Interview with SHREK Writer Terry Rossio

Like the article below says, Terry just may be the highest-paid screenwriter of all time. And he’s pretty damn good at the actual, um, storytelling thing too. So, without further ado:

by John Robert Marlow

terry_rossioTERRY ROSSIO is probably the highest-paid screenwriter in the history of the medium. He prefers to write with a partner, which is almost invariably Ted Elliott. Together, they’ve written the screenplay and/or story for films such as: Aladdin; Godzilla;The Lone Ranger, Shrek; the Pirates of the Caribbean, Zorro, and National Treasure movies; and far too many others to mention here. Terry also co-wrote (with Bill Marsilii) the record-breaking Deja Vu spec script—which sold for $5 million–andLightspeed, which sold for $3.5 million. Terry is also a producer. (Read Terry’s official bio here.)

I interviewed him for the book, Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood. And while much of Terry’s adaptation-specific advice appears there, it just wasn’t possible or appropriate to include (in that format) the wisdom he was kind enough to share on other topics. And so you find it here…

JRM: How did you break in, and how did you come to be where you are now?

Terry Rossio: I’m going to try to not give the usual boilerplate answers in this interview, and that means not going along with false presumptions, no matter how seemingly benign. The question about breaking in seems perfectly legit, but really it’s not. A writer must create compelling work, and then try to sell it. Once sold, the writer has to do the same thing again. It’s really not true that the writer ‘breaks in’—that’s an artifact of the belief that the person is being judged, not the work, and also of the belief that there is an inside and an outside, which I don’t think exists. There are too many screenwriters out there with only a single credit for there to be an inside, and too many writers on the outside making sales, to too many markets which are either new, changing, or undefined.

In truth buyers are just not that organized, your buyer is not my buyer, or in some cases, you can become your own buyer. Courtney Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award this year for best screenplay for Frozen River, and she’s never sold a screenplay. Is she on the inside or the outside? In truth, anyone, at any time, can come up with South Park or Superman or Sandman, and that’s all that matters.

I know writers want to think it’s all about access, and it’s true that for me, at this point, I can get a screenplay read, far easier than most. But that doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, and no writer is so inside that anything they write sells. Lawrence Kasdan has three unsold specs. Shane Black has films he wants to get made he can’t get made. When every studio passes on your project, let me tell you, that feeling of being on the inside disappears fast.

Sure, of course, when it comes to breaking in, there are techniques to market work, which should be used. Any single avenue is possibly correct, but you only know the right avenue in retrospect. In our career, we broke in through sending query letters and spec screenplays, but so what? New writers have to try every technique, all the time. This includes query letters, phone calls, networking, contests, seminars, internships, working on spec, blind submissions, creating your own website, making films on your own, working as an assistant, targeting an agent first, targeting a production company first, working in other media, optioning properties, etc., etc., you get the idea. One approach will eventually be effective, but that doesn’t mean the other attempts could have been avoided. You can’t fire just one pellet out of a shotgun….

Read it all at Make Your Book a Movie