How I Broke In: Douglas Soesbe
It’s been said that a new door opens into Hollywood every day, you just need to figure out how to be in front of the door that opens. There is no set path to success in the film industry. Writers break into Hollywood in countless different ways; contests, personal connections, query letters, networking, working at agencies… etc. Our goal is to talk to working screenwriters not only about their current projects, but what they feel was their big break that helped them become a professional screenwriter. Hopefully these conversations will help you position yourself in front of one of those doors when it opens.
Today we are talking with Douglas Soesbe, screenwriter of the upcoming film starring the late Robin Williams, Boulevard. Douglas has also written four television movies and has worked as a story analyst at Tri-Star and Universal where he has worked on such films as Les Miserables, 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Knocked Up and This is 40. Boulevard premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be released in the US on July 10th.
FD: We congratulate you on the upcoming release of your first feature film. What was it that attracted you to write the story of Boulevard?
DS: Certainly my own personal life. Being an older man and being gay, coming out late. And having grown up in a period where it was very difficult to come out in the ’60s. I’d had a lot of friends like Nolan (Robin Williams’ character) who did marry someone. It was not a dishonest move, it was just an attempt to live what they thought was a more traditional life. Often that marriage was something where they went into it with Joy (the wife in the movie) who knew the situation and maybe they hoped it might change, or that maybe they could get by as friends. So many of my friends did that. Some of the marriages lasted, some didn’t. I just thought about the trap they were living in. I never married, so the story is not auto-biographical but I certainly understand the background from which Nolan came. I wanted to write a story about a man who was trapped with that secret. He’s not living a terrible life. I didn’t want to write a story about someone who was miserable and unhappy. I think he and Joy are reasonable happy. I just think that there’s a certain passion that’s missing from their lives.
FD: Is the fact that Boulevard was able to get made a sign, not just with the Supreme Court victory recently, but a sign of how far we have come on the issue? Especially for the generation that is depicted in this story.
DS: I think so. But I also think it’s not just a movie about coming out. It’s about people who may feel they aren’t being authentic and want to live a more authentic life. I think that gives it a universal appeal beyond just that story. Whether it’s getting out of a bad marriage or leaving a bad job. But definitely, this movie is happening in a new and more liberating climate. Absolutely.
FD: I totally agree. I mentioned that I worked federal law enforcement. I had a high rank and I was really good at my job but I also was really unhappy for how much it was taking away from my family life and seeing my kids. But it’s hard to walk away from a good salary and a pension.
DS: Many years ago I was teaching high school up in Oregon. I was very content but I just knew that I needed to take a stab at [writing]. It was very difficult to leave because I was very content and people thought I was crazy to leave because teaching jobs were hard to get at that point.
FD: My catalyst was my Dad dying. I looked at the legacy he left and how when I left the government, someone was going to be in my desk the next day and I would just fade away. That really made me focus on making the change. Now, less money but a heck of a lot more enjoyment in life.
DS: It’s funny you say that, Dave, because the catalyst for me was the death of my mother. She died about 12 years ago and it completely changed my life. I even indicate that with Nolan as you’ll remember the scene in the motel where he mentions that his mother died six months earlier and he was holding her hand as she passed. As a writer, one thing you always have to think about when you write a story is, “Why is this happening now? Why is this character going through this enormous catharsis now?” I think that the implication is that this is from the death of his mother and us also seeing that his father is in the hospital and moving away too. Life is forcing him into a transition that he can’t control and then this happens.
FD: What was it like for you to receive a call saying, “Robin Williams wants to do Boulevard?”
DS: My God, It was the biggest day. I will never forget it. I was here at work and one of the producers of the film worked at Universal in casting and knew his agent. He got the script to him. I was walking by his office and he was on the phone. He gave me a signal to stop and hung up the phone. Then he told me that Robin loved the script. I will never forget that feeling in my life. It was like someone you love saying, “Yes, I’ll marry you.” I was ecstatic. Over a year went by until we finally had him signed, but it was just a thrill.
You’ve probably also read that Robin was the nicest person in the world and he really was. I went to the set for three days while they were filming in Nashville and I was so nervous when I met him. Then he comes up to me and he was deferring to me. I couldn’t believe it. He was incredibly sweet and easy to work with. It was a grueling schedule. We shot it in a month. It was all shot at night. He was up late every night and he never complained. He was also in every single scene. It was a difficult shoot but there was never a diva moment. He was always there to film the other side of everybody’s scene. He was just a wonderful person.
FD: You can tell by his performance that he really responded to the material and the character and immersed himself in the role. That has to be especially gratifying to you, as the writer, that he would respond to it so well.
DS: Absolutely. Totally. I think what appealed to Robin, I don’t totally know for sure, but what I think appealed to him is a character who is a man who can’t quite exactly find who he is in the world. I mean, we all go through a version of that in our lives. Are we living the life we should be living?
FD: You’ve written several TV movies, but this is your first feature film. Did you have a “nervous vs. excited” scale when sat down in the theater for the first time with an audience?
DS: Absolutely. The first time I saw it was at Tribeca. There was like 2,000 people there as well as a few celebrities. I was so nervous because I had never seen the completed film. I had seen an early version that was pretty close to the final, but not the whole thing. I hadn’t seen the opening credits. There was a scene with Robin that was inserted later that we wanted back in. This was the first time I was seeing it all.
One thing that happens is that eventually you will have seen the film so many times that you know it by heart. You forget that the audience is seeing it for the first time. When I’m watching the movie, I love how it has a slow, measured build to that final crisis. But, I’ve seen the movie about 40 times now so I forget that they’re seeing it for the first time. I’ve seen it so much that I don’t have anything left to discover but they’re all discovering it for the first time so I can share that with the audience. There are certain markers along the way where I can tell if they’re engaged and that always makes me feel better.
FD: It sounds like the audiences have had a pretty intense response in the Q&A sessions. What has that experience been like for you?
DS: It’s been great. We’ve been in several festivals now and what’s really gratifying is when men my age, and Nolan’s age, want to come up to me. They’ll actually form a line and one by one tell me, “Oh my God, you told my story. I can’t believe it. Were you there?” What a great thing to hear. I think the movie is very truthful and it touches people because it’s truthful. I know that’s one of the things that appealed to Robin is that it’s just an honest, honest movie.
FD: What are you working on next? I saw something that said you might be working with Scorsese on a project, who you said is someone you have always really admired.
DS: I actually have two careers. One of them is my writing and the other is that I work here in the story department at Universal as a story analyst. That is a project I am working on in that aspect. My writing career with Boulevard and the other movies that you mentioned are my own on the side. The studio is very good about that. As long as I show them what I write first, then I am free to sell it elsewhere.
FD: Like a first look type of situation?
DS: Exactly. It hasn’t really been an issue since the other movies were cables movies and Boulevard was too small for them. I actually wrote it 10 years ago and there were times there was interest, but it’s obviously a movie that is just too small for Universal, even though they liked it. In terms of my own work, yes. My manager does have a script out right now. It’s different from Boulevard in that it probably has more plot to it. It’s more of a thriller with a character overlay.
FD: That actually leads to my next question. You work at Universal and you’ve also worked at Tri-Star in the same capacity. Has working in the studio system affected your own writing style?
DS: Absolutely. The wonderful thing about my job is that you’re forced to have to show up every working day and deal with dramatic structure and what works and what doesn’t work in scripts. That constant, day to day struggle with the writer’s struggle that you get to see from the other side. Plus, the business mechanics of understanding selling a script – you see what sells and what doesn’t sell. Certain genres that sell to certain studios and the commerciality vs the artistic aspect. It all is very helpful.
FD: You have mentioned that one of the downsides of your job is having to pass on scripts you really loved because they just weren’t commercial enough and sending forward scripts you didn’t like because you knew they were going to make money. How much should a new writer focus on the business aspect versus just making sure they’re showing talent and telling the best story they possibly can?
DS: I think the latter. That’s a tricky question and I never want to sound cynical when I answer that question because I don’t want to be. The reality of the business is that it is a business. They want to open as large as possible and reach as many people as possible. However, you also want to write honestly and you want to write good stuff that has character in it and has good dialogue. You don’t want to set out to write something just because you think it will be commercial. You want to write a great script that has commercial potential. But it is tricky because sometimes you write something that ends up being sort of both. It’s a tough line to toe.
FD: How many scripts do you estimate that you read in a week for your job?
DS: There are actually two things that I do. I do notes on current drafts and that involves a couple days because you’re analyzing the previous draft versus the new draft, you’re writing synopses and comparisons between the two drafts. That can take a couple days. If that was all you did, it’s not so much about the number of scripts but the amount of work in analyzing that specific script. In terms of scripts that come in, it’s two a day including the write up. If that was all you did, it would be 10 a week, but it never happens that way.
FD: In terms of shining a light on the process for writers, how long do they have to grab your attention? Do you set them aside if they don’t or do you read them through no matter what?
DS: We have to read all the way through because we have to synopsize the script front to back. Whether the script works or not, I have to cover the whole content. Again, this is a tricky question because very often you’ll read a script that isn’t that particularly well-written but there’s a good idea in it. You know that if you buy the script, you can have the writer work on it or you can hire another writer to get that idea into a workable script. In that case, the quality of the writing is not as important as the idea and the cause-and-effect structure of the story.
However, if you’re looking at just the quality of the writing, I can tell after the first page. I think a good piece of advice to a writer is that no matter how much a studio says no, you’re always going to be read first by a reader. If that first page is not eye-friendly, you are immediately going to prejudice that reader. That first page has to be just beautiful to the eye.
FD: No 20-line block of text?
DS: Exactly. No more than 4 lines of text. You can break it up. Spare the dialogue. A good clean page. Really look for typos. Look for formats that are incorrect. Final Draft has been just wonderful for that. I remember the old days with my typewriter and having to set different tabs for the dialogue and the character names … it took forever.
Making it as smooth and as comfortable a read as possible is really important from a purely practical point of view.
FD: It’s time to discuss an age-old debate. From your point of view as an analyst, have you ever had to pass on a script you absolutely loved because the Inciting Incident was not on page 10?
DS: (Laughs) No. It’s funny, you’re absolutely right that it’s an age-old thing. When I start to write a script, I get very OCD about all of that stuff. I structure it and I work it out, but then I always abandon it as I go. It’s nice to have that safety net under you to keep you going. You know this as a writer, if you don’t have much worked out when you start, you’re always going to run into a wall and end up abandoning the project for another one. If the Inciting Incident comes on page 5, 6, 7, 10, 14, 20… if the story works it doesn’t really matter.
I suppose the Inciting Incident in Boulevard is when he almost runs over the kid in the street and that comes fairly late. I don’t know exactly, but there is a bit that happens before that. One could also argue that the phone call from the hospital is also the Inciting Incident. It’s always really interesting to try and argue just what the Inciting Incident really is.
Actually, I just looked it up. The scene where he almost hits the kid is on page 12. Not bad. But there again, to answer your question, that was not intended it just turned out that way.
FD: As we’ve been talking to writers, it has been fascinating just to be able to show how much work it has taken for them to get to where they are. Such as how you mentioned you first wrote Boulevard 10 years ago. Do you have advice for writers on how to have realistic expectations on what it takes to break in?
DS: Again, it depends on the genre. When I wrote Boulevard, I don’t think I really expected it would ever be produced. I knew it was small. I knew the subject matter was controversial. I kind of wrote it for myself. Which goes back to the earlier question of whether you write to be commercial or write from your heart. We tried to set it up a few times but, as you know, it’s all about financing. We would find people who loved the script but they didn’t have financing. We almost had it set it up two or three times, but it always fell through. Then Camellia came along and had the funding and bought it. Then, once Robin was involved it really took off. That, of course, was the key. We had the funding, we had the major star, and it all happened quickly after that. By quickly, I mean it took eight years to get to the part where it happened fast.
FD: It’s well known that, as writers, we can be our own worst critic. Especially halfway through that first draft. Any tips on how to battle that inner critic?
DS: It goes back to what I was saying about seeing the movie with the audience. I think part of that critic comes from the fact that there gets to be a point that you’re tired of it. You’ve just been around it too much. You have to remember that your reader is going to be seeing this for the first time. I’ve had things that I’ve rewritten so many times that you just get sick of it. You lose sight of the fact that when someone else reads it, it will be with a fresh set of eyes. I think it’s important to remember that.
Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet
Who better to write a column about breaking in than two screenwriters trying to break in? Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet are friends who have somehow managed to survive being writing partners. They are winners of the Randall Wallace Round of the Industry Insider Contest and placed in the Top 10 of the 2014 Final Draft Big Break℠ Contest in the horror genre. Their short film, Happy Birthday, Dad, is currently playing on the festival circuit. For more information on the film, you can visit its website at www.hbdfilm.com. Their hope is to someday be able to turn this column over a new writer who can interview them about how they broke in. You can follow them on Twitter at @damerlino and @dustinsweet