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Dennis Palumbo
Dennis Palumbo

How to Get Your Film Made in Eight Short Years!

One man's journey from spec script to the big screen.

For a change of pace, I want to offer an inspirational story about one person who pursued his Hollywood dream, and how—sometimes—that pursuit can pay off.

My friend, Dave Congalton, wrote a screenplay in 2005 called Scribble. It's a smart comedy about a group of wannabe writers who meet regularly to offer each other criticism, support and encouragement as they struggle to get their literary efforts into the marketplace. And then what happens when one of them suddenly attains huge success.

Dave struggled for more than eight years to see his screenplay reach the big screen. Now, with its new title, Authors Anonymous, this wonderful film is about to hit the VOD market on March 18, followed by a theatrical release April 18.

I thought it would be interesting to hear a little from Dave himself about what it took to get the film from script to screen.

Q: First of all, tell us something about who you are, and how you got here.

Long story short. I was a bored college instructor who fled the MIdwest many years ago and came to California to sell the big Hollywood screenplay. Sound familiar? I wrote six or seven spec scripts that were truly awful and I was going nowhere fast. Around 1993, I decided to give up — screenwriting was not in the cards. I took a job in radio, started writing nonfiction, and ended up directing a local writers' conference. Fast forward to 2005. My wife Charlotte Alexander and two friends convinced me to try screenwriting one last time. We were all going to make a small low-budget film together. I needed some coaxing (actually a lot of coaxing), but ended up writing two new scripts; the second was a comedy about unpublished writers called Scribble. That was in September 2005.

Q: When and how did you first get the idea for the screenplay?

My original attempt at screenwriting all involved "high concept" ideas. This second time around, I stuck to my strength — I wrote what I knew. A guy running a theater in North Hollywood offered us the space for free on our film, so we needed something that took place mostly in one location. My friend who was going to direct wanted me to write about aspiring actors who came together once a week. I knew nothing about actors and cared even less. So I needed some group of people who would come together weekly. I had just stepped down from running a writers conference for 12 years. Writers, of course! The light clicked on in my head and two weeks later I had a first draft. It was that rare creative experience where the writing gods were guiding me. Everything clicked and I knew I had something special because I was drawing on my own experiences.

Q: How much of your own struggles as a writer did you put into the script?

At the core of my screenplay is a raw emotion I felt towards a fellow writer a few years ago. She had this incredible run of good fortune: scoring an agent, a New York four-book deal, a movie — even an invitation from President Clinton to come to the White House. Franky, I became more than a little envious of her success. Charlotte brought me back down to earth by reminding me that our friend did the work, she had earned her success. That exchange became the basis for Authors Anonymous. There are many people who fancy themselves as writers, but they rarely make the effort it takes to be successful. The three main male characters in the group (Henry, William, and Alan) all reflect different dimensions of my own writing career, i.e. Henry the dreamer, William who likes to call himself a writer, but doesn't do the work, and Alan who admits he rarely gets past the idea stage. I've been all three of these guys. That original draft drew heavily from my own time in California.

Q: Once the script was finished, what were the first steps you took on the journey to getting it made?

The original approach was that the four of us were going to go out, raise the money, and make this movie ourselves for around $200,000. Let's be polite and say merely that our friends weren't able to raise their share of the money and they stepped aside. We had hired a veteran Hollywood casting director who was a big fan of the script. A colleague of hers stepped in and held the Option for the next 3-4 years and we begin an odyssey rivaling anything by Homer. We chased money literally around the world. I rewrote the script for Swiss investors, for British investors, for German investors. We ended up finding a guy who claimed to have money, so we cast the film and made plans to shoot in Iowa around 2009. Turned out that the guy had no money and it was all a charade. So we fell out of pre-production twice with two different casts. I started this journey as a writer/producer, but quickly transitioned into the traditional writer trying to get someone to option the script and raise financing.

Q: I remember how many ups and downs were involved in the years of struggle to get the film made. Was there a time when you despaired of its ever getting to the big screen?

The low point would have to be the weeks following the Iowa debacle. I felt angry and frustrated. And lost, so lost. There had been plenty of disappointment along the way, but nothing like this. How can someone pretend to have money and allow us to cast fairly major stars and create this charade with all of us flying to Iowa to make a movie? After that, I honestly thought we were done. No one would touch a project with such a rocky history. Those were dark days.

Q: What was it like working with the producers and director?

I feel quite fortunate. Our director Ellie Kanner (Crazylove, Wake) came on board around 2008 (she was director #3) and really worked with me on shaping the script. She was careful to include me in all the meetings and gave excellent script notes. Once we finally went into production in 2012, Ellie insisted that I be on set and consulted me daily. She ended up taking the Option and pushing to get the movie made so Ellie was also a producer. The other main producer is Hal Schwartz who has worked with Ellie on her previous projects. They make a good team and the on-set atmosphere was relaxed and productive. No drama.

Q: How did you feel about the casting, and what were they like to work with?

This is bittersweet for me, for all of us on Authors Anonymous, because of Dennis Farina who died in 2013 without ever seeing his masterful comedic performance as John K. Butzin. I believe this was Dennis' last picture and he gets a big laugh in every scene. It was the perfect role for him and he was just the nicest guy. I was thrilled when I heard the news that both Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting and Teri Polo were on board because I'm a big fan of both. Dylan Walsh and Teri have some wonderful scenes together as the husband-and-wife writers in the group. We had to tweak the script a bit for Henry's character once Chris Klein signed on. My script called for a young man who "was a frog waiting to become a prince." That's not Chris Klein, so we ended up giving Henry a different back story. But Chris won me over by the time we wrapped. He brings so much heart to Henry and there's real chemistry between Chris and Kaley. Jonathan Bennett is always funny and, as an added bonus, Jonathan Banks came in for two days, fresh off Breaking Bad. In short, we were very lucky to secure this cast. They were all supportive of the script, of the words.

Q: How do you feel about the finished film?

First and foremost, I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and validation. I left one career to come to California and chase a dream. I made it happen — it took awhile, but I made it happen. I've got to give myself permission to feel good about that, regardless of what kind of reception the actual movie gets. Meanwhile, I've seen Authors Anonymous four times so far. No screenwriter is ever going to be completely satisfied with the final product. There are scenes you wish hadn't been cut. You end up surprised with how a scene that sings on the page doesn't always translate well to the screen. You wish we had had just a bit more money in the budget. But at the end of the day, I look at this movie and I see a laugh-out loud ensemble comedy, anchored by Kaley and Chris. I won't be preparing any acceptance speeches, but I am proud to have my name on closing credits.

Q: What advice would you give to other writers who might want to get their own scripts made independently?

This is what I wish someone would have told me. First, try to be a writer-director. You'll have a much better chance of protecting your vision as a writer if you also direct. Second, you have to master the Two C's: Collaboration and Compromise. Once you sell or option your script, you're now part of a team and you've got learn to collaborate and work well with others. You also have to be prepared to compromise on your script. Pages have to be cut. A character needs to change. Dialogue doesn't work. Hell, they changed the title on me from Scribble to Authors Anonymous. Pick your battles. Third, tell the world about your script and the fact that you are a writer, especially if you live in California. You never know who knows someone in Hollywood. Like any other business, successful screenwriters learn to network. Get out there. Finally, I say that getting a screenplay produced is the single most difficult thing I've ever had to do professionally. It is not for the faint of heart. If you had told me back in 2005 everything I would have to do to make Authors Anonymous, I probably would have passed. On the other hand, there is no greater feeling in the world than finally catching a dream.

Q: What is your next project?

I have a second script, Seven Sisters, currently under Option to a producer I actually met during the filming of Authors Anonymous. She was the only person during the entire three weeks of shooting who approached me and asked if I had a new script. I did. I encourage writers to fight like hell to be allowed on the set during production because there are excellent opportunities to network and observing the filming process really sharpens your writing for the next script. Anyway, Seven Sisters is inching forward and we hope to be filming later this year.

About the Author
Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

Dennis Palumbo