The Business of Screenwriting: “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason”

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“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

I’m at lunch with our agents in Beverly Hills. It’s February, 1987. The deal where Universal Pictures bought our spec script K-9 is finalized and my agents are setting up meet-and-greets for us all over town. Amidst the jovial banter befitting the successful consummation of a hefty six-figure movie deal, my agents are feeding us information, grooming us for our upcoming round of meetings. It’s in this conversation where I receive one of the best pieces of advice ever about the business of screenwriting. In fact, that’s precisely how one of our agents framed this part of the conversation.

I’m about to give you one of the best pieces of advice you’re ever gonna get. If you already know it, don’t stop me because you need to hear it again.”

He peers at us over his glasses, then says, “God gave you two ears and one mouth… for a reason.”

Perhaps you’ve heard this saying. I hadn’t. But when our agent said those words, I immediately knew what he meant and why it was so important.

I’m an Air Force brat. My family moved around the country seven times while I was growing up. I went to three different high schools in three completely different parts of the country: North Dakota, Southern California, and Virginia.

When you move that much, you learn certain skills. One of them is how to make friends in a hurry. The single best thing you can do? Listen. If you know how to listen, you quickly go from that “new kid” to that “new kid who’s really a great guy.” Why? They probably couldn’t tell you why. They just know, consciously or not, they found someone who will listen to them.

I built up my ability to listen when I was a student minister at Yale, working at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown New Haven. I counseled people. I stood with nervous grooms prattling on in those few nervous minutes before getting married. I sat with people who had lost a loved one when there were no words that could possibly take the sting out of their personal pain. And often I discovered the best form of ministry was simply to hold somebody’s hand — and listen.

So God, two ears, one mouth? I totally grokked that when I first heard it.

Most people like to talk. Most people like to talk about themselves. But there is probably no place where people enjoy — or just instinctively do — talk about themselves more than Hollywood. Of course, it makes perfect sense. In a town where perception is everything and hype is the most common blood type, one’s ability to frame conversations and spin facts in one’s favor is critical. Everybody is on the make, looking for a deal, working on a project, and even if none of it is true, the fact they tell people it’s true almost makes it feel like it is true which in Hollywood is close enough.

So if you ever get to L.A. and you want to know one of the keys of networking, aside from a credit card with a high limit and a willingness to buy drinks for people, you can make lots of friends in the industry just by listening to their bull shit, real or imagined.

A more relevant use of listening is when you ‘work a room.’ If you have a meeting with a producer, a studio exec, or talent, obviously you need to know your stuff before you go there. If they expect to hear a take from you on a project, you have to work up a story that will hopefully wow them. But another critical component of those meetings is what they think of you as a personality. Can they work with you? Are you going to be one of those whiny, bothersome writers or someone who will deliver the goods with a minimum of fuss. One way to win them over is shut up and listen. Again understand: People in Hollywood love to talk about themselves. The fact that you’re not butting in, interrupting them, trying to outdo them with your own witty anecdotes, but rather willing to listen to their schtick, when you walk out of that room, they’ll turn to their assistant and likely say, “Wow, what a great guy. I really like him.”

Okay, so there are two uses of listening that are admittedly pretty manipulative. Here’s a situation where you get a direct payoff in terms of the actual writing of your projects and you use your listening skills honestly. Let’s say your reps set up an initial meeting about a project. You know going in the studio is meeting with at least ten other writers. This fact will likely make you want to leap into the preliminary meeting and try to sell the buyers right there. Mistake. This is where you want to qualify the buyers, really listen to what they’re saying. You don’t want to ruin your best chance at learning precisely what it is they’re looking for from your pitch by talking over them. Instead of trying to wow them with ideas you concoct on the spur of the moment, probably the most impressive thing you can do is listen to them, ask some questions, push them to find out where the boundaries are in terms of the genre and tone, but mostly just absorb what they have to say.

Sure, there are occasions where you have to strut your stuff in Hollywood, but a lot of times where you think you need to do that or your instinct is telling you to go into performance mode, what could very well be the best thing you can do is shut up and listen.

God gave you two ears and one mouth… for a reason.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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