(this interview originally appeared on AEI Online)

InZide: Can you give a little background on yourself and how you arrived at where you are today?

VW: Let me see, double literature major at NYU. I began as a reader at Simon and Schuster. Then read for a number of film companies on the east coast simultaneously. I entered a job as an assistant in a literary agency that specialized in selling books to film and tv. And then I got hired by APA, and then by ICM. I moved out here and decided to form an independent agency a number of years ago.

InZide: Can you talk about a client that you liked, either by reading something or seeing something, and how you pursued this person? Can you take me through the process?

VW: I would say most clients are referrals from personal relationships. There’s very little that comes over the transom ultimately that you end up getting involved with. There really is an enormous screening process that’s already done for you which is that University’s have writing teachers who are referring students. The writing schools all have prizes and awards. There’s the Chesterfield Awards, the Nichol Awards, the UCLA screenwriting awards, etc. There’s so many different ways to attract the attention of an agent that if somebody hasn’t gotten to those levels of recognition you think that they may not be agent worthy.

InZide: As an agent, what do you look for when you are reading a screenplay?

VW: Ideas are a dime a dozen, execution is everything. I think people walk around wondering what the big idea is. Ultimately, everybody is thinking of the same idea at the same time because everybody is seeing the same movies. Everybody is reacting to the market. Everybody has to bear in mind the market and try to get somebody to invest tens of millions of dollars in the final product. So I would say that you’re looking for execution. Execution is everything.

InZide: I know that you mentioned to me before about the three-year cycle of writers. Can you explain what this is and how writers can escape this?

VW: Well, it never ceases to amaze me that people spend so much time, money, and effort getting educated as to the form of the script and how to anticipate the market. Even with pitch classes about how to go into a studio executive’s office and pitch your idea. And none of it is really concerned with how they can interact with a group of people that will help them get past initial success. Those are classes that Universities don’t teach. They would be something like how to interact with your agent, attorney, manager, producer, studio executive, director. What is your role, what is expected of you, how can you communicate better, how can you anticipate those situations before you get there so you can prepare for them, and how do you capitalize on the opportunities that are presented to you based on the raw talent that you’re offered? It seems that most people become shooting stars that lose their energy very quickly because they are very ill-prepared for the hugeness of the system, the politics, the vagaries of the communication. They don’t understand the development process because no one has explained it to them. It becomes, it seems to me, sort of a pitch-tent war between the sides, the “artists” and the “business people”. It doesn’t really need to be because the “business people” need to think as creatively as the writers in order to understand and communicate with them, but the writers also need to have more business savvy in them in order to survive the long-term. Without that, I think that very few people are shrewd enough to teach themselves. If they don’t have someone helping them along the way, they don’t understand how they were hot and now they’re cold, and what happened. They cannot break down what actually took place. Whereas a good agent can look at a potential client, they can ask a few questions, and sometimes they can even make one or two phone calls and they can tell you exactly what created the decay in the orbit. But the problem is often the writers don’t like to hear it. They want the business people to be the bad guys and to remain the misunderstood artists, which I don’t think is the way to take a long-term approach. I think that if the writer doesn’t begin and end as the collaborator in this huge and costly process, then they are doomed to fail.

InZide: So what can an up and coming writer do to prevent this from happening?

VW: The first thing that they need to understand is everywhere down the line, from beginning to end, the responsibility for their career is their own and they can’t imagine that they can go off and write and somebody else will totally handle it. They take on someone that is more experienced at it than them, but they cannot go away into a small room and just tap away and think that it’s all going to solve itself just because they’ve done well for a brief period of time. I think the need to maintain personal connections with all of your meetings is really crucial. People have one meeting and then they never speak to the person again. For the agent to get back in after they’ve done the formal introduction seems to me to defy the whole reason to have a one on one meeting. People don’t seem to know how to stay in touch, i.e. email people that you meet, say I have an idea, I saw a magazine article, or can I run something past you. Everybody is looking for a talented writer to bring them fresh ideas and material. But somehow writers get used to the idea that they have to go through formal channels. That’s one of the things that they don’t do and they don’t seem to know how to do and nobody really helps them do it. If you are going in to support the sale of a spec script, meaning someone has read your spec script and they like it, they’re not going to buy it for a million dollars, but they still are interested. So how do you get them to buy it? What are you going to get out of that meeting so that you can leave that room and have a sale? The other one is if you are pitching an original idea. How do you really sell it? An agent can’t necessarily educate everybody because there aren’t enough hours in the day. That’s why it’s unfortunate that it’s not coming from the film schools or from the writing classes.

InZide: So where do they get that education?

VW: It should be in the film schools. Or there should be someone who is clever enough to be able to ask their agent what they did wrong in the meeting. Why didn’t I get the job? To have the courage of their own talent and convictions and say tell me what I did wrong because an agent always knows what you did wrong but they never tell you unless you ask. They don’t want to bring bad news to the already bad news which is you didn’t get the job. And most people can’t take why. Unless they are willing to accept the why you can’t improve for the next one and get better at it. When you’re going in for the assignment, how you nail that assignment is all the difference in the world. Now if they want to hire someone who has already worked with them ten times, they are willing to spend a million dollars, they want someone with a produced credit, it’s very hard for you to compete if you’re newly emerging. But even if you are one of those people, you can still blow it. You could still have a produced movie or two and discover that, for some reason, you’re just not getting the job that you think was within your grasp or should have been easier. There’s room to learn all the way down the line even when you’re at the top of your game. You should become a producer, you should be considering how to be in a better profit situation on your films, you should be thinking about going outside of studio financing, and you should be thinking about television. Some people are even aspiring directors. So even then every time you succeed, you have to aspire to the next plateau in order to be moving forward.

InZide: We see that everyday where a writer will come in and say their script is the next best thing. It’s just amazing to me how maybe one out of a thousand will be worth reading.

VW: Well I think you need an enormous amount of courage to put yourself out there to begin with. Being able to have that kind of courage is admirable because you are exposing yourself to strangers and being judged without knowing it and I applaud that level of courage. I think it takes an even more courageous individual to get that far and still be able to take criticism. Those are the people that succeed.

InZide: With a small firm, how have you been able to compete with CAA and ICM and not only compete but succeed?

VW: First off I don’t consider this to be a small firm. I think the definition of small and big is relative. It’s a term in this business, which is “big agency” versus “small agency”. The bottom line is that the small agencies are the ones that are developing talent. You cannot expect someone in a corporation to be developing untested talent. I assume then that a film that only costs five million dollars is a little picture even if it grosses a hundred million dollars. And a big wonderful picture like “Deep Blue Sea” or “The Haunting” is a little picture because it made how much money in the past week or two? I think it has a great deal to do with your skill, talent, and your commitment. It has very little to do with the size of your offices. If the rule of thumb that bigger is better, I know a lot of men who think they’re in trouble.

InZide: I noticed a lot of articles in the Hollywood Reporter in regards to you and the Sundance Film Festival. What is your connection with this festival every year?

VW: Really? People always say I give good quote. I get quoted a lot. The journalists put you on the grapevine and say if you need a good quote, you can call this woman.

InZide: I actually have a good quote that I was going to ask you about.

VW: Oh really? I go off the record sometimes. I have a policy saying I spoke a little quickly there and maybe I should have gone off the record. What’s the quote?

InZide: “A sense of redemption is lacking in a lot of the storytelling. Filmmakers seem to feel they are pandering to commercialism to create a happy ending. But ultimately, if the characters begin and end at the same place, this does not create a movie people want to see. Their films are not accessible emotionally.”

VW: That’s a good quote (laughing). I think I said that at a party at Sundance. A journalist came up to me with a recorder and said I need a quote on Sundance. It was a party for a film in some incredibly small ski lodge with about five thousand people in it.

InZide: I wanted to ask you if you still feel that way?

VW: Yes, I was just talking about the independent business there.

InZide: Is that your main focus?

VW: No, I essentially have clients working in almost every field. I just like talented people. As much as one can describe how I specialize it’s that I don’t accept that the studios are the beginning and the end of getting a movie made. I will take a script out to cable and sell it if I haven’t sold it in features. I will take it offshore and will put it together financially if I can’t sell it here. I’ll just figure out the way to get it done. If it’s high quality, it will get done. I’d say, with regards to the independent business, how a writer/director breaks into this business, I mean, how one does it is a big question. The way that is traditionally the fantasy of the writer is I am going to sell this spec script for a million dollars and I’m going to be on the front page of the trades. For all of the scripts that go out, the ones that actually sell for that much money and provide a career to the person that lasts, is very small. It’s enough of a fantasy, and I think everybody is a gambler and people are in this business because they are thrill addicts or risk addicts. The fantasy for the director is that I’m going to put the money on my credit card and borrow from my parents and I’m going to Sundance with my movie and I’m going to become the next Martin Scorsese. Those are two very common fantasies in the film community now. There are a lot of other ways to developing business. There are a lot of actors that become directors. There are a lot of writers that become directors. There are a lot of cinematographers that become directors. And the hundred million dollar spec script fantasy, if you really do the numbers, which I don’t think most people want to look at, aren’t very good. Even if you look at the movies from this past Sundance, of all of the movies that were submitted, and of the movies that sold, probably ends up being one out of something like 8000 movies. Everybody and their brother is whipping up a movie in the garage these days. “The Blair Witch Project” was the one movie this year. One doesn’t know yet how “Happy, Texas”, “Trick”,”Twin Falls”, and “Kill The Man” will do. Going back to the quote and the idea of redemption at the end of a film, I still agree with the quote. Unhappy endings don’t make grittier films. In the same way that we’ve discovered that violence doesn’t make more exciting films or sex, to the point of being pornography, make for a sexier movie. If you begin to use a blunt instrument to make your point you’ve lost all of your subtlety. If you’ve lost all of your subtlety, then you are not in fact communicating, you’re screaming. I think that being able to create a character whose adventure is compelling is to understand why the character is compelling and the adventure is compelling. That means that even telling a story about nihilism is only compelling by virtue of the character itself, by understanding what motivated them to become nihilists. Even a black as hell movie has got to be a really compelling film because it’s got to show us gray and white too. It can’t just show us all black. Pornography is all black and absolute violence is all black. I think that a certain kind of unbelievably broad comedy is the same thing. It’s so extreme that unless you mix with a little bit of drama, I mean, “There’s Something About Mary” has some real pathos in it, in addition to the banana peels and the fried dogs.

InZide: What about “American Pie”?

VW: You know I haven’t seen that. I am a big fan right now of “Sixth Sense” because it’s a classic ghost story. In a much more classic ghost story you don’t see the ghost right away. I haven’t seen “The Haunting” but I have enough friends who have and I’ve heard that they kind of have too many ghosts. The thing that I liked a lot about the “Sixth Sense” is that it really is a cerebral journey and that doesn’t mean intellectual, meaning impenetrable. It means that you really don’t know where it’s going. You are very surprised at the end. It really has a great ending, which I hope people don’t give away. It leads you down one path and in the last minute switches. If you can manipulate your audience like that, you have really done your job. Some of the film critics are saying “Oh it’s too slowly paced. Ghosts don’t come in until an hour.” Anyone that’s looking at their watch wondering when the special effects are happening is not allowing the film to establish its own pace. I don’t think there needs to be a rule that every single ghost movie has got to have goblins in the first act.

InZide: Do find it more difficult to be female agent in this business than a male? Why?

VW: I am of the school of thought, and frankly I don’t meet too many men who think this at all, that it’s much more difficult to be a woman doing anything in this town. I think you’re cut a hell of a lot less slack. I think that you have to be smarter and stronger and more committed. I think the job is hard for everyone all around though. I don’t think that it is easy to find the right opportunities at the right moments and take advantage of them and find the people that will allow you to make the commitments. It’s very competitive all the way down the line for writers, directors, producers, studio people, agents, managers, and lawyers. Everybody is competing for the same little pot of gold, which changes all of the time. It used to be over there under that rainbow and then they moved the god damn rainbow. I would say it’s very hard for everyone and one has to be enormously committed and it’s a constant education. I think that it is harder for women because, even though there are a lot of very, very cool women now that are in decision making positions, the corporations are all owned by men. The ultimate decisions are all made by men. They are the ones that are doing all of the hiring and firing at the end of the day. When you get above a certain level you just don’t find women. I think that Sherry Lansing is the only one that is in a chair position in feature.

InZide: What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?

VW: Getting “The Usual Suspects” made was a lot of fun. Christopher and Brian sat on the couch where you’re sitting right now and hashed out that script for over a year. I sent it to everyone in America and everyone hated it. I’m not saying people didn’t like it a little, I mean hated it. The criticism was absolutely universal. There was one man who loved the script but didn’t see it as a vehicle for Paramount. Why did everyone hate it? The comments came back over and over again. They didn’t know who the lead was because it was ensemble cast. The characters were all unsympathetic. The bad guy was not allowed to win in the end and there were too many flashbacks. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that.

InZide: Everyone loves it though.

VW: Well, they loved it after it won the Academy Award. They love the execution of it. I don’t have all of the answers, nobody does. As William Goldman says “Nobody knows anything”. I would say at the time that it broke a lot of rules, which is a very hard thing to do for a new screenwriter. But it happened to have broken them with brilliance and that was what people did not recognize. They did not believe. That’s a shame because there are some really terrific, smart people in the community, but I think at the end of the day a lot of them end up getting their scripts covered. It was too sophisticated for the typical reader. I think a lot fewer people who actually claim to have read it actually did read it, which is another problem. It should have been reader-proof. I’ve been involved with a lot of scripts where you cannot distill the idea down to one sentence, which is what unfortunately almost every screenplay becomes. How do you distill down “The Usual Suspects”? There’s a guy named Kaiser Soze who is part of this gang but nobody really knows it’s really him and he tricks them all in the end and he kills quite a few people along the way. You know, how do you distill that one down? He rapes, pillages, and plunders and had the last laugh. So (A) I think the coverage really failed to support the script. (B) It did have all of those things quote unquote wrong with it. But that was what made it right. It was the execution ultimately that made it as good as it was. There’s no synopsis other than “Gee, these characters are well-drawn”, or “Wow that dialogue was good” that will tell you when someone has really broken the rules and had the last laugh. Now all I hear people saying “You know, we would like something like “The Usual Suspects”. And when you’ve been involved in a project that sets a marker like that, you suffer the slings and arrows of nobody wanting it and then after it gets made everybody trying to imitate it.

InZide: What was the last movie that you walked out of?

VW: I would never want to go on record and say that I walked out of anyone’s movie. People try so hard. You know, the whole process is so difficult and so hard to get a movie made. There’s so many people that work on it. I really respect that. You know, I would say that when you go to a film festival and I attend Cannes annually, you inevitably find yourself in films that are really bad. There was a film at Cannes that I thought after ten minutes, if I don’t get out of this room I’m going to start screaming. I was in the front row. It was a pseudo documentary about a group of very famous, good-looking English actors who were all taking pictures of each other on the toilet while doing cocaine. I thought, I do not have a clue why anybody made this movie.

InZide: In closing, do you have anything that you would like to add as far as screenwriters are concerned that you may not have touched on earlier?

VW: Yes, I would say look to the individual agent and not to the agency. And never wait for anyone to give you a job. Write yourself one.

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