|Bob Sáenz lives and writes in Cupertino, California. His dark comedy thriller, "Extracurricular Activities" was released by 1091 to theaters May 2019, and is now on VOD everywhere. His films include "The Right Girl," "Help for the Holidays," "Sound of Christmas," "Sweet Surrender," "Christmas in Love," "Perfect on Paper," and the comedy, "Church People," in theaters September 2019. He does rewrites, adaptations, and polishes for producers / production companies.
As an actor, he has had many roles in films, including "Zodiac," "Jack," "Woman on Top," "Unleashed," "Murder in the First," and on TV in a six-seasons recurring role on "Nash Bridges" among many others. And in San Francisco in the late 1990's, Bob was an on-air disk jockey, on KFRC and KYCY (Young Country). He produced talk radio in the early 2000s for on air personalities at both KGO and KSFO. Bob was also a member of the 60's rock band The BSides for eight years.
Bob has been married for 44 years to his wife Margie and they have three children and two grandchildren.
Where were you born originally and where did you grow up?
I was born in Pasadena California at Huntington Memorial Hospital. I grew up partially in Southern Cal until about the 5th grade, then up north in the Bay Area in Cupertino, California… where I went to Homestead High School with the Steves: Woz and Jobs.
I know you've talked about this before, but to at least quickly cover here, you started off as an actor in your late teens you started acting in the Bay Area and were paid for your performances. How did you catch the acting bug? Did you take classes or were you a natural?
I wanted to be an actor from the time I was about 10 years old and set about doing it at a young age. From Junior High on I was in every production I could get into. Yes, I took classes, but as I got into High School, I worked summers in professional theater with some amazing people and learned more there than I did at any class. By my senior year in High School I was doing professional theater at night and on weekends and all summer long.
I still act in films when I can. Mostly cast by producers and directors asking me to play some small part they don't want to have to take out to casting, but I have fun. I do about two to three of those a year. I've been in the Screen Actors Guild for close to 25 years.
Did you ever formally study script writing? Read books? Take any classes?
No. No. And no. I read loads of scripts, for work and because I wanted to. And I just started writing. Optioned the first draft of the first script I ever wrote to a studio three months after I wrote it. It was, looking back at it now, an absolutely miraculous event never to be repeated. The studio, Polygram Pictures, never made it because they got bought by Universal when the film was in pre-production and Universal dropped their entire film slate. It was a HUGE lesson in how this business can work…. Or not work. And mere 14 years later I had my first produced film. A lot of hard work and rejection came before that.
I believe you first became interested in script writing while working as an actor. Correct? Was writing something that was always in the back of your mind? And/or come naturally for you? What was it like for you transitioning to screenwriting?
I started on "Nash Bridges" as an extra, playing a uniform cop. I got on well with Don Johnson. By episode eight in the first season, I was promoted to Sergeant and had a name, Carl Hoskins. I still was a glorified extra most of the time, but I did talk and got to do police stuff with Don and Cheech on screen for the entire run of six seasons. While I was there, I was reading those scripts every week and thought… "I can do this." So, I found out about script software and wrote. And yes, you could say it comes naturally to me. I love the medium and have a knack for it. Much more than acting.
Your first TV movie was "Help for the Holidays" in 2012. You did a rewrite of the script. What were the notes & guidance like the producers gave you? I know you mentioned in an interview that it's smart for writers to put away their egos and write what people want or need. To make it work. To improve rather than change it to whatever you want personal. Yes? How difficult is that?
"Help for the Holidays" was for Hallmark. Levinson Productions made it for them. I was given a script with that title that was, to be kind, not very good. It was about a woman who butts into the lives of a family to bring them Christmas Spirit. There wasn't much good about it, except the spine of a story. I got ONE note. Make the woman an Elf. That's it. I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, just keep the spine of the story. They loved it. It shot in 2012 with Summer Glau in the lead and was Hallmark's number one film of that year and the 7th highest rated of all time at that time.
Screenwriting is the only form of writing where everything can get changed as part of normal work. It's a fact. You can let it make you crazy or you can understand it. After it made me crazy for a short while, I chose to understand it. If you want a career, you learn to write what your hired to write… creatively… but you still write from the instructions you are given. It's the job.
Writers also need to realize, it's not personal. Producers don't change stuff to make the writer crazy. They don't care enough to do that. It's all about what they need to actually get a film made. Same with directors… or actors. There's zero thought of how this will affect the writer because it's not about the writer.
And it still can be difficult. But the checks soften the blow. A lot.
And what was your experience on this film? What was the development process like? Did you go on set? And what did you learn from doing all this?
It was a wonderful experience. The film was directed by a good director and great guy, Bradford May. I met Brad when he directed a couple of "Nash Bridges" episodes. So, we had some history before a frame was shot. The development process was amazing because both he and the exec at Levinson, Amanda Phillips, were both easy to work with.
I was on set one day. Could have been there more, but there was nothing for me to do but watch. I saw enough to know my script was in great hands.
What did I learn? I learned production from a writer's perspective. It was a wonderful first lesson as 95% of the script I wrote ended up on screen. Something that didn't happen again until "Extracurricular Activities."
In 2013 or there about, you wrote "Cupid's Bed & Breakfast." Was this a spec script of yours? An assignment or a rewrite? What was the script like? How did the film turn out?
It was a rewrite of another…. challenged script. It was for Levinson / Hallmark again and I was free to do what I wanted. I did page one rewrite where there's literally zero left from the original. It's my favorite rewritten script and my favorite of all the TV films I rewrote.
In 2014, you did three different TV movies for producer Larry Levinson: "Sweet Surrender," "Rescuing Madison," and "Perfect on Paper"? Did you write all these on spec? Or were they assignments? Where did the stories come from? In brief, how did each of these come about?
All were on assignment. All were page one rewrites. Of the three, I'm most proud of "Rescuing Madison." It's a good film. They came about when Levinson' execs called my manager and said, "We have another script for Bob." I had an amazing relationship with them. They're not producing films anymore that I know of.
How did you hook up with producer Larry Levinson? What was your overall experience like in terms of time, pressure, etc.? There are also other writers listed with each project. How much did you work with them? OR what was your rewriting process like? And what were notes like from Larry and the network?
I did seven credited films for them and few others that I polished or did rewrites on that I got no screen credit for.
Here's a fact. I never met Larry Levinson. Not once. I'm not sure any of the writers who wrote for him ever did. I worked with one executive, Amanda. She read "Extracurricular Activities" as a writing sample, sent by my manager. Yes, the ultimate anti-hallmark script got me my first ever meeting ever with a Hallmark production company. She loved it and loved the creativity.
I never met any of the writers I shared credit with. Most of them were the original writers of the scripts I rewrote. They never saw what I did until the films showed on TV.
The notes were plentiful, mostly good, and I did all of them to the best of my ability. We had a very good working relationship. The Hallmark people and the Levinson people are pretty smart and great to work with.
Next in 2015, you had two more TV movies with "The Right Girl," "On the Twelfth Day of Christmas," and also a TV series, "Streets of LA." "Right Girl" was once again with Larry Levinson. You and Jeff Willis received screen credit. Did you work together? Who came up with the idea?
"Streets of LA" was a pilot that never went anywhere, but now I'm hearing it might. You never know. It was not mine, but a good friend's idea. We just wrote it together.
Jeff Willis is one of my best friends. We decided one day to try and write a script together. "The Right Girl" was the first one. We sold it to Levinson and were the only writers ever on the project. That was a new one for me, but it was fun. Six paid rewrites. It's a pretty good movie, too. Bradford May directed that one also. We do well together. It was my concept, but Jeff and I both wrote it from the first word. It's truly a script written by both of us. We have written two others… both are very big and strange. I hope we can sell those too someday.
You and two other writers were on "Streets of LA." Did you create the show, work as a team or serve as staff writer? What were your experiences like doing a TV show?
I worked with one other writer to polish what he had. He brought in another writer later I never met. We still have a great relationship, but it was a pilot that a sizzle reel was shot for and never went any further. So, it really wasn't like working on a TV show.
"On the Twelfth Day" was for Hallmark as well but Larry Levinson wasn't involved this time. Yes? It was written by two others, but you were a consultant. What did that entail? Did you provide the producers and writers with notes & feedback? Or did you do some work on the script yourself? How did you become involved with consulting on the film? How did you like the process of it all?
"On the Twelfth Day" was my first non-Levinson Hallmark film, but my 8th (movie) for Hallmark, I think. I was a "consultant" who did a page one rewrite and was the last writer hired. That's all I can say about that one. I got the job because Hallmark recommended me to the producers. Strongly recommended me.
In 2016, you worked on another TV movie for Hallmark called "Sound of Christmas." You and Rick Garman were the writers and it was based on a story by Lisa Reisner, Kaleigh Sutton and producer Lewis Chesler. Did you know any of the producers before landing this job?
Yes, Lewis Chesler hired me to do "On the Twelfth Day" the year before. I did a page one rewrite. Rick came after me and did a polish. I never met him or talked to him. He did a good job. The film has a lot of what I wrote and a lot of what he did to it. Which is fine.
And in 2018, you did yet another film for Hallmark entitled, "Christmas in Love." Stephen Steward shared writing credit with you. What was the impetus for this story? What was the writing process like?
It was another page one rewrite of a script for a producer who I was recommended to. Stephen wrote the original script. I did a radical rewrite. It was a very highly rated film for Hallmark last year.
Since you have worked on a dozen or so Hallmark movies, what can you tell other script writers about how it is to write for their brand? What is the entire process like? Producers' notes? Network executives' notes? Did have to write a synopsis first, next a treatment then a script? On average, how long did each of these scripts take for you to write and then ultimately get signed off on? And what tips would you give writers about working with Hallmark and working with their formula for their movies?
Know their brand before starting on anything you might be writing for them. Watch their latest films, as their brand rules have changed and narrowed over the years. Make notes. Look what you can and can't do in their stories based on the aggregate of what you see. It's writing by committee. They have one. The production companies have theirs. You deal with all of them. The meetings are large with lots of people giving notes. You have to be very organized and very disciplined. It takes about a month to write one, or do a good rewrite on one.
Tips? Be smart and understand that THEY know their brand and all you can do is try and deliver a script within that brand box and not to try and buck their guidelines. You'll lose every time.
How difficult do you find it to work in the nine act breaks after you have written a TV movie? I know you've mentioned not worrying about them when you first writing it? Is it tough to work them and makes sure there is a nice moment that will keep viewers with the movie during the ads?
You know… I've never had a problem with it. They seem to fall in just the right places when I decide to put them in afterwards. I've been very fortunate. The pages where they go are not an exact count but a range, so you have leeway.
Your latest film "Extracurricular Activities" ran in theaters in May of this year. It's dark comedy-thriller about a high school student who has a side job arranging "accidental" deaths of fellow students' parents. You noted on our forums you originally wrote it as a writing sample but because of the subject matter you didn't think there was much chance of it getting made. It was a great sample for a number of years and helped you get quite a few writing gigs. You also noted it optioned eight times by eight different producers, production companies, and directors, once even set up at a studio. Where did the idea come from? Was there a range of notes from producers about what they wanted to change over the years?
I got the idea... hell... I don't know where I got the idea. I just wanted to write a convoluted, controversial, dark, funny, thriller. So, I did. It was a hit with producers from the get go. I had them lined up to option it over the years. It was set up at Universal when a big school shooting happened and they just dropped it. Done. Over.
The director they hired, Jay Lowi, could never get it out of his head. He called me a couple of years later to option it, but it was already optioned again. After that option lapsed and before I could option it to someone else, he came and told me he was determined to make it. Ten years later he did. It was a ride I could write a book about.
The script you see on the screen is the complete story from the first draft, intact. The dialogue has morphed over the years a little, but it's fully the script I wrote. And to protect the innocent, I'll defer from telling you some of the ridiculous notes we got now that it's made and made the way I wanted it to be.
Plus… it's doing very well. That's even better.
Even for all the films you have written, worked on and/or acted in, you still live in the Bay Area. For writers that have never done this and who live out of town, what is the traveling back & forth like for you? Does production take care of all your airfares? Accommodations? Etc.? Or with these indie films, is it up to the writer to cover most?
I travel the 400 miles to LA whenever I need to. I've never missed a meeting. And no, no one pays my expenses. That's on me. But mostly I'm home, writing. A lot of the production meetings are phone calls anyway, with producers and execs all over the country. I look at what I spend as investing in my career. It's paid off very well. Plus, I have some cool places I've found to stay that give me pretty good deals.
Pragmatically speaking, what should writers know or keep in mind about living outside of LA but writing projects for "Hollywood"? What is expected? How much can be done over the phone or via Skype as well? And how do you make connections with people when you are not in LA to launch a career?
Write one great script. That's all you have to do. It's damn hard to do, but if you write that one script they can't put down, it doesn't matter where you live. It's still ALL ABOUT STORY.
You still have to do the work to query and maybe enter a couple of contests like The Nicholl or Austin and network where you can.
I networked on sets as an actor to get my first scripts out there. I still network online with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. I met Jeff Willis on the old IMDb boards. You have to be open to anything and genuine.
What's a typical writing day like for you? And is it any different for you when you are being paid to write?
If I'm on a deadline, I can write 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. I don't work on Sunday unless I absolutely have to. Balance in life, even if it's one day, is something every writer needs.
My home is pretty large so I have one section of it that's just mine. A big office and a kind of 2nd family room attached to it. I have a barber chair and a sofa in the office and a treadmill and kick ass stereo on my desktop computer to play iTunes. I always write to music. Been playing the "Extracurricular Activities" soundtrack a lot.
If I'm writing something for myself? I'm not as disciplined. Can take six weeks to three months to write something, depending on what it is.
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 treat pitching like I'm telling a friend about a film I just saw that he/she hasn't. Short, sweet, highlights. And I know everything about the story backwards and forwards if there are questions.
In the room, I let others talk. I listen. I answer questions honestly. I listen more.
I'm very good in a room because my attitude is: If producers asked me to be there, that means they think I belong there. So, I'm not desperate or fearful. All they can do it say No. I'm the same person leaving I was going in.
It's ALL about an attitude of honesty, cooperation, and creativity. And never ever being desperate. Something they hate.
How do you prepare before you begin a script? I know you have mentioned you don't write outlines unless hired by a producer to write something and are "forced" to. But without an outline how do you keep all in your head? Maintain a structure? And have any stories/scripts really surprised you in terms of where you ended up?
I come up with a premise. An idea I got from something I saw or heard or read, and I love the What if? part of that process. It really can come from anywhere.
Then I do research. Lots of it. Then I map out the first 5 to 10 pages meticulously, to grab the reader. Then I come up with the rock-solid ending that will NEVER CHANGE.
Then I let my characters, within the story/premise in my head, take me to that ending. I never outline unless it's a write for hire that requires it. Then I grudgingly do it. It helps when they pay me for that step.
Here's another thing that will surprise you. I never give one thought to structure. Not one. A good story will just have it without trying to force it in.
And every single one of my original scripts has surprised me. That's a good thing. I've optioned eight of them over the years, two got made. That's pretty good since most films are writing assignments.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
I have a trusted group of writers and producers who will read anything I write and give me honest notes. I seriously look at them ALL. Even the ones I hate because you never know if those can actually make your script better until you really think about them, instead of rejecting them out of hand.
Then, with these notes in hand I rewrite. Nothing is off limits. It's worked for me.
Rinse and repeat until I think it's good enough to show.
You don't have an agent currently or manager but you have had them in the past. Is that correct? When you don't have a rep, who oversees the deals? Who handles the contracts & deals for you? A lawyer? Or did you do it yourself? What are your feelings about reps particularly for these "lower" budget films that are more like indie films?
Right now, I have a manager again. He's gotten me some opportunities, so I'm happy. I still have what I call my ace in the hole. I have a close friend who is a contracts expert. He looks at every one of my contracts and has never steered me wrong. I'm very fortunate that way. And I love him.
Only had one rep who didn't like lower budget films. I'm not with him anymore.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries? And is this all done on your own dime or via the producers?
I am a research junkie. I go out and experience, as much as I can, what I'm writing about. I don't just do computer research. I interview people. I get them to show me what they do and how they do it. On my own dime because that information remains with me to use anytime. I've been some cool interesting places and done some very cool stuff. Some of it moderately dangerous, but not too much because I'm also not stupid.
It allows for a layer of reality in all of my scripts, even the really weird ones.
Do you ever say, "No" to projects you are 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?
Yes. I have turned down work I didn't think I could do justice to. Stories that just weren't in my personal wheelhouse that I couldn't give my best to. Hasn't happened very often, but it has. I can't speak for other writers, but for me it's something that if it's not right for me, I'm not going to do.
What things do you feel writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? What realities of writing professionally do aspiring screenwriters need to be aware of? What common "mistakes" do you see and/or hear about?
That it's not easy or fast. NOTHING happens fast in screenwriting. It takes years, not weeks or months, to establish yourself and build a career. You have to be able to look the rejections, and they will be plentiful, in the eye, learn from them, and then cast them off and plow forward. It's the writers who don't give up that succeed.
Besides that, most writers don't understand that you have to work just as hard marketing yourself and your scripts as you do writing them. It's grinding work, whether it's networking, querying, or contests. It costs money, an investment in your business.
Any suggestions for navigating the waters of the film and TV worlds? Do you feel writers need to target particular producers, agents, etc. based on how established they are as a writer in comparison to how established the producer or rep is? Does that make a difference in your mind?
Targeting producers is essential. Otherwise you can just spin your wheels. Look up the producers who make the kind of films you write and query them.
No one cares how established you are if you write an amazing script. No one. Again, not easy to do, but it has been done. It just takes an ungodly amount of hard work. Most new writers aren't prepared to do that. They get weeded out pretty fast because of that.
And finally, what's next for you, Bob? Do you have any assignments you are working on? Plans for your next scripts? What is your focus on in terms of type of movie, size of the budget and who for?
Extracurricular Activities is out on VOD everywhere (rent or buy it). Ok… commercial is over. I have a write for hire job I started just today, writing script from a producer's story. It's quite good and I'm excited to see what I can do with it. A project I pitched 18 months ago to a production company that they passed on is alive again with that same production company, miraculously. We'll see. We're talking. Would be nice.
Plus, a producer who I did a page one rewrite for on a now produced film is so happy with the way the film is turning out that they've come up with funds for a sequel and called this week to see if I was interested in writing it when time comes. I am.
I have an original horror script out there that a lot of people really like and it's very strange so I'm hopeful.
I will stay low budget, in the under $5 million area, until someone comes to me with something bigger, because that's the zone where films are actually getting made these days.
And I have a white board in my office that's FULL of ideas / premises that I will get to one of these days. I love what I do.