The Producer: Pen Densham of Trilogy Entertainment Group
Pen Densham is a man of many hyphenates. Along with Trilogy Entertainment Group partner and co-founder John Watson, he has created 15 films, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and more than 300 hours of television, notably The Twilight Zone reboot. He has also thought deeply about what it means to create in a business that often seems at odds with that impulse, and his conclusions can be found in Riding the Alligator: Strategies For A Career in Screenwriting (Michael Wiese, 2011), a candid manifesto/how-to manual that explores its subject with pragmatic humanity. Between post-production for the Todd Robinson-directed Phantom (starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny), and commitments at the upcoming Austin Film Festival, this producer-director-writer took time to share insights and encouragement about the satisfactions and challenges of the creative life.
HH: What script first made an impression on you?
PD: When I was very young my father was involved with South Hampton Television and I often saw scripts from various shows and although they weren’t dramatic scripts, I was fascinated by them. But the very first dramatic script I read was F.I.S.T. This came my way via Norman Jewison. I can still recall how overcome I felt reading it, and when he asked me to comment…well, I was like the country mouse. I had one suggestion, which made it into the film. But I never considered myself a writer until much later.
HH: As the son of filmmakers, was there ever a Plan B for you?
PD: I was encouraged along those lines, but at fifteen, I already had my entrepreneurial instinct. I actually pitched a series idea to South Hampton. My father was absolutely shocked and I did get in a bit of trouble for that.
HH: Marshall McLuhan, best known for “The media is the message,” was a mentor in Toronto. What did you take from this?
PD: First of all, it was a time of growth and excitement. There were arts grants available, because Canadians had decided to be defined by art, in order to differentiate themselves from their neighbor to the south. They weren’t a military power, so they used art to protect their boarders.
I was working as a production assistant- carrying cameras, writing presentations- at a company that was developing a film opposing a freeway that would cut Toronto in two. McLuhan was involved and I would watch as he and others gathered around the conference table for these very cerebral debates about public policy. I also observed him during a conference call to do with the naming a Canadian satellite: Anik. He spoke about the resonances of the word, how it felt, and the mood it created.
As a young guy, seeing highly intelligent people discussing how you create emotion with words had such an impact on me. I didn’t know it then, but realized later that it was like a door had opened in my head and that I was free to walk through and explore. McLuhan was just an awesome guy. And I’ve always been attracted to underdogs who push to get their point across.
HH: What turned your attention to narrative film?
PD: My very first project, Wishes were Horses, came about because there was funding available for dramatic films, and everyone was doing documentaries. I had never written a script, had no knowledge of formatting, so I wrote it like a short story. Luckily I was mentored by people who went through it line by line and helped me, not only with the organization but also things like visual expression. They’d say, “You write that he’s angry; how can you show that?” And I’d say, “You mean, if he threw something?” And in it would go.
HH: Was this your directorial debut as well?
PD: And one of the most painful experiences in my life. I’d never directed anything. Never knew any actors. And on top of it all, I’d written for horses, not taking into account what they might or might not be willing to do. There were difficulties with the crew, too. I was certain it was disaster, the whole thing in pieces and patched together in the editing. And then it won 14 awards. I thought, No, no, you people don’t understand– It was a disaster! But Norman Jewison saw it and chose me to be his guest director, in Los Angeles.
HH: How would you describe him?
PD: Norman is overwhelmingly powerful and astonishing is his accomplishment and he has always made things he believed in. There is no one type of film he is identified with. No one style. He follows his intuitions as well as the causes that matter to him.
HH: Did Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier’s characters In The Heat of The Night influence the pairing of the English Christian and African Muslim characters in your re-imagining of Robin Hood?
PD: Subconsciously, perhaps, but not consciously. That, for me, came out of having a son. My mother died when I was very young. And I grew up at a time when Catholics and Protestants would just shoot each other. Arabs and Jews, as well. I thought if I could put religious enemies together, it would be valuable. So it was a tone poem to my son about heroism. I didn’t go into it knowing what I was doing. And I was told it was a stupid idea by studios, so overcoming those objections made it worth the effort.
HH: In retrospect, those reactions seem very strange.
PD: When we were nearly done with the script, we discovered a competing project was out there and did debate finishing it. I’d already abandoned one story under similar circumstances and didn’t want to do that again, so we moved forward. And that was also part of the lesson: not giving up.
HH: I jumped ahead, but how did you branch into writing?
PD: John and I had optioned a book. At that point, we had only worked with Jewison and Sylvester Stallone, but we were heroes at MGM for helping flesh out Rocky II and were given a chance to develop something of our own, so we hired a writer because we didn’t know what to do. That was incredibly revealing.
He turned in a 150 page draft, but it was written to his taste, not ours, and our agent was his best friend so the politics were not effective. Finally we decided we might as well write it ourselves, because we believed we could do at least as good a job and if we stayed true to our taste, then it would be even better. We told MGM that we would write the script for our supervising fee and that if they didn’t like it, we would find another writer.
By the time John and I arrived in Los Angeles, we had 10 years of experience. We were creative entrepreneurs, interested in people who got things done. We came here to study them. We noticed immediately that the producer lasts longest. The writer or the director can be replaced. We became writers to defend our own ideas.
HH: How does Trilogy choose projects? What is it about a script that makes you pause and think, This is my next movie?
PD: We are drawn to characters who act on their own behalf. We like novelty. I’m a romantic, so that is always present, but I also like a certain dark optimism. I want to make movies not talkies. The camera is an entrancing participant, so I design films to be visual, not just verbal.
We’re attracted to films with positive outcomes, not pyrrhic ones where everyone’s worse off. I find it hard to put my soul into that. I am moved by resolutions involving reconciliation, where people learn to treasure each other.
Sometimes as I read, I will think, This script doesn’t need me. Because it’s not calling out to the nooks and crannies in my creativity. There’s a kernel and a spiritual center in the stories I am drawn to and as long as I don’t give that up, projects can vary enormously.
Our current project, Phantom, is what I call a ‘life script,’ one that’s written out of passion, because it had to be written. It’s my observation that those projects are made more frequently and not the one written toward the market. Film making is a life bond and you want to work with people you can share that with. It’s too painful otherwise.
HH: The amount of writing you’ve done is remarkable. Was that a strategy, or did projects just keep winging their way to you?
PD: I have personally chosen to work this way because I’m always certain that I haven’t worked hard enough, I’m not getting enough out of myself, getting contacts, reaching out, inventing my own future. It’s been like that since I was a teenager. And that has been massively, painfully stressful.
When I was teaching at USC I once saw a student get up and run out of the room, right in the middle of a pitch. I went after him and spoke to him, because I really suffer from stress. I try not to cause it and I work collaboratively to alleviate it. As a producer, I want to be both an ally to the director- because I know that emotional state – and a sort of catcher’s mitt.
HH: Trilogy films are not cheap-to-make indies, but you also aren’t out there hawking lunch boxes. Is financing for the middle-ground as dire as we keep hearing?
PD: There’s an illusion that we chose what we want to get made. We develop an enormous rate of things that don’t get made at all. The ones where you are lucky enough to find a spark of financing that you can fan into a flame are in the minority.
Truthfully, this whole process is so uncertain. No one searches you out. People who succeed do so by pushing for what they believe in and when you make that effort, you expose yourself to the vulnerability and pain of rejection of your work. You may have something that doesn’t look like what other people are buying and if you worry about that you end up making bad clones.
The thing I say is, ignore everything that goes against your creative instincts. That approach may not reward you financially, so you have to use the process to develop your life.
HH: What habits are important for writers?
PD: The most potent thing is to discover who you are and find your tribe. Reach out and find other people who are struggling to create and achieve, and by being with those people you can swap information and discover you’re normal and celebrate the creative process. Networking, fundamentally.
HH: What you describe sounds much richer than networking.
PD: It’s not cold-hearted networking, but emotional networking. Wishes were Horses came out of that. A friend told me about the opportunity and that started everything. Try the impossible. You have to wind yourself up. But by not trying you are guaranteed 100% failure, and errors of omission are the hardest to live with.
We spend a lot of time at Trilogy thinking about the right opening line on a conversation. So, find a way to make the call and then make the call. Write the letter. This is all part of a desire that I’ve written about to feel valuable and not disposable. And being authentic and moral is a healthy strategy in this business, because you come in contact with all kinds of people. People respond to people with an optimistic attitude.
HH: What was the genesis of Riding the Alligator?
PD: My book was written because a former employee came to visit one day and said that in all the places he’d worked, he’d never met anyone who articulated the writing process as helpfully as I and he wanted me to write a book on creativity. I felt, Who am I, writing a book? but my partner John, who is on the faculty at USC, invited me to teach a pitching class to MFAs and I saw this as a chance test it.
I hadn’t written much prose, so I wrote one chapter and began with “Passion,” though I wasn’t sure how the students would react, if it would seem cliched, if I’d be laughed out of the room. I wrote from the heart, shared what I wanted to share and gave them copies of the chapter. And they responded well, and one or two of them really adopted me and gave me feedback. In essence, I gave my paper to the students for marking.
HH: It seems like another book is out there for you.
PD. And that is a matter of finding time. But this time out, I want to write more generally and explore creative entrepreneurism. Also the relationship between our personal vulnerability and the need to find systems to- and I don’t like this word- “evangelize.” To build the bridge backward to the people who don’t understand the value of what you’re doing.
There are so many models of accomplishment, yet Edison “ached” to give up on his work. It’s important that we tear down these heroic images because they’re destructive. People think that they have to be geniuses. Einstein didn’t think he was: “I just stayed with the problems longer.”
HH: Many people struggle to find writing time. Advice?
PD: If I’m trying to write an original idea it takes a lot of time, nights and weekends. My family is deprived. Part of my head is missing. But the worst thing that can happen is an inability to write because doubt fills the vacuum that is created when you don’t write: You begin to think, I have an idea, but I’m afraid I can’t do it, so I won’t.
HH: How do you get around that?
PD: Try to initiate a few things to circumvent the block. Write what impassions you. You have to rely on your brain because it will provide answers, but not always in a logical or orderly form. So whatever comes out of my brain, I write down. I jump out of the shower. I have Sticky notes everywhere. I have an environment that allows me to capture my thoughts.
Another thing, I just open the file, once a day. Even for just one line. Because generally that one line leads to another. Pull over to the side of the road if you have to- write it down. It’s not coherent or logical, but you must do it. At its best, it’s like a love affair when you can’t wait to see the person and I’ve had that experience with a script a couple of times. God, I want to write like that always, when it pours out of you like dictation from the gods.
PD: It has to be a spiritual process when you write. You’re writing to reassure yourself that your words are valuable. If you can emancipate your true voice, there is a deep resonant bell in your soul that is participating in your story process. All these things have an emotional logic. When the work is original and different, not repetitive and banal, you will fight for it because you understand it.
Material from the heart and from the instinct gets made because it brings the writer’s authentic emotional A game. Sometimes people will tell you what to write- what they think is right- but if you write what you think is right, you may be helping them find the very thing they are groping toward.
Follow Pen Densham on Facebook or his blog at Scriptshark.com.