Interview with Diane Drake, screenwriter of “Only You” and “What Women Want”
BlueCat: Tell us about your story: where’d you grow up, where’d you go to school, where have you worked since graduating?
Diane Drake: I grew up in Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley to be specific. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder for my freshman year, then returned to Southern California, (I missed the ocean), and graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in Communications/Visual Arts.
I had a multitude of jobs after graduating, including working for a private investigation agency, various assistant jobs at various studios, and working as a reader for PBS American Playhouse, among others. My first executive job was as the Acquisitions Executive for a company called PSO that sold American films overseas, and finally I worked for Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack, beginning as a Story Editor and ultimately was promoted to Vice President of Creative Affairs.
BlueCat: Have you always had an interest in writing?
DD: My interest in writing grew over the years. I always felt fairly comfortable with the written word, and I’d had a wonderful, inspiring English teacher in high school. But in terms of thinking of creative writing as something that I wanted to do/maybe actually could do for a living, that was a much more gradual thing, and a much bigger mental leap.
I think I was always a bit in awe of writers. One turning point for me came after I’d graduated from college, where for the most part I’d missed studying literature and art history, and something in me became determined to fill that gap. I can’t even really say why I suddenly decided this stuff mattered so much, but it did. So, I enrolled in an art history class at a local Junior college, and began my own sort of self-styled reading program, where I read maybe a hundred or so of the classic books you always hear made reference to. It was genuinely eye-opening for me to read Tolstoy or Steinbeck or Colette for the first time and to feel as though they were speaking to me. There were a few books I simply couldn’t ever manage to get into, (Faulkner was one of the few writers I could never seem to quite appreciate), but generally speaking, I discovered there’s a very good reason classics are classics. Who knew?
BlueCat: How do you combat writer’s block?
DD: I think ‘writer’s block’ is a term for feeling burnt out and/or bored. There’s a saying by Neitzsche, “If you know the why, you can endure almost any how.” I think if you are truly convinced of why you’re writing something, if it’s a strong enough dream of yours to share this vision and see it realized, you can almost always find a way motivate yourself, to keep going back to the drawing board and trying new things and approaches. But if the ‘why’ isn’t powerful enough, or if it’s just for a paycheck, sometimes it’s hard to find the energy and inspiration to keep going.
Regardless, watching and/or reading the work of others whose work I admire is usually the best, most reliable antidote I know. Not only does it temporarily take your mind of your own story problems, but there’s a sort of healthy competitiveness that sets in, where you start to think, well, if they can do it, why can’t I? Why not me? Which reminds me of one of my favorite Beatles quotes ever, from George Harrison, on why he decided to start writing songs: “I figured if John and Paul could do it, anyone could.”
So, that, and then perhaps do something that takes your mind completely off of it— cooking, gardening, a sport or something tactile, where your mind can wander, where you’ve given yourself permission to not think about it for a while, sometimes the solution to a problem can come to you when you least expect it.
BlueCat: What’s your experience with screenwriting competitions?
DD: I’ve honestly not had a whole lot. Before I ever sold anything, I did enter my very first script in the Academy’s Nicholls competition, and I believe I made it as far as the quarter finals. Then I was fortunate enough to sell my second script, and thus was ineligible for the contests from then on. I’ve also been a judge for the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition, which was a great experience. There are many more competitions out there these days than when I was first starting out, and that appears to be a mostly good thing. Some are obviously less reputable than others, but generally I think the better contests, (of which I understand the Blue Cat is one), are a great way for people to break in and get their work seen.
BlueCat: How can aspiring screenwriters get their start today?
DD: It’s tough. There is ever more pressure on the screenwriter to not only write a brilliant script, but now also package it, line up the talent and possibly even put together the financing. Studios prefer ‘brands’, they want ‘packages’, and as far as I can tell, they’re almost fully out of the business that they used to be in of finding a good original screenplay and putting the elements together themselves. Also, they would much prefer to spend $100-300 million on a brand or established franchise in hopes of making a billion, rather than spend $50 million on an original to make $100 million.
So, from my perspective, that leaves three options: 1) Make you own low budget indie. Write the script, either become or find a good director, and raise the money yourself. If you can do all of this successfully and create a film that makes money/gets attention, then perhaps you can become one of the chosen few writers whom the studios turn to repeatedly for rewrites on the latest comic book superhero/young adult franchise movie. 2) Write a book/create a video game/write a graphic novel that becomes successful first, and then insist on being the screenwriter to do the adaptation. 3) Work in alternate media. While the feature business has steadily contracted over the last 10-15 years, and become, as I said, ever more focused on brands and the 15-year-old male demographic, conversely the television and digital businesses have expanded tremendously. It seems to me that TV, (and its digital brethren in original programming like amazon, hulu, yahoo, netflix, etc.) are where the real action, talent and opportunity are today.
BlueCat: Do you think there is still a gender inequality in Hollywood?
DD: Yep, of course there is. I don’t really know what the answer is, either. There have been strong institutional efforts made by the guilds and the studios and networks for years now to encourage ‘diversity’ and yet the number of women and minorities in all roles remains relatively minuscule, at least in comparison to the population at large. With a few notable exceptions, in terms of real power, the reality is that Hollywood remains as much a white boys’ club as ever. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, I just think that people are usually more comfortable working with and entrusting money to those who seem most like them. All of that said, I think you can’t wallow in despair about it, or use it as an excuse, you just have to do your best work and find or make inroads wherever you can, because they do exist.
BlueCat: Where did you come up with the ideas for “Only You” and “What Women Want”?
DD: I truly wish I could tell you, they both just sort of came to me, as ideas sometimes do. Particularly WHAT WOMEN WANT, that one was a bit of a lightning bolt. The one thing I had already been playing with, though, and had in mind when I came up with WHAT WOMEN WANT, was that after having written a movie with a female lead, I really wanted to try to write one for a male lead. Robert Downey Jr. was and is, as we all know, so incredibly talented and so much fun to be around, and he was so kind. I thought, it’d be really fun to write something with a guy as the lead, but it’s of course a little bit tricky. So when I hit on the idea of a guy who hears what women really think, THAT I thought I could do. As for the ideas, I think they’re both sort of universal fantasies, (finding that person you believe is truly meant for you; and men reading women’s minds, which is something I think both men and women sometimes wish they could do).
BlueCat: Do you outline your scripts? Tell us a little bit about your writing process.
DD: I do outline. I think without doing that it’s, as a friend of mine likes to say, “like setting out on the ocean in a rowboat”. To take that analogy a bit further, I figure when you set out on a journey, you have to have some sense of the route you’re going to take and where it is you’d like to wind up in order to stand any chance of actually getting there. If you come up with better ideas along the way, then great, but at least you’ve got a roadmap, at least you’ve got a plan. And it’s STILL hard.
BlueCat: Tell us one thing about you that most people would be surprised to know.
DD: I don’t know if people would be terribly surprised to know this, but my second career choice was marine biology. When I got out of high school I really thought I’d probably go into science. I enjoyed it, and am fascinated by animals and the natural world.
BlueCat: What’s next for you?
DD: Currently I’m teaching screenwriting for UCLA Extension and, of course, doing consulting, and meantime also mulling tv ideas, (for all the reasons mentioned above). I also just sold the remake rights to “ONLY YOU” to a large Chinese media company called Huayi Brothers. This was actually my second Chinese remake sale, after “WHAT WOMEN WANT” was remade there about three years ago. Anyway, we got them to throw in a first class trip to China for the premiere, so it looks like I’ll be doing that next summer, which is a very nice unexpected opportunity. Writing can be so solitary, when I think of how I wrote that original script when I was unemployed, in my little apartment in West LA at the time, and all that it has brought me, it’s pretty amazing. You really never know what kind of life your work can have.