Produced Writers Jack Sekowski and Maria Veltre
On September 17, 1996, Jack Sekowski and Maria Veltre sold their spec comedy script, "Before Billy," to Larry Gordon at Universal. Years of writing finally paid off for them after numerous close calls, small options, and several awards. In the process, they acquired some worthwhile insights into the script writing business.
SSSD: Spec Screenplay Sales Directory
Jack: Jack Sekowski
Maria: Maria Veltre
SSSD: How did the two of you team up before you started to write "Before Billy"?
Jack: We went to film school together, and always admired each other's work, as students. When we made the move to California, I went to AFI [The American Film Institute], to study screenwriting. I thought Maria was an amazing writer, so I encouraged her to take some screenwriting classes at UCLA and USC. She was a natural, as I suspected, and we found that we preferred collaborating. That was about a decade ago, and we've been writing together ever since.
SSSD: Did you ever read each other's material before you wrote your first script together?
Jack: We knew each other's talent and ability very well. Before we began collaborating, Maria had written a number of short stories and I had written one screenplay on my own, which won a Nissan FOCUS Award.
Maria: Basically, we started out in screenwriting together, but we both had prior interest and experience in writing.
SSSD: Did you both go to AFI?
Jack: No, just me. We met at The Ohio State University.
SSSD: Was "Before Billy" the first screenplay that you two wrote together?
Jack: No, it was about the fifth.
SSSD: But it was the first one that you sold together?
SSSD: OK. Tell me about the writing process that you go through as a team. Do you each write alternate scenes, or do you work on the same scenes? Do you work together or separately?
Jack: Typically the first part is just a lot of sitting around and talking; talking about ideas, and talking and more talking until, finally, those ideas start to come together in a very detailed scene outline. Once the whole outline is done, we divide the different sections up rather arbitrarily, and we proceed to write those sections ourselves. When those sections are done, we exchange them and the other person rewrites them until we reach an agreement, and it's done.
Maria: [laughing] You forgot to mention all the fighting and gnashing of teeth in between.
Jack: Oh, of course, as with any good partnership, there is lots of drama.
SSSD: Each person might write five or six scenes at a time?
Jack: Yeah, a whole sequence perhaps.
SSSD: After you wrote your first screen play, did you know that you would be a good writing team?
Jack: Yes, we discovered that we have certain sensibilities, strengths and weaknesses and that they were complementary, so we continued together.
SSSD: How do you work it out when one person thinks that something is funny, and the other person doesn't?
Jack: It rarely happens. Our taste is very similar, in that respect.
Maria: And when it happens, then whoever feels the most passionately wins.
SSSD: That's fair. Did you need to do any research before writing "Billy"?
Maria: Among other things, books and such that applied to childhood development, we interviewed a 10-year-old girl.
SSSD: Well, how did you find her?
Jack: She was the daughter of a friend of ours.
SSSD: What kind of questions did you ask her?
Maria: Really just a bunch of silly things. More than anything, we wanted to observe her. We took her out for ice-cream, and we were fascinated by the way that girls change so much from when they are around ten to when they are teenagers.
Jack: It was so helpful.
Maria: I remember how amazed we were that she had ice-cream all over her mouth and she didn't even care. When you are twelve that would completely unacceptable, but it didn't matter to her. Noticing those little kinds of details really helped us zero in on the difference between a ten-year-old and a teenager, because when girls hit twelve or thirteen these days, most of the "little girl" is out of them. They're more like adults at that point.
SSSD: Was that a one-time meeting?
Jack: No, we talked to her a number of times.
SSSD: Did those meetings give you a feel for the dialogue of a ten-year-old?
Maria: Yes, and we also had some friends that had even younger children.
Jack: We also had friends who are parents read the screen play to find out if it felt "real" and accurate to them, based on their experiences as parents. We were concerned about being believable. Do kids talk like that and behave like this?
Maria: Everyone seemed to feel that we were on the right track.
SSSD: Then your research was a very important part of you writing process. The story is about the woman taking Chinese herbs. You say that she takes the herbs to maintain her youthful appearance, but she suddenly finds that she is ten years old again?
Jack: Actually, she takes the herbs to slow down her biological clock because her husband is not quite ready to have kids, so she hears that these herbs will allow her to have kids in her sixties if she wants to.
Maria: Which is not necessarily what she wants, but it's a comedy.
Jack: The herbalist makes a little mistake - instead of slowing down her biological clock, he resets it to zero, and she wakes up ten years old again.
SSSD: Did you do any research on Chinese herbs?
Jack: Yes, they are all over Chinatown, in Los Angeles. We talked to the herbalists and to the people who buy the herbs. What we were suggesting in the screenplay is complete fiction, obviously.
Maria: Imagine the rush on Chinatown if it were real.
Jack: But there are so many concoctions that ARE real, we felt confident that such an herb would be within the realm of believability.
SSSD: Did you do any other research for the script?
Maria: We just talked to a lot of parents and a lot of friends. What we were really trying to capture was the feeling of growing up but not losing touch with the child within you.
Jack: Yes, at the core of it, that is really what our movie is about -- growing up and not losing the child within you. When we start the movie, our characters are really at opposite ends of the spectrum. The husband is very childish; he never grew up. The wife, on the other hand, is too proper and too mature for her own good, so when she becomes a child she recaptures that childlike joie de vivre.
Maria: In the end, they're both more balanced. Like they've found that perfect spot on the see-saw, where neither of them will plummet ever again.
Jack: Adults, with the hearts of children.
SSSD: How did you come up with that idea?
Jack: It stemmed from the whole notion of balance - what is the best way to deal with this balance issue? We found that a lot of people are unbalanced: either they are overly mature and sophisticated, or they are so childlike that they are totally irresponsible.
SSSD: Would you call this screenplay a romantic comedy?
Jack: It's a comedy / fantasy.
SSSD: How did you go about selling the screenplay?
Jack: Our agent handled that.
SSSD: Oh, you already had an agent?
Maria: Yes, we'd been represented for many years prior to completing "Before Billy." We were always right on the brink of "something" good happening.
Jack: The first agent we got was for the first script we wrote together. I had just come out of AFI, and I wrote to some people saying that I had just graduated, had written a screenplay with Maria, and asked if they would please read it.
SSSD: Do you think that it helped that you were able to tell them that you had graduated from AFI?
Jack: Absolutely. Anything that will separate and distinguish you from the masses of query letters that agents receive daily will help you -- film school, or winning some screenwriting award. Anything that separates you from the thousands of people who have no commissions, no awards, no education will help you a little bit.
Maria: It was funny. A very well known and highly respected agent read our very first collaboration, "Birthday Wishes." He flipped. He called us in his office, said he thought it would be a "slam/dunk," an instant sale. We were ecstatic. We thought, "What's all the hoopla about with this business being tough? That was a piece of cake."
Jack: We learned that an agent's enthusiasm can wane quickly if the project does not sell as quickly as they anticipate.
Maria: [laughing] Yeah, their so-called "incredible passion" evaporates amazingly quickly.
Jack: Fortunately, once you get an agent, it's always easier to get another agent, so through the years we went through a few of them. But when we finished "Before Billy," we found ourselves "between agents." [laughing] A PC term for "We ain't got not agent."
Maria: [laughing] It's a long story.
Jack: We had been represented by these two women at this small agency, and they both left. One went to William Morris to become a big agent there, while the other one quit the agenting business and became a production executive. The one who went to William Morris didn't want to take us with her because we hadn't made her any money, and so it was time for us to look for an agent again. By that point we knew some executives in the business, and we proceeded to ask them for referrals.
Maria: It's wonderful when you can call an agent and tell him or her, "These 'x" number of executives all said you are great and would be the perfect agent for us." It's a relief for the agent to know that people they respect think highly of us already, as writers, and it's flattering to them, to know that they are well thought of in the industry.
Jack: We ended up with referrals to 25 agents. Out of those, 17 read "Before Billy" and said, "Thanks but no thanks. I don't think we can sell this."
SSSD: You only submitted one screenplay?
Maria: Yes, of course. Agents really only have time to read new material that has never before been exposed in the marketplace. In this case it was "Before Billy."
Jack: Out of the 25, another half a dozen agents didn't even get back to us for months. We just couldn't get an answer out of them either way. Finally, after all the waiting and all the referrals and recommendations, two agents said, "Yes. This project will sell."
Maria: And the 23 others were probably kicking themselves for not stepping up to the plate.
Jack: But that happens. You win some, you lose some.
SSSD: How did you pick your agent, of the two who were interested?
Jack: It was a very difficult decision because they were so different. One was what I would call a "shark." He was very tough, strong, well connected, knew the business and sold many specs. The other was more of a warm and fuzzy agent.
Maria: Also very competent, but we felt so much more comfortable with her and we liked her, as a person.
Jack: We fretted over whether she would be as tough as the shark agent. We asked ourselves, finally, who would we want to be with, even if "Before Billy" did not sell? We ended up going with the soft and fuzzy agent.
Maria: Besides, we had always been represented by barracudas, and we felt that it was time to trust our hearts. The rest is history. [The new agent] ended up selling the screenplay.
SSSD: After she read the screenplay, did she have you do any rewriting before she sent it out?
Jack: No, she loved it. We didn't change a single word.
SSSD: How long did it take her before she started sending it out?
Maria: It was a couple of weeks, and it was something like a week or ten days from the time she started sending it out until the time we accepted an offer.
SSSD: Did she keep you apprised of what was happening?
Jack: She was wonderful. We got a phone call about every 20 minutes for three days. Anytime she heard anything, she'd call - "So-and-so loved it. She's taking it to Disney" Or, "So-and-so loved it. He's taking it to Universal."
SSSD: You must have been going crazy.
Jack: It was very nerve racking. One day Disney says, "No." Then the next day Fox says that they like it. It was a huge roller coaster ride.
SSSD: So she was trying to create a buzz about it.
Jack: Well, every agent wants a nice little bidding war to increase the price. She sent it out to something like 30 or 40 producers at the same time. It was a massive hit on the market. Multiple producers work at the studios, and they have to respond right away to get permission to bring it into the studio.
SSSD: So, she sent it to producers that have deals with one particular studio.
Jack: Yes. There are two schools of thought on that. One is that you hit a bunch of people that you think this would be strong for. That way, you can hit three or four producers at the same studio. Or, you just hit one producer per studio and give him 24 hours to respond and then move on if he passes. Both ways work; it just depends on which way the agent is the most comfortable.
SSSD: I guess it might anger some of the producers if you send the script to everyone and his brother.
Jack: That's right, and that's why the agent says, right up front, "Get back to me or you'll miss out."
SSSD: It was Larry Gordon who ultimately purchased it. Was he the one who made the final decision, or was it some development person?
Jack: Well, there's a very small group of people there. There's Larry, Lloyd Levin, and Michael Levy. Michael was the one who found the script and championed it to the others.
SSSD: When they said that they liked it, they took it to Universal. How long did it take once Larry said that he wanted it before they found out from Universal?
Jack: No more than a day. It was very fast.
SSSD: What was the next step?
Jack: The next step was that our lawyer talked to their lawyer, and we got a deal memo.
SSSD: Is the agent involved in this process?
Jack: Yes. Once we decide to accept the deal, we start discussing figures. When the figures are agreed upon, lawyers prepare the deal memo.
SSSD: So, first it is the agent that is doing the negotiations?
Jack: In this particular situation, it was both the agent and the lawyer working together because the lawyer had an excellent relationship with the head of business affairs at Universal.
SSSD: Did you work on the rewriting process as well?
Maria: Yes, we worked very closely with Michael Levy, who was absolutely brilliant. He had wonderful suggestions. It was the most incredibly constructive working relationship we could hope for.
Jack: We used to pinch ourselves saying, "Isn't this supposed to be development hell? Michael is a genius."
Maria: If there was the slightest false note in our writing, Michael would find it instantly.
Jack: We felt extremely fortunate.
SSSD: How long after the script was sold was it before you started rewriting?
Jack: Once the deal was concluded, it took about two months before the contract was approved and all the fine print checked.
SSSD: Were you able to start rewriting once the deal memo was signed?
Jack: We could have, but it wasn't really expected of us. We met with Larry's people, and we discussed it. First we just met and they introduced themselves and said they were going to work on the rewrite with us. Then we had a more serious meeting in which they told us what kind of changes they wanted. In December, by the time the contracts were signed, we started writing.
SSSD: Did they give you detailed notes, or was it only in meetings that they talked to you?
Maria: We took copious notes during meetings. Michael's thoughts were always very clear and carefully considered, so that made the process proceed much more smoothly.
Jack: Then we'd refer to those notes, make changes in the screen play accordingly, and resubmit to the producers.
SSSD: How many rewrites did you do?
Jack: We did one rewrite and one polish.
SSSD: How long was that process?
Jack: We started the rewrite on December 3 and we finished by the end of January. Then they took it into Universal and they liked it, but they wanted to change the direction on the project. It seems that at the same time "Liar, Liar" and "Jungle to Jungle" came out and were very successful, and each had adult and child characters. Of course, ours, too, had an adult and a child, and the similarity ended there. But, the studio decided our story should be less balanced and more about the adult.
Maria: In other words, the lead male character's journey, rather than the couple's journey.
SSSD: Did they think that it would be easier to attract the movie stars that way?
Jack: That was exactly it.
SSSD: That is what I tell a lot of writers; if you're writing a piece about a child, you should think about a lead for one of the movie stars because that is how the studios think.
Jack: Even though in our rewrite the male lead had a big part in it, they wanted to make it even bigger.
Maria: Think "Movie Star Moments."
SSSD: Were you open to that?
Jack: At first we were perplexed, but we pretty quickly found a way to make it work.
SSSD: So, you had to do even more writing after you did the polished draft.
Jack: Well, it gets complicated. After all the changes, the producer loved it and we loved it, but then Universal wasn't even sure they wanted to do "this kind" of movie.
Maria: In other words, we took the script, "our baby" and transformed it from something tonally along the lines of "Parenthood" into something tonally more like "Liar, Liar," and then the studio seemed uninterested in making a movie about a woman turning into a little girl. Which is funny because that was the whole idea. That was the one and only constant.
SSSD: So even though they knew what they were getting, it ended up that they didn't want it?
Maria: It was as if they said that they didn't want a movie about a boy and a dog, and then hired you to write two of them. But that's not atypical. And it was still a wonderful experience.
Jack: That's because Michael Levy was so professional. It was like having a guardian angel guide you through your first studio experience. We were very lucky.
SSSD: Did Larry ever think about attaching a big name director or actor to the project?
Maria: The impression we got is that Larry is incredibly busy, with a huge development slate. As much as he might have loved "Before Billy," he would have had to re-up the option and invest more money, after Universal had already passed. It probably just wasn't worth it to him, at that point.
Jack: Right, he would have had to renew the option.
SSSD: How long did he have the option for?
Jack: He had it for a year.
SSSD: Now you have the rights again?
Jack: Yes, basically.
SSSD: Is your agent submitting it anywhere?
Jack: We have a producer interested in it right now, and it seems likely that it will be made independently, perhaps for under $10 million. We recently got some good news that a wonderful young actress is interested in the lead role.
Maria: Yeah, we're really hopeful about that. It's all coming together nicely.
SSSD: Are they still negotiating?
Jack: It's not at that stage. We literally just found out this morning.
SSSD: In which version of the screenplay is the producer interested?
Jack: He's interested in the original.
SSSD: What else are you working on?
Jack: We're working on two things simultaneously. We're working on a pitch that we may have just sold. We'll know in about five minutes. (Laughs) And we're working on a spec that should be done this summer.
SSSD: It's easier to sell a spec screenplay than a pitch?
Jack: Yes, because scripts are real, whereas pitches are a little more ephemeral. Pitches usually sell because someone is hot at the moment, because he's coming off a produced movie or has just sold a screenplay. If that's not in your wake, then it's a little more difficult to sell a pitch.
SSSD: So you wouldn't recommend that a first-time writer try to sell a pitch? He/she should be thinking about writing spec screenplays, perhaps?
Jack: The odds are against a first-time writer being able to sell a pitch...
Maria: Unless he or she has an amazing writing sample, in the same genre, to demonstrate their competence and ability to write in that genre.
SSSD: You don't think that you could have sold "Before Billy" with a pitch?
Maria: It's hard to say. We had fans in the business and a track record of having written screenplays in a specific genre that were very well received.
Jack: I recently heard about some writers who recently had a movie released, and the opening weekend was so hot that they sold a pitch over the phone for some insane sum of money.
Maria: Right, that's the other end of the spectrum. But if you've never written a screenplay, there is no way on earth someone will hire you to write your pitch.
Jack: They might buy your idea, and love it, and have someone else write it...that's possible...But it's so remote, and you still have to find some way to get in the door.
Maria: Which is what a spec screenplay will do for you, assuming it's an excellent writing sample.
SSSD: Did your agent set up the pitch meeting for you?
Jack: In this situation we're dealing with a development company that has its own financing, and we are working very closely with an executive there. The owner of that company will make the final decision.
SSSD: How do you work with the agent?
Jack: We have our own connections because of the meetings our agent has set up, so we pursue those contacts, and the agent does some work, too.
SSSD: You don't rely totally on the agent?
Jack: No. That's usually not a good idea.
SSSD: Do you have anything else to say to the readers?
Jack: I would say that when you are writing a script, make sure that you can imagine it in a movie theater. A lot of scripts are written without that in mind, so they have very little chance of getting made. If you want to sell a spec screenplay, you need to keep in mind that what sells it is the casting and the concept. Your chances are a lot better if your story is high concept and easily cast, rather than complicated and obscure.
Maria: Think about how the movie poster would look. Imagine trying to describe your concept in a couple of sentences.
Jack: Of course we are talking here about mainstream American cinema. Hollywood movies with big opening weekends, big box office, those sorts of goals and concerns. If you want to make artsy independent flicks for Sundance, then of course that's completely different.
Maria: If you have the heart of a poet, it's usually better to write poetry or novels, than movies. Otherwise this business can eat you up.
Jack: Unfortunately, the person who makes the final decision about your work doesn't necessarily read the screenplay. Someone tells them about it in a few seconds, and they make their decision from that. In fairness, they don't have time to read the screenplay if someone else is going to be bidding on it in five minutes.
Maria: And don't forget to develop a tough, rhino skin. People are very critical and you have to remember that it's not personal. This is the film business. Emphasis on the "business."
Jack: Good point. If you can keep all this stuff in mind, stress concept, yet still write from your heart, then you may well create a wonderful piece of work.
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