You Too Can Be A Successful Screenwriter

Screenwriters and comedians Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon are out with a new guide for hopeful screenwriters: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! They talk to Renee Montagne about their book.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's possible to be very successful in Hollywood without ever being invited to the Oscars or any award ceremony, for that matter.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon fall into this category. and they don't mind at all, because their movies have made an astonishing amount of money. Now, you might know them as the stars and creators of Comedy Central's police parody "Reno 911."

MONTAGNE: As screenwriters, the pair have turned out big hits like Night at the Museum," and also some big flops. Remember "Taxi" in 2004 With Jimmy Fallon? Chances are, no.

Now, Ben and Tom, as they're known, are out with a how-to book, "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can Too!" Its chapters include rules like never take longer than 15 minutes to pitch a movie. And when they came into our studios here are at NPR West, they certainly did talk fast. Their words tumbled over each other as the pair recalled one of the earliest pitches.

It seems they were meeting with an executive at Universal, the studio located right next to its famous theme park.

Mr. ROBERT BEN GARANT (Screenwriter): Our first meeting in Los Angeles, we made a terrible mistake which is we had a little bit of extra time and we were staying on the Universal lot, and found a secret entrance into Universal Studios. We went on the giraffes park ride, didn't know it was a flume ride and we were in black suits.

Mr. THOMAS LENNON (Screenwriter): Yes.

Mr. GARANT: We came off of the right soaking wet.

Mr. LENNON: Soaking wet and so we went into the...

Mr. GARANT: And then we walked into our first pitch with that - you know that sound your shoes make, just very lightly when they're just a little bit moist? that kind of...

(Soundbite of sound effect)

MONTAGNE: Squishy, squishy, squish.

Mr. LENNON: That was us.

Mr. GARANT: That was the - they must've thought what in the world. And then, the movie we were pitching was that Earth had run out of hops and were sending a team to get beer.

MONTAGNE: You're making an intergalactic beer run.

Mr. GARANT: Yes. Yes, intergalactic beer run with the idea of the movie.

Mr. LENNON: Beer runs. Beer runs, yeah.

Mr. GARANT: So here were these two wet guys in suits. I have no idea how we're still here.

MONTAGNE: One of the things that makes the book so funny is you point out on a regular basis how much your movies have made, which is...

Mr. GARANT: Renee, I believe as the printing of the book, $1.4 billion.

MONTAGNE: And change.

Mr. LENNON: Yeah, and change. And that's not DVDs.

Mr. GARANT: No. No. No.

Mr. LENNON: That's not like on TV...

MONTAGNE: Just people going to the movies.

Mr. LENNON: That's box office, yeah. Yeah.

Mr. GARANT: Exactly. Now at some point, you have to understand, we frequently -I go to the grocery store. You know those movies that they sell at the grocery store? And you just think, oh God, who wrote this? I've seen at times, two of our movies next to each other at the grocery store...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENNON: In the checkout lane.

Mr. GARANT: ...between the Enquirer and the gum.

Mr. LENNON: Next to mints.

Mr. GARANT: Yeah. We're writing movies that people buy without thinking about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARANT: So there are like, oh yeah, I could use some Altoids and this movie with the talking bear...

Mr. LENNON: Yeah, that's what we do.

Mr. GARANT: ...some Chapstick. And yeah, maybe that Jimmy Fallon vehicle that I heard wasn't that bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: But that wouldn't have been "Taxi," would it?

Mr. LENNON: Yes.

Mr. GARANT: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: With Queen Latifah?

Mr. LENNON: Queen Latifah.

Mr. GARANT: Queen Latifah. In fact, there's a chapter about "Taxi" in the book because, you know, you don't know when you're working on something that everyone is going to hate it later.

Mr. LENNON: Oh boy, yeah.

Mr. GARANT: Every movie, of course, goes through a testing process where they take it usually either to Long Beach, California, Northridge, or the Block at Orange which are three giant malls.

MONTAGNE: Orange County. Orange.

Mr. GARANT: Exactly. And they show it to an audience. And "Taxi," people went bananas for it.

Mr. LENNON: People loved it.

Mr. GARANT: They loved it.

Mr. LENNON: People loved it.

Mr. GARANT: So we actually signed a contract to write "Taxi 2."

Mr. LENNON: Yes.

MONTAGNE: So there's going to be a sequel, absolutely...

Mr. LENNON: Of course.

MONTAGNE: ...for this hit movie, soon to be hit movie.

Mr. LENNON: Soon to be hit movie, yeah.

Mr. GARANT: Then suddenly, you know, before a tsunami happens the tide goes way out to sea.

Mr. LENNON: Yeah.

Mr. GARANT: And in Hollywood, you can feel that happening when you have a movie that everyone hates. The Monday before the Friday it comes out, you can sort of...

Mr. LENNON: It's so quiet.

Mr. GARANT: ...everything goes quiet...

Mr. LENNON: Like what happened?

Mr. GARANT: ...and everybody gets nervous. And then...

Mr. LENNON: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And who's everybody?

Mr. LENNON: Oh, the other producers, yeah.

Mr. GARANT: Telltale signs that your movie is going to go bad is: one, the producer of the movie flees the country. Actually, a brilliant man who produced that film and a good friend of ours, Robert Simons, called us as he was leaving for his plane to get out of the country. He said, guys, sometimes when you have a movie coming out like this, you're just going to be radioactive for a little while. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENNON: ...it's best just to lay low.

Mr. GARANT: And we were really new to the studio system then. And so you think, okay, we're never ever going to work again.

Mr. LENNON: Ever, this is it.

Mr. GARANT: And that's part of we have another chapter about being fired gracefully, and walking off of a failure gracefully.

Mr. LENNON: Yes.

Mr. GARANT: And you have to be willing to come right back in the next day and pitch something else. And you also have to be really nice to everybody.

Mr. LENNON: Yes.

Mr. GARANT: By our count, there's really only about 75 or 80 influential people in Hollywood. And all they're doing is a musical chairs rotation all the time.

MONTAGNE: Now, there are any number of tips that you give, general truths of making a success of it in Hollywood. One of them is: Don't be afraid to keep making the same movie over and over again, but not really.

Mr. GARANT: But not really.

Mr. LENNON: But not really.

MONTAGNE: S...

Mr. GARANT: What people need to embrace and accept, if you're going to be a writer in Hollywood, is that every single movie has the exact same structure, exactly, whether it's "Die Hard" or "Night at the Museum." "Die Hard," the first 10 pages you're introducing all of the facts. You're meeting the guy, you're getting him to the building, you get them stuck in the building. He stuck in the building by terrorist.

"Night at the Museum," you meet a guy, he's having trouble with his marriage.

Mr. LENNON: He's down on his luck.

Mr. GARANT: And you get him stuck in a museum and by the fact that he can't leave his kid and let his kid down and be unemployed again.

Mr. LENNON: Ah, it puts the good guys in over his head in a situation exactly like "Die Hard."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARANT: It's a dinosaur instead of a terrorist, but the structure is exactly the same. And at the end, Larry Daley of "Night at the Museum" punches Dick Van Dyke off of a stagecoach, instead of "Die Hard" John McClane punching Hans Gruber off of the building.

They're not similar. They're exactly the same. And if you pick "Casablanca" or the "Matrix" and turn to page 10, that's when he either gets the letters of transit from Peter Lorre. Or that's when he's: You must help me. You must help me, Rick.

Mr. GARANT: That's when Trinity tells him there is a matrix and you're inside it, and you need to come with us or you're going to die.

But the problem that a lot of young screenwriters have - and by that, I mean the baristas at Starbucks - is that they are struggling because they think formula is a bad word...

Mr. LENNON: Is a bad thing.

Mr. GARANT: Formula is really not. I think, like the other is the writer is God is something of a kind of imply when they teach you screenwriting. And that's the...

Mr. LENNON: Oh dear, Lord. No.

Mr. GARANT: ...the opposite of the truth: the writer is a doormat. Like and I would say that, for me, a very inspirational way to learn that is if you buy the Blu-Ray of "Casablanca," there's a behind the scenes where they interview the teams of writers. And there are teams of writers who wrote "Casablanca." And so that movie was theoretically a hot mess. They were rewriting it while they were shooting. Jack Warner fired tons and tons of people, and it's brilliant.

It's - movies are a team effort. Like that's movies. It's not - it's - we're not gazing out the window at the moor, writing poetry. You're working for a living.

Mr. LENNON: But, by the way, you can do that once you've written some hit movies.

Mr. GARANT: Oh, yeah.

Mr. LENNON: You can get a place on a moor. You can get - it's fantastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENNON: You get a couple of castles.

Mr. GARANT: And that's what you can write your poetry.

MONTAGNE: A castle. A castle.

Mr. LENNON: Mm-hmm, sure.

Mr. GARANT: So you can write poetry. That's great.

MONTAGNE: Screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. Their new book is called "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!"

Thank you. both very much.

Mr. LENNON: A pleasure.

Mr. GARANT: Thank you so much for having us.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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