Interview with Feature Film Writer Dan Dollar

This week’s interview is with screenwriter Dan Dollar, whose feature film career started with the sale of his script THE BOY AND HIS TIGER, the story of Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. We covered everything from his background as an IT consultant for military defense in Virginia through his transition into a full-fledged screenwriting career and the process that landed him his representation in Los Angeles.

When did you break into the industry?
In 2013. I was living in Virginia. I think I put my script up on the Tracking Board in the fall of 2012, just to get the feedback from other amateurs. I started getting calls from people in the industry and reps. I signed with my manager while I was in Virginia. We did a rewrite, and the script went out.

Can you explain your experience with the Tracking Board a little bit?
It’s basically this website and community of industry people and also young writers who are trying to break in. They have contests and and coverage services. I actually put it up in a forum. There’s a place where writers can submit their script for feedback [for free]. I was like, “Hey, can anyone read this and tell me if it’s any good?” And I started getting phone calls within a few days. My manager, now, called me. We did a rewrite with a producer who attached himself, and then we sent it out to agents. My manager sent it out to CAA, and they liked it so they signed me. And that was in early 2013, I think. So I ended up flying out to LA for a week and did a round of generals.

I did thirty or forty generals in five days, and I flew back home. Then, I kind of worked on pitches from home in Virginia, but it didn’t go anywhere, so I moved out to LA in the fall of 2013 and did some more meetings. By early 2013 I became a little bit known because it went around town to production companies and what not.

What were you doing in Virginia before you made the jump to Los Angeles?
I went to college at Liberty University, which in southern Virginia. I did math and philosophy. My dad’s military, so my first career was in the defense industry. I was working in northern Virginia and D.C. as a defense contractor. I did that for a few years after I graduated from college, and I got really sick and had to quit my job to go on disability. And that was, like, 2010 I think.

Once I quit, when I was on disability and living at home, I started writing. And learned how to write. I decided within the first couple of years that I wanted to do screenwriting. I just stayed at home and learned how to write screenplays. I read a couple of books, like Save the Cat. And I read a ton of scripts. I became really obsessed with trying to figure out what made scripts work.

I always liked writing. I was in a band in college and wrote songs – and I love movies so it seemed like a really good marriage. I like writing, but since I was in the IT world, I have a little bit of a programming background. Screenwriting is a little mechanical. There’s a formula, and there’s a lot of problem solving. So it kind of meshed well.

When you came out here you took a bunch of general meetings. What was that like?
They call it the “water bottle tour.” You go to a lot of meetings in a short amount of time, and they always offer you water bottles. It’s basically like you’re meeting with production companies or film studios executives. Those people have read your script, or say they’ve read your script, and they ask you to tell your story. So you become really good at telling your story.

They ask like, “How did you get here?” It’s always the same. It’s really casual. Then they talk to you about movies a little bit. It does depend on the person. Every person is a little different. There are two kinds of generals. When I was meeting, they would ask, “What are you writing now? What are you doing? Do you have any ideas?” So, you walk in there and you want to have three or four ideas to pitch – just to kind of see if you have anything to catch their attention.

They might pitch something to you like, “Do you want to write a spec for us?” Or “We have an open writing assignment that we want you to pitch for.” I have heard that some meetings are more like you meet with the person and they are say, “We like your script, but what else do you have?” That’s if you don’t have reps and aren’t established.

They’re basically trying to touch base with you and get you in their heads and vice versa. Nothing really comes out of generals unless you pitch something they buy. You go through the motions. See if you’re on the same page. I’ve probably done fifty or sixty meetings and maybe pitched on a handful, like maybe six projects or assignments they had. I tried developing maybe two or three projects with two or three executives. So for the most part, it’s meeting people.

Can you talk a little about pitching and working with executives? How does that work?
The last thing I did, there was this producer who was my manager’s friend, and he had the rights to a true story that had already been done as a documentary film. He wanted to turn it into a studio movie. So, he pitched me what the story was and I really liked it. I spent a couple months developing a take with him, like how my pitch should be. We worked on it, collaborated on it. He interviewed the guy. Then once we had a pitch that was really good, we went into a studio and pitched it to one exec of a studio branch, who basically knew about the property and was friends with the producer. They didn’t buy it, but that was the process one time.

You kind of do all this pro bono work for free. You learn to pitch, hoping they’ll buy it.

There are other situations too. The most common thing is to develop a spec with a producer. You might meet with a producer who has an idea but needs a writer because he doesn’t know how to write at all. So, he’s like, “Can you write for me for free?” And if you like the idea and you like him, you might develop a pitch for him. But I think what’s more common is writing a spec based on the producer’s idea. If the producer likes the idea, he puts his name on it and tries to help you sell it. You sell it together as a partnership. I’ve never gone all the way on that. I don’t want to write something for free if it’s for a producer, unless it’s my own idea. Because I don’t want to give three to four months of my life for nothing.

A lot of new writers ask that question. “Should I write for free? Am I supposed to write for free?”
You can write a spec, and it can sell. SECTION 6 did that. A producer pitched a writer the idea, and the writer wrote it for free, and they went out and sold it. So it does happen. It happens a lot.

For me, from a personal creative standpoint, if I’m going to do something for free, it needs to be something that I really, really love and am passionate about, which probably isn’t going to happen with someone else’s idea. And with someone I really really like working with.

The things that you really do have to do for free, at least right now, and it sucks and it’s not fair, you have to kind of develop pitches without getting paid. You’re not getting paid trying to get an open writing assignment. You’re not going to get paid for developing a pitch to sell to studios. Those things take a lot of work. Almost as much as writing the script. Like, literally you have figure out the movie. You have to have a solid fifteen-minute presentation. So it can take weeks and weeks and months to develop a pitch, all for free.

I’m writing specs now. I might develop a spec with a friend who is a C.E. [creative executive] now, but that’s only because it’s my idea, and I gel with him. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t suggest it, but people are different. I wouldn’t say you need to write scripts for producers to break in. I think that’s not true.

You basically want to write your own script to break in?

Did you want to talk about your transitioning interest into television?
Honestly, I didn’t become a star at pitching movies, so I was having trouble landing big jobs. After a year, a year and a half, I talked to my manager and was like, “Maybe we’ll try TV.” I am little more of a character writer. Maybe I can find work easier. So, I’m writing a TV spec now. If it doesn’t land me a job, or if it doesn’t sell, I’m going to go back to writing features.

What would your advice be for writers trying to break in?
I would say most amateur writers worry about things that don’t matter. What really matters most is writing a lot. Getting better and figuring out how to write. How you network, how you act in meetings, that stuff comes later, a lot later. And you’re never going to get those opportunities unless you’re a really good writer.

And there’s also kind of this mentality that — I have a friend who’s a Blacklist reader and a lot of writers keep submitting the same scripts over and over, looking for new scores. You have to be objective about your work and stand apart from it. You have to look at your writing and say, “Well, if I’m going to be honest here, what needs to get better in order for a script to get better and for me to become better as a writer?” That stuff is really important. Not, “Which contests should I enter?” or “Do I need to be in L.A.?”

I’m a pretty standard example of, like, if you have a really good script, it doesn’t matter. It’s going to get found. People are going to want it and going to want to meet you.

I think a lot of people just don’t want to do the work, or they don’t have the passion or whatever. But people just have a hard time being themselves and being creative, exploring and making themselves better. If a lot of people are telling you something sucks, it probably does.

Although, like I was saying what really helped me earlier, I was so passionate about writing and writing my own movies. I wrote three or four movies, which were just terrible. But I didn’t realize it because I didn’t know what was good and what was bad.

But you were learning?
I was getting better. I was constantly improving. Still couldn’t see from the point of view of someone who was actually at a professional level, but just being able to not worry about “I have to do this. I have to do that. This isn’t good enough.” Blah blah blah. Being able to write freely and be creative, that really helped develop my own voice. And then at the end of it, going back and seeing what needs to be fixed.

Any last advice?
What I used to tell amateur writers – my two biggest things reading scripts were – they weren’t lean enough in their writing. They kind of rambled on. Amateur writers tend to overwrite prose and overwrite things that don’t matter. So just being able to be lean, clear with the emotions – what is going on and what we’re supposed to feel. And then speed. Make it fast.

That would be my advice for writers. Make sure you’re clear in what’s going on and make sure you’re lean and quick as a read.