“So whaddayou do, Doug?”

It’s the usual, socially interactive question. Adults, stuck in the same mini-sphere, in this particular case it’s at a Little League team party hosted at my San Fernando Valley compound. Okay, it’s not really a compound. Nor is it a hacienda. It’s just your basic suburban domicile with a man-cave-slash-writing-lair in the back.

“I’m a writer,” I answer, unable to toss back the question with my usual spin (read The Bulletproof Lie). That’s because my kids are around and could easily blow my cover, not to mention some of the other parents know my profession, and last but not least, the omnipresent collage of movie one-sheets bearing my name that are often noticed when guests avail themselves of my office bathroom.

“What kind of writer?” is the general and polite follow-up question. “Films? TV?”

“Movies mostly,” I say. “I also write books.”

This is when the conversation usually splits down one of two divergent roadways. Fiction Boulevard or Movie Street. Considering my movies have so far proven way more popular than my still-growing thriller business, the subject often steers thusly:

“So how does it work?” he asks.

“How does what work?”

“The writing movies thing?”

“Oh that,” I say, knowing fully what they really meant. I was just hoping to be wrong for once. Nor do I respond to their referring to my chosen profession—a line of work with which I pay the mortgage on my compound… er… humble abode—a thing.

“I mean, who comes up with the idea? Does somebody give you a book?” he asks.

“Sometimes they come up with the book. Sometimes I come up with the book.”

“Only books?”

“Hardly,” I say. “Ideas can come from anywhere.”

“Like anyplace at all?”

“Someone can bring me an idea,” I explain. “Or a half-formed story. Or an article from a magazine. Or an experience they had. Or it can come from my own experience.”

“Anywhere at all?”

“Pretty much.”

“Like… anything?”

“Exactly,” I say. “And you never know when the idea’s gonna hit you. I could be at a gas station. Or the market. Watching a baseball game. Who knows? I might suddenly get struck with the bright idea that there’s a good story in something like this. A team pool party. Where the host is hit up by one of the parents with a question like ‘what do you do?’”

Usually I have to wait for it. The questioner’s brain to catch up with the concept that the weak premise I just suggested was about him. Then the goof would normally bust out a big laugh before continuing the interrogation.

“So then what?” he asks.

“After the idea comes?”

“Yeah.”

“I write the movie.”

“And how does that work?”

“I actually sit down and I actually write it.”

“I figure that. But how long does it usually take, you know? To write the movie.”

“My first draft?”

“Sure. Your first draft.”

“Eight to ten weeks.”

This is when the whistle comes. Followed by:

“Wow. That long?”

“Sometimes a little quicker. Sometimes a bit longer.”

“How much longer?”

“Depends on the writer,” I say. “Some take six months to a year.”

“Holy crap. That’s long.”

“I suppose.”

“For just a movie, I mean.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“So it’s like what? A really long outline?”

“The screenplay for the movie?” I ask, though I know what he means. I don’t need him to clarify. This is about the time I’m attempting to devise an exit strategy to this particular conversation. That’s because I’ve been here before and know precisely where it’s going.

“Oh yeah. I’ve heard of that,” he says. “Screenplay.”

“That’s why it’s called ‘screenwriting.’”

“But this screenplay thing…”

There he goes again. To him, what I sometimes create from nothing is a “thing.” I should tell him that I have a “thing” in my office that has a trigger, takes lithium batteries and delivers one hundred and fifty thousand volts of Have-A-Nice-Day.

“What’s in it?” he continues. “You know. Your screenplay.”

“Description. Dialogue,” I answer.

“Dialogue?”

“Yes,” I say, preparing myself for the next and most obvious humdinger.

“So the dialogue you write is for…”

“The actors.”

“Actors, right,” he says. “And it’s like a description for what they’re supposed to say?”

“It’s pretty much exactly what they say,” I say.

“So what the actors say in the movie—“

“Is pretty much entirely written by a writer. Yes.”

“No kidding?”

“I kid you not. It’s written by a writer so when the actor opens his mouth something that propels the drama comes out of it.”

“Jeez. And I thought they just made it all up. Well, not all of it. But most of it. You know what I mean.”

“I do know what you mean,” I say. All too well, in fact. At this point I’m mentally writing a memo to The War Department. Please never volunteer us for one of these team party things again.

“So all the dialogue. Everything the actors say. Is written by you?” he asks.

“Or another writer. It’s a profession. There’s lots of us. We even breed.”

“So what else do you write?” he finally asks.

“Like I said. I’m also a novelist—“

“No,” he interrupts. “In the movie thing. You write the dialogue. But what else do you write or is that it?”

“No. There’s more,” I say with a dryness that might infer that a) I need another beer or b) I need something a lot stronger than a beer.

“Like what else?” he asks.

“Okay,” I relent. He’s a guy between the age of twenty and forty-five. The odds are with me here. “Did you see Bad Boys?”

“I did. Yeah. I know that movie. You wrote that?”

“I did.”

“No kidding. Wow.”

“Okay,” I continue. “So you remember how it starts. With the Porsche roaring down the highway. Miami. Palm trees whizzing by. Fast.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Then we’re inside the car. Will’s behind the wheel. Martin’s in the passenger seat. Will starts complaining about Martin ‘havin’ a picnic’ in his brand new Porsche.”

“Yeah, right. I remember that scene. That was funny stuff.”

“It was all written first,” I say. “The Porsche and the palm trees and Miami and the car going fast and the characters in the car and the hamburger and the complaint about the picnic and the dialogue where Martin drops the French fry between the seat the console and Will tells him his has to go down and ‘git it.’”

“Uh huh.”

“Like that,” I say.

“So you wrote all that.”

“Pretty much everything from the beginning to the end,” I tell him. “Until the screen goes black and the credits roll.”

“You write the credits too?” laughs the guy. “Only jokin’ about that. I know you probably didn’t write that.”

Now, before you curse this harmless boob for being a moron, just know he’s merely ignorant of how the puppeteer works the strings. In fact, the fellah I might’ve been having the conversation could easily have been a heart surgeon or a Verizon Wireless technician or an attorney or even a movie set construction chief. I’ve even had the conversation with a computer programmer for a defense contractor. And in all those years he’s been figuring how to build a new binary system to thread through an eye of a needle in order to make a smart bomb even smarter, he’s been more than happy to buy a ticket, a Coke, and a fat bucket of popcorn and gladly watch my movie unspool without any more expectation than did it entertain his over-worked ass? The truth is, without this curious fellow or his ilk, I wouldn’t have a job, let alone a dreamy pseudo-compound-slash-hacienda in the San Fernando Valley.I’m serious, here. He may be annoyingly curious but the proverbial shoe could easily fit on either of my ugly feet if I was the person machine-gunning him with questions about his day job,

“Hey,” he says. “I know somebody who works in your business.”

“You do?” I ask, feigning surprise.

“Neighbor of mine. Well, not really a neighbor. I woman who used to date a divorced neighbor.”

“Oh.”

“Maybe you know her.”

“Probably not.”

“She works for that studio.”

“Which one?”

“I forget the name. The one with the lady with the thing –“

“The thing being the torch.”

“That’s it.”

“Columbia.”

“Right.”

“What’s she do there?”

“Not a clue.”

“And I bet you don’t remember her name.”

“Can’t think of it. Nope.”

“Small world,” I say.

“Damn straight it is,” he says. “Very small world.”

“… But I wouldn’t wanna paint it,” I say, cribbing one of Steven Wright’s best lines.

“Man, you should write comedy,” the man laughs.

“Maybe I should.”

“You don’t?”

“Not usually.”

“So how’s that work? You know. The writing comedy thing?”

Sigh.

Like the blog? Then you’ll love my newest thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in both trade paperback and ebook, cheaper than a happy hour margarita and guaranteed to last longer.

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Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Fred Lemon

    Thanks again Doug – I always look forward to kickstarting my Tuesday with a cuppa char and a wry smile from one of your many anecdotes. You have so many of them, you should write one of those blog things…

    (…sorry. Couldn’t resist…)

    • Some day I will run out of showbiz anecdotes and have to start telling tales from my boring life.

  • I started screenwriting in high school and when I would meet people and tell them I write screenplays, they’d always ask me “what do you do it for?” “Like for a class?” “For fun?” People are the worst.

    • LaToya. When those same people plunk down their dough to watch the movie from your screenplay, I hope your opinion of them changes.

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  • Bryan Walsh

    “For just a movie, I mean.”

    For JUST A MOVIE??? Why do (most) people trivialize movies??? I know that for previous generations, such as The Baby Boomers, writing “The Great American Novel” was everybody’s dream. Those days are long gone. The 21st Century’s equivalent of The Great American Novel is The Blockbuster Screenplay. The Avengers JUST made $1.5 BILLION worldwide last year; no big deal, right? Not many people can write those; if they could we’d see more of them and the top screenwriters wouldn’t make as much. I could go on and on, but I’ll save my energy.

  • Yikes. I’ve had similar conversations. One producer – producer! – asked me what happens after I finish a script, does it then go to “the dialogue person to put the dialogue in?” That one still makes me laugh.

    • A producer? Seriously? What did this producer produce? Yeast infections?

      • John Thomas

        Produce as in groceries perhaps…

      • Mostly documentaries, but had just started “developing”, apparently. I won’t hold my breath for their movies…

  • This can NOT be true. I just…I can’t…it…

    …no way…

    …just…

    no.

  • Dear Doug first off I just ordered Blood Money from Amazon, partly because I’ve been a fan of your work for years, secondly this blog is my favorite blog on the net, and finally because it was damn well time I did something to promote you other than sit on my butt and marvel at how good you are. By the way, guy comes to me, says “so you’re a writer?” and I say “yes” and he says “I’m a neurosurgeon but when I retire I’m going to be a writer” and I said (you will see this coming) “That’s cool because when I retire I’m going to be a … ” (well you know what I said)

    • Hahahahahahahahahaha. Carsten. Played golf last week with a retired heart surgeon who was penning his first thriller. Out of politeness to my host, I refrained from your line. But you know I was thinking it. Thanks for the support. You’re a writer I admire.

  • LOL. Two different people this weekend past asked if “someone gave me a book” to base my screenplays on. I’ve become so immersed in writing I’ve forgotten how the rest of the world sees it. It cracks me up that so many people think the actors make up their lines on the spot. Amazing. Thanks for sharing this with us. It’s always good to remember other perspectives.

  • DCR

    I’ve been writing for decades (only screenplays lately; was on car mag staffs) and people who speak our native tongue often would tell me they thought they’d be a writer “when” … Y’know, just pick it up. It’s just words in some order, and they had English Comp in college.

    Separately but related, you guys speaking of doctors: Many years ago I had to get a flight physical to sign up for lessons. I just picked an entry out of the doctor book the flight school gave me, made the appointment, and showed up on time. Doc asks me why I’m getting a flight physical. Gonna take lessons, sez I, thought I’d be a pilot.

    He snorted, right in front of me. Turns out he was a retired Air Force flight surgeon, who knew the doctorin’ AND the flyin’. Chuck Yeager has ruined it for everybody.

    “How long will you take lessons to be a ‘pilot’?” he asked.
    I said I thought it might take about eight weeks to six months.

    “Hmm. If I had gone to medical school for six months, would you still think I was a doctor?”

    This is not the bedside manner of Marcus Welby, but he had a point. And it gave me a fresh perspective on folks who tell me they someday expect to be writers.

    • Great story. Liking this thread. Hope you and others share more.

  • Man, I’ve had quite a few versions of this conversation… minus the Bad Boys reference, of course…

    But yeah… and my plays, too, I’ve had friends come up and were shocked, even though my name was on it, that the words the actors spoke were words I had written… they thought the actors just made it up on the spot…

    I get it, tho’, we often see actors on Leno explain how they improv’d the dialogue, so maybe that’s why so many think that…

    • True, Joshua. Some actors like to think they make up the dialogue by changing a word or moving a comma. Others, though, respect the words and use their fine craft to make them soar.

  • LOL. Two different people this weekend past asked if “someone gave me a book” to base my screenplays on. I’ve become so immersed in writing I’ve forgotten how the rest of the world sees it. Thanks for sharing this with us. It’s always good to remember other perspectives.

  • “Small world”….still laughing!

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  • Glenn McGee

    How often do you get the great unoriginal idea you should jump on and whip up a script? In my travels far removed from Hollywood, I’ve often noticed how people marginalize other people’s profession. I’ve sold construction projects in the tens of millions of dollars only to find out that someone thought this was accomplished by buying someone lunch or a round of golf.

    • Glenn. Hate to think you missed out on a round of golf. But that’s just reveals my personal inclination.

  • Aaron

    Wait – you wrote all that, right? I’m calling BS. That never happened. 😉

    • Aaron. Full disclosure. I will admit to actors occasionally ad-libbing and having stolen some stellar audition dialogue from Michael Imperioli.

  • paul

    Like Carsten, I’ve just ordered Blood Money from Amazon since it’s well past time for me to venture a little more into your world, Doug. Looks like it’s going to be a helluva fun ride. As for the queries at the Little League house bash…, at least he didn’t tell you the idea he’s had that would be a great screenplay that he’d write (if he had the time) and hint that you should write it…ha. The same dynamic exists in all professions to some degree though…, when I was heavy into my landscaping biz people would forever tell me how amazing it would be to have the opportunity to build stone walls all the time. And it IS amazing. It’s also a little tough on the bod. So it’s all true I guess.

    • Thanks Paul. And yes. Seems EVERYBODY has a story that could be a great movie. Nobody has ever told me a story they thought would be a great book. I mean NOBODY. By the way. I have an idea for a decorative retaining wall using abalone shells and ant farms. But I think you should do it.

      • paul

        Ha! I draw the line at ant farms.

  • Jesse Falleur

    Hey Doug,

    You must have the patience of a saint. Thanks for writing, it made me smile.

    Take care,
    Jesse Falleur

    • Hey Jesse. I say this every time somebody says I have the patience of a saint or some other servant of God. “Please tell that to my children.” Anyway, I have no more patience than the average pro who’s decent at his job. Somebody I should blog about when United Airlines lost Tony Scott’s and my luggage. That baggage complaint girl gets the patience award.

  • Asking where creative people get their ideas is a fairly common thing for the non-creative. Next time I’ll offer to pass on the secret for a certain amount…just kidding.

    My friends no longer ask but now when I read a book they want to know if it’s mine. As in, did I write it, not do I own it. Big reveal–writers read a lot. We tend to own a few books we didn’t write, okay? Movies, too.

    I had my own delusions when I was little (and I’m not claiming they’re all gone.) I used to think the actors in a program were forced to sing the theme song. 😀

  • Fred Bluhm

    Doug… All to often we run into people whose only real knowledge of what goes on in the movie business is what they see come Oscar time. I’m looking forward to the day when someone carries on a similar conversation with me, and I can tell them to grab a copy of your tales from the Hollywood trenches. Maybe the next time they watch the Oscars, they’ll have more appreciation for the guys who won the screenwriting awards – and for screenwriting in general. As for this blog, thank God someone out there is willing to tell it like it is for those of us who hope to make it some day. Thanks, Doug.

    • Thanks Fred. Maybe I can set up a table outside the Oscars and sell the book. No worries. I would wear a tux.

  • lostjack

    I’m a trailer editor. I can relate to this kind of conversation.

    “So do you get to see the whole movie before it comes out?”

    “Most of the time yes”

    “So does someone just tell you what clips to use and you put it together?”

    “No not really at all”

    It goes on forever and at the end they only have a marginally better understanding of what I do.

  • Mary Lynn Mabray

    I’ve had more than my share of these conversations but since I actively practice interior design and have not “as yet” been lucky enough to have the word “screenwriter” on any kind of card…even toilet paper, I could not only relate but just got the best laugh ever…abpnd believe me after the week I’ve had, I needed it…and it’s only Tuesday.

    Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger though when these conversations with the boobs of the world, erupt of out nowhere. People just don’t “get” the movie business. Not at all. They don’t “get” design either. Basically, I think people don’t “get” the creative process…not one little iota. I had a date … Even though I’m older than dirt … Say to me the other night. “I thought you were an interior designer”… “I am”… “Then what’s this screenwriting thing?” “Movies”… I replied a bit incredously. “Movies”? “Yep”. “Like Sons of Anarchy?” ” That’s a television show…but yes you’re on the right track.” Now, he’s looking at me like I’ve suddenly grown a third ear on my nose. “So, that’s a hobby, then?” “Nope”. No hobby, I have degree in screenwriting.”
    Now, I’ve grown a fourth ear…this time on my chin. He leans back in his chair and looks at me in amazement. ” So an interior designer…”Yes” I replied ever so sweetly… “And a damn good one”…
    I said…and he goes on…”and a screenwriter”. “Yes…I say … “Still a wannabe but someday I”m just gonna BE.”… And he said…”Well damn…I didn’t know you were so smart cause all you is pick out fabrics, right? By this time I have steam coming from those newly grown third and fourth ears…and say…”well designers do a lot more than select fabrics…Like this restaurant we’re sitting in…” Yeah, he said…I designed all the fabric that goes on all the chairs”… I just had to mess with this idiots mind as he’s looking at the fabric on the chair across from us…”and then I designed the entire restaurant around the fabric I designed…so don’t shit your pants when the waiter brings the bill…you’ll mess up my fabric”. It just wasn’t worth trying to explain that creative people can create just about anything … A screenplay, a novel or fabric. :-).

    Great story, Doug…I look forward to everything you write. 🙂 ML

    • Greeeeeeeat conversation, Mary Lynn. I love hearing these stories as much as telling them. And yes. Non-creative people either look at creative jobs as bullshit or magic.

  • Kent Bruce

    I’m at a complete loss for words. I understand these conversations exist, but to see it detailed? Painful. I’m shocked you don’t pre-game these events with a shot or two of JWB. Regards.

    • Kent. As a habit I don’t pre-medicate. Though I’ve been known to spike mine own lemonade.

  • Same here. Although either way, I will not be working with them, ever. Life is way, way too short.

  • James Hornsby

    Nothing like trying to explain what you do to those who don’t (numerous times).