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Sean Corrigan

The Whole Point
by Sean Corrigan

April 2000

It’s been said that if you can do anything other than write, then do it. Life is too short to meander down such an ungratifying, solitary road. (I happen to like solitude — it’s not that I’m a misanthrope, I just hate people) But if writing is the one thing that impels you, inspires you, instigates you… yada, yada, then commit yourself. And write. You don’t have to be good, just write something. I’ll take the suckjob writer who has mass-produced five McScripts writing every day over the guy who claims to be a writer because he wrote thirty great pages over the course of seven years.

I need to write. It’s cheaper than therapy and takes less time than prison. (And my penis isn’t long enough to be a porn star) And although I haven’t quite made a living from it, I’m close enough to speak about it like I have a clue what I’m talking about.

After three and a half years of pretty consistent writing I’ve managed to churn out nine screenplays, five plays (shorts and a one-act), and two television spec scripts. Every one of my scripts has placed quarterfinalist or better in some writing contest. I placed 8th out of 3200 in last year’s Austin Film Festival, recently won the Scriptapalooza television writing contest, and have had three plays produced (two Off-Broadway). Don’t be too impressed, I still do temp work. In the last three years I’ve come to realize this - nobody knows shit, and anyone who claims to, knows less.

Sure there are a few basic principles to follow: format is essential.

In my first script, I wrote all of my characters’ dialogue in different colors. REALLY. (imagine trying to print a script in color — now imagine chafing your genitalia with heavy grade sandpaper — I prefer the latter) No, I wasn’t on drugs — well, actually I was, but that didn’t influence my decision to use color. I just wanted to be original. Do not reinvent the wheel. Hollywood likes formula, it likes clichés, it likes predictable screenwriting (which is why amazing scripts like The Usual Suspects go through so much hell to get made — it requires thought). But, most importantly, Hollywood likes the format the way it is. Don’t get me wrong, I eventually became a format company-man, and now castigate new writers who misuse their parentheticals. Other errors: when I first started, I felt the need to use sexy brightly colored cardstock with sexier fonts. Waste of time. Use bland, white cardstock and standard Courier font. Simple, boring, conformist.

In terms of the actual formatting dimensions — how far from the left margin does this go, how far from the top margin does that go — I have no idea — I use screenwriting software. I could have told you three years ago, but now I’m a drone, accepting whatever the software gods tell me. I do have this one bit of advice for serious screenwriters…

Buy software. If you can’t afford it, steal it. If you can’t afford it and have high morals, don’t eat for a month. If you think you don’t need it, then you’re not serious about being a screenwriter, so go lie down in traffic. The software will save you hours and hours. My first script took three months — mostly because it took forever trying to format (especially rewriting) on Word or Works. I can write a strong first draft in about a month now, and the software is a huge part of that. I recommend Final Draft, by the way.

If you are just starting to write know this: your first three scripts will suck. If you haven’t written three scripts, then you can’t understand. I wouldn’t have believed it myself. My first script The Nature of Duplicity (that should be a sign right there — never use a word in your title that Hollywood executives can’t pronounce or don’t know the definition of) was very good for a first script. But when I finished, I swear that I wouldn’t have sold it for less that a million dollars. I kid you not. It still is a very good first script and ended up being a quarterfinalist in the Breckenridge Film Festival and a semifinalist in the Chesterfield Writer’s Project, but I would sell it today for $10 — okay $9 — fine, buy me a Big Mac. The point obviously, writing is an acquired skill and will be refined over time.

Here’s my whole point of writing this:

Nobody knows anything. Everyone has a different opinion. And opinions are like gallbladders — they have a purpose, but no one really knows what they are, so we discard them when convenient. I know people who think that Schindler’s List was horrible (people in the business who know film - who work in film - who make money working in film), whereas I believe that it and The Bridge on the River Kwai may be the finest films ever made. Perfect example: Austin’s local film critic Chris Garcia gave that garbage John Carpenter movie Vampires a higher rating than Saving Private Ryan (in case you’ve never met Chris, he really hated Saving Private Ryan- as did William Goldman, probably the finest screenwriter who’s ever lived). Yet, the rest of the world, including myself, embraced it as one of the best films of the year. The lesson is don’t be disheartened when someone doesn’t like your writing. Most people outside the business aren’t willing to sit through something thought provoking like Schindler’s List — they prefer to watch bad movies that blow shit up.

Example two: After placing in the Austin Film Festival (in my opinion, the best screenwriting contest in the country), I received numerous inquiries from production companies about my winning script. They also wanted to know what else I had that they could read (I didn’t offer my first three). Well, two of my better scripts entail themes of Hollywood (think of a story about Lynda Obst) or the mob (but in a dark-comedy Sopranos kind of way). Well, eight months ago, a producer tells me that nobody in Hollywood is reading either of those types of scripts. "They don’t sell." Of course, this consummate insider failed to predict that Sopranos would receive seventeen thousand Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Don’t try to predict the trends and don’t listen to the idiot who claims that an entire genre of scripts is not being purchased. Someone out there knows better, so just keep knocking on doors.

One last idiot analogy: I entered a one-act playwriting contest in Iowa (that’s what I get)- with a play that has been a finalist in two contests and will be produced May 11-14, 2000 at the Little Theatre of Alexandria outside of Washington D.C. (I’m venting). The contest consisted of ten judges who actually gave written feedback and scored every submission. I received many high marks, one perfect mark (100), and then a stick in the eye from a sorority girl who was probably serving community time for a DWI (my apologies to all sorority girls who have not served community time for a DWI). I say she was a sorority girl because of the big flowery, bubbly handwriting with tiny annoying hearts over the I’s. (I realize that I’m generalizing- it could have been an 87 year-old farmer) Anyway, had this individual’s score (33 out of 100) been eliminated, I would have won the contest and $500. ($500 converts into 1.3 weeks of temp work.) Anyway, the brilliant play is called Just A Couple Guys Talkin’. It is written very much in the vein of David Mamet’s American Buffalo or Sexual Perversity in Chicago — a wry comedy about the contradictions found in conversation. Nothing more. Her infinitely wise analysis of my play was <Ah Mah Gawd> "I didn’t like the way the characters kept talking in circles." ------IDIOT!!! That’s the point! That’s the only point! It’s… (everybody at once) JUST A COUPLE GUYS TALKIN’. Hence the fucking title! I wanted to write her back and explain about these two guys named Abbott and Costello and this skit called Who’s On First, but I was concerned that her brain might melt all over her daddy’s BMW.

One last "we each have different tastes": There was a script submitted by a very talented female writer- (I won’t mention her name or the title because I’m paranoid about being tortured by other writers looking for material for their new scripts) -it was a finalist in the comedy division of last year’s Austin Film Festival. I’m not exactly sure how many entries were in the comedy division (there are thousands in the entire contest). So the writer placed in the top five out of hundreds, maybe thousands of scripts. This same script was entered in Screenplayoff (a very innovative screenwriting contest) which has every script placed into sixteen-script brackets. Then, from each bracket, around five scripts are chosen to compete in a NCAA Final Four type of head-to-head competition. This script that I’m speaking of did not even place in the top five out of sixteen. Yet, it placed in the top five out of possibly thousands in the Austin Film Festival. Is Screenplayoff that much more competitive as a contest? Of course not. It was simply a different reader with a different sensibility. Again, some people didn’t like Schindler’s List.

So, what limited wisdom have I imparted? People don’t know shit, and anyone who claims to, knows less. And since I seem to be making claims, I probably know less.

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