How to Write a Screenplay for Oscar Winners



I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how difficult it is to find Producers who understand how to improve a script nowadays. This was required a few decades ago. I believe that the digital age and the expansion of film schools enabled more producers to jump into production. Hey, it’s great that they get to make a film, in my opinion. However, steps along the way – learning the elements of better storytelling – are frequently skipped. That’s why you hear so many strange comments about script rewrites in studio meetings. You’ve worked hard as a writer to craft a good story. Then a Producer asks if you can make the death of the midget drowning in the toilet that someone else used less insulting to midgets (this is an actual note from Warner Brothers on a comedy assassin movie.)

I’ve had the good fortune to work with several Academy Award winners. I’d either be a Screenwriter for Hire or write a script they wanted to set up.

Here is a list of infamous Producers or Directors with whom I have worked, learned, or set up projects:

Glory to Freddie Fields
Midnight Cowboy is Jerome Hellman’s debut novel.
Saturday Night Fever, by John Badham
Head of Paramount/Titanic, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Top Gun, Barry London
Mr. Holland’s Opus by Cort/Madden
Albert Magnoli: Purple Rain (early filmmaking/writing guidance)
Tootsie, Out of Africa, and countless other films by Sydney Pollack (seminar mentoring)
Tony Scott: Top Gun, Man on Fire, Unstoppable, A-Team, and many other titles.

Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc.) did not help me improve my scripts or mentor/advise me in any way, even though he is a household name.

My experiences with New Line’s big days were engaging, and I learned a lot.

However, Freddie Fields/Jerome Hellman, and Barry London are the most influential. Tri-John Star’s Marsh showed me how to improve a script. Justin Dardess was, too. I’ll focus on Fields, Hellman, and London because I credit them with pushing my abilities far beyond those of most writers, particularly in marketing, funding, and distribution.

Fields, Freddie. What a legend he is. Cary Selig, a fantastic female producer, introduced me to him. She worked as a D-Girl for him before finding Bel-Air Pictures (Collateral Damage, Message in a Bottle, The Replacements, Pay It Forward, and more.)

American Gigolo, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Poltergeist, American Anthem, Glory, Millennium, Fever Pitch, Crimes of the Heart, and Victory were all produced or co-produced by Freddie Fields. But before that, he was one of the heads of ICM (then known as CMA) and was credited with helping to launch the careers of Judy Garland, Woody Allen, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, Peter Sellers, and Steve McQueen, as well as marrying a Miss Universe. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Graffiti, and Star Wars were all inspired by him.

And he mentored me for a year. Unbelievable. I learned more about the energy and deal making behind closed doors than I could ever put into a blog. (Only Barry London could have taught me more.) Here’s how it all went down.

Keri is a stunning brunette with a perfect body, the type you’d think came to Los Angeles to become a star. But she was only concerned with production. I met her at a bar through friends, and she gave me her business phone number. We had a few drinks together and vanished from each other’s lives.

I began work on an action script titled Hard Knox. The plot revolves around the theft of gold from Fort Knox during a tornado. The tornado turns out to be the villain. It had some interesting plot twists. I could tell it was a good idea. I ran into her on page 80, and she told me she had moved to Fields/Hellman. I came in for a meeting, and she asked me to pitch her three ideas. I cast Hard Knox last because it wasn’t finished yet, but she knew this was the one. She requested a sneak peek. I went home and revised what I had written before delivering it to her unfinished.

Meanwhile, I had met a small-time producer who had a film deal with, I believe, Millennium Pictures, as well as an open door at some studios. He needed to hire a screenwriter. I’m unsure what his name was, but I believe it was Jacque. I only recall his attitude toward the film he was about to direct in a month. It was a $3 million film that was shot in Vancouver. He referred to it as shit, a waste of time, and something he wanted to do and flush down the toilet, but he needed the money. I felt terrible for the actors. The story and writing were both thin and frail. He’d read Blood, Sweat, and Gold after a lawyer told him I was Hollywood’s best undiscovered (cheap and willing to ghostwrite) writer. I accepted his offer to do a ghostwriting fix on his dream project for a few thousand dollars. I was working on it concurrently with Hard Knox but hadn’t told him.

Keri hadn’t even finished it when she called and said, ‘My boss wants to meet you.’ I had no idea who the legendary Freddie Fields was or what would happen if he did a film for/with me at the time.

When I walked into his office, there was this 70-year-old man named Freddie. We held a rather formal meeting. He talked about his accomplishments and saw me for who I was: a naive, needy writer with some talent. He had read the first 80 pages of Hard Knox and stated, “I can make this into a movie.” He brought in Jerome Hellman, the legendary Producer of Midnight Cowboy, and they got along well. Then Jerome walked away. Freddie was unquestionably the hard ass, hard line dealmaker. He stated that he desired a free Option on it. No, I said. He chuckles and says it’s OK that I don’t know what’s being offered because he promised to make me a better writer in exchange. I said it sounded good but was still too naive to realize what I had almost missed out on.

Following that meeting, I had another with Jacque. When I told him about Freddie, he asked if he could have a copy of the script. I had one left over from the meeting and gave it to him. I left after getting his notes on his lame writing.

The following day, I had a meeting with Freddie. It was my first meeting to discuss improving my script and making it a slam dunk. He was very friendly and told me some interesting Hollywood stories. I had a crush on him. And I was learning. I had almost finished the script by that point. A deal with him appeared satisfactory, but I had had good meetings before and was not married to Freddie if a better offer came in. They were, indeed. Keri had a stronger hold on me. That was my devotion at the time.

When I got home, Jacque summoned me to his home. I assumed it was to provide me with more notes. I walked into the house. He was ferocious! He was desperate for this Hard Knox. He knew it was a smashing success. His Millenium connections were sufficient to gain traction, and he would attach himself to direct. Then he launched into a rant about how evil Freddie Fields was, saying, “He will fuck you over so bad that you won’t even know he fucked you until your ass bleeds a year later.” This guy was so snobbish and insulting to Freddie… it didn’t seem to fit with the Freddie Fields I’d come to know. On the other hand, Jacque went on and on about Freddie being a snake who is too old to make another film.

I went home, unsure what to think; I made no commitments, but Jacque assumed he had me on his side. I hadn’t scheduled a meeting with Freddie for three days, but he did expect me to call the office. Instead, I worked on Knox’s makeup. Jacque tried to force me to sign an agreement over lunch, but I refused because I needed to finish the script first.

Freddie has excellent radar. “Scott, I can feel you are pulling away from me,” he said out of nowhere. Come on in, and we’ll talk.” I did. “Scott, many people will want this script,” he said as I sat down. However, it is not yet ready to be released. It’s almost there, but it’s not. They will tell you anything and everything. But you don’t know enough about the company to determine its worth. I have something to say to you that I believe you will understand. Anyone who tries to persuade you to remove this script must have a solid and successful game plan. If they don’t have one, they’re squandering your talent. “Right now, I will tell you my game plan for building heat on this script.” And he told me his strategy, the strengths of the script, the concerns a studio has about it, the burden on the producer – stuff I’d never learned in my career! It was fantastic. Then he said, “All right. I believe you have something to say to me, perhaps some questions or concerns. “What are you thinking?” There was a brief silence as I considered whether to play it safe or face it head-on. I reasoned that I could express my feelings because the script was so good. So that was the course of the conversation.

“I’ve been telling everyone I’m working on a new script with Freddie Fields.” He beams with pride. “They’re giving me a lot of information.” He widens his smile. “According to this one person, Freddie Fields cannot be trusted. He’s a serpent. He’s going to fuck you.” After a dramatic pause, he asked, ‘Who said this to you?’ with a trembling smile hidden behind anger. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you. But I can tell you something. My father retired last year, and the Wall Street Journal featured him on the third page as one of the last incorruptible men on Wall Street. “When you hear bad things about a successful man that do not agree with your gut feelings, just put the cards on the table, bring it out into the open, let him explain himself, but most importantly, let him start over with you if your gut tells you you feel good around him,” he said. So let me explain what that means to me. You know so much more about the industry and have so much power in this situation that you can screw me, and I won’t be able to stop you. But I don’t think that will happen. I’m telling you this because I just decided to accompany you. On that, I’m going to shake hands. And once I do, nothing can force me to break my promise because you are my producer. Even if things go wrong, I’m on your side. You have a choice now. Regardless of your past, good or bad, you can start over with me as if you had never sold out or betrayed trust. This is similar to rebirth. So, let’s be partners, and you do whatever you want, but for now, I want my mind to focus on writing the best words for you.”

That was a lot of weight.

I didn’t realize it then, but he had tears. “Cancel my next meeting and order lunch here for us,” he said to Keri as he picked up the phone. We’re scheduled until 2 p.m.” Then he walked out from behind his desk and had me sit on the easy chairs, saying, “I have never heard such a meaningful start of a writer partnership. I’m going to reveal my true self to you. And I will teach you more about this than you ever imagined. I will take you under my wing and make you successful in Hollywood. Write down what you hope to get from Paramount on this paper.” I put in $250,000 in cash. “I’ll get you double that even if I write the check,” he said after reading it.

This sparked a wonderful father/son mentoring relationship on Hard Knox. He spent three days, three hours a day, reviewing every sentence I wrote, telling me whether it was valuable, should be kept as is or should be changed. He pulled out several scripts, comparing key set piece moments or character dialogue from award winners. He improved my writing threefold. He told me the entire story of how Glory became a film, although Hollywood predicted a $50 million Civil War film starring Broderick and blacks would be a box office flop. He told me everything I needed to know about agency deal structure and motivations. It was incredible. He also said to me about his two significant regrets at the time. One was his estranged son, and I was seen as a way to make things right and hopefully start over with him. Another regret was that he drove into his driveway and accidentally ran over both dogs.

Meanwhile, his money saved my mother’s life through medical bills and kept our family together. Keri said my mother sent him a Christmas card that was so honest in her praise for his goodness that he cried.

Then came the presentation of the script to Paramount and Fox. He recognized the film as a Paramount production. We started making deals, and I conversed in his office. It was a challenge for him to transition from Glory to Hard Knox. But we got the deal done. He knew that I required funds and that Paramount would take a long time to close his contract, even though my script deal was easily set at $375,000 plus $125,000 in rewrite fees and $75,000 in bonuses. So he wrote me a substantial personal check! Then he told me to repay him when I got paid. Six months later, I was born, and I walked in and handed him a check that day. He was taken aback. “No one in Hollywood ever pays back, not on the first day,” he said. “You remind me of your father.” That was the highest praise.

The transaction went smoothly. We were on our way to filming. We got the writer from RoboCop interested in directing it as his second film. He polished the script, and we were looking for actors. Then something happened that was entirely out of our hands. Speilberg announced that he would be doing Twister. And he would seize all of the most recent CGI for it. Paramount didn’t want to risk making a good film that would be overshadowed by Speilberg’s name alone. They were on a super-fast production schedule and would be in theaters three months before us. Our film was in turnaround. I had made approximately $175,000 on it but was disappointed it was not produced.

If necessary, I can pull it from Turnaround. It still works as an action film and is no longer prohibitively expensive to produce. Because of advances in CGI, it could probably be done for $15 million now.

Working with Freddie also provided me with an open door at ICM. I should have pushed harder to stay there. That was a massive blunder of mine. However, the agent who met me had read and enjoyed Hard Knox. However, there was an odd vibe in the agency. They were looking for hits. They concentrated on what was popular then and tried to ride the tails of script sales. I’ll explain what I mean. I meet, and one of the first things the agent says is, ‘Do you have any scripts about Big Babies? I mean, huge ones? Because they were working on a script about big babies that got canceled, and now a few studios think it’s a good idea.” I told him I had somehow forgotten Big Baby themes in my repertoire. “Can you write one about big babies quickly?” No. We never recovered from my lack of Big Baby scripts, so I moved on to Gersch Agency and Jim Lefkowitz, who later claimed fame for selling the most expensive hand ever. I believe it was more than $5 million. I’m not sure.

After the deal was turned around, Freddie and I tried to stay in touch, but he was getting old. Hard Knox was to be his final film. I wished I could have done it with him. Keri scheduled some meetings in Bel Air. They did not produce a movie. But she was also instrumental in connecting Hollywood to the new technology that we all use today. She excited me about High Definition, making me one of the first filmmakers to try it and shoot a reality show. Thank you, Keri.

I believe Freddie has passed away. A true legend has died.

I applied everything I learned to my writing, and my scripts improved in quality. Purple Rain was written and directed by Albert Magnoli from USC film school. He gave me a lot of advice. He told me about Tarantino’s abilities long before he became famous. He also warned me not to let anyone else direct Catapult. And it’s turning out to be my first major motion picture. It’s an action film so good that the funders are willing to take a chance on making it my first big release.

Sydney Pollack met me through a female friend, and I became close to him and learned from him during some of his many tutoring sessions or speeches on great filmmaking. He never got around to doing one of my scripts, though. He taught me the majority of what I know about directing.

I did not work in production with Tony Scott, but I did spend 28 days with him in Utah. It was learned through observation and listening.

I met Barry London by chance. ATM, a screenplay of mine, had been given to him by someone. It’s an outrageous comedy about a high school reunion. I had just returned from filming the sitcom Club Fiji in Fiji. On a Sunday morning, the phone rang. “I’m looking for Scott Morgan, the author of ATM. “Hello, my name is Barry London; do you know who I am?” “Who was it who suggested I watch Rich Girl?” [Because it was a bad film and a bad producer, I wasn’t excited.] “No, I made a few films you might have heard of — Forrest Gump, Top Gun, Braveheart, Ghost?” he laughed. I’m wondering if you’d be available to meet with me today in Calabasas?” This was the start of an incredible learning curve for me. I can’t say enough good things about him. But I don’t have enough space in this blog to tell you everything we did together.

I have reached the limit of how long this blog can be in words, so I will have to discuss Barry London further in a separate blog. You can read it and learn more about me by clicking on the links in my profile.

After moving to Los Angeles and appearing on several television shows as an actor/model, I transitioned into screenwriting. My first script options were with Silver Pictures during the Die Hard era. Then I went to work for Paramount producers. Winning Best Director and Best Picture for my directorial debut in Playing Solitaire at the Los Angeles and New York film and video festivals in 2004 led to directing sitcoms. Throughout it all, I kept notes and have a lot of great stories that help writers, people understand and enjoy films, and producers find a screenwriter. My website contains incredible information and secrets. I’m starting to post my blogs of special knowledge and insight here. My new sitcom is now in production, and a major feature film is in the casting process.

Best wishes! I hope you like them.

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