Dude Where’s Your Pilot
An Interview With Phil Stark
By Josh Krilov
Is it your dream to spend your days sipping a latte while crafting jokes for TV’s funniest shows with some of the biggest stars in the biz on the studio lot?
Phil Stark has been a working scribe for 20 years, contributing to some of the industry’s top shows. He’s written for “South Park”, been the Co-Executive Producer for “That 70s Show”, and wrote the screenplay for “Dude Where’s My Car?” We sat down with him to ask him about how he did it, his creative process, and advice for beginning writers.
1) Tell us about your background, how you became a writer, and how you broke into the industry.
I’m from Texas, and moved here after college to try to become a screenwriter. I wrote features for a few years, then started writing TV comedy at night while working at cafes during the day.
My big break was getting a job as a production assistant on “South Park” before it premiered. A friend of mine was Matt and Trey’s assistant, and I came on board as a PA but they knew I was an aspiring writer. One day I was driving Trey somewhere and he was talking about how he was so busy and hadn’t finished a script he was writing, I offered to finish it, and he gave me the chance. They liked my work, and gave me another script to write, and soon I had a produced credit that helped me get my first agent.
2) What’s your biggest tip for aspiring writers wanting to write stories that stand the test of time?
Start with solid characters. Real characters. Characters who do things because those things are what that character would do, not what the writer needs them to do to service the plot. Then add jokes that are hilarious but more importantly that service the story and the emotions involved, not just funny for the joke’s sake. Make sure your story has a heart. If the audience cares about the arc your characters go through emotionally, they’ll buy into all the silly stuff that’s the icing on the cake of your story. In “Dude”, the dudes had this emotionally familiar story about trying to be good boyfriends. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s an arc that we can empathize with, that makes them good guys, that makes you root for them. If the movie didn’t have any emotional arc and it was just Dude / Sweet tattoo scenes and random dogs smoking weed out of pipes… Well, it would still be pretty awesome. But having a story with heart and clear emotional arc will buy you a lot of silly gags.
3) “Dude Where’s My Car” starts with a simple escalating premise. How did this movie evolve?
“Dude” started as bunch of sketches about these two stoner dudes. The comedy and characters came out of those set pieces. Then it became about finding a narrative to put those pieces into. Then a good friend of mine told me a story about how he got so wasted one night he couldn’t find his car the next day. From there it all came together pretty quickly.
4) How do you find inspiration for your comedy writing?
I don’t ever feel like I’m running dry, comedy wise. The problem for me is finding ideas and characters to put into situations to use that comedy. If the comedy doesn’t come, then I know the characters or situations just aren’t right. Finding inspiration in concepts is something ethereal, it’s all around you.
An idea can be sparked by reading a newspaper article, in something that happened to you in real life, or even from seeing a tweet. I saw a tweet recently that was about Liam Neeson retiring from action movies. Well, there’s a movie right there! Liam Neeson tries to retire from action movies, but when on vacation he gets pulled into a real life one. Would be sort of meta, but still an interesting premise.
Sometimes ideas come not from story possibilities but from characters and relationships. You might have a family member or friend who has a relationship with someone, maybe you, that feels dramatic and compelling, and you might take note of what makes it feel that way and find a way to apply that to a premise you’re developing. Of course, if you do find inspiration in any way that leads to develop a story idea, you’ll know if it’s valid or not by how excited you get about it as you work on it. Sometimes ideas develop quickly with lots of potential into a script idea for you to write right away. Other times you get stuck, run out of steam, and then file it away in an idea folder that you can come back and revisit at a later date. Ideas are like plants, you have to water them, and they can’t be rushed!
5) What’s the #1 rookie writer mistake?
Ignoring the questions about your script that are hard to answer but easy to gloss over. What does your main character want? What is standing in his way? What is his plot driven story and what is his internal arc? How does he change by the end from how he was at the start? If you can’t answer these questions clearly it will be reflected in the script.
6) What’s your advice to aspiring TV writers for breaking into the biz & having a healthy career?
Keep writing. One of those scripts will be the one that someone reads and decides to hire you. Once you are working, you have to keep producing new material! It may surprise you how much you have to be your own agent. The agent’s job is to solicit work for you, but you always have to be hustling. This means networking! Which I used to think was a dirty word, but now I revel in it. I used to think it was tacky to talk to people about work things if i wasn’t really friends with them, I was worried they’d think I was using them or imposing on them. Now I just own it!
7) Take us through the process of selling a project.
Development is interesting. Two ways to go about it: develop your own material, or develop in an area that a producer already wants to develop. You should be prepared to go into a meeting with your own ideas to pitch, your passion projects, projects that mean a lot to you personally. But it’s also important to find out what producers want to develop, what areas they are interested in, and find something in those areas that you can apply your own personal experience to. When people say they want to hear your “take” on something, it means they like your style or manner or the way you’ve written something original, and want to see if you can bring that feeling to the projects they already want to do.
Pitching is funny. There’s the elevator pitch, and then the sit down on a couch pitch. One is just an area to explore, a situation, a character, a quick take. The other is about telling more of the story. But to tell more of the story, I need to know the whole story. So I typically do a lot of work to basically break the pilot story before I can pitch it. Then once I’m pitching it it’s about pulling back and not giving out all the information. Like, I might need to know exactly how a set of beats work to get a character to a certain point, but in the pitch, for brevity’s sake, I might say “and then there’s a set of events like x y and z that get our character to this place”. And if the producer asks how that would work, I’m ready to explain in more detail. You’re pitch shouldn’t devolve into a description of the plot (and then this happens, and then this happens, and then, and then). But you should be able to clearly state the emotional arc of your characters, this is more important than the plot.
8) What do you find to be the most valuable thing you’ve learned about re-writing?
Lose the ego. Step back and think about what’s best for the script. It can be hard getting notes that reflect negatively on something you have worked so hard on and are personally invested it. Some notes can feel like attacks on you. But it’s important to understand and master those feelings. The worst thing you can do is get defensive about a note on your script. Rise above that and see the note objectively. When you get into the production process, the notes can go from trying to make the script better, to trying to satisfy the many cooks that are now in the kitchen. You might have to change a scene that you think works as is in order to satisfy a producer, executive, director, or actor. It’s hard to figure out when it’s worth fighting for and when it’s not. That’s where you really have to leave your ego at the door. I’ve had experiences where I didn’t like a note, but instead of kicking and screaming about it, which will only make the people you’re working with think you’re difficult, I ran with it and tried to find a spark in the new scene, and then ended up with something I was really pleased with, and the producers were really pleased too. So realize that it’s a collaborative effort.
10) What was your biggest struggle early on in your career?
Rewriting! It’s so hard to look at a script you put so much work into, and realize that the way to make it better is to tear it apart and put it back together. But usually it’s the undeniable truth. It’s very easy to say to yourself “it’s good enough”. And sometimes it is. But you will know if your heart if it can truly be better, and that’s when you have to put in the work. I’ve read scripts and met beginning writers where this is very clear, and if the writer isn’t willing to do the work he already knows has to be done, that’s not someone I would hire. Remember: When you think you’re done, you’ve only just begun!
11) How do you create comedic opportunities?
Comedy opportunity is coming up with a premise that lends itself to conflict. For instance, the Odd Couple. Neat freak vs messy guy. Manners vs slob. Every single thing these two encounter has two very clear POVs that are in conflict with each other. If you have an idea where your main characters don’t have conflict, where does the funny come from? If they’re on the same team then the conflict can come from their interactions with others, but why not bake that conflict into the premise of your script? If you’ve got a type A lead, put them in a situation where they have to deal with a type B person.
If they’re responsible when it comes to money, have them hired by a boss who has no regard for a budget. If they just broke up with their girlfriend, have them hired for a new job they really want by the girlfriend’s mother. If they like the life they have now, put them in a situation where they have to deal with another character whose job is to change their situation. If the person is a racist, give them a minority new boss. People arguing = funny. People agreeing = not so funny. Conflict = comedy.
12) What can students expect to learn in your class?
Constructing a solid plot by developing your idea, defining your characters, establishing clear goals, and, creating dynamics that will lead to opportunities for comedy. Also, learning how to give and receive constructive notes.
Thanks so much, Phil! We can’t wait for your class.