Screenwriting Interview – John Jarrell
Recently I’ve been talking a lot to John Jarrell, a screenwriter who’s been working in this business for over 20 years, and learning quite a bit from him. When he mentioned he was putting together a class, I told him that I had to promote it on the site, especially since I’ve been getting so many e-mails recently asking where the best screenwriting classes are. I think you’ll be able to tell right away how awesome John is and how much damn knowledge he’s accumulated over his career. But probably the best thing about John is what an awesome guy he is. He’s just a great champion of screenwriters everywhere and really wants to help.
SS: So tell us a little about yourself. Who are you?? What’s your screenwriting backstory?
JJ: Basically, I was a young guy who took on $50,000 worth of student loans to go to NYU Film and chase a dream of making movies one day. I literally drove out to L.A. in late 1990 with nothing but $200 dollars and my trusty ’66 VW Bug to my name. The old “confidence of ignorance” approach. (Not recommended, by the way.)
Five months later, with my Hollywood hopes and dreams being pulped into cream corn, I hit a clutch do-or-die shot and sold my first script. I was over the moon. Next thing I knew, I had real cash in my pocket and was flying home on a private G-3.
It had happened so fast, it all seemed to be too good to be true. Of course it actually was too good to be true. Which I learned pretty quickly.
My script didn’t get made and within a year I was broke and unemployed again. What followed was five unrelenting years of struggle simply trying to survive and put food in my mouth. (also not recommended)
But I did survive, and in ’97, based on a fresh spec, I got a break. I was signed by this small new agency called “Endeavor”. Things kinda took off after that.
Since then I’ve written films and tv pilots for many of the major studios and have worked with some of the best producers and directors in Hollywood. These include — Jeffrey Katzenberg, Neil Moritz, Joel Silver, Terence Chang & John Woo, Mike Medavoy, Richard Donner, Luc Besson, James Foley, Carl Beverly and Warren Littlefield.
Among other projects, I wrote “Hard-Boiled II” and a remake of Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite” for John Woo, was one of the many, many writers on “Live Free, Die Hard” at Fox, and scripted the animated family film “Outlaws” for Dreamworks. I’ve also sold four tv pilots and just finished my first book — the real life memoir of a legendary Chinatown gangster from the ’70’s and ’80’s.
SS: Sweet! So you’ve worked in this industry for two decades. Which leads me to a couple of questions.
a. What do you think the key is to breaking into this industry?
b. What do you think the key is to staying in this industry.
JJ: A) To get a start in this Business, first and foremost, you need a great script. Not merely good, but GREAT.
Twenty years ago screenwriter Larry Marcus (“The Stuntman”) told me that if you have a great script it may take a week, a year, or even ten years, but if you’ve written something undeniably fantastic, someone will find it. Why? Because there simply aren’t that many great scripts out there. It’s straight-up supply and demand.
I was pretty young at the time, and remember thinking, “That’s bullshit.” But what he said was right, and I’ve seen that dynamic play out with both my friends and myself as we’ve pursued our careers.
The other key elements to “getting a break” are timing and luck, and unfortunately, as most of us know, you can’t always control those. But I do believe you can “create your own luck” to an extent by working relentlessly to push your project. Meet people, network, send your script out knowing 99% of the time you’ll probably hear “no thanks”, but don’t let that discourage you.
See, this is the real key for any aspiring writer — “It only takes one buyer”. That’s what my first agent told me, and it’s just as true today. You can hear 1000 “No’s”, have a million doors slammed in your face, but just one simple “Yes” validates everything. As a writer, I’ve always found strength and inspiration in that. You don’t have to conquer Hollywood, you just need to find that one buyer out there who gets it.
SS: What’s your general philosophy on screenwriting? What do you think makes a script work?
JJ: Of course, there are all the classic elements involved — great characters, great worlds and themes, killer dialogue, etc. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of solid posts on ScriptShadow discussing all these with real insight. So yeah, they’re all important, but if I had to narrow it down to one thing it would be structure.
Having an airtight structure backstopping your script is absolutely critical in my opinion, especially these days when the window for experimentation and/or ambiguity is largely slammed shut.
Want to give execs and producers immediate confidence in whatever they’re reading of yours? Land your story’s structure. It allows them to “see the movie” straight out of the gate and provides a solid foundation for you as the writer to do your very best work. Structure is a key element of what we do at Tweak Class.
SS: Your big strength is probably action. I don’t see many good action scripts these days. In your opinion, what’s the secret to writing a good action script?
JJ: With the films I’ve written, I’ve always focused on creating “intelligent action” — elevating above and beyond genre expectations by making things smarter and more real. If there’s any “secret” to the process, that’s probably it. “Bourne Identity” may be the high-watermark in this department. It provided proof positive that when you raise the bar on intelligence and realism that high, you can reach a vast audience… even people who don’t usually like action films.
Remember, just because a project is labeled “action” doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. Yet, I feel like a lot of writers play down to that, even unconsciously. Repeating the shopworn clichés — the ball-busting, froth-spewing Police Lt., the scowling, uni-browed Russian drug lord, etc.
Sure, they still make movies with these one-D characters. But as an aspiring writer, you’re being held to a much higher standard than that. The limited pool of buyers out there want to see something fresh and inventive — even if they ultimately dumb it right back down to the most basic clichés (picture me laughing here).
Two rules I try and live by — 1) Never write something you yourself wouldn’t want to read. 2) Whenever you find yourself writing a scene that feels stock, like you’ve seen it a million times before, cut it and start over. Believe me, if you don’t, sooner or later someone in the food chain will call you on it, and it may kill your read.
Bottom line, guys, make your scripts as smart and interesting and badass as you would want a film to be if you just forked over $12 to see it. That’ll help keep you honest and keep the quality of your writing high.
SS: For me, personally, I need some depth in an action script to respond to it. But you obviously talk to these action producers all the time. In your experience, what are they looking for?
JJ: Just like the rest of us, great action producers want something fresh and fun, a badass idea that gets them totally pumped. Christ, you can see their faces light right up in the room when you pitch ‘em one they legitimately love. Remember, at heart, these guys are all big fans of action, just like we are.
The Business is making a lot less movies these days, so producers are even more selective about what they can finance. The good news is that they’ll always make action movies — the genre is old as Hollywood itself. So as a writer, help increase your odds of survival by thinking smart, badass and fun as hell — even if it’s a dark fun. Brother, if your world, characters or premise feels stock, you’re already dead and buried five pages in.
One more thing I’d like to add — Don’t kid yourself about “action” producers being ridiculous cartoons or “not getting it”. I’ve worked with Joel Silver, Neil Moritz, John Woo/Terence Chang… believe me, these men are SHARP. They have a depth of knowledge when it comes to genre that is outright intimidating.
Joel in particular was incredibly bright, one of the smartest men I’ve met in my life. When I wrote “Romeo Must Die” he had crossed the $100 Million Dollar mark FOURTEEN times. You don’t get there by accident, believe me. Man, that was such an incredible learning experience for me as a writer. Joel was a true connoisseur and had an incredible love for the genre, which he himself largely helped define.
SS: A lot of people don’t know the journey a script takes when it leaves your computer to getting sold. Can you tell us how that works? From when your agent sends it out to the sale, what happens?
JJ: Well, a lot of that has changed in the past four years. Pre-2008 when you wrote a great spec, you gave it to your agent and they would send it out to the different studios and producers that were logical, legitimate buyers.
Today, the emphasis is really on packaging. To a large extent, the studios have gotten out of the development business because of the expense, so now the agencies play a lot of that role. When an agency gets a viable spec, they try and attach a director or star in-house from their client lists first. Once they’ve cobbled together an appealing package, THEN they shop it to studios and financiers. The thought is that it increases their odds of selling it, and doubles or triples their profits because they rep the attachments involved.
“Naked specs” (scripts without attachments) still do sell, just in much, much smaller quantities. Attachments are king right now. But regardless of the Business of it all, what I said at the start still holds true — having a great script is always your best bet for navigating through the Hollywood crazy factor.
SS: What are a few of the best lessons you’ve learned over the years about screenwriting, stuff that’s really improved your writing?
JJ: Wow, there’s so many at this point, twenty years later. William Goldman’s advice to try and “begin each scene at the last possible moment” is a great one. Paddy Chayefsky’s “If it should occur to you to cut, do so” is also spot-on — even if it hurts like hell for a writer to do it. And there’s always Hitchcock’s dictum that “Movies are real life with the boring parts cut out”, which is an excellent guide for any writer constructing a screenplay.
In Tweak Class, we also get into very practical, real life advice for helping writers during the long struggle to finish a feature. Features aren’t sprints, they’re marathons, and there’s a psychological battle to fight every bit as much as a creative one.
Stuff like recognizing when you’re past it, when you need to stop for the day because you’re not generating good material is really important. As Dirty Harry so famously said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Page count means nothing, page quality everything. It took me years to get hip to this, to understand there’s no shame in calling it a day when you’re wasted.
Another thing I push hard, which may seem self-evident to some, is that you should NEVER, EVER edit the fresh pages you’ve written the same day you write them. You’re burnt out by then, snowblind. Give them a day minimum, a week’s even better, before starting to mark them up. From vast personal experience, I can testify this is the quickest and easiest way to destroy material that would have actually been pretty good upon later, clear-eyed reflection. (laughing again)
End of the day, I firmly believe that Writing is Momentum and a writer has to protect that forward progress at all costs. My class gets into a lot of workable ways to do just that.
SS: We all have weaknesses as screenwriters. What’s your biggest weakness? And how do you work around it?
JJ: One key weakness for me is simply not writing enough. When I look back over my career, I feel like I could have — and should have — written twice as much as I did. Writing is damn hard work, and facing a blank screen and all that comes with that is not exactly my idea of fun. Still, despite 27 features and 4 sold pilots, if I could do it over again, I would write a lot more.
Another weakness is driving myself way too hard when on a project. I have a bad habit of beating myself to a pulp psychologically, talking myself down during tough days. Funny thing is, it does not provide better results. If anything, it hampers your process. “Pressure is the enemy of art.”
Henry Miller has that great quote about writing — “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.” He also said to “Keep Human” while writing. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to approach screenwriting from either of those perspectives. For me, for better or worse, it’s mostly war all the time… and believe me, I don’t recommend it to others.
SS: If you were a young screenwriter today, what kind of script would you write to give yourself the best chance to break in? And what would you do after you wrote that script to break in? What would your process be?
JJ: I suppose I’d do the same thing I did way-back-when — I’d cook up something commercial and put it right down the middle. My first script was pretty dark, tough Irish kids in the old Jersey City, and while it was good, we couldn’t find a buyer. I was new to Hollywood, and my first agent just flat out said — “Write me something I can sell.”
I was juiced up on youthful indignance back then, taking my script’s rejection way too personally, and decided that goddamnit, this business would not beat me! I resolved to write something they would have to buy — something a complete stranger would willingly give me money for. And that’s precisely what I did.
After that, I would try to line up a paying gig while writing a second spec even stronger than the first. Young writers have to keep WRITING. But back then, like a dummy, I didn’t do that. There’s a tendency for young writers to rest on their laurels and celebrate, and I was no exception. Within two years my script had gotten shelved and I was out of work. (more laughter)
SS: You work with the biggest agency in town, WME. How did you end up there? And where did you start as far as representation? Can you give us the journey from your first rep to your current one?
JJ: I ended up at WME through Endeavor. I was signed at Endeavor when it was just starting out, at the very inception. It was tiny and really felt like family back then, just the coolest environment and best ENERGY you can imagine for an agency in this dog-eat-dog town. Being involved at that time was an absolutely amazing experience, one of the high points of my professional life. Hard to imagine today, but I would just stop by and hang out with the agents, bouncing jokes off each other, having a blast, all that. There were some really special people there.
Of course, what happened later is history. Endeavor blew up, became WME, and many of those agents became superstars. Now it’s a completely different world. But often I think of those early days with a big smile in my heart.
My career prior to that was probably like many writers out there — boutique agencies that couldn’t quite get it done, agents that didn’t have the juice needed to get me in the room on things. And to be fair, I wasn’t exactly lighting the town on fire with my writing back then.
But ultimately, again, there aren’t any shortcuts. My getting signed at Endeavor came as a direct result of my finally writing a script worthy of getting noticed by the people I wanted to notice me. That’s how this game works, like it or not. You have to prove you belong.
SS: What’s the best screenplay, produced or unproduced, you’ve ever read, and why?
JJ: I have a massive vintage script collection at home and here are a few of my all-time favorites —
Larry Kasdan’s Body Heat. Good God, what a great read! Every single detail is so artfully laid out and seeded in, and the heat of it, the naked lust and desire, just bleeds right through the page.
Hampton Fancher’s early draft of Blade Runner — For pure writing’s sake, I much prefer this to the Peoples’ rewrite. It’s just more textural and evocative to me, with some slight differences that I really enjoy. A magical script in my opinion.
Oliver Stone’s Scarface — People these days forget what a world-class screenwriter Stone is, one of the greatest who’s ever lived in my opinion. What’s so mind-blowing about this particular draft is that damn-near EVERY LINE in the film is right there on the page as Stone intended it. As badass a screenplay as you’ll ever read.
Paddy Chayefsky’s Network — Pretty much the Holy Grail for screenwriting as far as I’m concerned. His command of subject, character and dialogue is unparalleled here. You’re reading these long, thick passages of dialogue — something you could never get away with today — and suddenly realize that every last word counts. It’s entirely surgical, and coming at you at lightning speed. Unreal. Do not attempt this at home!
Lastly, Andy Kevin Walker’s Seven — The greatest serial killer movie ever written, and one that’ll never be equaled. I remember reading it when it first hit town and having it scare the absolute shit out of me. I was living in a tiny Venice Beach studio by myself, and when I got to the sequence with the desiccated guy “Victor” and the Polaroids, I got up to make sure nobody was hiding in my closet. Andy really is the master of the brilliant twist on top of the brilliant twist.
SS: What’s your teaching philosophy?
JJ: I’d never really thought of it in those terms, but I suppose it’s that there are no magic bullets or secret potions. Screenwriting is a craft you have to work very, very hard at, and nobody, no matter how experienced or successful, is exempt from that. Making money at it and being good at it are entirely different things, as many of us well know from reading an ocean of shitty big money drafts.
I want my students to be legitimately good at it. To develop the skill set needed to make a career out of writing — not just hope they’ll get lucky optioning a script or two every ten years.
Most of all, I see all the writers in my class as peers. Anyone can come up with a great idea — the right idea — at any time, regardless of experience. I’m a produced screenwriter. So what? Does that give me a monopoly on great ideas? Hell, no. The cool thing about screenwriting is that the blank page is the great equalizer — anyone can work hard and excel there, regardless of who they know, who their parents are, who they’re connected to, and so on. That’s one thing I really love about it. That anyone can participate and succeed.
Tweak Class aims to be the anti-cottage industry class. The real deal, no-nonsense, Welcome to the NFL shit, right there in the room, from a battle-proven vet with twenty years in. We all share the same dream, and my sole focus is helping you realize your version of it the way I wish someone had helped me out when I first started.
SS: I know your class is a little different from the other classes out there. Can you tell me what you focus on? What can your students expect from your classes?
JJ: “A little different” is a polite way of putting it (laughs). What surprises new students is how much FUN we have — and how much great work comes out of that. The class is extremely interactive, and that support and synergy can be outright electrifying at times. There’s no better rush than having a class get on a creative roll together.
But hey, don’t just take my word for it, check out our Facebook Group Page (“Tweak Class Screenwriting”) or the website (tweakclass.com) and see what my students have to say. Hell, go ahead and PM them and get their takes firsthand.
End of the day, I guess the Log Line here is that writers who join my class can expect to learn how the day-in, day-out business of screenwriting is actually practiced by professionals — both creatively and business-wise.
Not just the writing stuff, which is essential, but how to pitch, how to read a room, how to surf the million-plus curveballs any situation can throw you. It’s hard to win the big game if you don’t know the rules, right? Tweak Class focuses on getting your “A” game together in every sense, getting individual projects successfully plotted and First Acts written by the end of the ten weeks.
Every single member of my classes has accomplished both these goals so far, and trust me when I say you will too.
I think it goes without saying that John knows his sh*t. I’ll be honest, when I did a grammar pass on this post, *I* wanted to sign up for John’s class. I know his classes start next week in L.A. You can find out more about them and e-mail John yourself at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. Thank you to John. This is one of my favorite interviews I’ve given on the site!