From ad agency to screenwriter, David Flanagan’s independent films feature box-office stars such as Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Rodriguez, Matthew Perry, Rob Schneider and more.
David Flanagan, owner of Sacramento ad agency Misfit and writer/producer with 15 feature-length screenplays to his credit, blipped on to my screenwriting radar via a serendipitous announcement in the Capital Film Arts Alliance newsletter. David would be sharing a screenwriting talk about the use of writing archetypes. Drats – I was out of town that day. What to do, right?
Well, the screenwriting gods gifted an interview at a Sacramento coffee shop to get the inside scoop on being your own writing misfit, indie screenwriter style. And along the way, I gleaned this bonus – donning an old-school hat with new-school panache should be an integral part of every writer’s flare. For reals.
Story Foundation – Write From Below the Ground Up
The Ethereal Origins of Writing
I’m always curious when and how being a writer comes into focus. David found his way to writing through graphic design and creating Misfit, his own quirky-meets-successful ad agency now 15 creatives strong. Along the way, he looped screenwriting into his story-building repertoire and went all in with his first indie film My Sweet Suicide, picking up on the bittersweet themes of life and death à la cult favorite Harold and Maude.
David refinanced his house on this self-described “most expensive student film ever made.” (Fun side note: My Sweet Suicide launched Matthew Aldrich’s acting career and path to writing Pixar’s Coco.) This first film nailed down that feeling all true writers get, namely, “It’s one of those things that won’t go away.”
And David’s been an indie screenwriter, producer and director ever since – haunting the sets of more than a dozen independent films featuring box office stars such as Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Rodriguez, Matthew Perry, Rob Schneider and more.
You Decide – Rich and Famous or Working Writer?
When David does his screenwriter talks, he tries to lead with unearthing what kind of writer you are:
- Does your writing chase the trends in search of being rich and famous?
- Or do you write because no matter how many rejections, you’re back at the keyboard writing?
Be real with your answer.
“It’s important to figure out your motivation to write,” David shares. “If you’re writing to be rich and famous in Hollywood, you have a hard road in front of you. But if you write because you love it and can’t leave it – God bless you. Each one is a different dream and you need to know which one you’re chasing.”
He likens writing to being okay with recognition long after you’ve left this life. For instance, good ol’ Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick to face terrible sales, only to gain true recognition 40+ years after he passed away. Would you be okay with that? Or how about gaining insta fame that results in stymied writing like the one-hit wonder of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?
Truly, what’s a writer to rally around while plinking away at the keyboard at 3 a.m.?
“Learn to separate success from writing. Do not link the two,” David offers. “If you link the two, it will frustrate you, add to pain in your life and even prevent you from writing. Let the writing be enough.”
Besides, “If you’re successful or not, at least you got to do what you love.”
For the Love of Writing – Proof Your Copy
So, if we’re all on the same page as professionals, we need to rally around the basics at the end of the writing day. Simply – proof, proof and proof some more. When David packaged films for Redwood Palms Pictures, he noticed some consistent errors bogging down good story ideas.
David’s Top Four Format Mistakes Cheat Sheet:
- Pesky typos: One pass isn’t proofing.
- Bad sentence structure: Get back to the basics.
- No directions: Seriously, you know that’s for the director, right?
- Format like a blueprint: Be a pro and format correctly, so other pros can do their jobs well too.
David sees this attention to screenwriting details as the potential to “narrow it from 10 okay writers in a room to just one real writer, in it for the long haul.”
Overnight Success Might Mean 20 Years
David learned about the long haul directly with his script The Fulfillment that has haunted him for 20 years – since Dolly the sheep was first cloned and planted the seed for the story. The script that trumpets “Scripture predicted it, Science created it” was actually purchased, funded and set to film.
“I was on the set, in Philadelphia, about a week before principle photography was supposed to start, and the deal with Richard Gere fell apart.” David shares. “The producers shut down the whole project and we all came home. I ended up paying for my entire hotel bill.”
Since that time, The Fulfillment script has caught the attention of multiple big stars, undergone multiple rewrites, and just came back to life a few weeks after my initial talk with David. Or as he sums it up, “Overnight success… it takes a long, long time.”
A gentle reminder to keep showing up for the writing, no matter the momentary rejection.
Let the Story Lead You
For a final bit of inspiration, I wanted to share one of David’s creative spots for KVIE PBS. He created these bursts of storytelling to highlight the playful side of creativity. Storytelling has moments of slogging away (ergh!), but most days remember the childlike wonder of creating drama and comedy and shades of gray.
We are world builders and that is powerful.
To keep up with David’s film and ad projects, visit agencymisfit.com.
More articles by Cheryl Laughlin