be?
How about, Save The Cat.
• What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?
I think I’ll preface my answer by saying – not mine. I’m much too critical to watch my own films. But some of my favs are (not listed in any certain order):
The Matrix (1999)
Any David Lean film
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Kubrick’s films … especially 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980)
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
The Godfather I & II (1972, 1974)
Any Alfonso Cuarón film.
Now, just to round things off, here's an intro to The Screenplay Show.