Bruce Feirstein is a screenwriter, journalist, and friend of Lunacy Productions. His credits include the James Bond films GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The World Is Not Enough, and the books Nice Guys Sleep Alone and Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. He’s the contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer and Spy, among many others. Here, he shares some advice from his 20-plus years in Hollywood.
LUNACY: You’ve worked in advertising, journalism, and film. Plus you’ve written everything from romantic comedies to action movies. To what do you credit your success?
Bruce Feirstein: I think the main thing I’ve learned is that you never know where life is going to take you. Advertising led me to write my first screenplay; a line of dialogue that got cut from a script as “Unfunny” became the book Real Men. A romantic comedy that didn’t get made led Barbara Broccoli to hire me to fix the dialogue on a Bond film, and my learning that I could write action movies. The funny thing about this is that there’s really not that much difference between action movies and romantic comedies: In a romantic comedy, you find every way to keep a couple apart before they fall in love in the third act; in an action movie, you find a way to keep the hero and villain from killing each other until the third act.
LU: What kind of advice do you have for people just starting out in the business, specifically those going into development?
BF: I’d tell anyone who enters the business to be hopeful. And to understand that this is a business that has always been dependent on the next generation. I have no idea what it’s like to date in the age of Tinder. But you might. I could write a college road trip picture where a group of guys or girls drive to Fort Lauderdale, but I’d have to set it in 1980 for it to have any truth. Yours could be set in 2017. If I were a studio executive and all things were equal in terms of the scripts, I’d choose yours over mine in a heartbeat, because that’s where the audience is. That’s the natural order of things. There’s always room for the next generation of filmmakers.
Sure, I’ve heard all the, “But I don’t know anybody” protests. Right now, you may not realize it, but you’re creating your own network of people and friends who’ll be in the business. Never forget – every kid who becomes an agent’s assistant – or the assistant to a producer – wants to become a producer or an agent. The fastest way they’re going to do it is to find a script or a new piece of talent. Hopefully it will be you, or your script, or your project.
I do, however, have to add one thing here: Everything I’ve said is about getting into the business, if you choose to go that way. But today there’s VR, webisodes, and youtube, which didn’t exist when I started out. There’s a million ways to make things that we didn’t have. We had no choice but to go into the studio system. You have so many more choices. Most important of all, you have access to filmmaking tools that were never available to us. Your iPhone. Your GoPro. With Adobe Premier, you have an entire post production facility on your laptop. You don’t really need the studios. But you do need to know how to tell stories. It’s a great time to decide to become a filmmaker.
Finally, one last thing about people going into development. Bear with me here, because I’m going to sound a little bit like an old guy saying “Get off my lawn.”
If I look back on the young men and women I started with – the ones who went into development – I’d say 95% of them are gone. Out of the business. If I look back and try to figure out why, there’s one common thread: They spent their early years in development killing things. “This script is terrible,” “That script is trash.” They didn’t quite have the years to understand that every movie isn’t for them, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good movie. It still can find an audience. Then one day, sooner or later, they get fired and have nothing to show for it. This happened to me on a picture I was writing for Will Smith’s company. I found out that the young development executives were killing everything. They’d read something in 35 minutes, call it crap, and go onto the next and call that one crap. What they didn’t realize is that, ultimately, you can’t put all the pictures you killed on your resume. Every one of those people is gone now. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. So my advice to a young development executive would be to find something you love and fight for it. Recognize that maybe you don’t know everything. Think long and hard before you kill something. Because you’ve only got so much time, and so many chips to play, before you’re gone.
LU: Speaking of opportunities, it seems there’s more potential for creators in television than in feature films. Why is that?
BF: First off, we’re living in a world where there are now countless distribution channels. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Buzzfeed, dozens and dozens of cable channels. It’s a beast that needs to be fed, with an insatiable demand for content.
But let’s clarify this a little, and define feature films as ‘things that get released in theaters’, and “television” as everything else. That’s kind of inaccurate, but let’s go with it for this discussion.
In feature films, nobody ever has to make a movie. I know that sounds insane, but look at it this way: Yes, a studio needs summer tent poles, or a film for Christmas. These days, a studio like Warner Brothers is only making 25 pictures a year. A huge percentage of those are already spoken for. Those are your next Superhero, Eastwood film, etcetera. There’s no real imperative to make your movie, without a director, a star, or some other element. They may be saying “I need a tentpole for three years from now, so I bought this book,” or “I’m doing the next picture in the Twilight series,” but there’s nothing that says “You have to make this, now.” It’s lead to taking less risk and a smaller group of people making most of the pictures.
On the other hand, next Tuesday night, all those networks have to put something on the air at 9:00. They’ve got no choice. They’ve got to put something on that beats – or grabs more eyeballs – than the 200 channels they’re competing with at 9:00 next Tuesday.
All of this has lead to amazing opportunities for content creators. Which is why if I were starting over again – if I were 25 today – I go right for all those alternative “television” platforms. To me, that’s where the opportunities lie.
LU: What other advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
BF: Every one of us is unique. We all come from different backgrounds. We have unique stories to tell, that on some level are universal. The story of an Indian kid who grows up with immigrant parents struggling to run a small business is totally different, but also no different than my parent’s story. They came here with their immigrant parents who opened a bar in Newark and got shaken down by Irish cops and Italian gangsters. They experienced their own kind of discrimination. And I need to be clear here: I’m just picking that as an example of a universal story. I’m not saying that’s what you need to do.
What I am saying is that as a young filmmaker, tell stories that show us things we’ve never seen before. Introduce us to worlds we’ve never experienced. Don’t just try to make Saw 27, or 900 Days of Summer.
Let me give you a cautionary tale of what I’m talking about:
The very first night I came to Hollywood, I stayed at a friend’s apartment in Venice. His roommate was a screenwriter who had just graduated from film school. When I walked into the roommate’s bedroom, I was stunned and terrified to discover the entire room was filled with film scripts. This was back in the days when you sent paper scripts around. Nobody knew what a PDF was. From the floor to the ceiling, there were a zillion scripts. That roommate – the writer – could tell me exactly what should – or did – happen on every page of those scripts. He spoke a language that was as foreign to me. It might as well have been Swahili – all about rising action points, and second act reversals. I didn’t know any of this stuff and was terrified I could never succeed out here because of it.
So what happened? The guy got one movie made. One. Then a few development deals, and then he was gone. Why? Because while he may have known what should happen by page nine of a script, he had nothing to say. His entire creative life – his entire worldview – was based on what he had seen in movies. That’s what I would warn you about. Tell real stories. About real people. About your life, and the unique things you’ve encountered and experienced.
Today, there’s no shortage of scripts that look like screenplays and read like screenplays, but ultimately, there’s nothing there. They’re empty. That’s where your life experiences are so important. We all know we need more diversity in movies and tv. Not just in the people directing the content, or starring in, writing or producing it, but also diversity in the very stories that are being told. It’s the only way film is going to stay relevant in Modern America.
That’s why I think there’s hope and possibility. That’s why I tell every young filmmaker to be perseverant. It’s always been a tough, awful business, filled with setbacks and rejections.
But the future belongs to you. Go make it.