|Tuesday, Oct 1, 2002
|Author: Will Plyler|
|Dean Cavanagh started his writing career in freelance journalism contributing to UK magazines such as The Face, Melody Maker, I-D & New Musical Express. In 1990 he founded the club culture magazine ‘Herb Garden.' His ‘hobby" band ‘Glamorous Hooligan’ was picked up by Warner Bros in 1995 and released a critically acclaimed album ‘Naked City Soundtrax’. His short story ‘Mile High Meltdown’ was included in the best selling ‘Disco Biscuits’ anthology published by Sceptre. He’s married and lives in the beautiful county of Yorkshire, England and has been making a living from screenwriting for the last six years. (October 2002)
Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I’m from a big industrial city called Bradford in West Yorkshire. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was the capital of the world’s wool trade and had the more millionaires per household that anywhere else on the planet. It was a grand, beautiful, sprawling city that attracted migrant workers from the four corners. There was a big German migration to the city followed by an influx from Ireland, Italy, Asia, Poland, Hungary,West India and the Caribbean. By the 1980’s the city had exhausted the woolen trade and it fell on hard times. One of the contributing factors in its demise was the rise in man-made fibers and growth of third world manufacturing. It was sad to see such a prosperous city fall by the wayside. I grew up witnessing a lot of the fallout. Unemployment was exceedingly high and there was a lot of tension between the multifarious communities. I was, however, exposed to a great deal of cultural diversity from a very early age, and it’s been an invaluable asset in my writing. Music has always figured in my life (my Grandmother and Father are both singers) and I count myself lucky to have been around so many different musical cultures in my formative years, particularly Jamaican. Bradford’s still a great place to get a musical education.
The city’s surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK. The Brontes were born a stone’s throw from where I live and JB Priestly wrote most of his major works around these parts. Bradford really is a city of contrasts. We’ve got some amazing art galleries (the David Hockney gallery being a favorite) and theaters and we host the fabulous National Museum of Film, TV & Photography and are sometimes lucky to get premier’s of movies well in advance of London. For all its culture though it’s a hard city with more than its fair share of inner city turmoil. I’m glad I grew up here as it’s shown me many different facets of life and imbued in me a sense of civic pride. I’m fiercely protective of the city when it comes in for criticism from the media. We’ve got this weird thing going on in Bradford: we can criticize the city, but are incensed when any outsiders criticize it. Friends from New York have often drawn parallels between the Bradford mindset and theirs.
When were your first interests in films and or screenwriting?
My Dad was a big film fan. I didn’t see much of him when I was growing up as he was juggling a singing career with road-laying work at airports, but when he was home he’d encourage me to watch ‘The Classics’ on TV. Films that stand out are ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, ‘White Heat’, Cagney was an hero, ‘Billy Liar’ John Schlesinger’s comedy that was filmed in Bradford, and the Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin comedies. I had quite a liberal upbringing, my mother held a job as a print worker and Union organizer, and I was never censored in what I read, watched or listened to. You could say, being left to my own devices, I brought myself up. To fill the ‘vacuum’ I threw myself into the world of entertainment. I had a voracious appetite for film, music and TV. Bunking school and sneaking into the movies was always one of my favorite past-times. I think I saw The Who’s rock opera, ‘Tommy’ twenty times in a week. I also got a (unhealthy looking back) interest in Woody Allen films. I remember enjoying but not understanding ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Annie Hall’.
I was something of a TV junkie. There was never much money around when we were growing up so TV was definitely a lifeline. Back then (late seventies to mid eighties) UK TV was brilliant! We had Dennis Potter’s ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘The Singing Detective’, the films of Alan Clarke were regularly broadcast, ‘Play for Today’ showcased the work of up and coming writers and directors and we had great comedy like ‘Rising Damp’, ‘Steptoe & Son’ and ‘Auf Weidersehn Pet’. I really despair of British TV at the moment. It’s so far behind the quality American work that we get syndicated over here.
Where did you go to college and or did you ever study film/writing?
College or ‘higher education’ was never an option. I educated myself and very rarely attended school. It was always a given that I would work in a print factory when it was time to leave school because of my Mum’s clout with the union. The only lessons I attended were English and Sports. I think the teachers were quite happy that I didn’t attend as I was deemed a ‘disruptive influence’. A lot of this stemmed from my impatience. School bored me. Period. There were always far more important things for me to do. I do, however, remember an English teacher taking an interest in me. We were given an open writing assignment and I chose to write a back story for David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ character. I was about 12 at the time and really went to town on it. I handed it in to him and went to another lesson. A couple of hours later the Teacher came looking for me. Naturally I thought I’d done something wrong. He took me to the Headteacher’s office were they told me how amazed they were that I’d written this massive piece. They grilled me and soon realized that I had actually written it by myself. They lectured me about trying to turn over a new leaf and tried to get me to promise that
I’d start turning up regularly to lessons. I was nearly sold on the idea until they let it slip that they thought I’d actually invented this ‘Ziggy’ character. Whatever respect I was gaining for them vanished. How could they NOT know who Ziggy was!? Because I’m such a culture vulture I sometimes lose interest in people if I don’t think they’re as ‘up’ on things as me. It’s a fault that I need to mend. It’s been said a few times by friends that my journey reminds them of Cameron Crowe’s. I’m a fan of his so I take it as a compliment.
What did you decide to do first in terms of breaking in and why?
I wrote a novel called "Rubber Ring Halo’s" that couldn’t attract a publisher. Paolo Hewitt ( a well respected Britisher writer and music journo) liked it and passed it onto Irvine ‘Trainspotting’ Welsh. I was amazed when Irvine got in touch and told me how much he enjoyed it. He gave it to his publisher but they passed. It was then that a Scottish director called John McFarlane came on the scene. He was directing high profile ads and promo’s at the time and had made a great little film called "Spooktime." He read the manuscript, loved it and immediately optioned it with a view to me adapting it into a screenplay. At this point I was busy with my band and really couldn’t imagine writing a screenplay. John was insistent that I was the only man for the job so I gave it a go. I knew nothing about formatting, structure, character arcs and pacing etc., so I really was writing blind. My first draft was awful. John persevered with me and I went back again and again to the drawing board. I read a couple of scripts Online and started to understand the mechanics. Finally we had a very rough draft that was ‘showable’. It got us a lot of meetings (some of them madcap) with Producers, would-be Producers, Financiers and even a few Gangsters who were trying to plough some of their ill-gotten gains into movies. It all came to nought but I was learning fast. I liked the cut and thrust and the hustle and bustle of filmmaking. You could say I was hooked overnight.
Tell me about writing your first script? What was your approach like?
My first ‘proper’ script was ‘Pet City’, a zany black comedy. It was simply a matter of trial and error. What I’d learnt with John on ‘Rubber Ring...’was invaluable. I was learning how to write cinematically and really enjoying it whilst always knowing in the back of my mind that every line and beat would eventually get scrutinized and maybe end up getting cut. I’d just like to say that one of the most enjoyable aspects in screenwriting for me is the cutting. I know other screenwriters who get real defensive and cling onto their beats to the death; I actually relish cuts because I believe they make the difference between a mediocre draft and a ‘finished’ draft.
Anyway, after having worked the draft to death it went out cold to a company called Film & General. They’d done some great British films: ‘Scum’, Linday Anderson’s ‘Britannia Hospital’ ‘Gregory’s Girl’ and ‘That Summer’.
They got back to me straight away with an option offer. I couldn’t believe my luck. They were really professional, organized and great at paying (always important). The hard work commenced on the re-writing and I learnt a tremendous amount from Davina Belling, one of the company’s Producers. Before long they’d attracted a lot of interest from directors and financiers. Betsan Morris-Evans had just helmed a film called ‘Dad Savage’ with Patrick Stewart. She adored ‘Pet City’ and came on board. The usual to-ing and fro-ing went on until it was ready to show to actors. This is where we hit the wall. The script demanded that we have an‘English’ larger than life central male character of a specific age. There were really only ever two choices: Timothy Spall or Jim Broadbent. Although both were receptive to the script neither could commit to the time frame. We came within an inch of financing and I was bitterly disappointed that it didn’t happen. Film & General renewed the option and were great in trying to keep it going, but eventually it lost momentum.
After finishing your first what was your next step? Did you start working on a new one? Try to shop it?
I went headlong into ‘Spec Mode.’ I wrote two on the bounce over an eight-month time scale and they both got optioned. It should have been hunky dory and inspiring but this was a very frustrating period. Both specs were very original concepts. I don’t want to mention names but they were handled appallingly by the Prodco’s. I found myself re-writing for the sake of it, or rather to honour my contracts, but the more I re-wrote the more the stories were getting diluted and getting away from the original idea behind them. Because the UK has a very small film industry there are a lot of people employed (or rather, trying to stay employed) in development. I dare say it’s the same in the US but in the UK a lot of these development people don’t seem to know what to do for the best. On these two specs I found it really difficult to move them forward with directors I admired because of interference from the development people. Again, I learnt a lot though. An option isn’t always the best result for a script with a very specific content or concept. Doing your homework into Producers and Companies is essential in this game.
During this weird time everybody I knew was telling me that I needed an agent. O.K., I thought, and went about trying to get one. Here I was with solid re-write and adaptation offers on the table, four optioned scripts and a half dozen more treatments ready to execute. I didn’t realize just how hard it is to get representation in the UK. Every single literary agent I contacted was either rude, arrogant, uncommunicative or simply not interested. One agent in particular springs to mind. She contacted me back on my query letter and asked me to meet at her swanky office in London. I traveled the three hundred miles down and waited…and waited…and waited. One hour after our designated meet-time she strolled in and made me wait another half hour whilst she ‘got her things together’. I was ushered in and told that she hadn’t read my scripts but that she’d had coverage and didn’t think she could represent me. I was out the door in three minutes flat!
Now, you might think I got just a little angry with the way I’d been treated, but there’s a postscript that made the bad experience all worth while. Whilst I was waiting for ‘Her Highness’ I got talking to a Producer who was waiting for a meeting (he only waited a couple of minutes instead of hours) with a view to finding a writer for a project. We had a mutual friend and got talking. When I got home there was a message waiting for me. To cut a long story short, I got a lucrative writing assignment and ‘Her Highness’ failed to sell my Producer friend one of her writers, thus losing her 10%. I’m a great believer in karma and synchronicity. The project never saw production but I keep in touch with the Producer. Let’s just say he doesn’t work with ‘Her Highness’ anymore.
You’ve worked for various companies like Miramax, Canal Plus, and the BBC Films. What did you do for them? What was the experience like and what did you learn about the business and even writing in particular?
O.K., Miramax was actually a subsid’ called HAL here in the UK. It was run by a guy called David Aukin who had headed Filmfour. The project was an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel ‘Filth.’ Trainspotting had been greenlit by Aukin from his time at Filmfour so he was obviously very keen to replicate success with Irvine. Irvine put me forward for the job and I was delighted. I loved the novel and still believe it’s his best so far. I pitched my ideas to Irvine and he was interested. I took a pitch meeting with Aukin and his Lieutenants and did a great job. However, it was clear from very early on that HAL didn’t really ‘get Filth’. The alarm bells started ringing for me when David Aukin called Scorcese’s ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Good Guys!’ O.K. it might sound trite, but it didn’t exactly inspire any faith in him. It was also obvious that Aukin hadn’t read the property he’d just optioned and that his trusty underlings had but didn’t really understand it . I kind of knew it was a doomed project from there on in. Anyway I delivered the draft to Irvine. He loved it, saying it was the best screenplay he’d read. I was delighted. HAL got the draft and hated it. They didn’t even take up on the option for a re-write. Irvine and I were stunned but it soon transpired that there was more to it than meets the eye, namely politics. There was some business going on with Miramax and shortly after, HAL was history. It was another bad experience but I learnt that it was always out of my hands and nothing to do with the quality of my writing, thankfully.
Canal Plus were funding a live action/animated adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Canterville Ghost’ along with a German company. The gig came through Davina Belling at Film & General. This really was a weird one. I got the brief and met the German Producer. He’s a really nice guy called Stefan Schesch, but unfortunately he didn’t have a clue about what ‘tone’ he wanted in the script. It was a nightmare working with him from the very start. This is exactly what he told me, verbatim: ‘I want it funny and sad, scary, but not too scary, I want it like Beetlejuice but not as funny and I want action and character arcs. The Ghost has got to be more threatening but sympathy (sic) and I want it all outside more but not too much’. O.K. that doesn’t sound too bad (remember the words of William Goldman: Write Everything Down) but then he showed me the cartoons he was going to use for the ghost. They were unbelievably bad. Neither scary, threatening or funny, just very amateurish. I worked hard, very hard, at trying to get down on paper what this guy was visualizing, but it was impossible. He kept moving the goalposts every time I delivered a draft. We both grew very tired and it ended with him not paying me for the most recent draft. I didn’t even contest it and was glad to get off the crazy carousel.
Working for BBC Films has been like a breath of fresh air. Irvine Welsh and I have written an original screenplay called ‘Hotel California’ about two English kids who get caught up in the drugs trade out in Thailand. It’s being developed by Antonia Bird, Robert Carlyle and Mark Cousens’ 4-Way imprint. Antonia (Face, Priest, Ravenous) is helming and it looks pretty set for a 2003 shoot. David Thompson and Joe Oppenheimer at BBC Films have been good to work with. They’ve given us plenty of time to get it right, and Antonia’s been an angel. She’s fantastic with ideas and suggestion for cuts. She’s a very professional and visionary director who knows exactly what she wants. Both Irvine and I have grown to love her and trust her judgment and advice over the last year or so. Collaborating with Irvine has been eye opening. I used to flinch at the idea of co-writing but it’s been great. You tend to re-examine a lot more and it creates a good tension between you, your collaborator and your director. You find yourself having to put up a very strong argument about why a scene, beat or line is valuable to the script. It’s fun re-writing someone of Irvine’s stature and great fun seeing what he does with my words and ideas. I’m really lucky that our paths crossed. He’s been a great help and mentor professionally, but more importantly he’s become a good friend.
You currently live in Yorkshire, England. How has that been and how is it currently for you in terms of breaking into a business an ocean and continent away?
It was really hard keeping in the loop when I was starting out, but because of technology it’s obviously becoming easier. I just don’t have the financial means or opportunity to re-locate right now. A terribly tragedy befell us last year. My sister-in-law gave birth to a baby daughter on a Sunday and died in her sleep the following Thursday, leaving not only her precious baby daughter but also her ten year old daughter from a previous marriage. The father of the baby’s a deadbeat so me and my wife Louise have adopted the two girls. We already have three children of our own, so as you can imagine it’s very hard work.
Besides the obvious financial difficulties (the girl’s were left with no inheritance or monetary provisions) there’s the day-to-day job of bringing the gang up. I’ve learnt a lot from the tragedy and it’s made me more determined to succeed. A couple of times I’ve thought about dramatizing the event and putting it into perspective. It drove me to write a spec called ‘The Mook’ that my agent’s shopping around at the moment. It’s a very commercial romcom but at its heart is the message that we should really take control of our destinies and enjoy life before it’s too late. The September 11th atrocity also influenced me. Those images will stay with me until the day I die, and without meaning to sound corny; I’d love to spread some laughter. The world definitely needs some right now. I’ve set it in New York--in a kind of tributary sense--and focused on everyday people and how they deal with the curveballs that life throws them.
It’s a very personal script for me and I’m determined to see it made into a fabulous movie. I’ve had some amazing feedback from Pro’s and if it doesn’t get picked up I’ve got a few plans to get it made with independent money. I’m just holding on at the moment. It’s definitely a script I’m not gonna let slide.
My wife’s pragmatic and supports the prospect of me having to move out to LA eventually. I’d love to look five or ten years down the line and see us all living in California, but at the moment I’m too busy mastering my chosen profession and trying to keep the wolves from the door.
You are repped by Rob Carlson at WMA? What was it like trying to get an agent? How did this finally come about? And what was the process for you? Also did you have to work hard to convince him to rep someone out of the country?
Because of the crap I’d had to swallow from British agents I was weary of anymore approaches. Antonia Bird wanted to set me up with Patty Detroit at ICM but for some reason she never got a hold of my sample scripts. I wasn’t giving it too much thought until a Danish Producer, Nicolai Iuul, told me to try Rob Carlson. Rob was over here on business and I met with him. I instantly liked him. He’s got a great sense of humour and is easy to talk to. He asked me what I wanted to do with my career and filled me in on exactly what he saw as a good way for me to move forward. There didn’t seem to be the stench of BS around him and he talked in very black and white terms. He realized that I’d been around the block a few times and was ready to move into the American market. I liked that he told me I’d be entering a sometimes harsh and always competitive arena and that hard work would be the order of the day (I’m only afraid of having NO work) and that things very rarely happen overnight.
Rob looks after a lot of established clients so it’s an honour to be repped by him. I do, however, still believe you’ve got to take charge of your own career to a certain extent. You can’t sit back and wait for things to happen. I’m a very driven guy, Rob calls me ‘The Machine’ and I take it as a compliment. I’ve got a very healthy attitude towards the work ethic. Very Irish Roman Catholic in many respects. I’m not a wallflower and if there’s a door to knock on you can be sure that I’ll knocking away on it. I do find the American work ethic far more exciting than in the UK. Over here you get too many people unwilling to push themselves to the limits of their capacity and they invariably end up moaning about it when they’re not ‘handed’ opportunities. Opportunities are to be sought and in this game you’ve got to get up and out after them.
There was never a problem with Rob regarding my residency in the UK. Good screenwriters are good screenwriters are good screenwriters. Like I said, we’re living in a technologically advanced age, and those who’ll benefit in the long run are those that embrace technology to conduct their business. If a Prodco, Producer or Director have a problem with me living over here they can’t be that serious about my talent as a writer as far as I’m concerned. LA’s twelve hours direct from Heathrow, it’s not Sirius. The only thing stopping me popping over regularly are finances at the moment.
I’ve also had a lot of encouragement from a manager out in LA called Jennifer Levine. She’s a smart cookie and really supportive of my work even though I’m not her client. Likewise a cool guy called Brian Oliver (he’s produced Paul Schrader’s ‘Auto Focus’). John McFarlane introduced me to a great LA writer called Bo Weinberg and he put me straight on a few things, so, yeah, I’m building up contacts. Contacts you can never have enough of. I’m used to the whole networking game from my journalism and music days so it comes kind of naturally. I’m a very gregarious person and love meeting people. I think it’s an imperative in such a collaborative business like film that you genuinely enjoy getting to know people. It’s very rare that I’ve worked with anyone and not become good friends. Obviously it’s not always easy taking criticism from ‘friends’ or in some cases getting fired, but you really have to detach yourself and realize it’s just business and nothing to do with your personality.
How do you handle most of your correspondence with your agent or other people? Email? Phone? Letters?
Rob and I E-mail each other daily. I get a call every couple of weeks. I sometimes think I’m maybe on his case too much but he’s always polite, helpful and willing to hear my pitches. He’s always straight with me and tells me if he thinks the idea’s whack. Because I’m concentrating on comedy scripts it’s important that we share the same kind of humour. It’s always good to get his E-mails (positive or negative). I hope I don’t offend any of your readers who are going through writers block at the moment, but I’ve really never faced it and find it hard to imagine what it must feel like. I’ve usually got at least half a dozen ideas floating around my brain at the same time. Rob can be relied upon to weed out what’s workable and this helps me prioritize. No wonder he calls me The Machine.
Have you done many pitch meetings? If so how have things gone for you and do you have any recommendations or pointers for other writers?
I did a conference call pitch to Craig Erwich at Fox Network a couple of weeks back. To be honest it was really hard work. Craig was great and assured me he was a fan of my work ( he read a spec of mine called ‘Buying The Farm’ that went out but didn’t sell) but I found it daunting not having eye to eye contact. I’ve convinced myself that I didn’t give a good pitch, even though Rob and Greg Lipstone (my TV agent at WMA) thought I did. As soon as I clicked the phone off I felt bad. I did plenty of prep and homework but not being there in the office certainly affected me. I totally drew blank on a lot of the ideas that I wanted to hit him with. I’m not sure I really want to do anymore phone pitches. I’m guessing that Craig didn’t see the treatment I wrote which is a shame because it’s a great concept, but I realize that Hollywood works to a system, and it’s gonna be that extra bit harder for me to get into it living over here.
What advice, encouragement, etc. would you give to others living outside the US?
Obviously because of the nature of Hollywood the first thing you need is an agent or manager. That’s assuming you can write interesting screenplays, have an undying passion for it, can handle rejection on a daily basis, aren’t afraid of hard work and can stay the course. I’d say the most important characteristic you need is confidence. Confidence in yourself and your work. Example: ‘The Mook’s’ definitely the best screenplay I’ve written and I’m confident that it will find the right home and become a huge success! Now to some people reading that might sound egotistical, but it’s simply a safeguard mantra. Why else would I have spent six months without pay working on it? You’ve really got to believe in your work and want people to see it and share in the fun. I can’t think of anything better than being sat in a theater watching people laugh at scenes that have come straight out of my imagination. If you’re chasing that ‘Million Dollar Spec’ that’s fine, it does happen, I know a few writers that have done it, but if that’s all you’re chasing you’d be better off taking your chances at the track or the lotto booth. I want a career and to ultimately leave behind a cannon of quality work. That may be asking a lot but I’m gonna try my damnedest to achieve it. Right now there might be some kid in the wilds of Timbuktu writing the best screenplay ever, but if that kid doesn’t have confidence in it we’ll never hear anything about it. So, yeah, in my opinion, confidence (no matter where you live) is very important.
Mentors are also essential. You absolutely need someone whose opinion you can really trust. A British Producer called Ray Cooper helped me tremendously with advice on the politics of filmmaking. Ray headed up George Harrison’s Handmade Films in the eighties and he’s got some amazing contacts. Nowadays he works closely with Terry Gilliam and an American company called Radical Media. Above all else, Ray is a gentleman, and also has a fantastic ability to make you feel at ease. He’s very worldly and I really value his opinions. I’ve got a script with him and Radical Media called ‘The Last Days of Laughter’ that Geoff Murphy looks likely to helm. Whether or not it gets produced I’m still grateful that I’ve had chance to get to know Ray.
Are their any screenwriting books you recommend? Magazines?
I’m a voracious reader and the books that have helped me understand the mechanics of the screenwriting profession, in no particular order, are: Tom DeCillo’s ‘Eating Crow’, David Sherwin’s ‘Going Mad in Hollywood’, John Gregory Dunne’s ‘Monster: Living off the Big Screen’, William Froug’s ‘Zen & the Art of Screenwriting’ Sidney Lumet’s ‘Making Movies’ and William Goldman’s ‘Hype & Glory’. In cyberspace I also check out Screentalk, Movie Bytes, Screenwriters Uptopia, Zoetrope, Film Fix and of course Done Deal.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
I usually write through the night and get up around noon. I’m very disciplined and am compelled to write every day. If I go a day without writing I get itchy. I’ve never understood anyone who can switch on and off into ‘writing mode’. Obviously sometimes I get tired, but I pick up a pad, veg out in front of the TV and scribble scenes down. ‘Spitballing’s also important, you know, just calling up or E-mailing friends and throwing ideas around. I’m never worried about giving ideas away. The real art of screenwriting is in the execution anyway.
Because I’ve got a large family I make time to spend with them. It’s always cool to catch up on what kids are into. I often use the kids as sounding boards for ideas. They’re all very literate and plugged in so it’s really helpful. I think I must like working in a kind of chaotic atmosphere. I actually love the noise and craziness that comes with having kids running around. I’ve written in seclusion a couple of times and it didn’t really work for me. I absolutely need people around to bounce off.
Do you outline all your scripts first? Write treatments?
I didn’t until I got Rob to rep me. It was always an intuitive thing before. I can totally understand writers who don’t outline because I’ve been there and found it liberating. I think because I’ve moved up a few gears career wise there really is no other option but to get a rough structure down before I start, even if it is only a couple of pages.
I was halfway through ‘The Mook’ when I had an idea that totally transformed the story. It took a hell of a lot of figuring out and probably added a month to the work but it was worth it in the end. I think if you have a good solid concept to work from you can’t go wrong. I agonized about being able to write down the concept of The Mook on the back of cigarette packet: cowardly care worker stands up to the mob and wins the girl of his dreams. That’s fine; it captures the concept for me. So, yeah, I’d recommend having a high concept for your story ready to pitch at every opportunity, but I think treatments and or outlines should be down to the individual and whatever gets the writer through the night.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
Re-writing is screenwriting. Full stop. I’ve had some of the dumbest comments levelled at my scripts but you’ve got to take it on the chin. Sure it’s frustrating and it makes you want to run naked through the hills cursing the dork who gave you the notes, but you can’t. You’ve simply got to take what you find constructive and leave what you think’s crazy. Re-writing is the be all and end all of screenwriting. I mean, you’d never stop polishing a diamond so why should it be any different with something equally valuable?
Where do you look for feedback from your writing? Friends? Your agent?
I am so incredibly lucky that I’ve got many friends, contacts and acquaintances involved in film. Some people think that it’s pointless trying to get unbiased feedback from friends but they obviously don’t have friends like mine. They’re my fiercest critics! For example, before I let Rob Carlson see The Mook I’d had comments from ten associates. This group of ten was made up of a screenwriter, two actors, two producers, a director, a contact in development and three movie buffs. I hit a great average: nine out of ten loved it, but it was a really good friend that criticized it, saying the ending was ‘too Hollywood and sugary’ and that I’d ‘sold the characters out’. It hurt a little because I really like this guy and didn’t agree with him. I felt like, and could have easily gone back to the drawing board and ‘unhollywooded’ the ending but that would have been batting against the averages. If enough people tell you your shit stinks, your shit probably does stink, but don’t fix what isn’t broken. You’ve really got to canvass opinion and take on board the majority trend. Rob got the draft and loved it so I felt like I’d hit a hundred percent. Now by the same token the same ten read ‘Buying The Farm’ and seven didn’t like it. I was pig-headed, sent it to Rob, he gave it to the readers pool and they returned with lots of notes. The Mook didn’t even go for coverage so I guess I was vindicated, but it still smarts when I realize I sent ‘Buying The Farm’ out to Rob too soon.
What goals do you have for the future? Short term? Long term? And any plans to move out to Hollywood?
Obviously to be working on American projects. America’s where film’s get made instead of simply talked about or developed. I have like a wish list of where I want to be at a certain age, but if you dwell too much on the past or future you end up missing out on the present. Because I can’t stand not to be writing I’m always on the look out for interesting projects and people to get involved with. Like I say, I’m driven to write screenplays so I’ll be doing them no matter what the future holds. Sure, it’d be wonderful to get picked up and invested in by a great Prodco or Producer but whatever happens you can be sure there’ll always be a ‘Written by Dean Cavanagh’ screenplay floating around. It’ll be a cold day in Hell when I throw the towel in.
And what are your favorite scripts? Scripts you’d say every writer should read and learn from?
The Farrelly’s ‘There’s Something about Mary’. Fast, economic and laugh out loud funny. Also anything by Mamet. Like a lot of people I just love his dialogue. I disagree that Mamet has a fine ear for speech though. It’s not naturalistic, in my opinion he’s reinvented the wheel in banter and created unforgettable lines that will stand the test of time, but it’s not how people sound. Over here we’ve got Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett’s dialogue but Mamet’s has a warmth about it than makes the ‘cleverness’ bearable. There’s also a brilliant script of Mike Leigh’s film ‘Naked’ out in paperback. The script was improvised but you wouldn’t believe it. It’s got reams of dialogue but it doesn’t detract from the piece because every line is like poetry. I’d love to know how the actors managed it.
What are you working on currently and what is ahead for you?
There’s this really hot novel by Douglas Coupland called ‘Miss Wyoming’ that I’m adapting for Modesty Films. There’s a real buzz about it but I’m just trying to stay focused on turning in the best script I possibly can. I’ve got a bio-pic script of the legendary black magician, Aleister Crowley, called ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. It’s an epic script and would need major financing, but it’s a labor of love and I constantly keep going back to it and reworking. Rob’s going to get it to David Bowie because I know he’s a big fan of Crowley and would be perfect for the part. It would be fantastic getting the guy who turned me onto writing in the first place to star in a movie I’d written. I don’t know what the future holds and I like it that way…keeps the script of my life interesting!