|An Honors film grad from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Matt Lieberman grew up in northern New Jersey immersed in "Mad" magazines and Steve Martin albums. Matt was hired to write the upcoming Doctor Dolittle sequel, "Doctor Dolittle: First Dog" for Twentieth Century Fox in 2006 and recently sold his pitch "The Pet" to Walt Disney Pictures with Scott Rudin and Craig Perry producing and Sheila Hanahan Taylor executive producing. He is currently repped by Brad Rosenfeld at Preferred Artists Agency and manager Dannie Festa.
Where are you from?
I was born in Belleville, Illinois, but I grew up in Randolph, New Jersey. It was a typical New Jersey suburb with nothing interesting to do except take trips into the city and go to the movies.
When did you first become interested in writing?
I think I was in high school when I realized that writing was one of the few things that I could do well. I always knew I wanted to be involved in film or television, but I started out writing short stories and poetry. I didn’t think to put the two together until film school.
Where did you go to film school?
NYU—Tisch School of the Arts. I was a Film Production major there.
Tell us about writing your first script. What was your approach like?
The first, full-length feature I ever wrote was for a writing class at NYU. When I signed up for the course, there was a prerequisite that you had to have a developed outline ready for the first day of class. I spent the entire summer meticulously outlining an ensemble piece (a full-length feature with a single storyline seemed daunting at the time). I think I was the only one who paid attention to that requirement, because just about everyone else barely even had an idea what they were going to write. As a result, I was one of only two people to write a script that semester and it really gave me a boost. I think the professor was happy to read something longer than a scene and really encouraged me. He taught me how to send out a query letter to agents and really gave me all the tools I needed to start a career in screenwriting.
What was your first “break,” if any? And how many scripts have you written to date?
I had lots of little breaks along the way—getting an agent, getting a manager, working on projects for production companies—but I guess the first legitimate paying job was Doctor Dolittle 4 for Fox. It was the result of executives becoming fans of my writing through previous spec scripts and bringing me in to pitch a take for an open writing assignment. I had written about six fully developed feature comedies that were shopped around town before Dolittle.
Your current agent is Brad Rosenfeld at Preferred Artists. How did you find representation with him? And what is your relationship like? Do you talk often? Is there a lot feedback?
I connected with Brad through a query letter. I sent it out to about fifty random reps, and Brad was one of three agents who were interested in representing my script. When he called, he was so excited and enthusiastic about the project—he was the clear choice. We’ve been working together for a few years now. In terms of spec scripts, we usually agree on an idea before I even start writing and then develop it together. When things are busy, we talk every day. He’s extremely accessible and honest—and still as enthusiastic about my work as he was on that first phone call.
Dannie Festa at Festa Entertainment is your manager. How did you get hooked up with her? Why do you feel it’s important to have a manager along with an agent? What’s your relationship like?
I met Dannie through Brad. They had another client together and he felt they complemented each other well as a team. Even though Brad likes to be very involved in developing a script, Dannie really rolls up her sleeves and works it out with me. If I’m stuck on something, we grab lunch or coffee and sit there until we figure it out. As a guy who writes alone, this is a big plus. It’s almost like having a silent writing partner. She also puts a lot of attention into developing my career—taking me to parties, introducing me to other writers and producers, looking for financing for my projects, etc. She and Brad both have different connections and business relationships around town. They share the responsibilities in developing projects, seeking out writing assignments, and stay on top of each other to follow through.
In May of this year, you set up your pitch “The Pet” at Disney with producers Scott Rudin, Craig Perry and Sheila Hanahan Taylor. I know you can’t talk about the story itself, but can you tell us how you came up with the idea and what went into the development of it?
I have lots of different places I get inspiration for ideas from—an article in the paper, a character I meet in everyday life, a dream. . . And I write them all down, no matter how good or fully realized, into a database on my computer. Then I have brainstorming sessions where I sit down and try to put together and develop new ideas. For “The Pet,” I had dipped back into my old notes during one of these sessions, came across an old seed for an idea that I hadn’t been able to get my head around, put a new twist on it and BAM! It jumped off the page at me. It is a big family comedy in the vein of “Night at the Museum.” When my agent heard it, he told me to stop writing the spec I was working on, develop this new idea as a pitch and take it around town.
So, I developed it into a twelve-minute pitch in about a month. It’s so difficult to sell a pitch these days to begin with, so you really have to flesh it out as much as possible before you go out with it. Even the details you don’t have time for in the actual pitch, you have to know and be ready to speak to. If an executive has a question you can’t answer in the room, they’ll most likely pass.
We set up meetings with producers over a week and almost everyone responded to the pitch and wanted to take it into a different studio the following week. It was amazing. Disney was the first studio I pitched it to and by the time I got home, they put in an offer to take it off the table.
Craig, Sheila and everyone at Rudin had great notes and ideas for the pitch before we even brought it to Disney, so I already knew I was going to enjoy working with them. After it sold, Disney had ideas they wanted me to incorporate and a few small notes. I’m finishing an outline that reflects those changes right now, and once everyone approves it, I will start writing the screenplay!
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries?
I mostly write comedies that haven’t required any sort of extensive research in any particular area. I usually tend to write what I know about. However, when I need a character to sound authentic about something I know very little about, I turn right to Wikipedia. I know it isn’t the most accurate source in the world, but you can pretty much get enough information on just about any subject. If a character is an expert in flamingos or just got back from Mongolia—you can get enough detail from Wikipedia to help them speak like they know what they’re talking about.
I also tend to watch a lot of films (or read scripts) similar to the project I’m working on before and during the writing process. This is an invaluable way to help you plot out character arcs and work through holes in your storyline. There are only a handful of different storylines out there and they all share the same types of beats.
Have you done many pitch meetings? What’s your pitch process like?
I’ve pitched a lot for open writing assignments, but “The Pet” was the first time I took out a full-out original pitch around town. Of course, the more I do it the easier it gets, but it is never a truly comfortable process for me.
I like to write out a pitch exactly how I want to say it in the room. I usually end up deviating from it and adding jokes, but at least I have a starting point and safety net to make sure I don’t miss any major plot points. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a pitch and suddenly realizing you forgot to set up a payoff you are heading towards. People talk about rehearsing pitches—I can never do that. I feel too uncomfortable pitching into a mirror. Instead, I read it over again and again, and by the time I’ve finished writing and developing, I’m pretty well acquainted with it. I read it aloud once to make sure nothing sounds strange coming out of my mouth, and then I really pitch it for the first time in the first meeting. The whole process of pitching really jelled for me when I started relating it to the way I would tell stories about my life. People always thought my stories about growing up were funny and so I apply the same delivery when I pitch.
What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that?
I love any and all feedback. As a screenwriter, it’s really important that you take any notes you’re given with open ears. A lot of times, notes I didn’t necessarily agree with at first have ended up bringing a project to the next level. Filmmaking is a collaborative process and if you can’t work with others, you’re not going to get very much accomplished. People become more invested in a project when they’ve added their own ideas to it, and that can be the difference between someone going to bat for you and someone blowing you off at the first speed bump along the way.
Do you rely much on feedback from friends and family, or do you mainly rely on your agent and manager?
I run ideas by friends, but never show them a script until it’s completely finished. In my experience, a friend outside the industry has rarely given me any real constructive feedback. Usually, it’s “I like it” or “I don’t like it” or “I didn’t like that line.” Many times they love projects that are completely unsellable. My wife always gives thoughtful notes and has great ideas, but mostly I go by Brad and Dannie. They are in tune with what people are buying and looking for, they have been doing this for a long time with many other projects and they are usually right. I once loved an idea that they were cold on. I brought it up in a few general meetings and it fell to the floor with a loud thud. That was the last time I went against their instincts.
What are some things you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out? Any do’s and don’ts?
I wish I would have started outlining from the beginning. For the first few scripts I wrote (with the exception of that first one in film school), I had a basic idea where I was going, but worked out the story through drafts. I wanted to maintain that certain energy and spontaneity that came with figuring out problems and character arcs while I was in the thick of it. Looking back, I realize that not only did it waste a lot of time in subsequent drafts, but also it held me back from resolving major issues with those projects. Once you have written a script, it is much more difficult to take a step back than when it is laid out on cards or beats in an outline. It is so easy to become attached to a set piece or plot point without even realizing it. When it is just a line up on a board—you can tell whether it is serving the story or not and pull the pin on it if it isn’t working.
So you now outline before beginning each script?
Yeah—like I said, it’s a critical step. The more an idea is fleshed out ahead of time, the better it will be. I’ve recently started using a big corkboard with note cards to help me work out an outline. Each card represents a scene, and I try to have forty strung together before I get started (10 for act one, 10 for the first half of act two, 10 for the second half and 10 for the third act). I try to make sure there is some sort of conflict in every scene and that each step is moving the story forward.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
I always try to go to the gym in the morning—it’s really important in a career where you’re sitting down all day long. I get home, write until lunch and then write for the rest of the day when I get back. Working for me is like a vacation, because I maintained an office day job for the first few years that I was writing. I wrote on nights and weekends. My wife barely saw me. I passed up so many great days at the beach and parties. I would use my days off to finish projects that had a deadline. If I had to miss a night of writing, I would feel guilty. Towards the end, I really started to burn out. Now I get to write during my peak hours, energy-wise, and it’s a great feeling. It’s like living in Alaska your entire life and then moving to Hawaii. You never take the good weather for granted. Now I don’t know what to do with myself in my free time (and usually end up writing some more!)
How much do you keep theme in mind overall? Scene by scene? And do you find yourself initially (or eventually) asking, what’s the point?
All characters, situations and actions (for the most part) come from the theme. It is the most important thing to get straight before you sit down and start outlining. If your script doesn’t have something to say (even if it’s a dumb comedy or gory horror movie), then why are you writing it? If you’re dealing with a good executive or producer, this is the first thing they’ll ask about. If your theme is clear, then the rest of your story will fall into place.
How do you approach rewrites? Is there any method or path that you typically follow?
When I am rewriting my own material, I collect as many notes as possible, try to work on another project for at least a week or two, and then dive back into it with fresh eyes. You really have to approach it with a “nothing is sacred” attitude. The more you stick to something in the story, the more difficult it will be to tackle any problems it may have.
If I am going up for a writing assignment to rewrite someone else’s work, I think about the logline before I even read page one of the original script. This way, I get a picture of what I would expect from a premise like this—what type of characters and situations I would want to see (and if it is an idea I can even connect with). Then I read the script and see if it meets those expectations. No matter how bad the script is, I’ll never put it down or give notes on it in the meeting. Instead, I like to repitch the movie as if it was an original pitch—let the executive determine on their own if your ideas elevate the movie and make it better.
What have you learned over the last few years from development executives?
One thing I keep hearing a lot is that studios don’t develop anymore. I mean, of course they develop but a script is not going to sell unless it is as close to great as possible. A “B-” script is not enough to get past that critical first step anymore. A few years ago, you might have been able to get away with a third act that isn’t quite there yet or a clunky character arc, but no longer. If you have any doubts about a certain aspect of your screenplay, I would do whatever I could to try to fix it before you send it out.
What are you working on next? Spec scripts? Assignments?
On top of “The Pet,” I’ve got a buddy comedy spec script that I’m working on and another treatment I’ve been developing with a production company that we might go out with as a pitch before the summer.
What things do you feel more screenwriters need to recognize about themselves and the industry? What harsh realities should aspiring writers keep in mind?
I think it all comes down to this: If you are not doing this for the right reasons, your chances of succeeding are really slim. If you are not determined, disciplined and in it for the long haul, don’t waste your time. Becoming a successful screenwriter is a process, not a lottery.
Whenever I meet someone who is going to “give it a year,” I don’t feel very positive about their prospects. I’ve heard that it takes about ten scripts and five years to break into the industry, and in my experience, this really seems to be the average. Getting to where I am now was, hands down, the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do—and I feel like I am only now at the foot of the mountain.
You need to be writing constantly. I’ve heard a lot of people tell me they would be writing more except that (insert personal excuse here). If you can’t overcome your own hurdles, there is no way you are going to be able to tackle the real obstacles in this business. If your writing partner is holding you back, cut them loose. What do you need them for? If you don’t have enough time now, when are you ever going to have the time? If writing is not important enough to make sacrifices for, then is this really what you want to do?
Most people have this perception that you sell a script and become an overnight millionaire. This is far from the truth. I didn’t quit my day job until I established myself—way after my first writing gig. I would suggest getting a noncreative-type job that allows you to write nights and weekends, and leave for meetings—and of course, one that’s in Los Angeles. I’m sure you’ve heard it a hundred times, but you have to live here to have any shot at a career.