We always hear the saying “don’t let your dreams be dreams”, but for most people their dreams don’t make it on the big screen. This week we interviewed Lori Evans Taylor, who has beat the odds as a screenwriter for thriller feature films. Read on to learn about the realities of writing all day, her new project with Ben Affleck, and the process of taking the reigns on a project that is close to her heart.
What is your official title?
I am a screenwriter.
Can you tell us the story of your career thus far?
I’m kind of a “journey woman” in terms of my career. In college I was a theater major, so I’ve always been attracted to characters and stories. Cinema was really important to me growing up. I was the girl who would go to slumber parties with all of these movies, specifically the horror/thriller genre was something I gravitated towards. I went on to work in a video store and when I graduated, I ended up in Los Angeles. At first, I was on the actor path but I didn’t like the actor grind. I wasn’t feeling very fulfilled, so I started writing on the side to get my creative ya-ya’s out.
During that time I had day jobs that sent me down a route of producing for a while but I wanted to be in the narrative space and write features. I started to get some momentum on the TV side, but it was funny—I had this uncanny tendency to get pregnant every single time I gained momentum, which brought all of my hard work to a big stop. While I was pregnant the second time, I decided to invest my time into writing a feature called Bed Rest, which was a psychological thriller like Rosemary’s Baby with a Hitchcock vibe to it. My management team took it out as a spec.
What exactly does it mean to sell a spec?
Basically, when you have an idea for a movie, you write the script—and nobody’s paying you but it’s an idea you want to put on paper—and you try to sell it. In the 90’s there was a big spec boom. Studios and production companies would spend a lot of money on specs—hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars—but that money started to dry up in the 2000’s… It’s very hard to sell a spec these days.
What happened with Bed Rest?
When we took Bed Rest out— a psychological thriller with a great role for a female lead—it created a huge buzz and was picked up by MGM. That really broke me open as a writer in the horror/thriller space. I’ve been working consistently ever since.
How do scripts get picked up?
In the world of screenwriting—I’m going to speak mostly about features because I don’t work in TV as much—there are a couple of different ways to sell something. There’s the spec version, which we already talked about. Or, you can pitch ideas to studios or companies that have the money to back you and they’ll pay you to write it, ideally. If you have the rights to a book or an article, you can pitch the idea to turn that intellectual property into a movie.
Then there are open writing assignments, which is when studios, production companies, or financiers have a project and they’re looking for a writer. Usually your management team or agent will find out and put you up for jobs. If the producer or the execs think you’re a good fit, they’ll have you pitch how you want to do it.
What does your daily life looks like?
Honestly, I’m usually in my home office staring at a blank page. My office is detached from the house, so I come out every morning around 8:45 am with my coffee, crack open my computer, and get working! Sometimes I’m taking meetings my management team or agent set up when they want to put me in a room with someone or pitch ideas. I may have specific meetings about a project, like getting notes on drafts.
Feature (full-length film) writers can write anywhere they want—in a Starbucks every day, or you can rent a cabin in Montana and write for three months. For TV writers it’s a little different because you’re working out of a writers’ room most of the time. That’s where you figure out the story for the season, the arcs, and the episodes. From there, you can sometimes go off and write your episodes on your own, or sometimes there’s a workspace in the office, but that depends on the show and the producer, as well as the deadline.
How do you stay productive when working in a home environment?
That’s the million dollar question, especially for women who are moms. I have two kids under the age of six, so balance is really important to me. The jobs I get are mostly ones where I can work from home [while] my kids are in school. That’s the time dedicated to being productive, so when my kids are home and it’s dinner and bath time, I can be involved with that. Once the kids go to sleep, I’m back in the office, especially if I have deadlines.
Do you struggle with writer’s block?
The times I get writer’s block tend to be when I’m in my office too much and I’m too isolated. In those moments, I try to get out of the house. Sometimes I go to a museum with friends because, ultimately, when you’re a writer, you’re writing about life and people. If you’re in your own little cave, you’re removed from all of that. Another thing is [that] my husband is also a screenwriter. We don’t work together, but if I’m having writer’s block, we’ll have a story session, which is where we have conversations about the storyline or a character I’m having difficulty with. 90% of the time, I walk away feeling inspired, re-energized, and ready to attack the writer’s block.
You’ve worked as a story producer on a few TV shows. Can you touch on the differences between that and writing?
I worked with a production company that produced shows for The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and The History Channel. The shows I was working on were especially clip-based, meaning that we would look at what was happening in a clip, story-wise, get in touch with the people involved, and set up interviews. Story producing for me was all about developing a story based on a clip and the interviews. There was a creative aspect to the job as well as a physical production aspect like dealing with locations, the schedule, and the budget.
Your most recent project, I Am Still Alive, is a novel adaptation. How does that compare to writing original content?
I personally love both. I Am Still Alive came about in a very interesting way. Back in the summer my agent said they represented the rights to a book that was coming out later in the summer called I Am Still Alive and thought it would be right up my alley. Even though young adult content isn’t usually my thing, I was totally blown away. The characters were rich and compelling, the story was taut, and I was literally ugly-crying on my floor the minute I finished reading it.
I called my agent and told them I needed to be involved in making this a movie. They got me in touch with the writer (Kate Alice Marshall) and I told her my vision. She’d done such an amazing job that I wanted to change very little, so it was an easy conversation. We started to look at potential partners and financiers. We got word that Ben Affleck’s company wanted to meet with us. It turned out that Ben loved the book as well and saw the story in the same way.
I tried to not get my hopes up too much because sometimes people show interest and then nothing comes of it. A few hours later I got a call from Ben’s team and they told me he wanted to produce and star in the story. Everything changed. I pitched the idea to a bunch of production companies with Ben Affleck’s team and Universal ended up buying it, which is very exciting. It goes to show you that there’s never one true path to setting up a project.
Once a script you’ve written is sold, how much control do you have over the outcome?
Very little. A script is a writer’s baby until it’s sold. Features tend to be very director-based, so once the directors come on it’s really all about their vision. They have the right to build the vision they want. There certainly are writers who will be on set and part of the filming process, but it’s really the director’s baby at that point.
2018 brought women to the forefront in Hollywood between the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up. Any experiences you’d like to share as a woman in Hollywood?
I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve always felt comfortable with the people I’ve worked with. I haven’t had one of those #MeToo moments that a lot of women in this industry have had. Being a female screenwriter, there are definitely times when I am the only woman in the room. It doesn’t bother me though: I represent a certain perspective and it’s important to fight for my point of view.
In terms of the role of women in Hollywood, when I got to Hollywood 20 years ago—there have always been women working in Hollywood—there were a lot more women in development, executive, or producer jobs. Sherry Lansing was studio chief at Paramount. You’d see women editors. Female editors are the unsung heroes in terms of women in this industry. I don’t think people realize how many female editors have cut famous movies—Jaws, Pulp Fiction, and E.T. were all cut by women.
Over the past 5-10 years, we’re starting to see women migrating into positions like director. We’re seeing more female cinematographers and writers. Women are moving into traditionally “male” genres—the horror/thriller space and the action space.
You’ve found your niche in horror/thrillers. Do screenwriters usually stick to one genre?
Especially when you’re trying to get into the industry, it’s important to find your brand. For anyone who’s looking to break into Hollywood—write. And keep writing. Try different genres, figure out what your voice is, what makes your voice different and exceptional.
When you’re starting out and trying to get an agent or a manager, if you give them three samples but they’re a romantic comedy, a horror movie, and then a 30-minute sitcom, they’re not going to know how to get you a job. When you come in with a body of work from the same genre, or maybe mostly horror but a little sci-fi, people understand you more easily. As you get further into your career, you can branch out. If you have the passion to write something totally different, write something. But if your work is all over the place, it can confuse people.
How are screenwriters compensated?
If I sell a project that I wrote, let’s take Bed Rest as an example, a studio will pay money to get control of the script for a certain amount of time, from months to years, so there’s that payment. For features you get paid depending on the job or the draft you’re doing. If I’m paid to write a first draft, the first half is usually paid in increments and the other half is paid once I deliver the script. In the contract there will probably be a rewrite or two, so you’d be paid for the rewrites. Those aren’t necessarily guaranteed, but if the studio wants to keep you writing for those next steps, they can exercise that.
If you’re a new writer and not in the union there’s a chance you’re paid peanuts, but if you’re a union member (Writers Guild of America or WGA) there are minimum rates. As you build your brand and people begin to know you, your quote goes up. All of this is negotiable. Once you get the job, your agents and your lawyers jump in and start negotiating with the studio or the production company. In TV you get a weekly rate, and depending upon your credit you would probably also get episode fees.
What’s the biggest challenge of being a screenwriter?
There are a lot of disappointments. You have to have long term goals. It’s not about writing one thing and hoping it’s a hit. You have to dedicate your life to learning the craft, building relationships, and building a body of work. There will be times when you get fired from jobs, when you get fired by your agent, your manager. But if you love it, keep after it. When I got dropped from my reps, I was crying and a total mess, but I channeled that into writing. Within a few months, I had a different script and a different agent. You’re going to get noticed, you just have to keep after it.
But now you’re here! My final question is: what’s the best part of your job?
Ever since I was a kid, I loved to daydream, imagine, make up stories, worlds, and characters. The fact that I can do that in my adult life and make a living—it’s the best job.
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.
Thanks so much, Lori! We can’t wait to see I Am Still Alive come to life and all your future projects as well. Readers, after you’ve finished up the final edits on your first spec, come back next week to learn more tips from screenwriter extraordinaire Lori Evans Taylor.