Derek Haas is an author and screenwriter who’s work includes the bestselling novel The Silver Bear and the screenplays 3:10 to Yuma and Wanted. He is also the editor of popcornfiction.com, where he publishes new short fiction. You can learn more about him on his personal website at derekhaas.com.
I was fortunate enough to score a short interview with him briefly in 2010. Here is some advice he had to offer for an aspiring screenwriter.
How did you get into screenwriting? When was your “lucky break”?
I always wanted to be a writer… in sixth grade, I asked my parents for a typewriter for Christmas. I wrote stories all through junior high and high school, mostly to amuse myself. My parents also purchased a Betamax video camera and my buddies and I made movies just about every day in the lovely suburbs of Richardson, Texas, just outside of Dallas.
I went to Baylor University and graduated with a BA in English in ’91 and then an MA in English Lit in ’95. After school, I worked in advertising for a while. I wasn’t on the copywriting side… I was an account manager. I kept writing at night, first on a novel (which wasn’t very good but taught me a lot about writing) and then on an idea for a screenplay.
In 1998, I partnered with Michael Brandt, a friend of mine from college, and we wrote a script together. We had written a couple of terrible scripts in a screenwriting class at Baylor, but decided we’d try again. We passed the script back and forth via email, never seeing each other while we wrote it. He got it into the hands of some woman who worked on the production side of the business, she got it into the hands of an assistant to a producer, she gave it to the producer, the producer gave it to Brad Pitt’s manager, and the manager gave it to Brad Pitt. He said he wanted to do it and in March of 1999, we sold our first script. It didn’t get made, but it got us represented and made a name for us in Hollywood.
Then we worked a while learning the ropes, doing rewrites and polishes, and finally we were offered the sequel to the Fast and the Furious in 2001. We said “no.” Our agents said “yes.” They realized we needed to have a produced movie under our belts. It worked out quite well for us… we hit it off with the director, John Singleton, and spent most of the movie on the set in Miami, watching a $90M production get made. It came out and was successful, and we proved we could deliver a script through production. From there, we’ve been fortunate to work with some great directors, actors, producers and crew.
How long does it usually take you to write? What is your process?
I’d recommend writing a first draft in about 8-10 weeks and then spend a month rewriting it before you let someone else read it. Don’t sweat outlines and rules and treatments and character sketches and all the things that keep you from actually writing. Write as much as you can, every day, creatively. Like anything you practice, you’ll get better and better the more you do it. And instead of seeing movies and saying, “I can do better than that,” read screenplays in the genre you wish to write and measure your own writing against those.
So you don’t outline at all?
We outline our screenplays because we have to for the studios who hire us. They want to see what they’re going to get before we write. I don’t outline my novels.
What screenwriting books would you recommend reading?
I really have never read any and am not sure which ones to recommend. Some friends have told me SAVE THE CAT is good, but I don’t know the book and so can’t speak on it. I’d recommend enrolling in a screenwriting class and learning the form… then reading as many scripts as you can get your hands on.
What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter moving to L.A. for the first time?
Try to find a job, any job, working in film or TV… you’ll learn so much about the process.
When exactly do you think finding representation is important? After someone is interested?
When you have written something truly great… something so novel and fantastic it will blow people’s minds… then go after representation. If you have someone interested, all the better.
With all the adaptations being made today, is spec writing still the way to “break-in” and get noticed?
In your DDP interview you said, “most new writers think “I’m making art and everyone should worship me.” Do you think a new writer trying to get their “break” should write something commercial and marketable? Or should they take a chance on something dark and unique just to get noticed?
Commercial and marketable is the best way to get noticed. As funny as it sounds, dark and unique are what most film students do.
You’re ready to shop your screenplay around. How does that process go?
You query representatives. You try to make contacts with people in the film industry and ask them to read your script. You get it into as many hands as possible and if it’s great, someone who can help you, will.
You can find a more in-depth interview with Derek Haas and his writing partner Michael Brandt over at Done Deal Pro.