Insider Tips on How To Become A Successful Screenwriter, No Matter the Genre
Exclusive MME Interview with Dirk Blackman, Screenwriter of Sci-Fi Hits “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” and “Outlander”
In this exclusive MME interview, I had the great pleasure of chatting with my film school professor and mentor, Dirk Blackman, who just happens to be one of Hollywood’s most accomplished and respected screenwriters.
The films he’s brought to life are some of most iconic action-packed, fantasy sci-fi movies of the last decade.
Of his many otherworldly creations, you might remember the maniacal vampire king named Viktor (Bill Nighy). He refused to accept his beautiful daughter Sonja’s (Rhona Mitra) deep and eternal love for her handsome Lycan lover, Lucian (Michael Sheen), in the 2009 blockbuster Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. That entry is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed films in the “Underworld” movie franchise.
Professor/Screenwriter Blackman’s genius doesn’t stop there.
He also the wrote the 2008 film, Outlander. In this edge-of-your-seat sci-fi smash, Jim Caviezel plays the handsome alien protagonist “Kainan” who crash lands smack dab in the middle of earth during the age of iron and Vikings. Kainan looks human and adapts to earth rather quickly—even going so far as to fall in love with a beautiful Viking princess named “Freya” played by Sophia Myles.
But, their romance is put on hold once he realizes that his planet’s predatory enemy, known as a “Moorwen”, also stowed away in his now disabled ship. With no other options available, Kainan aligns with the villagers and Vikings to fight his arch enemy that has the ability to kill both him and everyone on earth.
Those are only two of the many successful films that Professor Blackman penned. In his interview below, Dirk Blackman discusses exactly what it takes to be a screenwriter of his caliber, so you can gain valuable insight to further your own creative journey.
Becoming a Successful Hollywood Screenwriter
RB: What is one film that inspired you to want to become a screenwriter?
RB: When you decided you wanted to become a screenwriter was it out of the pure love of the craft?
DB: It was out of pure love for movies. Writing them was my way of being part of something I loved. And honestly, love for the art form is in my opinion the only reason to be a screenwriter. Anybody who gets into this business for the money is an idiot. There are far easier and surer ways to earn money.
RB: Have you ever had any other job other than being a screenwriter?
DB: I was an assistant at William Morris in the comedy department. My wife and I also had a small production company that made industrial films. Those are really the only jobs I had while I was trying to make it as a writer.
RB: Was it hard to stay focused while you were an assistant?
DB: Not really. I was young and I had a lot of energy. I wrote a bunch of features while I was at William Morris. It wasn’t a consuming job where I couldn’t write. Of course, you need discipline. All of this is a matter of discipline. You have to decide if you’re a writer, and writers write. That’s just what they do.
RB: What type of discipline does it take to be screenwriter? Do you have to shut the phone off and isolate yourself?
DB: Again, you have to ask yourself: are you a writer or not? If you’re doing it every now and then, you’re a hobbyist. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, but I’m talking about people who want to pursue writing professionally. It’s all about how you think of yourself. This industry is so hard, that writing has to be your identity. There is no set method. It’s OK to watch some cat videos if you need a break – I love cat videos – you just can’t watch them for 12 hours.
RB: Did you attend film school?
DB: I got my masters at the American Film Institute (AFI).
RB: Do you think a formal education in film is needed to survive in the industry?
DB: Since I teach at two film schools (Columbia College Hollywood and New York Film Academy), of course! In truth, I believe that if you approach a formal education seriously, it can be very valuable. If you fuck off, and think of it as just more schooling to get through, then… not so much. With all the bullshit on YouTube these days, I think filmmakers can benefit hugely from studying how great stories are told. People have been making movies and television for a long time and there’s always something you can learn from studying what’s come before as well as what’s coming next.
RB: All writers get tons of ideas, but for you personally, what makes an idea solid enough to start the process of turning it into a screenplay?
DB: That’s a good question. There are some ideas that are just cool, but that’s all they are. Then there are ideas that seem to build on themselves almost effortlessly. Scenes and possibilities pop into your head. The characters start suggesting themselves. It’s kind of like the teleporter in Star Trek – they keep getting more solid. That’s when I know I have something good.
RB: What was your lowest moment as a young writer?
DB: When I was young, I sold a script to Paramount. It was a science fiction story set on an asteroid prison modeled after Dante’s Inferno called Inferno City. I did about two rewrites, and while I was in Colorado I got a call that I had been fired. I was young and I didn’t understand that once I sold the script, it didn’t belong to me anymore. I didn’t rewrite the script the way the producers wanted and they fired me. They brought in another screenwriter and he did worse and eventually, it just died.
RB: How do you feel about the politics of being fired off your own project?
DB: I can’t say that it was a political situation where I was unjustly ushered away. I probably just didn’t do a good enough job on the re-writes. If I went back and read what I wrote, I might not be embarrassed, but I probably would not say “this is a movie.” That’s being honest. There are plenty of situations where politics come into play in situations like this, but ultimately it’s up to the writer to make a case for themselves to continue on. You have to listen, take the notes well and listen to the note beneath the note.
RB: Can you explain what “the note beneath the note” is?
DB: When people give you notes on your script, they might not be able to articulate exactly what the problem is. So you might think their notes suck or are inarticulate and ignore them. That’s a mistake. Instead you should try to figure out why they are saying what they are saying. Because often they feel something missing or something off but can’t quite put their finger on it. So they come up with a ‘solution.’ For instance, someone might say, ‘let’s make your hero the victim of domestic violence.’ But what they might really be saying is “your hero is kind of flat and uninteresting.’ That’s the note beneath the note.
RB: How much time did it take you to write the first draft of Inferno City?
DB: From notes, three weeks.
RB: Did it make you wary about your future in the industry?
DB: Did it make me want to move back to New Jersey? No. I was hurt for a few days, but I eventually came to understand that what happened to me is simply how things work in the business and I just moved on to the next thing.
RB: Was that your first paying job?
DB: I had given out a few free options on material before that, so yes.
RB: As a young screenwriter trying to break into the industry, is it more important to have a marketable script in your back pocket, a script that isn’t marketable, but shows that you have skill, or a combination of both?
DB: Best case scenario, you have a script that people see a future in developing and which shows your talent as a writer. Contained sci-fi, suspense. But at the end of the day, whatever you decide to write – Looper or Lawrence of Arabia – write it well. Make them want to read your next script.
RB: What can a young screenwriter expect to make selling his/her first screenplay?
DB: I know you want me to throw this big number out there but that’s just not how it works. Don’t worry about the money. If somebody is willing to believe in your work and develop your project, then you should be very happy. Those opportunities lead to more work and more importantly the health insurance you get in the Guild (WGA). Royalty payments are also a nice little added bonus. If you want me to give you a number, I don’t know: if the budget is between $1-$5 million, you’ll get a minimum of $40,000 when it gets made; more than $5 million, $80,000. It’s all based on the standards with the Writer’s Guild. As you get more well-known and get more assignments, that number goes up. And yes, sometimes way up.
RB: What goes into building a world for a script like Outlander?
DB: The general outline process is the same for any film. You start with cards on a wall and thinking of scenes. You move from the cards to an actual outline on paper, then you fill in the details. Character bios, logline, wants and needs for you characters, etc. The difference with Sci-Fi is that you have to establish what the rules of the world are. Is there gravity? Are there FTL drives? Are people enhanced? How can you tell? What are the weapons? Etc. It’s not smart to say you’re going to figure out certain things along the way. If you don’t know your world, it’s going to be very hard to plot things. [James] Cameron didn’t get halfway through Avatar and say, “Golly, what if there’s a really valuable mineral under the natives’ holy land? I could call it Hardtogetium.”
RB: Can you talk about your memories of how Underworld: Rise of the Lycans came to fruition?
DB: The director of that film (Patrick Tatopoulos) was actually the designer of the creature from Outlander. He also designed all the creatures for the Underworld series. They had a script in hand that needed to be re-written and he tapped me and my writing partner from Outlander, Howard McCain, to do the re-write. It was pretty much a page one re-write and we did it in three weeks. We handed in our draft right before the writers’ strike and got the greenlight. Everyone was thrilled because you never know how long a strike is going to last. The movie could have just died. The interesting thing about the politics of that film is that the producer, Len Wiseman – he was also the creator and director of the first two – knew the world inside and out, and articulated that vision very clearly. I have to tell you, when you’re working for hire and you have a producer like that, it is tremendously valuable. Also, there is a great freedom in not being able to say no. It was his world, and we were just writing in it.
RB: How does Dirk overcome writers block?
DB: I don’t think I have it. I’m trying to think of what my version of writer’s block is. I guess I’d call it writer hopelessness or writer’s cynicism. It’s never about having things to write about. The difficult part is how do you get up and keep writing things when you look at the odds out there. You think to yourself, I should just go buy a lottery ticket.
RB: Is there a process for writing believable dialogue?
DB: I think for some people, age actually helps. The longer you live, the more people you see, the more out of your head you get. There are exercises you can do, like sitting in a coffee shop and people watching. It’s harder to write good characters when you just see the world through your own view point. You have to try and imagine what it’s like to be somebody else. Empathy is key. If you’re not empathetic, I don’t know how you write characters. Another way to think of it is you have to allow yourself to love people. Get your head out of your ass and listen to them, watch them, wonder about them.
RB: How long should you step away from your script before you start the re-writing process?
DB: I don’t think there is one answer. Some people do need to take a month off, but it’s different for everybody. However I will say this. I used to tell my children, when it came to their homework, “read what you wrote, not what you think you wrote.” Same with screenwriters. You need to take your script and read what you wrote, not what you think you wrote. Very often there is a gulf between the two.
RB: Would you consider yourself a genre writer – if so, what are the advantages/ disadvantages of being a genre writer?
DB: When you’re dealing with agents and managers, they always want to package you as something. They want to take the path of less resistance, and it’s easier for them to send your material out when people know what to expect from you. On the other hand, I’m currently writing a Christmas movie, and I know my managers are going to freak out when I send it to them because they’ll have to do more work to reintroduce me.
RB: Do you need an agent or manager to be successful as a writer?
DB: Having representation gives you legitimacy and it’s a good thing to have someone in your corner who has the connections in the industry. With that being said, 75% of the work that I’ve gotten has come from my own legwork and the connections that I have made personally with execs and producers. Having an agent or manager is certainly not a bad thing though.
RB: The one question every writer wants to know, is how do you get a agent or a manager?
DB: I don’t know (laughs). A) be rich… that would be helpful. I wish there was a simple answer I could give you but it’s not that kind of thing. The thing is, managers and agents are ALWAYS looking for new talent. They’re hard to get to, and hard to find, but they are always looking for new young talent because that’s how they make money. That’s the one thing new writers have going for them. I understand it’s a long-term thing, but meet everyone. DO NOT stay in your cave. If that means coming out of your comfort zone, then get over it. Go have a drink with someone. Play cards. Volunteer. Ask your Aunt Yitzee who she knows. One of the first cold calls I ever made was to someone my mother glancingly knew through her dog club. “Hi. You don’t know me, but you and my mother both raise Clumber Spaniels…”
RB: Do you feel diversity or lack thereof is a problem in the film industry? If so, what role, if any, do writers play in helping create diversity?
DB: Is there a problem? Yes. I do think that things are getting better and moving in the right direction. At least the writers that I know are conscious of the issue. I was working on a sci-fi script that had eight main characters and I gave them ethnicities, which I never do, because I didn’t want people to read it and envision eight white guys. It’s not a quota thing, but I think writers should just accurately depict how things are in the world we live in, in the year 2016.
RB: What advice would today’s Dirk Blackman give young Dirk Blackman, who has just decided that he wanted to be a screenwriter?
DB: Off the record, “You sure you want to do this?” (laughs). On the record, “Start saving, even if it’s 50 cents a day. Get that IRA ready.” I’m dead serious about that. Twenty-five-year olds never think about themselves being 50, but it’s going to happen. I would tell myself to never work on deferment, recognize opportunity, meet more people, and never take a break. Once you get a wave you have to ride that thing, and never stop working. And oh yes… meet people.