Film Courage: …Right and if I was going into pitch this to someone and I was pitching it to the two of you and you both said “Ahhhh…we don’t like this and this and this.” So would the workable and open response from me [i.e. the writer pitching my script] be “Great! I can come back and change it and can we meet again?”
Jeffrey Davis: It depends. First of all…Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Peter Desberg: I would not say that. I would say “What parts of it didn’t you like? How would you like to see it done?” Because if they haven’t started the creative collaboration, maybe I can start it? And so if they say “Well I see it working much better for a younger market and I’d like to make these characters mid-teens.” I’d say “Oh wow? I hadn’t thought of it that way.” Then you could do this and this and this…The more I can get you involved.
Jeffrey Davis: There’s another trick that we learned from someone who is not in the book, my mentor who is in his nineties now, but sharp as a tack. And he used to go in and pitch television, like ongoing series. By the way, you are never going to go to a pilot meeting and have one pilot idea and you are going to have someone who is more powerful than you or you’re not going to get anywhere and you’re going to have an agent who got you in the door unless you are very lucky and I’m not sure that’s luck because you do need someone looking out for you and protecting you.
But the other thing that Peter’s always said (and I think this comes from his science background) is try to find out what kinds of things that producer, that executive likes. Because if you go in and you pitch them westerns and they hate westerns, you’re dead before you open your mouth. And that’s maybe more for movies. I don’t know.
Peter Desberg: But just to follow that idea, if you have an idea for a western and you know that they’ve made a movie about an orphan and that really touched their heart then you make sure you have an orphan in your western so that you have a way to connect.
Jeffrey Davis: Or if you are like me and you’re trying to find out what directors they admire and then find a western that director made. So for example, you know they like Martin Ritt and they think Martin Ritt is the greatest director, find some way in I guess is what we’re saying. And the other thing is, when they say “no,” move on. Don’t argue.
Peter Desberg: Never get defensive, never argue.
Jeffrey Davis: Because you never want to go in with one idea. If you’re going in with one idea, you’re asking…unless obviously, Aaron Sorkin, they are going to come there. I mean, there’s a group of people they go to.
Pilot writing is in my experience (and I think it’s the same as it is now), is almost never done by beginners. They want to go…and it makes sense for them right? So for example, you pitch this to a showrunner, the only way you’re going to get it made (and I’m not talking about you in reality, I’m talking about you as this person who hypothetically pitched this), you’re going to want somebody who really knows that they are doing or they will bury you and they will make a bad deal with you. You want somebody who has got some chops and some power.
Peter Desberg: Can we slip in a little bit of pedantry for just a moment?
Film Courage: Oh, please…that’s my favorite. I don’t know what it means but this sounds good.
Jeffrey Davis: It comes from academia, like pedant.
Peter Desberg: One of my favorite books is called Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s probably the smartest book I’ve read in the last 30 years. And it basically has the thesis that we have two modes of thinking. One where we get very, very rigorous and think very hard and deep. And the other is we think intuitively. And we make just about all of our decisions intuitively. And what’s kind of interesting is that when we are forced to think deeply, which we don’t like to do, because it’s hard. Not only are we thinking deeply, but we are cranky as we’re doing it because it takes a lot of our resources. And we’re kind of skeptical as we’re doing it because we are forced to think hard (it’s not in our regular way of looking at things).
So when I am pitching something, how can I keep this so they are intuitively accepting everything that I do. I don’t want to put them in a place where they have to go contrary. So if I made some controversial statement “You know, I’ve got this idea for a horror film because we know that everybody secretly always wants to do terrible things to the people around them.” And somebody says “Wait a minute? I never want to secretly do terrible things to the people around me?” The minute that I’ve got them at that point, I’ve lost them. And I have to now find instances and we have to negate them and we’re arguing instead of finding something they are going to agree with right away.
And saying “You know, most of us like the easy way out when things are really pleasant. And so we make decisions and are “Yeah…I do that.” Then they are cruising along with me and I’ve got a better chance. The minute I make them skeptical, I’ve got a really tough mountain to climb.
The fellow who wrote this book (Daniel Kahneman) is a Princeton psychology professor who won the Nobel Prize for Economics. It’s a brilliant book and I get no royalties from it, which hurts me. But I praise it anyway. Thinking Fast and Slow. But it just makes that really good point that anything that you are saying to somebody that seems like it’s within their realm of possibility that they can accept without arguing, you’ve got an easier sell, then if you’re stopping and saying “Well imagine this.” I can’t see that ever happening.
Film Courage: I just want to come back to something that you said and it was “They will bury you.” Can you go into what that means?
Jeffrey Davis: What I mean by that is that what a lot of people don’t want to see (I can’t say all people) who are experienced is an inexperienced person (especially a young person in their early 20’s) coming in and doing something that is above their skill level. They know what you don’t know. They’ve been doing it…even junior executives who have a very short lifespan. And you will always want to dial up. You will always want to bring somebody with you who knows more than you do and can believe in you and help you. Those are also great partnerships
I’ll give you an example, (I also told Peter this this morning), I had a student two years ago and I also told him “I’m going to look like the hero of this and I’m really not. This is just my job.”
Peter Desberg: He’s the hero in all of his stories.
Jeffrey Davis: Somebody has to make me the hero somewhere. I’m the villain everywhere else.
Peter Desberg: He can start with “How are you?”
Film Courage: Should I start Wind Beneath My Wings [Bette Midler song]?
Jeffrey Davis: Start with how are you and people say “Sorry, busy today.” I think that the best example of this is I had a student two years ago who was the best joke writer at 21-years old and had done a lot of improv and very young.
But she could work on (which is what you want in “A Room”), she could work on other people’s scripts and would say “You know, this would be a great joke.” And they would all come from character and conflict.
And she said to me in the beginning of the year (because it was a 2-semester course), she said to me “I’m going to come out of here at 22 and I’m going right on to a television series as a writer.” And I said to her “I hope not.” And she got really mad at me. And I said A) You won’t be ready B) They will eat you alive and C) They’ll resent you. So what you need to do is pay your dues. And they found this or she found this program that Second City in Chicago had started a grad program in Harold Ramis name (in his memory). And she applied and she got in. And she just graduated in May I think or I think she had 6 months to go? She’s got one more semester. And she is like a different kid because she took her time. So I guess to go back to your question, you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you will get pummeled because they will pummel you. They have so many people to see and they are looking for things that they can sell. It’s still a business, no matter what it’s on.
Even PBS, people go “Oh British television. It’s so high quality.” It is but it’s supported on the BBC so we’ll see things like THE CROWN and DOWNTON ABBEY and things that like which we rarely see here. Except now we are seeing it here on Netflix.
So I just think it’s always a good idea to dial up. Don’t try to be (when you’re young), don’t go in and pretend to know things…get people to mentor you I think is the best advice I’ve ever been given and is the best advice I could give. And take your time. You want to be in it for the long haul. You don’t want to have a gold strike and be done by the time you are 25. This girl, if she had done what she had in her head, she would have been finished at 25 (I think).
If you look at Orson Welles career, his later career (even though he made some great movies), he didn’t have the career he had at 26. He was too young, but he was a genius, so that doesn’t really count.
Question for the Viewers: What do you like?
Anything you would disagree with?
At the Writers’ Table with Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers
by Authors Jeffrey Davis and Peter Desberg
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CONNECT WITH PETER DESBERG