Cut to: Jeff Lowell

Our very own J.C. and Adam had the privilege to attend the 12th Annual Nashville Screenwriting Conference that was held June 4-6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Along with attending several of the great panels featured this year, they had the chance to chat with a some of the panelists, which resulted in a few of them agreeing to partake in our CUT TO: shenanigans.

J.C. recently had the chance to chat with Jeff Lowell who has written, produced and directed features and television for more than fifteen years. He currently has projects in various stages of development at multiple studios. And, surprisingly, Jeff took his wife and children and fled Los Angeles for Charlottesville, Virginia five years ago.

Q: Who is Jeff Lowell?

A: I’ve been writing comedy for fifteen years, in TV and features. On the sitcom side, I was incredibly disloyal and moved from show to show, so in a short amount of time I worked on shows like The Drew Carey Show, The George Carlin Show, Cybill, Spin City, Sports Night, Just Shoot Me!… The list goes on. On the feature side, like most writers, I’ve sold specs, pitches, done rewrites, adaptations, ended up without credit, and ended up with credit (John Tucker Must Die, Over Her Dead Body, Hotel For Dogs).

I moved out of Los Angeles almost six years ago, and live in Virginia. I haven’t done any TV since I’ve moved, but have kept busy on the feature side. (That said, I might do a pilot this year – we’re negotiating with a network right now.)

As to how I got here, it’s pretty boring – brute force. I wrote a dozen sitcom specs and probably eight or nine feature specs before I got my first job. I didn’t have any contacts, so I wrote literally thousands of query letters. Other writers, producers, agents, managers, executives… anyone and everyone. Finally, I sent a letter to a guy who referred me to a guy who introduced me to a guy who got me an interview with a guy who hired me.

Q: What was it, specifically, that drew you to the writing aspect of filmmaking?

A: Hmm, I actually came at it the other way. I wasn’t a guy who loved movies and wanted to figure out a way to get involved – I was a guy who loved writing and started looking for a career that would let me write for a living. If I’d been working in the fifties or sixties, I probably would have been a novelist, and would have been perfectly happy.

That said, now that I’m doing it, I can’t imagine doing anything else. If I ever write a book, it’ll be one that I can see turning into a movie.

Q: So, did you read a lot of TV/feature scripts? What was the first screenplay you ever read and how did it change or alter your approach or perspective on filmmaking?

A: I read everything I could get my hands on. Since I was more focused on TV in the beginning (it seemed to have more of a career path than features, which seemed all or nothing to me), I read mostly sitcom scripts.

I don’t remember the first thing I ever read, but I remember a script that was one of those epiphany experiences. It was an episode of Murphy Brown by Russ Woody. He had a joke in a scene description – something that would never make it to screen in any form, and was just there to amuse the reader. It’s when I realized that my scripts didn’t have to read like dry, technical blueprints – I was trying to entertain the reader and show my voice.

Q: When you first started to learn the craft, did you read/study any how-to books on screenwriting, and if so, which ones did you find to be the most beneficial?

A: I read all of them – I still try to keep up and read the new ones that everyone talks about, like Save The Cat. It’s my field, and if I can find even one good tip in there, it’s worth the read.

That said, my advice is this: read none or read them all. I think the danger is when someone reads one and buys into the system wholesale. “The inciting incident has to happen on Page 5, we have to have reversals on pages 25, 45 and 90, and we need exactly seven sequences of not less than 4 and not more than 6 pages with each crisis point.” There’s no one theory of screenwriting that covers all the ways you can write a great script. Read widely and take what’s useful.

Q: As a writer, how and where do you seek out inspiration? Alternatively, what really inspires you to write?

A: Every encounter I have might be inspiration. The news, books, conversations, other movies… anything. I often think “that could be a movie/scene in a movie” and I write it down. When it’s time to write a new spec, I take all the ideas I’ve collected and go through them, narrowing it down to something that might be a movie.

Of course, the downside is that I’m often a voyeur of life instead of a joyful participant. It’s hard to stay in the moment when you’re always wondering if every interaction is your next script.

What inspires me to write is when I stumble on that one idea that I think “I can’t believe no one’s done this. I have to write this!”

Q: What is your writing process like (i.e. schedule, outline, notecards, treatments, etc.)?

A: My schedule is pretty loose – the nice thing about working at home is that I can attend events with my family no matter when they are. My process is simple – start with the idea, scribble down characters and scenes and plot points. Start organizing it into an outline when I feel like I’ve got the beginning, middle and end of my movie. If I’m just writing an outline for myself, it’ll average three or four pages. If it’s for a studio, it has to be much more in depth – 10 pages or more.

Q: What software do you use and why?

A: Final Draft because it’s the standard and it works. I’m sure the other ones are fine, but I see friends trying to convert to FD to submit it to a studio and it seems to be a nightmare. I play a little bit with Scrivener as a notecard program, and like it… but it’s more when I’m noodling on a complicated idea of my own. When I’m working on an assignment, I just use Microsoft Word as my outliner and am much more focused.

Q: Once you’ve finished the first draft of a project, how many people, and who specifically, do you let read it?

A: If it’s a draft I’m being paid for, it goes to the producers. I don’t invite extra opinions – I’ll get enough of them along the way from the people I’m working for.

If it’s a spec, I’ll give it to my manager and agents. Their job is to know the market and know what people are responding to, so I trust them. I don’t necessarily take every note… but they don’t give me a ton of notes, and the ones they do give me are usually worth listening to.

Q: As the old adage goes: writing is rewriting. How do you approach and what is your process in regards to rewriting?

A: This may be because of my time in TV, but I’m not a big rewriter. I don’t move on from a scene/moment unless I’m happy with it. If I think of something great I need to set up, I’ll go back and do it then. So by the time I get to the end of the first draft, I’m pretty much done. I’ll read for typos, but that’s it.

I know a lot of people who do a vomit draft – just burn through it in days, then do a dozen rewrites. But to me, that doesn’t work – if I don’t solve a moment and know whether or not I can make it work, it doesn’t make sense to move on to the moments that depend on it.

Q: How did John Tucker Must Die come into existence?

A: In an odd way – there was a rash of school bullying stories in the news, where kids were picked on and picked on until they snapped. There was something interesting about that – how much is too much? – and I started to wonder if there was a movie in it. Bullying isn’t very funny, so I swapped the genders. What would it take to get a girl to snap? And what would she do?

It fell in place pretty quickly after that.

Q: How long did it take you to write it; from the first word to the final draft?

A: Don’t remember exactly, but probably less than two months. I felt like I was onto something, and when that’s the case I move pretty quickly.

Q: How did you sell it?

A: Ah, the long painful story.

It went out wide – multiple producers taking it to all the studios at the same time. It looked good – my agents were optimistic. We went into the weekend with a lot of momentum; a lot of lower level execs had passed it to their bosses who could make the decision. Monday we’d sell it for sure!

Well, that weekend a movie called Loser opened. (This means it was July, 2000.) That movie didn’t do well, and come Monday, the feeling was “teen comedies are dead.” So… script dead.

But the script had been well received, so I got other work from it. One of those producers remembered the script, and years later, he was talking to the head of MGM and pitched the script in one sentence. “First Wives Club in high school.” MGM bought it… and then read it. Turned out they’d bought a dark comedy, more in the vein of Election. They did not want to make a dark comedy, in the vein of Election. I did draft after draft… It finally died.

A couple more years passed. The same producer was talking to Fox and said “I have this great teen comedy.” Fox bought it from MGM, and there you have it.

Q: What was the process like once it was sold (i.e. any rewrites during production)?

A: After it sold the first time, to MGM, I did three or four paid rewrites, plus countless tweaks with the producer between the paid steps. Then when it ended up at Fox, I did another three or four steps trying to get it greenlit. After a, um, slight disagreement with the producer, I was kicked off the movie. A few other people did drafts. I wasn’t on it when it went into production – although one of the producers I was still talking to started sending me drafts and getting my off the record help.

After it was done, they decided they needed some reshoots, so they brought me back in to work with the director on those.

It’s not unusual not to have a writer on board during production – they try to lock the script as much as possible, and then the director and the actors make whatever changes they feel they need during shooting.

Q: What was it like to sit in a darkened theater with an audience and watch your words come to life for the first time on the big screen?

A: Painful. It’s not that I didn’t like the movie – I think Betty Thomas did a great job – it’s just that all I was doing was watching the audience reaction. Why didn’t they laugh at that joke? Why did they laugh there – that’s not even a joke! Are they liking it? Are they texting? Are they bored?

Plus, there was the extra added creepy bonus of being a 30 year old guy sitting alone in an audience filled with teenage girls. “I’m not a pervert, I wrote this.”

Q: What was life like for you immediately after the film was made?

A: Well, luckily, it opened days before I started shooting another movie. I really didn’t have to live or die by how it did, because my next shot was already lined up. I was protected from the worst part of having a movie open – will it be a hit and things open up for me? Or will it be a flop and my career is in danger?

Probably the biggest change was that I got sent a lot of scripts with teen girl protagonists. Sadly, the teen girl movie niche isn’t booming. I’m lucky that I wrote Hotel For Dogs and it did well, because the family movie niche is doing just fine.

Q: Has watching actors act out and speak your written words changed your process in any way?

A: Absolutely. This is where my time in TV was invaluable – in features, you write a line and if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll see it on the screen a few years later. In TV, you write a line and hear someone like Michael J. Fox say it the next day, in front of an audience, so you can see if it gets a reaction or not. For comedy, there’s really no training like it, and it can’t hurt on the dramatic side, either.

Q: Has being a director and producer had any effect on you as a writer?

A: It’s related to your last question – you just see how things work. You get to understand the mechanics of scenes – when you get in, where you get out, if it’s dull to have them sitting somewhere too long, how to keep it moving and interesting… You also get some idea of budget in your head. Budget isn’t something a new writer should cripple themselves with – just worry about writing a great script. But at some point, it doesn’t hurt to think about it. If you’re writing a romcom, are you making it so it can only be produced for 100 million dollars… which no romcom is? Is there a way that’s just as good to stage a set piece that will be cost effective, so your script is actually produceable?

Q: This was a question one of my members had for you:

Did his scripts turn out the way he wanted them to? John Tucker Must Die, Over Her Dead Body, Hotel for Dogs: they all seem to suffer from intrusive studio notes. It felt like he was fighting a losing battle and that perhaps the original vision for those stories were compromised. Or maybe that’s just me.

A: First off, tell your member that he’s welcome to GO FUCK HIMSELF.

Just kidding. Mostly.

I’m proud of all three movies. Are they perfect? No way. And when I watch them, of course I see the flaws. But the audiences for those movies dug them – teen girls still quote JTMD to me, kids and their parents loved HFD, and OHDB… Well, it didn’t find much of an audience. But when we screened it and tested it, the audiences laughed and cried at all the right spots.

Did I win some battles and lose some battles? Of course. But so does everyone in a collaborative process.

Q: Sum up your feelings of Hollywood today and the process of getting a script made into a film. Do you feel that it’s a good process overall?

A: I’ve got to quibble with the question – there’s no “process.” There are a million ways to get a script made into a film. Sometimes it’s nice and straightforward – your agent sends it out, someone buys it, casts it, and makes it. Sometimes an indie producer raises the money and gets it shot and then gets distribution from a major. Sometimes you raise the money and shoot it yourself. Sometimes you make a video and put it on YouTube, and then someone loves it and hires you to shoot a movie. Sometimes you put on a one act show and people want to turn it into a movie. Sometimes you write a book or a graphic novel, and a studio loves it and hires you to write the script of it. Sometimes your script wins a contest and a producer on the judging panel reads it and loves it and sends it to a star and he wants to do it…

You get the picture. There is no one path to getting something made. Bad scripts get shot because a star has a slot and a studio needs a buddy cop movie. Great scripts get derailed because someone is fired or quits or dies. It’s not fair; it is what it is and you just do your best.

Q: There’s the Jeff Lowell that I remember from Nashville! Not sure if you read the interview I did with Craig Mazin but he talks about sites like ScriptShadow and how they harm writers. What are your thoughts on this matter?

A: The hypocrisy of the whole thing bothers me. Chris posts scripts that he knows he shouldn’t post to get eyeballs on his site so he can charge more for giving notes on scripts. He says it’s educational – which is bullshit, because you don’t need to read drafts undergoing heavy revisions in development to learn how to be a writer. He’s doing harm to writers, and the only person he’s helping is himself.

I have a friend who’s had more than one script posted on Chris’s site. When the first one went up, the writer contacted Chris and asked him to take it down, saying he didn’t want his scripts leaked. Chris took it down… and then my friend had to go through the same process on the next one, even though it was perfectly clear he didn’t want his scripts on that site.

What can you do? Chris is a guy who wasn’t getting attention with his writing. Now he’s getting attention by leaking and critiquing other people’s writing.

Q: So, what’s next for you?

A: I’ve got a couple of scripts in development at different studios, and I’ve also got a spec that I just sold and am trying to attach an actor so I can direct it. It’s all such a crapshoot that the only way to stay sane is to have a ton of things going at once. And, as always, I’m working on specs – my reward to myself when I turn in a paid draft of something is to steal some time to work on my specs.

Q: Was Nashville your first con? What did you think of it?

A: First one – I loved it. And the panelists – of which I was easily the least – were insanely great. I wish I’d been going to those when I was trying to figure out how to break in. One of my pet peeves is that most of the people who hand out advice to screenwriters never worked as screenwriters. That definitely wasn’t the case here.

I’m going to Austin next, and hope they invite me to Nashville again next year.

Q: It was definitely a good experience for everyone involved. That being said, I noticed a lot of the up-and-comers ask the same questions over and over to the panels. One of them is: Do you have to work in L.A. to be a writer? You are living proof that you don’t have to live in L.A. to be a writer but you also got your start in L.A. Can you give any advice to those people out there who don’t live in L.A. and your honest opinion on the subject?

A: It’s hard advice to give. Because 99% of the people who move to L.A. to be a writer (or actor or director) won’t make it. So, can I in good conscience tell people to do something that’s probably going to eat years of their lives and leave them with nothing to show for it?

Oh, what the hell. Sure I can!

All the jobs that pay enough to actually make a living at this start in L.A. So it’s the center of the screenwriting universe. And very few careers just all of a sudden start – usually you write a script that gets you attention, and then you have a million meetings, and you pitch on a hundred things trying to get a job, and you finally get it… then you do it all over again. And again.

Plus, you’re surrounded by other writers, so it’s in the water. You talk about it, you trade scripts, you share leads… And maybe you run into someone who’s an assistant that’s about to be an agent. Or a reader at a production company. Or you get a job that gives you an in. That doesn’t happen anywhere else.

I lived there for 13 years or so. I got out, but still go back all the time. It’s where everyone I work with is.

But again… 99% of the time, it doesn’t work. So before someone disrupts their life and moves, I’d ask the following question: are you close to making it? If you’re not, maybe hold off on moving.

How can you tell if you’re making it? Enter the contests that are meaningful. Austin, Disney, Nicholl. (Also WB for TV.) Are your scripts doing well year after year? You don’t have to win, but you should be getting through to the later rounds. That’s a good hint that you’re getting close… but you have to remember that you’re just competing against other amateur writers. So it’s not a guarantee of a career, but if you can’t beat your competition, how are you going to beat the established writers in Hollywood?

(I think the smaller contests are pretty worthless – they’re money making ventures, and the competition is weak. I know, some of them offer reads as prizes. If the script is good enough, you can get reads through queries.)

And also, while you’re entering those contests, try to sell the script and get an agent or manager. Do people request your script, meaning that you’ve got a good logline? Have you gotten options or representation? Then maybe it’s time to think about making the move.

I know someone can point out a dude who sold a script from Iowa or Spain or something. It does happen. But it’s a lot harder, and the gig is already hard.

Q: It seems like at the end of every screenwriting interview the interviewer asked the writer to give advice but personally I hate it because I know that if you write a good script that you will get attention, so, then, is there anything you want to promote or you have coming up that you want to talk about?

A: I’ve got a few things going, but I’m always leery of getting too specific because any movie is like quicksilver. I don’t believe they’re actually making them until they’re a couple of weeks into production. I used to believe the hype – “this thing is going, this star is doing it, I’d bet my life on it, I guarantee it…” Shit changes very quickly.

Thanks for interviewing me, best of luck to you and all your readers.