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Interview with Mike Rich
Interview by Jennifer Dirks

Screenwriter Mike Rich is at the top of his game. 

“I’m getting out of life what I want right now,” said Rich, 42. “I get to tell stories for a living.”

From his home office in Portland, Ore., he’s a computer-screen away from memorabilia that tell his story. There on the wall are autographed posters from his films The Rookie and Finding Forrester, tickets from his first screening framed in a shadow box, and the “Daily Variety” article that lists him among “Ten Screenwriters to Watch” (that’s Hollywood’s hottest first look at up-and-comers such as the writers of Lord of the Rings and Billy Elliot).

Yet Rich started on this trek just five years ago. A radio news reporter for a Portland, Oregon rock station, he itched for a creative outlet. Screenwriting seemed a natural fit since his on-air beat included Friday movie news. He squeezed out his first script from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. each day — after his radio shift and a power nap, and before his three children returned from school.

The script won him the Academy of Motion Picture’s Nicholl Fellowship and began a bidding war among Hollywood studios. In 1998, Sony/Columbia Pictures bought the 125-pager for a whopping six-figures. It became 2000’s Finding Forrester, an Oscar-buzz movie that grossed $53 million domestically and starred Academy Award-winner Sean Connery.

Soon after, Rich quit his radio day job, and began penning screenplays full-time. His second script, The Rookie, was snapped up by Disney, which brought in The Big Easy’s Dennis Quaid as the star. The film hit theaters March 29, 2002, grossing $66 million in the first month alone. Production on his third screenplay, an ice hockey drama acquired by Disney, is expected to begin this fall.

How in the world did you get started doing something like this?

Yeah, the odds are so enormous. They are really, really astounding. [When] I finished Finding Forrester, I knew it was a special story. I had confidence that it was. I still couldn’t get anybody to look at it. So I entered it in a competition. And had it not been for that competition, I might still be out there trying to get people to read it.

Most movies bring in other writers to finish up a movie. What are your secrets to staying in Hollywood favor from sale to screen?

I think you have to have the skills to write a good first draft, and then you have to have the skill to rewrite yourself. And that sounds easy, but it’s not.

A lot of writers can do one or the other. A lot of writers have trouble doing both. And that’s why I think I can do both. And I listen to suggestions. I don’t always take all of them, but I listen. Writers have a natural arrogance that what they do can’t be improved. In think you have to have that arrogance, but at the same time I think you have to be completely open to a new suggestion.

If a studio executive comes to me with 10 ideas for my screenplay, and nine of them are awful, well, that means I come out with one thing that might help my screenplay. And why should I shut myself off to that when it can make my screenplay better? So that’s the goal.

The goal is to make a good screenplay, and then the goal is to make a good movie.

Does your experience as a news writer give you an advantage?

I think it does. With news writing, you have to write in a very short concise manner. You have to cut to the chase. So I absolutely think my news writing background made me a better screenwriter, because when you’re writing scenes for film you can’t waste time. You have to have a point and you have to get to that point fairly quickly. News writing helped me do that.

So what’s the key to a good script?

You have to tell people something without them knowing what they’re being told. That’s the key. You never have a character say, “Boy, I can do this or do this,” or “If I change my life around I’m going to get the girl.” They never say that. You have to tell (the viewer) where they came from, what their beliefs are, what they want out of life, without them saying what they want out of life.

What do you want out of life?

I’m doing it. I never call it work, because I’m very fortunate and very blessed to be able to do what I do.

What’s your schedule like, as far as your writing?

I get up in the morning at about 6:30 a.m. Read the newspaper and do the morning thing for an hour or so. And then I write for four hours or so. Take a lunch break. Go to the (fitness) club, maybe, just to get a break. Then I’ll write for another couple of hours. And then that’s usually it. Six hours is about my ceiling, because after six hours, you may think it’s good but … So, then you call it a day. And do it again the next day. I do it Monday through Friday and I take the weekends off.

So you treat screenwriting like a job?

You have to. Even though I don’t call it a job, you have to approach it as a job.

When I was writing Finding Forrester, I was writing it as a hobby. So if I wanted to set it aside for two weeks or three weeks and not think about it and not write a word, I could do that. But it’s a different game now, because it’s an occupation. And if Disney hires me to write The Rookie in 12 weeks, they’d like to see it in 12 weeks.

Is that pretty standard?

Twelve weeks for a first draft is pretty standard. But I have pushed, and have turned some (drafts and rewrites) in faster than that. But I’ve also turned some in that have taken longer. I just tell them if I could take a couple more weeks with this, I’m going to be happier, and I think they will too. And they say, “Fine.”

It’s only when you get close to production, when you know that April 20 is going to be the start of production, and it’s March 25, that everyone gets nervous. That gets a little tough at that point.

You mentioned working out. Is that a regular thing?

Yes, four times a week. You just have to. You have to have a release. Writing is not the most physical job, let’s put it that way. Sitting in front of the computer. So you have to find some sort of outlet.

What’s your solution to writer’s block?

I get up and walk if I’m stuck. I’ll go walk for a half an hour.

So are you on a deadline for a screenplay now?

Just handed it in. It’s another Disney project, and it’s called “Miracle,” and it’s on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team; the one that beat the Soviets back in 1980.

You actually came up with both the “Finding Forrester” and “The Rookie” titles, which is very rare once movie marketing departments and focus groups have their say. Was “Miracle” yours as well?

I actually changed the title. The first title they wanted on “Miracle” was “The Miracle.” And I thought that just sounded like an HBO special. Or it sounded like a Christmas special. And “Miracle” just looks like it should be on a poster.

What’s the secret to getting that first screenplay sold in the first place?

Do whatever you have to do to get people to read it. And for me, that was what worked. [But] I would urge people to be careful [in entering just any competition], because there are a lot of smaller competitions out there that are just not going to get it done for you.

How do you find the better competitions?

You can go to the Writer’s Guild of America Web site and check that out. I entered three. I entered the Disney competition, I entered the Nicholl Fellowship competition and I entered the Austin Film Festival competition.

So, that’s what I would recommend. Do what you have to do to get somebody to read it. 

So, what’s the coolest part about being a hot Hollywood screenwriter?

The coolest part is when the movie comes out. It’s tough work. It’s not an easy job. It looks like a glamorous job, and there are moments when it is glamorous, but the majority of the time you’re sitting there in front of the computer wondering what page two is going to be.

Jennifer Dirks reports on personalities for Lifestyles Northwest, Portland UpClose, The Oregonian and more. She’s president of the Northwest News Writing Conference, a one-day, action-packed conference where the region's top editors and newspaper/magazine writers share tips for instantly building your writing career. Conference information is at www.thewritersgroup.net.




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