US screenwriter interview – Brian Sawyer & Gregg Rossen

Hi there,

This is the second of my weekly newsletter \ blogs for 2012. Earlier last year I spent a really interesting and enjoyable week in Singapore teaching a script editing course to Singapore TV Drama professionals.

While there I also met an American screenwriting partnership, BRIAN SAWYER & GREGG ROSSEN.

BRIAN & GREGG are experienced and successful screenwriters, resident in LA, working right at the heart of the US TV and film industries. They very kindly agreed to do an interview for and they offer a fascinating insight into the differences – and similarities – between working as a screenwriter in the US and the UK.

They are also brilliant and experienced teachers of screenwriting – as well as running regular courses back home in California, they have taught all over the world – from Singapore to Iceland to Bermuda.

I’m hoping to set up a course for them in London later this year when they will offer an insight into how UK-based screenwriters can break into the huge US market – which should be well worth catching! Watch the website for further information on this in the coming months. In the meantime, here is the interview they did for me. ENJOY!

Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer are both graduates of USC’s School of Cinema-TV. They recently sold their comedy script “Bulletproof Bride” to the Hallmark Channel and optioned their comedy “The Christmas Consultant” to MTV Networks. In addition, they are currently developing the television project “Skating Through Life” with ice skating champion Michelle Kwan, as well as “Model Family,” a TV pilot starring Jamie Kennedy purchased by 20th Century Fox Television. Prior to that, they sold their feature comedy screenplay “Diesel Debutante” to New Line Cinema, and “Guida” to Revolution Studios as a vehicle for Jennifer Lopez. Prior to this, they sold the dance-spoof pitch “Save the Last Dirty Flashdance for Footloose Billy Elliott” to Tapestry Entertainment. They also wrote the “Pixar’s 20th Anniversary Special.” Most recently Gregg and Brian sold their live-action tv pilot script “Home Turf” to Nickelodeon” in January 2012.

“Bulletproof Bride” has just finished shooting and will be released in June 2012.

How did you both start off as screenwriters? Did you train and if so where and for how long? How useful was this training?

We both went to USC School of Cinema for graduate school. It was useful but 3.5 years is a long time to go to “learn” about something that is best accomplished by doing. Still, it was really useful for meeting people and being a part of a community of filmmakers. One big regret is while at film school neither of us wrote a full feature screenplay ready to go out, though we both did make a lot of short films and learn filmmaking craft.

So after graduation we started to write, but it probably set our careers back a couple years not having left school with a batch of scripts ready to hit the spec market, which at that time was very hot.

What films \ TV shows influenced you? What were the films \ shows that inspired you to want to become screenwriters?

Shows that influenced us? TV-wise, a lot of them were British, from “Monty Python” to “I Claudius.” Actually, one of our earliest projects combined those two shows. A sitcom set in Ancient Rome… actually, the backwater Roman province where all the best Roman families sent their “little mistakes,” i.e. those family members who were too stupid or lascivious to handle it in Rome.

Did you both work as individual writers before working together? How did you get together? And what do you see as the benefits of working as a writing partnership? How does the process of writing together work? Please tell us a bit about the process involved.

Before meeting up at film school, we’d both been involved in various aspects of creative, or at least, media, endeavors. Just after finishing undergrad, Gregg worked for Britain’s TV-am, researching story segments for “Good Morning Britain,” and Brian edited the “California Pelican” humor mag at the Univ. of California at Berkeley when an undergrad, and worked in hometown Santa Barbara’s theater scene.

As for our career writing, we’ve mostly written as a team. In comedy it’s really useful to have a collaborator both for pitching or to brainstorm jokes, etc, and also it helps to generate material faster. Also a collaborator can tell you if something is funny, or tasteless, or just stupid. For other genres or more personal stories, there seem to be fewer writing teams, but those genres have never been that interesting for us.

Our process is that we brainstorm together, either in person or over email. When we find an idea we like, we’ll explore it further with an outline. As spec writers, we generate projects that we like and then write them, on spec, in the hopes of selling them down the line. For us to like an idea it has to pass the Cocktail Party Test, i.e. it has to be something we’re not ashamed to mention at a cocktail party. If we love an idea, we next enlist our reps to see if (a) they like it and (b) they think they can sell it. They both have excellent story sense as well as a sense of the market which we, as insulated writers, don’t have.

Do you mainly write ‘on spec’ or under commission? What genres \ areas do you write in mainly? How did you break into the industry? Where do opportunities lie for budding screenwriters in the current US marketplace?

Though there are always rumors of wonderful “open assignments” which studios pay top dollar to have rewritten, in our experience only a handful of writers really do that kind of work. Pretty much everything we’ve sold has been on spec. As far as genres, we write comedy for the most part, though we’ve optioned a couple books which we turned into dramas, one on the life of automaker John Delorean who hustled the British government into investing in his dream of creating a new car company in Northern Ireland in the turbulent 80s. But again, comedy is our forte.

Our first sale in the business was a pitch we sold to a small company at a time when the Scary Movie franchise was on fire spoofing horror films, and we came up with a spoof of dance movies. It was a tiny sale, but it gave us the sense that we could sell stuff in town just like everyone else. That’s an important psychic hurdle to leap. Being seen as a writer, and seeing yourself as a writer… those are not small leaps of faith to make, especially in Los Angeles where every person on the street professes to be working on a screenplay, and where the lion’s share of people you meet are in some way affiliated with the industry.

Energized by this sale, we wrote a screenplay called “Diesel Debutante” about a rich society deb who inherits a redneck racing team (i.e. “Nascar” sort of racing… an American version of Formula 1… big money is involved but it used to have the aura of being redneck and associated with the South… think of the old Smokey and the Bandit of movies). We loved the fish out of water collision of East Coast debutante and Southern racers, and a character who never had to work for herself who finds an unlikely outlet for her energies and dreams. That was our first major sale when it was purchased by New Line, and that’s what got us into the Writers Guild.

How important is pitching (particularly verbal but also written pitches)? I get the impression that you have to do a lot of pitching of completed scripts as well as pitching new ideas. In the UK pitching is more about new ideas, in order to get a script commission. Please could you give a few tips about what’s involved in successful pitching. And a few tips about how to run a pitching meeting successfully.

The fashions are always changing with regard to pitching– one month we’ll hear the studios only want pitches, the next month we’ll hear they only want to read completed screenplays. From the writers perspective a pitch is easier– you’re able to float an idea without the time commitment it would take to write a completed screenplay. Then on the other hand, we’ve occasionally been pulled into situations where a pitch drags on for so long, with producers endlessly “tweaking” aspects of the pitch, that we realize just writing the screenplay could easily have taken less time.

One thing we discovered a few years ago was that having visual aids of any sort changed the dynamic of a pitch, for the better. Especially if you could lay out the tone of the vision you have in your head. That’s when we called on our film school skills and started making short films to illustrate our ideas.

Studio executives are smart and well-read. They come from the best universities, and if you ran into them at a party you’d have fun hanging out, discussing literature or politics. BUT when you’re pitching to them, you need to give them the most salient, fun, interesting points of your story in the most succinct way possible, so that they can then SHARE your idea with their bosses and colleagues. Very few people have the power to say “yes” so you need to give the person you’re pitching to the best tools for adequately discussing your story once you leave the room. We discovered that short films are a great way to accomplish this, and you can check out some of our pitch shorts at the links below. Some sold, some didn’t. But at least we got the chance to put our stories out there and communicate what we had in our heads.

What are the scripts you have written of which you’re most proud? Why have the scripts that have done well for you, worked? Do you see any common elements in your more successful projects? Please can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done as screenwriters, what excites you, what elements you look for in a story.

We find the scripts that we enjoy writing are also the ones which sell. We’re most proud of our comedy “Diesel Debutante” and also “Model Family” which was a comedy TV pilot sold to 20th Century Fox TV. These ideas to us were strong enough on their own that the drama/character/comedy were all inherent in the basic idea, rather than elements we had to rack our brains over. When we fall in love with an idea, it writes itself, and that fact is so apparent on the page. Characters that are distinctive, with their own unique voice, and a comedic premise which clearly can drive the story forward… that’s what it’s all about. These are the stories that, once we think of them, we MUST write them.

How important is a good agent \ manager for you? What qualities should screenwriters look for in an agent?

Having been at both the big agencies and the smaller ones, in our experience the best representation comes from someone who genuinely appreciates your work, because that passion translates from them to potential buyers, and generally gets the best results. Big agencies are prestigious, and the agents there savvy and tied in, although that may not necessarily translate into anything specific, while a smart insightful rep at a smaller agency can move mountains if in love with the material. It really is about who “gets” you.

Do you have suggestions for new screenwriters just starting out about how to go about learning the craft of screenwriting – any drills or good practices you’d recommend?; any books in particular they should be reading? Do you think screenwriting classes are a good idea in principle?

We like the book series “Save the Cat”– it’s all very practical (and accurate) info written by a writer who sold material relatively recently and his advice seems very in tune with the market. As far as classes we would say stay away from any classes except for Philip’s and ours 🙂 Just kidding. Classes can be good, but try to take classes that have an eye towards the marketplace, because ultimately the goal is to get one’s work sold. Sorry if that sounds crass, but it is the reality of developing a career as a screenwriter.

By the way, we should mention we met Philip in Singapore when we were all teaching classes there. With so few natural resources the Singaporean government has a major stake in developing its human capital, a smart move which acknowledges that screenwriting is not something you necessarily succeed at overnight… it takes an investment of time, energy, time, mindpower, time, talent, time, etc.

Please can you tell us a little about your teaching work, and perhaps discuss how your teaching and writing feed each other. What do you learn for your writing from helping other writers?

Teaching is great because as much as we preach the importance of good structure, we will still forget to employ it, and the classes we teach remind us of what to emphasize in our own work. Oh yeah, our main character still doesn’t have a well-defined arc. Or, that dialogue absolutely sucks. As teachers, we often see in the missteps our students take the same missteps we take daily. It’s nice to feel insightful and all-seeing as an instructor (as writers, ego boosts are few and far between). But it’s easy to be insightful with someone else’s work. Teaching helps us improve our own writing immeasurably, reinforcing the tools in the writer’s tool box.

Feel free to check out these links of pitch trailers we’ve done:


In a family of perfect supermodels, it’s hard to be the ugly duckling.. (Fox TV)


A woman on the verge of marrying Mr. Perfect discovers she’s accidentally already married to the slacker she let live in her basement the past seven years.


When a tough 3-star General gets fired and returns to civilian life, he takes on a new challenge: to get his son a girlfriend.

“SKATING THROUGH LIFE” with Michelle Kwan

Can a beautiful, smart ice skating champ navigate the world of endorsements, charity, diplomacy, and training–and carve out a normal life to boot?

If you have any follow-up questions for Brian & Gregg, please send them to me through the website or via email and I will ask them to respond… A quick reminder – our Feb 4th & 5th London screenwriting course, ‘The Authoritative Guide To Writing & Selling A Great Screenplay’ is only a week or so away and very nearly sold out. Book now if you want to attend. Followed by ‘How To Give A Great Pitch’ London March 10th and… ‘The Authoritative Guide To Writing And Selling A Great Script’ in Belfast March 24th & 25th. the best Phil

Phil Shelley

January  27th 2012