EXCERPT: Riding the Alligator by Pen Densham

EXCERPT FROM RIDING THE ALLIGATOR: STRATEGIES FOR A CAREER IN SCREENPLAY WRITING (AND NOT GETTING EATEN)
by Pen Densham

THE GOLDEN RULE
Do I have to read the whole darn book to get the secret to success? In a word, no. The greatest key to success is another word: PASSION!

It sounds like a horrible cliché, but I concretely believe that the road to success is actually paved with passion. I can look inside my heart and measure this weird gut instinct and tell which of my scripts I folded on and which ones I fought for. I call these “life scripts.” There is magic in passion. If you believe in your work (for whatever reason is important to you), you will take more risks, bounce back from more humiliating rejections, and fight longer and harder for your projects.

It is said that “Luck comes to the prepared.” I think passion makes you want to prepare.

There is a great book on physics and philosophy by Leonard Mlodinow called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives that seems to sum up the effect of chaos and randomness on our goals. What I took away from it is that life is a bit of a roulette game. If you don’t stake your bet, opportunity can never find you.

What will keep you betting when the odds are against you? Faith, hope, belief — passion.

The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.
— John F. Kennedy

As you read this book, you have both my heartfelt support and a cautionary word. You have chosen to be an artist, and you need to find the strongest personal reasons to support the children of your creativity. If you don’t, how can you expect others to nurture and raise them?

PASSION!
About 350 to 400 movies are eligible to contend for an Academy Award each year. That number reflects how many features meet the minimum requirement to be voted on and are run in a commercial theater in Los Angeles for a one-week period. In other words, the Hollywood-based feature distribution system only has the capacity to put out about one movie a day.

I estimate that there are ten thousand viable motion-picture feature projects in development at any one time: all busy, spinning their tales, like sperm swimming towards those 365 or so eggs of production.

HOW DO YOU BEAT THE ODDS?
Try to work on what touches your gut. Try to find a power from inside that makes even the trivial meaningful to you. The odds are that others out there will share your conviction if you can find them. Give in to your magical thinking. Fight longer, be more unique in your approaches, take emotional risks. Be daring.

Hey, look at it this way: They say an idiot will often keep trying something long after the wise man quits. And frequently you ask, “How the hell did that movie get made?” I don’t know if I am an idiot or a wise man, but I know it is wise not to waste your time working on things you don’t believe in and quitting on them when the path gets stony. It’s better for your authenticity, for your soul, to find passion in what you do. The journey will help you develop as an artist and a businessperson… even if you don’t win every time.
Here are three examples of passion paying off for me.

ONE
I wrote the original story for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves after I pitched the idea to executives at three major studios, all of whom told me it was a goofy idea to think that a modern audience would want to watch men in tights with swords instead of guns. They also said that no one would want to see an Arab as a hero. I didn’t want to quit, but couldn’t see a solution. At that time my life had changed; my wife and I had our first child and I felt a passion to try to tell a story in which men from different religions could act as allies against a greater foe, instead of killing each other. It took encouragement from John Watson and Mark Stern (who worked with Trilogy and today is Executive Vice President at the Syfy Network) to help me overcome my doubts and rejections, to enable me just to sit down and write the initial story as a “spec” (a written, unpaid script that the author owns). John Watson added his unique strengths to a screenplay which eventually became one of Warner Bros.’ biggest-grossing movies ever at that time. With his amazing skills at turning logistics into art, John also took on the producing leadership role during the tough physical shooting.

TWO
I pitched Les Moonves (the head of CBS) on the idea of reviving The Twilight Zone TV series. I was already the lucky person responsible for bringing The Outer Limits anthology back to TV, with its fountain of fantastic stories that I had loved from my childhood. Les rejected me three times over three years before I found the right way to make the series idea work for his needs. Going back to Les that last time was really, really hard! Part of me felt like a pestering idiot. But another part of me thought that the series was an American treasure and deserved to be alive for a modern audience. How did I finally convince Les? First I had to convince myself. I found a framing device, a way of helping myself make one last approach. And then I wrote Les a letter that started, “So help me Les… I promise never to mention the words ‘Twilight Zone’ to you ever again, after this. How about using it as companion piece to Star Trek on UPN?”

We were shooting a pilot from a script I wrote in a mad frenzy within fifty days of delivering that note.

THREE
I didn’t know that Frank Mancuso (the chairman of MGM at that time) had personally passed on my spec script of Moll Flanders, the story of an eighteenth-century woman surviving poverty and coming to value herself despite her flaws. It seemed to be on track to be acquired and produced at MGM and then suddenly the project was dropped. I was so passionate that I asked to meet with Frank in the hope of persuading him to read my script and maybe change the chain of events. In that meeting, he told me kindly all the reasons why the script didn’t work for him. I realized he was the reason the project was being passed on. Plus, his reasons were logical.

Three days later I tested his patience and presented him with a rewrite that incorporated all his points. Within months I was directing the movie starring Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman. It was one of the greatest and most challenging experiences of my life.

I would love to tell you that every time I risked humiliation and rejection I came out on top, but it doesn’t happen that often. However, there have been many times in my life when, once I let my passion overcome my self-doubt, my shyness, my fear of being called out as a fraud… a project has blossomed.

For more information about Riding The Alligator and to download a free chapter, visit www.ridingthealligator.com.

A Michael Wiese Productions publication, available at major booksellers January 1st 2011. Pre-order now at Writersstore.com, and mwp.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As a principal of Trilogy Entertainment Group, Pen Densham is an accomplished and award-winning writer-director-producer whose films and television series have grossed over $1 billion to date. His first job in show business was riding atop a live alligator for a theatrical short film made by his English parents. Pen decided to leave the school system at age fifteen, and has since spent his lifetime in the business of entertainment, selling films and TV series, as well as hiring, mentoring, and collaborating with A-list writers along the way. Pen and Trilogy have produced fourteen feature films and worked with talent like Jay Baruchel, Jeff Bridges, Bill Murray, Morgan Freeman, Ron Howard, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone, Norman Jewison, Jodie Foster, Emile Hirsch, Mark Ruffalo, Johnathon Schaech, and Robin Wright. Pen is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts, and a visiting filmmaker at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto.

Published with permission from Michael Wiese Productions.

2 thoughts on “EXCERPT: Riding the Alligator by Pen Densham

  1. Kathi Wahed

    Great article and spot-on about passion. It seems to be the only solid thing writers can hang onto in the swamplands of screenwriting (alligators aside!).

  2. Keith Johnson

    Sold, I am getting the book. When you read something by someone who has actually been there, it is like watching a true story, it has much more meaning. Thank you for publishing the article.

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