How to Write a Screenplay (With a Little Help From Your Friends)

We each have at least one good movie script in our memory banks. What’s yours?

And why haven’t you written it?

Many years ago, I promised a close friend I’d write a movie about something we’d done together – opening up a rock ‘n’ roll club on Long Island. Mike’s idea was that we’d write it together. He’d supply the stories; I’d write them down.

It was an idea we would talk about often at the Lynbrook Diner, after closing the bar at 3 a.m. Mike had a premonition that he’d die young (who didn’t back then?) and made me swear that if he did die before we wrote it, I’d write it anyway.

“So the world will know how cool a guy I was,” he said. And he gave me the title: “After Midnight.”

Mike did die young – about 10 years later. For the next 20 years, I thought about writing that movie. I thought about it. And I thought about it. And I even made it a goal that appeared regularly on my New Year’s list of resolutions. But that script never got written. In fact, I never typed a single word of it.

I don’t know why I couldn’t get myself to keep my promise. Part of it was the challenge of doing something I’d never done. Another was the fear that I couldn’t write it or, if I did, that it would be worthless. As the years slipped by, my memory of all the “after midnight” experiences we had meant to write about faded. Eventually, it seemed like I was going to have to resign myself to having broken a promise.

But a promise to a dead friend is a heavy debt, one that kept nagging at me. Whenever Mike’s memory would push its way back into a conversation or an idle reflection, my un-kept promise would assert itself. It was almost as if he was shouting at me from his grave.

Several years ago, I spent some time with a very good friend from that period of my life. Steve would have been a key player in the movie script, because it was the three of us – Steve, Mike, and I – that opened and ran that club. During one of many reminiscences, I mentioned to Steve that I felt guilty about not keeping my promise. “I don’t think I could write it now even if I had a gun put to my head,” I said. “I’ve forgotten most of the stories.”

Steve hadn’t. He reminded me of many of them. And then it occurred to me that the burden of writing this script would be so much lighter if I could get Steve to carry some of the load. I figured that if he could tell me the stories, I could write them down and patch them into a screenplay.

In fact, Steve did much more than that. He spent 78 hours locked up in an apartment in Baltimore with me, co-writing the script. As he reminded me of some of our experiences, other memories came flooding back. What had seemed like an impossible task turned into one of the most enjoyable, productive, and ultimately cathartic (see “Word to the Wise,” below) experiences of my life.

Our unique experience – converting a “bucket of blood” in a bad neighborhood into a successful club on Long Island – made for a very good screenplay. The process, ironically, was exactly as Mike had imagined it. But in place of him, I was working with his best friend Steve. Mike would have liked that.

After we finished the first draft of the screenplay, I put it away and let it “settle” for a while. I wasn’t sure we’d ever do anything with it. I didn’t know whether that mattered. But gradually I could hear Mike whispering into my ear again: “How will the world know how cool I was until you make it into a movie?”

I tried to ignore Mike’s pestering for about a year, then relented. I showed the manuscript to two people who critique scripts for a living. Both had very similar comments and suggestions. One, Paul Lawrence (a regular ETR contributor who has sold several of his own scripts – one of which was recently made into a movie), thought it was “extremely marketable.”

So with their help, I’ve revised the script and sent it back to Steve to see how he likes it and get him to fix it where it’s off and maybe add a few more good moments. I’m also turning it into a novel. It’s going pretty quickly. In fact, I’ve got three chapters written already. (Inside tip: It’s much easier to write your novel when the plot and most of the dialogue is already done!)

I feel sanguine about the possibility of getting both the novel and screenplay produced in the not-too-distant future.

This has been an important learning experience for me. I grew up with the idea that creative experiences are personal and creative products should be done by individuals. The notion that books and songs and movies should be solo efforts is probably a notion that achieved its greatest popularity during the early part of the 19th century – during the Romantic Period – and it has lingered with intellectuals ever since.

But although the history of creative effort is well populated with individual efforts, there are plenty of great contributions to popular culture that were the products of teamwork. This is particularly true of movies. Many of today’s most successful movies are created not by “auteurs” like Woody Allen or Francois Truffaut, but by teams of independent artists and producers.

Such Hollywood heavyweights as Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, Jack Black, Vince Vaughn, Judd Apatow, and Owen Wilson often collaborate to plot, write, and produce movies.

“They seem to function as an informal kind of comedy troupe,” Hutch Parker, president of 20th Century Fox, told The New York Times recently. “If you check around town and see what projects they all have in development, you find the same alliances.”

As an example, the Times article described one such brainstorming session:

“Mr. Apatow and Steve Carell … found themselves, scripts in hand, sitting at a table in Santa Monica with a few other actors, exchanging stories of their early sexual exploits. What started as a read through of a Universal Pictures script, ’40 Year Old Virgin,’ quickly devolved into a discussion of how the central character – Mr. Carell as an electronics store clerk – happened to be still a sexual naif.

“The cast tossed out suggestions that might have led to his giving up on sex. … ‘This one guy told Garry Shandling that he lost his virginity to two women,’ [Mr. Apatow] mused.

“‘That’s a good story,’ Mr. Carell said.

“Mr. Apatow told of an eighth grade experience when he panicked after his girlfriend guided his hand beyond first base. ‘In my head I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to pee on her,”‘ he recalled, to general laughter around the table. …

“Romany Malco, a cast member, cheerily told of being seduced by a family babysitter when he was six … and also told a raunchy tale from the barracks involving masturbation and killing roaches.

“Mr. Apatow slapped the table. ‘That’s going in,’ he said, grabbing a pen.”

Maybe one day, after “After Midnight” has become a big hit, Steve and I will work with Apatow and Carell to create our next movie. In the meantime, I’m rethinking plans for accomplishing a lot of my longstanding goals by hooking up with a partner.

Let’s get back to you. I don’t have to know you personally to guess that you have at least one good movie buried somewhere in your memory. Maybe it’s a comedy. Maybe a drama. But there’s a good story to tell.

What’s stopping you from writing that script? If you can’t write, don’t worry about it. There are plenty of good writers out there – writers who have been trained in writing screenplays – who are looking for stories. You can get in touch with such people easily enough by posting ads in professional film magazines and/or websites.

If you have the skills to write a screenplay but lack the memory, make contact with someone who was there with you. If you have the skill and the story but lack the time, hire a writer and dictate the story.

You probably didn’t promise a childhood friend that you would write your movie (or book), but you may have made a secret promise to yourself. Don’t let it slip away because you erroneously believe, as I did, that you have to do it all yourself.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]