How To Be a Dope Ass Motherf#&ker: Writing for Hire Tips with Steven Bagatourian
Jake: My guest today is Steven Bagatourian. Steven is an award winning writer. He wrote All Eyez On Me, the Tupac movie. He’s done huge budget features. He’s done tiny little independent films. He’s done everything in between. He’s also a tremendous mentor here at the studio, working with some of our top writers in our Protrack Mentorship Program and our Workshop Program. And so thank you, Steven, I’m so glad to have you on the program today.
Steve: Thank you so much, Jake, for having me. It is a pleasure to be here.
Jake: I’d like to start off by talking to you about work-for-hire projects. Because so much paid work comes out of the work-for-hire world. You’ve worked on projects that originated with you, and you’ve also worked on projects that are not original, that have come from producers. And I’m curious, how do you find that passion and voice when you’re working on a project that didn’t start with you? And how do you bring that when you’re working on an assignment?
Steve: That’s a terrific question. And it’s something I think that a lot of screenwriters don’t really give enough thought to when they get into screenwriting. Because so much of learning to write screenplays is so focused on (especially on the feature side) spec scripts and original scripts, but then you find yourself in the business and all of a sudden you’re in bizarro world. It’s a complete reversal of what you’ve been doing the whole time you’ve been like learning to write!
The dirty little secret of screenwriting is that over 95% of the work you’re going to get as a professional is going to be on assignment. And so it’s a very specific skill set, to speak to your question directly, it’s a very specific thing to learn how to bring your passion and your voice to an idea that you didn’t originate, that might be dealing with a subject matter you have no particular interest in.
And I know, for me, it was one of the biggest struggles in my career, because it was terrifying. And it’s very much on the job training. You’re hired by a studio, they say, “we’re making a movie about a wacky person who is a dentist, and he’s got some problems with his family,” and certainly you’re passionate about dentistry! Like, oh, who’s not? And you’ve got six weeks to deliver a draft, go!
And on some of my early jobs, it was really scary to me, because there’s a legitimate reason to be afraid at that point. If you mess up, then it’s going to be difficult to continue to work in that space.
So, at the beginning, I tried way too hard to follow instructions and meet the brief that I was given by the studio executives, and I naively thought that they wanted you just to listen to them as a screenwriter. And I quickly found out, that is actually not what they really want.
They want you to hear their notes and hear the spirit of their notes, but then they want you to do something creative and original and address the heart of the note, without literally just becoming a dictation machine for their idle musings and the things that they happen to just throw out in a notes meeting.
They understand that you might have a better idea, that you hopefully will have a better idea, but you’ve got to figure out how to make it your own.
And so, my first couple of assignment jobs, I was miserable with the drafts that I turned in. And at the end of the day, when the assignment was done, I was left with nothing, because the studio decides, “hey,