TAEM interview with GMU Screenwriting Professor Todd Messegee

Todd-Messegee-New-YorkTAEM- On March 29th, 2013 we interviewed Professor Todd Messegee (click on to see article) who has now moved his talents to George Mason University. Professor Messegee is well versed in Art and Digital  Photography and is now teaching students at GMU all about screenwriting.  He has also written a number of stories for our publication (see our Short Stories section on the Homepage Toolbar) and his works are well read by all our readers.

Todd, writing and books are the forte of our magazine, and we have displayed many talented writers over the years. One such writer is Raymond Benson  (click on to see article for March 1, 2010), who had written six of the James Bond novels. His work has actually been made into some of the most well known films of our time. How does a screenwriter interpret a novelist’s work to incorporate it into a feature film?

TM- Hello again and thanks for having me back! The world of the fiction book writer and the screenwriter are intertwined and deeply related. Some of the most successful films in history began their journey as books. The main challenge that a screenwriter faces when interpreting a book is that there is often more story content in a book than filmmakers can ever bring to a two hour movie, so unfortunately the first step when translating a book to a movie is to distill the story down to the major narrative beats. That means cutting away anything that doesn’t move the story forward. It’s difficult work and at times is heartbreaking.

TAEM- What direction does the screenwriter get from the filmmaker in order to enhance the script ?

TM- I can only speak from my own experience on the film that I wrote for (director) Andrew Tsao, Brightness (2000). At that time Andrew had just completed the final season of Home Improvement with Tim Allen, and wanted to shoot a pilot for another TV project. We ended up with a very nice short film that went on to win some awards and opened a few doors for us but ultimately was never made into a TV show or a feature, (that’s Hollywood!) Andrew worked with me from the very start. I verbally pitched a few ideas and he picked the one that would become Brightness. As soon as I had a few pages to show him, he started throwing ideas back at me. We progressed back and forth like this up until we shot the film, and then kept going! On the day of a location shoot Andrew read  and reread the scene we were scheduled to shoot later than day. He just felt it could be better, so he told me to go back to the production trailer and rewrite it. I did, and it turned out to be my favorite work in the entire production. I literally pulled it out of my portable typewriter and handed it to the actors who then memorized the lines and we shot it. Now, that’s how it works when a writer has a piece that is bound for production. Otherwise, a writer is on their own. Most of the time, writing is a lonely craft.

TAEM- Does the screenwriter also obtain direction from the novel’s author when writing a script ?

TM- That all depends on the deal that the novelist made with the production company when the screen rights were originally sold. If a production company does a buyout, the novelist has no say at all. If however the novelist is powerful enough to demand a producers credit, they will be allowed to have input. You’d be amazed to learn who has been bought out over the years and who was allowed to be involved. Most production companies – and directors – believe that novelists know nothing about screenwriting and filmmaking and work very hard to make novelists go away by throwing money at them.

TAEM- During filming, changes are often made in the screenwriters work. How do they cope with these, as some changes also come from the actors as well ?

TM- I’ll tell you the truth, it hurts when actors and directors want to change the work! Personally, I’ve learned to just let go of as much of my ego as possible and listen to what they want to change. MOST actors have a very good reason to change a line or two. The most frequent “change” is when an actor just wants to omit a line and “say” it with a silent reaction. That’s fine with me. The bad times are when actors aren’t completely memorized and the lines become very generalized. Writers pull their hair out when that happens. It takes a strong director to get unprepared or nervous actors to focus on the specific words. When so much money has been spent on the script and actors wages it makes sense to get what’s on the page but the realities of a film set often demand that directors settle for “close enough.” The truth is, filmmaking is as tough business for everyone involved,  from start to finish.

TAEM- Once changes are incorporated into the script, how does the screenwriter polish these for presentation, and how do they effect the rest of the script ?

TM- That depends on where the script is in the development process.  Before cameras are rolling the script can be changed hour by hour and the writer has to work hard to keep the story alive, making sense of the structure and all of the little subplots and then bring it all together to deliver the intended impact. That’s just one of the many things that writers have to learn to do. It can be learned, it just takes practice.  Once production begins, however, it’s a whole different story. There is a process where newly rewritten pages replace old pages and the color of the paper that they are printed on changes. By the end of the production the screenplay is this multi-colored document that makes Frankenstein’s monster look like a beauty queen. This is the point where new writers are often brought in because the first screenwriters are literally burnt out and can’t see the core story because of all the changes that have been imposed on them. Fresh writers will be called in to give the battered script a new look. They are sometimes called “Script Doctors”. My wife Lisa and I did a rewrite on a Hallmark movie last year just before it went into production. When we turned in our version of the screenplay we received a call from the producer who personally thanked us for saving the production. That made my day.

TAEM- Does the screenwriter also work closely with the filmmakers and actors on the set in order to make the changes where necessary?

TM- That all depends on the comfort level of the director and the producers. I’ve worked on productions where the writer was literally not allowed on the set unless invited. (I wasn’t the writer on those!) And then I’ve been the writer and spent all day every day on the production. Every production is different, but most often, in feature filmmaking the writer is not there.

TAEM- Does screenwriting often change the storyline from the novel that it is taken from ? We often hear that the book and the movie does not often follow the same events within the story.

TM- That’s where the phrase “Based on the book by…” comes from.  Once a production company buys the film rights for a book, it’s like a custom shop buying a car. They can repaint it, swap out the engine and drive it into a lake and the novelist can’t legally do anything about it. My advice to young fiction writers is, #1 always demand from your publisher that you hang onto the film rights, even if you’re writing a cookbook! #2 Demand twice the amount of money that anyone offers for your film rights. Never give them away. Stephen King sells his short story film rights to students for one dollar, but that’s because he’s Stephen King! Ask for the world and if they say no, be happy. It’s better to have ownership of your film rights than to see your title – and potentially your franchise – destroyed by a lousy film.

TAEM- In your previous interview with our publication, you mentioned your book Hollywood Eats Children. How does your information in this book relate to screenwriters?

TM- Every word is for screenwriters! I actually use Hollywood Eats Children!, as a textbook in my screenwriting classes. It’s the one textbook that my students don’t return to the bookstore! It was written to be a funny, honest view of Hollywood and the screenwriter’s role in that crazy town. There is a great deal of practical writing advice but also many stories that will give writers the courage to keep at it, at least I hope so. I really want to continue to encourage writers of all ages to stick to it! My wife and writing partner, Lisa Nanni-Messegee and I are so dedicated to this idea that we are having a talented web designer create a site for us so we can start a weekly blog about writing. We will be talking about many of the topics that our students are interested in, such as creating character, world building and narrative structure along with many others. The website will be a continuation of Hollywood Eats Children!, and will reach a much larger audience.

TAEM- We also learned that you have worked on several screenplays as well. Can you tell us about these?

TM- I’ve been writing screenplays since I was in graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts. My first few weren’t very good, but I kept reading good books and kept writing my own work. After a few years of writing every night, my work was noticed and I became a development writer for a company called Krofft Entertainment. I mostly wrote TV show pitches and bibles for them, so none of that work was ever seen by the general public. I kept writing at night when I got home from work and over the years I wrote fifteen feature length screenplays. Six of those were written on contract but were never made. I became that classic Hollywood writer who was making a living but not a killing! I was then lucky enough to meet and marry the love of my life, Lisa Nanni-Messegee and now we write together. Lisa is a published playwright and a gifted narrative storyteller. Together we have written three screenplays for Larry Levinson Productions and we are literally waiting to hear about one that’s slated for production later this year or early next year. We have also branched out to write books together. I’ve written two –unpublished – Urban Fantasy novels on my own, but the book that Lisa and I are working on right now is just shining like the sun. We’re going to a writer’s convention in NYC in the spring and I just have a good feeling about this one. We’ll talk more about all of this on the blog once we get that up and running at the end of the year.

TAEM- What methods do you use to teach your students from the experience that you have learned while in the entertainment industry ?

TM- The best way to teach narrative storytelling is to tell a lot of stories. I tell stories in class and more importantly, I make my students tell stories. We start with short pitches, just a few sentences that encapsulate what the story is about and then I have them write a step outline, so they can strategize on how to shape the structure. I try to get them to understand that they don’t have to stick to the outline, it’s just there as a map in case they get lost. Much of storytelling is invention on the fly. That can best be learned by watching the faces of people as you tell the story to them. But to be honest, you can’t learn to write screenplays in one semester, it takes years of practice. Also, every writer must first be a reader. Read a lot and write a lot and your work will improve.

GMU logoTAEM- We have many readers who use our magazine as a learning tool towards their careers. How can they contact you, and your school, to acquire the training that you teach ?

TM- The screenwriting class is taught at George Mason University through the Department of Theater and the School of Film and Video Studies. Any GMU student can take it as long as they have prerequisites for a 400 level writing class. Along with that, Lisa and my blog should be up and running by the end of the year. People can find it by just doing a search for our names, T.L. Messegee or Lisa Nanni-Messegee.  We are also hoping to do some independent events. We did a book signing last November at the Fairlakes Barnes  & Noble bookstore and more of those, along with some speaking engagements that will be open to the public are in the works, but for now I’d have folks just get ready for the blog, we’re not going to hold back anything. I’m ready to spill some writing secrets!

TAEM- Todd, we would like to thank you again for taking your time with our interview, and I am sure that our readers have learned much from it. I want to wish you the best of luck in your career and know that George Mason University has enrolled one of the finest teachers in their staff by bringing you on board.

TM- Thanks, so much. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you!

   TAEM