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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Think Like a Studio

By Steven Pressfield
Published: October 29, 2014

When I was first starting out in Hollywood, a screenwriter friend gave me some advice that has served me well in all subsequent incarnations.

Our competition

“Steve, you and I, whether we realize it or not, are competing against Warners Bros. We’re competing against Twentieth-Century Fox and SONY and Paramount—and we have to think like they do. We have to be as professional as they are, and we have to think of ourselves in the same terms that they do.”

My friend showed me his “to do” list. It wasn’t a smudged-up scrap of cocktail napkin like mine; it was a full-on pro printout like something from NASA.

Studios have their production slates, right? I’ve got mine too. Here’s my development slate. I’m working on Script #1 now, but I’ve got #2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 lined up and in various stages of development. If I get a few days, I’ll go to work on them.

My friend showed me the books he was reading, seeking out new ideas and fresh material, and the foreign flicks and exploitation movies and oldies but goodies, films noir and so forth that he had at his bedside and beside his TV. “Fox and Warners have producers on the lot who are always trolling for new material. I do the same. I’ll find it in Mongolia or Zamboanga if I have to.”

When I first got out here to L.A., I’d go into meetings at the studios and as we were wrapping up, one of the execs would say to me, “What else have you got, Jack?” And I’d stare at him and go blank.

You can’t do that. We’re going up against A-listers. When a guy in an office asks you what else you’re working on, you’ve gotta be ready with it right then, ready to pitch it, and ready with Idea #3 and Concept #4 after that.

It’s not that you’re being mercenary or greedy. It’s just being a pro. Buyers wanna know you’re in business. They wanna know you’ve got ideas, that you never stop thinking. You’re a resource to them. Their jobs depend on you and people like you. You gotta be a pro.

One time this same friend and I were sitting in a deli called Brent’s in the Valley when a certain very successful screenwriter came in, accompanied by three gorgeous young women. We both knew the guy. He was a good writer (he had had two hits in a row and had another in the pipeline, so we had heard) who had been a lawyer in a previous professional incarnation.

“Three months ago,” my friend said, “I was pitching a project to MGM at the same time this guy was. He came in with these same three long-stemmed Stanford-educated blondes. His ‘researchers.’ Apparently he doesn’t leave the house without ‘em. But I gotta give him credit. He’s a business. He’s larger than life. He’s got more stuff in the works on his own than half the studios in town, and they know it.”
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ADDITIONAL READING » WARFARE: ANCIENT AND MODERN

Additional Reading: Ancient and Modern Warfare

Accidental Guerilla, The

by Kilcullen, David

Alamein to Zem Zem

by Douglas, Keith

Douglas was a poet fresh out of Oxford who served (and was killed) with the armoured forces under Montgomery, when the British finally overcame Rommel after years of being out-ranged, out-gunned and out-generaled. Douglas’ keen and jaundiced eye misses little. This isn’t the most polished book, but it is immediate and authentic as hell.

Art of War, The

by Sun Tzu

Attacks

by Rommel, Erwin

This is from the Desert Fox—before he became the Desert Fox. Rommel recounts his experiences as a young infantry officer in World War I. Studied to this day by our Army and Marines, this book gives new meaning to the phrase “balls of steel.”

Best and the Brightest, The

by Halberstam, David

Blood Stripes

by Danelo, David

Blood Stripes is Danelo’s account of infantry actions fought by Marines in Fallujah and Husaybah in 2004, recounted from the point of view of NCOs he knew and fought alongside. Great stuff!

Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

by Coram, Robert

Fascinating true saga of the misunderstood genius who introduced the concept of Maneuver Warfare to the contemporary armed services—and paid the price.

Bravo Two Zero

by McNab, Andy

Ripping, high-testosterone (and true) yarn of a British SAS patrol dropped behind the lines during the first Gulf War. Told by its leader, the most-decorated soldier in the British Army, as of his discharge in 1993.

Brazen Chariots

by Crisp, Robert

A bit hard to find, but worth it if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fight tank battles in the North African desert. Terrific first-person non-fiction, about the British Seventh Armoured Division dueling Rommel and the Afrika Korps in WWII. What I love about books like these is not just the “ripping yarn” aspect or the vivid details or the sense of absolute authenticity and authority, all of which are here in spades, but the feeling you get for the man himself. Both this book and the one by Cyril Joly (Crisp and Joly were friends) let you into the minds and hearts of these tremendously admirable, flesh-and-blood humans, with their senses of humor, despair—everything.

Desert War, The

by Moorehead, Alan

Simply indispensable. Classic stuff by the Aussie war correspondent who could scribble a note on a cocktail napkin and make it fascinating. See also his African Trilogy.

Eastern Approaches

by Maclean, Fitzroy

You would think, being a novelist, that I would like to read novels. But I much prefer memoirs. I love the characters of the writers, particularly when they’re not professionals. Fitzroy Maclean was stuck in the Foreign Service on the brink of WWII and wanted to go to war; the only way the government would let him was if he became a Member of Parliament. So he did. It gets better from there, including desert service with the SAS and all kinds of mad adventures in the Balkans, the Orient, Afghanistan.

Forgotten Soldier, The

by Sajer, Guy

Possibly the best book to come out of World War II. Horrific, ghastly, true-life memoir of a young German infantryman and his kamaraden as they fall back, back, back against the unstoppable tide of the Russian Army, from 1943–1945.

Lost Victories

by von Manstein, Field Marshal Erich

Another classic. The same story as told in The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, but from the opposite end of the food chain: the supreme German brass. Von Manstein’s private confrontations with Hitler are alone worth the price of the book.

No True Glory

by West, Bing

On War

by von Clausewitz, Carl

One Bullet Away

by Fick, Nathaniel

The Iraq War by a Dartmouth-educated Recon Marine who was in the first wave into Baghdad. Lean, vivid, fair-minded, by a born writer from whom we will be hearing much more.

One Tribe at a Time

by Gant, Jim

The “One Tribe At A Time” series on “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” launched at the end of September 2009, with an excerpt from Major Jim Gant’s paper of the same name. In the following weeks, more excerpts were pulled and discussed, with Jim’s “One Tribe At A Time” released in full about four weeks later. The discussion of Jim’s paper spread from there, and went viral among the policy and military communities in particular.

Sand, Wind and War

by Bagnold, Ralph

The founder of WWII’s legendary Long Range Desert Group tells his life story, including all kinds of interesting and unexpected dimensions (his sister wrote National Velvet), including the tale of his landmark scientific paper, “The Physics of Blown Sand.”

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

by Lawrence, T.E.

Sling and the Stone, The

by Hammes, Thomas X.

Am I favoring Marines? Not without cause, with this outstanding contemporary introduction to the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare, the kind of post-guerrilla conflict our troops are fighting now—and are likely to keep fighting for decades to come.

Small Wars Journal

by Small Wars Foundation

Strongest Tribe, The

by West, Bing

Take These Men

by Joly, Lt. Col. Cyril

You’ll have to go way back in the stacks to find this one, but again, it’s worth the trip. Vividly told and superbly detailed account of the British in North Africa, from 1940 to 1942, fighting first the Italians and then Rommel and Panzerarmee Afrika. I love these self-effacing Englishmen, who in real-life performed prodigies of courage and endurance, and yet recount the tale with understated yet passionate brilliance. Like Brazen Chariots, you read this book and wish you could shake hands with the author and say, “Thank you.”

To War with Whitaker: Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly, 1939–45

by Ranfurly, Hermione

When Lt. The Honourable Dan Ranfurly went off to war, his wife Hermione followed. (So did Whitaker, Dan’s faithful valet.) Young Lady Ranfurly, whose only marketable skill was a fair hand at the typewriter, talked her way into various clerical and embassy jobs in Cairo and the Middle East, while her young officer husband fought in the desert, got captured by the Afrika Korps, etc. There’s not a dollop of sex in this book, yet it remains one of the great documents of romance, just because of all the hell Hermione goes through to be within a hundred miles of her beloved Dan. When at last they rush into each other’s arms for a fleeting moment on a railway platform and she writes, “Happiness is being together,” there wasn’t a dry eye in my house.

Unforgiving Minute, The

by Mullaney, Craig

We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young

by Moore, Lt. Gen. Harold G. and Joseph Galloway

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