How To Become a Screenplay Writer

Josh Olson Screenwriter

Josh Olson is an Academy Award nominated screenplay writer for his work with the movie History of Violence. Josh just moved out of a Hollywood apartment and into a secluded home with a view of the Los Angeles skyline from his patio.

What does a screenwriter do?

I have a license to put myself in the head of all kinds of strange and interesting people and walk around in their shoes for awhile. That, to me, is the best part about the job. Being able to try stuff on and see the world from different perspectives. It does force a certain openness to other people’s points of view, which I like having.

It can also be debilitating because you’re sitting there having an argument with someone and completely understand their point of view just as well as your own.

What’s the most challenging part of screenwriting?

Writing. Writing, man. Writing is hard. It’s hard when you don’t have forced structure to create structure. For years I wrote in coffee shops because it was really hard to get up and write in the morning. But it’s easier when you get up, shower, and go some place you have to be. If I didn’t get there by 8 a.m. I lost the good seat. Once you’re there with a laptop you feel like an idiot if you don’t get writing done. It’s a way of tricking yourself into it. But that’s the hardest part, is conjuring something up from nothing.

Everyone who loves their job ennobles it in their mind a bit, but writers are the people in this business who have nothing but a blank page when we walk in. We’re nothing without the people who come after us, but their job is to interpret our work.

I’ve written and directed. When you direct, you come to work and there’s anywhere from 50 to 300 people who sole job and purpose in life is to please you and offer you the best of their work. And they give you coffee. But when you’re writing, it’s you sitting in a room with a blank page. There’s no one there that is going to do anything for you. You have to find it and put it there. That’s very hard. It’s very hard.

Everybody in L.A., in the film business at least, was that guy or that girl who was the best in their little pool. And they get here, and all of a sudden there is a million people who are the best in their little pool. Now, the pool’s much bigger. You have that humbling moment.

I handed this producer a script I had written and waited for the usual response that I always got to my writing and stupid little films. I don’t know, maybe I expected him to give up his career and devote his life to promoting me. He sat down with me for about three and a half hours and told me everything goddamn thing that was wrong the script. It was the first time anyone had ever talked to me like I was a real writer. It was incredible. I absolutely loved it. Everything he said was just dead on and right. We became great friends and shortly thereafter he asked me to write with him. So I thought “Okay, he couldn’t have hated the script that much.”

I don’t know if a formal education is the answer for everyone, but you have to have an education. I do believe that you have to find people who help you come across that in yourself. I believe in mentors. Eventually, I’d love to be good enough to be one. Right now I’d probably just lead people down the wrong paths (Laughs).

So how do you become a screenwriter? Did you have a breakthrough?

My breakthrough? There was a couple. The one that turned me into a professional writer was pretty depressing, at the time. I’m over it now. A really good script I had written I optioned to some producers who ended up getting it set up with a bunch of cheeseballs who made it into a crappy, low budget monstrosity. People were at the premiere laughing at how bad it was. But that got me into a world where I was writing dumb, straight to video action movies for a few years. That made me a living, not a great living, but a decent living.

While I was writing those I was writing scripts to give to the studios to try to make into “real films.” It was a learning process. I found a great agent who really believed in me. I wrote a couple of scripts where each one…I try very hard to not be self diluted, but it was clear that each one was getting closer than the one before, based on the responses. I finally got to the point where I was writing a script that…it’s not enough just to be a good writer. I wish it was. You have to the right idea and it has to be the right place and all these things have to come together. Because there are a zillion people out there who are ten times the writer I’ll ever be. And they’re stuck in coffee shops.

The idea was commercial. I knew I was well beyond where I needed to be as a writer in terms of competence. I wasn’t the next David Mammet, but I knew that I was beyond where I needed to be to be a professional screenwriter.

I remember thinking, and I was serious, “If this script doesn’t sell, I have to stop. I can’t do anymore. I’ve hit the great concept. I’ve got the ability. I’ve got an agent who’s not the biggest in town, but more than respectable enough to sell a script. If that combination doesn’t work, then this is not for me.” It was one of those things where I never do this, and no one ever should do this, I shouldn’t even tell the story, but it reminds me of these idiots who are broke on their ass and they’re saying “Well, this script! I’m going to sell this script!” Those morons, they’re not going to sell that script.

I literally got to that point. I had been around long enough to know that that is the worst way to think. I severed a lot of my ties in the straight to video world and I was down to less than $200 in the bank. And then, Paramount bought my script. For life altering sums of money.

My plan had always been to get into something commercial. A lot of people don’t. They try to write their deep dark passion project and sell that. Unfortunately, that’s almost impossible to do. They let you do that project when you’re inside, not from the outside.

So I got in the door and unfortunately, that film got stuck and development and never got made. But it led directly to my very first studio assignment which was A History of Violence. Which was a ridiculous experience. I wrote the script based on the graphic novel. I loved the concept and the title and ended up writing a very different story from the book. The studio loved it. They took my script with no development process to speak of.

They went out and found a director, and no one ever thought of David Kronenberg because he wasn’t doing movies like this. And who would dream that he would want to come in and do a studio film? Out of the blue, one of my favorite directors in the world says he wants to direct. It just went the way it never does. It went smoothly and quickly. They cast Vigo Martin, who I had in mind when I was writing it. I don’t often cast a movie in my head, but I had him in my mind because I had seen a film called Indian Runner. I loved it, Sean Penn wrote and directed it. I had Vigo in my mind when I wrote it. Then they got Maria Bello, who you can’t get better than. It was one of those things that was going so quickly that…I’ve been around long enough to know that this never happens. I was still getting phone calls from my mother saying, “Oh, honey, why is it taking so long?” And you’re going, “It’s not!”

Every step of that was ridiculous. You could have stopped at any point after the film got made and I would have been happy. The film got made and it was terrific. I was like, I love this movie. Then we get into the Kahn Film Festival. And they love it there. It comes out and it’s one of the best reviewed movies of the year. And then I start getting nominated for all this stuff. And finally, the Oscars. It was one of those things where you’re just sitting there and going, “wow.”

It was a very personal script for me. I had gotten the job by being brought in to pitch, and was told by the executive, “We really just want to get to know you. You’re not going to get the job. We’re talking to four or five really big writers, but I want you to come in and if you’re impressive we can get you back in for something else.” I took that as a license to pitch the story that I wanted to tell. That’s a very valuable lesson.

It could not have gone better…maah, I could have won. I could have beat Brokeback Mountain. That would have been better (Laughs).

It was really, every step of the way, living out what I wanted to do. After years of struggling, it was so strange, because all of a sudden the game plan was to sell a big commercial script and then start writing movies that really matter to you. And that happened almost instantly. It took forever to get in the door, but once I got in the door, it was doing what I wanted to do.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a screenwriter?

You have to trust that you’re a valid audience. If I can make myself happy, there’s enough people out there that are like me, or perceive things the way I do that I will entertain them. You can’t sit and second guess that. You can’t wonder about whether they’re going to like it. I’ve always found the stuff I’m happiest with is the stuff that people like the most. When I’m trying to please someone, or trying to figure out what somebody wants, or trying to figure out what an audience wants, it doesn’t work. I sit down and entertain myself. That’s a hard thing to do. It’s a hard thing to remember. You’re always aware that you need to write a hit, and make this guy happy, and make that guy happy.

When I was doing the straight to video stuff, I was not writing for myself. I learned pretty quickly that if you do your best work, it just gets butchered. So I’d be aware of who I’d be working for, come up with something good, and table it to give them the “B” version.

The script I sold I had written this awful thriller movie for a guy, and I had this car chase. You’d never seen a car chase like this in a film. It was an angle that had never been done. I put this in the script and then later asked myself why I put it in. When I saw the film the director didn’t use it. He didn’t quite understand it. So I took it out of that script and put it into the one Paramount bought. It was actually one of their favorite things. There’s a really important lesson there.

But when I was doing the straight to video stuff I was trying to write competently enough to get paid.

I entered the straight to video world with the hope, and I still don’t quite know why…I love Roger Korman films when I was a kid. He made these great drive in movies. He was a bright guy, made a lot of money doing it. He would hire interesting and up and coming film makers. Coppola, Scorseze, all these guys. He’d give them a non existent budget, but enough to make a movie. A couple of cheesy actors and a concept. All they had to do was give him his marketable elements. “I need tits on page 8, 18, and 36. I need something to blow up here, and I need a dragon. Go make a movie.” These guys would go out and make movies that were insanely inventive and fun. And I thought why isn’t the straight to video world that way when I went into it. But it’s not. They’re dour and nervous about the market and what the audience wants, more so than studio executives are. They’re terrified of anything that isn’t proven. They want to do a movie just like the last 800 they sold. And if you try to do something innovative or weird they get very nervous and anxious. Which is too bad, because that should be a fun world. Exploitation movies should be entertaining. You know, the goofy stuff. For some reason, the drive in ethic didn’t translate into the straight to video.

How do you find a success? A History of Violence made money, it was not a massive hit. I’m a film snob. I could care less about producing box office hits. Mr. Rogers defined success as “The love of children and the approbation of your peers.” I don’t know how to appeal to a mass audience. It happens or it doesn’t. I don’t know how you can control that. The only thing I can do is please myself. I’ve found that through pleasing myself, the opinions of people who matter to me have responded positively.

If you’re on to something, that’s what’s going to happen, I think. The only difference between John Lennon and K-Fed is that when Lennon looked in the mirror and said, “You’re talented,” (a) he was right and (b) he didn’t quite believe it as much as K-Fed does. But there are people out there with the exact same conviction that I have, or you have, who are just wrong. They’re putting everything they have into it, and it’s just not connecting. Somehow you have to figure out how to read the tea leaves. You have to know when someone tells you that it stinks, you have to know that they’re wrong. But you also have to know when they’re right.

I have a Batman cartoon out, this thing called Batman Gotham Knight. It’s a tie into the film, but not really. Six different shorts written by American writers, directed by Japanese animators. Mine, I love it to death. I get ridiculous amounts of pleasure from it. The director did a great job, it’s exactly twelve minutes long. It’s what I hoped and dreamed it would be. I always wanted to do Batman. I knew when I saw it that there would be a lot of grief from the fans because it’s fun and tapping the childish sense of action and myth. And I live in the comic book world a bit too, I’m a big fan, and I know how comic fans think. It’s not dark and gritty. It’s not set in the real world. It’s not furthering the complicated drama of Batman. It’s kind of a throwback. I knew there would be a lot of negative response to it, and I’m already starting to see it on the internet.

But I don’t give a crap. It’s exactly what I want it to be.

It’s easy to tell yourself you’ve done good work when you have. It’s possible to tell yourself great work when you haven’t. That’s the great fear that you get to that place and realize you’re an idiot.

I don’t think you can ever be absolutely certain that you’re on the right track. It’s very scary.

People that have something to fall back on invariably do. I don’t know what I would have done. Maybe drive around the country interviewing people about their passion. I don’t have any other marketable skills besides writing. I can talk a good game in about 800 different areas. But most writers have just enough surface knowledge about many things to make it sound like we know more than we do.

Don’t sweat it so much. Life is long. I’ve recently been looking back at all the times in my life where people have tried to tell you stuff. I sort of realized that there were times in my life when I wasn’t listening. And I should have. Everyone is that way. But now I’m ready. I go around to people and ask them, “If you were my age again, what would you tell yourself?” I keep waiting for someone to tell me something, and they say, “ah, I kind of had it figured out by then.” I’m like, “No! Come on, one thing! This time I’ll listen, I promise!”

I’m still looking for answers. And I’ll take them from where I can get them. It’s frustrating to know that you should have listened to what people are telling you. Now you’re ready to listen, and no one is telling you anything anymore.

I’d tell the 18 year old Josh that it is way better to be a late bloomer. There’s the people who peaked in high school, and there’s the people who figured it out later. I remember sitting in a bar in England for the British Academy Awards, talking about the joys of being a late bloomer with George Clooney over drinks. You know, I wasn’t the captain of the high school football team, but that’s alright. But I have a lot of friends who are younger, and they get very nervous and very anxious. The answer is not to get everything you want right off the bat. It’s all a learning experience. The great thing about having things working out later as opposed to sooner is that you appreciate what you don’t have.