By Dalia Martinez and Lorinda Toledo
Imagine the first movie you sell turns into a Hollywood blockbuster. That’s what happened to W. Peter Iliff. Like many dreamy-eyed scribes, Peter waited tables in Los Angeles as he worked on his screenplay, “Point Break” about bank robbers who are part of a surf gang. When he sold it to Columbia Pictures, his new career began with a bang.
In the last 25 years, he’s been hired to write or sold 50 film and TV projects for six figure fees. He’s written under contract for nearly every studio and TV network in Hollywood. Over and over he’s been hired to rewrite or doctor a script. He’s faced dozens of studio and television execs. So, Peter knows what it’s like to write scripts that sell.
This Spring, Peter is teaching two classes at Writing Pad. In Dream It, Write It, Pitch It: Screenwriting Bootcamp, he shares his tricks for writing a film that dazzles execs. He’ll help you craft a detailed pitch document, a solid outline, and write great scenes. He’ll also talk about how to raise money to make and distribute your own independent films and ensure that you select an idea that is relevant to this volatile market. In “Politicos, Jailbirds and Werewolves: Writing The Cable Pilot” he helps you craft a killer pitch, pen a show bible, and formulate a sales plan for your own TV show. Peter took some time out of his busy schedule working on his new crime drama series for Netflix to answer a few questions for us.
You’ve written many pilots and movies. Where do you get your ideas from?
Our job as Hollywood writers is to sell, sell, and keep selling. We must constantly generate new ideas. But that’s fun. My daily routine includes reading the L.A. and New York Times, various magazines, and books. I am always reading a new book to hone my craft. The key to finding ideas that sell is crafting ones that fit the business model of the buyers. Can you imagine this idea as a one sheet ad in the Calendar Section? Does it have great lead characters that big actors want to play, because without hooking stars to justify the spend, these projects will never get made. It’s important to read the Hollywood trades to stay current on what is selling. And more importantly, who is buying?
What can students expect from your class?
The #1 take away from working with me is getting an authentic lay of the land in Hollywood. How do the working pros navigate this landscape? Working writers succeed because they understand the business model. What are the pressures on that studio/network executive? How can you craft your product to give them what they need to advance their careers? The recipe for a successful writer is half talent and half used car salesmen.
What’s your favorite part of screenwriting?
Breaking the story is the hard part. Then there is the outline, and good writers spend half their time constructing this skeleton for their project. I’ve had feature film outlines that are 50 pages long. My favorite part of the process is finally getting to start writing the script. This is dessert. When I start hearing the character’s voices in my head, I’m rolling and having fun. The very best part of writing is working with talented actors who make your words and characters come alive.
And your least favorite part of screenwriting?
Getting told by the studio “that we need to go another direction.” In other words, getting re-written. Ugh. Studio meetings can be difficult. You are sitting in a room with extremely over-worked producers and executives. They probably had to read and make notes on five scripts last night. And sometimes their ideas can make your blood boil. But you have to stay calm, professional, and realize that while their idea may be lousy, they might have found something that needs fixing, and it is your job to find a better way to fix it.
What is your writing process like?
I prefer to work at home in my office, my dogs on the sofa, my 10 guitars on the walls behind me, perhaps one on my lap, Sports Center on mute, and Pandora Radio playing Foo Fighters. I got my start working on newspapers, writing in those noisy bullpens, trying to concentrate amidst total chaos. So now I cannot write in silence. I make writing fun.
Many screenwriters dream of a successful career like yours. How did you make it happen for yourself?
I had a simple mantra. “I will not be denied.” I was inspired by that great story of young Steven Spielberg who had the balls to set himself in an office at Universal – that nobody had given him. He found an empty room and just went for it. My first job was as a “runner” for the ABC series “That’s Incredible.” I was always being sent to various studios. So I would go around, find copy machines, make copies of my script, then give it to any producer I could find. I once pretended to be an agent for some small talent agency, selling my client, who was me. When an executive at Warners asked me and my client to come in together for a meeting, I was in trouble. When the executive discovered my ruse, she took pity on me because she loved the script, and helped get me signed by William Morris.
What projects are you currently working on? What’s next for you?
I think the film business is getting tougher, because studios make less films, and develop fewer scripts. How many original films were in last year’s top 10 grossing films? One. Bridesmaids. The new frontier is TV, and specifically premium cable, where viewers are binge viewing, and writers are essentially writing novels for TV. So I have sold a crime drama to Netflix, using my Point Break brand. My reps heard my idea, then hooked me up with the producer from “Entourage,” and the director of the original “Fast and the Furious.”
Since you are working on a new TV show for Netflix and have written on shows like Tales From The Crypt, what do you think makes a good TV show and what are you trying to accomplish in your new surf crime drama?
Characters, characters, and characters! We want you to be drawn in by our characters, understand their motivations, and feel what they are feeling. We want to create a fascinating world that the viewer wants to keep coming back to. The writing room is a terrific opportunity to push each other to excellence. The writer has to verbally pitch ideas, some which get shot down, while others get tossed about, and become better ideas.
Thanks, Peter! That was fascinating. You’ve really shown that tenacity and commitment to craft go a long way.
Writing Pad-ers, if you’re committed to your craft, now’s the time to put it in action. Sign up for Peter’s movie writing and cable pilot classes before they’re full!