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Interviews
 
Jeff Lowell
Thursday, Oct 21, 2010
Author: Will Plyler & EJ Pennypacker
 
Jeff Lowell grew up in Arizona and moved out to Los Angeles after college. His primary focus in the beginning was TV, so he knew he needed to get out there.

Jeff worked as a writer’s assistant for a couple of years, moved through a few agents, and finally got his break – a freelance episode of The George Carlin Show. The script was well received, and he was offered a staff job on the show.

Once he broke in, he jumped from show to show every year. After George Carlin, he worked on Drew Carey, Cybill, Spin City, Sports Night, Just Shoot Me and half a dozen other shows.

In features, Jeff started doing a lot of punch up, given his comedy background, but he has also sold spec scripts and done adaptations, rewrites and remakes. His credits include John Tucker Must Die, Hotel For Dogs and Over Her Dead Body, which he directed.

In 2004, Jeff moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, with his family. It seemed like a more sane place for kids to grow up, and he travels back and forth as the job dictates.


When did you first become interested in writing for film and TV?

When I was in college. I’d always wanted to be a writer, had written short stories, poems, even a truly embarrassing novel or two. But once I got to school, I realized that most fiction writers ended up as teachers, and that didn’t seem like a good match for my personality.

I studied writing careers where a writer could actually make a living at it, and settled on writing for TV and film. It sounds insane now, but writing for Hollywood seemed like the “safe” writing path.

Did you study film or writing in college?

I didn’t study film or writing at all in school. I actually left college to move out to L.A. – I knew that I was going to be a writer, so why bother getting a degree? I look back and, again, think how crazy I was.

Tell us about writing your first script. What was your approach?

I’m afraid it’s a pretty boring and conservative start – I went down to the library (remember those?) and checked out the three books on screenwriting. I know one of them was a book by J. Michael Straczynski, one was a sort of a general comedy writing book, probably Syd Field’s book. They were useful for picking up basic formatting, three-act structure, A and B stories, that kind of stuff.

The real education came from reading scripts. My girlfriend (now my wife) was interning at a company that did publicity for TV shows, grabbed some scripts and gave them to me. I think there were a bunch of Golden Girl scripts, maybe some Cheers. Those were invaluable – I just broke them down and figured out how sitcoms are written. How the jokes are structured. How long the scenes are. How many scenes. How many plots per episode. Because sitcoms are formulaic, it’s really easy to determine the elements that make them work.

So then I dove in and started writing spec sitcom scripts. I wrote all the popular shows of the day – Cheers, Murphy Brown, Married with Children.

I also applied the same strategy to studying features. Again, I just picked popular movies that I could get my hands on (it was harder then) – I remember reading Pretty Woman, Ghostbusters, stuff like that. Although features aren’t as formulaic as TV, there are still patterns and rhythms that can be distilled.

Before I got my first job, I ended up writing more than a dozen TV spec scripts and probably around ten features. The sitcoms got pretty good – they ended up leading to me getting work.

Most of the features weren’t great for two reasons: the stories were a little conventional, and I was still learning. There are still a couple that had stories I liked – I keep thinking about revisiting them at some point.

What advice can you give writers to help them get past the reader and advance to the next stage? What pitfalls can they avoid in their writing to get the “consider” or “recommend”?

I used to write to writers for advice on how to break in all the time. One guy gave me the best advice – he just wrote back, “Writers write.” That’s it. Those twenty-plus scripts I wrote were all written in around three years. I just constantly read scripts and wrote scripts.

I also workshopped, which I think is invaluable. I found other writers trying to break in, and we would meet and share scripts and give notes all the time. Learning to give notes is as important as getting notes – a lot of the job of writer is reading scripts that are “broken” and figuring out how to fix them. TV, features – same process. That’s actually the skill that gets us the most jobs.

So it’s one reason I think relying on consultants is a problem – you never learn how to read critically and fix things.

Do you have an agent currently? And if so, how did you find representation with them? What’s your relationship like? Is there a lot of feedback? Also, do you feel you have to “clear” your ideas and stories with them first before starting to write a project?

I have an agent and a manager – I’m at UTA and Management 360.

I went through four agencies at the start of my career. My first agent was a sweet woman that I got through a query letter, but she didn’t have any connections. She just sent all the scripts out in boxes to the various shows, hoping that a reader would read them and pass them up.

So after one sitcom season without a job, I started querying and ended up hip-pocketed at CAA. The guy was nice, but I was a low, low, low priority – all my reads came from me still querying, and then when a producer would agree to read, I’d have the agent’s assistant send it over with a CAA cover. Better than nothing, but not by much.

Then an assistant who’d read me before got promoted to agent at a mid-level agency. He remembered my script and asked to represent me. I went with him, and ended up getting my first job with him as my agent. (It was mostly through my hustle, but he helped.) Then he got fired right before the next staffing season, and the show I was working on had been canceled. I called an exec who had covered the show I was working on, and he recommended me to a manager and UTA.

My recommendation when switching agencies is to keep the old one while you’re looking for the new one. I think it’s easier to say “I’m repped but looking to change” than saying “I used to have an agent.” Obviously, make it sound like you and the old agent just weren’t on the same page, and don’t trash them.

My manager is relatively new – I’d had a manager since the beginning, but he segued into producing, so I switched to a new manager. I just asked my agent who he recommended.

As to how I handled all of those meetings with new representatives – if they’ve read your stuff and loved it, and call you in, you’re in a good position. Talk about what your goals are. Ask questions about things that concern you – what’s the usual path to break writers in? What are you looking for me to do? What should I be writing? Be polite. Just seem like someone that they could work with and not drive them crazy, someone who can handle themselves in a meeting, and you’re fine.

As for the amount of contact: we do talk often – less when I’m off on script, but when I’m meeting and looking for jobs, we’ll talk multiple times a week.

They don’t give me feedback on assignments – I get enough notes from producers and executives on those. But I do use them as a resource when I’m writing spec scripts – I run the ideas by them, to see if there’s something else out there too similar, see if they like it. And then I’ll do a pass on the script once it’s done based on their notes.

You’ve done various pitch meetings. How have things gone for you? Do you have any recommendations for other writers?

I pitch all the time. Almost every assignment starts with a pitch – whether it’s an original or an adaptation or a rewrite.

Relax. They want you to succeed. Just tell them the story like you’re telling a story to a friend about a movie you’ve seen. Don’t get too bogged down in just pitching beat for beat of the story – talk about the theme, the characters, and the set pieces. Let them know why it’s going to be funny or scary or thrilling.

People handle this differently, but I basically write out my pitch word for word, and rehearse it over and over again. I keep the notes in front of me, but hopefully don’t refer to them often. You don’t want to sit in front of someone and read. But it’s also nice to have it there in case you get lost or interrupted.

I’m not a huge fan of leave-behinds. When people have something written, they can pick it apart until the end of time. When they hear a good pitch, they just remember the high points.

I try not to pitch on the phone, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I just do the exact same thing I do as when I’m there in person – I rehearse my pitch, have it in front of me, and try not to refer to it often. But really, avoid phone pitching if at all possible. It’s tough to not see faces, to not be able to be interrupted, to not know if they’re listening and how they’re reacting.

What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that?

Taking notes is part of the job. If you get defensive, no one wants to work with you.

Be honest, though – if you don’t think something will work, point out why it’s bumping you. Ask for their help. Sometimes what comes out is better.

And at the end of the day, don’t just answer a note if you really think the result is horrible. Call them. Talk about why you’re having troubles. No one is going to get a horrible script and say, “It was my fault for giving those stupid notes!”

You hear from working writers that after they sell that first (spec) script, a lot of what they do is rewrites, assignments, work on other people’s ideas, etc. Have you found this to be true?

Absolutely. Most working writers don’t have the time or inclination to spec – why write for free when you can get paid for it?

What was it like working on a TV show as a writer? What was a “normal” week like for you and the other writers in terms of putting the script together, table reads, rewrites, and so on? Can you briefly take us through what it’s like to be a writer on a show?

It’s the best training for a writer, in my opinion. You’re constantly producing and shooting material, and you see what works.

Briefly: you pitch or are assigned a story. You write an outline, get notes, then go write the script. You usually have a week or two. Then you get notes and rewrite it. Then everyone on the show rewrites it as a group. This can be brutal – sometimes 10% of your script will make it through. Sometimes less. Then it gets read by all the actors, and everyone rewrites it together. This process goes on all week, and then finally you shoot it.

Since I assume most of the people reading are looking for their first job, I’ll try to throw out some hints for new writers. Before I got my first job, a producer said to me, “Be the guy who cares at two in the morning.” I didn’t really understand it until I started working. The hours are brutal, and everyone gets tired and grumpy and unproductive when they’ve been working for sixteen hours. Don’t.

My whole career, when we’d finish a rewrite at four in the morning and the showrunner would say, “Who wants to stay and proof with me?” I’d always volunteer. It cost me thirty minutes, and it was always appreciated. If you want to be a showrunner someday, work as hard as the showrunner does.

Also, don’t be the problem, be the solution. I worked with too many writers who would point out what was wrong, or what they didn’t think was funny, and think they were contributing. They weren’t. If you see something wrong, have a pitch. If you don’t have a pitch, shut up.

Another common problem: a lot of writers get defensive when their script is being ripped apart. It’s unpleasant. Don’t defend something the showrunner wants to toss. Pitch alternatives. Be just as willing to change your own script as you are someone else’s.

When I ran shows and hired, I’d just look for a great script. When I’d find one and have the person in, it was a lot like when I would interview with agents – if I’ve got you in there, you’re close to the job. I like your writing. Show me that you’re someone I can spend 80 hours a week with and not want to strangle. Talk about what your writing journey has been like in a funny way without seeming bitter or unpleasant.

Someone told me that staff writing was 90% personality, 10% talent. I think that’s a little off – I’ll put up with an unpleasant asshole if he’s really talented – but it’s not that far off. Staff writing is a social undertaking. If you’re causing problems, you’re not worth it.

You and Jenny Bicks sold the pitch Saving Grace to Fox 2000 in 1998. Was this your first big feature deal? How did the partnership come about? How did you two tackle writing the script as partners?

No, I think I got my first feature deal within a year of breaking in on TV – an original pitch I sold to Disney. I always wanted to do TV and features, so I pursued them both at the same time. I didn’t end up getting credit on a movie for another ten years, but I worked on a ton of movies, some of which got made.

Before that first credit, I sold pitches, I did rewrites, polishes. People have this misconception that you can’t work as a writer unless you sell a spec. It’s untrue. The spec that got me work was a black comedy about the movie business, with an agent who may or may not have killed someone as the hero. No one was going to make it. But people liked how I wrote and hired me to write more commercial fare.

As for Saving Grace, Jenny and I were just friends who were having lunch and came up with a movie idea. We thought it would be fun to write, so we went and pitched it to Fox together. They bought it, we wrote it... and it sits on a shelf somewhere.

We broke the story together, then went off and wrote pages separately, then rewrote together. Not an unusual process for partners.

In 2001, you sold your script John Tucker Must Die to MGM. Then in 2004, 20th Century Fox picked it up, made the film and it was released in 2006. Can you tell us a little bit about the script’s genesis and describe the process of setting it up at MGM all the way through ending up at Fox?

I thought about doing a story about bullies in high school – about having the bullied kids being pushed too far and wanting revenge. Then I tried to twist it to make it more interesting and funny – what if it was girls? What would push a girl too far? What if it wasn’t bullying, but a guy who was using women? What would the revenge be? You get the idea.

It went out as a spec. Didn’t sell, although it got me work because people liked the writing. One of the producers who had hired me on something else remembered the script and pitched it to the head of MGM years later. They bought it. Developed it. It died. The same producer re-pitched it to Fox, who bought it and made it.

You wrote and directed 2008’s Over Her Dead Body. How did this project come about, and how did you end up deciding to direct? What was the process like for you?

Another spec script. It had sold years before but never gone anywhere. Then a new studio wanted to make it, and I made my pitch to direct it. Since I’d run TV shows, I was able to make a case for myself – the job of showrunner and feature director are very similar.

The process was great from beginning to end. I was lucky enough to end up with smart collaborators, the studio was supportive, the cast was talented and not crazy... It all went well. I wish it had done more business, but that’s my only regret.

In June 2008 you set up The Family Bond, a spec script you wrote at Universal. What can you tell us about that script? What’s the current status?

Not much to tell – I think I was watching a James Bond, watched him seduce his nine millionth woman, and thought, he’s got to have a kid out there somewhere. Then I thought it would be fun to give a womanizer a teen daughter – as the old saying goes, daughters are god’s revenge on men.

They’re trying to make it. It always feels like we have one piece – we’ve got a director! We’ve got an actor! – but never all of them at once. It’s a miracle anything ever gets made.

Later in 2008, you set up an untitled family adventure script at Nickelodeon Movies and Double Feature Films. It’s based on an idea by you and Matt Lopez. What’s happening with that project?

Again, chugging along through development. Not dead, not being shot... Just trying to put the pieces together.

Matt is a writer who had been interested in the underlying material – it’s based on the life story of one of the producers. He came up with a take, but then got too busy to pitch it – high-class problem – so the producers came to me to see if I’d be interested.

I worked with Matt coming up with a revised pitch, he stayed attached as a producer, and then we split story credit because of all the work he’d done before I got there, and because he continued helping with the story after I came on board.

In early 2009 you set up a script based on Spencer Quinn’s novel Dog on It. It was announced as a spec. Did you acquire the rights first, or did 360 or Mandalay Pictures pick up the rights and you agreed to spec the project? What took place in terms of adapting the novel? Challenges? Needs or wants from the producers? What’s going currently with your script?

I’d never spec something I didn’t own – that would be a waste of time, since I could end up with a script that was worthless. The nice thing about specs you own is that even if they don’t sell, they can come back to life years later. Not so if you don’t own it – it’s tied up.

My managers knew the author/publisher, and they agreed to let me have a window where I went out and pitched how I’d adapt the book. Universal liked the pitch it, then bought the book and hired me to write it.

I’d adapted before. You can’t worry about the book – you just have to take what’s great, and then make the best movie you can. Unless you’re doing Harry Potter, no one’s going to get mad if you add a character or change a story beat.

I just turned in a draft last week. Fingers crossed.

It seems like you’ve become a go-to guy for family films of late. Do you find this to be the case? And what challenges do you face when working with family projects versus more adult comedies?

After Hotel For Dogs, everything I’ve done has had a family element. I’ve got kids, so it just became a natural progression – I like making movies they can watch.

As for the differences between that and projects for adults, the process doesn’t change. The rules of drama don’t change. You just tell the story in a way that kids can enjoy – it’s a natural process for anyone with children. They always hear you talking to another adult about something inappropriate and ask, “What are you guys talking about?” So you clean it up and make it suitable for them.

What’s a typical writing day like for you?

There isn’t one, which is what I love about the job. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about a story and go outside all day and turn it over in my head. Sometimes I’ll do research for days or weeks. Sometimes I’ll sit down and grind out pages.

Do you outline all your stories first? Write treatments? How do you prepare before you begin a script?

If I’m not handing the outline/treatment to someone on a paid assignment, I’ll still do an informal one so I have a roadmap. I want to know that the story hangs together, I want to know the theme and how the character’s arc answers it, I want to know the act breaks and midpoint, etc.

How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?

Pretty straightforward. Read the notes. Read the script and get a game plan – where do I add set pieces/scenes to address the more general notes? Then just have two documents open on my computer at the same time – script on the right, notes on the left. Erase the notes as I answer them. Hopefully, when I’m done, the left document is empty.

You don’t live in Los Angeles. Since the question comes up all the time, what do you say to writers who want to work in film and TV about where they should or shouldn’t live? And for you personally, do you fly to Los Angeles often? Have new technologies like Skype and video conferencing allowed you to travel less?

I think to make a real run at it, living in L.A. is pretty important. But on the other hand, most people who try it won’t make it, so I’m loathe to recommend that anyone drop everything and move there. I know too many people who put their lives on hold to make it as a writer, and ten years later, they’re not a writer and they have no life.

I probably was in screenwriting and TV workshops with about 20 other people when I was breaking in. A few of them got one or two jobs. One other guy is still working. No one else made it. Two of us out of 20 – and these were all people going at writing full time, in L.A. (And I bet 10% is actually an unusually high percentage.)

I fly back and forth probably about a week a month, on average. Sometimes I go months without going, sometimes I’m there for weeks on end. No real need to videoconference, but a lot of conference calls. I find that when I’m working with someone for the first time, I need to meet them in person to pitch, but then after we know each other, phone is fine.

What things do you feel writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? What hard realities do aspiring screenwriters need to be aware of? Also, do you think it’s more difficult today for new writers in terms original material versus projects being based on TV shows, foreign films, books, video games, board games, etc.?

The town will kill you with kindness. No one wants to be harsh, so there’s constant encouragement. This script is great! Best thing I’ve ever read! I laughed so hard! Or, people enter meaningless contests and do fairly well and think they’re on the way.

The only meaningful milestones are getting a good agent and manager, getting out there and being considered for jobs, and then landing a job. Everything else feels good, but doesn’t mean you’re making progress. (Winning one of the few meaningful contests obviously is an important milestone – but really just because it gets you to the good agent or manager step.)

Original things have always been harder to set up. But writing a great original spec is the thing that will get you considered to adapt that great graphic novel or foreign film, so the process hasn’t changed. Write a great spec. Writers write.

You have also written a couple of short stories that have been featured on PopcornFiction.com. What drew you to writing stories for the site?

A friend of mine runs it and pestered all of his screenwriting buddies for stories. It’s fun – it’s a different muscle. (That reminds me, I’ve got to write another one for him.)

I hadn’t written short stories since college. So before I did, I had to unlearn all my present tense, third-person screenwriting habits. I spent an enjoyable day just reading a bunch of Hemingway and Carver.

The stories are so dark and so out of my genre – a wife beater murders his wife’s admirer for his money; a group of astronauts start dropping dead in space... It just scratches an itch I don’t get to scratch writing comedy.

I know a lot of people have gotten industry attention through their stories. I think mine were so different than what I’m known for that I just frightened people.

You participate on writers’ forums and share a lot of advice about how the industry works. Why? What drives you to help other writers? What’s the good and the bad about online advice?

When I was breaking in, I was lucky enough to participate on forums with pro writers who shared their advice. It was invaluable. I try to do the same.

Also, it drives me crazy how much really horrible, counterproductive advice there is out there. There’s this whole group of “gurus” who are just failed screenwriters doling out advice. It’s poisonous. It makes no sense – there are so many good books by successful writers, so many blogs, so many interviews, so many classes with real writers... why are people listening to, and paying thousands of dollars to, people who are failures?

If I wanted to be a doctor, I’d learn from a doctor. Not someone who flunked out of med school.

My advice is: read scripts, watch movies, write scripts. Join classes and workshops (UCLA has great courses, and some of them are online.) Find a group of writers at your level. Stop paying failed writers for advice.

All of that said, I’m taking a break from forums for a bit. Gurus doling out bad advice is one thing – now there’s a whole group of people who run around repeating the “rules” they’ve learned from those gurus like they were gospel. It’s just exhausting. I’m sure I’ll wade back in at some point.

What are you working on next? Spec scripts? Assignments? Can you share any details?

I’m always working on specs – there’s a lot of waiting for notes on paid assignments, and I squeeze writing in. I love having original material, because it’s opened every door for me. I’m working on a couple of feature things, I just sold a pilot to NBC... I’m keeping busy.

Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out? Do’s and don’ts?

Hmm. I’ve been pretty lucky – I got great advice before I broke in, and then I worked with great writers who taught me once I broke in. Because of them, I didn’t make too many horrible missteps. The one mistake I made was when the feature assignments were flowing in, I didn’t write a spec for a couple of years. All of a sudden, I didn’t have anything to show how I could write. Everything was a draft of someone else’s work. That’s why I spec so much now.

 


 

 

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