Today’s Feature – September 4-5: William M. Akers

September 6, 2008 at 6:28 pm (Today's Feature)

William M. Akers, first of his kind on PensEyeView, probably has one of the most interesting (as well as stressful, multi-faceted and intense) jobs in the world. The job of “Hollywood Writer” sounds more dangerous than that of stunt man, and more stressful than the tasks of a producer. Yet still, Akers works his ass off within the industry… and somehow is still kind enough to help out the aspiring competition! His book, “Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great” dissects the common mistakes of Hollywood’s next batch of creative writers; a book written with more than a little experience behind it.

Akers has been writing professional for over 20 years, teaching for 15, and critiquing incoming scripts for nearly 10 years. So the man knows what he’s talking about and that’s exactly why he needed to make his book title as attention-gabbing as it is. It’s beyond important to know that your script sucks before it’s too late! Such is the lesson that many of Akers students learn at Vanderbilt University, where he teaches screenwriting and filmmaking. A few of William’s other credentials include his produced scripts “Ernest Rides Again” and “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,” the latter nominated for a CableAce. He’s also written for MGM, Disney and Universal.

Please don’t be fooled by all of this experience however, William still gets a knot in his stomach every time he hands over a screenplay. Right now he’s producing a new script, something he calls “the single finest piece of material I’ve ever written.” So keep your eye out – he just might have the next big thing. There’s a lot more to learn in the XXQ’s below, so get to it.

XXQs: William M. Akers

PensEyeView.com (PEV): Your new book, Your Screenplay Sucks!, 100 Ways To Make It Great, (Michael Wiese Productions) is unique in that you are rare among how-to screenplay book authors… you actually had your work produced. With that, why do you think your take offers better advice for aspiring screenplay writers?

William M. Akers (WMA): I don’t know if it’s better, but it is different. I’ve been writing professionally for twenty plus years. I’ve been teaching screenwriting for fifteen. I’ve critiqued scripts for going on ten years. I’ve seen a lot of screenplays. I know the mistakes that will stop a reader from reading. As a writer, I’ve dealt with a lot of agents, producers. I know what they want. The last time I turned a script in to a studio, they had no notes. As a teacher, I know what writers need to know to get the thing read. I haven’t a clue what it takes to write a script somebody will want to make, but, based on my experience, I can tell you a few things that will sure kill a read.

PEV: Some might say your title is a little “harsh”. Why so blunt?

WMA: “Harsh?” Are you kidding? It’s brutal. Somebody takes all that time to write a script, only to be told it sucks… That’s not nice. But, then, it’s not a nice business. Better to be told now that your script sucks, than not be told later, when it’s too late… when an agent reads it and throws it away when he gets to page fifteen. The writer can’t be there for the read. You can only write it, fix it, and send it out. The odds that someone will love your script to the point they are willing to risk their job in order to force someone above them to read it, are limited. To someone who has never sat in a producer’s office and seen the hundreds or thousands of screenplays they have on the shelves, the level of competition is incomprehensible. Better to suck now, when it doesn’t count, then after you’ve sent it off and there’s no pulling it back.

PEV: One part in your book you mention that you must live in L.A. to be a screenwriter or involved in the entertainment business. People tend to think that L.A. and New York are similar in that aspect but your book proves it not to be true. For those that don’t know what “L.A. life” is like for a writer, why do you feel L.A. is the place to be? What makes it so different from NYC?

WMA: You can live away from Los Angeles if you are writing features. You can live away from Los Angeles if you are making movies. You have to live in Los Angeles if you’re trying to do television. The simple reason to pick L.A. over New York is the sheer volume of opportunity. There are more jobs in Los Angeles. If you can’t possibly thrive and survive without the streets of New York, bagels, a slice, and all that goes with an urban environment, then live in New York. But know there are more chances to get hired in Los Angeles. More people to bump into in parking lots who can say, “Hey, I remember that script of yours. It was good. Come in next week and let’s talk.” The odds of your getting work increase in Los Angeles. Unless of course, your uncle is a big time producer in New York.

PEV: Teaching screenwriting and filmmaking at Vanderbilt University, you run into many wide-eyed students with big dreams of making movies (and millions). What’s the biggest misconception you find that most students have?

WMA: I tend to crush my students’s misconceptions fairly early on. Few of my students walk out of my class wanting a career in Hollywood. Most wise up and marry money. I try to teach them that it’s a very, very, very difficult business and it’s best to get into it only if you can’t do anything else. That’s why I never quit. I’m wholly unsuited for any other line of work. I got fired from the only real job I ever had, which was a waiter. So I never had that to fall back on. But back to your question… beginners are often arrogant. I’ve never quite understood why, but it’s true in most fields. Students sometimes think writing a script is easy. Or that they’ll sell the first one. Or that they know all the answers. I’m lucky in that, as a teacher, I’ve had some writing success, so I’ve never had to deal with the “those who can’t, teach” concern. They tend to listen. A young writer has to go out there, hat in hand, humble, and really ready to listen and learn and improve her craft. Short answer to your question, is that they think it’s going to be easy.

PEV: Have you had any students that you knew had “it” or what it takes to really become a success in Hollywood?

WMA: Sure. Generally every year, I’ll have one or two students who can really write. Currently, I’ve got one in New York who wants to be an actress, and I’m trying to get her to do another pass on her script so she can start to get an agent. You have to be incredibly businesslike in your approach, as writing talent is only about half the battle. I’ve had killer writers who disappeared because they weren’t professional about their careers. I can’t teach anybody to write, but I can show them what I know and show them how to channel their talent into the screenplay form. I can tell them about the business. I’ve got writing students who are making their living as writers, producers, directors. It’s really fun, really fun, about halfway through the semester, when they start turning in actual pages of script, to read material by someone who’s got it, who has been listening in class, and really can write. That’s a wonderful feeling.

PEV: When you sit down to write, what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?

WMA: I can write anywhere. The first screenplay I ever wrote, I’d been hired to interpret between an Italian engineer who’d come over to install a huge machine in a factory, and the hulking redneck American shop foreman who had to make the thing work. I sat in an office above the factory floor with my typewriter, pounding out my five pages a day in an infernal din with constant interruptions to come down and translate between this giant American in his sweat stained overalls and this diminutive Italian in a linen suit. Then I’d go back up and write half a page and get interrupted again. It taught me how to concentrate. I’ve written in cars, on trains, at picnic tables, in my office at home, with a computer, pen, pencil, typewriter. It is easier to write, however, when I am totally alone with no Internet or Email. I’ve got ADD, and Email is a terrible distraction. To do Your Screenplay Sucks!, I went to a house in the woods and worked fifteen or so hours a day with no one around, no phone, and no Email. Massive chunks of uninterrupted time helped a lot. I do not believe that someone needs to get their environment “just so” before they can write. Just sit down someplace and do a draft. Then fix it. If you have to have the right upholstery on the sofa in your office before you can work, you’re toast.

PEV: Music plays an intricate part in movies. What kind of music are you currently listening to?

WMA: Wow. Great question. I generally have music on when I write, but what it is, changes over time. J.J. Cale has been on my playlist longer than anyone. I’ve got every CD he’s put out, and they’re in order… so I put him on, he drops me in a groove and I look up and six hours have gone by. I’ve got all of Dire Straits and Chris Rea. A lot of Beethoven. He’s good. A bunch of opera, the Italians, and Bizet’s Carmen. Lately, I’ve been listening to Amy Winehouse, Gnarls Barkley, Ben’s Brother, Alison Moyet, Bic Runga, Edith Piaf, Ian Dury, Duffy, Patty Pravo, Yves Montand, Katy Perry, Feist, Stan Getz, Manuel Galban. I dunno. There’s tons. I can listen to “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley ten times in a row. If I had to pick one to write to, though, it’s J.J. Cale. Lists like this always amuse me. A conversation I’ve had repeatedly is “What band have you seen?” Always trying to impress the other guy. If the people are old enough, the “I’ve seens” are pretty good. I was at a party once and a guy from Louisiana said… “The Who played my high school. Right there on the fifty yard line.” Somebody else said, “I saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium.” Then Tommy Stumb said, “When I was six years old, my parents took me to Municipal Auditorium and I saw the Three Stooges, live.” That ended it. Nobody could ever top that. Not that that has anything to do with what music I listen to. Sorry. I digressed. Excuse the ADD.

PEV: Is there one director or producer in Hollywood that you would love to work with that you haven’t? Explain.

WMA: Anybody with the oomph to get something of mine made! I don’t care who it is. Well that’s not true. I’d like to work with a director who is great with story. Someone who can take a good script and help me make it breathtakingly wonderful. The problem is, when you see their movies, you have no idea who really got the thing there, what they’re like in development, if they’re going to give up when the going gets ghastly… if they’ve got the stones to hang in there for the long, long fight to first day of principal photography, and beyond… Okay, I suddenly figured it out. Clint Eastwood. Hands down. That guy is a consummate professional and I would give my eye teeth to work with him. Mr. Eastwood. He has superb taste, eclectic taste, and I would love to hang out with him during every phase of production and learn as much as I could. Yeah, Mr. Eastwood. Simple answer, really. Why didn’t I think of it quicker?

PEV: In your opinion, what is one of the best movies to come out in the past ten years?… The one that had the entire package from writing to casting, etc.

WMA: You’re so mean. What a terrible question. One movie. Hmmm. Okay, THE FULL MONTY. It’s perfect. It’s got it all. Great script, great cast, great music. It’s “about” something. It’s the only movie that made me laugh and cry at the same time. At the end, when Gaz loses his nerve and won’t go on stage to strip, his son convinces him that he has to do it. That scene, and the finale, had me laughing and crying. I’ve never done that before. So, I’d say THE FULL MONTY has the entire package. Excuse the pun.

PEV: When you do critique a person’s writing it can sometimes be a little upsetting for them to see all your notes. Granted it helps but initially they might be a little take aback. Any bad occurrences from a client?

WMA: Not yet. So far, everyone has been pleased with the level of detail in the notes. Everyone tells me it’s really worth the money. Because I’m a writer, I don’t just tell what doesn’t work, I give suggestions as to ways around the roadblocks. I’m just trying to help. People don’t always listen, and they don’t have to agree. It’s their script, after all, and I am not all-knowing. With any note, from me, a director, a producer or your neighbor’s yard man, you have to decide if this is a helpful suggestion or not. I give audio critiques, which means I send an MP3 file of my comments made as I read the script. I’ve found that my notes are more detailed when I talk, instead of when I type. The clients seem to be uniformly amazed at the progress they make when they march through all the notes.

PEV: What do you do when you hit a brick wall when writing?

WMA: Keep writing. It’s the only way. Drag your sorry ass back to the chair and keep going until you break through. Not that that’s easy. I’ve only gotten actual writer’s block once and it was horrible in the extreme. To shorten a long story that’s in the book, it was the first pitch I sold and the highly successful producer instantly made me feel I couldn’t deliver the goods. I had come back home from L.A. to do the work, and, when I’d write a sentence, I could sense him standing over my shoulder. I’d worry he wouldn’t like it, and erase it. Not a good place for your head to be. The bottomless, stinking, dark pit. I had to stop working for three days and think about something else. At that point, I was so na•ve, I thought that if he didn’t like it, I’d have to give back the money. Finally, I said, “Fuck him. This is my script.” And I sat back down and did it. He ended up liking it a lot. But, erasing what I’d written because of fear of the producer was ghastly. But hell, it’s never easy. Still isn’t. I just came back from a four day stint at my house in the woods, working on a spec feature. The first three days were agony, in that the material wasn’t working. By the third day, I was so depressed, I would have jumped in front of a train, had one run through the living room. Having done this for so long though, I kept dragging myself back to the computer, working and working, writing through the brick wall until at last, I came up with the idea that solved a problem, and then another problem, and another, and then the wall shattered and I could see the path ahead, all bright and shiny with flowers on either side. The fourth day was one of the finest in my writing career. I had a blast, the material flowed like a river and it was good. I walked away with a first pass at a script I’m now rewriting. But, when it wasn’t working, I had to keep forcing myself to sit back down in order to solve the problems.

PEV: When you are not working or teaching, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

WMA: All I do is work. Everything, somehow, relates to work. I go to movies. Watch movies. Right now, I’m zooming through “The Wire” on DVD. How much would I like to work for those guys! Let’s see…. what do I do I’m not working? I read a lot. Play with my dogs. Try to keep my children out of jail.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about William Akers?

WMA: I was on Jeopardy!. It’s the single thing on my resume that everybody wants to talk about.

PEV: On your site, yourscreenplaysucks.com you said, “All beginning screenwriters make the same mistakes. Because nobody in Hollywood will give your screenplay a second chance, it better be perfect the first time out.” With that, as a professional writer and you send off a script to the person that hires you, what is going through your head? Worried about being rejected? Are you 100% confident in what you wrote?

WMA: You want the TRUTH? The truth is that I’m scared to fucking death. Every goddamn time. Every time. Half my brain thinks they’re going to hire an assassin to have me killed. Half my brain thinks they’ll like some of it and, hey, it’s writing, we can always fix it. Sadly, few producers were ever writers, and they don’t realize writers are terrified when they hand the thing in. I used to think I was the most pathetic person on the planet, for being afraid when I turned something in. No more. I have a writer friend, most talented guy I know, who wrote one of the most successful films in the history of sprocket holes. Grosses in the high hundreds of millions. He sent me the sequel script. When he called to ask what I thought about it, I could hear the trepidation in his voice. He was worried about the material! I thought, “If he’s worried, then I can be worried too.” In William Goldman’s What Lie Did I Tell, he admits to the same thing. Again, I told myself, if William Goldman is worried about being rejected, I have every right to be a quivering mass of jelly when I hand something in. You can too.

PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your career?

WMA: No one points and laughs when I walk in a room. Everybody’s been supportive. The Guild health insurance is a nice perk. Basically, though, nobody has a clue what I do. I sit in a room by myself. I write stuff and then erase it. Every now and then I get a check. Rarely, I get a big check. My friends see me at dinner, not during the day when I’m pulling my hair out because I can’t get the dialogue right, so they’re clueless. Your Screenplay Sucks! has been a help in that regard. My mother read the whole thing and, for the first time she understands what I’ve been doing with my life. That’s been cool. If you want people who know you to be sympathetic about what you’re doing, write a book about it.

PEV: Is there a certain writer out today that you think we should all be looking out for? The next “big thing”?

WMA: Me, I hope.

PEV: On the casting side, what advice could you give to actors that are now making the trek out to Hollywood to pursue a career? Along with writing, actors suffer the same fate of rejection and criticism. How do they stay positive?

WMA: You have to be professional. You have to treat yourself like a business. You have to enjoy the audition process, then walk out and forget it. I can’t stress that enough. The rejection is harder for actors because it’s them being rejected. You hate my writing, no sweat, we can still go have a beer. I know you don’t hate me. It’s tougher for an actor because it’s one step more personal. Frankly, I don’t know how they survive it.

PEV: What do you think the biggest mistake is that most screenwriters make?

WMA: They put the backstory in the first act. Buy my book. I talk about 99 more mistakes.

PEV: A lot of writers get frustrated when the see a movie get made that you know has terrible writing, the script is garbage and you have no idea how it ever got made. For those that don’t know the process and ask themselves that, how does this happen? How/Why do some of the worst movies get made?

WMA: It’s just as difficult to make a bad movie as it is to make a good one. No one sits down to make a movie badly. It’s a domino effect. One poor decision leads to another, and often, like in a war, you don’t see its effect until it’s too late and all you’ve got is bodies. You never know how something got made, and it’s best not to worry about it. Everybody thinks it’s a good idea at the time. Stuff happens, and things go wrong. What I don’t understand is why people greenlight a script that’s not ready… that always amazes me. I see movies that needed about six more drafts. This is especially painful on the festival / indy level, where the movie stinks, and you know the guy raised money from his family, and wasted it because his script wasn’t ready.

PEV: So, what is next for William M. Akers?

WMA: I’ve got a script I’m producing, an R-rated chick flick. Intense coming of age story about a sixteen year old girl. We’re looking for financing now. We plan to shoot in the summer of ’09. It’s the single finest piece of material I’ve ever written. After I wrote FADE OUT., I lay my head on the table and sobbed like a baby. First three women I handed it to, cried when they read it. That’s what’s next. I’m looking forward to producing more, in the future. I’ve got a script I’d like to direct. An emotional family drama. My script about the fall of Saigon continues to wend its way through the development process. All it’s done is get better. Eleven drafts now for the director and producers, in going on two years. Edging toward production. Maybe! It’s not a good idea to concentrate on the “Are they going to make this?” question. Better to enjoy the writing process and learn as much as possible. I’m up for a couple of writing jobs in Los Angeles that I hope I get. I just sold a pitch, and I’m waiting for the contracts so I can start writing that one. I don’t know if there’ll be a sequel to Your Screenplay Sucks!. I certainly had more fun writing it than I do screenplays. My fervent hope is the book will be helpful to people. I’d like to hear from somebody, someday, that they did the checklist, sent their script out, and got an agent. That’d be nice. That’d make the harsh title worth it.

For more information on William, check out www.YourScreenplaySucks.com

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1 Comment

  1. Carla Christina Contreras said,

    Nice interview! Will Akers is an EXCEPTIONAL talent – I am honored to have worked with him!

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