Script brings you behind the scenes to get to know our family of contributors on a more personal level. Meet Michael Tabb, author of Script Notes.
WGA writer Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and industry players including: Lawrence Bender, Sean Daniel, Paul Schiff, Mark Canton, Mike Newell, Thor Freudenthal and Dustin Hoffman while speaking at schools and panels across the nation.
He lectured or served on panels for: USC, UCLA, NYU, FSU, Columbia, The Screenwriters World Conference, Comic-Con International, and the Writers Guild of America. In October 2014, Mr. Tabb received the one and only, faculty-nominated Pilot Award for the entire Liberal Arts Program (graduate and undergraduate combined) for his online M.F.A. Advanced Script Editing course at Full Sail University.
What was the first movie you ever remember seeing or the one that made the most impact on you as a child?
I really hate to be cliché, but Star Wars changed my life. After that, I couldn’t watch enough science fiction, adventure or fantasy films. Quality had nothing to do with it. It was like something had snapped in me, and those kinds of movies became this kid’s version of a lifelong addiction. Star Trek, Tron, Krull, The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, Buck Rogers, Battle Beyond the Stars, Flash Gordon, Clash of the Titans, E.T., Back to the Future, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole… I just couldn’t watch any of them enough times. Deep down, I know that’s because it was a huge escape from my childhood from bullies and an immensely low self-esteem. This desire for escapist storytelling lead to a deep and abiding love of comic books and anything superhero related.
What’s your favorite movie of all time?
Look, I’m a veracious movie watcher. It’s an addiction. I’ve never been able to get enough. I used to spend weekends at the multiplex, hopping from theater to theater. I hit seven movies once in a single day that way. I got there for a 10 AM showing and left after the midnight showing of another. Come to think of it, addiction is probably putting it too mildly. Obsession fits the bill. It always bothers me when someone mentions a film I haven’t seen. I think I’ve forgotten more films than most weekend movie goers have seen. So narrowing this list down was really tough for me. There’s no way I can have just one.
There are classics that are on everyone’s list, like: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and anything by Hitchcock or Kubrick. Anyone could say Stephen Spielberg from 1975 to 1992. I’m going to step away from the obvious and chose to leave a ton of great films and filmmakers off my list. I assume you’re looking for personal taste outside the classics… movies of the last forty years. These ten films spoke to me, listed in alphabetical order:
- All That Jazz
- Boogie Nights
- The Breakfast Club
- The Incredibles
- The Princess Bride
- The Shawshank Redemption
- The Usual Suspects
- True Romance
…And anything with Bill Murray in it.
What word or scenario do you never want to see in a screenplay again?
There are movies I get excited to watch and write, but I’m not going to minimize the value of others’ works in a general statement like this. There’s no one thing I don’t want to see or read… Other than bad writing. I’d be open to any scenario in a screenplay when written well. Execution is everything.
What profession did your parents want you to have?
Architect. I was great at math, structure and used to love drawing on graph paper. Screenwriting is oddly akin to those skills as much as English. I often refer to what I do as chaos mathematics; you design a complicated equation nobody can predict the outcome, but in the end it all makes perfect sense once you’ve run the numbers.
Eventually, my father changed his tune and wanted me to be an actor. Everyone always tells me I have a lot of presence. I think I have the only father in the world that’s disappointed his son didn’t try to become an actor. I often think I became a writer because I was a really greedy actor at heart that just wanted to play ALL the parts.
It makes sense that many of us get into the business thinking about acting before we find our true calling. Actors are the thing everyone sees when they fall in love with the concept of working in entertainment. We don’t read scripts. We don’t see the director putting together a vision. We don’t see all the work a cinematographer does to give the film its look. We don’t see how editors put together all the little, puzzle pieces of footage into a cohesive, flowing narrative. We see actors doing cool, fantastic things. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that would be anyone’s first impulse. Some of the most respected writers and directors in the industry started and worked as actors. For example, Elia Kazan, Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, JJ Abrams, Penny Marshall, Shane Black, Sydney Pollack, Sofia Coppola, Sir Richard Attenborough, James Wan, Woody Allen, Dean Devlin, and Hayao Miyazaki to name just a few.
While at NYU, I starred in a lot of my film school buddies’ movies. We called ourselves K.O.R. and hired ourselves out to small, private productions and videography while at school.
When did you first believe that you could have a career in the film industry?
The very first feature-film screenplay I ever wrote got its first offer while I was still attending NYU. Multiple companies and an Academy Award winning actor wanted to control the property. The actor left the agency in the wake of the agency making sure it went to the other company. All the same, the actor stayed attached to the project. It was such a confidence booster. That led to my next one and so on. Yet, it wasn’t the script frenzy that made me believe in myself. That happened much earlier.
My Aunt Sheila and Uncle Donald used to invite me over for dinner without my siblings to read the stories I was writing for fun during middle school. Every few pages, I kept asking them if I should stop (thinking they should have had enough), but they always wanted to hear the whole thing. They were between twenty to twenty five handwritten pages each, so it would take a long time. I was inspired, and eventually wrote my first short screenplay while I was in high school.
What drew you to the entertainment industry and specifically, why did you want to help writers?
I went to USC, NYU Tisch and UCLA’s School of Theater Film and Television. Each taught me different things, and they made me the writer I am today. Then I worked as a script analyst for two and half years at Alcon Entertainment. That taught me so much. When I started writing as a pro, I discovered my own truths. I think it’s important to constantly share what we learn along the way and keep throwing logs on the proverbial fire for other writers. I solidify my own theories and practices once I have to put them into words for others, so it helps me quantify the process every bit as much as it hopefully helps other writers. The art of literary creation and technique is an ongoing conversation, and I’m just trying to do my share and make a contribution. This is also why I served on the WGA’s New Members Committee, am a co-founder and creator of the WGA’s Mentor Program, and serve on the WGA’s Writers Education Committee.
Tell us something we don’t know about you.
I still sing Broadway showtunes when I’m by myself. Les Miserables, The Secret Garden, Little Shop of Horrors, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pippin, Chess, Into the Woods… I’m a baritone. In my formative years, I was in a slew of musicals, including: Evita, Sweeney Todd, Jesus Christ Superstar and played the Lion in my senior high school production of The Wiz.
What was your first job in Hollywood?
My first summer job in Hollywood was working fifty plus days on the set of Stephen Spielberg’s Hook.
I was a teenager fanboy that wanted to see how the best in the business worked on a big film. At that time, there was nobody bigger than Steven Spielberg. There was an open search for pirates, mermaids and lost boys posted in a magazine that no longer exists. I was smart enough to know I was going to be way too large for a lost boy as a front lineman on my high school football team. Since I was able to grow a beard in high school, I used it to my advantage. I sent in a resume that I threw together myself and a 4×6 picture of myself with a beard. It wasn’t even a proper headshot. They didn’t care.
Spielberg wanted to visually choose every pirate himself, and he called for quick meetings with all the applicants being considered. It was more like a check-out line at a grocery store. We were lead into the soundstage where the pirate ship was being built, single file for quick, one-on-one meetings with the director. When you were called forward, he’d glance at your resume, ask about three questions, and thank the would-be pirate for coming. For years, my dad would regale his friends at parties with the answers I gave to his questions. He used to make me act it out for them. When Spielberg asked me, “It says here you know stage combat.” I looked Steven straight in the eyes, serious and steady as all hell, and said, “I’m very good at stage combat, Sir. Very good.” I don’t know if it was my good manners, my sincerity, or my age that did the trick, but I got the job.
What were your fondest memories of that job?
I’ll never forget Robin William’s kindness. On the first day of principal photography that involved the pirates, imagine two hundred extras under the boiling lights in a muggy soundstage during the summer. The conditions were unpleasant. Between takes, a craft service young man makes his way through the crowd of background actors, shunning them from taking the ice-packed sodas and drinks. He approaches Robin and offers him whatever he wants from a wide variety of cold beverages. I will never forget the exact words Robin uttered, “I’ll have a drink when you get these men something to drink.” Ten minutes later, huge water coolers were brought onto set with paper cups. Robin gestured away the fancy beverage server, took a paper cup and drank the water with us. There’s a Yiddish word for this… Mensch.
A little later in the summer, I skipped lunch one day and just sat back on the steps of the pirate ship set. Robin came and sat down beside me (an extra in a filthy pirate costume he didn’t know from Adam). We started talking, and I went into film school chatter. I asked him questions, and we talked for an hour about his internal acting process, the film we were working on, and just life experiences. Robin Williams didn’t let the fact he was a star go to his head. He was consummate pro, had an infectious smile, and a brilliant mind. I remember thinking to myself, “If I ever make it in the industry, I want to be the open teacher that Robin Williams was to me, regardless of my station.”
On the very last day of principal photography, coincidentally Dustin Hoffman’s birthday, Dustin invited me into his trailer to celebrate. About five of us pirates all had a drink together with the three glitter-decked mermaids, fresh from the water tank in bath robes and towels.
Yeah, it was one of those first-time in film-industry magical summers.
I went on to work behind the scenes on other feature films as a P.A. while attending NYU, including Carlito’s Way and Jeffrey. Getting on-set experience in any capacity to see how the best work is so important. Film education is great, but it’s important to also get some practical, real-world, workplace knowledge. So, I went to class by day and worked on film night and weekend shoots whenever the opportunity presented itself. When I got back to L.A., I took work as a script analyst for Alcon Entertainment for two and half years, whenever I had a lull getting my career off the ground. It added to my knowledge base, and it made me a better writer. The key has always been to never stop working and learning.
What profession, other than your current one, would you like to try if you could have a do-over?
If I had to pick a non-entertainment related profession, I’d run a whiskey bar, specializing in single-malts scotches. I host an occasional private tasting where I break out about fifty bottles, and invite a slew of industry pals, including: writers, directors, representatives, producers and executives.
What do you wish you knew about the industry before you jumped in?
As Jeff Melvoin is fond of saying, screenwriting for film is a hobby; television writing is a career. I never expected to care about stability until I got married. I followed my heart. The proportion of work available from one medium to the other is exponentially different. I should have given it a shot while I was in college, but I was determined. I was an idiot. I still love and continue to write movies for a living, but now I’m also working on show concepts that can go on for years.
I have a dear friend from college; he has spent the last decade on one show, NCIS. Meanwhile, every six months I panic that I’ll never work again and wonder how will I support my young family if that happens. Yes, even working writers who do feel they know what they are doing and have a strong agent worry about unemployment. The only thing certain in an artist’s life is change. So if you can factor out some of that randomness, take it. A decade ago, there wasn’t a lot of crossover like there is now between the cinematic and episodic mediums. It used to be you were either a television or film writer, but that isn’t how it works anymore. Success in one leads to the other.
That said, if you are not a very collaborative person, TV writing just might not suit your personality. Then again, if that’s the case, filmmaking in general is a bad idea. Everything is about collaboration in Hollywood, which is why relationships are so integral. If you want autonomy over your work, write a book or a stage play.
What is your favorite industry event, film festival or convention to attend and why?
Look, award shows and film festivals are wonderful, and as unique as each one is… There are so many good ones. I’d rather pick something that stands out alone from the pack. For me, there’s nothing in the entertainment world like Comic-Con International in San Diego. You get all the industry social aspects, meeting of your creative icons, and catching up with all industry friends of the festival circuit and award shows, but that’s not all. At SDCC, it’s packed with well over a hundred thousand people that are just like us before we got into the field. The San Diego Convention Center is over eighty thousand square feet of love for what we do as creatives. Artists used to be looked down upon as lower class, but here, it shows us how far we have come as a society. How much we are appreciated. They feel the way I did about entertainment as a youngster. It reminds me why I got into the business. It’s not just film people patting themselves on the back… This event is entrenched in people outside of our industry who relish what we do. Real people standing and sitting in lines all day to see and hear the latest. Their enthusiasm is contagious and invigorating. The day-to-day and politics of the industry can be daunting and exhausting, so to be surrounded by all the cosplay, fandom, and energy is not just recharging or refueling… there’s no perfect word for it in the English language, so I’ll invent one… re-souling.
What’s the best perk of being a WGA writer?
Honestly, there are a lot of them. Meeting your idols… talking craft with the best of the best… the respect you get from an industry that knows it’s a very tough union to get into… the free screenings at the WGA Theater… the panels and all the diversity departments with open arms… the script library… the lounge with free wifi, a chess board and bottomless coffee kitty corner to the Farmer’s Market… and getting the screeners in November and December. Sometimes it gets hard to get out to the theater to see everything that comes out at the holidays, so they send the movies to our homes. It allows me to catch up on everything. You can’t beat it.
If you could impart only one piece of knowledge onto writers, what would it be?
Games are now the most profitable entertainment medium. I think the teleplay writing of tomorrow is writing for games. It’s the future. Man, I feel like that guy in The Graduate saying, “Plastics.”
If you could go back in time and talk to your 18-year-old self, what advice would you give?
- Always write the kind of material you would pay to see. It’s okay to say no thank you. If something became a success without you, it’s because the right person was paid to write it. It would not have worked out the same if you took the job, so there is no such thing as regret.
- Calm down. It will all happen. Your work will speak for itself. People told that to me, but I couldn’t hear it. So it’s not that I wish I had gotten the advice. I just wish that I could have accepted it. It’s important to realize that lack of faith in your future is a self-fulfilling prophecy writers do to themselves. So this leads to the real advice on a deeper level…
- People in positions of power can smell desperation a mile away. So, the remedy is to never put all your eggs in one basket. Work on a minimum of three scripts at a time. Producers have a slate of projects at all times and so should you. It’s a business. If you don’t want to divide your efforts… Tough. Be too busy to worry about what everyone else is doing with your scripts. You can care, be passionate, but let others do their jobs and just keep writing. That’s my job. Just keep creating. Be the train that’s leaving the station with or without them on it. When they hear the whistle blow and see the wheels start to move, everyone wants to jump aboard. Let them worry about catching you, not the other way around.
If you have any other fun tidbits you want to add, go for it!
When you ask someone to give you feedback on a script, never show anything except curiosity for clarification and, chiefly, complete appreciation for anyone’s script notes. So, if a note isn’t clear to you, ask about the note to get clarity. Then, once you have a grip on the notes given, thank that person profusely. You are not going to give the script to the same person for notes twice, so they won’t know if you don’t apply all their notes. You don’t need to argue. Just be appreciative. Someone did you a huge favor, put time into it for you (for which they receive nothing), and gave you a heads up on what someone else might say in a meeting, providing perspective and awareness of a potential issue. Those notes, even if not applied at that time, provide the writer some time to consider options before a development executive brings it up. You will have an answer or ideas prepared for such situation because you were given a heads up.
On that note, I would like to end this questionnaire thanking my friends who do take the time to read my work and provide me feedback. You are invaluable as friends and teachers.
Lastly, have outside interests. Join a fantasy football league. Play beach volleyball on the weekends in summertime. Sit by a campfire at night with your friends and loved ones. Volunteer your time to good causes. Be generous with your friendship, your time, your lover, your family, and play games. Stay informed. Listen. Read a lot. Study history and religion. Go to the movies. Party well but don’t kill yourself. Be smart. Try new things. Travel when you can. Immerse yourself in different cultures. Have a life.
Never stop learning.