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Interview with Screenwriter Shane Salerno - Part 2

HILIGHT CREDITS:      UC: Undercover; Shaft; Armageddon

CURRENT PROJECTS:      Alien vs Predator (2004); The Mechanic (2005); Night Train; Untitled Michael Bay/Shane Salerno Project (200-)

There is such a tendency to overwrite today. There needs to be an economy of words. And that's what I learned over time - the economy of words."
--Shane Salerno (2004)


Armageddon It: Shane Salerno Speaks Out! - Part Two



As we mentioned in Part One of our in-depth interview with the multi-talented writer/producer, Shane Salerno, shaping a successful career in screenwriting often takes years to nurture. For Salerno, his big break came early and since then he's not only learned from his rewarding past, but has also made the most out of the many fortunate relationships he's been able to make a long the way. A man grateful for his successes and failures equally, Shane Salerno is a screenwriter who knows exactly what it takes to flourish and develop as a writer in Hollywood. After all, each professional experience, both good and bad, is yet another rewarding turn on the ongoing screenwriting learning curve.

In the second installment, Salerno picks up where we left off and delves deeper into his work on such projects as Armageddon, Shaft, Alien vs Predator, Ghost Rider, The Mechanic, and the upcoming "Untitled" project he's teaming on with blockbuster director, Michael Bay. Whether it's rewriting Ben Affleck's character in Armageddon, making substantial changes in structure to Alien vs Predator, or his optimism on translating Marvel's Ghost Rider, Salerno covers a lot of ground for writers to learn from.

By walking us through his own professional journey, Salerno paints a vivid picture of the inner workings of the Hollywood engine. In addition, Salerno provides writers on all levels with a gold mine of information via candid thoughts on such topics as working with great directors, respect for writers, his own screenwriting future, and the advice he has for aspiring screenwriters.

First plug yourself into Part One, and then sink your screenwriting teeth into Part Two of our in-depth interview with Shane Salerno.

ON WRITING ARMAGEDDON

I did virtually all of the writing in Michael Bay's office or his conference room. It was a chaotic environment because we were in a race with Deep Impact at Dreamworks. Adding to the tension was the fact that while I was writing Armageddon, I was simultaneously writing Thunder Below, a World War submarine thriller for Dreamworks and Steven Spielberg, Walter Parkes, Arne Schmidt and John Wells. John Wells was producing my rewrite on Thunder Below and rewriting Deep Impact. I would leave Michael's office and drive to Dreamworks for a meeting. It was so funny because we literally couldn't talk about what each other were doing but we both knew we were writing competing movies that were going to be shot at exactly the same time.

I changed Ben Affleck's character a great deal and his character arc throughout the film, as well as his father-son relationship with Bruce Willis. As originally written, Affleck's A.J. went through a near death experience early in the film and then spent the rest of the film trying to overcome his fear. I didn't see A.J. that way. I rewrote him as a "Cool Hand Luke" type rebel out to earn Bruce Willis' respect. Their relationship was important to me. Father and son, or father and daughter relationships tend to be very important to me. In one form or another they end up in all the films I write and those scenes always survive all of the different drafts. There is a memorable scene in Alien vs. Predator that deals with this subject matter. Also, I wrote a scene in Armageddon where Will Patton goes and visits his estranged wife and son that I am quite fond of. It echoes through the film nicely.

Rewriting a movie in or near production is challenging work. There are times when you do a small amount of work, such as my uncredited contribution to Breakdown. And there are times when you really make substantial changes to the structure, the characters and the dialogue as in the cases of Armageddon, and Alien vs. Predator. In addition to the heavy lifting structure work, sometimes you add a very small detail to a scene that changes the scene in unexpected ways or gives an insight into character. Here's a small example: Oil driller Bruce Willis was always introduced hitting golf balls out into the ocean while a Greenpeace boat protested below. I had him hit those golf balls at the Greenpeace protesters while screaming "I donate $50,000 a year to you guys" which, as the first words spoken by Bruce Willis, sets up the very conflicted and contradicting character of Harry Stamper. Just hitting golf balls into the ocean alone provides no character insight. That's a very small example.

Among other scenes, I also wrote the space shuttle destruction sequence which is one of Michael Bay's signature shots in Armageddon. Again, there was always a scene in prior scripts of a Space Shuttle in space repairing a satellite, but that was it. I created the idea of the Space Shuttle being hit and destroyed by the forward thrown matter of the asteroid. I came up with it because when I was in junior high school they brought my entire school down to the cafeteria to watch the Space Shuttle Challenger lift off on two big screen televisions. When it exploded in mid-air, it was the most striking event I had ever seen. I never forgot the silence in the cafeteria that day and when we needed something that demonstrated how vulnerable the country was at the beginning of the film I reached back and pulled this out. It went straight to story and character. Since we have never lost an astronaut in space, it was a harrowing thing to see on film. It also went straight to Billy Bob Thorton's character because he is now the first NASA head to lose a man in space, which becomes his cross to bear and ultimately overcome throughout the course of the film. Most of my work on Armageddon ended before the shuttle reached the asteroid. After that I just did a few things.

Working with Michael Bay on that project was very exciting. His energy is incredible but it cuts both ways. If you're doing great, Michael is your biggest cheerleader. If you're not, that foot you feel up your backside belongs to Michael. Jonathan Hensleigh's story and early screenplays ignited all the contributions that followed. The three screenwriters that I share credit with made an important contribution.

SREENWRITER'S VOICE:     Speaking about your relationship with Michael Bay... What can you tell us about the "Untitled" project you guys are working on? How's it coming along?

SHANE SALERNO:     I can't say too much about it because it's at such an early stage of the process. We're scheduled for 2004-2005 season. I have to finish my work on The Mechanic first and then I am completing my first spec script since 1997. My inspiration in creating the series came from the true story of Eliot Ness' pursuit of Al Capone. I say inspired because the story and characters are of my own creation. It happens in present day Chicago and is the tale of a clean, upstanding moral U.S. Prosecutor going after a Chicago drug kingpin. It's really about a collision of two larger than life personalities -- one a force of good, a real Dick Tracy - Boy Scout type guy and the other a true force of evil. Ultimately, the series, which is not an action series or a one-hour music video, asks how long a good man can stay a good man when pursuing evil.

ON WRITING SHAFT

On Shaft I was really caught up in John Singleton's passion and went along for the ride. The best thing he did was take me to New York and introduce me to the world of Shaft. I was a Caucasian screenwriter writing a very important African American film, and John made sure that I understood the specifics of African American culture and how they pertained to the script. He took me to every African American nightclub in the city to listen to music, to the streets of Harlem to soak up the history. He would take me to African American comedy nights to hear cadences of dialogue. It was a terrific experience. We would talk stuff out and then I would go off and write. When I was done John would give me notes and then we would send it to producer, Scott Rudin who served as the world's foremost bullshit detector. Whenever we tried to get something easy past Rudin he would murder us.

The film was originally written for Will Smith and multi-Grammy winning singer Lauren Hill. That was the film I signed up for. Will decided not to do it and Wesley Snipes entered the picture. Wesley departed because of creative disagreements and Sam Jackson stepped in and really made the role his own. I worked on the film and its many incarnations for a year and a half and when I left to write "Night Train," the Sonny Liston story for director William Friedkin and star Ving Rhames, Richard Price stepped in and did some nice work on the script.

Shaft was a difficult script because the dialogue and attitudes of the characters were so culturally specific, and also because we went through three different leading men and had to make big swing changes to accommodate each actor. John Shaft is also an iconic screen character. Premiere magazine just picked him as one of the greatest screen characters of all time and the pressure was on to get it right. The original film was also a seminal experience for African American men, then and today. When John Singleton and I would walk the streets of New York, African American men would literally walk up and tell him, "John, don't mess up Shaft." That's so great because it's so New York. That would never happen in Los Angeles.

Once an African American cab driver picked us up and it was the first thing he said when he noticed he was driving John Singleton around. The film also dealt with racism aggressively. I pushed for that because I witnessed racism all the time when I was out with John. In New York, cabs would stop for me but not for him. Whenever we were at African American nightclubs, police would be out in force while at other nightclubs you couldn't have found a cop if you were walking through the place with an Uzi.

We conceived the script as a detective story. I had the idea to do a twist on the "witness in jeopardy" plotline of Steve McQueen's Bullitt, which is one of my favorite films. Also, I made Shaft a NYPD detective. This was a dramatic change from the private detective of the original three films that hated the police. The structure of the script is interesting because Shaft goes head-to-head with two separate villains - his primary adversary is Christian Bale and then his secondary adversary is Jeffrey Wright. However, because of circumstances that happen in the pursuit of the primary villain the climax of the film actually becomes a showdown between Shaft and the secondary villain, Peoples Hernandez. It breaks all the so-called third act rules of screenwriting, but it works.

SV:     After two big screen projects, you wound up working back on the small-screen with UC: Undercover. What's the biggest challenge in writing for television?

SALERNO:     The biggest challenge is the twenty hour days. They're brutal. If you do it like I did it, executive producing a show is exactly like directing a film. It may even be harder. After all you're writing several episodes, editing several episodes, shooting an episode and prepping the next episode all at exactly the same time. It's like building the foundation of your house at the same time you're moving in furniture. It's crazy. My show was written and posted in Los Angeles and shot in Vancouver. To be in both countries was a real scheduling challenge. Also, I wrote or co-wrote eleven of the first thirteen episodes and I wouldn't recommend that to a first time showrunner. I had a real mentor in Vancouver in producer, J.P. Finn who produced The X-Files for five years and taught me the ropes of physical production. I needed that desperately. Ultimately, being responsible for delivering an hour to a network every week for air is really exciting and also a tremendous responsibility. It's humbling. You realize what you don't know every single day of the week. I was twenty-eight and I made my share of rookie mistakes but I had one hell of a good time going to work. The show had an incredibly loyal following, really devoted fans and I was able to bring a lot of people that don't normally do television onto the show, from Ving Rhames to Grammy winning James Bond composer David Arnold and that was great. There's nothing quite like coming up with an idea for an episode and seeing it on the air four weeks later. We were up against The Practice and they murdered us. Also, the show premiered two weeks after 9/11 and was very dark and realistic to the lives of undercover cops. In addition, it was very violent and that wasn't what people wanted to experience at that time. They really just wanted to escape.

SV:     How did that experience help you grow as a writer? Also, what did you learn or take away from the entire project as a whole?

SALERNO:     Anytime you get to see your work produced you will learn more than if it doesn't. I encourage young writers to do a reading of their scripts with friends or, if you can, with a group of actors. You need to see it. To learn what a film or episode needs and what it doesn't. There is such a tendency to overwrite today. There needs to be an economy of words. And that's what I learned over time - the economy of words.

I learned more about writing, producing (creative and physical production) and in some cases, directing parts of those thirteen episodes - literally the equivalent of writing and producing six movies in a year - than I have doing anything else. The television series made me a better writer. No question. I found television to be a far more difficult medium than films. The failure rate is astonishing. Even the greats like Steven Bochco, David Kelley, Dick Wolf, John Wells and David Chase have had twice as many failures than they have had successes.

SV:     We know you also worked on the upcoming Alien vs. Predator. How did you approach that project given the fact that you had to be mindful of two popular franchises and their respective legacies?

SALERNO:     When Alex Young at FOX pitched me this project I had two reservations. First, there is an onus to any film with a "vs" in its title. I think when people hear the title they conjure images in their head of a heavyweight prize fight between these two fearsome creatures. That's not what this movie is at all. Second, I wanted to go back to Alien and Aliens and the first Predator film. That means going back to basics in some cases. Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection showed too much and demystified the terror of these awesome creatures. Predator 2 didn't live up to Predator at all. Fortunately for me Alex, director Paul Anderson and producers John Davis and Wyck Godfrey, the real principles involved in making the film, were also deeply committed to getting back to the original values and excitement and terror of those earlier science fiction-action adventure films. We've all worked so hard, Paul certainly more than anyone, to honor the legacies of both franchises and we want to make a film that fans respect, respond to and bring back the goodwill of fans of both franchises. A new Internet trailer began running recently and the fans have really embraced it. Even Aint it Cool, who has a love-hate relationship with Paul Anderson, said the trailer looked great.

SV:      What new elements did you bring to the characters and story?

SALERNO:     Our film is not an adaptation of the graphic novels or the comic book series, or the novelizations or the video games. We're working from a brand new story that is set on Earth in the present day. It's not what people expect and it's not aliens and predators fighting in a boxing ring. There is so much misinformation about this film on the Internet. One popular web site reviewed a draft of the script from a decade ago that they said was our shooting script. Paul and I had never seen it and certainly didn't write it. As hard as that was to read about, I'm glad that our secrets are safe.

I worked on A vs. P for six intense months. I finished its development, wrote the shooting script, stayed on for revisions for cast, final budget and production notes and traveled to Prague to do on set work there. After that, I continued working on it back in Los Angeles when I returned. It was very exciting. I enjoyed working with Paul Anderson, who has a religious devotion to the first two Alien films and the first Predator film.

SV:     You're also working on a big-screen adaptation of Marvel's Ghost Rider. Are you a comic fan?

SALERNO:     I love great comic writing and art. Comics are incredibly visual. I think Bryan Singer raised the bar with X2. Alex Young, the Fox exec that shepherds day to day script and production duties on A vs. P was also the day to day executive on X2. Alex handles all of Fox's event movies and he really has an understanding of what an audience wants from these films. As well, he finds a way to navigate character and story in larger than life environments - X2 being the best example. When I walked out of X2 I called Alex and said "You guys just raised the bar." And they did. I thought X2 was superior in every way to the first film which was also good. X2 is my favorite comic book adaptation after Road to Perdition. Although I am very excited to see SpiderMan 2. The teaser trailer totally hooked me.

SV:     Which version did you like best, Blaze or Vengeance Demon?

SALERNO:     Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) is directing the film and he shares my love for the Johnny Blaze character. So does Nic Cage. He's a Ghost Rider fanatic. I met with him at his home and he has a tremendous passion for Ghost Rider and for the duality that is at the heart of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. Also, I think Johnny Blaze is the only true Ghost Rider, though I must admit that the writing and art is much better in the later Dan Ketch Ghost Rider comics. The original Ghost Rider comics never had the great writing and stories that X Men, Spiderman and other comics had. It was kept alive by a core group of Marvel writers that would exchange work on one project for the opportunity to work on Ghost Rider. I am excited that Mark Steven Johnson is directing. I think that he's a good choice. He's a very passionate filmmaker and it's that passion that resulted in Daredevil being made. He's rewriting my script with plans to start shooting soon. I hope that when the film is released they go back and re-imagine and re-launch a new version of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider comic books.

SV:     With that said, how do you create great antagonists worthy of a hellfire-throwing demon under $150 Million?

SALERNO:     Ghost Rider has had a long and tortured development history. If Ghost Rider is executed at its full potential, it could take special effects to another level as T2 did. Almost no film has had to use character based CGI on the level that Ghost Rider would require. It's thrilling to consider the sheer "look" of Ghost Rider. It could really be amazing and I am sure that it will be because the folks at Marvel (Avi, Kevin and Ari) are so meticulous in every detail in the making of their films that they will not settle until it's absolutely right. Avi Arad really doesn't get the credit he deserves. He produces these movies and is really the man behind so many of Marvel's films working so well. People forget how bad some early incarnations of Marvel movies were in say the Eighties before Avi took over. He's a master showman and also a terrific storyteller. Honestly, I think that he is a more valuable Marvel asset than Spiderman, and the people that have worked with him know this.

SV:      Since we're talking about comics, say you were on the other side of the fence trying to pen an original super-hero project on spec. In your opinion, how tough of a battle would that be for a new writer?

SALERNO:     If I was a writer starting out today, I might consider backing into screenwriting via another route. For instance, creating a comic book character or video game and getting it published, then selling that to Hollywood with yourself attached as the screenwriter. In the very least they would let you write the first draft. Sometimes the best way into the game is around it.

SV:     You're also busy with The Mechanic? Is it a remake of the 1972 Lewis John Carlino penned version, which starred Charles Bronson? What can you tell us about the project and your journey in writing the script?

SALERNO:     Our new version for MGM is really "inspired by" the 1972 film. This new project is a post 9/11 spy thriller starring Michael Douglas. 9/11 and its global ramifications are characters in the film. It's odd to write a remake, however loose, of a film that came out the year you were born. The best thing about this project has been the people involved and the research. The three sets of producers Michael Douglas, Irwin Winkler and his partner, Rob Cowan and Robert Chartoff are all Oscar winners so I have learned an enormous amount from them. These guys produced such classics as Rocky, Raging Bull and One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest.

Also, the lead executive at MGM, Eric Paquette is a very smart guy and he has kept the film honest and squarely in the real world. James Bond is about the fantasy of being a spy. Our film is about the reality of that treacherous world where you never know where to turn or who to trust.

Working with Michael Douglas has also been an incredible experience. He's an amazing actor and producer, having won Oscars in both categories. In our notes meetings, he switches hats back and forth from "actor notes" to "producer notes" but in the end they're all out to make the best film possible. There's no vanity or celebrity with Michael. He's just a good guy that loves good movies. People forget how many movies he has produced. It's really incredible. He's taught me a lot. A director will be announced soon and we will begin shooting this fall.

SV:     Albeit strange to say, I suppose we can now call you an accomplished veteran of sorts. How do you feel you've evolved as a writer as opposed to when you first broke in?

SALERNO:     As I writer there is just the simple fact that I know more every year than I did prior. After ten years that knowledge really starts to add up. I have been doing this professionally ( getting paid) since I was sixteen. I'm 31 now. Even though I am relatively young, I have had quite an adventure. There have been some amazing moments and some equally powerful disappointments. I've made my fair share of mistakes. But I've learned from all of them. Ultimately, I consider myself privileged to be doing this. I know how many people are trying to break in and I try to remind myself every day that I'm here and that only good work will keep me here. The incredible opportunities that I won at a young age were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I learned a tremendous amount from some of the best filmmakers in the world. On the other, I was a really young writer and while your skills as a writer will develop until the day you die, there was a core experience level that I didn't have and therefore there was a ceiling on what I could contribute to those early films. I don't feel that way today.

Most writers write six to ten scripts before they're discovered. That didn't happen with me. Those first six scripts I wrote were jobs for very well respected filmmakers and I had to learn on the job and learn quickly. Having success at twenty-three or twenty-four sounds incredible, and it was. But it was also an incredible amount of pressure because great filmmakers have a way of forcing the best out of you and my best at the time was somewhat limited by my experience level, and the simple fact that I had only written a few scripts.

The first film script I ever wrote was for Steven Spielberg and Walter Parkes. My first "feature notes" meeting was with Steven and Walter. I was twenty-three. I was sitting across from a brilliant filmmaker that has made some of the greatest films of all time. I didn't know what to say or even how to talk to him. I have never met anyone that knows more about film than Spielberg, nor have I met anyone that loves film more. I think ultimately that love of film is the cornerstone of his success. He is the greatest filmmaker that we have today, and also the greatest audience member. And Walter Parkes is an Academy award nominated writer who knows structure like Van Gogh knows paint.

ON WORKING WITH DIRECTORS

I have had the great privilege of working with Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Ron Howard, Michael Bay, Wolfgang Peterson, William Friedkin, John Singleton, Paul Anderson, among other directors. And I say privilege with great sincerity because every time I sat in a room with each of these men I learned something. Sometimes they didn't like how I wrote a scene or were angry at me for overbooking myself, but I still learned.

Each of these men taught me so much. I wish when I started out that I knew more so I could have contributed more than I did on some occasions. The truth is that these men were my film school and I will always be grateful to them for that and I use what I learned from them every time I sit down to write. I found my work habits to be very different from filmmaker to filmmaker. And to be honest, as great as some of those experiences were, I wish I was working for some of those filmmakers for the first time now because at twenty-three and twenty-four years old, there was a definite ceiling to what I could meaningfully contribute in terms of sheer craft. Some of those directors understood my age and the fact that I was learning on the job while others couldn't have cared less and wanted results. I understand the latter point of view because I wasn't being paid the wages of a beginning writer.

ON RESPECT FOR WRITERS

I don't think that writers get the respect they deserve. They are the only ones that start with nothing. Everyone else works from what they did. One thing that has always bothered me is when an actor talks to me about how excited they are about this film, or television series, that they're about to start shooting and yet can't name the writer of the script. They can always name the director or executive producer (in TV) but when I say "Sounds great, who wrote it?" I always hear "Uh, I don't remember but so and so is directing and´┐Ż" And I think that's unfortunate. That is one major thing I would like to see changed. The same happens in film reviews. With rare exception, film critics only mention the writer's name one time in the review while they mention the director ten or more times. Film is primarily a director's medium but I've never understood why film critics don't discuss the screenplay of a movie for a paragraph or two.

ON THE FUTURE

The thing that excites me is that I don't feel like I have accomplished anything truly significant yet. While I've been part of several very successful films, I have yet to make my films and deliver that signature great work. I'm primarily known as a writer of action films and I have ambitions beyond that. The irony is that among my favorite films are only one true action film and that's Bullitt. The rest are films like Godfather II, Schindler's List, Chaplin's The Great Dictator, All the President's Men, Citizen Kane, The Insider, Chinatown, Kramer vs. Kramer, among many others. I never saw myself as a writer of action films. I'm getting ready to start shooting Night Train: The Sonny Liston Story and it's a small, independent film with no action. The films that are exciting me today are the smaller films. I loved Lost in Translation, and that's not what you'd expect from the Armageddon guy. People get pigeonholed. I love Michael Mann's work. He made Miami Vice and he also made The Insider. Those two projects couldn't be more different and the same guy made both of them. Robert Zemeckis made Back to the Future and he made Cast Away. James Cameron made The Terminator and he made Titanic. In this business, more than any other that I can think of, how someone started is no indication of where they're going. At the end of the day, the filmmakers that we admire most are the ones that leave a legacy of unique, universal and memorable films, and I haven't begun to do that.

ON ADVICE TO ASPIRING SCREENWRITERS

I'm not from a wealthy family. I didn't have any connections in Hollywood when I arrived here. I was the product of a hard working single mother and because of the hard work she taught me I was able to retire her and buy her a house before her fiftieth birthday, which was always a dream of mine. If I can climb over that wall, the guy or girl that is writing in a small room, in a small town with no resources or connections can do it too. And I hope that they will. This town survives on a diet of fresh minds and new ideas and it's always hungry. They need you and they need that great script you're afraid to show anyone. The worst thing that they can say is "No," and "No" is really like the word "action" on a set. It's just the start of the scene.

SV:     In your opinion, where's the line between mediocrity and greatness in a script? What's the difference between a good script and great one?

SALERNO:     I have not written a great script yet. I think I've written a few good ones, and certainly several that were very successful at the box office but successful and great are two very different things. I'm thirty-one and I think as a result of my "school years" with so many tremendous filmmakers and executives that I am coming to a place where I have a great script and hopefully great scripts in me. I'm excited about that. But great is a special word. I once told director/executive producer, Gregory Hoblit, one of my first mentors, that an award winning episode of NYPD Blue that he had directed was "great!" He gave me this very serious look. "Don't say it's great," he said. "I have a lot more episodes to do this season. If this is already great, I don't have anything to reach for. After all Shane, what's after great?" I didn't have the answer to Hoblit's question. Today I would say the best writers, producers and directors, exceed great only by being consistently great. While not every time, they are consistently performing at the highest level of craft. That's why a guy like Greg Hoblit has won nine Emmy awards for producing and directing. Nine Emmys because he was never r satisfied and likely never believed that anything was great. I think there is a real danger in throwing that word around. Personally, I think that the word great, like the word love, is thrown around far too much, in life and particularly in Los Angeles.

Steven Zaillian is a great writer that often writes great scripts. I think he is my favorite writer working today. This man is a consistently brilliant writer, even if the films are not always fully realized. To our last question about age, Zaillian was an editor before he was a writer and received his first screenplay credit in his thirties, which was the terrific screenplay for Falcon and the Snowman." He won the Oscar for Schindler's List in 1993. He's written a number of wonderful screenplays since, including Searching for Bobby Fischer. The reading of one of his screenplays is an emotional experience. They are not, to my mind, simply a blueprint for a film, but something usually much greater. Like Robert Bolt, Zaillian's screenplays are a fully realized emotional character journey. I would say the difference between a good screenplay and a great screenplay is the undeniable and inspiring power of the screenplay as a stand alone emotional experience -- before a brilliant filmmaker and cast and crew have fully realized it on film.

[Once again... A very special thanks goes out to Shane Salerno for his cooperation and speaking out on Screenwriter's Voice. His passion and comprehensive insight into the day to day life of a working screenwriter truly embodies the spirit of why this website was created.]

-- Reg & Dayna

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