Screenwriting Chat: David Steinberg
David Steinberg has taken a unique path to professional screenwriting, and Hollywood. At the age of sixteen he earned his law degree from Duke University where he served as editor-in-chief of the law review. His screenwriting credits include: AMERICAN PIE 2 and SLACKERS.
Below is a transcript of the chat held on Wednesday, September 4, 2002 hosted by Screenplay.com, and moderated by author/editor Christopher Wehner.
Q: David, your original script for SLACKERS is different than the movie, why was that?
David Steinberg: After I turned in my last revisions with the studio they hired another writer to "punch" it up... the version you saw on the screen was a version of my script, the writer's rewrite, the director's on set changes, and the actors improvisation.
Q: What are the top 3 things you wish you had done differently coming out of college?
DS: I wish I had gotten an earlier start in screenwriting. I didn't pursue writing until I was already 27, so I wish I had taken an entry level job in the business to pay my dues while I was still young. While I'm at it, I wish I had spent more time trying to score with more women.
Q: What makes good comedy writing considering today's comedy?
DS: It still has to deal with great characters and funny situations. The trend toward gross-out humor only works when we care about the characters.
Q: So is 20, still being in college and all a big disadvantage even if you have a good story and ideas but not the best written script.
DS: It doesn't matter how old you are, you need to have a well executed script. A bad script isn't going to get you anywhere. What screenwriters do is execution, and that good execution is going to get you your next job.
Q: Was there anything in your background that helped you become a better comedy writer?
DS: Being miserable... yeah, I think it's just a function of being a good observer of life around you as it passes by. You pick up on little things.
Q: I understand it is not a good idea to mix genres. In your opinion, are there exceptions to this rule?
DS: When you're first starting out you really have to pick one because your agent is going to sell you as that kind of writer. Once you have a track record then you can do whatever you want.
Q: How much emphasis do you place on paradigms and screenplay structure?
DS: I think structure is crucial. I know rules are meant to be broken. But structure is there to help you, not hinder you. It helps hold the narrative together and keep it moving. In my opinion those who avoid structure are those who can not write a good story. For every MEMENTO there are thousands of scripts that are unreadable because the writer ignores structure. Even MEMENTO has a three act structure.
Q: What's the starting for you, characters or premise?
DS: It depends... A high concept script starts with a premise and hopefully you'll build a great character around the premise. A character driven movie is obviously the reverse. SLACKERS starts with the characters because the premise was kind of stupid. AFTER SCHOOL SPECIAL started with a premise and I built the characters afterwards.
Q: Do you more often start with a funny situation and then let the whole thing explode on paper, or do you start with a complete story from beginning to end and fill in where it is lacking?
DS: Again it depends... In SLACKERS it was about people I knew in college who were cheating... and I expanded that, but usually it's the other war around and I have to create the story first and fill in the funny situations later.
Q: Starting out, did you attend screenwriting conferences? If so, did they help?
DS: No, I never went to a conference or seminar. I was in the producing program at USC which was helpful but did not teach me about screenwriting. The producing program taught me how to make it as a screenwriter where as the screenwriting classes often try to teach you things that can't be taught.
Q: So where did you learn the basics of screenwriting? From reading other scripts?
DS: Reading other scripts, yeah, but make sure there good ones. In the producing program I did take a class on screenplay analysis, which is kind of the opposite of screenwriting. That class taught me how to write coverage and tear a script apart. So that's almost better than learning how to write... learning how not to write.
Q: Some of your favorite movies?
DS: LIAR LIAR... BIG... SOMETHING ABOUT MARY... For example, in BIG, small moments where you are really getting a sense of Tom Hank's character made me want to try to communicate those emotions myself.
Q: You mention characters as a point of interest, yet comedy isn't the best genre to express characters.
DS: Depends on the movie MR. DEEDS or any Adam Sandler for example, than character is not important because it's about Adam Sandler being funny. But in a good comedy like ELECTION or SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, we love people and therefore it's even funnier. You can get away with not have a character if you have Carrey or Sadler. There's no excuse for not writing good characters regardless.
Q: How do I get started? What do I need to do to get my foot in the door as a screenwriter?
DS: Let's see... move to LA. Get an entry level job in the biz or you can go to school. The time honored position of starting in the mail room and working your way up is still how some people succeed. You have to work you way up. I would pack my bags and get a job in the mail room at ICM, or whatever, and work hard and within a few years I'd either be an agent, studio executive, producer, or a writer.
Q: Are you saying it's next to impossible for someone to make it as a long-distance writer, no matter how willing they are to come to LA whenever a trip is a good idea?
DS: No, but everyone wants to make it from Iowa... you can write from anywhere, but you can only make it as a writer in LA... so stay put, write, and once you have a reason to move, then move. You're going to have to eventually.
Q: Where you ever on set during the filming of SLACKERS and how was it?
DS: Bad... it was very upsetting watching the director and producer change everything. It's frustrating when you spend a year writing something and in ten minutes someone destroys it. It wasn't all bad though, to be honest, it was very cool hearing some of my lines and seeing it.
Q: What about AMERICAN PIE 2? Did you enjoy that?
DS: It was great working with all the people on that movie. My involvement was somewhat limited. After Adam Hertrz took over.
Q: So you got into the Peter Stark Program after having earned a degree in Law. Is that a difficult transition as far as being accepted into the program?
DS: It was a great transition because I got to be a student again. I did give up a lot having been a lawyer.
Q: How is AFTER SCHOOL SPECIAL going?
DS: Great! The movie is virtually complete. We're in the process of screenwriting it for studios.
Q: What is the Peter Stark program?
DS: That's the name of the graduate producing program at USC.
Q: Where you encouraged to be on-set, or did you have to fight for your right to be there?
DS: ON SLACKERS I had to fight. On AFTER SCHOOL SPECIAL I was invited. It's hard to believe that the writer of a movie has to ask permission, as was the case with SLACKERS.
Q: How did you go about "making people read" your scripts while at USC or before? How did you get started?
DS: The whole point of USC is that everyone there was a potential reader and everyday agents, producers, and studio executives were coming to class. It was networking, that's the most valuable thing about a school like that and one in LA. If you don't go to such a school or live in LA, it's that much harder.
Q: Are you now writing fulltime and (pardon the tacky question) is it paying the bills to your satisfaction?
DS: Yes... very happy. I feel very fortunate.
Q: What should I major in then? Film?
DS: Don't major in film unless you want to, major in something you enjoy learning about.
Q: What percentage of the overall gross of a film does a writer/director get for the movie?... or is it a set price before the release?
DS: A writer gets a set fee plus a bonus if the movie gets made. Beyond that. The WGA rules 5% of the net. which usually works out to zero. For example when you see an option of $200,000 against $300,000. They get $200,000 and only get the $300,000 IF it goes into production.
Q: Any good film schools you can recommend for grad school?
DS: USC, UCLA... AFI... you can do a search on the web and find them.
Okay folks, that's it for tonight. David has to go on a hot dinner date... Thank you for attending. On Monday will will have the screenwriter of BLUE CRUSH here, Lizzy Weiss... see you then!