Interview: Screenwriter Madeline DiMaggio

Follow Your Dream: An Interview with Madeline DiMaggio
By Christina Hamlett

(Excerpted from “ScreenTEENwriters”)

Former actress and published author Ms. Madeline DiMaggio is a successful author and television screenwriter whose trademark wit and imagination have been stamped on such shows as Bob Newhart, Kojak, Three’s Company, as well as documentaries, soaps, animation and movies of the week. Her work as a creative consultant and story editor for Paramount Studios and NBC has given her insight on virtually every aspect of writing for the industry. Back when she was in high school, though, her plan for her life was much different.

So what was the dream when you were 17?

DiMaggio_how_to_write_for_televisionWell, I was a drama major and saw myself as an actress. I was starring in all the school plays, I did summer stock, I went to New York, I got my degree in Drama. It was an incredible major for writing because the strength of my writing has always been my dialogue. But had I known that I would one day become a writer, I would have learned how to type. And how to spell! I never studied writing but every time I was in a three-act play, I was actually studying structure and character development and how people talked. A lot of actors end up being very good writers just for that reason. It was a good background to come from.

Suppose you attend a rural high school that doesn’t offer theater or film classes for learning the creative side of the craft.

Well, the first thing I’d do is to take a class at a college or even a weekend workshop where someone such as myself or Michael Hauge will come in and teach a seminar. High school students, by the way, get an incredible break in the cost of these workshops. These kinds of things are really good for an introductory, crash course in the basics. It also doesn’t cost them a dime to go on the Internet and download screenplays just to get a sense of structure and dialogue and what the formatting looks like.

Speaking of the Internet, do you think it has helped or hurt the newcomers’ accessibility to Hollywood?

It has helped terrifically! It has changed the face of the industry, which I think really needs to be changed. There are young filmmakers, for instance, who are already getting deals as a result of 15-minute movies they’re making. It’s an incredible way to market yourself because people now have access to your work who normally wouldn’t.

So what’s this going to do long-term to the careers of Hollywood agents? After all, if you can access script sites and get yourself known electronically, are you going to need a rep?

The fact is that if you’re recognized on the Internet and you get a movie deal as a result, the first thing you’ll need is an agent. You may not need an agent to sell but you do need one to have a career. And as far as getting an agent, it’s just not something that happens overnight. Agents today only want to represent screenplays that they think they can sell very fast. It used to be that they’d take on a new screenwriter because they thought they were very good and that they could build a long relationship together. What they do now is take on a project that they can sell.

Do you need a degree in film to have a film career? Or is it better to major in something that will pay the bills?

That’s a hard one to call. For one thing, film school is incredibly hard to get into, but what’s marvelous about film school is that you’re meeting all the future filmmakers of Hollywood . . . and the world! What you’re making is a bunch of incredible contacts, plus part of the curriculum is that they put you at the studios where you can make even more contacts and get a nuts-and-bolts, hands-on internship in the very business you want to work in. If you’re absolutely, definitely, passionately certain that you want to do this for a living, then you really do need to make it your focus in college. If you aren’t 100% certain, I think that you should take some classes but also find something that you can make money at while you’re pursuing writing as your second job. It just depends on how focused you are and how confident you are about what you want to do with your life.

What about books? There’s certainly no shortage of them on today’s market. How do you decide which ones to add to your bookshelf?

That’s a very personal thing and as subjective as going to movies themselves. For instance, I can be emotionally struck by a movie that’s may not be great and may not affect someone else at all. The important thing is that there was something about it that really stayed with me. What you do in the case of looking for a book to teach you about screenwriting is find someone whose tone and style and message you resonate with, the one who says it to you in a way that you can really grasp. Personally, I think the best book and the best self-taught instruction you can get is a screenplay written by a writer who has sold. That’s because the greatest teacher a student will ever have comes from reading actual scripts and seeing the writer’s vision in its most pure form, minus all the visuals and the Horner score and how good Brad Pitt looks on a horse . . .

How about screenwriting contests?

Unequivocably, there is not one single thing I know of that gives better access or bigger breaks to new screenwriters than screenwriting competitions and fellowships. The people who are reading the entries are people who are in the industry and will be reviewing your work if you get into the finals. I have an agent, for instance, who once agreed to be a judge in a contest only because it meant a trip to Hawaii and being put up in the Hilton Hawaiian Village for a week. “I’m not going to sign up any new clients,” she insisted. On the way back, she told me on the airplane that from the ten scripts she had judged, she was signing one of the writers. She may not have been looking but she certainly knew what she wanted as soon as she found it.

With all the contests to choose from, though, how do you know which ones are legitimate and which ones are just a scam to make money?

The first thing is that you need to do your homework. Find out what writers have won the contest before, what the parameters are, how many people usually enter, who the judges are. Don’t be afraid to just call up and ask questions. I also don’t think any of them should have excessively expensive fees to enter. The Nicholls, for instance, isn’t that expensive but attracts a lot of attention. The Monterey Film Competition, the Disney, the Columbus Discovery Awards—these are all very legitimate and provide tremendous exposure.

Well, let’s say that someone likes my script and I get invited to a pitch session. Once I get there, though, they seem to have changed their minds. Should I try to convince them that they’re wrong?

No. If you see them not responding—or responding negatively to what you have to say—what you do is move on to another idea. Trust me—they get really mad if you try to change their minds! You need to remember that the whole point of a pitch session isn’t that you’re going in to sell anything; it’s that you’re going in there to get information. That’s what’s absolutely crucial about pitching. It’s most likely that they won’t take anything that you originally went in with but that you’ll come away with a better understanding of what they are looking for. You then use that information as an opportunity to come back with an idea that fits in with their agenda.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about writing?

The best advice I think they give anyone in Hollywood is what William Goldman said, and that’s “No one knows anything.” For me personally, one that stands out in my mind—and because I write a lot of comedy—was that you should never try to be funny. Hearing that from two well known producers when I was doing Bob Newhart took this incredible weight off my shoulders and I’ve been writing comedy ever since!

You recently co-wrote a script called If the Shoe FIts with Pam Wallace (Witness). Any plug you’d like to give for it?

No. It’s a terrible movie.

What?

It’s a horrible film but a wonderful script. And that’s a good lesson for everyone to learn because it’s an amazing lesson about what can happen between a script and a movie. Sometimes it can be improved and other times—like this—it can just be the worst thing you’ve ever seen! The fact is that Pam and I were paid, we got the money, we got the credit, the movie was made in France on a very low budget, and everything that we spent an incredible amount of time in writing was all taken out. If you read the script and then rent The Stroke of Midnight, which they renamed it, you wouldn’t recognize it.

So you have no control over it once you sell?

That’s true. It’s the luck of the draw—who gets cast, what’s the budget, who directs it, a lot of different factors that can make it better or make it worse. But the end result is that we still got work as a result of that script.

Even if it was a bad film?

Exactly. The point is that in Hollywood, when you sell a film, they don’t ask to see the video; they ask to read the script. Bottom line is that having a bad movie made is better than having no movie made. It doesn’t matter how it turns out as long as the writer gets the money, gets the credit, and can move on to something else. What happens is that you’re marketed on the merit that you sold a script, which they all know is no easy feat to begin with.

What if you just go with a pseudonym for the ones that look like they’re going south

A lot of people do that.

Was that an option for you and Pam?

We actually had the choice of taking our names off of If the Shoe Fits and we chose not to do that. The credits were more important to us.

What do you think is the most valuable thing that the next generation of screenwriters needs to know to be successful?

You have to detach your ego from your material and recognize that the goal is to make that material better. You may not agree with what people are telling you but you still have to listen to it and try to apply what fits the situation. The other thing is that if you’re really passionate, it usually takes about seven scripts before you finally sell something. Consequently, the earlier you start writing, the better. Starting at 17 or 18 puts you right in the ballpark, given the emphasis on youth in Hollywood.

If you were 17 again, what would you do differently, knowing what you know now about this business?

I would have paid more attention in school!

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