Lessons in Hollywood screenwriting from Craig Mazin (Identity Thief, The Hangover 2 and 3)

Hi Film Folk,
 
Today The Film Doctor Team share tips, tricks and personal stories from successful Hollywood screenwriter and Scriptnotes host Craig Mazin (Identity Thief, The Hangover 2 and 3) as shared on a recent Reddit AMA.
 
We’ve cut out the fat, to serve a nice, lean overview of what Craig recommends. Check it out below!
 
Film Doctor - Craig Mazin
 
What are some common misconceptions about screenwriting that get on your nerves? 
 
So many. Top of the list these days? “Screenwriters shouldn’t direct on the page. No ‘we see’ or stage directions or credit sequences or references to camera.” Screw that. We’re building a movie on paper. We should use all tools available both to make the reader see the film and our fellow filmmakers understand our intentions.



 
 
In your experience, is it easier for a first-time screenwriter to solicit a buyer or an agent first? What should they do if they can’t get a referral to an agency? How should they go about writing & sending a query letter to an agency with no public listings?
 

Neither is easy. Winning the Nichol or Austin will get you noticed by both, I suspect. The Black List gets you noticed by both as well. Unfortunately, the list of people who accept blind queries gets you people who are willing to accept blind queries… and that’s not a great list. Bit of a catch-22.






 
 

What are your work habits like? Are you working on multiple assignments at the same time, and if so how do you balance them?

I practice what I call loose-rigid scheduling. Rigid: set goals for the week, and meet those goals (page count, break a portion of story, etc.). Loose: I get to meander and work as little or as much as I feel like without that week long boundary. The combination of freedom and discipline works for me. We are all different, of course. Find what works for you. I do occasionally work on multiple things, but only when jammed, and never if the two things are in the same stage (break two stories at once, write two first drafts at once, etc.).
 
 
How has your fee/quote changed over your career? Percentages, if you don’t want to name figures.
 
It’s gone up. 🙂 Percentage-wise, I make about 10-15 times what I made on my very first gig, depending on the nature of the project. Screenwriters get raises based on two factors: did we write a draft that convinced the studio to make the movie, and was the movie a hit? I’ve had some good fortune along with the way with that.
 
 
Do you try to reach a fixed yearly income? Are there a certain number of assignments you try to take on each year? If so, how do you achieve these things?
 
I do. I have a wife and two children and a number of charitable commitments. For their sake and for the stability of our future, I do try and hit a number. I do save a lot. I do donate a lot. It does make me a little crazy when I read some internet comment about how I’m just a cash-grabbing hack. I might be a hack, but I’m not motivated by money. If I were motivated by money, I would have gone into finance.
 
Film Doctor - The Hangover 3
  
How does a writer branch out? E.g. you’re best known for comedy — what if you want to pitch for a sci-fi horror project? What about making the break to another career in the film industry, like directing or producing?

I’m going through this right now. I’m attached to three projects, and none is a comedy. How do you get there? By proving yourself. Increments. Pitching passionately and convincingly. Willing to bet on yourself. But it takes time. Lots and lots and lots of time. The tricky thing about comedy is that there are many fewer screenwriters who can reliably write comedies that audiences agree to see. We’re left-handed pitchers. As such, the studios really don’t have much vested in us becoming right-handers. But we must follow our hearts and grow… or NOT. There’s nothing wrong with finding a genre you love and never straying from it. Oddly, directing and producing are easier to get into than different genres of writing. I get asked about directing and producing comedy all the time. That’s an easier buy-in for them.

 
 

What are some of your favourite comedy movies of the last ten years?

Off the top of my head… I think MacGruber is unheralded genius. Team America is properly heralded genius. I was blown away by The Hangover (which I had nothing to do with), and I really liked Due Date as well. Loved Bridesmaids. Loved Zombieland. Laughed a lot at Ted. Loved 40 Year Old Virgin. Role Models is very good. Wedding Crashers is outstanding. And Borat is one of the funniest movies ever put on screen.

 
 
Do you have any advice on what helped you develop the drive and work ethic to get to where you are now?  
 

Probably a combination of innate characteristics, for which I cannot take credit, and the way I was raised, for which I also cannot take credit. Nor would I particularly recommend. There are people more motivated and applied than I, and there are people who are less so. I’m finally old enough and unstupid enough to realize that barring a few simple tactics available to us, we are who we are, and we must accept that. Those tactics?

  1. Don’t use drugs or alcohol to inspire work; they usually inspire the opposite.
  2. Make friends with people who are better at your craft than you, not worse. You will be encouraged by the prospect of growing.
  3. Find peace in failure. Every draft but the final draft is something that will be improved. And that final draft will be far from perfect And the movie will be far from perfect. The process must be its own reward.
 

Can you please walk us through your outlining process?

Once I have a general sense of the main characters and villain(s), the theme and the beginning and ending, I start talking about the movie in a global sense… big sections… there’s a terrific woman named Jacqueline Lesko who works with me… she listens and takes notes and asks questions and gives feedback.
 
After that’s done, I start walking through the movie scene by scene. What happens in the scene? Why? How? How does it connect to before and after? Why must it be in the movie? What is its relevance? What does it set up or resolve? Etc. etc. Endless questions and proposed dialogue… I go backwards, forwards, rethink, redo, worry, get excited, get depressed… all the usual stuff. Then I put it up with index cards. White cards for WHO WHAT WHERE, and blue cards next to the white ones explaining WHY.
 
 
Is there any point in pursuing screenwriting if I live in the Midwest?
No. The Midwest will soon be consumed in a rain of fire, and none shall survive. Barring that, if you write a great script, you could live on the moon, and agents would take shuttles to sign you. Diablo Cody lived in the Pac Northwest. Didn’t seem to slow her down.
 
 
Did you always want to write growing up? Or did it not spark until later on in life?
did write while growing up, but my parents were public school teachers, and “chase a Hollywood dream” wasn’t exactly encouraged. I was going to be a doctor. Majored in neuropsych, intending to be a neurosurgeon. But during college, I realized that while I am fascinated by medicine, I loved being creative and entertaining people. So I gave myself a shot. Didn’t have any money, didn’t know a soul in L.A., just jumped in and hoped.
 
 
What would be the best course of action to end up being a professional comedy writer?
There is no “best course” for anyone to follow. I wish there were a series of steps to follow, but I know dozens of professional screenwriters, and not one of them has the same “how I broke in” story.
 
 

Do you edit as you go, or do you pump out a first draft and then edit? Other than formatting, what’s the easiest way for your script to NOT get read? Is having “a voice” as important as it’s made out to be? Is this voice manifested through the dialogue, the overall narrative, or the prose?

  1. I edit as I go. Just my speed. Others don’t.
  2. Big blocks of text right off the bat, and the first few lines of dialogue are clunkers. That script moves to the bottom of the pile pretty quickly.
  3. Yes. It’s everything. No one needs you to copy someone else. This down is drowning in mimics. They both despise and worship the new and different, but I think presenting your unique quality is the best guarantee that your voice will be heard.
 
 Film Doctor - Identity Thief
 

How much prep do you do before starting a script? Do you go far enough to do character bios, or just basic outline/treatment stuff?

A lot. I think about everything… theme, character, narrative, structure, scenes, transitions… everything. I don’t do bios per se, but rather I try and understand what I want the audience to know about the characters in the beginning, and what I want to reveal to them over the course of the film (and how and when), and where I want the characters to be at the end.

 

The biggest struggle I have when it comes to writing, besides video games, is self-doubt. It’s crippling at times. I was just curious if you could offer any advice in terms of killing the doubt, hiding the body and getting away without it?

I’ll offer you advice, but then you have to give ME advice, because this is the monster sitting on all of our shoulders. When we feel like a failure, when we feel like we’re stupid, when we feel like we’re a fraud… it’s important to remember that these feelings are irrational. That’s not to say that some people aren’t failures or stupid or frauds. It’s just to say feeling that way isn’t proof of anything. Scott Frank is certainly near the top of the list of great screenwriters in history. I’d say 90% of my conversations with him turn, at some point, to the subject of his self-doubt. We allllll have it. Deep breaths. Think of yourself as not you, but a friend coming to you for advice.
 
 
What do you see when you see this friend, and what would you tell her or him?  What is your comedic background? Did you ever try stand-up or anything like that? I would like to know about your transfer from marketing to writing.  
When I was working in marketing at Disney waaay back in ’94, my former writing partner and I… who had been trying to break into sitcoms… wrote an original screenplay for Disney. I had access, so it seemed like a good idea to go that route. And it worked. I’ve been writing movies ever since, although I should also add I’ve been learning how to write movies ever since. I didn’t have a specific comedy background… I’m far too cowardly to do standup… but I’ve always loved filmed comedy. I saw Airplane! when I was 10… a beautiful memory… a happy moment for a not-always-happy kid… and I’ve always liked making people laugh. No film school.
 
 
Who are you writing for? I don’t mean audience. I mean do you mostly write for yourself? Or, is there a target in mind, a director or performer? Who is the audience in your head through the first draft?
 
I try and have some vague sense of the audience. You know, is this R or PG? Am I okay with my 9-year old daughter seeing it? Or maybe not her but my 12-year old son? Beyond that, I think we’re all writing to please ourselves, and our hope is that what pleases us is also what pleases the audience. One thing I’ve learned for sure is this: the audience isn’t shy about telling you what they think.
 
 
How can I best stand out amid the sea of everyone else trying to make it?
 
Writing a really good script will already set you apart, as 99% of screenplays are, frankly, bad. Yes… even worse than what you see on screen… google Terry Rossio’s essay called “crap plus one” for more on that. The other thing is to express what’s unique to you, rather than copying what you already like watching. Watching movies is a very different thing than writing them. It’s funny… I know comedy writers who only really enjoy dramas in a theater, and I know some very, very serious dramatic writers who mostly go to comedies.
 
 
How much do you let social media persuade you now as a screenwriter. When people give opinions on your movies, when you hear reactions to the current style of comedy – anything really. In an age when you can hear thousands of people’s opinions on a film minutes after they see it, how has that changed the way you approach writing, if at all?
 
I don’t give Twitter feedback any particular merit. It’s encouraging to hear encouraging things, it’s hurtful to hear hurtful things… but none of it is with me when I choose what to write or how to write it. I’m far more influenced by my collaborators than anyone else. For instance, I’m going to be writing a movie that Lindsay Doran is producing. She’s brilliant. I’ll take her input any day over Twitter feedback. I love the audience, and I respect the audience, but that doesn’t mean they get a vote when it’s time for me to make choices.
 
 
It seems that it’s easy to go from a bad screenwriting to a decent screenwriter. People can look at your work and immediately identify formatting errors, cheesy dialogue, convoluted plot/structure. Once you work out these kinks it becomes harder to differentiate between a good work and great work. Not that there aren’t major differences, but they become less easily observable. Feedback starts to become more subjective. One reader might love the ending, another finds its contrived. What are your tips for writers in that stage of development for making sure they are continuing to improve instead of tailoring the script back and forth for single viewers? In other words, how do you continue to improve beyond the “Intro to Screenwriting” class?
 
First, I must warn that there’s no way to know if you’ve written a decent, good or great screenplay until it’s produced. Second… don’t chase the notes of the last person whispering in your ear. Listen to them, and think about it. They don’t deserve to impact your screenplay if you ultimately think they’re not right. They do if you do. I gave my current screenplay to David Benioff. He had some excellent thoughts on the first 15 and final 15 pages. I thought about them. Decided he was right. Rewrote. You couldn’t pay me to undo what I just rewrote. That’s the difference. You only want to do the notes that you can’t live without. Those are the good ones.
 
 
Film Doctor - Identity Thief
  
How important is theme in your scripts?
 
It’s the most important.
 
 
How important is theme to your producers (meaning is that ever a factor in either a purchase decision or development notes)?
 
It’s very important to the GOOD ones… not a factor in purchases or notes, because it’s hard for them to see how it impacts how we create our screenplay, but they always respond when I articulate it and talk about how it’s valuable in a moment.
 
 
What’s the theme of Identity Thief? (I ask because I enjoyed the film a lot but struggled to understand why Sandy needed to go on this journey… so this may be a question about his primary flaw but I think it’s also about theme)
 

For me, Sandy is a guy who thinks his value to his family is connected to what he earns and materially provides. It’s not. His value is his presence. His value is his decency. They don’t need a big house. They don’t need an alpha male. It’s okay if he’s beta. It’s okay if he’s a doormat at work. They love him because he loves them. That’s the victory. He needs to understand that his identity is immutable and worthy.

 
 

If you had to give one DO and one DON’T for new writers trying to network, what would they be?

DO be comfortable in your own skin. DON’T try to be the person you think you SHOULD be. If you don’t fit in, you don’t fit in. For now. But we’re not rewarded for fitting in. We’re rewarded for writing movies. I’ve never been Hollywood Party guy. I’ve never been the cool kid. I’m still here. A lot of the cool kids aren’t.
 
  
Question is – a few other pros and Semi pros have already compared the work to “Gravity”. Do I follow through with the rewrites for a portfolio piece similar to what’s already out there or take the lessons I’ve learned and apply them to my new piece?
 
Generally, I advise writers to ignore the marketplace. Unless your screenplay is truly made derivative by an existing work, consider it a great calling card for your ability to write movies. Very often, your spec gets you work writing something a buyer wants, rather than getting you paid for the spec itself. In terms of thriller-in-space, Gravity didn’t invent it. And there will be more. If your script turns into a character study of one or two people floating adrift among the stars, then yeah… that will feel like a ripoff. But if it fits into the broader space-thriller or space-horror genre, don’t fret.
 
 
With a first screenplay, to what degree should I just let my imagination run riot? By this I mean, should I try to be more subdued and match the quality of work of people who have been working for years? or should I indulge my inner Tarantino and write to please the child in me? I’m struggling to articulate this question, but to put it simply I mean, should I aim to show that I can write a polished literally screenplay or a fun one with some rough edges? What’s more appealing to someone who might be willing to take on clients?
 
I’ve said many times that the only thing you have to offer that is unique is your voice. If the job description is “copy someone else’s style in service of a gig,” they won’t hire you. They’ll either hire the person who did the first version, or they’ll hire someone with experience. Let your imagination run riot. Always! Be audacious. The trick of screenwriting is to contain that imagination in a produceable, structured form. You’re a philosophy student, so take a gander at The Birth of Tragedy by Freddy. It’s not his best work by a long shot, but he makes some good points about art being a combination of the Dionysian (your wild imagination) and the Apollonian (100-120 pages of ordered scenes that propel a story forward through a satisfying narrative structure).
  
 

With these emerging hybrid TV series that are longer in length (ex: BBC’s Sherlock), released in one shot (ex: Netflix original series), have higher production value (ex: HBO series), and/or just in general seem more like a movie, do you think this will have a big impact on the movie industry as the TV industry continues to develop this way? Will the line blur between movie and TV (especially if viewer taste develops to prefer these movie-ish television shows)?

I love what’s happening in TV, but I don’t think it’s going to ruin movies. There are some stories that are best told in one to two hours, on a big screen, shared with a community of viewers. I’m glad Her is a movie and not a series. That would have been dreadful. I needed to experience it as one moving piece.

 
 

I’m taking a short film I wrote and produced to my first film festival this May (a little known one in the south of France)… do you have any advice for surviving the festival experience?

Drink water, get sleep, breathe, enjoy, don’t attach expectations. Just go and enjoy.

 
 
I’m finding it a bit tough the way people sometimes look straight through you when you tell them that you are a writer. If this is something that happens to you as well, how do you deal with that? People often tell me to introduce myself as the film’s producer, but I like to introduce myself as the writer as that’s the part I’m most proud of.
 

Be proud. Remember, people at festivals are often there to buy shit and meet famous people. We will never be the glamorous ones. We don’t need to be. We are the ones who create the world for the glamorous ones. You tell them you’re the writer, and you be proud. Their disinterest doesn’t mean you’re uninteresting. It means THEY are.

 
 Film Doctor - The Hangover 3
 

How involved were you in the production of, say, Hangover III or Identity Thief? i.e. once the script was ready to shoot, what was your role moving forward? Were you on set for any or most or all of it? And if so, what specifically did you do? Did you help make any production decisions – casting/locations/edit/rewriting bits/etc?

I’m just trying to grasp a sense of what the writer’s role can be after the script is done, and if this varies widely from production to production.

Very. In the case of H3, I was on set every day, and I was in the editing room with Todd every day… well every day once he took the time to get his first cut put together… then he called me in and we went through the reels together. I couldn’t be on set for ID because I was writing H3 at the time, but I was in the editing room a lot with Seth. I tend to be very involved in the productions of the movies I write, from soup to nuts. I think the fact that I’ve done it a lot without pissing directors off makes it easier for new directors to welcome me into the process.

 
 
Question about writing a “take”. This is something I’m starting to run across in getting an adaptation or remake assignment. What is your process for building this kind of pitch? Do you outline? Write a treatment for yourself? Or just work on it as a verbal pitch? Do you ever give them written material?
 

I try and talk about why I want to write the project. In order to know why I want to write it, I obviously have to have some specific kind of story to tell. I don’t need to walk it through beat by beat. I need to talk about my point of view. What do I think the movie is really about? What inspires me to write it?

The problem for a lot of writers on these meetings is simple: their goal is “get a job.” Not “I have to write this, and here’s why.”

Everyone can sniff out “I want a job, and what do I have to say to get it?”

 
 
What advice do you have for new writers trying to get into the field? Work on a screenplay and try to sell it, or produce it yourself? Features or shorts?
 
Both. Write and try and sell, but there’s nothing wrong with shooting a scene to show what it’s all about. I love how easy it is now to produce something. And shooting your work teaches you how to write better for the screen. No question.
 
 
As an emerging writer who’s been advised to write within a certain genre in order to establish my “brand”, I’m wondering how tightly you’d advise a young writer to constrain themselves. If you want to build a rep inside the comedy genre, for example, is it better to narrow your focus even further — to establish yourself as a “raunchy comedy writer”, or “family-friendly 4-quadrant comedy writer”? Or is focusing on comedy in general enough to maintain a consistent brand. Thanks!

When you’re starting out, picking a general area isn’t such a bad idea. Comedy, horror, thriller, drama, family. Even if that’s not something that help us as writers, the town will do it to you, so you might as well have some say in it.

Once you’re working, it becomes easier to make moves… but here’s the best move… you can make ANY move by writing a great original. That’s something unique to us. Actors, directors, producers… all at the mercy of the scripts they’re sent.

Not us. We can write our way in and out of all sorts of trouble.

 

How much of your comedy writing is informed (or regimented) by the Field-McKee-Truby form? Does comedy get to bend dramatic form more than other genres?

None. I read one of Field’s books back in 1992. Don’t remember any of it. Never read McKee or Truby. Literally know nothing of what they say. As for comedy… no, I think it’s probably more formalized in structure than other genres. Part of that is inherent to how comedy works. The absurdity often works best when contrasted with structural non-absurdity.

 

Do you get a lot of friends asking you to read their scripts? How do you tell them their script isn’t any good without hurting the friendship or their feelings?

I don’t say “your script isn’t any good.” I talk about how it can be better. Everyone who writes a script is already soaking in self-judgment. The only verdict they want is “It’s PERFECT!”, which is impossible, so I avoid verdicts.

I just say “I liked this. This could be better if this.” Etc. Occasionally I read something that is so obviously inept, my advice is to stop and do some remedial work first.

 
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2 thoughts on “Lessons in Hollywood screenwriting from Craig Mazin (Identity Thief, The Hangover 2 and 3)

  • April 23, 2014 at 9:02 am
    Permalink

    I’m tempted to say “the day I take screenwriting lessons from some one who write Identity Thief and The Hangover sequels, is the day I die” but, heh, at least he got the gigs I guess!

    Reply

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