Screenwriting, Tom Hanks & Working Really Hard
By Alex Sukhoy
Those on the peripheral of the entertainment industry often think that Hollywood is a mysterious place where beautiful faces simply show up and get on TV. While that may happen once or twice in a million, the truth is, the people who do succeed in such a competitive, fickle and ever-changing environment are those who stay focused, do what they must and work, really, really hard. Every single writer, director and producer that I’ve interviewed over the past three years follows this high expectation level. Oh, and they are all really good, level-headed and approachable human beings.
This past Friday night, after all the political noise settled down, Tri-C students, professors and administrators settled in for an evening of truth, wisdom and professional sobriety with award-winning writer and producer Erik Bork. Erik arrived in Cleveland for the weekend for a six-hour Screenwriting Workshop hosted by the Greater Cleveland Film Commission. Saturday’s event was open to the public and was one more opportunity for N.E. Ohio’s creative public to gain exposure and insight into what it takes to succeed in the business of show business.
Bork’s Veterans Day weekend arrival here was no accident. Both he and Cleveland Film Commissioner Ivan Schwarz served as producers on the HBO Emmy award-winning Band of Brothers. These kinds of connections further fuel the relationships Schwarz and his staff continue to build for this city. And, as Tri-C’s Media Arts and Journalism programs continue to grow and teach dedicated and focused students the craft of movie-making and to prepare them for increased local productions that the Commission is feverishly attracting, as well as work around the country, securing Bork for an intimate evening at Tri-C’s downtown Black Box Theater signaled the seriousness of Cleveland’s talent development.
When Bork first walked in, a few of us had the opportunity to shake hands with him and discovered that his Ohio roots are so strong that he was recently canvassing the area in time for the election. Bork then proceeded towards the front of the theater and discussed his background, laying out the step-by-step reality of how to succeed in the the land of make-believe.
He was born in Dayton, Ohio. He began he college education at Miami University but then realized that it didn’t have a film program and transferred to Wright State University, which was closer to home. Knowing that L.A. was next, he took on as many secretary skill-building jobs as possible so that he could strengthen his resume. He moved out west and began temping, eventually with production studios. He also took a sitcom-writing class. Eventually, he began the job most take on when they want to do anything in Hollywood: he became an assistant. Scratch that: he became an assistant’s assistant. But it was well worth it, because the person he was assisting assist was none other than Tom Hanks. The timing gods were also with him: Bork was on Hanks’ payroll during the years when the actor won his back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and then Forrest Gump. Bork even shared the story of how he had to drive Hanks’ Oscar for engraving, all the while he was still financially struggling.
But this wasn’t enough. Bork had a front-end back-up plan. He wanted to write. And when he wasn’t working for the new King of Hollywood, he was busy writing scripts. Two full features and sitcom scripts for the hottest TV comedies of the time: Mad About You, Frasier and Friends. The glitch? No studio would take unsolicited writing.
Bork kept writing, anyway. Every day, for at least one hour.
Until one day, his boss (Hanks’ First Assistant) suggested Bork show his work to Hanks. This is not looked upon favorably in L.A., where the biggest reason why people assist is so that they can build the right relationships to later pursue their dreams. Oh, and so that they can pay their bills. That same assistant then suggested to Tom Hanks that he read Erik Bork’s work. Bork timidly gave Hanks his two full-feature scripts and the sitcoms, expecting nothing.
The result? Hanks was working on a personal project and hired Bork to write and co-produce Hanks’ passion project From the Earth to the Moon. This led to Band of Brothers. The rest, they say, is history.
After Bork, who is married and a father of three, properly introduced himself to all of us, he spent the rest of the evening generously answering questions, mostly about the craft and, also, about the industry. Simone Barros, a filmmaker who has worked with Spike Lee and who co-teaches Art of Story with me, as well as various production classes, shared this about the evening: “I know it was a valued learning experience for my students to hear Erik’s experience in the collaborative writing process of miniseries, where rewrites to writers’ scripts are routine and the emphasis is on story structure.”
Structure, both on the page and in life, prevailed as the evening’s theme.
Bork offered tremendous insight and guidance and short of me scanning six pages of detailed journal notes into this article, instead I’ll simply list some of the statements and questions that he shared with and asked of us:
1. “A daily (writing) schedule is good.”
2. “Screenwriters should live in L.A… All the people buying ideas are in L.A.”
3. “What’s the idea of the story that you can tell in a couple of sentences?”
4. “Screenwriters write new things.”
5. “(When writing), look at (your story) through one person.”
6. “Of every ten projects you write (and sell) one gets produced…selling a script is like winning American Idol.”
7. “You have to believe in and love what you’re writing.”
8. “Don’t let your agents dictate what you should do.”
9. “Stories are about problem solving…The best stories are a very simple thing.”
10. “Do the work. Choose your game. Make peace with it.”
The rest of Bork’s revealing wisdom will forever be cemented into the hearts and minds of the people in the room. Because showing, and not telling, is the art of the story.
You can find additional information on Erik Bork, including his blog, screenwriting advice and future seminars on http://www.flyingwrestler.com.
Alex Sukhoy, a globally-networked creative and business professional with two decades of corporate leadership experience, is CEO of Creative Cadence LLC. Her career coaching skills have resulted in numerous success stories for her clients. Alex teaches Screenwriting, Art of Story and Film Appreciation at Tri-C and Business Environment at CSU.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @creativecadence