Writing Lessons from Hollywood A-Listers

[Bad] Ideas | Scriptdog

WARNING: I name drop to an obnoxious level in this article


Advice inspired by Hollywood.

Don’t write about anything dusty

This one is courtesy of mogul Barry Diller. We had our opening scene for a TV pilot called Under Contract (USA Network) set in a junkyard, the kind with dirt instead of pavement. Diller said that if there was dust in an opening scene (i.e., dirt being kicked up by cars, or walking), then nobody would watch. So, don’t write about things that manifest dust.

Don’t reference the color orange (this was before the show about the color orange)

Discussions about a script for New Regency called Everett and Elise involved an exec who had a phobia of hospital rooms and felt that orange was intrinsically linked to disease because of the color his dying father’s hospital room walls. (This was also before Trump). We had opened the script with an orange sunset which made the exec toss the script aside (ironically, to gather dust).

Don’t go for laughs in a serious scene

Michael Mann insisted that any humor be erased from any of the scenes in Heat. No kidding.

Buena Vista

Don’t write about the weather

While working with Elmore Leonard (Dutch) on adaptations of Swag, Gunsights, Forty Lashes Less One and Killshot, he would send over faxes with all sorts of rules, the most prominent one being to lose any and all references to weather.

Nobody cares what color the sun is, he would say. (Especially if it was orange). Unless it’s intrinsic to the story, we don’t feel the urge to mention body temperature of the main character. So who cares what’s going on in the air.

Leonard estate

Don’t write about what doesn’t make you smile!

Adam Sandler said this about a sequence in “The President’s Daughter” (a script I wrote that he bought but could never ever be made) when he showed me that there were too many “carpet padding” scenes, scenes where we are getting a character from one place to another. “Skip them. Get to the smiles. The scenes you’re proud to know that I’m reading while you sit next to me.” No filler.

Avoid having more than one main topic

We were syllables away from a green light from James Cameron’s company for a pitch about slowing down time (and other cool stuff) when I mis-spoke and started on about a subplot in a way that made it seem like we had a second protagonist. The air went out of the room instantly. Huge screw up.

WikiMedia Commons

Don’t shift focus

This is more a life lesson but still applies to what not to do in writing. And, it’s painfully obvious, but I still kick myself. Sam Raimi and his partner Rob Tappert asked me and my producing partner to produce a small project for Universal Studios. We were in! Until we met and brought along not one, but 5 other scripts for them to also consider. We were more or less ghosted from that point on. Laser in on the deliverable.

Don’t write scenes with keyboards

Louie Anderson once grilled me salmon. That right there should be the headline. He had a big project and I was over at his house in the hills. It was a series, and he had one rule: don’t have scenes with people clicking away on keyboards. Nobody wants to watch that. And they don’t want to read about it. Bo. Ring.


Don’t write about something you wouldn’t die for

Quentin Tarantino’s advice is all over the place (books, podcasts, websites, etc.). My takeaway from working on a project with him is this: don’t include any ideas or beats that you wouldn’t die for. He said he never picks his battles. It’s all a battle. So don’t write about anything you wouldn’t battle to the death for. (And, yes, it was an Elmore Leonard project.)


What dawns on me as I glance over these earned kernels of wisdom is this: I’m old!

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Writer, Director, Producer of TV, Film and Stand-Up Comedy Tours in the MENA region and Asia. Writer's Guild, Director's Guild and Producer's Guild member. WARNING: Microdosing content will shift paradigm.

West Hollywood, CA

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