Q & A with author/screenwriter Christopher Keane
Writer Chris Keane has penned books that have been made into movies and series, The Hunter (Paramount) and The Huntress (TV series on USA Network), along with teaching at Harvard and NYU and writing features. He came to the conclusion that the best way by far to get you book or screenplay into production is to place the greatest amount of focus on the central character. After all, it only makes sense. Agents and managers want their A-list clients to star in movies that will enhance their careers. And so Chris wrote Romancing The A-List. This book follows his international best-selling book, How To Write A Selling Screenplay.
Keane, the author of 14 books and numerous screenplays, offers his valuable insight into the world of Hollywood, the movie industry and how far some stars will go to make a point in this exclusive Q & A.
Q: Chris, you've written several books on how to write and sell screenplays. What's the particular focus of Romancing the A-List?
CK: The idea behind it is simple. After spending time in the movie world you see pictures being made for all sorts of reasons: The financing is available. The studio has to make it (or start it) before the fiscal year is up so that they can ask the parent company for more dough next year. Pictures are made because they can be. The producer/director is a joy to work with, meaning there's a quiet set, and the pictures he or she has made came in on time and on or under budget. But mainly, by a large margin, it's who's in it. Star power reigns. Stars want starring roles that will enhance their careers. The best way to for that to happen is for the screenwriter to pen a juicy main part, a powerful character that drives the story, the picture and the box office. Once a screenwriter gets that main character down the rest of the characters, the story, the beats, etc., all rise to that level.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
CK: I've been teaching a course or two every semester for years, at Emerson, Harvard, Northeastern, LMU, wherever I happened to be. My students suggested that I write all this down in a book. I hemmed and hawed for a while. I owed a publisher a book or a producer a script, so I didn't have any real incentive at the moment. This one student kept pushing. One time she said, “If you write the book we won't call you for help at two o'clock in the morning.” The next day I was on it. Well, that's not the whole story. I love to learn and love to teach, so it was a way to learn a whole lot more about this main character/driver and to share it with whomever is interested out there.
Q: Everybody wants to write a screenplay because they think it's a glamorous business. Give us a dose of reality about the movie industry.
CK: You've got to be very good to make a living as a writer in this business. You have to be willing to spend sometimes years before you hit. It's the sticktuitiveness within that makes the difference. I don't think you should ever give up if you're a committed writer. So you drive cabs or wait on tables, so what? Do it. Otherwise, you'll fall away like all the others and maybe spend the rest of your life wondering if you spent enough time before you bailed.
Q: How has the movie industry changed when you first entered the business in the late '70s?
CK: When I came in I was 21, just got out of college and had written a book that Steve McQueen made into The Hunter, his last picture before he died. I was in culture shock from the whole thing. I remember not really paying attention to much at all; the business, the deals. I had an agent and a lawyer who took care of that for me. I just lived with my subject, a bounty hunter, his family, and half the criminal element of Southern California. I wasn't so concerned with deals as I am now. I thought it was a big wonderful experience. Ignorance is bliss. Now I check the trades and hear conversations tinged with desperation more than I had back then. It's more global now, with more possibilities. The indie market is greater, the Internet is the new delivery system. It was cozier then.
Q: Writing a book and writing a screenplay appear to be two separate art forms. You've done both. Can you briefly explain the difference?
CK: In a book you get to explore, in words, the inner life of the character. In a screenplay you can't see thought except as it generates action. I prefer neither. For me, the subject matter determines the form.
Q: It's been said that the screenwriter is the least respected person on the totem pole in Hollywood. Can you cite an example of something that's happened to you first-hand to illustrate that point?
CK: I was with a top flight agency for a long time and had a project that later became a series. I was told that because the agency wanted to sign a production company that wanted my project in return for signing, I was told I would have to sit way in the back of the bus. I left the agency.
Q: Didn't Steve McQueen give you some acting advice on the set of The Hunter?
CK: Somehow I talked my way into playing a part in the movie, of a bailbondsman, in a scene with Steve and Eli Wallach. I was nervous. I was supposed to convince Steve's character, a bounty hunter, to go to Mexico to pick up some bad character. The scene took place in a diner. It was maybe the fourth take (because I was going up on my lines) when Steve took me aside and said, “Don't be so hard on yourself. You're hard on yourself, aren't you?” I nodded. “You're doing great. Pretend you're having fun.” So I did and on the next take the director locked it in.” A lot of people applauded, but I suspect it wasn't the performance but that I gotten through it.” I am hard on myself.
Q: Kevin Costner once said that the screenwriter's first script is always his/hers best because they put so much time and effort into their debut. Do you agree with that sentiment?
CK: The first script is when you stick your hands into the putty and come out with something. It's the first raw experience of creating in a new form. It takes a reorientation into how to put a movie on a page. A lot of people think the person who comes up with the story should have first position. It's actually the person who develops the story and puts in on the page, in 100 pages, that gets first position. That's the hard work. The WGA mandates that the screenplay is worth 75 percent of the credit/profits and the story 25 percent. In my first screenplay I decided to choose as a subject a thriller in the streets of New York. I told somebody I could write a screenplay in one day, and did. Almost. I got through eighty-seven pages before I fell asleep. I read it the next day. It was so bad I couldn't finish it. The second one was about a team of super heist artists who detonated a massive bomb ten miles off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida and engineered the explosion to send a fairly good sized tidal wave to plow over Palm Beach, creating enough chaos so that the heist team could knock over the Worth Avenue banks via helicopters which dropped them, in their wet suits, into the locations. Whew. That was also a stinker. But valuable because I learned from my mistakes. I also learned a BIG LESSON from someone who told me if I wanted to be a screenwriter to promise myself that I would read two screenplays a week for the next six months. I did. That was the most valuable lesson I ever learned. I learned what this strange form was all about, from the pros. If would be screenwriters don't burn through a ton of screenplays they're dead before they start.
Q: What makes for a compelling character on the screen and how do you go about developing that character?
CK: A compelling character for me is one who I have not seen before, a true original, but with whom I can identify, on an emotional level. A character that upsets my expectations. A character that I can't wait to get to in the morning to see what he or she is going to do next, within reason. When I start a new project, whether it's a WGA job or a spec, I have an idea for the story and/or the main character. It doesn't matter what comes first. It is important to remember that character drives story rather than the other way around. I make sure the main character is in real trouble right from the start. Something's very wrong with his/her life and it's going to get worse. Henry James said a hundred and some-odd years ago that if you don't put your main character in the most critical situation he or she has ever encountered, THE STORY IS NOT WORTH TELLING. Nothing short of a extraordinarily screwed up, driven, fascinating, dynamic main character is going to attract A-List talent. Attracting A-List actors is, by far, the best way to get a movie made. Period. I write at length, with tons of examples, about this subject in the new book, Romancing The A-List: Writing the Script The Big Stars Want to Make.
Q: Without naming names, what's the most outrageous thing you've ever seen an actor or actress do?
CK: I saw the biggest box office star in the world at the time shoot a beautiful high-back Victorian-era chair with .45, his purpose being the need to kill the aura of a director he had just fired. The director had been sitting in the chair a moment before. The star told him to get up and move out of the way; he wasn't worth killing for real. I tell the whole story of this A-List star in the forward to a book I wrote a few years ago, How to Write a Selling Screenplay.
Romancing the A-List: Writing the Script The Big Stars Want to Make will be published by Michael Wiese Productions on April 1. The 190-page book can be pre-ordered by going to www.amazon.com.