SNHU Talks Process and Writing with Screenwriter Betsy O’Neill

by Gabbi Hall

0_0_0_0_247_294_csupload_55375973Tell me about your background as a writer.
I’ve been working in Hollywood for over 10 years as a screenwriter/ producer mostly on one major feature-length film project. I have two other projects. However, I have focused most of my time on the one big A-list, potentially Oscar-winning story. It now has two production companies, three producers (including myself) and is at a major agency, Creative Artists Agency (CAA). It is being sent out to A-list talent, which means directors and actors. Like most writers, I’ve had other jobs to support myself.

I’m one of those people that writes to live and lives to write. I am a self-taught writer. My writing developed at an early age. I loved writing stories using the weekly spelling list in third grade, writing clever and entertaining letters to my 5 great aunts, journaling, poetry and all. Starting at a young age I read all the great novels and major religious/spiritual works.

I studied writing on my own, not by reading books about writing, but by writing and sending wonderful letters to people. Some of those letters were kept and keep coming back to me over the years. I started on my first novel when I was 25 and I was a single mother. I’m devoted to writing because it is the wellspring of life–very healing and life-giving. It is my experience of the divine spark. Comedy is, oddly enough, the most profound form of writing to me. It helps us all not take ourselves so seriously. I think comedy saves lives and changes minds when nothing else will.

What can you tell me about your screenplay and the process of getting it from a notebook to Robert Redford and then to a Hollywood agency?
It’s all about your spiritual quest, tenacity, luck, hard work and commitment. I had to do a lot of research to begin with and then spin that into gold:  the script.  I was lucky that Robert Redford was a friend of my writing partner at the time. Redford already had an interest in the theme of our story and so he agreed to look at our pages and he helped us develop the initial story idea. I had one face-to-face meeting with Redford and it was thrilling. I’d never met anyone who so intensely understood the story and who shared the vision. But in the end, he did not give us much production help going further, only advice. He encouraged me to independently produce it and so I went off to Hollywood to do that. It’s all about who you know, who you meet and how you get involved.

I had teamed up with producers that didn’t do much, but I finally found a good match. She brought in her company, put some other producers on board and got us into the agency. This took many years. We have a close working relationship and I did many rewrites for her and the other producers. Many, many rewrites. You have to learn to enjoy rewriting–otherwise you’re done and it’s all over. A script is a very fluid thing, but at times you must fight for some of the rock solid things that are essential in your script. It’s important to push back. Hollywood will test your spine and if you don’t have one, you’re blown out of the water.

What is it like working with a big name like Robert Redford?
Thrilling! Face to face it was like talking to God! He’s no longer directly involved, but he certainly helped to get us where we are today. Once he wrote a letter that said the writing was “beautiful”–a great compliment coming from him.

Where is the screenplay in the process of transforming from paper to film? What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned so far in this process?
The Modotti /Weston project is represented by an agent at CAA, one of the top agencies in Hollywood, who is sending it to A-list directors and actresses. I probably will have to do more rewrites once it’s picked up. I may work with another writer, or another writer will be hired to do it. I’m okay with that, just as long as it goes into production. That’s my main goal.

What’s interesting to me is how much I enjoy walking into a meeting and asking for 12-20 million dollars for the project. You’ve got to have a strong vision and be somewhat of a performer to be able to do this. I also learned to pay attention to where you park. You can get some whopping parking tickets that cost more than your expensive lunch meeting you just had.

What has been your greatest challenge in trying to “make it” in Hollywood?
Knowing when to be “faithful” and friendly and when to be more cutthroat and self-centered in order to protect yourself and your property.

What advice can you give someone looking to “make it” in Hollywood?
Believe in yourself and your project. If your project is real, it will talk back to you. It will grow its own legs and make its own way. Follow your spiritual path and be tenacious in sharing your vision. Also, if you go to Hollywood, Santa Monica, Brentwood, Burbank and anywhere in LA for a meeting, pay attention to where you park, so you don’t get that expensive parking ticket!

You’ve also written a how-to book. What can you tell me about that project?
The secret is out. Hollywood writers use low-tech pens, pencils and notebooks for much of our writing. You must internalize screenplay format in order to write scenes. Relying on a computer program can be a crutch that will keep you from being a good writer. Truly.  Many screenwriters do a first draft by hand even though we own Final Draft or other programs. The reason why is simple. We write from the heart ,we shoot from the hip and we follow our gut intuition.

Director James Cameron calls this a scriptment. It’s a combination between a script and a treatment. That means it’s a thorough version of the story told in scenes with some dialogue. You don’t need an expensive computer program right now. It won’t write the story for you. My method will help you finish that first draft of your movie.

People can get addicted to how-to books and all the computer gizmos and gadgets. This is a book to end your addiction and finish your screenplay because you are going to internalize script format and start thinking in “movie” story.

What was the process for getting your ebook published?
I’m still working on it and hope to have it launched soon. It will be offered on Amazon and can be downloaded from my website.

What project(s) are you currently working on?
“Love Never Forgets,” a feature film about two of the most valuable photographs in the world today and the two lovers that took them in the 1920’s. Based on the true story and torrid love affair of Edward Weston and Tina Modotti.

“A Virgin in a Volkswagen and What  That Has to Do with Coronado’s Revenge,” a magic realism novel about Santa Fe, New Mexico in the 1970’s where I grew up. It’s taken me 20-plus years to finish this one! I’m working with a really great creative editor right now.

“The Speech of My Life,” a screenplay that takes place in Ireland and is about saving the Irish Gaelic language.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self in regards to your writing career?
Stay devoted to and passionate about your personal creativity. Write what you love. Love what you write. Your dreams will come true! Just not all at once.

SanDiegoImageI recently had the opportunity to meet Betsy during the SNHU #SeeYourselfSucceed Journey. You can read more about her story here