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Featured Screenwriter

This month we are featuring screenwriter Paul W. Cooper. Mr. Cooper has over 25 years of writing experience in film and television. He has about 60 TV credits (including one of our favorite TV series that we hate to admit we loved-"Little House On the Prairie"), numerous cable movies, and feature films. He has been awarded 3 Emmys (5 nominations), the Humanitas Prize (2 nominations), and 3 Writer's Guild Award nominations. He wrote the screenplay for Clifton L. Taulbert's book "Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored", which won the best movie award at the 1st Black Film Festival. He also teaches writing for film and television at Pepperdine University, and does script analysis for screenwriters.

Mr. Cooper has been so kind as to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about screenwriting, and the screenwriting business.

BSP: From reading your Bio, you have had long, and diverse writing career. How did you get your start?

Paul: There's a short answer to that question and a long one. I'll give you the short skinny. When I graduated from the University of Tulsa, there was a little war going on over in Southeast Asia. I joined the Air Force and began Officer Training School in San Antonio, Texas. While there, I met a funny looking little stray dog that had somehow wandered onto the base some time earlier and had taken a liking to military life. He had been adopted as the school mascot and was given the name O.T. Dog (O.T. stands for Officer Trainee). Some truly remarkable things happened involving that dog during the 90 days I was there and ultimately, the animal was recognized and promoted to the rank of A.F. Brigadier General. I knew this was a great story and felt I was actually living in a Walt Disney movie the entire time I was there. I vowed to someday tell O.T. Dog's story to the world.

Following OTS, I entered pilot training in Georgia. And one year later, I was assigned to fly the KC-135 tanker for the Strategic Air Command, based at Travis AFB near San Francisco. The tanker is a 707 aircraft modified for refueling bombers and fighters in midair. I had some tours of duty in Vietnam and elsewhere but our main occupation was to sit on 24 hour alert in an underground facility in the event of an attack which would require us to take off and refuel our bombers headed to Russia and China (WWIII). It was while sitting those long, interminable hours, days and weeks in a "mole hole" that I turned to my passion of writing and found the time to tell the story of O.T. Dog. I wanted to write a screenplay. I had never seen a screenplay or even a TV script before and had no idea how to begin. So I wrote my story like a play and filled it with terms such as FADE IN, FADE OUT and CUT TO, etc. in the most inappropriate places. When finished, I had a 176 page "screenplay" that I thought was wonderful and I was eager to release it to an entertainment-starved world.

Silly me. My script, of course, was horrible. It was much too long, followed no discernable format, was filled with rehash, deadwood and tedium and was, simply, an abomination. But none of that really mattered. What that script did was get me hooked on screenwriting and I owe my entire career to that funny little dog who so inspired me back at OTS.

I just kept writing. I couldn't stop. I wrote episodes of existing TV shows; MEDICAL CENTER, THE WALTONS, SANFORD AND SON, McMILLAN AND WIFE, MARCUS WELBY and others. After about a year, I had a stack of maybe ten original scripts, each one just a little better, more crafted and refined, than the previous (even though they were still formatted entirely inappropriately). I found the address of the Writers Guild of America and wrote to them. They sent back a list of agents. I started sending out my best samples to these agents and routinely got my scripts back with very polite rejection notices. Of course, now it's so clear to me that all anyone had to do was thumb through the pages and see my "unorthodox" formatting style and they wouldn't even bother to read the material. After two years of this frustration, I had enough rejection slips to paper the bathroom.

And then – my lucky break. I met my wife. An A.F. nurse. Blind date. Over dinner, I mentioned my writing hobby and listed some of the TV series episodes I had written, among them, The Waltons. She informed me that back in Richmond, VA, she lived next door to the sister of Earl Hamner, creator of The Waltons. In fact, her neighbor was the real Mary Ellen Walton.

Okay, my short version of this story is starting to turn into the long version so I'm going to short hand it from here. My wife-to-be put me in touch with Earl Hamner who read my material (no doubt holding his nose) saw merit in it and encouraged me to come to Hollywood. I took him up on his recommendation and he mentored me into a career.

BSP: Where do you get your ideas for your screenplays?

Paul: Ideas, of course, come from everywhere. You have to be receptive to them. Anytime a news story, for instance, strikes you as been odd or quirky or seems to hold some particular fascination for you, then put some thought into it. Imagine how you might tell that same story your way and how you would develop the characters involved in the story. Sometimes, a story begins with an opportunity. Some one might tell me that a producer is looking for a particular kind of story in a particular genre. My first instinct is to look over my own catalog of stories I have on hand. Is there anything there I could submit or redefine in a way to interest the producer? If not, then I put myself in the genre mode. The producer's looking for a family, outdoor adventure story, so I begin with the arena (the world in which the story takes place). Outdoors makes me think of mountains. Mountains translates into animals. What if a wolf is caught in a poacher's trap and will be killed unless set free. But who's going to set it free? I need a character. A man is riding his horse in the mountains... no, a woman is riding her horse through the woods. The horse is spooked by a wolf who lunges out causing the horse to buck and throw the woman. The woman crashes to the ground, breaking her ankle and the horse runs away leaving the woman facing the jaws of a ferocious wolf. But now the woman discovers the wolf is caught in a snare trap and can't get loose. Now we have a life and death situation. A woman is stranded high in the mountains with a broken ankle, no one knows she's missing and her only companion is a doomed wolf caught in a trap. I've got a good start. A powerful and dramatic situation. Now it's a matter of filling in the details. Who is the woman? Why is she here? What relationship will she develop with the wolf? What will the poachers do when they come? Can she save the wolf? Can she save herself? When you've worked out all the details, you have a story.

BSP: What is your favorite movie?

Paul: My favorite movie of all times is DR. ZHIVAGO. I saw the film in a brand new theater in all it's Cinemascope majesty and with the best sound possible and I was transported. David Lean, the director, is famous for his meticulously crafted films. This was a masterpiece that held me in a state of suspended animation for 3 full hours and I never wanted it to end. Another film of nearly equal proportions is APOCALYPSE NOW. But it is vital you experience these films originally in a theater and not on the minute screen of a television. I believe you lose a full 50% of the experience. Two more almost perfect films are DRIVING MISS DAISY and UNFORGIVEN.

BSP: What is the hardest part you find thing you find about screenwriting?

Paul: The hardest part of screenwriting for me has always been just getting started. I come up with a great idea. But it won't mean a thing unless and until and I can get the words on the page. Facing that blank computer screen is the most difficult job in the world. I'm certain everyone reading this can identify with me on some level. The danger you face is making a false start. In other words, you start your story in the wrong place and don't have a good handle on those critical first five pages. If this happens, you will soon learn your story is going nowhere, you get discouraged and will maybe even scrap the project. That would be a shame. Here is what you must do. Give a lot of thought to your opening before you write a word. Come up with that first image that will appear on the screen and dream up a scene that will immediately grab an audience. That's just fundamental storytelling, isn't it? Once, you are convinced of your opening scene, write it! Work it, refine it until you know those first two to five pages are going to open the eyes of some cynical, squinty-eyed studio reader. Now you've got a base. And once you're happy with those pages, you'll be surprised how quickly the pages will come thereafter. Remember this – a good story writes itself. If you've got a good story, don't stand in the way, let it come out and you'll be flying all over the keyboard as fast as you can type.

BSP: Do you use screenwriting software? If yes, do you think it is helpful to new screenwriters?

Paul: I do not use screenwriting software and can give no recommendation concerning this subject. I work in MS Word. I developed my own style sheet years ago and continue to use it today. I'm comfortable with it and it serves me well. I'm always amazed at amateur screenplays I read where the software program cut a block of dialog in the wrong place or whatever and the writer allowed the error to stand in the false belief that the program is wiser than the writer. I prefer to format my own work as I go along. I find myself often times editing a block of dialog or narrative just to get it all on one page rather than to flow over. I am careful about how each page looks. Remember, the goal is to make the script read as easily and naturally as possible. No distractions.

BSP: Do you feel that an agent is necessary to get your screenplays turned into movies? How does a person go about getting an agent if it is necessary to have one?

Paul: . A very important subject and one I have strong opinions about. Imagine someone going to the art supply store and buying a large 30"x50" canvas. He pays a fortune for a box of oil paints and buys the best camel hair brushes recommended. Then he takes all this home and begins painting. And all the time he is smearing oils onto the canvas, he's debating in his mind if he will demand $100,000 for his painting or will he settle for $75,000 even though he's never painted anything before in his life. Sounds ludicrous doesn't it? And yet, I see so many screenwriters out there who approach writing in this very same way. STOP IT!

Remember, storytelling is an art, screenwriting is a craft. LEARN YOUR CRAFT. Don't give a thought to acquiring an agent or trying to sell your script until you've actually become a screenwriter. As a rule, one or even two screenplays don't do the job. Remember in my little story above, I wrote maybe 10 or 12 scripts over a period of a year or longer before I even began to seek an agent and even then, I wasn't really prepared. You'll know when you have a professional screenplay to show. Lots of writers recognize their script has weaknesses but believe if only a producer will read it, he will be so enthralled with the concept he'll overlook the faults and write a check for half a million dollars. FORGET IT!

Pay your dues. Write, write and write. If, in fact, you've written one screenplay and have no inclination, desire or ambition to write another until you've sold the first one, then you are not a writer. You're a one trick pony and you have no future in filmmaking. Remember, an artist paints because he has to. A dancer dances because she has to. A musician makes music because he must. A writer writes because she has no choice. The stories are inside her, bursting to find release. And whether or not she ever gets a dime for her stories, she will continue to write simply because she's an artist.

If, in fact, you have paid your dues, you've written extensively and have a strong viable property ready to be read then -- you need an agent. There are lots of articles and books written on the subject of getting an agent that are probably more current than any advice I may give since I have had the same agent for 25 years. Essentially, what you must do is contact the agent with a very strong and meticulously worded query letter that will get him/her to respond positively and invite you to send your script. Never send a script without being asked. The query letter is, as you can see, critical. Again, there are articles all over the web on how to write your letter. Once you get your script into the hands of an agent willing to read it, then it's up to the words to do the rest.

BSP: Do you think that screenplay contests are a good start for new screenwriters?

Paul: Screenplay contests. I really have no practical experience with contests therefore can offer little advice. I presume, like anything, some are helpful, others are useless. Certainly the Nichol contest is the most prestigious and I assume if you score well there, your script will get read by the right people. There are probably other such contests but I'm unaware. I guess my general attitude is, if it don't cost too much to enter, it can't hurt.

BSP: When you wrote the screen adaptation for “Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored”, how were you able to maintain the balance between the original author’s novel, and what you wanted to accomplish in the screenplay?

Paul: Now let's talk about "Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored." I met Clifton Taulbert, author of the book, about 20 years ago. We lost touch. And then about 12 years later, he called me and told me he had written his autobiography. It had gotten great reviews and a lot of literary notice. Now he was trying to sell the book to Hollywood. He had an entertainment lawyer taking it around but so far no luck. Everyone said they loved the book. It had great characters. Was evocative of the era. But what's the story? No one could see a story. The book was essentially Cliff's memoirs and, though filled with characters and events, there was no through line to hold everything together. I could see the problem easily. But I was so captivated by the strong characters, I just knew I had to bring Papa and Ma Ponk and Cliff and Ma Pearl to life. So I took what the book gave me. I had my core characters, I had a historical period and the Mississippi delta as my arena. I used events occurring in the book as landmarks. And I used the young Cliff character as the catalyst to hold it all together. And I started to write. I wanted that much-needed strong, heart-clutching opening so I had Cliff born in a cotton field. Now in reality, Cliff Taulbert was not born in a cotton field. But I'm a writer, a storyteller, a dramatist. And my instinct was to put Mary on her back in labor between the rows of bursting cotton and have that little, innocent baby fall into the hands of Ma Ponk and into a world of bigotry, pain and toil.

If you read Cliff's wonderful biography and then watch my filmed adaptation, I believe you will have a sense they are one in the same. But if you look closely, you'll find that I created many scenes and characters not found in the book. Melvin, Alice, Sammy and Miss Nila are major characters in the movie but never actually existed. Miss Mabry is a composite of two characters described in the book. The whole tent show episode with Miss Nila came about because of a single paragraph in the book describing Uncle Cleve's visit once to a tent show in Jackson. And finally, the climax involving the showdown between the colored community and the A&D Ice Company was not in the book. But the episode came about after discussing with Cliff the need for a dramatic, life-affirming finish to the story. He recalled then the "ice war" and I jumped on it and turned it into our climax.

I know Cliff is proud of the movie which he calls the "Hollywood version of his life" and he's exactly right. The screenwriter's obligation is to the audience. I took dramatic license in bringing Clifton Taulbert's life to the screen but I believe I maintained a fair and accurate sense of the time and place and know for a fact, the story would never have been made into a film without the screenwriter's contribution.

I wrote the script on spec. Cliff submitted it to Tim Reid who was already a fan of the book but, until he read my screenplay, had no idea how to adapt it. He immediately optioned the book and screenplay and made the movie.

BSP: You have written original movie screenplays, TV scripts, Cable movies, and a screen adaptation from a novel (“Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored”). Do you take different approaches when you write for these different mediums?

Paul: TV scripts, cable movies, films and screen adaptations are all basically the same thing. They require the ability to tell a story. I approach every assignment or spec project exactly the same, that is, with my own personal style and approach to storytelling. Everyone has his own style. It is developed over time and experience. It is something you master but only through doing. Hence the saying, "Writers write." Adaptations are a special challenge in that the screenwriter must override the novelist and instinctively know what in a book is retained and what is discarded. It is a special talent that, again, can be mastered through experience. But once you've determined the thrust of the story and settled on characters and events, then all the same rules of screenwriting apply.

BSP: Once a studio has optioned your screenplay, do you have much control over any changes that maybe required to the script?

Paul: Legally, once you've sold your rights to your screenplay, the studio/producer, etc. may do anything they please with your property. Often times they will hire another writer to do rewrites and often your original work can be changed drastically. I've been fortunate. I've never been rewritten. All of the producers I have worked with have allowed me to do the rewrites and polishes so, generally, everything that went on the screen was in my final drafts.

BSP: Besides from screenwriting, you also do script analysis for screenwriters. What are the main elements you look for in a good screenplay?

Paul: When I read screenplays from beginning writers there are specific things I look for. Most of these points have been covered ad nauseam in books and articles but I feel compelled to repeat many here. First. Neatness counts. Write your script in a proper, recognized format, 12 point courier. NO TYPOS. Insure proper grammar. An improperly formatted screenplay, careless grammar and punctuation and typos brand you as an amateur regardless of story content.

Next. I can tell a lot about a writer in the first half page of the script. Besides format and neatness being revealed, I already get a sense of the writing style and competence of the writer. In a half page I can tell if the material is written by a professional or an amateur. Most of it has to do with the words chosen to tell the story. Is there an economy of words or is there an abundance of unnecessary words. A flow is established immediately and I can tell the nature of the flow. I am already getting a sense of the writer's style and right out of the box, in that very first image offered, I can tell if the writer is visual and cinematic. All of this is revealed before hardly any story content comes out. That is why those first 3 to 5 pages are sooooo important to the success of a screenplay. You're either going to win your reader over or not in those first few pages.

BSP: The main goal of BlackScreenPlays.com is to increase the number of African American screenwriter, and films. The WGA reports that only 6% of screenwriters are minority. What do you feel could be done to increase the number of minority screenwriters?

Paul: Concerning the subject of minority screenwriters. The WGA has an official Black Caucus and there have been and are efforts to create new open door policies. My opinion on the matter is this. Writers should first be writers. The question was asked, if an African American writes an African American screenplay, does he run the risk of becoming pigeonholed into writing only African American movies. I believe if a writer persists in writing only one kind of material, then yes, he certainly runs the risk of being pigeonholed. Generally, successful action movie writers will get a reputation as being able to deliver an action movie. Comedy writers write comedy. If, in fact, you don't want to be "typed" then diversify. I personally write in a very wide range of genre. I just keep writing and throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I write what interests me and there is not just one single subject or genre that interests me.

My advice is, take a look at what is commercial at any given time and see if there's anything there you could find interesting. If there is, then work up a story in that commercially viable genre with a subject that is of interest to you. From there on, WRITE FOR YOURSELF. Make it the kind of movie YOU would go and see. If you're successful and not so terribly esoteric, then when you've finished, you should have a pretty good script in a commercially viable genre for the market.

My best advice. To learn how to write screenplays, you must READ screenplays. They're easy to find. They're all over the net for free even. Download some. Read in all genres. Read 30 scripts. Then start focusing on scripts written in the genre that most interests you. These screenplays now become the models to which your writing will aspire.

You should be thinking in terms of writing an original 2 hour feature film. Don't write Rocky VI or Jaws 4 or Scary Movie III. You don't own the rights. Make it totally originally, totally yours. This script must be the best work you can do and when you at last have it in saleable shape, this is the one you will offer to agents. This will be your calling card. And the beauty is, it doesn't matter your sex, race, nationality, religion or sexual persuasion... all that matters are the words on the pages. Writers tend to be anonymous. All anyone knows is your name. They don't care about any of the rest of it so long as you've created a product that can be sold and produced and distributed for a lot of money. That's Show Biz.

Good luck. And keep writing.

Paul Cooper

We would like to thank Mr. Cooper for this time, and help with this site. As a special bonus Mr. Cooper has supplied us with a copy of his screenplay Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored., and the Film Review.

Mr. Paul W. Cooper can be reached at his web site: Hollywood Working Writer

He offers a script analysis service (see our example screenplay page for examples of what he can do for your screenplay) for screenwriters, as well as a free Mini Course in Screenwriting paper. Here is his film credits.

 

 
Featured Screenwriter