How did you get into screenwriting, Erik?
I went to film school to do a degree in motion picture production and that included a little bit of screenwriting, which I liked. So I moved from Ohio to LA and began working as an assistant in the industry. I got some temp work for one of the major studios and that got my foot in the door.
What was your lucky break?
My assignments led me to Tom Hanks’ production company, where I was one of his assistants. It became a permanent job, during which time he won his back-to-back Oscars – I was the guy answering the phone in his office and writing screenplays on the side.
Eventually Tom Hanks read some of my work – he knew I was an aspiring writer – and said he liked it. He then offered me this great promotion that would include me helping him on the From The Earth to the Moon miniseries. That eventually turned into me writing some of the scripts and co-producing. It was a life-changing promotion: it was the week of my 30th birthday and I could say I was no longer a secretary.
What have you written that you are most proud of?
Nothing! I look back on everything and see the flaws. It’s the curse of some creative people. You also tend to be most interested in whatever you’re working on right now. What’s interesting is that most things I’ve written have never seen the light of day, and that’s true for 90 per cent of professional screenwriters.
What can also be frustrating is that when something does get produced and you see a director do it his or her way, it can be easy to feel that it wasn’t at all how you imagined it. Sometimes I’ve been able to talk to the director about it and find middle ground, sometimes you let it go, and sometimes their idea is better than what you had in mind. Luckily I’ve never had something I love get turned into something I hate.
How many pro writers are there in Hollywood?
The Writers’ Guild says around 5,000, in some capacity, in a given year. Then there are probably a 100,000 not doing it professionally. It’s a very competitive field.
What are studios typically looking for?
It’s changed a lot for movies – they’re mostly about superheroes now. They’re looking for stuff that already has great brand awareness and interest; almost everything is an adaptation of something that’s already been successful in some way. There’s also the increasing importance of a worldwide audience, because now the worldwide box office is more important than the US one, which wasn’t the case a few decades ago. They look for things that’ll translate worldwide – which often means action and thrillers and very broad visual comedy.
When watching a movie or TV show can you relax and enjoy it, or are you always analysing things?
I’m a very hard critic – it’s rare that a show sweeps me away to where I’m not noticing the gears any more. When that happens it’s fabulous. I loved Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad. But that’s pretty dark and right now I’d rather live in a world that’s bright and sunny.
Is that for professional reasons?
Yes – I’m writing comedy now. I tend to like life-affirming comedies with heart that are also smart, like Cameron Crowe’s best work. I want to feel good and maybe even moved in a comedy – that’s what I aspire to do through my writing.
What’s the most a script has ever sold for?
I think Shane Black got $4m or so for The Long Kiss Goodnight. But a successful TV show creator can make far more than that – Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld made $30m in one cheque when Seinfeld was sold into syndication. If you can create a show that lasts at least five years and then gets sold to other channels, you’ve hit a jackpot.
Where do writers rank in the movie hierarchy?
They are below the director, stars and big producers, also the big executives and even big agents – unless they create a successful TV series or are a big writer/director like JJ Abrams. I’d say the average working screenwriter whose work is getting produced ranks above everybody else – although writers do often feel like they get no respect.
Apart from occasional big pay packets, what are the perks?
Most of the perks come in the process of the work itself, having great actors bring something you’ve written to life.
Your advice to would-be screenwriters…
Keep at it. Don’t let rejection and anonymity and failure talk you out of trying again.
Do you still have screenwriting ambitions?
Absolutely. I do it every day and I also teach it now. My goals these days are not in TV but to write and direct movies. I’m always feeling like I’m still a beginner and I think most screenwriters will tell you that. The industry breeds insecurity because you’re only as good as your next project: pretty much all of us are freelance so we’re always in a hustle to get that project off the ground.