Monday, October 5, 2009

Interview with Paul Guay - Part 1

This week I'm posting an interview with my friend and fellow screenwriter Paul Guay whose credits include Liar, Liar, Heartbreakers, and The Little Rascals. This is part one. I'll post part two later in the week.

Doug: How did you get your start in screenwriting?

Paul: Mob connections.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer (and an actor, and one of the Three Stooges). I wrote my first short story at seven, my first poem at eight, my first play at nine, my first lyric at 16, my first comedy sketch at 18, my first radio play at 21.

I went to Menlo School, where Robert W.F. Jones started a creative-writing class for me. I was the only student in the class, and over the course of three semesters I turned in something like a thousand poems, lyrics and short stories. Mr. Jones is still in intensive care.

Then I went to Pomona College, where I majored in creative writing and philosophy. I figured if the career in writing didn't work out, I always had philosophy to fall back on.

I got a job at Producers Sales Organization (PSO), a film distribution and production company, doing marketing, advertising and publicity. I worked there five years, learned about the film industry, made contacts, and read scripts. Hundreds of scripts. I analyzed some of them, gave notes. I started learning what works, what doesn’t work, and why. I wrote taglines for posters, retitled films, wrote trailers and press releases. I learned how to sell movies to a buyer and an audience.

PSO acquired the rights to The NeverEnding Story, the best-selling fantasy novel by Michael Ende. We were executive-producing, putting together the financing and handling the foreign distribution, and we wanted to set the project up with a U.S. distributor. The problem was, the (excellent) screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen & Herman Weigel read as if it had been translated that morning from the German; it wasn’t in idiomatic English.

Mark Damon, the head of PSO, asked if I would be interested in polishing the script. I figured, great, this will be the best two weeks of my life. Mark told me he needed the polished script in 36 hours.

I did a few sample pages and was called into a meeting with the PSO brass. They asked me to read what I'd written. “Aloud?” I wondered. “Yes,” they observed. I did. They applauded. (I now put an applause clause into all my contracts.)

I went back to my desk and finished the polish in 36 hours. The project was subsequently picked up by Warner Bros., grossed $125 million worldwide, back when that was real money, and spawned two sequels.

I was approached by Simona Benzakein, who had produced a Cesar Award nominee for Best Picture in France. She and Christopher Lambert (Highlander, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes) were putting together a drama called Central Park. A major screenwriter had been paid to write a treatment that they didn’t care for, and they wondered if I would start over and write a new screenplay for free.

Who could resist an offer like that?

When I turned in the screenplay, Simona read it and said, “This makes the years of waiting worthwhile." I took that as a compliment.

When I left PSO I hooked up with a writing partner. Our first spec screenplay together, a romantic comedy called Take Two, got us our first agent and some good meetings. Our second screenplay, a coming-of-age comedy-drama called The C-Note, got us our second agent and some great meetings. Our third screenplay, a horror comedy called Abra-Cadaver, got us our third agent and sold to Universal. (Anyone want to make it?)

Eventually we were called in to pitch for The Little Rascals. Another team was hired, months passed, and we learned the studio didn’t care for that team’s script. We were called in for a second pitch, we were hired, and because the rights to the characters were going to expire, we had 12 days to write the first draft. Butch hit us up for more lines, but the film was very successful.

So somewhere in there is how I got my start in screenwriting.

Doug: Do you break your stories down into three-act structure before writing?

Paul: Yes. I find the three-act structure an extremely-helpful way to organize material, and as an audience member I enjoy movies with beginnings, middles and ends.

Doug: How detailed an outline do you do before embarking on a script (if you do one)?

Paul: What’s an outline?

Oh, yes, those things. As it happens, I do do one. And it’s extremely detailed, because it’s more than just an outline; it’s every potentially-useful idea I have about the film, all in one place.

I begin by writing down everything that the concept or the protagonist or the secondary characters suggest to me, in no order whatsoever. On a spec, I spend weeks brainstorming bits and scenes and dialogue and character notes and character arcs and jokes.

After awhile it becomes clear what stuff goes at the beginning of the film, so I move all that to Act One, and what goes at the end of the film, so I move all that to Act Three. The rest, of course, is either Act Two or “Notes and Discards”... stuff I move to the end in case I find a use for it later.

Then I start to organize within each Act. Where does my movie begin? What’s the turning point or plot point, either halfway through Act One (roughly page 12 or 13 in a 100-page script) or by page 10 (if I follow the “rule” that readers need to be grabbed within the first 10 pages)? What’s my end of Act One, the moment at which I get my hero up a tree? What’s the logical progression of events between the beginning and the turning point? Between the turning point and the tree?

I do the same for Act Two, aiming to throw the biggest rocks at my hero around page 75.

I do the same for Act Three, aiming to get him down from the tree and done with his denouement and tag (with perhaps a hint of a sequel) around page 100.

I can’t imagine beginning a screenplay without an outline. I don’t want to be 50 pages into a script and have no idea where I’m going.

Nor can I imagine not writing down all the ideas I have about the film as they come to me, and then putting them in the outline. Doesn’t mean I have to use them, but I want to know they’re there.

(c) 2009 Paul Guay. All rights reserved.

Paul Guay’s movies have grossed over half a billion dollars. He conceived and co-wrote Liar, Liar, at the time of its release the sixth-highest-grossing comedy in history. The screenplay received an Honorable Mention (along with Fargo, Million Dollar Baby, The Full Monty and Catch Me If You Can) in Scr(i)pt magazine’s list of the Best Scripts of the Past 10 Years.

Paul co-wrote The Little Rascals, Universal's second-highest-grossing film of the year, and co-wrote Heartbreakers, starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Gene Hackman and Jason Lee, which opened #1 at the box office, and the rights to which he co-licensed to MGM for production as a stage musical.

Paul is a sought-after Script Consultant (

1 comment:

Clifford said...


Now I know who to blame! My then-wife and I were told by, I think Disney, to get our passports in order so we could leave for Germany that Monday to meet with Wolfgang Peterson about rewriting NEVER ENDING STORY because it read like an ESL script. (And it did.) That Sunday night we were told the trip was cancelled as they'd found someone else for the gig.

You bastard, Paul!