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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 » CLASSICAL GREECE

Additional Reading: Classical Greece

Ambition to Rule, The

by Forde, Steven

Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.

Athenian Trireme, The

by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov

Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.

Education of Cyrus (aka the Cyropaedia), The

by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)

Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).

Histories, The

by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)

This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.

History of the Peloponnesian War

by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)

Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.

Indispensable Spartan Website, The

by Houston, Paul

My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”

Landmark Thucydides, The

by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)

A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.

Last Days of Socrates, The

by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)

Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.

On Sparta

by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)

The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.

Persian Expedition, The

by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)

Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.

Plutarch’s Lives

by Plutarch

Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.

Rise and Fall of Athens, The

by Plutarch

This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.

Spartan Army, The

by Lazenby, J.F.

Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.

Spartans, The

by Cartledge, Paul

Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.

Symposium, The

by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)

Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.

Trials from Classical Athens

by Carey, Christopher

Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.

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