Screenwriter Jeff Zedlar On Selling First Spec
SSSD: Spec Screenplay Sales Directory|
ZEDLAR: Jeff Zedlar
SSSD: How did come up with the idea for Lonely Are The Dead?
ZEDLAR: I wondered what it would be like for a person to be in an actual purgatory and not know it. I am fascinated by religion, which I very much dislike and I tried to imagine what it would take t put a person in a situation where he was experiencing a purgatory that was real and not imagined. In the end, my protagonist was dead the entire story but from the audience's point of view, he seemed alive. But the devil recreated reality to make it seem real but it was purgatory.
SSSD: Did you think at all about its commercial potential before you wrote it?
ZEDLAR: No. I just wrote from the soul. I had seen Jacob's Ladder and was inspired by that and I wanted to write something with a similar feel. Something soul shattering, evil, frightening but I did not consider its commercial potential and I think it's a waste of time to even factor that in?
SSSD: Where you inspired by The Twilight Zone?
ZEDLAR: I was a big fan of The Twilight Zone. I was a big fan of Rod Serling. I am sure there is an indirect link. I like to write with a lot of surprises, a lot of twists...
SSSD: Did you have the screenplay professionally critiqued before you submitted it?
ZEDLAR: Yes I did in a different way. I have a friend who is also a screenwriter. We've known each other since college and he critiqued it. I sent him a gift certificate somewhere like to a steak house just thanking him, but it was no set arrangement with a professional critiquing house or anything like that.
SSSD: Did you do a lot of re-writing on it before it was submitted?
ZEDLAR: Yes. I rewrote it for a year. Perhaps thirteen drafts minimum.
SSSD: Was that based on your friend's comments or what your own thoughts were?
ZEDLAR: I only sent it out for an opinion after about ten drafts. So I felt that it needed those changes based on my own insights before I sent it out. And only after he gave me his opinion, I rewrote it once or twice and then it was done.
SSSD: So how did you know that you needed to keep rewriting it?
ZEDLAR: I think it's just instinctive. I used to be reader for agencies, that helped. There's no concrete knowing. I think there's just a point where you can't make it any better in your own opinion.
SSSD: So after you had a draft that you were happy with, what was the next step?
ZEDLAR: Getting an agent. I went through the process of buying the Hollywood Creative Directory's Agents and Manager's Book. I went through that book at random and selected around four to five hundred names. All in literary and film departments. I created a very short query letter that I thought was intriguing. I got all the envelopes and postage and I made sure that I hand wrote on the outside of every envelope to make sure that it got opened. I didn't put stickers or labels. I very much wanted to disguise the fact that it was a mass mailing. I told the agents briefly what the story was about. That it was a good read and a little bit about myself and the fact that I was a reader and that they should take the time to read it. And out of the 400 submissions, forty got back to me within a couple of months and asked me to send it in. And of the forty, four wanted to represent it and that's when I picked the Gersh Agency.
SSSD: And why did you pick that agency?
ZEDLAR: I liked the agent there very much. He was a really bright person who has since left the agency. He best understood what the story was about and also the agency is fantastic. They're big but not super big, monolithic, like CAA.
SSSD: Once you signed with the agency, how long did it take to set up at Propaganda?
ZEDLAR: It was a real bang bang situation. The agent loved it. I met him the next day. He wanted to send it to two places, which he did, and they both wanted it that day. So it took less than a week to sell.
SSSD: How long did the negotiations take place?
ZEDLAR: All day. They made an offer in the morning and it wasn't concluded until 3 P.M.
SSSD: And the first thing you signed was a deal memo?
ZEDLAR: No. They (the agency) called me and they said, "This is what the production company is offering you. What do you want to do?" They just went back and forth. My agent was always trying to get more. They were always countering with less. So it was just a verbal thing that whole first day and after that I had to sign something.
SSSD: Immediately after that or weeks later?
ZEDLAR: It took a long time for the contract to get generated. Right after the deal was negotiated, I had to sign a release that the screenplay was no longer mine. That I no longer owned it. I also had to sign a release with the agency and the production company stating that I was the sole writer that no one else had taken part in it. Then the agency signed me for two years, upon the sale, and I was in.
SSSD: Then you worked on it with different people at Propaganda?
ZEDLAR: Yes, I did.
SSSD: How long a process was that?
ZEDLAR: It lasted at least eight months before I was taken off the project.
SSSD: They hired someone else to rewrite you?
ZEDLAR: They did. I fulfilled my obligations to them, did my rewrites but we were drifting further and further apart each day on how it should be rewritten. I didn't hold the cards anymore, and they wanted to do something with it that I didn't agree with. I actually preferred not to be associated with it because it was pointless and a waste of time.
SSSD: How important do you think it is for a writer to know the marketplace?
ZEDLAR: Pretty important. I think that it's certainly a factor in a person's success. I think they have to know what things they can do without and what things they have to have. And I think what they have to have is an agent. Certainly there are stories of people that don't have to have agents, but it certainly increases your odds greatly. I tell all writers to first focus on writing something they love, number one. Try not to anticipate the market at all. Write what you love, perfect it, then pursue an agent. Do it one step at a time, like clockwork. Don't try and get too ahead of yourself. Be patient. It's better to write one script that's great than ten that are average. And at all times be professional.
SSSD: Have you been working on other stories since Lonely are The Dead?
ZEDLAR: Yes, I have but I also have a computer transcription company which takes up a lot of my time along with family obligations so I'm not writing as much as I should or as much as I'd like to, but I have been working on other things.
SSSD: Have you gone out with pitches?
ZEDLAR: Yes, I have gone out on pitches and they are very difficult. You really have to match what the executives are thinking exactly. I advise that they be short rather than too long. I advise putting images in the executives' minds for example, saying," My lead is Charlie Gibson and that's being played by Kevin Costner, so they can visualize your pitch. Just hit the beats of the story, and don't make any apologies. "This is what it is, I believe in it. If you're interested, call me."
SSSD: Did you go in with three, four, five stories?
ZEDLAR: In the beginning I did, but I learned that you just want to go in with one. You can't go in with a laundry list. It makes you look like you're throwing darts. That way if you're selling one idea or two at the most, you're going to put more time in it and they're not going to be thinking about your first idea when you're pitching the others. Go in with one idea and take your chances.
SSSD: Would you consider writing a spec screenplay based on one of your pitches that didn't sell?
ZEDLAR: Yes. That's always a possibility.
SSSD: Any last thoughts?
ZEDLAR: When you start, know that you have to dedicate your life to it because if you're not, you're going up against people who are and you're just not going to compete. You might get lucky, but that's rare. Expect it to take a while. You have to get good at it. You can't just go out there and compete against the Lakers playing basketball. You can't always go out and compete against the best writers instantly.
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