I love words. Words on paper, words coming out of the mouths of characters on the small screen, the big screen, the stage. The only thing better than reading or hearing them is writing them.
When I was growing up and the world didn’t seem too kind, books were my refuge. The library seemed more of a magic kingdom than Disneyland could ever be.
Movies were added to the mix early, too. On Saturday mornings when I was five or six my brother and I would head off to the double feature, usually a Roy Rogers cowboy film.
Only later did I figure out why our parents, so strapped for money at the time, splurged on this–it gave them the only private time they had each week in our one-room apartment.
Anyway, I loved Roy and Trigger and figured that by the time I grew up there’d be room for a new King of the Cowboys and I’d be right for the role.
This plan changed when I was about ten and got on a horse for the first time. Probably just as well, I think the royal cowboy line died out with Roy.
Next I wanted to be Perry Mason because I thought it would be cool to do those summing-up speeches where you get someone in the courtroom audience to jump up and confess that they, not your client, did it. Words again. But then I found out that real lawyers don’t actually get to do that much.
After that I wanted to be a radio announcer. My hero was Jean Shepherd, who filled a whole half hour every night just talking. He also wrote a funny story about his childhood every year for Playboy magazine. I must have been the only kid who smuggled in copies of Playboy so he could read the Jean Shepherd story. Shep could turn a trip into the post office into a great yarn. He was broadcasting from New York but it was replayed on KFRC in San Francisco, near where we lived. By this time we were in a house where I had my own room, so I could keep my transistor radio turned low under the covers and listen at 11pm, while my parents thought I was sound asleep.
Another radio hero was Al “Jazzbeaux” Collins, broadcasting from (he said) the underground Purple Grotto for KSFO. I wrote some jokes for him and he invited me to his house to hang out with him and his wife. Al was the last of the beatniks: goatee, beret, and he drove a Porsche covered in flocked velvet.
Another disc jockey on KSFO, Dave Niles, also used the jokes I sent him. Looking back, I’m grateful for their support of an overly tall, shy, geeky young man. Shep and Al are no longer with us; I haven’t been able to find out whether Dave is still alive but I’m sending all three of them a psychic thank you as I write this.
I decided that I wanted to follow in Shep’s and Al’s and Dave’s footsteps and when I went to Stanford I became program director of the station there, KZSU, and awarded myself a few time slots. “The Frog Leg Show” was a tribute to Al, the mascot being a beret-wearing frog. I also hosted a phone-in show that nobody phoned, and a live broadcast from The Poppycock, a local music club. During the breaks I interviewed the bands, who invariably were drunk or stoned or both. This made for some long pauses in the interviews.
I had a great time but in my excursions into the real world I found out that there’s only one Jean Shepherd and people like Al and Dave were being increasingly hemmed in regarding what they could say and what music they could play. When Dave, who had moved over to KNBR, told me that he’d been reduced to having to read jokes from a Rolodex given to him by the station management, I realized radio wasn’t the creative outlet I was looking for. So when I had the choice between a summer job doing radio in Fresno and doing a Public Relations job for American Airlines in Tulsa, I chose the latter. The average summer temperature in both places is about 120 degrees, but American Airlines promised to let me fly home free every other weekend or so.
During my undergrad and post-grad years I had to work to pay some of the bills so I started writing educational materials for The American Institutes for Research. They got lots of federal grants to conduct research. When the government liked the findings, they’d publish them. When they didn’t, they’d bury them. It was my first introduction to how government works. Then I moved over to Learning Achievement Corporation where my boss reminded me of Max Bialystock from “The Producers.” Saying any more might result in legal action. I returned to A.I.R. for one more year but by this time had hatched a plan: I would storm Hollywood where surely they would welcome with open arms a talented young writer.
Oops. Turns out about a thousand talented young writers arrive per day. They are welcomed with open arms by restaurants looking for new waiters and waitresses, not by the TV or movie business.
I didn’t have a lot of money so I opted for a studio apartment. I discovered a few days later that my neighbor was a hooker. She didn’t bring clients back, but she left her TV on full blast when she went out to work around 3am until she got back around 7am. Not a bad workload, come to think of it. I asked her nicely to please turn the TV off when she left for the night. She told me less nicely to go screw myself (her wording may have been different) and implied that if I bothered her again the large gentleman who took care of her business affairs and had a bulge under his jacket might come and reason with me. I took it for as long as I could. Then one night I waited until she came back from work and turned off her TV and presumably snuggled into her bed. I put my stereo speakers up against our common wall and turned up the volume as loud as it went. Before that, I’d moved the dresser so it blocked my door, of course. I left the stereo on for about an hour. Miraculously, it worked and I was not shot or mangled by her business manager.
I was living off the money I’d saved but eventually got work writing some material for Disney’s educational division. The weirdest one was finding clips of Scrooge McDuck to be integrated into a Donald Duck anniversary DVD. The idea was that Uncle Scrooge would provide a narration around a bunch of clips of Donald cartoons. I had to find clips and then write new dialogue that would match the movement of his beak. Fortunately beaks are easier to match than mouths.
I was pretty isolated there and daydreamed about being able to talk to some of the successful writers, producers, network people and agents to find out how things really work, what they look for in a script, and how to pitch a project effectively. I realized they didn’t talk to newcomers dropping in off the street, but who would they talk to? A journalist! I’d written some articles for the San Francisco Chronicle and various magazines, but didn’t want to go to the trouble of trying to get a job with a publication or to have to pitch an article for each interview I wanted to do. So I decided to create my own publication and hire myself.
The publication was called “The Hollywood Scriptletter” and it was a modest affair. I typed it on a state-of-the-art Selectric typewriter and created the headlines with Pres-type lettering (I realize that for many readers these terms mean nothing).
My first interview was with Danny Simon, Neil Simon’s brother and a successful TV writer in his own right. I was attending his class on sitcom writing and I think he was happy that for once someone wanted to talk to him instead of his more famous younger brother. The second interview was with Gary Smith, a partner in the top production company Smith-Hemion, who had been a guest lecturer in Danny’s course.
I sent copies to the Los Angeles Times but didn’t expect them to take any notice. Suddenly one day my phone started ringing off the hook with people saying they’d read the L.A. Times article about my newsletter and how could they subscribe? Sure enough, the Calendar section featured a story about the newsletter and included my phone number. I had to run out to Radio Shack and buy an answer machine.
Once I was a journalist who was trying to help other aspiring writers, people were generous with their time. I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Cannell, then the most prolific TV producer in Hollywood (“Rockford Files,” “A-Team” and many more), screenwriter Alvin Sargent (“Julia,” “Ordinary People,” and–lately–”Spiderman 2″), Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”) and many more.
During this time I was also cranking out spec scripts and learning as much as possible about the business. Eventually I got an agent and my first assignment: a script for a sitcom called “Too Close for Comfort,” that starred Ted Knight (best known as newsman Ted Baxter on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show). It was run by a producer who had a temper. I heard that he threw one of my scripts against the wall and I thought that was the end of my budding career. Then one of the staff writers said, “Don’t worry, he throws EVERYBODY’S scripts against the wall.”
When I was working steadily, I sold the Hollywood Scriptletter (renamed The Hollywood Scriptwriter) to a friend who eventually sold it to another friend. It has since passed through several hands but is still around–now only online, I believe.
Over the course of the next eight years I wrote for a lot of sitcoms, some that are still fondly remembered, like “Family Ties” and “Benson,” some justifiably forgotten. I also was able to write some TV movies, including two starring the Olsen Twins back when they were merely millionaires instead of billionaires.
I also did quite a bit of script doctoring work, the first job being the eleventh (!) and final rewrite of “Mannequin.” Another was a TV movie starring Walter Matthau, who turned out to be just as hangdog in real life as in the movies. It was directed by his son, Charlie, who was kind of a dehydrated version of his father.
During that time I had a novel experience: making money. It allowed me to buy a nice, if rustic, house in Laurel Canyon, and a new car, and all kinds of Yuppie toys (remember Yuppies?).
All that disappeared one night while I was away.
I was in London for the rehearsals of a play I’d written that was opening in a small theater. I’d just arrived when my friend Rose phoned and it sounded like she was laughing. She said, “Your house just burned down!” I said that wasn’t a very good joke, then I realized she was actually crying. Laurel Canyon being a green area, the firefighters’ first priority was to stop the blaze from spreading. Meanwhile the house burned down to the ground. It was November and rainy so when I returned all that was left was a large pile of horrible-smelling ashes.
On the flight home I developed a blood clot in my leg and ended up in the hospital. My crusty old doctor said, “This could kill you. Probably won’t, but could.” That kind of sentence concentrates the mind, and I realized I had also been burning out metaphorically and it was time for a change. We’ll fast forward past the battles with the insurance company, the trudge through the ashes to try (and fail) to find any personal items like the watch my father hand given me that had belonged to his father, and a few other low points. It took another 18 months or so, but then I moved to London. I’d fallen in love with the place while spending six months at Stanford-in-Britain, one of their several overseas campuses, and decided to see whether I could make a living in a city where people walk instead of drive and where there were topics of conversation other than The Business.
That was 20 years ago. For a while I still wrote for US TV, mostly TV movies and some syndicated series, but I also found a warm welcome in Germany. Their TV scene was starting to take off and they were looking for experienced writers to help them create and write for original series. They were receptive to a writer with American experience. (In Britain the attitude was more, “We don’t need any American writers coming over there to write for us, thank you.”) I created or co-created several series for Germany, wrote a batch of TV movies and for three years was a consultant to Columbia Tri-Star (now Sony). I wrote in English but thanks to having had German parents I was able to speak German and read the translations of my scripts.
I had a feature film produced, too–the script had been optioned by Robin Williams, Michael Keaton, Leonard Goldberg and several others over the course of 13 years before it was finally made starring Kelsey Grammer and Amanda Donahoe and directed by Vadim Jean. I am in the final minutes of the movie as a disgruntled sitcom writer, the sum total of my acting career. So far. You never know. There’s a story behind why the film didn’t get the distribution it had originally been lined up for, but I can only tell that to you over a beer. Mr Grammer has lawyers.
During that time I also wrote some more plays, including one called “Killing Mother.” Very therapeutic.
I’m still writing, most recently a batch of non-fiction books including “Creativity Now!”, “Focus: Use the power of targeted thinking to get more done,” and “Your Writing Coach.” All are available from Amazon or other online and offline retailers. I’ve also written a novel that is trudging its way around the publishing houses looking for someone to clutch it to their breast in appreciation. Or at least to publish it. Still writing scripts, too–at the moment a Hitchcock-style thriller TV movie that will be a German/French coproduction.
On a personal level, for a dozen years I’ve been in a great relationship that has banished the darker clouds that used to follow me around in my younger days, and am still in love with London although now planning to escape the English winters every year.
Since my LA days I’ve been teaching writing and creativity courses, including at the University of Southern California and many film schools as well as private workshops and events like the London Screenwriting Festival. I’m also putting a lot of materials online, both free and for sale and I offer the Writing Breakthrough Strategy Program, an online mentoring program that helps writers to set and achieve their writing goals (see www.JurgenWolff.com for details).
If there is a philosophy of scriptwriting that has come out of the strange mix of experiences I have related to you, it is that the story is king. It must not be enslaved by formulas and templates. The story should determine structure, not the other way around. It’s kind of a contrarian view at the moment, but I’m sticking by it.
The other thing I want to share with you, on my web sites and in my materials, are the right-brain methods that I have discovered and developed that make writing more intuitive, less of a struggle. I don’t believe that writing has to cause blood to pop out of your forehead. Writing can be as enjoyable as reading.
What a happy thought to end on.
www.jurgenwolff.com – includes information about the online mentoring program, The Breakthrough Strategy Program and the free bonuses for the “Creativity Now” book, as well as the Creativity Rocket podcast.
www.TimeToWrite.blogs.com – my writing blog. There’s a new post every day, about writing methods, motivation, and anything and everything to do with writing
www.TimeToWrite.com – more free stuff, including your choice of “getting started” guides for different genres. All you have to do is select which one you want and sign up on the page that comes up.
www.ScreenWritingSuccess.com – you’re on it! There’s a new post every day and periodic new podcast episode .
www.YourWritingCoach.com – accompanies the book of the same name. Each chapter of the book includes a code word that unlocks additional content on the site.
www.FocusQuick.com – accompanying the book, “Focus: Use the power of targeted thinking to get more done.” It has been translated into 10 languages and now is out in a second, expanded edition.
www.forentrepreneursbooks.com – accompanies the book, “Marketing for Entrepreneurs.” I also wrote, “Do Something Different” (Virgin Books, with a foreword by Sir Richard Branson–it’s about inexpensive and innovative ways to market yourself, your product or your service)
If you’d like to get in touch, email me at jurgenwolff@gmail. com