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Interviews
 
Erich Hoeber
Tuesday, Dec 14, 2004
Author: Will Plyler
 
Erich Hoeber is from Northern California. He studied composition and conducting at the University of California, San Diego. He's worked in the theater as a music and stage director. Erich writes with his brother Jon Hoeber. In 1993, Erich moved to Los Angeles "where unemployment and boredom" drove him to collaborate, with his brother, on their first feature script. Today they work as studio screenwriters and independent filmmakers.

Where did you grow up and when did film first interest you?

Northern California. Sacramento. It's a good place to be from. (Laughs) Film wasn't a big part of my experience. I didn't have any aspirations to become a filmmaker. I went to college to and studied music. I was at Pomona College for two years, dropped out, then went through the new music program at UC San Diego studying composition and conducting.

Music had been a big part of life growing up?

Yeah. I wanted to be a composer. But at some point when I got out in the real world I realized that the only job writing art music was as an academic. I didn't want to be an academic. And I really didn't want to write jingles. So I sort of fell into the musical theater, working as a music director. That was the first experience that I've come to associate with film. Working with actors.

This was in San Diego?

Actually, my first real experience with the musical theater was at Pomona. I played in the pit orchestra for a show called "Company," a Sondheim show from 1970. It was startling to me. I'd never thought much of musicals, but here was a show that, dramatically, was very sharp, very modern. I immediately wanted to do more. So I began working as a music director and ultimately became interested in stage direction.

After college, I was living and working in Boston. My younger brother, Jon was at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which has a highly regarded undergraduate film program, and he was making a short film. He asked for my help with the sound because I had some recording experience from my music background. I knew nothing about film, but I recorded the dialogue and later did some of the sound editing and wrote the score.

It was the first time Jon and I done anything together since we were kids. Growing up, we used to beat the living daylights out of each other. Actually I beat the living daylights out of him mostly since I was older. But in my defense, he desperately deserved it. (Laughs)

Even though he is not here to defend himself, had Jon been interested in film or did he just fall into it?

He'd always been more interested than I was. But I don't think it occurred to him as a career until he got to college, took a film class, and suddenly realized this was something he wanted to do.

We didn't have plans to work together again right away, but by chance, we both moved out to Los Angeles within a couple of months of each other.

What brought you out to Los Angeles?

I was going to take one last stab at the music business. Maybe write jingles after all. He came out for the film business. So we were both here, unemployed, sitting on our butts. We started kicking around an idea for a screenplay. We conceived of a story about a real detective who's fascinated with the fictional hard-boiled detectives – so much so, he's more interested in solving cases the "right way" than he is with solving them at all. A comedic character.

We wrote it, and it was horrible. God-awful. Then we rewrote nine times and it got better.

Did you guys just sit down and start writing? Or did you buy books on screenwriting?

I don't think either of us had read any books on screenwriting. I did read William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade", which is more about the business.

I think the best way to learn screenwriting is to read good screenplays and see good films. Here in a LA, there are plenty of opportunities to do both. Oh, and there is one book that I read called "On Directing" by David Mamet that was great. I don't think it really taught me anything about writing per se, but it did systematize for me a lot of what I'd learned as a screenwriter.

Screenplays are often undisciplined. They're not written to be shot, but written for readers and studio executives, and they tend to be friendly and bouncy and have a lot of capitalization. The most important thing to do as a screenwriter is to figure out what story you're telling and make certain everything in the script supports that story. Jon and I often get the criticism that our style is too stark. But it's something we aspire to. Everything in the script that isn't helping us is probably hurting. We try to have as much respect for the reader as possible.

So you just plunged into this first script?

We wrote a treatment. We always work from detailed treatments. Part of it is a contract between the two of us. We're going to write a film together so we have to agree on what we're writing. But I don't know any serious screenwriters who don't use treatments. I'm sure there are some, but they're not in my circle. We've come to believe that if the structure of a script is good, anything else can be fixed. We both found the writing process very satisfying. We knew it was going to have a beginning, middle, and end, and it was going to tell a story.

You have to understand, when I came to LA, I knew diddle-squat about film. At the same time I was writing, I was immersing myself in film. I went to the UCLA Melnitz Theater, which shows classic films several times a week. I went to the LA County Museum Theatre, and I frequented the New Beverly Cinema, which each week shows three double bills of great films. I was seeing all the great stuff for the first time. My first year in LA, I saw "Lawrence of Arabia" at the [Cinerama] Dome. It made such a huge impression on me. I thought, "Wow, where have I been? What have I been doing?" At that moment, film became something that I was sure I wanted to do. Something I could aspire to be good at.

Also, while we were writing, we were doing production work to support ourselves. We were on sets working as PA's, camera assistants, location scouts, sound guys -- you name it.

Was it difficult to find work?

It's not all that hard to come to LA and get a job in production. Once you're on the set, it doesn't take too long to figure out how it works. There's no great mystery to filmmaking. Mechanically it's very simple. Hard to do well, but simple.

A lot of people who come here to be screenwriters don't want to know about production and that's fine. But in my opinion, they're missing something. After a while, screenwriting is no longer satisfying in and of itself. If you write a script, even if it's the most brilliant thing, the number of people who will read it is small. A script should be written to be shot. It shouldn't be written for publication in a screenwriting magazine.

So anyway, we wrote this first script. It wasn't bad. It wasn't great. To this day we fantasize about rewriting it.

When you finished this first script what did you guys do? Any response?

We got nibbles but no bites. Really no one saw it. We got it to a few people. My brother had some introductions through his alumni network. But ultimately, there's only so much people can do for you. They can be encouraging. They can give you advice. Probably the most important thing they can do is to make a phone call on your behalf. If you want to get material to an agent or a producer and you are a nobody, what you need is someone to call that person on your behalf and say, "I think this thing is good. You should look at it."

If you're a screenwriter and you have a script, and it's a good script, then you are actually doing somebody a favor by sending them the script. It takes some people a while to figure that out.

So we went out to a few people with this script. A few nibbles but nothing. Like I said, good but not great.

So you moved on?

We knew we were in it for the long haul. We didn't have the foggiest idea how tough it was going to be. Not that we had any big expectations for this first script. Actually, that's not true. We did when we were writing it, of course. You have fantasies about what will happen. Oddly enough, sometimes they come true. You treat every project as if it's going to go, but if it doesn't, you can't get too upset about it. We were already writing the next one. It was a high concept project and really well executed.

Everybody immediately responded and we started meeting agents more seriously, but it was still a battle. Agenting is a tough job. If your clients aren't big stars, I think it's hard to make a living off of 10 percent. Ultimately, we were hip-pocketed by a guy at William Morris. We kinda knew he wasn't the right guy for us, but it was the only card we had, so we played it.

He sent out the script and it didn't sell, which was a big disappointment to us. At this time, we had no foundation in Hollywood. By that I mean if companies know you and know your work, they're looking for your material when it comes out and they're more inclined to buy stuff. It's safer, professionally, for them to buy it too, because they're getting a known commodity. They are not sticking their neck out so much with their boss or with the studio who has to pay for it.

This agent never paid off for us. He was interested in the short score – a strange fella about five feet high. He had a couch in his office with the legs sawed off. Either that, or his desk was up on bricks or something. I can't remember. (Laughs) It was very funny. The first day we ever had a deal in the trades, he called me at the office out of the blue, "Hey fellas, how you doing?" (Laughs) That's fine.

After that we were a little bit burned out. We thought, well, we understand filmmaking… we're going to write a low budget film and were going to make it. So we did. A film called "Montana." We produced it with two friends, Sean Cooley and Jennifer Leitzes who also directed.

It's a completed film?

Yeah. We went out, the four of us, and said, "Hey, we're making a movie do you want to finance it?" And the script was a hit and everyone wanted to buy it. We held on to it and we took it around. Republic Pictures, which at that point was a straight to video company, was talking about doing some art house films. They wanted this to be their first project. Barbara Javitz was the head of Republic. She put her money where her mouth was and all of a sudden we were making a 2 million dollar picture.

We hired casting directors Ronnie Yeskel and Richard Hicks who have cast many studio and indie films. Terrific, talented people. They cast "Pulp Fiction." Our deal with Republic was cast contingent. That is to say, we give them a six-month option on the material for a dollar, while we try to cast it to our mutual satisfaction. If so, we make the movie. If not, we get our script back and take it somewhere else.

Who made the deal?

We brought on attorneys Jamie Kershaw and Linda Lichter of Lichter Grossman Nichols. We hired them on a percentage basis. As we didn't have an agent on the deal, we gave them 7.5%. Normally, lawyers take 5%.

Republic brought on couple of additional producers who they wanted to work with – Mark Yellen and Zane Levitt. They'd produced quite a few films this size and were acceptable to the bond company.

We attached Kyra Sedgewick and Stanley Tucci. Pretty much the day we got Stanley, which was all we needed to get a green light, Republic went under.

So what happened then was this. We had the cast, so we asked them to hold on for a week even though we couldn't guarantee their deals any more. They did, either because they were incredibly nice people, or because they were basically screwed because they'd committed to our movie and now we didn't know if we had a movie.

Sean, Mark, and Zane shopped the film around town and ultimately set it up with a foreign finance company called IEG – Initial Entertainment Group. The production ultimately got moved to New York and we made the movie there for about $3.8 million and went to Sundance in 1998. It was a pretty good experience. Our film was distributed as an HBO original movie. Columbia-Tristar released it on video. That's not the kind of exposure you hope for, but at the same time it's better than most people do.

About the same time we were getting "Montana" started, we met a woman named Angela Cheng Caplan. She was an assistant at The Gersh Agency. Angela had read one of our scripts and wanted to meet us.

We were sort of burned out on agents and we'd hardly been looking for one. She told us she was about to become an agent and she was interested in representing us. There was something about the passion she showed in pursuing us. Even though we might have had other options at that point, it made us want to give her a shot. It was a 180 degrees from our last experience. And it's become a truly great relationship.

She's passionate about our work and a tireless advocate. Also, a big piece of her business is representing the film rights to books. That's good for us for two reasons. First, because she's not just representing other screenwriters, there are fewer people we're competing with on her roster of clients. We're more likely to be the first names out of her mouth, when there's a job open. The other great advantage is we sometimes get access to literary material from her other clients. Sometimes she'll have a project that no one in town wants to buy, but if they had a couple of screenwriters to come in and steer them a bit, they'd be interested. That's what happened with one of our studio feature projects, "Whiteout." It was a four part comic book series by novelist Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber.

"Whiteout" was a popular comic. It sold well. It won awards. We read it and immediately said, "Wow, this really great." It was even structured like a movie. Normally when you do adaptations, you really have to pick your story much more. I think the reason it didn't look good to Hollywood immediately was that it had a female lead.

You mentioned some other comic book projects that Angela got out?

As soon as we signed with her, she started sending out our samples – one of which was an original comic book project – and we started taking meetings around town. People read your material, one or more of your scripts. If they like your work, they'll often meet with you and keep you in mind for future work.

What material was all this based on?

We have various scripts we send out as samples. These are our calling cards. We write indifferent genres. If we just wrote an action film then we want to do a comedy. This can be difficult because people want to peg you as the guy who does X. At the moment we're the guys who do thrillers, but we're not really. Every project we've done is different. We've done comedy, horror, straight drama, just about everything except romantic comedies.

So we start meeting producers around town. And ultimately we develop projects that we take out to pitch. We've done many pitches now. Right now, we're taking an animated feature around town, which is really fun.

Can you tell me a little about your pitch process? A formula?

When we first started pitching, we started with treatments and worked them down to pitches. We don't do that so much any more. Takes too much time. We know the movie we're going to make, and we cover a lot of detail, but we don't cover everything.

What we've learned is how to be better showmen. Even though you have the entire film worked out, you can still gloss large sections. Studios need to hear the hooks. They want to know the moments that define character, and they want moments that tell you what the movie is about. Why it's different. What's at stake. If you can work a couple of really great scenes or set pieces in there, it doesn't hurt. Pitching isn't about writing a movie. It's about giving the executive what she needs to say yes. Unless you've just pitched Jeff Robinov or Hutch Parker some other head of production, it's a good bet your executive is going to have to re-pitch your movie to her colleagues for approval. In part, your job is to make that as easy as possible.

Our pitches are typically in the fifteen to twenty minute range. You wouldn't want to go too much longer. You're not just selling the story; you're also selling yourself. Every executive knows that the best sounding pitch in the world is likely to turn into an atrocious script, all other things being equal. They're looking to buy a writer who they believe in. They're thinking about your professional reputation, how you come off in the room, and whether or not you'll be easy to work with.

Feature pitches are extremely hard to sell until you're established. But even the ones you don't sell have some value. It's an opportunity to meet people, to show them you have the right stuff, and it can build their confidence in you for the next time you go out. It tells them much more about you than a "meet and greet." Even if they don't buy your pitch, it gives them more reason to hire you the next time.

Do you pitch together?

Yes. We trade off. We go fast. You want them to be engaged. But if things aren't going well, you can actually make it worse by going too fast. Make sure they hear the points. It's better to have fewer points and be clear. You can actually get into trouble by throwing in too much of the mechanics. Sometimes we'll walk out of a meeting, saying, "I think we had a clarity problem" meaning, we were too clear. We gave them too much and they got tangled in the details.

Sometimes you're dead before you start, regardless of how great your pitch is. The studio's already making a similar movie. The executive is about to be fired. His wife's cheating on him. You can't always know these things. You just have to do your best and move on.

One time we pitched these two executives – it's Jon and me and we're with two producers we like and know well. We're about five minutes in when one executive starts picking his nose – just digging away like there's no tomorrow. I steal a glance over at the producers and see their jaws have just about hit the floor. They don't even know where to look. We just keep pitching. Afterwards, this guy tried to shake all our hands. (Laughs)

In handling questions afterwards, it's important to not to be defensive. They might just need a point clarified. Or they may have a legitimate problem. If so, acknowledge their problem and suggest some ways to fix it. It's more important to demonstrate that you're easy to work with and full of ideas, than it is to defend a point. By the time you go to script, everyone will have forgotten about it anyway.

I'm a far better pitcher today than I was when I started out. I used to hate it. Now I look forward to it. We have confidence. People need to see that. They want to buy from people who they think have it going on.

Writers don't realize this sometimes, but studio executives are completely and utterly dependent on you. Not vice versa. They need you to solve their problems. They can't do it themselves. They have very blunt instruments at their disposal. They can give notes. They can fire a writer and hire a new one. They want to be wowed.

If you succeed then they succeed. Right?

Riiiiiight. Although the dark side of this is that the weak and insecure executives – and directors – often resent their dependence on writers. They tend to be star-fuckers, because they don't really trust their own judgment. These people often have a lot of CE's and assistants hanging around to help them form opinions. You've got to figure out who these folks are and steer clear.

Having said that, I've also worked with a lot of talented people who make genuine contributions to the process.

When I'm getting notes I try to focus on the root problems. What is generating this note? Someone may say we're short on driving action in act three. Now that may be true, but the solution might be to better establish the character's problems in act one. I don't think there is really a bad comment. If an executive has a problem with something, it's worth looking at. They're entitled to that. It doesn't mean we have to solve the problem the way they suggest. Ultimately we have to do it in a way that works for us. That's why we're the writers. Then again, sometimes people come up with great ideas. I'm always delighted to use someone else's great idea. (Laughs)

We will never execute notes that we believe will hurt a script. We did that once because they brow-beat us into it, and the results we're disastrous. At the end of the day when there's this terrible script, no one at the studio is going to remember that they insisted on these changes. They're going to blame you. It's your name on the script. It's always better to do the best job you can do. If you can't trust your own judgment, what can you trust?

What happens after the initial pitch in most cases?

With "Whiteout" we first pitched producers, some of whom we had previous relationships with. It's really important to have producers you can work with. You find out who responds to the material and what buyers they have the best relationships with. Different producers get different territories. Paul Schiff gets Disney. Wolfgang Peterson and Gail Katz get Columbia, and so forth. We're in constant communication with our agent evaluating meetings and making these decisions.

Then you go to the buyers with the producers. We go in all as one team – a united. front. Last time, it was the producer's job to question us, to push us to improve the pitch. Now it's their job to protect us. To help us sell.

You went out with the producers?

Yes. Buyers these days can be studios but there are also other players – companies that have co-finance deals with studios like Village Roadshow or New Regency or Intermedia. Quite a few like that now – basically mini-studios.

You try to gauge their response in the room. Sometimes when you come out you know you haven't sold it. Sometimes you think you might have sold it. But you can't know. The reasons studios have for buying or not buying something often don't have much to do with you. It depends on what other projects they have and what else happens to be selling around town at the moment.

We took "Whiteout" to every studio in town and got turned down. Amy Baer, who's an executive at Columbia, had been very passionate about it when we first pitched and had made a real effort to sell it to the studio, but no dice. We weren't ready to give up yet and neither were Sam Dickerman and Gail Katz at Radiant. So we started going to talent. It's a long shot, but if you get a star attached, obviously it's a whole different ballgame.

So we were just getting a few nibbles from actresses when suddenly Columbia puts an offer on the table. We negotiate with them. This is always stressful, but we have an agent and lawyer who do this for a living and are pretty damn good at it. We usually bitch and moan and then we shut up and follow their advice.

This deal – like most – is a step deal with three or four different steps, say, a draft, two rewrites, and a polish. Increasingly these days the deal has a cut off whereby perhaps two of the steps are guaranteed and two are at the studio's discretion. Each step has a fixed amount of compensation. There is typically a back end number as well that you can collect if the movie actually gets made. When someone gets "3 against 6," they get $300,000 for all guaranteed steps against $600,000 when the film is green lit, assuming they are the sole writer. Usually they get half has much on the backside for shared credit.

Of course, selling a pitch is only the beginning. It's working with the studio that's tough. With Whiteout, we wrote three drafts for Columbia. It was a good process. Everyone was really high on the project. So they send it to Amy Pascal, the head of Columbia. She hates it. The project goes into turnaround the next day. Disaster.

But is the project dead? Not even close. Our agent sends the script around town. People love it. We get a lot of work as a result. Meanwhile, Reese Witherspoon gets interested in the project, gets it out of turnaround at Columbia and sets it up at Universal under her new producing deal there.

What's it like writing with your brother?

The best thing about writing with a partner is that you're not alone. The business is so tough sometimes. There are difficult decisions to make. Having two people makes it more fun. We are in constant conference.

On the writing side, it's a plus and minus. We're both incredibly strong willed people. The more we've developed as writers, the more intuitive sense each of us has on how things should be done. When we started we were both learning, and we were a little more flexible. Now when we tackle a problem, we both know how to solve it, but one guy's solution might not be what the other guy wanted. On the plus side, we get immediate feedback from each other.

These days when the treatment is done and we're ready to go to script, he starts on page one and I start on page twenty. We hammer the script out in alternating sections. Then we do passes on each other's sections.

Do you work in two separate places?

Same office. Same room, but two different computer systems. But we call out to each other. We throw out ideas. Usually, it takes two to three weeks to make the first pass. Our strategy is to do a draft as quickly as possible so we have time to do several rewrite passes. It's hard to know how well you're doing along the way. But the first time we read the script straight through, we know what the problems are.

When we feel like it's pretty much on its feet, we go to one or two trusted readers who we know will give us the straight dope. Then we assess where we are.

You've done some writing for television. How has that been different that your experiences with film?

We've done two one hour pilots. We never set out to get into television. A few years ago, we were at a Writers Guild meeting and we ran into a David Zuker, a writer who also worked in development at CBS. We pitched him a show based on a feature script of ours. They immediately wanted to do it. We said, we don't know anything about television but we learn fast. They didn't seem too worried. We made a deal.

They helped us bring on Dan Petrie, Jr. ("Beverly Hills Cop", "The Big Easy") as our show runner. We were a little nervous. We're thinking, wow, this guy is a major writer and director with a lot of A-list credits. He could take our show away and rewrite us. Dan turned out to be one of the nicest and most generous guys we've ever met. We were just killing ourselves trying to figure out the structure of the show. Dan really helped us out, bringing fresh ideas and brainstorming with us. We learned a lot about television from him.

That sort of thing could never happen in features. We're not used to getting help from anyone. When you're a feature writer, it's your job to fix problems. Period. Usually, no one else knows how to help you, and if they do, you can be sure it's going to cost a pound of flesh somewhere down the line.

In some ways, TV is a lot saner than the feature world. In features, everything is feast and famine. There's more desperation. It's easier to sell a pitch in TV. And now we get offers to pitch TV all the time. The down side is they develop a lot of these things, they shoot some of them, and then the number that gets picked up is very small. Neither of the pilots we wrote was ultimately picked up. Unfortunately, that's par for the course. Believe it or not, there are people who make a good living in developing shows that never see the light of day.

What about notes from the Network on your scripts?

(Laughs). CBS talks a lot about "heart moments." "We want to see heart moments." We joked about it and we ribbed them about it and they acknowledged it was silly. But we knew what they meant. They want characters that are down home that people can really get hooked into – a little bit of melodrama. All of which is fine. That's what television is and does very well.

There are a lot of plusses to creating a TV show. You're the boss. Everyone defers to you. If you get a show on the air, it can be very lucrative. If you create a show, you get paid every week. Plus you get paid to produce. Plus you get paid for each show you write. The writers in television run the show. They make the casting decisions and decide what directors to hire. They have the opportunity to direct themselves. On the downside, well, it's still TV.

What are you working on now?

We're writing an original animated Pixar-type movie for Nickelodeon Films which is a division of Paramount. It's a new thing for us, working in animation, but it's a blast. Also, it's been a while since we've done an original movie instead of an assignment, and there's something incredibly satisfying about that.

What are you interested in taking on and or accomplishing next?

Jon and I are working very hard to try to get more of our movies produced. One of the (many) problems of being a screenwriter is that even if you're making a good living writing, it doesn't guarantee that your work is going to end up on screen. So we've started taking a much more active role. We've had this bad habit of writing much admired scripts that everyone is afraid to make. But if we had a couple of commercial studio hits behind us, we'd really have a lot more clout. Our long time agent, Angela Cheng Caplan has become our manager, and we've engaged a new big agency – Endeavor - to (among other things) help us "package" our projects by attaching directors and actors. So far, it's been a great experience.

We're also working more on original material to produce and direct down the road.

What about any last words of advice for screenwriters?

Don't put your script out there until it's ready. Take the time to send it to friends who will give you the straight dope. People delude themselves into believing their work is at a place it's really not at. I mean, I do that too. But I have several self-correcting mechanisms which keep me honest – my writing partner, readers, and my agent. (Laughs)

Also, don't get into this business unless making movies is something you really care about. Don't get into it for money. It's really not worth it. It's just too damned hard. You'll be way happier as a stockbroker. There is money out there but believe me, you'll earn it.

 


 

 

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