Where are you currently employed?
I’ve been at 20th Century Fox since 1997. Before that, I worked at Columbia for eight years.
I’m working on a couple of dozen projects in development at Fox. Recent movies on which I worked include Date Night, Cyrus, The A-Team, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Unstoppable.
Describe Your Job.
About half of my time is devoted to ongoing development projects. I read each draft of a project, note the revisions vis-á-vis the previous draft, evaluate the changes and provide suggestions for improvement in the next draft.
Most of the rest of my time is spent evaluating spec material submitted to the studio — screenplays, books, teleplays, plays and even magazine articles. I also read writing samples to evaluate writers we might want to hire for future assignments.
Finally, I work with the legal department to determine whether there’s any copyright encroachment between one of our projects and a pre-existing movie or book. Story analysts are considered expert witnesses in our niche of intellectual property law and are occasionally called upon to testify as such in court.
How did you first become interested in this line of work?
I wanted to be a screenwriter and a bunch of people suggested this would be a great way to learn the craft from the inside out. It was also the one job in Hollywood for which a degree in English literature actually seemed to be an asset.
Who gave you your first break?
My first steady gig was at Interscope Productions, an independent production company. I was hired by a wonderful story editor, Pat Troise, and had the opportunity to work with some really smart people: Tom Lane, Tricia Clifford and Harry Chotiner among others. In the 1980s, we developed a number of commercial successes, including Revenge of the Nerds, Cocktail and Three Men and a Baby.
What was your first union job?
During the 1988 writers strike, Interscope refused to pay my salary because there were no scripts to read. The Price Company, however, was more than happy to pay me to do nothing until the writers signed a contract. Frances Doel, a very talented vice president, hired me, and then Frank Price, a former story analyst himself, brought me into the union when he became president at Columbia in 1990.
Which of your credits or projects have made you the most proud and why?
Although I may be involved in 20 or 30 development projects at a time, I’m often just along for the ride. Consequently, I’m most proud of the projects that my notes helped to shape. At Columbia, I worked on a couple — The People vs. Larry Flynt and Gattica — that evolved from problematic first drafts. The first draft of Larry Flynt was in the 200-page range. Every page was brilliant, and yet we had to whittle it down to 125 pages without sacrificing the material’s essence. With Gattica, the challenge was an enormously long but utterly necessary flashback in the first act that had to be reworked to preserve the movie’s pace.
Immortal Beloved was a labor of love for both Columbia president Lisa Henson and me, and I’d like to think it was our passion for the project that kept it alive in the early stages. Finally, it’s great to be associated with a movie that makes a lot of money. Men in Black turned dark and ponderous when we hired a new writer, but our team, including Doug Belgrad and Gareth Wigan, ultimately decided the comic approach of the original writer, Ed Solomon, would yield a better movie.
What was your biggest challenge in your job and how did you overcome/solve it?
The biggest ongoing challenge is boredom. Sometimes I’m forced to work in genres that don’t interest me. Sometimes the screenplays or books are simply bad. Meanwhile, there has been a changing of the guard among the executives for whom I work. When I started in the 1980s, many studio executives were film or literature majors in college — creative types. Now I’m running into a lot of law degrees and MBAs. The emphasis is more on deals, casting, marketing and foreign distribution than on telling a great story. Consequently, the relevance of my contribution has fallen a few notches in the food chain.
What was the most fun you’ve had at work?
In the mid-‘90s, I worked on a project — The Boys of Neptune — that never got made. It was based on an idea by Jack Nicholson, who was supposed to star. Penny Marshall was the director. It was about a group of middle-aged men reuniting in the Jersey shore town where they’d worked as lifeguards in their teens. My boss at the time, Michael Costigan, and studio president Amy Pascal loved the project as much as I did. We worked for months through draft after draft trying to come up with a story as strong as the characters. Although we never pulled it off, there was something special about the collaborative process. Story analysts mostly work in a vacuum, making the occasional spurts of teamwork all the more special.
Jobwise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?
I hope to be doing exactly the same thing. Given the economic turmoil throughout the world, I’m thankful to have a steady job, health benefits and a retirement plan. I will continue to write on the side, but — even if I sell something — I can’t imagine giving up my union gig until I reach retirement age.
What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?
I love music of all kinds and I’m dedicated to collecting software and playback equipment. I love LPs, moving coil cartridges and tube electronics. Then when I need to purge work from my head over the weekend, I build furniture in the garage.
In college, I studied photography under Walker Evans and his protégé Jerry Thompson, but Photoshop just isn’t as much fun as breathing fumes in a darkroom for 12 hours trying to get one perfect print.
Other passions include politics, history and the 19th century novel. Story analysts are among the most eclectic intellects in Hollywood. I’ve learned as much from my peers about dozens of subjects as I did from my college professors.
Favorite movies? Why?
As a lit major in college, I was heavily influenced by Northrop Frye, an English professor at the University of Toronto, who divided the entire body of world literature into categories based on plot and character archetypes. From the books and movies I had experienced, I realized I was most fascinated by the genre he called romance — and the rest of us call adventure. From Homer’s Odyssey to the Arthur myths to Die Hard, there are strict rules defining plot, pace and characterization. Since I had been raised on American Westerns, I’ve been most fascinated by the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks which fit perfectly into Frye’s schematic while distinguishing the American version of heroism from that of other cultures. The payoff in an adventure movie is a kind of communion with the action hero that’s essentially the same thing as the communion practiced with wine and wafer in a Catholic service. The reason the genre works is that we come away sharing some of the hero’s strength, bravery and nobility — a sensation that’s hard to top.
Favorite TV programs? Why?
My all-time favorite TV show is The Rockford Files. My fascination with the mythology of the American hero extends to the sub-genre of the private detective. I love the way the Jim Rockford character is a damaged, post-modern spin on the slick, perfect TV detectives of the 1960s and how all of them evolved from the classic 1930s detectives conceived by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Currently, I’m getting a kick out of the series Justified which, filtered through the consciousness of Elmore Leonard, delivers the same basic mix of suspense and ironic humor as The Rockford Files.
Do you have an industry mentor?
There’s really no formal training for story analysis. I worked in an absolute vacuum before I got my first union gig at Columbia. Although I had good ideas, I had to invent my own terms to express them. However, at Columbia, I worked with one of the most gifted teams of story analysts ever assembled and I made huge strides professionally simply by reading their work and stealing blindly from them. Bayard Storey, still at Columbia, taught me the most. Garby Leon and David Bruskin were huge influences as well. I’m still learning from colleagues at Fox like Lyndon Lamphere, Christopher Bomba, Anne Brand Saulnier and Christine Culler.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?
Think twice about making the leap. There’s a Rip Van Winkle quality to the job. You walk into a small room with a script and a computer and, the next time you check the clock, 20 years have passed. It takes a certain temperament and mentality to succeed in the job. Those who are wildly ambitious should look elsewhere. But those looking for a decent salary, space for family and friends, and time to write on the side might find a home.
Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?
The story analysts used to be a small stand-alone local. When Tom Short and the IA decided to merge all the small locals into larger ones in the late 1990s, several shotgun marriages were proposed to us that seemed like disasters in the making. We felt like we had more in common intellectually with the Editors Guild than with any other local. I will be eternally grateful to National Executive Director Ron Kutak and then-President Donn Cambern for listening to us, understanding us and convincing their board of directors to invite us aboard.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members, some words of encouragement?
I’d like to thank the Guild for having us and for working so hard to find jobs for our members by organizing non-union production companies. Although we work at the opposite end of the production process, we are united with editors in our zeal to tell stories in the best way possible.
Compiled by Ed Landler
Editor’s Note: To recommend a member (including yourself) to be featured on the home page of the Editors Guild website, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.