Screenwriting Chat: Dean Devlin
A Converstion with Writer/Producer Dean Devlin
Topic: Artist meets Businessman: Balancing the difficult roles of writer and producer to make a work of art that is a hit
Dean Devlin has produced some of the most successful feature films of all time. He produced and co-wrote the film STARGATE, INDEPENDENCE DAY, and GODZILLA. Most recently he’s served as Producer on the films THE PATRIOT, starring Mel Gibson and this summer’s release of EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS. Devlin also served as Executive Producer on the FOX television series THE VISITOR. Devlin has been a leader in the development of digital entertainment. He co-founded Centropolis Effects in 1997, a premier digital visual effects house that merged with Das Werk earlier this year. He is also considered an innovator in online entertainment, having developed several popular web destinations including a sci-fi website that USA Networks acquired in June 2000.
Jason M. Eng: I'd like to introduce writer/producer Dean Devlin to our chat.
Dean Devlin: Thank you. It's nice to be here.
Jason M. Eng: We've already had a lot of questions submitted so let's get right to it.
Dean Devlin: Sure.
Jason M. Eng: Dean, how did you get started in film?
Dean Devlin: I was born into a family that was in the business. My mother was an actress, my father a film producer. I started out as Al Pacino's chauffeur, became an actor, then graduated to behind the lens.
Tony Boland: How did you make the transition from writer to producer?
Dean Devlin: After writing my first feature film to be produced (Universal Soldier), I decided that I couldn't let other people produce my work. So I simply made it a condition of the sale of my script. If you wanted my script, you had to accept me as the film's producer.
Jason M. Eng: That's pretty ambitious. Wasn't that pretty early in your career still?
Dean Devlin: Yes it was. But I didn't like the way Universal Soldier was produced and I figured the only way to protect the film and the script, was to be the producer. It was difficult at first, but the reality of Hollywood is that the studios care a lot more about who the director is and who the stars are then who the producer is. If they really want the project, they'll accept the producer attached. So since my script was getting other people producing jobs, I figured, why not do it for myself.
SimianSidewalk: what was the most difficult decision you had to make about a film either in pre or post production .
Dean Devlin: That would be the rating on THE PATRIOT. For many, many reasons we all (the director, myself and the studio), all wanted the film to be rated PG. Or PG-13. But in order to do so, we'd have to make over 50 cuts to the film, including taking the children out of a pivotal scene in the movie. We, in good conscience, couldn't do it. It was a hard decision to go out with the movie with an R rating, but we felt the film was a much better film without those cuts.
wrag: I'd like to mention I'm a German (living in Canada), like Roland Emmerich. So if you can, please tell him hi from another German film fighter!! May I ask if you are in a continuous work relationship with Roland E.?
Dean Devlin: Roland Emmerich and I are no longer running a film company together. That said, we still plan on working creatively together. We have three film projects that we are working on together. We've made movies together for over 12 years now. I believe that partnership will continue, even if we occasionally make films apart as well.
FilmDroid: Being a Writer-Producer on something you've written, is it hard to find a Director that shares your vision?
Dean Devlin: I think that is the single hardest thing to accomplish when making a film. Roland and I were very lucky and that we have a very similar vision for films. We rarely disagreed about how to bring a story to screen. There are many directors out there, whom I respect, but don't see eye to eye with creatively. So, yes, that would be a very difficult part of filmmaking. Once a film's production has begun the director is in charge. You want to make sure you have over the project to someone who shares your vision.
sam: when you begin to write a script, do you work from a treatment, note cards, beet sheet, etc.?
Dean Devlin: I always begin with a four page beat sheet, divided in three parts: set up, conflict, resolution. From there I go to 3x5 cards, with each scene described on each card. Only then, when I can see the entire film up on my wall, do I begin writing.
xcoburnx: what do you look for when choosing a story or script?
Dean Devlin: For me, I like to have a simple story told in a complex manner. I don't care for things that are too plot heavy. And, of course, since my first love is genre movies, that the films are good old fashioned "popcorn" faire.
JAG!: Now that you've taken the helm of Electric, does that mean your writing has taken a back seat?
Dean Devlin: I'm hoping, actually, to do more writing that I have been lately. But, unfortunately, my directorial debut will have to wait a few years as I try to get Electric Entertainment off the ground. (Nice to see you online Jag)
KR: Even though you didn't write EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS, how involved were you with that script? How much does it follow in the vein of the old monster movies?
Dean Devlin: Roland and I had wanted to do a film like THEM for a long time. When we saw the short film LARGER THAN LIFE, directed by Ellory Elkayem, we got really excited about developing a project like the old '50's B-Movies that we loved so. We brought in Jesse Alexander and partnered him up with Ellory and they wrote the first draft together. Roland and I loved it and then worked closely with them (and a few others) to develop the final shooting script. Even then, during the shoot, we continued to refine and polish. In the end, I think we have a very unique, quirky, funny tribute the sci-fi movies of yesteryear.
Van Johnson: What would you consider an appropriate career path for a writer?
Dean Devlin: Write, write, write, write, and then write some more. There is nothing better that a writer can do than just keep on writing. I had written nearly 10 scripts before my first one was made. It's really a matter of practice. If you keep doing it, you get better.
ocean: Do you recommend trying to market a script to producers when you are a first time writer trying to break in?
Dean Devlin: Everyone needs GOOD scripts and GOOD concepts. Studios, producers and actors. We all need them desperately. The important thing to do is to get someone to represent your work because that's the only way it will get seen. If you do that, people will read your work.
Sheri: A lot of movie studios have gone to using fansites more and more to promote new films. You've been ahead of your time in this regard.
How important do you feel fansites are to a movie's success?
Dean Devlin: I'm not really sure what kind of ultimate impact it has on the success of the films, but, speaking strictly for myself, I find it a very, very important way to say "thank you" to people who've supported you and as a way to stay in contact with the people who enjoy your work. To be honest with you, I have as much fun with our web sites (if not a lot more) as our fans do.
trent: Any suggestion for those of us who would like to work our way up the ladder to producing but are still trying to get our foot in the door?
Dean Devlin: Being a producer is both the easiest job to get and the most difficult one to get at the same time. It's easy, because all you need to do to become a producer is to have control of a good property (script, book, magazine article). If it's good enough, bingo, you're the producer. However, finding that property and getting the rights to control it is very, very difficult. That's why I wrote my own films, simply so I could own the property. I didn't have the money to buy other peoples work or to develop other people's ideas, so I wrote them myself.
AL: When Electric chose "The Carrier," was any thought given to the timeliness of military facilities in light of 9/11?
Dean Devlin: Actually, we bought the property nearly a year before 9/11 and had been developing the material that whole time. After 9/11, when the entire world began to see how amazing life IS on these gigantic war ships, interest in the project began to build. It really was just a coincidence.
GODzilla: When 1st trying to break in, do you honestly believe that writers should "write from their hearts" or "write something that is high concept and sells?" I recently attended a panel and there was much disagreement regarding this.
Dean Devlin: (this just in Robert Blake has been arrested for the murder of his wife)...fyi. My feeling about what to write is simple. Write the film that you yourself honestly go to on a Friday night! If you go to see films that are more the "art house" type, then that's what you should write. If you enjoy "art house films" but actually stand in line to see LORD OF THE RINGS, then write genre. It is important to write from the heart because the experience is very difficult and only your own passions can carry you through the entire process.
Sophia B.: How do you get representation for your work?
Dean Devlin: Contact agents. The Writers Guild of America keeps a list of agents that are signatory to the union. Go through that list. You'll be surprised how easy it is to get most of them to look at your work. As I've said, people NEED scripts. If you get someone to represent you, anyone really, your work usually will (or won't) sell itself based on it's own merits.
wrag: Do you have a potential budget in mind when looking at spec scripts or when writing, or do you focus on story?
Dean Devlin: The only things that is ever important is the story and the concept. Budgets can grow or shrink based on the desires of the studio. But if the story is strong, nothing else will matter in the end. Remember, the audience pays the same to see a movie that costs 100 million as they do an art house film.
Rich Whiteside: Do you write only clear genre movies? Have you written any cross-genre movies?
Dean Devlin: Mostly I like to mix genres together. Independence Day was really a cross between the "alien invasion" movie and the "disaster" films of Irwin Allen. I think that's a great way to make a genre film feel fresh.
VJ: What key points should a script pitch hit?
Dean Devlin: Give most of your details to your main concept and your set up. Pitch out the most "fun" parts of your conflict and give a short description of your resolution. The worst thing you can do in a pitch is give too much detail. It always makes the pitch boring and obscures the main "concept" which is really what their interested in at this point of the development process.
sam: What the hell does "negative pick up" mean?
Dean Devlin: It means that the studio is buying a film that is already finished and they are picking up the cost of the "negative", meaning the actual finished film with all the costs attached to that film.
ChrisThe FOX plant: What is the favorite thing that you have written? Least Favorite?
Dean Devlin: My favorite thing I've written was an unproduced draft of GARGOYLES that I wrote for Disney (I wasn't attached as producer. See?). My least favorite, by a big margin, is GODZILLA. We tried to please too many people and ended up pleasing no one in the process.
ET: Do you believe that aliens exist?
Dean Devlin: Yes. And they run most of the major studios in Hollywood.
HelloKitty1121: Do you think that the gaming/film industries will cross-pollinate more over the coming years in light of the success of Tomb Raider?
Dean Devlin: yes I do. But I think that the two worlds will soon begin to work closer with each other, earlier in the development process. For the most part, movies based on games have been disappointments as have games based on movies. Soon they'll be developed together and I think both will have improved quality because of this
Adle: Is any of your inspiration from real life or do you have such a creative imagination that you make up most of your situations based on a "what would happen if.." scenario?
Dean Devlin: well, most of the concepts of our plots come from fantasy, but nearly all of the stories and characters come from events in my real life. It's interesting that nearly all of my film work had "father-son" relationships built into the central story lines. Then last year, when my father died, I made a film where the central character returns home too late, having missed his father's funeral. There are always connections. They just aren't as obvious in my films.
Tony Boland: Where does the money come from to produce a film?
Dean Devlin: It all depends on the film. Some are produced independently, and the money can come from anywhere...banks, foreign television, investors. But for the most part (and yes, even many so called "independent films") films are financed by the major studios.
Rich Whiteside: How do you approach rewriting after you've finished your first draft?
Dean Devlin: Great question. Rewriting is far more important and far more difficult than writing. My recommendation to every writer is to write the first draft quickly so it's not so painful when you have to do your rewrite. Often, when a writer spends too much time on a script, or a scene, the writer becomes too attached to it and has a difficult time changing it. The changing it is an inherent part of filmmaking. And, mostly, it improves the film. It's really rare when a script is "ruined" by the rewrites. Unusually, it improves the film. And it's always better when the original writer has an open mind and does all the rewriting himself (or herself).
ljubica m. hartman: To what extent should a screenwriter (during the entire process of writing) try to please producers with a screenplay for a commercial movie?
Dean Devlin: The first draft belongs to the writer. After that, when producers buy the script, or begin to develop it with you, then it's important to find the truth in their notes. Sometimes their note will be all wrong, but the reason they came up with it is correct. The writer needs to decipher this and solve these creative problems in order to protect their vision. Don't think about it as pleasing them as working together with them. If that relationship doesn't work, then either the script wont get made, or a new writer will be brought on. Try and keep it collaborative.
FilmDroid: How do you pick your main character, then how do you go about developing him/her?
Dean Devlin: Hmmmmm....depends really. Usually I think of the main character as the audience and as that character learns and goes through the adventure, so does the audience. But it really depends on the script and the story. I think what's most important is that you can find the characters voice. Since you're going to have to write the characters thoughts, ideas and actions, you'll need to really understand that character, so picking a character that you feel close to or can relate to is very important.
Gettin'JiggyWithDean: Dean, how often do you write and/or product a blockbuster with specific actors in mind? When do you recommend this and when do you NOT?
Dean Devlin: For me, I always have actors in mind when I'm writing. it gives the characters specific voices, looks and behavior. Al Pacino behaves differently in a movie than Ben Affleck. And often, in imagining the actor you get a better idea of the tone.
wrag: Did it ever happen to you that you were asked to make changes for
budgetary reasons, and did you feel you had to make sacrifices as a writer in order to satisfy the producer's side/ money side?
Dean Devlin: Not really. Usually there are always creative answers to financial problems without sacrificing the material. The trick is finding those solutions.
Lola: What sort of background suits screenwriters? Does a college degree matter or is life experience more important?
Dean Devlin: Honestly, what matters is their love of film as a tool for telling their stories. There is no "profile" for the great American screenwriter. They come from the Ivy League and from the streets. What is important is to have a passion. Because film, ultimately, is about passion. Only when you have passion for your story do you have a chance that your passion can become infectious.
Adle: Do you ever write your stories without knowing how it's going to end? If so, have you gotten halfway through and been stuck as to where to go next. Should all stories be so formulated?
Dean Devlin: I always try to have the entire script worked out before I begin writing. The few times I've written without knowing the ending has been disastrous for me. I've got some great first acts in my closet that go no where. I really think it's a waste of time and energy. If you spend the time to work out your structure, your writing will improve and the process will be much easier.
realityengine: Being a writer and all you obviously have to be creative. Do you work in any other mediums (painting, sketching) and if so is there a place where we can see your work?
Dean Devlin: I only wish I could draw or paint. I can't. Not a lick. I do, however, make music. I try to play with others often. It's not for public consumption, but it is a great stress reducer.
wrag: When is a story a GOOD story for you, speaking to you as writer AND producer?
Dean Devlin: It's good when the concept is easy to understand and the emotion of the story is powerful. Rocky is a great example. Simple story: Club boxer gets his shot at the big time and fights the champ! The story is easy to understand (and sell), yet the concept suggests an emotional story of hardship and triumph.
Shele Gould: Can you shine some light on the "green light" process for us?
Dean Devlin: Yikes!!! I only wish I understood it myself. It's the most difficult thing in Hollywood. I've been doing this for 10 years now (producing that is), all of my films have had enormous grosses and yet I have a very, very difficult time getting films "greenlit" A lot is riding on each and every picture and the studios are always super careful on what they will and will not "greenlight."
pirozhir: Would you comment on producing for television vs. theater features? Similarities, differences? Do you enjoy one more than the other?
Dean Devlin: I have no idea how producers are able to keep up quality on television. I tried and nearly killed myself in the process. You have no money and no time on television. I am in awe of television producers who can maintain quality on television. Film has it's own difficulties but at least you have time to work on the script, the production and the edit. In television you have to "run and gun".
ljubica m. hartman: What is the possibility of a foreign (non-American) screenwriter to sell a script in the US?
Dean Devlin: it happens all the time. If the story is strong and the story-telling is done in the way Hollywood films are structured, it's not a problem. The problem for foreign writers is that their orientation is so different from Hollywood story telling techniques that they don't usually write in the structured language of Hollywood Films. But when they do, they usually have a unique prospective and have written some amazing films.
wrag: As any other producer, you must receive a flood of spec scripts. How do you process them, and what are you looking for when trying to make a yes or no decision?
Dean Devlin: I have a fantastic staff of people at Electric Entertainment. Especially Marc Roskin who runs creative and development for me. Everyone in my company participates in the search for good material. We constantly meet and discuss what is out there in the market. For me, I have to have some kind of connection to the material, both in concept and in story, and (my producer hat on here) I have to know how to "sell" the project. If I can't envision a poster or a teaser trailer, I won't buy the project.
Jason M. Eng: Well, it's about time to wrap things up. Do you have any survival advice for those of us struggling to break in?
Dean Devlin: Well, Hollywood is a lot like playing roulette in Las Vegas. If you can afford to stay at the table long enough, your number is eventually called. Just make sure you're ready, creatively and emotionally, when it is.
Jason M. Eng: I'd like to thank Dean for stopping by as well as all the great audience members. Remember our chat rooms are open 24/7 so stop on by any time.
Dean Devlin: Thank you. It was really a gas talking (typing) with all of you tonight. Take care.
This conversation was conducted in April 2002.