By Justin Sanders
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script, and the script.”
But what do you need to write the script and get paid to do it? While there are probably tens of thousands of aspiring screenwriters in Los Angeles alone, only a small handful of them ever actually make a living at their chosen craft.
The answer is a little bit of talent, a lot of discipline, and, according to professional screenwriter Derek Weissbein, a persistent and unwavering commitment to following your career path no matter what occurs.
Derek Weissbein, Screenwriter
“The biggest thing for me was convincing myself that this is what I’m doing,” Weissbein told CreativeFuture. “No back-up plan. All in. There is no other option. If it takes me until I’m 40 then it takes me until I’m 40, but I don’t want to do anything else.”
Fortunately, it didn’t take Weissbein until he was 40 to start earning money as a screenwriter. After lining up a manager shortly after finishing college in Miami, he started giving himself “reasonable but solid deadlines,” then meeting them one by one. Within a year of arriving in Los Angeles, he had scored an agent. After that, he set his sights on “selling a script within three years.”
It ended up taking him five, and he didn’t sell one but instead had it optioned by super-producer John Lesher (Birdman). A thrilling victory nonetheless, and one that came on the heels of yet another major accomplishment that had not even been part of the original goal list.
In 2016, Weissbein’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – a script following the fraught and fascinating friendship between rock gods Eric Clapton and George Harrison – landed on that year’s Blacklist, the coveted annual roundup of favorite unproduced scripts selected by industry insiders.
But while all those achievements look pretty snazzy written out like that, the truth is that even with representation, Weissbein struggled to get where he is today – as most screenwriters do. For years, he scraped by doing whatever odd jobs he could finagle, often “waking up in a cold sweat at night,” he said, “thinking, ‘What are you doing? You have no other skillset.”
At the time when Layla was picked up by one of the most powerful producers in the business, Weissbein was working at a rehab center in Malibu, spending his days wrangling teenagers who were struggling with anything from addiction and depression to self-harm and eating disorders. Today, at the ripe old age of 30, he feels “incredibly lucky to not have to go to an office.”
CreativeFuture: First off, congrats on your recent success. What did it feel like having your script optioned by a producer as powerful as John Lesher?
Derek Weissbein: It was very surreal when it happened. My representation sent out Layla on a Thursday to maybe 60 industry executives. By the following Tuesday, John Lesher had pushed a meeting, and that was the only meeting we took.
Had you ever had a meeting with someone like him before?
That was my first Hollywood meeting – (laughs) and it was with John Lesher. His reputation preceded him and it was very intimidating. I was lucky enough to have been working with these two producers, David Newman and Keith Merryman of Real Creative Productions, and their creative executive Patrick Carroll, who helped me develop the script. The producers accompanied me to the meeting – they had been around in the industry for a while so they weren’t nervous, which helped ease my own nerves.
Was there ever any doubt that you would option the script to Lesher?
We had other interest, but Lesher works with LBI Entertainment, which reps Martin Scorsese and produces a lot of movies with him. I had already been pipe-dreaming while I was writing the script that if I could get it in front of Scorsese, it could be the kind of project that he might be interested in, seeing as he had already done a George Harrison documentary.
In the meeting, they casually dropped Scorsese’s name and I had stars in my eyes. I was like, “I don’t need to have any other meetings.”
Let’s find out how you got to that point. Did you go to school for screenwriting?
I went to University of Miami and studied film at their communications school. They didn’t really have writing and directing tracks, so I dabbled in a few different things.
I didn’t really know then that I wanted to be a writer. I had a friend who wanted to be a director and he was really good with the camera, so I started producing his shorts. I probably produced four or five shorts by junior year.
I had all these ideas of my own, but I didn’t know how to write, or think I could write, so I hired somebody and asked him to write a script. We shot it and we never finished it. At first, I looked at it as a waste of money, but it was a great learning experience.
After that, I chose to write a short script myself, as the final for one of my classes. I wrote 20-30 pages and was like, “This is fun. I like this.”
At what point did this fun activity start to feel like a professional calling?
I kept writing on that first short and eventually turned it into my first feature. Then I sent it to my friend at the University of Wisconsin, who was really into film. He read it and gave me some notes, and we kept developing it together. After college, I moved to New York and my friend moved to Los Angeles – his plan was to work on a desk and try to be a manager.
Along the way, my friend kept giving me notes and he would read other screenplays I wrote. Eventually, he got a job at the agency ICM, on a desk, and then he moved to a company called Management 360 and worked his way up to become a manager.
So, then he became my manager, and when I moved out to Los Angeles in the summer of 2011, he was able to send my scripts to a few agents who he shared clients with. One was a junior agent at APA who said, “Let’s do it. Let’s see where it goes.”
Wow that is a very harmonious way of lining up representation.
It all happened organically for me, which in my experience is rare. I don’t know anyone else with that story, and I am incredibly grateful.
What is the difference between a manager and an agent?
From my understanding, a manager should have a more vested interest in your long-term career, and in shaping and marketing you. One key difference between an agent and a manager that I learned along the way is that a manager can produce films, but an agent cannot.
In my experience, my manager will try to give me in-depth notes on my scripts while my agent will read it and say, “I can sell it” or “I can’t sell it.”
Agents want something tangible that they can sell. That’s easier for them than hitting the pavement and trying to get you an open writing assignment. They would rather have a commodity. I had my reps for years before they could do a damn thing for me – because I didn’t have anything for them to sell.
How would you support yourself during those years you were trying to write sellable scripts?
One of the main things that I tried to do as a struggling writer was to take the most random opportunities for work, live in the weirdest places, and just do weird things to give myself life experiences to write about. Doing that gives you material and it informs your characters.
CF: Give us an example.
DW: When I was living in New York I worked as a film editor, editing a documentary film about Rue McClanahan – one of the stars of the sitcom, The Golden Girls.
I was literally editing out of her apartment. She had died a couple years earlier and her ashes were literally right there, nearby. The film had been about a one-woman, Broadway show that she was developing, but then it pivoted when she fell ill, and it became kind of her obituary.
I did that for six or seven months, editing side by side four or five days a week with the producer. I’ve never even seen the thing. I moved to Los Angeles before it got finished.
Did you continue working weird jobs after moving to Los Angeles?
Yeah, I couch-surfed in L.A. for six months, looking for any odd job I could find. I produced a few shorts, a web-series, but it wasn’t paying the bills. I worked as a personal assistant for a few years but I was not cut out for that sort of work – it was miserable.
One day, I was searching in the “Writing” tab under Craigslist’s “Gigs” section, looking for jobs, and found a post that basically said, “Work an overnight shift at a rehab center – great for writers because you have eight hours to write.”
I went in for it, to this mansion in Malibu that overlooked the water. I met with this tattooed, tall, skinny guy for 10 minutes and he was like, “We’ll do a background check and get the fingerprint scan, and you can start on Tuesday.” That was it!
I ended up working overnight shifts for five or six months and I did a good job, so I asked them to let me move to day shifts. Then, after a few months of that, they allowed me to start running creative writing therapy groups, so I got to create a whole curriculum.
I’m so grateful for that job. I did it for two years and it was awesome, especially for a writer. I was working with teenagers, so I was hearing a new generation of language and learning their culture, which helped me to write people of that age. It gave me a new perspective on drug addiction, eating disorders, and depression – something I personally struggle with.
Did the Craigslist post’s promise of getting to write while on the job come true?
I wrote the first draft of the Clapton script while working the overnight shifts, so the answer would be yes!
Let’s talk about that Clapton script, AKA Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Before you optioned it to John Lesher, you had to write the thing. What prompted you to do that?
I’m a huge classic rock fan. My dad introduced me to it at a young age and Eric Clapton was always a mysterious name to me growing up because my dad was obsessed with him.
In high school my dad gave me Clapton’s autobiography and I read it during my down time in college. The guy had a life, man. He had four lives. He had 12 lives, and he outlived every single person that he ever played with on his incredible journey.
I loved the idea that he wasn’t the frontman in all of these bands. He was the sideman jamming on the guitar – but his is the name that lingers. That was always fascinating to me, the idea that someone could be so magnetic they could repeatedly overtake the person who is supposed to be the figurehead.
But I was most fascinated with Clapton’s relationship with George Harrison. On top of everything that made Clapton great, he was also sort of a selfish guy who became obsessed with his best friend’s wife.
I put the book down and was like, “One day I want to write a Clapton biopic.”
A little while later, after I got my agent, I sat down with my reps with about 15 or so ideas. Layla was just another item on the list, with the logline, “Following the life of Eric Clapton and his relationship with George Harrison.”
They immediately were like [points finger], “That’s the only one you should be writing. That’s your Blacklist script.”
So, I started working on it.
What does that mean – that a project is your “Blacklist script”?
The Blacklist started out many years ago as an under-the-table sort of thing where executives would vote for their favorite scripts from the previous year that hadn’t gone into production yet. They could be optioned or bought, but they couldn’t be actually getting made yet.
What started with maybe 40 or 50 scripts per year has bloomed into this full-on company. Now people from all over the world can upload their scripts on the Blacklist website and make them readable to executives for $25 per script, per month.
I put scripts on it for a while when it first became a thing, but I didn’t really have the money to do it, so I stopped. Layla had actually been optioned to John Lesher long before it got on the Blacklist, so I had already been taking three to five meetings per week before it even happened. For me, the subsequent Blacklist exposure was more about keeping the ride going at that point.
Would you recommend that aspiring writers, who aren’t taking the ride yet, upload scripts to the Blacklist?
Some unrepresented scripts do well up there and get attention. You need to keep them up for a while, you need to have a really good logline, and then you need to pay an additional $50 for a review from one of the site’s readers. If they give you a score of 7 or above out of 10, you might get some notice.
It’s hit and miss. Some people have success, some people don’t. I do think that if you are a writer who doesn’t have representation, it can’t hurt anything other than your wallet. If you have the money, what do you have to lose?
Back to Layla– how did you approach writing a screenplay based on real-life, factual events as opposed to making a story up from scratch?
I started by doing research, which took about three months. I read four or five books about the main characters in the story: Clapton, Harrison, Pattie Boyd, and Bobby Whitlock – as well as any articles or interviews I could get my hands on.
I was then able to create a timeline from Clapton’s childhood and a timeline from Harrison’s childhood, up until the moment they met. Then I just kept mapping both of their timelines out, in side-by-side documents.
I also hired a legal assistant who worked for peanuts because she just really loved the story – she was kind of a hippie. She helped to cipher through all the research and compile it based on things that I wanted to infuse the story with. I would give her keywords like “Layla,” “mother,” “George,” and “Pattie” and she would go through every book and pull out every excerpt containing the given term. It was like having a personalized index.
Meanwhile, I watched every relevant clip I could find on YouTube to get the cadences of the characters’ voices. For me, research is my favorite part because there is no pressure. You’re just throwing everything out there, and then you have all these things to pick and choose from.
A lot of people don’t realize that the job of being a screenwriter doesn’t always entail writing screenplays. There can be a lot of research, for one, but pitching ideas is a big part of the job too, right?
It’s the biggest part of the job. I spend more time writing pitches than I do anything else, and writing pitches is free. You don’t get paid for them, and when you’re writing them you really only have a two to three-week window to finish.
What does a pitch look like? Is it a document or a presentation, or what?
There isn’t one rigid structure for how to do it. Usually, you write a logline, you give a quick overview of the themes and the tone of the script, and then a summary of how you would approach the plot.
Some people like to keep it short and simple and try to cram the plot points into a three-page document – producers probably prefer that as well. I tend to write out a detailed version of the narrative, with single-space prose describing it scene by scene. I might write a little bit of dialogue in there. I think it helps me to get that detailed.
Executives want to see specificity and personality and style in your take, so I try to take it in a direction that I don’t think other people would. The first job that I got after Layla was the screenplay for a movie called Courting Danger, which already had actress Olivia Cooke set to star. It’s a true story about a tennis player who becomes a spy, and before I pitched on it they basically gave me an outline of what they wanted to see in the movie.
They structured it for me, which actually makes it really hard because I knew that they wanted more. They wanted another layer of what a professional writer would bring to the table, not just story beats.
How did you go about adding that extra layer?
I realized that the main character’s tennis career could be compared to and paralleled with her spy career, so I decided to jump around and do a non-linear story where you’re watching this spy and you slowly learn that she was a tennis player.
That was a 13-page document with two timelines side by side, that literally cut through time just like the film would – from scene to scene. I knew 99% of my work on it would be changed, but I also knew that if I could give them an idea that wasn’t anything like what they could have imagined, then I would be one step closer to getting the job – and it got me the job.
For Courting Danger, you were hired to write the script for an existing idea. Layla was an original work that you “optioned” to LBI Entertainment, which means they paid for the rights to turn the script into a film. Was that first option enough to let you quit your day job and pursue screenwriting full time?
Options are usually pretty low. They could be less than five grand on the low end. I was lucky that Layla was in a competitive position and multiple people wanted it, so my team got a very nice option – though of course my reps take out 25% and then there are taxes, so it’s a lot less than it seems upfront.
It wasn’t enough to support me by itself but it gave me a few months while I was transitioning from having the job at the rehab center. It let me pay off some debts and focus on taking meetings and writing a little bit. Then, as I was running out of the money, Courting Danger came along. I got it right as I was going broke again. That floated me for the next year and it got me into the Writers Guild of America (WGA).
How meaningful was it to get into the WGA?
That was when it became very real for me.
Layla, it didn’t seem real yet. I was like, “Is this a fluke? Did I just write my passion project and that’s it? Or maybe I’m good at writing my own stuff, but I won’t be able to write a pitch that gets me other kinds of work?” Self-doubt is a constant. I don’t think that ever goes away.
There were pitches that I spent months on after Layla – months of free work – and didn’t get the jobs. So, when I got Courting Danger and had the chance to join the WGA, that was when I was like, “I’m actually doing this. This is freaking cool.”
After all you have been through, what advice would you give aspiring screenwriters?
When you’re going out with something that you think could be big, make sure you have something just as good in your back pocket. Because when you go on these meetings, they want to know what else you have. When I first started going out on meetings, I had a bunch of awesome ideas but I had nothing tangible to follow up with after the meeting. That’s dragged out my progression quite a bit.
Also, don’t necessarily try to get an established agent or manager. Meet the people who are going to be the next agents or managers, and who are hungry and passionate but who have nothing to their name and see the potential in you. Then you can grow with them, and when you grow with somebody, you both remain loyal to each other.
At the end of the day, though, having reps doesn’t matter. A manager and an agent look great on paper but if I don’t have a script that they can sell, they can’t do much for me. It’s all about the material you have to work with.
The best advice I can give is to just keep writing.
Photo Courtesy of @desotophotography