1) Ideas come when you least expect it.
I got the idea for my screenplay “Caroline At Midnight” from two sources:
- I went to a cemetery with my step-father for him to visit his mother’s grave. I started wandering around and found the grave of a person I’d known years ago who I wasn’t aware had died. It gave me the seed of an idea which I jotted down and put it aside.
- Several months later, I was shown a photo taken in Italy of a bunch of corrupt cops who were all being held in a courtroom cell during their trial. I combined the two ideas and finally came up with the story of a reporter who receives a mysterious call from a dead girlfriend who was involved with dirty cops.
2) Life experience helps.
While working in the motel business in Hollywood, I became acquainted with a myriad of colorful characters: hookers, pimps, pornographers, gun runners, scam artists and dope dealers. I made it a habit not to ask too many questions, but I must admit I wasn’t surprised when the DEA and FBI rammed down the door of a pleasant fella named “Bullet”, that I used to chat with often. It turned out he was major criminal and heroin dealer. I guess his name was the tip off.
When our “residents” fell behind in their rent, we would make them give us their guns as a security deposit. I had many arguments with tenants who complained about my confiscating their weapons. Their logic being that if I took their guns, I took away their ability to “earn” the rent money. I stood firm.
One of my most notorious tenants was a seemingly very nice guy, Gregory Diles, who was later convicted in “The WonderlandMurders” that occurred in Laurel Canyon. For the most part, I had a good relationship with all of the residents despite the fact that in general our clientele was comprised of crooks, criminals and degenerates.
But, that was not always the case. The most afraid I’ve ever been in my life was when I was kicking four hookers out of the motel. Fueled by PCP, they quickly surrounded me, and I saw one of them pulling a knife from her coat. Before she got a chance to “shank me”, I fled via the fire escape and got out unscathed. Once I was safely in my office, I made the conscious decision to get into a safer line of work.
But despite a few harrowing incidents, that time was invaluable for me as a young writer, and offered me a unique understanding of the importance of nuance in character, especially in the crime genre.
3) Murphy’s Law applies double in show business.
I once had a meeting with a development executive at a production company at their offices on Sunset Boulevard. The large downstairs waiting area, where the receptionist was stationed, was plush carpeted and well decorated. While sitting on a sofa waiting for my meeting, I began to smell something foul. I eventually checked the bottom of my shoe and found that I had stepped in dog shit on my way in. I was screwed. I didn’t see any signs of a bathroom, and besides that, I was afraid that even if there was one, I’d track shit all over the carpet. I always carried a small pad in my pocket, so when the receptionist was on the phone I began to tear out pieces of paper, casually wiping some of the shit off my shoe, then rolling up the papers and tossing them under the sofa. Finally I was called in to the meeting with the executive and her assistant. I kept taking deep breaths to check for any residual smell, and unfortunately the stench remained ripe throughout the entire meeting.
I never heard from them again. I’ve often imagined their conversation after I left:
Executive: It is a good script.
Assistant: Yes, but did you notice he smelled like… dog shit.
Executive (nods): And all that sniffing. I think he was on coke.
4) Be a fan first!
In my experience, the best writers are always the biggest movie fans. I have been in love with the movies my entire life and continue to watch as many as I can. A good movie, or even a not so good movie, can by way of one scene or one passage, inspire you to write something you had never thought of before.
I got the idea for my screenplay ‘Unfaithful – In The Heat Of Passion 2‘ from one of my favorite William Castle movies,’The Tingler’. The two movies could not be more different, but “The Tingler” gave me a spark of inspiration when I most needed it. By keeping my eyes and ears open as a film fan, I can recognize a small stroke of genius in most of the films I watch. No matter how original your idea may be, a good writer always stands on the shoulders of those that came before them, and should recognize that and use what you see in movies you love to make your writing better.
5) Go with what you know!
Everybody has a story, and don’t be afraid to draw from your life experiences, even (maybe especially) the most painful or cringe-worthy in your writing. My father was a well known detective who eventually became involved with the mob in NY. He and three of his partners were eventually convicted and did time for selling confiscated guns and embezzlement. This time in my life has contributed greatly to my writing, especially in the crime genre. Thanks dad! I have also come to realize that genre is always second to a great story. Now, this may be a stretch for those writers whose main interest is Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but regardless of genre, a good story is a good story and the same elements always apply. You can take a solid story based on your own life experiences and twist and turn it to suit many genres.
Put a cowboy hat on it and you have a Western or create characters that are bumbling idiots and it’s a great comedy! – Travis Rink
6) If you don’t direct, find a director that shares your vision.
During meetings with the foreign distributor for “Caroline At Midnight”, I was given one page of notes for the rewrite. I conferred with the director. He was very receptive to my ideas and it was a pleasure to work with someone who respected the writer’s vision. It was a great experience and since it was my first movie, I believed that was the way it worked when you wrote but did not direct.
Then I had a second script optioned…
During meetings with the director of “Unfaithful”, she refused to look at me, referred to me only as “the writer”, gave me at least ten pages of notes right out of the box. She kept me out of the loop during the filming, and ultimately made an awful movie that I have watched exactly once.
7) Beware of the “Fine Tuner”/Coffee House Rat
My partner Elaine Ewing and I were approached by a German director that was interested in doing a neo-noir screenplay we had written. He insisted that all of our meetings be held at hipster heavy coffee shop in Brentwood. We were slightly embarrassed to join the ranks of the café crowd who populate these sorts of places, sipping soy lattes and banging away at their Macbooks, but, we needed the work. Over the course of several meetings, the director annoyingly kept referring to a character in the script, who was an accountant as “de bean counter” and at one point yelled in full voice. “NO ANIMAL WRANGLERS”, but overall he seemed to like the script and assured us that he had the investors in line to produce it.
After Elaine and I turned in our final draft, he repeatedly claimed that he loved it. Great! Then he said he wanted to take a week to “fine tune it”. With a little trepidation, we complied. He kept us waiting for about four weeks, and then announced with much pride that we had our shooting script.
Our jaws dropped when we saw his revisions. He had basically dismantled our script and inserted exact scenes from Quentin Tarantino films. We severed our contractual relationship with him, but to this day, neither Elaine nor I can enter into any conversation that references an accountant without going into our “bean counter” schtick!
8) Savor the day but value a hard working crew!
I got a call from the director when “Caroline At Midnight” was being filmed. They were doing a night shoot at a parking garage on a side street off of Wilshire Boulevard, and he told me I should swing by. It was one of those cold, rainy March nights, but as soon as I parked and turned down the street I saw that it was lined with equipment trucks, trailers, generators and lights. I stood in awe for moment, and then it occurred to me, “Wow. This is all because of… me!”
Before I could take it all in, the producer stepped out of his trailer. “Hey, Travis, good to see you”, he said, then turned to his assistant and asked her to bring me up to the sixth floor, where they were shooting. I saw Scott, the director, and although I already had met the cast members who were filming that night, Scott introduced me to all the production people. They were very nice, and very busy. I felt very proud and excited. After a brief rehearsal, it was time to ROLL CAMERAS! Take One: The director wanted to make a few changes. Take two: A car horn in the distance. Take three: One of the actors blew his line. Take four, take five, take six. I was getting cold. I was getting hungry. I left after take seven, went home and got into my ‘jammies. When I talked to the director the next day he nonchalantly said they wrapped at about 5:00AM. I’m still very proud of the essential role that writers play, but I learned that night that movies just don’t happen by themselves. A talented and hard working crew is at the heart of any production, and they play an essential part in making a great movie!
9) More about rewrites.
Someone once said “writing is rewriting”. Truer words were never spoken, but there are two sides to the coin.
First the good: There is nothing harder for me than getting that first draft completed, but once it’s done, the real fun begins… rewriting. This is when I edit the dialogue, flesh out scenes, start making sure that everything makes sense and that every scene is being used to propel the story. Generally, it takes me two to three rewrites, plus a polish before I’m ready to send it out. Then, I send it out selectively to see what kind of feedback I get, which may lead to another rewrite. Once the response has been good and I feel like it’s ready, that’s when I start submitting. Remember: When you send your work out you have only one shot with the company who has agreed to read it. If you’re lucky enough to have it optioned, there will always be more rewrites, but you want to make the story as bullet-proof as possible before you send it out.
Now, the bad side of rewrites: I had a script that had been optioned by a producing team who sent it to a company who was very interested in doing it. Right from the start, we had a “flashing green light”… all the company wanted were “a few minor changes”. I should have known this was not going to be a pleasant experience after our first meeting. There were about four of the company’s development people sitting around a table with the producers and myself, and all of the four had notes… pages of notes… that they were shooting at me. I left the meeting and started rewriting. Some of the notes were silly, so I totally disregarded them. I sent them over the rewrite and another meeting was set.
This time six of the staff sat in. They “loved” the changes, but there were just a few more things. As I recall, there were a total of four meetings. When you’re sitting in a room with that many people, each with their own ideas, many of which contradict each other, the writer never wins. At larger companies there exists a bureaucratic layer of development people, most of whom have never written anything in their lives, and who justify their existence by meddling with material. Trying to keep the project alive, I kept rewriting the script to try to satisfy their development notes.
But with each draft, I found the script, a twisty-turny bit of neo-noir, being hammered into something more formulaic, familiar and forgettable. No matter what I did, there were always more notes, as if there was a concerted effort on their part to make sure that anything distinctive about the material was sanded off. I eventually came to despise the script and finally walked away from the deal.
10) Writers need to be flexible.
Besides screenplays, I’ve written for men’s magazines, tabloids, websites, and I’ve been a contributing writer to humor books and publications. Not every idea a writer has will make a good screenplay, but almost every idea can be turned into something producible and hopefully saleable. Keep paper or a voice recorder with you at all times. I have a pad on my nightstand for those times when I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea.
Most recently my writing partner and I have branched out into online media. There are opportunities for writers in both the area of scripted and “non-scripted” (no such thing) online content and although this is a new and ever changing medium, it is a great place for young writers to learn production, and hone their craft. The writers strike, reality TV and the economic struggles in the area of independent film over the last few years have proven to be a challenge for writers across the board. But at the end of the day, somehow and some way, a writer writes.