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“Don’t be precious,” and More Advice from Screenwriter Adam G. Simon

From Hollywood to Pakistan, screenwriters from around the globe tuned in to our Instagram Story to ask screenwriter Adam G. Simon questions about how to get their screenwriting careers off the ground.

“I love contributing because no one really helped me,” he told the writing community. “I want more people to succeed. I want more people in. I want more people creating ideas. Before I broke in, I had negative 150 dollars in my bank account and a bag of scripts. It put me in a position where I had to do or die. It would have been nice to get some advice.”

And so, advice he gave! Simon wrote ‘Man Down’ starring Shia LaBeouf, just finished ‘Point Blank’ for a July 2019 Netflix launch, and recently completed co-writing a remake of ‘The Raid’ with Joe Carnahan. His middle name should be“Hustle,” and he had plenty of advice to give on the topic of breaking into Hollywood. Here are some of his responses from our live Q&A.

I have a pilot copyrighted. How do I find agents who accept first timers? 

“When I wrote ‘Man Down’ I was homeless. I didn't have an agent. I didn't have a manager. I was just writing. So I would wake up in the morning, and I would research online different people in acquisitions departments in studios. And I would cold call the studios, and set up general meetings for me to come in and sit down with them. And that's how I got Man Down out there. So it'd be "Hi, how are you doing, this is Todd Ferguson – a play on the SNL character Turd Ferguson (laughing). I represent Adam Simon, a screenwriter who's written several specs. We'd like to set up a general meeting for him to come in and meet with you and discuss his ideas and his projects." And ultimately, I would find a bunch of people who said "yes." And there were hundreds of no's. But I got a handful of yes's and one of those happened to be Mpower Pictures, and that's how ‘Man Down’ came to be.”

Do I need an agent? It seems like everything starts there. 

“It doesn't start with an agent. It really doesn't. I got seven projects without an agent and without a manager. That was all off my own hustle, going out and talking to people, getting in people's faces, setting up meetings on my own. The thing you need is a great story. If you build it, they will come … Don't get locked into the fact that I need an agent, I need a manager. You don't. You need good work. Do good work, be good, be seen. Get your work out there by any means possible. You've got to have a good product, but really, 90 percent of this business is hustle. Find a way that isn't the way that people are constantly telling you. There really is no one way. Everyone that I know who has broken into the business, they're similar but also very different stories.”

Where do you get your screenplay ideas? How do you keep it interesting, so you don't get sick of your own story while you're working on it forever?

"It always starts with a simple concept, a simple idea, and a universal truth. I hear from people who always have great ideas. I heard from this one guy who had an idea for zombies fighting robots … But what's it about? What's at the heart of a story? For example, ‘Man Down’ is about a man trying to put his family back together again. ‘John Wick’ is the story of a man avenging the murder of his dog. So, I always go back to that one point to keep myself from getting bored and also to stay on track. Every scene, every line, every moment in your script is either getting you closer to or farther away from your main character's objective. And when you do that, that creates tension. And every single moment for me, I try to cold stone my moments in scripts with tension. I never want to just fill pages. And what do I do to keep it interesting? Well, I create music playlists, look books, artwork. I'll go out and meet with people. See movies in a similar genre. Or create music that would exist in that world to stimulate that creative side of my brain." 

How many scripts do I need to have at the ready?  

“I had 13 scripts when I started representing myself. I worked for James Cameron while he was doing post-production on Avatar. It was the most rewarding time in my life. And it was during that time that I was constantly writing so I had stacks of different genres, different ideas, different stories that I'd like to tell. And I knew, going into studios, what types of stories people were looking for ahead of time. Know your audience." 

On competition …

“Let me say this. You've got to know how much competition is out there. I can't stress this enough. This is very, very important. I participated as a judge in a very popular online contest and submission site for screenplays. Within the first 24 hours, we received over 10,000 submissions. The market is saturated. Every studio has their own in-house writers, then you have the nepotism factor, you have to get past them. Then the in-house people. Then you have to get past creatives. Then you have to get past people with agents who are leveraging personal relationships. So, there is no right way, there's just your way. There's an old quote I love [by Calvin Coolidge], and I'm getting it tattooed on me, and it says: 

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” 

Or like Bruce Lee says, "be water." Find your own way and people will respect that.” 

What do you think of volunteering at film festivals?  

“Film festivals are great, but again, all networking needs to be backed up by something … There's a lot of people who say hustle, but they've got nothing. They're just perpetual networkers. They're going to seminars, meet and greets, festivals, and paying for master classes. But they have nothing to give. At the end of the day you have to be good, and you have to have a product to deliver as a writer. If you want to be a writer, write every single day.”

How do I turn an idea into a script?

“It all starts with the journey. If you have a great idea just stewing in your head but you don't know where to go with it, start asking the question why. Who? How? What if this happened? If you start asking yourself those questions, then the story starts to build itself.”

Do you recommend screenwriters try their hand at other film jobs to get better at screenwriting?

“Absolutely. My acting informs my writing. My acting and writing informs my directing. And by the way, it just helps you to get a better sense of people. Meet cinematographers, stunt people, sound technicians, grips, composers. Filmmaking is collaborative. Your script is an evolving creature. The script you wrote in your madness … is not going to be the same screenplay when you finish production.”

How do I understand formatting better?

“Read scripts.”

Thoughts on collaborative writing? 

“I love collaborative writing. I co-wrote ‘The Raid’ with Joe Carnahan. It's beautiful because it's not about ego, we're just trying to create the best story. I've had wonderful experiences co-writing, and particularly when that writer is not a "yes man," when that writer has a very distinct point of view. You want to find people who have opinions and points of view.”

Do scripts need to be registered? 

“Register your scripts. Have agreements in place. If someone says they have an idea they want you to write, say "then we need an agreement." And always write correspondence and agreements like they're going to be read in court.”

Does a screenwriter need to live in Hollywood?  

“No, but the best ones are (laughing). No, but seriously. Atlanta, Detroit, New York, there are plenty of people that don't live in LA. We live in a digital age, so you can do that. But I will tell you that it's made it a lot easier. People like to meet in person. But before you do move to LA to be a screenwriter, get good at writing first.”

Is it ok to work for free to get experience?

“I did a lot of free work, but the free work I did years ago was giving notes and reading scripts. Meet other screenwriters and collaborate with them to get better. Understand the field that you're talking about. But when you're being paid for something, there's a level of respect. Know your worth.”

What's the biggest mistake you've made while coming up in Hollywood and how can we learn from it? 

“Do not be precious. Be collaborative. Be easy to work with. Be open. Instead of being like "I'm a mad genius." If you're going to be a writer, know your battles. What is on the page hardly ever is what comes out in the editing room. On ‘Point Blank’, when the movie went to shoot in Cincinnati, they didn't have the locations we needed. So we had a problem. We had to change the locations, but they were integral to the story. So as a writer I could have said "no, this is the story," but I didn't because you want to be the easiest to work with. What DO we have? How do we make it work? It's NEVER going to be what's in your head.”

Do you think it's easier to write original content or adaptations?

“I have found that adapting other source material is more difficult for me. Take ‘The Raid’ for example. Why touch it? It has a cult following. And the answer to that question was that there was something really, really cool that was missed in the original. So, finding that thing that is powerfully or universally true, that's the way to go.”

What are your daily routines when you are in writing mode? 

"Lots of coffee. Intermittent fasting. I'm actually in better shape when I'm writing. I've found that the energy is helpful. Eat from 9-5, coffee all day, lots of running and dictating. While I'm writing I don't listen to anything that has lyrics, so I'll listen to instrumental music - house, trance, jazz, country, just depends on the pace of the piece."

We are so thankful for screenwriters who help other screenwriters! Thank you, Adam, for answering our questions. Now, let’s hustle. 

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