By Marilyn Friedman
When it comes to screenwriting, Mike Ellis has done it all. He has sold five pilots to ABC, FOX and the CW, including two this year: AMERICAN MARRIAGE, a drama with Ellen Pompeo (ABC) and a comedy, MARSHA GOES TO JAIL, with FOX’s Adam Shankman. He also co-wrote THE WEDDING PLANNER, starring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey and has sold movies and projects to Disney, DreamWorks, Working Title, Revolution Studios, Warner Brothers, Sky Dance Pictures and Universal, amongst others. He also was a consulting producer on the ABC show JAKE IN PROGRESS.
Mike took some time out of his busy schedule to share how he broke into the business and give you aspiring screenwriters some great advice. Lucky for us, he will be teaching a “So You Want To Be A TV Writer” (7 Wk) workshop at Writing Pad that will teach you everything you need to know about TV writing fundamentals and crafting a great TV series. In his class, he will also help you work on one of your pilot ideas. But until then, here’s a little bit about Mike.
1) Tell us a little about your background, how you became a writer, and how you broke into the industry.
When I was six, my dad took me to see City Lights at a revival house. It hit me at a very gut level. I loved that it was so funny and also made me cry. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I was able to really take so much of the emotions and drama in. When we walked out, I told my dad I wanted to write silent movies. He told me they didn’t make silent movies anymore, so I settled on writing talkies. And that set me on the road – I never wavered from that dream.
I got my film degree at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and that’s where I first met my writing partner, Pam Falk. She couldn’t figure out how to make the class schedule, so she copied mine and we ended up in all the same classes together. We became best friends. After I got into AFI for grad school, we drove cross country together and that’s when we started to write our first script together. We landed our first agent with that script and we thought we had it made. Little did we know, having agent was only a baby step to achieving our goal – the next five years was an odyssey of us trying to figure out how to navigate working together and how to knock down the the Hollywood gate.
During those five years, we wrote in every genre – horror, mob comedy, family comedy, animation, fantasy, talking pickle movie – you name it. We kept getting different agents and when our specs didn’t sell, they would drop us. Finally, we were about to quit when we said, lets write one more script. We really thought about what are favorite movies were and at the time we were obsessed with MOONSTRUCK and WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING. So we wrote a romantic comedy set in an Italian restaurant where one of the lead characters has a big secret. We asked a friend at a production company to help us. She read it and loved it, gave it to her boss, who loved it and gave it to an agent. Very quickly that agent sold it to Disney. That was our first sale. It’s very important to never be afraid to ask for help.
2) You wrote the box office success THE WEDDING PLANNER with Jennifer Lopez and Mathew McConaughey and have sold multiple movie pitches and TV pilots to almost every major studio. What do you think the key is to writing a script that the studios or networks want to buy?
Two things. Write things that you would pay money to see and write things that have a hook. Meaning, if you can’t figure out an elevator pitch (you can describe your story in the time it takes an elevator to go down 10 floors) for your project, then it’s probably not something the studios or networks would be interested in at first blanch. Which means this particular story is either a non-studio idea, an execution piece or isn’t really a solid idea.
3) And how do you write a script that is appealing to big stars?
All the projects I’ve worked on that have attracted big stars like Sandra Bullock, Vin Diesel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Alba to name a few, had two things in common – big movie star roles and stories with clear, emotional character arcs. This means you have to give them scenes that let them show off their acting chops and perhaps lets them do something they haven’t done in any other role yet. Then, you have to find a great journey for them to go on. How do they change from the start to finish? What is your character missing at the start that they try to get by the end? Is there a satisfying or heartbreaking end to the story you have set up? Nothing gets actors excited more than going on a wild, emotional ride.
4) What are your thoughts on the state of TV and film, and where do you see each going?
Film is going into two very distinct directions. The studios really just want to find tentpoles and huge event movies. Outside the studio system is where you can get your more quirky stories told. But this is a much harder and longer journey. The Imitation Game, as great as it is, could not get made within the studio system. That’s pretty crazy – even though they had huge actors in the lead role, WB was nervous to pull the trigger on it. Getting movies financed can be a very tricky needle to thread. If you want to take real chances with your stories, you may want to turn your attention to TV.
TV is really where most of interesting storytelling is being done right now. And on top of that, there are more and more outlets to sell your material. It’s really the second golden age of TV right now. Pay cable channels, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are all examples of places that are not afraid to take huge risks on their shows. TRANSPARENT on Amazon is a true game changer on every level. It has opened the floodgates for every possible story to be told. If you can write it, it could get made. But make no mistake, you still have to have a solid concept, great characters and a good storytelling instincts. For every TRANSPARENT there are 100 scripts where the writer thinks they are being bold, but they’re actually just being bad – unclear concept, characters with no goals, inconsistent tone and no plot progression.
5) How does your relationship with your writing partner, Pam Falk, work? Do you split up a
script and each write half? Do you rewrite each other’s work? Are there perks to collaborating with someone as well as challenges? Would you recommend getting a writing partner to newbies?
Pam and I spend half of our time fighting and the other half deciding where to go to lunch. That leaves little time for the actual writing, but we manage to figure it out. We are very big believers in the outline. It’s our roadmap. Without one, it’s like taking a trip without a destination. How does that make sense? So we do the most detailed outline we can together and then we split up the outline to do scenes. We then exchange scenes – rip each other’s work to pieces – rewrite the scenes and then come together to do the rest of the work together. We used to write every single word together and it would take us six months to finish one script – it was like being sent to a prison work camp (not really, but you get the point).
It’s so great to have someone to bounce ideas off of, especially in comedy. What you think is funny, can very often not be funny at all once you tell another person the line or action. On the other hand, in working with another person you are already compromising your creative vision at the start. That can, at times, be frustrating and humbling. But, at the end of the day, writing can be a very lonely endeavor, so having something there with you can be mentally and emotionally important – you won’t go out of your mind with isolation. For newbies, I think it’s important to try writing yourself AND with a partner. Some people are just built to have partners and others are built to slug it out alone. But it’s important to at least attempt to see what the pros and cons are before a new writer decides how they will attack the profession.
6) What is the process of selling a project from concept to sale, and what has been the most important lesson you have learned about pitching?
Each process is different. Just like no two people have broken into the business the same way, no two script sales have sold in the exact same way. But generally it’s about generating a really sellable idea and then finding the right element (actor, producer, director) for the idea that you cam up with. For example, Pam and I had this movie idea – MY FAIR LADY meets ANY GIVEN SUNDAY – about a football player who was such a jerk that he was forced to go to charm school to keep his job. XXX had just come out and we thought Vin Diesel would be the perfect person to play the part. We pitched our agents the one liner, they loved it and got us in a room with Vin’s producing partner. A week later Vin signed on as an actor and producer. Two weeks after that, we sold the idea in the room to the first studio we pitched to. But that’s just one way.
The most important things about pitching are: High concept and trailer moments. A high concept is an idea you can convey to anyone in a few sentences. Then, if a buyer can see the trailer, they can see the movie. And if they can see the movie, they can sell it to their bosses. And if they can sell it to their bosses, YOU’VE got a sale. It’s like a high-stakes game of telephone.
7) You’ve been at it for a while and have taught screenwriting for many years at the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI). What are the biggest mistakes that you see rookie writers making and what advice do you have for them?
Not being open to notes is, by far, the biggest problem. Whenever a student says, “You don’t understand what I’m trying to do here,” the only thing for THEM to understand is that’s it’s clear they are in real writing trouble and their chances of making it in this business are slim to none. In almost every case where I’ve heard those words, the answer back is either, “I do understand and I understand it’s just not working” or “I don’t understand because you wrote something totally confusing.” Being able to take a note with dignity and grace is the key to surviving and thriving in this business.
8) You are married to Lauren Gussis (Dexter). Is it challenging or rewarding being married to another writer? Do you have some tips for ways that spouses can help each other without creating stress in their relationship?
Being married to a writer is the most amazing thing in the world for me. No one understands the pressures, the highs and lows of this profession than another writer. We don’t really work together for a couple reasons – the kinds of stories we tell are a bit different and working together is a recipe for a divorce. However, we do give each other notes on just about everything. It’s so helpful to have a spouse who can help you with that second act drag or the act out in the fourth act of your pilot. The biggest tip to keep the peace with your writing spouse is to give notes with love and to take notes with humility. It’s never good to say, “Why is this good?” to your wife about her new script. And it’s never good to hear, “Your notes are so stupid, you’re not getting sex for the next twenty-seven days.”
9) You are teaching a TV writing class at the Pad. What are the essential ingredients of a great pilot?
All you need is a great, original concept combined with three-dimensional characters who have clear goals and interesting, yet focused scenes that all build to a fantastic finish that will make viewers unable to resist tuning in next week. Not that hard, right?
10) What can students expect to learn in your class?
They will learn what makes an viable idea, how to find stories that can sustain over a long haul and how to find the most unusual way into the story you’ve come up with. And perhaps most importantly, how to listen with an open heart. It is key to learn how to have an honest dialogue about ideas not only with me but with the others in class. Being rigid or holding onto your ideas with white knuckles are things that can really kill the creative process. There is usually a better solution or a better way to make your story live at a higher level if you are open to exploring. And sometimes, it takes going half-way around the world to figure out the first idea was actually the best, but it’s always worth going down those roads. If nothing else, if people can come away from my class with the idea of how important it is to collaborate, then I have done my job.
Thank you so much, Mike! That was really interesting.
We can’t wait for your So You Want To Be A TV Writer class. Sign up before it’s sold out!