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Hollywood Writers’ Series – Part 6 with Eric Champnella


Eric Champnella is a man of many talents. While is probably best known for writing the film Mr. 3000, he has also been a standup comedian, actor, director, and producer.

In 2008 I got to know Eric during the writers’ strike. At the time he was hosting United Hollywood Live, an internet radio program that aimed to keep listeners abreast of the latest strike developments.

Eric and I have worked together on several projects, and I must say, he is passionate about story and is great at what he does.

Eric has agreed to answer a few questions for our series.

1. Eric, thanks for being a part of the series! Writing a story from scratch is a difficult task, but it seems to me that an even greater task is getting it sold. You’ve “practice-pitched” to me before in preparation for meetings with producers. Can you describe the importance of the pitch, and how you prepare for one?

The pitch is important because, often in Hollywood, selling yourself or your idea is done not via words put on the page but by verbally telling the story.  So one will be called in for a meeting to “pitch” the studio, producers, etc.  The easiest way to explain this is to think of it as sitting around a campfire and telling what the movie is.

Now, since almost all assignments (rewriting a previous script, turning a producer’s idea into a screenplay, adapting a book, etc.) are obtained via pitching (and sometimes it’s done to sell original ideas before writing the script), it’s an essential skill to have in Hollywood.

To prepare, I pitch to anyone and everyone who will listen before I go in for those meetings.  This way I can find out if it’s too long, too short, not funny enough, confusing, etc. and fix those things that aren’t working before the meeting.  And each time I practice, it helps me to hone the pitch to the point that the folks I’m pitching will, hopefully, say to themselves at the end, “I want to see that movie!”

My two biggest pieces of advice for the pitch are: First, you don’t have to know every beat of the story.  It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” rather than making up something in the room.  Remember: this is the pitch, not the screenplay.  And second, just because you’re pitching your vision for the screenplay, it shouldn’t be as long as the darn movie you intend to write!  Too many people try to cram everything into the pitch, which is a surefire way to make the eyes of the producer/exec glaze over.

2. There are many versions of a script, and several writing credits accompany a finished film. There are “story by,” “screenplay by,” “adaptation by,” “based on,” and other credits associated with writing. Can you describe how and why credits are attributed the way they are? Have you fallen into more than one of those in your own work?

This is a confusing aspect of writing for Hollywood (even for screenwriters!) that could fill page upon page of your site trying to explain the arcane rules of the WGA and why some people get credit on something and others who worked on the same project—sometimes longer than the original writer—don’t.

Put it this way, the WGA Screen Credits Manual is 31 pages long.  Your readers can go here…

http://wga.org/content/default.aspx?id=1029 [1]

…if they’re interested.

In a nutshell (and per the manual) “story” means a contribution “distinct from screenplay and consisting of basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action.”  A screenplay “consists of individual scenes and full dialogue, together with such prior treatment, basic adaptation, continuity, scenario, and dialogue as shall be used in, and represent substantial contributions to the final script.”

Confused yet?

And yes, I’ve been on many different sides of the credits fence.  It’s a sore point with many writers, and for good reason.

3. Writing isn’t your typical nine-to-five job. How often are you wearing your “writer’s cap”? Are you always on the lookout for the next idea, or do you set aside time just for formulating new ideas? Talk a bit about your process.

Well, I think my brother, who’s in the nine-to-five world, would say I’m never working, whereas I would say I’m always working—just not in the typical way associated with many other jobs.  When I’m working on a project, even when I’m not in front of my computer, I’m constantly thinking about it.  There have been many times when I was just about to fall asleep and something hit me so I’ll get up in the middle of the night to jot the idea down (or even head back to my office and turn my computer on).

Having said that, it’s the most flexible job in the world (at least on the feature side).  If I’m stuck, rather than beating my head against the wall, I may go out and exercise.  And it’s amazing how often I have a breakthrough when I’m doing that and “not thinking about it.”

In terms of actual “ass-in-the-seat” time, when I’m writing a script (as opposed to working on an outline, pitch, etc.), I do five pages a day, come hell or high water, five days a week (and usually a page or two each day over the weekend to keep my momentum going).  If it takes me one hour, then I work one hour.  If it takes me all day, then I write all day.  I began using this schedule after reading Stephen King’s excellent book, On Writing. (It’s a must read.)  In it he said he writes ten pages a day, come hell or high water (including weekends!).  I figured if I’m half as prolific as Stephen King, I’ll be just fine.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m finished with a screenplay after this.  Not even close.  It just means I now have something that I can work with to shape, hone, and rewrite (the key to writing) in order to find the finished screenplay.

4. Most of the writers I know are either TV writers or feature film writers, but few do both. What draws you more toward writing features rather than television?

Actually, I think that’s much less of the case now.  Like actors who cross between both, writers are doing it more and more as well.  I’ve sold some TV pilots that, unfortunately, haven’t made it to series.  And I would definitely do TV when the right idea presents itself.

As for what draws me to features, I’d have to say that I’ve always been someone who loves going to the movie theater, watching the lights dim, and then having that “shared experience in the dark” with an audience.  It always has been—and still is—exhilarating to me.

And I’d be lying if I didn’t say the lifestyle is pretty high up the list as well.  My office is in my house so I have the easiest commute in Los Angeles.  And as mentioned above, when I get stuck, or things aren’t going well, I go grab a coffee, get exercise or whatever I want without having to check in with anybody.  I’m very, very blessed.

5. Being creative in a vacuum is tough. How do you get feedback on the scripts you write? How do you process the feedback? In other words how do you decide what feedback to incorporate and what feedback to ignore?

The flip side to the joys of the screenwriting lifestyle is the solitary nature of the job.  I was a professional stand-up comedian for six years before I sold my first script.  So I went from one of the most social jobs I can imagine to one of the most solitary.  I also used to write with a partner, and I sometimes miss that creative excitement when we were on a roll together, each of us feeding off the other’s creativity.

So yes, facing the blank page alone on a daily basis, in that vacuum, is very tough.  Thus, feedback—good, honest feedback—is critical.  I have a trusted circle of folks I give each script to.  From agents, to producers, to other writers, to friends who aren’t writers.  And I’m looking for different feedback from each person.  For instance from my non-writer readers, they’re the “audience.”  They represent the folks who will (hopefully) pay money at a theater to see the finished film.  So I’m looking for much less technical feedback than I do from my professional writer friends.  For me this varied circle of readers helps me get a representative sample of what works/doesn’t work and on what levels.

As for which feedback to incorporate, I have a pretty simple rule: if one person tells me something, it’s an opinion.  If two or more people give me the same note, it’s a problem.  The notes in the first category I can use or ignore depending on whether or not I agree.  The notes in the second category I always address.

6. How does being a director affect your writing? Do you filter your writing through your director lens, or do you not think about that part while you’re writing?

I think it’s definitely helped me to become a better writer: to think and write more visually.  I believe that any time you know more about what other people are doing on a movie set and how the screenplay impacts how they carry that out, it helps your writing.

As for filtering, it sort of depends if I’m writing something to direct myself or if I’m writing something for somebody else.  I tend to filter a tad more when I’m writing something I’m going to direct because I may already have constraints (such as budget) that I need to consider.  No point in putting in that big alien invasion scene for my $700K indie film.  And I can’t help but wear both hats when I’m writing something I want to direct since I’m constantly thinking, How am I going to shoot that?

Thanks for your time Eric! Can’t wait to collaborate with you again!

Read part 1 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Carol Barbee here [2].
Read part 2 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Jonathan E. Steinberg here [3].
Read part 3 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia here. [4]
Read part 4 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Jeffrey Berman here. [5]
Read part 5 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Trey Callaway here. [6]