Terry Rossio, Writer of “Pirates of the Caribbean” Part I: The Business of Screenwriting

Nov 27, 2017 | Interviews

In the vast world of filmmaking, screenwriters have their own stars and heroes. One name that even freshman writers beginning their first scripts know is that of Terry Rossio.

It’s hard not to run across his name when he and writing partner Ted Elliott have amassed credits with Aladdin, Sinbad, the Zorro movies, and Shrek. Rossio is also known for films such as Déjà Vu and the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong. And, of course, few writers can boast of successes like the colossal Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—which he and Elliott conjured from a roller coaster, no less.

But Rossio’s popularity among screenwriters stems, in large part, from his accessibility and a gentle willingness to help newcomers to the industry.

Late-night tutorials with aspiring writers in the Driskill Hotel bar at Austin Film Festival evolved into real-time rewrite panels overflowing room capacity. His Wordplayer.com website is teeming with candid essays, even treatises, on every topic imaginable related to the craft and the industry. And he’s an easy conversationalist if one should run across him in a bar and debate tentpoles vs. indies over a midnight shuffleboard tournament.

Recently, he’s been veering off that studio tentpole path. His short film Laboratory Conditions, directed by Jocelyn Stamat, premiered this year in Los Angeles. And he and Dr. Stamat have acquired the rights to Andrew Wakefield’s book Callous Disregard: Autism and VaccinesThe Truth Behind a Tragedy.

In Part I of this interview, Rossio shares some of his extensive knowledge of industry workings and his own methods and goals as a writer.

FD: Writers rooms are the latest experiment in developing feature films. What has your experience been like running the writers room for Godzilla vs. Kong? What pros and cons do you notice with a feature writers room compared to writing solo or with a partner?

TR: My writers room experience was fantastic. Nothing but “pros.” It’s a paying gig for writers, and those are rare these days. It’s a chance for writers to meet and share stories and techniques. The project benefits from good ideas, diverse perspectives, and the irreplaceable alchemy of discussing, speculating, and goofing around.

For the screenwriter of a franchise, the burden of doing all the heavy lifting is lessened. For the studio, they get the best ideas from various writers without having to go through the slow process of sequential writing and rewriting. As someone who was trained in animation, which is a process of layering everyone’s talent into the movie, I think it’s fantastic.

The difference between a writers room and going solo, or with a partner, is more creative minds and a faster-moving process. The really good ideas are even more obvious when the entire room goes “ahhhh.”

FD: You’re quite frank about how the industry works, in person, on panels, and especially in your Wordplayer columns. Do you ever get any pushback from colleagues?

TR: In fact, I do not, and it’s a little surprising. You would think my agent, or a lawyer, or a development executive would take me aside, issue some kind of warning or express caution. But in my entire time working in Hollywood, I haven’t received a single comment, ever, from anyone in the industry, regarding any of my columns. Which means I have successfully kept them low-profile, which is another way of saying, I don’t think anyone reads them.

I take that back. One time, Lawrence Kasdan told me, sort of bemusedly, “I had no idea there were so many theories to writing.”

FD: Even established screenwriters often do unpaid work on projects for which they don’t really expect to receive credit or compensation. Is this kind of work expected?

TR: I can think of four main categories of unpaid work.

1) All the effort one puts in to get the job. This is substantial, because you have to solve the story in order to pitch it, and you have to pitch quite a few jobs to get one.

2) There can be work done as “a friend of the court” in order to relationship-build. For example, one of the producers of the live-action Aladdin film asked me to review the screenplay, as I was one of the writers of the original animated version. My notes, thoughts and suggestions were unpaid, but that’s the kind of thing you do when the opportunity arises.

3) Of course, there are the “free” revision drafts that are common in Hollywood. This is not necessarily bad if it doesn’t get out of control. You want a chance to assimilate everyone’s notes and ideas.

4) There is work that is supposed to be paid but turns out to not be—when someone simply rips you off. Let’s say they have you write an outline under a deal memo, but then back away at the last second and stop returning calls. That happens more often than you might think.

FD: Most writers and filmmakers think of short films as a calling card to generate buzz and more work. With your history in blockbusters, what brings you to Laboratory Conditions and the short form?

TR: We produced our short film simply as a way to practice filmmaking in preparation for making a micro-budget feature.

FD: You’ve said that you wish you had known, starting out, that you should pursue directing. Is this still something you would tell screenwriters?

TR: To be precise, screenwriting can work as a career, if you write on a series. But on the feature side, for the vast majority of people, too much work is wasted, or unpaid, in order to sustain a career. You either have to be a director, or put together a team and go from produced project to produced project. Otherwise, time will pass and you’ll end up with credits on two films, one that you hate, and that’s it, your career is done.

FD: Will you try your hand at directing at some point?

TR: Yes, likely I will start directing, or at least put together a team because that will be the most logical (and, perhaps, only!) way to get something produced.

FD: What are your pitches like—are they mostly conversational? Visual aids? Sizzle reels? Acting out scenes?

TR: I am the king of visual aids. Storyboards, videos, pre-vis, development art, music, world-building, reference art, sizzle reel, tonal references … you name it. Anything that gets them looking at something other than my face is a win.

FD: As a frequent festival panelist, you’ve said that you’re never sure if you really have anything of interest to offer. Yet people flock to hear you. How did you get comfortable in front of an audience, whether doing panels or pitches?

TR: I have suffered from extreme social anxiety my entire life. I solved it by throwing an annual clothing-optional beach windmill party. There’s no way to describe it, you had to be there.

In Part II: The Craft of Screenwriting, Rossio offers his insight on honing your writing skills and maintaining artistic integrity in a business-oriented industry.

Asmara Bhattacharya

Screenwriter / Playwright / Script Reader

Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. More can be found on her website: www.dickflicks.net or follow her on Twitter @hotpinkstreak