Of all the “how-to” seminars at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, the one I got the biggest kick from was The Epic Spec: How to EXPLODE on to the Hollywood Scene. It was given by British writer Stuart Hazeldine (left), and though his IMDB credits may not seem that impressive, that’s a lesson in itself. The regular money comes from optioned spec scripts that remain unproduced, and rewrites and polishes that may never generate a credit.
So you won’t see this on IMDB, but he’s recently written the screenplay for Paradise Lost, which got him Spielberg’s attention to write his (now dropped) Moses film Gods and Kings, which got him Michael Mann’s attention to write Agincourt.
Here’s Stuart’s advice on starting out in Hollywood: “Sometimes, to get noticed, you have to take your clothes off and run in the traffic.”
He means this metaphorically. I hope.
And here’s how he did it: he wrote a sequel to Blade Runner. No one asked him to do it. He didn’t have the rights to do it. But he loved the movie and had an idea of where it should go next, so he did it. And because every Hollywood exec knew Blade Runner, and wanted to know what happened next, that was the spec script they all asked for.
Stuart did the same with Aliens, and that even got recommended to the people actually making the third Aliens movie, though for legal reasons they couldn’t read his version at the time. Afterwards, when the film was made, Stuart met with the exec responsible… and told him he’d screwed it up and his script was better. The exec was not amused. But it did add to Stuart’s notoriety in Hollywood.
With hindsight, Stuart wouldn’t exactly recommend these routes to success. Knowing better now, he advises taking an existing property that’s out of copyright but which everyone has heard of. Think of The Taming of the Shrew remade as 10 Things I Hate About You; the Theseus myth updated as The Hunger Games; and all those fairytale reboots like Jack The Giant Slayer or Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Stuart pitched Paradise Lost (which I always thought, when studying it for A-Level, would make a great graphic novel – at the time I thought it was unfilmable, but special effects may have caught up) to the studios as “sci-fi set in the past”, or as “Genesis meets Lord of the Rings”. Milton’s epic poem describes the archangel Lucifer’s war against God which led him to become the Devil – “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven” is, as Stuart rightly says, the keyline. I hope it gets made; I would love to see it.
A final few pieces of advice from Stuart. A) “The buying seasons in LA are roughly from the end of Sundance till the beginning of Cannes, and from Labor Day to Thanksgiving; these are the best times to go out and pitch.” B) “Think of yourself as your own agent. If you have an agent, they can be your support team, but ultimately you have to look after your own career.” C) “Write what you are passionate about. I do think passion is detectable on the page. I’ve written things I thought other people would want, and they didn’t sell.”
Now, whatever way you can find to take your clothes off and run in traffic, go do it.