by Diana Peterson
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg has penned such films as BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, CON AIR, HIGH FIDELITY and GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS. Scott transitioned to TV in 2007 when he created and Executive Produced ABC’s OCTOBER ROAD. He then Executive Produced and developed LIFE ON MARS for ABC. Scott is currently working on an upcoming ABC show, HAPPY TOWN, that he created with producing partners Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec.
DIANA PETERSON: How did you get your start in Hollywood and at what point did you find your voice as a writer?
SCOTT ROSENBERG: I was always a writer. It was the only thing I was ever good at. Even in elementary school; I was the kid that would write the poem to read to the entire class. Then when I was going to college in Boston, I was a creative writing minor. There was this girl that I liked that was moving to LA for a year before she started law school. I followed her out here ‘cause I liked her. That’s how I got my career started. I started as a stalker. If you’re out in California, you eventually find your way to this thing called the screenplay. ‘Cause I loved movies and I started reading a whole bunch of screenplays and then I started writing a whole bunch of screenplays and then I eventually applied to USC and I went there for a bit. Then I went to UCLA. Then I went back to NYU. I basically went to all the fancy film schools, but I never graduated.
DP: That’s interesting. I actually attended UCLA’s film school as an undergrad and noticed that you’re always listed in the alumni book. I had no idea that you didn’t graduate.
SR: All three schools claim that I’m an alumni. The funniest thing is that every year all three schools send me a letter saying if you want to graduate just fill out this form. They all want to be able to claim you as an alumni any time you have any kind of credit.
DP: Did any of those programs help you at all in terms of finding an agent or is that something that you did on your own?
SR: They all helped me in their different ways. When I was at UCLA I came in third place in this thing called the Samuel Goldwyn Awards and that’s how I got my first agent. Then a friend of my mine, Gary Fleder, who was at USC, asked me to write what became his thesis film and I did. Every year there’s the hot shit short film and that year it was ours. So I went from my little agent to a bigger agent. Joel Silver loved our short and he was doing the show TALES FROM THE CRYPT. He hired us immediately, Gary to direct and for me to write. We did a couple of those and then it went from there. We later sold him a pitch, then we were on our way. I had meetings and people interested in me, but it takes that first person to say, “I’m actually going to pay this guy money.” Then everybody else who was saying, “We like him, but he’s never done anything,” they all went...“Oh, well, Joel Silver hired him, okay.” Then I started working.
DP: It seems that you had a lot of early success but did you ever encounter mistakes? Pitfalls?
SR: Mistakes? I don’t know if there were any terrible mistakes. I remember I used to wear a necktie to every meeting. Not a suit. Just a shirt and a necktie. I’m from Boston. People out here are way more casual. I don’t think I made any mistakes, but purely on the anecdotal. I had a meeting with this guy, I don’t remember who he was, but he was a pretty powerful fellow. I didn’t have a car at the time; I rode a motorcycle and it was broken. So my girlfriend at the time was giving me a ride to his office on the Sony lot. We were stopped at a red light and this guy was crossing. My girlfriend, by mistake, inched out a little bit and almost hit him. He got really pissed, turned around, and called her a very nasty name. And I was nervous about this meeting and everything so I just went crazy on this guy, calling him a fucking asshole and how dare you talk to my girl this way. My girl was, like, Scott settle down, stop it. She literally drove me away from this guy cause it was going to get bloody and...you know where this story is going...she drops me off and I walk into the meeting and that’s who I’m meeting with.
DP: That’s a great story.
SR: It was at the point where there was nothing either of us could do besides laugh. He smiled at me and I smiled at him and we had the meeting.
DP: Is working in TV as rewarding for you as working in features? Or is it hard to compare because it’s an entirely different beast?
SR: I never expected it to last as long as it did. I was just going to go do this one show. And then one show became two shows and now three shows. I definitely want to get back into writing the movies, but the one thing that you just can’t deny in TV is that instant validation. In features, on my luckiest movie, it was a year, from page to stage. In TV, if I want to put my conversation with you on TV right now, we’d be shooting it in a week. It’s unbelievable and it’s also very seductive because the writer is the boss, whereas in features ...and I’ve been lucky in features, I’ve definitely been involved more so than a lot of screenwriters, but here (in TV) it’s like every piece of music I want to put in the show I decide. When it comes to casting, I decide. Wardrobe. It’s all...like the director. The director in features is like what the Executive Producer/Writer is in TV. It can’t be beat. It’s the reason why a lot of these feature guys...when they come to TV they sort of get addicted to it.
DP: Given the current climate of the industry, would you suggest that young writers go into film or television? Or does it just come down to writing what you love?
SR: I think now more than ever the line of demarcation is very blurred. I think you can do both. It’s probably easier to get a feature going, or get work in features. On “Happy Town” we’re hiring writers and every writer that we hire has to have had credits. So how the hell are you supposed to break in? There really isn’t a tremendous spec market in TV because they aren’t even going to read your scripts if you write a spec pilot. But in features if you just keep writing, you can write whatever you want.
I get those calls all the time about how to break in. It’s really frustrating from both ends of that question. There is no one set rule. If you talk to ten writers they will tell ten different ways of how they broke in. Whereas talk to ten stockbrokers and they’ll tell a different (kind of) story...“Well, I went to this business school and I started on this guy’s desk and that’s how I wound up on Wall Street.” But in screenwriting everyone has a different way, everyone has a different avenue, so it’s really very frustrating to try to give advice on that level. The easy answer, but it sounds pat and glib and obnoxious is...just to write a good script ‘cause they are dying for it. All my friends that are agents and producers and directors say that when that great script comes along in town everybody knows about it. And I think that in features it affords you to basically take the leash.
DP: Do you advise young writers to have an industry assistant job, whether it’s a production company or agency, versus learning about the industry but doing something outside of it to get a different experience?
SR: This has been my mantra for years. I think everybody should do one year of working in the industry and then immediately just bagging groceries at Ralphs. The reason I say that is that jobs in the industry are incredibly difficult and time consuming. You work fifteen hour days and you have to think about it when you come home. What all of that does is it takes you away from your writing. When I first got to LA I was doing all these industry jobs and I was exhausted and I wasn’t writing. All of a sudden I was like I am not doing this anymore. So I literally got a job as a truck driver. When I parked that truck at six o’clock at night I didn’t think about that truck until six o’clock the next morning. It was such a brain dead job that it allowed me to come home and do what was most important; sit down at the computer and start writing. I think that a lot of people get that industry job ‘cause our friends and our family back home are all worried about us and they say you’re never going to make it. You have a better chance of winning the NY State Lottery then selling a screenplay. So you say, “Hey, look mom and dad, I got a job at the WEST WING,” or “Look mom and dad, I’m working for Dick Clark.” But that’s not really helping us get where we want to go, which is to be paid to write. You know it’s that same thing, “Look mom and dad, I’m working at this grocery store.” Then mom and dad tell their friends and nobody’s happy. I understand why people do it, but I really think if you’re a real writer, you should be writing. You should be doing whatever you have to do to put food on the table, but it should never get in the way of the writing.
DP: What’s your writing process? And how does the way you approach a pilot for television differ from the way you approach a screenplay?
SR: In TV we have a writing staff. There are 10 people sitting in the writers’ room and we all outline together. It’s also different because you are dealing with acts (for commercial breaks). We basically do it all together and then the writer peels off and writes that script. So it’s a little different because in features. You are outlining in the same way, but in three acts. At a certain point I come up with a good idea for a movie and I think about it a lot. For a couple weeks I drive around with it and then when I feel like I am ready, I will sit down and will write 1-60 or 1-75 beats: #1 he walks into the bar, #2 he meets the girl...it’s very loose. Then knowing where act one ends and act three ends and it’s being constantly revised and then everyday I sit down and you know when I’m actually scripting...I check off #2, #4, and I get this sense of accomplishment.
DP: Besides approaching writing, how do you approach research? I’ve been compiling something of an ongoing reading list and would love to know what you recommend young writers read.
SR: I always say all you really need is a box set of all the Billy Wilder movies. They were really brilliant scripts and all over the map in terms of genres, movies like SOME LIKE IT HOT and SUNSET BLVD. If I’m giving a gift I will send that. Starting out it’s just so helpful. The book Conversations with Wilder is also great. There are also a lot of great screenwriting books by UCLA professors Richard Walter and Lew Hunter. What you can definitely learn quickly is structure. I don’t think you can learn dialogue, but you can learn structure. You can either write dialogue or you can’t. Like playing the guitar or pitching a 95 mile per hour fast ball. Just watching movies is so helpful; good movies and bad movies.
DP: If you were to pick a favorite scene from your work, what would that be?
SR: One of my favorite scenes is in BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, with Natalie Portman at the ice-skating pond. I think we nailed that, but other than that nothing really comes to mind. I think you’re never really satisfied with any of them.
DP: And finally, what advice do you have for young writers on finding a mentor?
SR: I think it’s like anything else. You find somebody who you admire tremendously. I think you have to be realistic, you can’t say, “Martin Scorsese, I want you to be my mentor.” Find somebody that is realistic, but who has inspired you in some way. There is nothing like a great letter. I have a few people who’ve written me and said the right thing. It was a combination of the way they wrote it, what they wrote, and kissing my ass in the appropriate way. So I said, sure, I’d love to sit down and have coffee with you. It’s very simplistic because if you write somebody an impassioned letter and you don’t hear back, then you didn’t want them to be your mentor anyway. Don’t be afraid to write from the heart without appearing psychotic. You’ll be surprised at the response.