|Richard Regen is a screenwriter and journalist who lives in New York with his wife and two sons. After getting his BA at Skidmore College and MA at NYU, he spent three years working on Capitol Hill. In D.C., Regen started writing for an alternative weekly newspaper, then moved back to New York and started writing on sports, politics, entertainment, and pop culture for publications like Elle, the New York Times Book Review, The Village Voice, L.A. Style, and Swing, and spent six years as a contributing editor at Interview magazine.
After selling his first spec screenplay, Kill Van Kull, to Disney, Regen created the TV series Secret Agent Man for UPN. He has numerous features in development around town, including a remake of Jean Pierre Melville’s 1970 heist film Le Cercle Rouge and the thriller Bank Robber for Constantine Films. In 2006, he adapted the novel Panic for the Weinstein Company. Regen also wrote on assignment the comedy Getting In for Revolution Studios and the urban thriller Utopia for Strike.
Most recently, Regen’s spec Tehran made the 2008 Black List before being set up at Imagine Entertainment. 2009 saw him adapt the Chinese Civil War drama Chasing the Dragon for Tribeca Productions and Universal Studios, while this year, working with renowned journalist Gay Talese, Regen adapted the life story of the professional football player Bart Scott for Unique Entertainment, former New Line co-chairs Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne’s shingle at Warner Bros.
You’ve written for a number of newspapers and magazines. Can you tell us about your work as a journalist? How is the process different than writing a script? And what did you learn from journalism that you apply to script writing?
Journalism helped me in different ways. When you’re freelance writing, you learn very quickly that you can’t be bashful. You better be able to toot your own horn, ask favors, and, above all else, get anybody you can to read your stuff. Selling editors on story ideas also teaches you to think on your feet and to do your homework before a meeting, so you know who you’re dealing with and what they’re looking for—whether it’s an articles editor at Esquire or a development executive at Fox. One of the major things I learned in journalism is the discipline of working when you’re alone and there’s no one around to drive you to that desk and write. Deadlines are sacrosanct in the newspaper and magazine business, and if you blow just one, you don’t get another chance.
But the one thing almost a decade writing articles taught me was there’s a great big world out there, one you won’t find out about in film school, reading scripts or watching TV. I get a lot of compliments that my characters feel real, that they’re three-dimensional; I like to think that’s because of seeing the world and interviewing people. I traveled from Cuba to Iran, and I talked to Mike Tyson in his mansion for Interview magazine and spoke with coal miners two miles beneath the earth in a mine in Western Kentucky. Even now, I still use a lot of the voices I heard all those years in my characters. Tehran, for example, would never have made the Black List if I hadn’t spent a month there writing an article on underground youth culture. I’m not trying to say you have to travel the world to be a good screenwriter, just listen to the people around you and observe—you’ll learn more than you ever imagined.
When did you first become interested in writing for film and TV? What was it like for you transitioning to screenwriting? And did you study script writing? Books? Classes?
I always loved film. My folks divorced when I was eight, so on his weekends my dad took my brothers and I to a lot of movies; and not kid flicks, but the films Dad wanted to see. And since it was the seventies, I saw a lot of cool movies: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Badlands, Busting, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Hot Rock, The Anderson Tapes, Conrack, Gimmie Shelter, etc.
As far as study, I did nada. I just bought Syd Field’s book so I’d know what the format looked like and then I just started writing. I wrote maybe eight or nine scripts, and they were just awful. I mean, laughably bad crap. But I think I learned how to write good scripts by writing so many bad ones. At one point, I interviewed Eric Bogosian for an article and we became friendly, and he sort of became a mentor, which was incredibly flattering because I loved his work. Then, later, after I wrote a script about the return of a Czar to take over the Soviet Union, I showed it to Eric, who gave me a piece of advice he’d gotten from Oliver Stone while they wrote Talk Radio (his advice was to chop out the first forty pages!). After I did a few more drafts, I sent the script to an old high school friend who was an agent at CAA. He told me nothing would come of it. The next week he called me and said I’d made the recommended CAA coverage list at the lit meeting that morning.
I asked him, “What’s coverage?”
In 1998, you sold your spec script Kill Van Kull, a heist story, to Walt Disney Pictures with Sonnefeld/Jospheson Productions attached to produce. Was this one of your first sales? Can you tell us about writing the script? Where did the idea come from? How did you get it sold, and want happened with its development?
Like I said, I loved a lot of cool seventies heist films, and The Hot Rock was always one of my favorites. A very overlooked movie. Funny, kinetic, with a great cast: Redford, George Segal, Zero Mostel. So I decided to write a heist film set in NYC and called it Kill Van Kull. It was as much a romance as a heist film, which is why, in retrospect, it got me so much attention. I showed it to a pal who was working at Variety to see what he thought, and a week later I got a call from an agent at UTA named Marty Bowen saying he wanted to sell my script. Then, that very week, a producer named Barry Josephson, who was really hot at that time after Men In Black, called saying he wanted to buy it. Unbeknownst to me, my Variety pal had slipped Kill Van Kull to one of Barry’s development people, Lisa Ellzey, who gave it to him. So the next thing I knew, Barry Josephson was calling from a private jet saying he wanted to buy the script for more money than I’d made in three years writing articles. It was goodbye to journalism then and there.
The script got stuck at Disney when Sonnenfeld and Josephson broke up their partnership eight months later, and I found out very soon what the term “development hell” meant, only it wasn’t even that. It was more like limbo. Every few years I’ll get a call from some producer telling me he wants to buy Kill Van Kull from Disney and make it, which, who knows, could still happen since the story is kind of timeless. Barry Josephson told me after his partnership with Sonnenfeld broke up that he’d get it made someday, and in a funny way, I think he just might do it. Six months ago, I heard he was trying to get Katherine Heigl to read it. As a producer, Barry is very determined that way, and even though he and I have had our issues, I’ll never forget he gave me my first chance and put a lot of money in my pocket when I had two small kids at home to feed, so I’ll always be grateful to him for that alone.
In 2000, you set up the show Secret Agent Man at UPN. Both Josephson and Sonnenfeld were involved. Costas Mandylor starred. Twelve episodes aired. Can you tell us about the genesis of the show? What was it like writing it? Can you take us through the process of setting up a show, pitching to a network, putting together the episodes, etc.?
I could spend twenty pages telling that story, but I won’t. Basically, I had no idea what I was doing and got really frustrated with the politics between the studio and the network. What I learned about TV was that writers are treated with a lot more respect than in film, everything happens much faster, and you can make a helluva lot of money. But the biggest thing a writer should know is that working on a TV show is a job. They make you work for that money and it’s back-breaking. Anybody who creates a show, gets it on the air, sees it through to a hundred episodes and makes money in syndication earned every penny of it.
Between September 2000 and January 2001 you set up three different projects. The first was a pitch (a heist story) based on a magazine article written by Daniel Jeffries, with Bill Mechanic producing. This was followed by a thriller, Twisted, with Sonnenfeld and Jospehson again. Then you were hired to write the remake of Le Cercle Rouge for Brett Ratner and Arthur Sarkissian. Can you tell us a little bit about each project? How they came about? And whatever happened with them?
Let’s see, Twisted was just Kill Van Kull and Barry slapped another name on it. But the company he’d set it up at went out of business a month later, so nothing came of that. The pitch I sold to Bill Mechanic was actually a true story of a 22-year-old woman who brainstormed the theft of an armored car from the Strip in Las Vegas in broad daylight. My agency at the time, William Morris, repped the rights to the article, so they showed it to me and I worked up a pitch. Bill bought it, and I quite liked the draft I gave him. And so did a lot of people at the agency—I heard at the time both Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman wanted to play the lead (Portman’s manager met with me to tell me how much she wanted to do it). The only person who didn’t like the draft was Bill Mechanic, so he ended up hiring a bunch of other writers to redo it, including Diane English, which I never could figure out, since she was known for Murphy Brown. I don’t know where it is or what’s happening with it now.
Le Cercle Rouge was a remake of a French heist film from 1970 by one of my all-time favorite directors, Jena-Pierre Melville. Such a cool film, very bleak, totally nihilistic. Had a young Alain Delon starring. I was thrilled to make a new version, and the draft was really great (I still use it as a writing sample). Brett Ratner was attached to direct, and after Rush Hour, he was white hot. But a month before I handed the script in, New Line fired Mike De Luca, and the guy who took his job, Toby Emmerich, didn’t want anything to do with any of Mike’s projects, which is often the case when a studio is in flux. I heard at one point that the producer, Arthur Sarkissian, had gotten John Woo (who had said in interviews it was one of his favorite films growing up) attached, and they’d set it up at Paramount as a big action movie, which, to me, was a crime, as the original film was not a big action film. But at that point it was so expensive and Sherry Lansing left the studio and her successors had no interest in doing a $100 million plus action remake of a French heist thriller from the seventies nobody had ever heard of, so I’m sure it’s sitting in a drawer somewhere at the studio.
You sold your spec script Bankrobber to Constantin Film in April 2002. It was a romantic caper revolving around a charming bank robber and the female FBI agent who is hunting him down. Can you tell us about the history of script? What was the process of selling the script like? Any updates on it?
I wrote it as myself, and it went out for a big spec sale by my then-agent Alan Gasmer of William Morris. Nobody bought it, but six months later Constantin optioned it for almost what my writing fee was at the time, and after getting paid to do a few rewrites, I ended up making decent money. Gasmer got the studio to attach Donald Petrie to direct, which I didn’t get at all because his previous film was How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Petrie got sick of me after a few months and they brought in David Ward of The Sting fame to rewrite it, and then, after the Constantin option expired, another company (now bankrupt) paid me yet another fee to option it. I know Ward was interested in directing it as well, and his manager still calls once a year to ask if its available. I own the rights, so who knows? I’ve gotten so used to being disappointed that I take it all in stride. I’m thinking that if I ever were to write a huge hit then maybe I could sell some of the scripts that have reverted back to me, because they were good enough to sell in the first place, so who’s to say that if I were to win, say, a Golden Globe or have a big hit I couldn’t pull ‘em out of the drawer and sell them all, like Tarantino did after Pulp Fiction.
Over the years, you’ve often been hired to adapt work. One project was the comedy Getting In, which was to be adapted from James Finney Boylan's novel. Revolution and Red Om Films were attached to produce. What drew you to this project? What were your initial meetings like? What was the adaptation process like? Where does it stand today?
What drew me to that project was simple: money. And it was there that I learned taking a job just for the cash is a formula for misery. From the start, they didn’t want me to follow the book at all, they just wanted to do a comedy about the college admissions process. So I pitched them my idea and they liked it enough to hire me. And the script actually came out a lot better than I thought possible (I’d never written a pure comedy, though a lot of my characters are funny). But then the exec who’d brought me on got axed and her successor had no interest in doing another draft, so they dropped the whole thing and let the rights revert to the book’s author. I felt bad because I liked the exec and I think I let her down, not in terms of effort, because I only know how to give it a hundred percent, but I think the results could’ve been better.
I’ve adapted other books and to me the process is simple: you have to make it your own. Unless you’re Steve Kloves adapting Harry Potter (or some very well-known bestseller), your job as a screenwriter is to write a movie. So unless the producer or studio tells you flat out to hew to the path of the book, I think you’ve got to make it your own.
In June 2004, you were hired to adapt Bernard Kerik's autobiography, The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice, for Miramax Films, about Kerik’s rise from uniformed street officer to fearless undercover narcotics detective. How did you become involved with this? What was the development process like?
I knew Harvey Weinstein from having been a journalist, and he was a fan of Kill Van Kull. He also knew I’d done some police reporting for The Village Voice, so he thought I’d get on well with Bernie Kerik, which I did. The script was pretty good, very Serpico, but a month after I handed in a draft, Kerik got nominated to be Homeland Security Czar, and then it came out he hadn’t paid his nanny taxes and was cheating on his wife, so suddenly he didn’t look very heroic (he’s in prison now). So I’m not holding my breath on it getting made. But Harvey ended up hiring me to do a lot of other jobs because he liked the script, so it worked out in a way.
In July 2008, you sold your spec Tehran to Imagine Entertainment. Brian Grazer is attached to produce. What drew you to a story about an American professor contracted by the federal government to observe tensions in pre-coup Tehran in 1977? How did the story evolve? Did you feel any risk in writing a spec drama about this subject versus something more commercial?
Every once in a while you have to write something for your soul, a story you feel compelled to write regardless of whether or not it is quote-unquote commercial. I felt that way about Tehran. Having lived through 9/11 in New York and then listening to President Bush saying how Muslims hated us for our freedom, well, I just hated the idea that people would believe such simplistic malarkey. Also, berating Iranians for not having a democracy was the height of hypocrisy because they did have one in the fifties but the CIA overthrew it (with help from the British), using the Cold War as an excuse. I felt strongly that the American people should realize that our relationship with the Mideast is a lot more complicated than they might realize, so I sought to write a film that told all sides of the story. Having said that, I don’t feel as a writer it’s my place to beat people over the head with polemics. Audiences still want to see entertainment, so I thought I could tell the story of our relationship with Iran as an espionage thriller, with a love story at its center, sort of like The Year of Living Dangerously. I doubt many people who saw that film could tell you it was about a Communist uprising in Indonesia during the sixties, but they could tell you it was a cool, dangerous film and had two very sexy stars: Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. So I tried to do Tehran in that vein. I did a helluva lot of research and many, many drafts before I thought it was ready to go out. And I was incredibly flattered that Kim Roth at Brian Grazer’s company, Imagine, really loved the script and showed it to Brian. Right now nothing is happening, because after the failure of movies like State of Play and Body of Lies, no studio wants to make an espionage thriller with a serious political bent. But I’m hopeful that someday Brian will get it done. One funny aside: I was on a picket line freezing my tail off when my managers called to tell me that Tehran had made the Black List, and I thought, “Shit, I’m blacklisted as well as being on strike. This sucks.” Then they explained to me what the Black List was and why it was good I’d made it.
You were hired in early November 2010 to write a sports bio about New York Jets player Bart Scott. Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne will produce. How did this assignment come up? What research will you do and/or have you done? And since this question comes up frequently with true life stories, what liberties do you think you might take with this particular story? What are your feelings on dramatizing real life events? Also, how will you work with Gay Talese, who is consulting on the project?
Actually, I’d finished a first draft in October. It sometimes happens that way with projects—once deal points have been agreed upon, you start writing while your lawyers and the studio’s business affairs department haggle over the fine points of a contract. I have friends who refuse to do a stick of work till they have a signed contract, but I think it shows bad faith to refuse to work, and anyway, I figure the sooner you finish writing one assignment the faster you can move on to another. Work begets work.
In this case, they approached me with the project, having secured Bart Scott’s life rights. I’d done Le Cercle Rouge for Michael and Bob at New Line, so they knew me, and once I told them I used to be a sportswriter and was a lifelong Jets fan, the deal was sealed. Also, Gay is one of my journalistic heroes, so I jumped at the chance of working with him. He’d spent a lot of time with Bart’s family back in Detroit and he is a fabulous detailer of people’s lives, so I didn’t have to do much research at all because Gay had done it already. I did spend a day with Bart and we ended up talking on the phone quite a bit while I was writing. It’s tough writing about someone who is alive, because, well, it’s their life. I told Bart what I’d told Bernie Kerik, which is that I’ll have to synopsize and concentrate events in your life in order to create the best narrative possible, but I will always seek to keep the spirit of who you are as a person alive. It’s tricky.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
I drop my son off at school and drive across the 59th Street Bridge to my office in Long Island City, which overlooks the East River and has an amazing view. I could cast a fishing line from my window into the river if I wanted. I generally work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but my day varies depending on what’s going on as far as work. If I’m in a writing period and know I have to hand in a script, then I write, mostly. Some days I’ll put out five or ten pages. Other days, I’ll obsess about a single scene. Sometimes it can happen for a week, or more. I have friends who can write scenes out of order, so if they get stuck they just come back to where they got stuck, but I can’t work that way. So I tend to look out the window a lot. The East River and Manhattan are really, really good for that.
If I’m not in a writing period, then I’m either working on a spec, researching an idea, or working on getting jobs. That part of the business has become more and more important post-strike. I hate it, especially knowing there are five or ten other guys up for the same job, but you either put in the time and effort to get an assignment or spend all your time writing specs and hoping they’ll sell. And since the spec market is pretty dead right now, that’s just not a way to make a living. If my agents or managers have me up for a gig, then I’m going to do my damndest to get it.
What is your pitching process like? How do you prepare? What do you do or not do when you are live in the room with the producers?
I’ve been told many times that “I’m good in a room,” but I hate pitching. Hate it. It’s the only time I envy writing teams, because they can work up a song-and-dance routine and do their little act in the room. I know one pair of guys who do card tricks. But I’m on my own. I try to think of it like you’re telling a good joke or a funny story. You have to keep it short, because even if the exec loves your pitch, it has to be something he or she can go upstairs and repeat to their boss. So you can’t say too much because they’ll never remember it. Short and sweet—ten minutes at most. Ten seconds would be best.
One agent once told me, “Don’t fart in the room.” That was his singular contribution to helping me work up a pitch—one that I actually sold. But, frankly, if your pitch is gold, you could fart in the room (though it’s kind of disgusting). What you can’t do is let a producer or exec get you off your game. Some of them will start texting or checking their Blackberry. A director I ended up working with—a famous director—was once watching online porn while I pitched him. And this one studio exec started clipping his finger nails while I was pitching. I’m not kidding. I guess I was lucky he didn’t take his socks off and go to work on his toenails.
Do you outline all your stories first? Write treatments? How do you prepare before you begin a script?
I did when I started out, but now I never do an outline or treatment. Check that—I have to do it when it’s an assignment, because it’s expected. And in a way it’s better if they’ve read your treatment and signed off on it because they can’t come to you later, after you’ve done your draft, and claim you didn’t write what you’d told them you were going to write. You’ve got proof, the outline.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
If I’m up for a rewrite job, I try not to shit all over the guy (or girl) who I’m (maybe) rewriting because I think it’s disrespectful and everyone gets rewritten themselves at some point, so acting all high and mighty is just plain stupid. The producers and studio know their script is flawed, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent it out for a rewrite in the first place. As far as a method or plan, frankly, I just tell them what I think is wrong with the script and what I’d do to make it better. You can talk to them a little and see what they’re looking for, whether it’s a major rewrite or just a dialogue pass. But trying to guess what they want is a fool’s errand, because a lot of the time they don’t know what they want until they hear it.
Ultimately, you can only tell them what you think needs to be done, and if they like it, you’ll get the job. Either that or develop close personal friendships with major movie stars and have them throw you the gigs. I’m not friends with any movie stars, so I can only hope that someone who works for them (or who works for a producer or a studio) likes my writing enough to reach out to me through my reps and ask me what I think. Really, it’s not rocket science, and there aren’t any tricks or gimmicks. But if there are, please tell me.
You’re repped by United Talent Agency. Who is your agent? What’s your relationship like in terms of talking with them? Updates on projects?
My agents are Keya Khayatian and Barbara Dreyfus for film and Dan Erlij for television. They are all excellent agents, very professional and to the point. I call them when I need them to do something, and vice versa. If I need to update them on projects, I do.
You’re also repped by David Alpert and Kemper Donovan at Circle of Confusion. How do they work with you versus your agent? Do you feel having a manager is necessary for a writer? And how closely do they in turn work with your agent at UTA?
I used to think managers were a waste of time for writers, but the business has gotten so much harder in the last five years that I find having a manager is essential. In today’s marketplace, the more voices you have out there singing your praises the better, especially when your managers have a reputation for repping talented writers, which Circle does. They’re even producing the hottest show on TV, The Walking Dead, on AMC. David and Kemper focus on my work much more than any agent can, and they do it very well. When I’m working on a spec, they’ll read my pages and let me know what they think, and their notes are quite often very good. Ultimately though, you have to listen to your own voice as a writer. Sometimes they can be encouraging, other times they have to remind me that I’m not a Zaillian or a Benioff, and it’s important that they do both. When you’re alone most of the time, you need a voice of reason. And really, I don’t need managers to blow smoke up my butt. As far as how much they work together, I have no idea. I assume they talk when they need to talk.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries? I would think as a former journalist, research is something you’re very familiar with.
Yes, I do loads of research, and it’s something I really enjoy, but it’s all done from my desk. I don’t have the time or inclination to leave my office that much. A few years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible, but between the Internet and online resources I can find any book, blueprint, magazine, whatever, and have it delivered. I’m also lucky to have traveled a lot in my life and lived in other countries, so I can draw on those experiences.
But really, the atmosphere, the time, the place, the voices, the accents—they’re all in my head. No one has ever said to me that one of my scripts feels inauthentic, so I must be doing something right. An Iranian artist sent me an e-mail from Tehran about a year ago saying he’d read my script Tehran (how he got it, I have no clue) and he wanted to know if I was there during the revolution in ‘78. I was very flattered but had to tell him I was on the Upper West Side of New York in middle school at the time.
Do you ever say no to projects you’re offered? If so, why? In general, would you recommend that other writers turn down work, or should they take whatever they can get and be happy?
I don’t say no often, but I do sometimes. My job is to write, and I’m not so successful that I can live for two years off one job (though I have friends who could live for a year off one two-week dialogue pass). I’ve got two boys to put through college and live in a very expensive city, so I say no only under only two circumstances. First, romantic comedies. I hate them, so I don’t (or can’t) write them. If I were to write one, it’d probably suck out loud, but no one offers me those jobs, so it’s sort of academic.
Second, if it’s a project where I feel like I’m just doing it for a paycheck, where I don’t feel any creative drive, then I pass, because even if I get the job I have to spend three to six months working on something I don’t care about. And in that event, the script won’t be very good. I just hate the idea of a script being out in the ether with my name on it that I know sucks. I mean, all you have, really, is your name. Now, do I know guys who take jobs only for the money? Sure. I’m just not them. Maybe I’d have more produced projects if was more of a mercenary. But I’d be a miserable person because I actually care about my craft. I may not take myself seriously, but I take the work very seriously because in the end, it’s only me and that page staring back at me on the screen.
What things do you feel writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? What hard realities do aspiring screenwriters need to be aware of? Also, do you think it’s more difficult today for new writers in terms of original material versus projects being based on TV shows, foreign films, books, video games, board games, etc.?
It’s a horrible, difficult way to make a living, so unless you feel a hundred percent compelled to do it, then save yourself a lot of grief and go get a job job. On the upside, if you manage to carve out a niche and make a good living, you get to be your own boss, work the hours you please (as long as you make your deadline), dress as you wish, come and go when you like, and have time for things like family, friends, kids, hobbies, etc.
But I can’t really put myself out there as some great imparter of wisdom, I only know my own experience. I always knew I wanted to write, to see my name in lights on the big screen. I know it sounds corny, but it’s that simple. I think a writer can only write what he or she wants to write, at least at first, and if it’s good enough, it’ll get you noticed. There are so many horrible scripts out there that simply being good will get you attention. But the really top-notch writers—not the rich hacks, but the true greats (like Paddy Chayefsky or John Sayles)—are simply on another level creatively. I just try my best. Is it more hard today? Hell, yeah. But I like to think that what wins out in the end is the script. All you can do is bust your ass and keep at it. Believe me, there have been times I’ve thought about quitting, but in the end, this is all I really want (or can) do. I’m too old to play center field for the Mets and I doubt being a doctor is in my future.
Finally, any suggestions for navigating the waters of Hollywood?
Don’t fart in the room.