Today on the show, we have Pen Densham. Pen is a successful award-winning screenwriter, producer, and director, with an extensive track record in film and television. He is responsible for writing and producing some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Backdraft, Blown Away, and some of its longest-running television series, including The Outer Limits.
Starting with his first job in show business, riding atop a live alligator for a theatrical short film made by his parents, Pen decided to leave his English school system at age 15 and has since spent his lifetime in the business of entertainment, selling films and television series, as well as hiring, mentoring and collaborating with A-list writers along the way. His latest film is Harriet, which he is the executive producer of.
Pen’s latest project, Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing and Not getting Eaten, was written with one clear goal: to write the kind of book he would have loved to read when he was starting out as a writer-filmmaker. Pen is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”– Albert Einstein
I had a ball speaking to Pen about his time in Hollywood, what it was like to screenwriter/producer monster hits, and his screenwriting philosophy on how to make it in Hollywood.
Enjoy my eye-opening conversation with Pen Densham.
Alex Ferrari 0:17
I'd like to welcome to the show Pen Densham. How you doing my friend?
Pen Densham 3:57
I'm doing great, Alex, nice to be chatting with you again.
Alex Ferrari 3:59
Yes, I know, we met at a wonderful mixer the other day. And we hit it off. And I'm like we have to be on the show. And, and you've written some of my favorite movies and produce some of my favorite movies of all time. And I will get to all of those in a minute. But before we even get started, how did you get into this business?
Pen Densham 4:18
Oh, well, I was born into it. My folks are making short films when I was a little kid. And so I'm four years old, and I'm writing an alligator in a movie that my folks are making about people who keep strange pets, dating myself. That movie actually went out with Africa Queen into the movie theaters. So I saw my mom and dad with cameras and the power of cameras. And since that time just yearned to tell stories and have that but I call it casting a spell. You're you're doing something that's extraordinary people are all drawn to it. And I don't think they had babysitters back then because they couldn't afford them. So they took Meet a Water Street. So I'm four years old, meeting the people that are distributing their movies, and sitting in the theater with them, watching them with them. And from that time on, I just yearned literally yearn to be involved. And then my mom died when I was eight. My father's behavior was not as supportive, he married a very difficult lady, and a 15. I left school with an eye love cameras, but my school was trying to punish me out of being imaginative and helped me by getting me a job as a bank clerk or something. And my stepmother and my father, were doing the same thing. And it's very destructive, to your sense of self worth, and your holistic, the way your mind works if you're a creative person, to have people banging on you to being egotistical or difficult. And so, it, it left me with a deep sense of trying to protect other people's creativity. And, and also, it gave me a lot of understanding about creativity and vulnerability, which I think people who have very complex imaginative minds are also vulnerable to a lot of self doubt. And so we were talking a bit about why I wrote a book on screenplay writing, it was that I couldn't find a book that reassured me, when I was starting to write screenplays way back, that I was normal, that this process was not perfection, you sit down to write from A to Z, or you have to have every plot beat and every structure, I learned that when I let myself go, sometimes I would have the last lines of a movie in my head that had been in my brain for two years, knowing I was going to write it, get the last lines that make me cry, and then pursue getting the rest of the movie. And it's illogical. And then sometimes we have what we call the islands of sanity, which you get two or three pieces in a movie. And you know, you have to write the rest. And it's not about writing to fit somebody's belief system or some architecture, but it's how do you get that voice out of you. And I think if you get that voice out of you, you write to a different potency level. And also you protect your work for longer, you fight longer to try and make it more approachable for a buyer. And so you don't give up on it. Whereas if you write something to hit a formula, oh, horror movies are selling or ROM coms are selling, right one, but it's not in your nature. When the people that you're trying to sell it to give up on you, you give up too. Whereas I have scripts that I've fought from generation to get made. I can't give up on them, because they're somehow in my soul, which sounds crazy. But
Alex Ferrari 7:44
it doesn't sound crazy at all. Wait, well, first of all, I always tell people, we're all crazy to be in this business. We are we are all carnies. We are all we all ran away to join the circus we are isn't that isn't that a good analogy, we all are currently, the most unique people ever you meet in this business, they're all a little bit crazy. You know, we just put on a show. And if you want to get a complete, you know, perfect analogy is, when you're making a movie, you go to a location, you put up your tent, you shoot for the day, you put on a show, you record the show, you put it down and you move on to the next location. That's a carny.
Pen Densham 8:23
That's fascinating. I liken it slightly differently. But I still think that's an incredibly valid way of looking at it. I, I look at it, because I've tried to figure out how to overcome the suffering of it. Because the way I looked at it is, it's like a sport, and I absolutely love playing it. And the sport I think it is, is American football. Because I get hit, I have to put a team together. I don't have to love everybody in that team, but I have to inspire them. I'm going to have the ball stripped from me, I'm going to sit in the bench sometimes. But if I get to play and I love it enough, it makes it worthwhile.
Alex Ferrari 8:58
And then you get your start in the business as a screenwriter correct?
Pen Densham 9:02
Not quite No, actually. My my. I don't like talking about my mail too much so but left school at 15 tried to start my own businesses in England, fled to Canada at 19 thinking I was a washed up failure ended up in a culture where young people were being helped to make movies. And I'm going Holy crow. And I'm watching a 15 year old guy making a six sound 16 mil movie. And because I've been trying to sell things in England, I was able to help him sell his movie to the to the TV network. And started to see in Canada, there was an exchange of ideas from young filmmakers. And we were making short films. We were learning from each other selling to the world markets and the schools and libraries, which was a market back then. And in some ways I see this parallel happening in the way that the business is now aggregating again, many different avenues of opportunity. And so we tried worked with a couple of companies. When including introduced me to Marshall McLuhan, who is the guru of Communications at that point in the world, and that sense of free thinking and the sense of starting something, because you cared about it, and pursuing it until he put all the money together, and all the pieces together entrepreneurial side, was trained into making short films, at a point where we, we also learned, if you don't enter, you don't win awards. And if you don't win awards, people don't know how to judge your movies. So award winning became something we pursued. And we ended up winning over 60 Awards got medals from the queen, but it's bullshit. Because if you don't see it, it doesn't happen. And we made this one film, which was vitally important emotionally to me, which is where we asked children to direct commercials for life as if they were selling. And I wanted to make a movie about young people's imaginations in a way of protecting the punishment that I've gone through and saying, These people are incredibly valuable no matter what age they are, their imaginations of vital and powerful things. So by doing this, we got a movie that we ended up with nine young people each directed their own commercial for life with real actors, real crews, and we managed to get it nominated for an Oscar. And we we i'd also learned being a huckster being a carny that I'd seen other friends of mine in Canada get occasionally nominated for an Oscar, and wait to see if they won, and went to the Oscars didn't win and came home and no one knew what had happened. So I said, Okay, bucket, we're going to put every ounce of effort into making sure everybody knows that this nomination happened. And so we were on the front page of every newspaper, we had a film crew fly with us to Canada, from Canada, to the Oscars, we got permission with the government's help to take all nine children to the Oscar ceremony, and you know how hard it is to get tickets. And the end result was that when we lost, there was only three movies in that year, but one was part of the LA Philharmonic. So the we were on the front page of every newspaper in Canada. And we were on the nightly news Palooza. And that put our company on the map, which again, gave us the opportunity to go out and beg for more funds to go do films that we cared about.
Alex Ferrari 12:22
That's amazing. And it's something that they don't teach this that exactly what you did is you get an opportunity like this, whether it's an Oscar nomination as a short film, Sundance, a big event, a big news article, something that you leverage it, and you and you try to use it to push your your yourself and your company or your movie further along. And filmmakers aren't taught this I yell at this about this at the top of my
Pen Densham 12:48
writing a book about this, right?
Alex Ferrari 12:50
Yeah, my my new book, Rise of the film shoprunner talks about that, as well as many other ways of creating revenue streams and so on. But one thing I wanted to talk to you before, before I ask you some other questions I have for you, the whole world of distribution is changing so dramatically. And you know, you we were talking OFF AIR about this whole distributor thing and you know, and all the press that I've been getting, and not only me, but all these 1000s of filmmakers who have been been hurt by you know, the downfall of this film aggregator, and how that many ways that the system is rigged against, especially at the at the low indie level, the system is rigged against independent filmmakers as far as distribution is concerned. How do you see things going forward? I mean, we we kind of touched upon it a little bit. But there is going to be a change, look, look, Netflix came along and literally changed the entire industry. You know, this little, little company that would could have been purchased for 50 million bucks by blockbuster back in 2000. And I think two or three and now it's worth 150 billion. And it's changed not only the industry but changed how we view our viewing habits, how we the concept of bingeing the concept, all the you know, it's changed the world. That's there's still going to be more changes coming in, I think they're going to come faster than we even anticipate for independent films and for for creators, what do you think the future is in distribution?
Pen Densham 14:14
Well, you know, it's, it's the Gold Rush, nobody knows where the veins are, no one knows how you're going to chill them out. It's a creative entrepreneurism, which I always call that process that you must spend as much effort selling your material to people as you use to create it. And I call it also building a bridge backwards, which is you can't anticipate that your buyer understands what you've got. If you make them make the effort of trying to categorize what you've got, you lose because you're doing something where they have too distracted and don't understand it. So I break selling down into four component elements which I'm now going to give you my two minute lecture on how to sell please. First rule is identify your buyer because no one buys from a stranger research them and then reach out to them and find compatibility Because you're not going to sell to someone unless they, they feel that you understand them a little bit. So you know that they were the people that did that particular movie that was successful and you praise them genuine. Everything is about authenticity. Because people have a big bullshit detector, you can't, and you've got hustle on your forehead, you can't hustle people, when they don't feel so good a reality. Yes, there's, there's a good passion. So anyway, so you research your buyer, you create a rapport with your buyer by meeting with them and talking about things that they value. Second one is demonstrate passion, because why should they care if you don't? So you take you take an idea. And I tell my I taught a couple of times at USC film school. And I'd say you can be almost inarticulate if you demonstrate passion, because the excitement is contagious. And if you have got something and it's cold blooded, and you don't really care, and it's a marketing device, you're not going to get me believing that you're going to go through brick walls to achieve it. So by demonstrating passion, what you're doing is getting the that this is the root stem of my belief systems that I'm investing in this thing. And it's more likely to get people to support you. And when you're doing a movie with somebody, if it's a development deal, they're putting their job on the line a little bit with you. And so really a pitch is a chance to have a conversation with somebody, and not a chance to say okay, I've got 47.2 minutes, and I have to give you a to z of a of a structure, because that leaving them out that then I use a demonstration, I say that my wife had a dream. And it was so scary. She stayed up nights. And then she told me the dream. It seems scary. It was keeping me up. But I decided to turn it into a movie, which is my passion statement is a totally illusory one, but it's helpful. And then I say that movie, which is what I call the goalposts is sort of like halfway between the exorcist and alien. Now the reason I use that term, before I describe what the movie is, is that I've made a relationship with the buyer. I'm demonstrating passion. And I've told them that I'm going to show them what this movie is in terms of the things that they need. Because selling a movie is really filling the need of the buyer, not your idea of getting them to buy you, but what you're trying to sell them that you provide a solution to their goals, which is a nice say this movie is halfway between the actor system alien. Now what developed exact wouldn't like to have one of those in there. And so what I've done is I put two goalposts and simplicity, I don't say it's halfway like the X is the alien and got a game of thrones, because you screw up there, remember, and so, hopefully, between the Xs and the alien, and they might give them my pitch. And I say this movie is about a defrocked alcoholic priest who's taken to the moon by NASA, because they found the devil's bones up there, and people are becoming possessed. And I could sell that. And I just use it as a pitch module. But what what I'm really trying to demonstrate is that people will send me scripts or ideas every day, I get dozens of emails, and I've got a movie that's a horror movie and horror movies of selling. I have no interest in you haven't you don't know that I did Houdini Moll, Flanders Robin Hood. And that I've got a an interest in physicalized in historical characters, and that I'm interested in making altruistic care heroes out of things. You have no idea who I am or what I'm, what I'm. And so because you didn't research me, you're not going to touch my heart. And if you send me an email, and you say mall, Flanders, my wife and I crave when we saw that movie, we love seeing Houdini, which you did. And we wondered if this project would have an appeal to you, that changes the whole dynamic. And so I also see people trying to sell their work. And they'll say, Oh, this sold in the movie theaters this weekend, and I got one just like it. And you go, oh my god, I bet you you've already sent that out to hundreds of people and why would I care?
Alex Ferrari 18:59
Can't can we can we? can we can we I just want to for everyone listening right now. I need to just I want this to be put out there into the universe. I've said it before. But I want to say it one more time. If you're creating a pitch, and you're making a horror movie, do not use Blair Witch Project in the paranormal activity as examples of how much more money your movie can make. Is that a fair statement to say? Well, it's
Pen Densham 19:22
it's a fair statement, because those are so extreme that they're unlikely to be taken seriously. But if you can find a couple of films that are really solid, yes, in great lengths into the market, and have got a similarity of relationship, there's two goalposts things. But also what you're looking at is the buyer is the button. The most buyers don't want to do exactly the same thing twice. There's no stimulus. If you go to a director and you say, hey, you did The Blair Witch. Well, I've got this other shaky camera movie about people,
Alex Ferrari 19:51
but I'm not a witch, a witch, you
Pen Densham 19:53
know, whereas if you take a look at them very seriously, and you study them a little bit, you say, you know, I noticed you did this. In this with this challenge you, would this be exciting, and you're really looking at the next stepping stone. And actors are also excited to get involved with things that challenge their skills. They like to be a little scared. And so if you got a you know, it's like going to Costco and saying, hey, you just did Robin, how would you like to do? Will you tell? He's gonna say no, no, not at your mind. But when you like play some of the investigative john f kennedy death Yeah. Because that's fascinating. And your goal is the artist entrepreneur trying to sell your work is to try and see the buyers and there's a lot of buyers out there, you know, we normally need to have you come at us through an agent or a manager or a lawyer, those are the three routes. But you can also go in through potentially a professor of school, USC or somebody who would, who would add you add their name to you as an advocate. And I suggest to people going after the actors, or directors or producers with their own companies, and avoid the studio, because they don't have a system to engage people like us, the more freebooters. But the directors or the actors, they have people looking every day for things that will stimulate their biases. And so you don't look like you're coming from a prompt proforma place, you're coming from a place of discovery for them. And if you can do that, then you've got a good chance of breaking through the system and actually getting seen, but you got to research your buyer, you got to even make friends with the assistant, a lot of us forget that we're dealing with human beings, and it's human beings, to human beings that will help you. And by taking the time in a meeting, when you're going to meet the boss, take the time to say hello to the assistant get them number, and follow them up afterwards and say, you know, is there anything I could learn from what I went down and when would be a good time to talk to you about and you realize, again, assistants are on every phone call. They they monitor the progress. And they also scuttle that with each other about what their studio is looking for what their boss is looking for. And a lot of the time the students the the assistance in a structure are people trying to get up through the system just like you are. And by by taking again, honest interest in them and asking to their experience to help you get to your goals. You create friendship. And as they as they go to their levels of opportunity. And I've seen a direct a friend of mine ended up being represented by the assistant to the to the agent he was with, it was with a big agent who never had any time for it. And suddenly the assistant gets promoted to agent. And she's only got three clients. So suddenly, he's gone from being ignored to being someone that they're trying to push. And now she's the head of lit for a major agency. So again, this this process of creative entrepreneur ism is looking at opportunity and trying to find it not being scared to look for ways to get yourself to the front. And I also believe there are systems for reinforcing yourself such as I call it story midwives. But there are safe people that you trust, who will tell you the truth in a kind way. And you've got to expose your work to people there before you expose it to the Philistines the net, the naysayers, the difficult ones, because they can cross check all the things so that you get it really right. And can be reassured that when you go out to the other buyer that you've gotten most of the questions answered, or you've got most of the material clear, so that people understand it. And we call that asshole proofing. So we don't send a script out until it's really clear that we've got most of the objections and the things that are hard to understand out of it. Because you don't get to read. And if you put a year of your life into a script or longer, and you've got things that people didn't understand in it, it's it's like falling in the water of a stepping stone and you know, you're going big, big thing and then and then you're wet for the rest of the script if the rest threat. Whereas if you fix those things, you've got a script that's solid, and your friends have reassured you that it makes sense. And then you put it out to the world, but you never put it out until you've got it. Because all that effort deserves that. That kind of sense of value in your own.
Alex Ferrari 24:23
Now you've spent you've said it a couple times creative entrepreneurship, which I call film intrapreneurship which is, which is the same exact thing. I truly believe that in the future, the film entrepreneur is going to be the only way independent films, independent filmmakers can really make a living is being an entrepreneurial filmmaker, entrepreneurial, creative, and that goes with screenwriting that goes with filmmaking. Do you agree? Do you think that because the because the opportunities, I mean, you come from a time you know in the early 90s and before but like specifically in the 90s there were there were a lot of gates Lot of gatekeepers, there was only a handful of places you could go with a project. And, and out of that you were like, really, you were stuck in the really independent world, where and again, even there, there weren't a lot of outlets. Now, the gates have been flown open. The big boys still have gatekeepers, but there's so many other places that will accept your your, your art, your your projects, your writing, that the there's so much opportunity, that if you're not entrepreneurial about going after those opportunities, and then monetizing those opportunities, once they come into your world, you won't survive. Because if you're trying to play the game by the rules that they set out for you, which is stacked against you, I don't believe that I don't believe it will work. Do you? Do you believe that that the entrepreneurial creative, the creative entrepreneur is going to be the key to making a living in this business,
Pen Densham 25:55
we're in a revolution, we don't know where we're going. But I always figured there'd be 100 million TV channels. And I was thinking that since the 90s. Oh, we're not
Alex Ferrari 26:05
too far off.
Pen Densham 26:06
We're not too far off. It costs you nothing to upload your film now to YouTube and actually profit from it. So you can actually become your own studio and your own distributor. Now what what the next thing is, how do you get an audience and that comes back to being imaginative in some way. We did a TV special on magic many, many years ago. And we complete that show, we hung a guy in secret over Niagara Falls and did a straight jacket escape. And that we, you know, first of all, when we when we went to Niagara Falls parks commission, they said no freakin way, you're never going to do that. So then we realized that we've been totally reject. And then we decided, Okay, so then we analyzed who was on the parks board found a guy who was 80 years old, who knew my brother, my father in law. And we asked him if we could show him one of our movies. And we showed him a movie that was about sports heroes of Canada, he came out of the screening crying, and he then let us go and make a presentation to the board. Again, it would already totally refuse this. And I happen to go to that on a day when they were fixing Niagara Falls, and they had a crane outside, killing in concrete on places on it. And I said, I really, first of all have to apologize, I failed to tell you how important this was to our company. But secondly, I'm going to tell you a secret. My guy who's doing this study was the amazing, Randy says it's no worse than falling out of bed. It's like no danger. And but we don't want to tell people that. And then I said you already have people hanging out over the Niagara Falls right now, if you look out the window. So I all that effort ended up that I was able to shoot raising Randy upside down and when Agra falls in secret in the middle of winter, and then we held the photographs until the show went on the air. And I phoned up every newspaper in Canada. And they said, We will give you exclusive on this these photos that no one knew we'd done of a stunt at Niagara Falls, if you'll put them on the front page. And we weren't with any other newspaper have. So and we ended up getting front pages with our stunt which promoted our movie. Now, is that effort normal? Or is it what you have to do? I don't know. But it certainly for us was the only way we could break through the clutter that we had back then. And I think that same kind of application of energy, whether it's finding a reason why an audience should tune in or find a reason why a buyer should buy those things are really part of making films. And I learned from Norman jewison. Mike, Mike, my luck was that we did a lot of short films, then we did a lot of TV specials. And we would not be in getting support to do a drama. And I eventually found to a friend of mine who's another filmmaker, he said CBC is giving 10 grand anybody that can make an idea as a young filmmaker that they'll approve. I decided I would write a drama, which was the most miserable experience in my life never done it before. It didn't matter, right. I was 30 I had always been too scared, ended up working with direct directing actors that never done in my life. It was the most miserable experience, like Todd edited, like a sports film together. He pours out of it. It was a piece of shit. And I was so embarrassed. I sat with him in the editing room and there was days it was taken film. Oh my god, I just let everyone down. We have to do something what happens? What does this face look like before he says that line? And you know that was a
Alex Ferrari 29:33
man that took a minute to do back that took
Pen Densham 29:35
all Yes. And you look at it looks like the guy's thinking. And you go oh my god. What else can we do? So I went through the whole thing doctoring it with my partner putting it into cuts, expanding the pauses, you know, and it wasn't 14 Awards. I'm going no no no. I just barely survived this and Norman jewison offers me free paper by the Indian Government come to Hollywood and are going, Oh, I don't deserve this, you must I mustn't do this, because there's a thing called imposter syndrome. And when I'm coming back, some you're talking about earlier, but people, I'm invited every year by final draft and meet the winners of the final draft contest. And what I do is I have a breakfast with them. And I talk about imposter syndrome, which is the failure to take advantage of an opportunity. And what we only get those opportunities once in a while. And if we question ourselves during that opportunity, instead of pushing to its most possible, beneficial outcome, we fail ourselves, and we're going to be polite, we're going to feel like it's it's wrong to push ourselves and that this is probably a mistake, and we don't deserve it. And I will frequently ask them, What else have you succeeded with? And I said, Well, we, you know, was in leading school play, I have several writing prizes. And you realize that these people have a consistency, but they don't validate it. And that's one of the most dangerous things as a creator is not believing in yourself, and not going to take opportunities. And I say, my worst personal damage is the things that failed to have the courage to stick my neck out and try. I call those my errors of omission. And they still haunt me for going, Oh, you idiot, you could have walked across the room and class. That guy, that actor you didn't do it because you didn't. And so I want to encourage people take the freakin shot because your areas of comission where you embarrass yourself briefly minor compared with the opportunities you might find. And so going back to taking another shot at Niagara Falls, it was embarrassing. It was scary. I'd already been rejected. Les Moonves when I had the idea of trying to revive the Twilight Zone last time was revived, rejected me soundly, three times in a row would actually said yes. And then changed his mind. That might send him a letter saying, you know it because he's changed his mind. Because the system they said, TV couldn't use anthologies. And I said, Well, you've got 60 minutes, and you've got unsolved mysteries. They're anthologies, same host every week, different stories. And they've been number one. That's not the same thing. So I get shut down. Can we got this clip of pieces from our adult limits TV series, which was science fiction, fantasy, some wonderful, really fascinating CGI and things we were doing at that point. And we put this together to demonstrate what we've been doing. And I said to my partner, john, he put the Twilight Zone music on that. So I then I delivered it to Les Moonves, and his, his people thought it was fantastic. Unless there's I'm not doing this stuff. And then les gets control of UPN, which is the network at that time that had Star Trek on it. And that was the number one show. And I go to my partner, john and said, Could you get a lesson mentioned that Twilight Zone might be good, because we found, by the way that they own the Twilight Zone. So it was not me coming to them with something I'm trying to actually get them to do something. I love the Twilight Zone, I'm the only person who can actually provide both the Twilight Zone have the outlet. So I my partner says, No, no, no, you have to do it. And I got to do this. I'm too scared, I'm gonna he's gonna, he's gonna like scream at me. And then what I did was I found what I call a framing device, which is, I'm taking you through the steps of trying to be entrepreneurial.
I found something that made me comfortable. And a framing device, we use these terms because we needed the, we need to help each other, find these things, which is something you could say, or something you felt that protected you so you could take the risk of sticking your neck out and trying to get to your dream. And my framing device was I wasn't courageous enough to phone less. But I was willing to write him a letter. And my letter that came up to me that gave me permission to talk to him was DLS. So healthy. I swear I will never mentioned the word twilight zone to you ever again, after this. And that was my friend device. And I felt great. And then I wrote, how about it being a companion piece to Star Trek. I was in his office the next day. He said, I'm giving you 10 days because we're up against the deadline. You can write whatever you want a 10 minute presentation, whatever you want. I wrote it on a one hour pilot. I didn't know I could write a one hour pilot. But if you fucking put yourself under the it's amazing what you can do. We were shooting it within 40 days.
Alex Ferrari 34:47
So to me that's unheard of in the industry.
Pen Densham 34:51
But it's because the demand was at his need. I was filling his knee. He's taking over a network he has a number once Science Fiction show. And the idea of teaming up with one of the greatest anthology series is, and we, we always bowed to that not being us, we were picking up the mantle of storytelling. But it wasn't our show. We were, we were celebrating what had gone before. And that's an example of not giving up.
Alex Ferrari 35:25
That's that's his
Pen Densham 35:29
word. But once in a while, you end up with a success. 22.
Alex Ferrari 35:35
That's amazing. And one thing that
Pen Densham 35:38
you said before, because we had two stories every episode,
Alex Ferrari 35:41
so that was fair enough, fair enough. So the one thing you said that I wanted to touch on is that you were fulfilling his need, where I feel that a lot of screenwriters and filmmakers are asking you to fulfill their needs, you're not being of service to you. So like, if you're the person I am trying to pitch or do something else, doing that research, because you, you want good projects, you you want good things to do, and so to studios, and they all want you to be a good project. They all want your script to be the next greatest thing of all time. But most people and I see it, I get it in my inbox every day. I just literally got one today that like sent me a screen, a screenwriting a screenplay, a courier script, Curry, whatever that thing is, where they're like, Hey, I have a new script, I got this kind of coverage Would you like to do? I'm like, do you not know who I am? Do you? Do you think I have some sort of? Sure, here's a million dollars, that's gonna make it. I'm not that guy. You didn't know research, but you sent it to me anyway. And, but but by being of service to whoever you're trying to pitch is so much more powerful, and also more powerful when you're selling to an audience, when you're selling to a customer, when you're selling to a producer or a studio being of service to them should be the way you lead with these pitches, is
Pen Densham 37:02
that make sense? Well, you chose to play this game, which cost millions of dollars or high school if we now make a film on our iPhone, which is possible. But you're still investing your time and energy you have to look at the end result is trying to get it to a mass market. It's not like you're trying to do this for personal reasons, you're trying to get as many people as possible to see it. Now, if you would, if you were selling a car, would you go out and sell a house like a mini within who's got six family members? You know, so it's like, asking those questions, you're going to sell a Cadillac Escalade, to somebody who's just come out of college and has, you know, gigantic bills for their education and no money now. So you're what you're trying to do is fit your project, because there's probably a place your project might fit. If you've asked for proof the project by checking out with people that you trust, that the material is strong enough now. What you're looking at is, okay. What what people? Could you see using this as a tool to get into their goals? Not I'm going to send it everywhere. But how can I make it personal, so that you see a director who's done several, very, very high key but very unimportant, unemotional movies, Marvel Comics or something, you wonder if they and you see your research underneath them, you see, wow, oh, my God, this guy studied Shakespeare. And then and then. And then you realize that maybe he likes something that's really contained, but would really show off his skills, working with actors and emotions. And you you then approach the system in his through his either his agency's management or through his own production company, and you tell them and the most important thing in any letter is acknowledge the quality that you validate in that person. Because the first thing they read is going to be, oh, he gets me or she gets me, as opposed to I've just got this project and would you buy it? It is I understood from researching you because I loved your this, that this and that. And but also I saw that you had this deep heart, you're actually donate money to charity for whatever this is. And I have immense feelings for that same thing. Would it be okay if I shared this project with you? And another tool is don't sell, ask for advice. Sometimes it is easier to get in to meet somebody or to exchange information by showing them that you understand what they've done by finding an advocate. Maybe you've gone to film school and your professor will say, you know, I love this guy. He's very unique and I believe that you're talking to him would help help his career. You get that out of your professor, you make the effort. And then you go to this person and you sit with them. Talk about your Career, what you can learn from them, you create a relationship. And along the way, you mentioned the project, you think that he might like, that's the effort, you have to go to not sending a frickin email app.
Alex Ferrari 40:10
You mean sending 5000 emails out and, and it doesn't even say their name, it just says Hello,
Pen Densham 40:16
yes. Or even worse, you know, and those poor people, you know, they they're, they're not wrong in sense that the school systems don't teach entrepreneurs, the colleges are not about trying to help you find routes to success, they're about trying to fit you into a system. And, and it doesn't mean to say that you won't succeed some time just the law of averages, the monkeys and typewriters will write Shakespeare, you know, we have enough of them. But if you can help yourself by finding your framing devices and finding tools that reach out to people through your genuine care and excitement, to deliver something to them, you believe it's special to their skills that you validate. That's a much easier way to sell. Now,
Alex Ferrari 41:00
I wanted a one of the things that we talked about when we first met at that at that mixer was your work on a film that was released in 1991, called Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. And I told you I sat there gushing, because Robin Hood in 1991, I still remember it. So clearly, I was working at a video store during that time. And I went to the movie theater with my friend, we sat in the front row because it was sold almost sold out. So we had to sit in the very front. And you know, with our necks cranked up and we watched it and I don't know if it was the reason that we felt like we were inside of it because we were so close to the screen. Or if it was just that impactful to that that high school kid. But when we walked out of that theater, we went right back in and watched it again within within 20 minutes. And I don't I could count on how many times I've done that in my hand. That's how wonderful of an adventure it was for us. And it was such a it's one of my favorite films of that era. Can you tell me how did you you wrote you wrote Robin Hood? Prince of Thieves and you're also a producer on it. How did you how did this whole thing come to come to be? Because Robin Hood is one of those you know, every every decade or two they just redo a robin hood? You know they and I don't know before though Kevin Costner one. When was the last Robin Hood? Like prior to that?
Pen Densham 42:19
Oh, probably Disney. The anime?
Alex Ferrari 42:21
Yeah, the kouachi. So that we're talking about like 30 years prior to that. And then Flynn was prior to prior to that. And
Pen Densham 42:28
I remember that there was a banks whose before that, and
Alex Ferrari 42:32
others, but I do remember that there was a TV movie that came around that was trying to hack it just jump on that Robin Hood bandwagon I remember very clearly in the jar to release it as a because I worked the video store. So I remember watching.
Pen Densham 42:44
Oh, yes. Right. So I remember watching that video story behind that too. Okay, well, if I get boring, cut me off and just say get to the end.
We've been very successful in Hollywood working with people like Stallone who'd asked us to fix things in his films as consultants, because our own hands on way with GM was very successful for getting problems resolved. We worked outside of the definition of just a script. So we had access to people, which is very cool. But we also looked at what we were also doing was in Canada, we choose and chose to pursue things that excited us. Having had the privilege of having a wife, I looked at what do I want to say and I'm looking at Stallone making movies about killing lots of people and sports and I can make in commander where human beings are just targets and I'm looking at us raising his kid putting all this energy and and going, what an enormous amount of love and effort it takes to raise a child and you are using them as target practices, what would I like to say. And I came up with this idea of putting a Muslim and a Christian side by side in a robin hood, which would show to people are different of different who's supposed to be enemies actually learning from each other. And also came up with this idea of what I called the makers of life versus the takers of life, which was if you had a hero hero, and it could be a heroine who's willing to die for the future of someone else. That's like a we did backdraft which is like a fireman is willing to die so he gives other people a future. That's a maker of life. That's an altruistic hero. Whereas a taker of life is someone who puts their foot on a hot dead corpse and thinks they've done something wonderful. So I went out and pitched a robin hood. That was about a lesson hidden inside an adventure because I grown up on Robin Hood. I grown up on the TV show just like you watched ours and came away with my heart full of jumping off rocks with a sword in my hand. And I went to three different studios and pitched the Robin Hood idea I had which was to take it and make it a an adventure but with this idea of putting a Muslim with him. And the three all said pretty much the same thing. No one wants to see guys with swords all he wants these guys with guns, you're wasting time. And I was about to give up. There was a number of there was a, there was a thought that I was also off course, by trying to put an Arab in Robin Hood that didn't look good to a couple of people I knew. And we had a partner, we have an assistant who was working with us called Mark Sturm. And marks sort of looked at my notes and said, You know what, I think it's a great idea. If you start out try and help you. And so the only reason Robin Hood exists this because that guy gave me enough encouragement to blow on the embers of something that I'd almost given up on. And I started writing. And every day I looked at what I was writing, because I wrote just passionately not not, not with any plan just to see what would come out to me. Every day, I looked at my pages and thought they were obvious. It's silly. And Maid Marian comes out. And she's very large. And she's and Robin is shocked and looks up at her on the balcony and says, Oh, my the years have been kind to you. And then suddenly, he's jumped by a person in leathers. And that turns out to be made. And that seems obvious to me. And like my assistant is no, no. And then he's giving the pages to john Watson who's reading Oh, my god, no, no, keep going pen. So I've got encouraged to keep taking risks. And we ended up that the film I got, I got the script out of me in three weeks. But it also then I gave it to john, to go through it and format it and add any any ideas, any adventures, and so it had his layer on it. And then as it got shot, different people added other elements. And we ended up with a rich, funny, warm script that was the seeds of what I created, and the energy of what I created. And to me, I was making a movie where you taught people a lesson about altruism, where you took the richest, most spoiled and not just Lord son, and he told his dad to go screw himself, he was going off to fight and father's begging him not to try and force a man to another man's religion. And he comes home, sees his father's dead, and takes his anger by making his peasants go out and fight the show. And then realize that all he's doing is destroying their lives. And then he has an epiphany, and he's willing to die for their sons for their children's future. And we put a birth scene in the movie. And the birth scene is metaphorically my son being born. And Robin Hood doesn't. It is both an adventure. But it's also a philosophical statement of life for me. And I couldn't give up on it. And so there were and john
took on the challenge of he was what I call up to with Aston Martin arrows most of the time, because he's a great onset producer, and I'm bar philosopher, producer. So I was working on changes and writing things. And, and whereas he was really taking the brand and getting 100 day shoot. But the movie itself grew as each channel is each element came to it. And Michael came and score was just extraordinary. I also got to run the mix. And I am very much about when you create a movie, you're weaving a dream. And the goal is never to let your audience wake up. It's like blowing up a balloon, you must never let the air out. And so in a mix, I worry about every facet of it. Can I pre lamp a sound coming in from the next scene? So there's no pause, but you're not conscious of it. If there's a pause in the in the dialogues, that's, that's empty, can I put birds flying from the trees so that your ears tuned without it knowing that you didn't actually hear some dialogue. So I I'm also excited in that process of keeping a trance, which is don't wait, don't like the audience wake up. And so when you mix a movie, which is the most beautiful part of the movie, because like a Frankenstein, you're putting new blood in it. And then when it comes to life. To me, every aspect of making a film is like costumes tell a story. Sound Effects tell a story. They have character and distribution, even the title. Your title sets up a trance state and induction. A few I studied hypnosis. So there's a thing you know, it's just inducing people and inducing people makes them want to go with you into the dream state. And what does that mean? I think Hollywood is a is a called the dream factory. Because truly, stories work on our Dream Center. Like we have receptors in us. And that was what Marshall McLuhan taught me when I was all those years ago, saying, Look at an audience watching a movie. And you'll see they're in a trance, and they're moving their faces with the characters on the screen. And years later, I found myself So that said, the reason that that's happening, which is fascinating to me is that we have a social structure in us, which is the ability to sense and feel empathy with others. And the way it works is that we are hardwired to our pain centers, we micro mimic the expressions of others as we watched them, and then we feel what they feel. And if you Botox yourself, you don't feel as much and you don't send as much, right, which is fascinating. And we have these things called mirror neurons, which are in a switch light up in the parts of our brain, when we watch somebody do something, or even when we read a book about somebody doing something, those same parts of our brain light up as what the characters doing in the book. So that's why I come back to this trot state. The purpose of a story, which is the thing that most people don't understand, is to teach us a lesson about ourselves. So that we can actually watch the struggles of the characters and make choices about our own lives and the things we struggle with. Based on making a decision. Having observed others struggle comes back to if you have a hero in a movie, Superman isn't vulnerable, he doesn't have a problem. There's nothing to learn from. So and the real purpose of films is to find what the characters floor is what the difficulty is, and illustrate it to the external story of getting the adventure out. But inside is the actual journey. And it's usually only like three steps. I'm a spoiled rich brat, I then have a tantrum, which causes more problems. And then I come to learn who I should be, if I was not spoiled, and take responsibility for myself. That's wrong, you
Alex Ferrari 51:46
know. And so the way you've explained it now, knowing the movie so well as well, as I do is that it just adds a whole other layer to it. You should have done the director's commentary, or a commentary producers commentary, writers commentary on the DVD track, back in the day, because it does open up
Pen Densham 52:05
a completely. You know, again, it's different different things get to a writing audience, I'll talk about these things. It's nutrition. An enormous number of stories don't have nutrition and emotion is that you, you've got a personal journey that you can relate to, that you can discover how to change yourself because of watching these people struggle. And I came up with a system inside our company because we developed hundreds of stories, where I changed camera with code words pulled a nugget nugget for us, is the seed inside the story that's going to grow in the brain of the person watching it. And what you know, an example would be a man is getting married, and his girlfriend is starting to feel the closer to the date, the more he's sort of like living in a world and she's feeling that she's being suffocated, because everything she's doing is there. And he's not letting her have a sense of her own freedom. And she called off the wedding. And she says to him, you know, I can't do this. And you know, you're not letting me be me. And I'm, and he said, You don't understand. My mother left the family on Christmas Eve when I was five years old, and I didn't know how to love her enough. So she was Stay with us. And she says I'm not your mother, you have to trust me, you have to give me my freedom. That's a nugget. And it's three lines of dialogue. But it's got such pain and damage in it. And the story is, can he let go of his old fears and trust this woman to be the one MP he wants her to be in? Can you be the person that you would have been if that damage had never happened? So once you look at the story, and you say Okay, can I can I define those things? in you? My rule is you write stories Anyway, you can't, then you look for these things and see if you can emphasize them. And usually this piece of information is discussed at the belly of the beast is not as, as Joseph Campbell says, when the characters crash and burn at the end of the second act, and all looks hopeless, they do a reassessment of who they are, and a character who has an influence on them will will suggest something or will change their perspective on themselves. And the last act is can they become who they really should be. And we learn we then learn about ourselves letting go of our own fail damages or and using strategies to have a better position in life.
Alex Ferrari 54:31
Yes to everything you just said yes. It's it's, it's it's amazing. I'm just sitting here just listening to you. And I'm just like, you know, like, I feel like I'm just sitting here like around a campfire right now talking to you as you explain these things the way you do you have a very hypnotic tone
Unknown Speaker 54:48
to you. Right?
Alex Ferrari 54:50
You have your voice is very
Pen Densham 54:51
hypnotic in a very good way can write for everybody because there's going to be people that do things absolutely different from anything I could imagine. Oh no, no question. And I say Einstein said, it's not that I'm smarter than other people, I just stay up think longer. And I have the privilege of doing so many stories and trying to make that process simpler and make it effective. And I'm a humanist. So I want my stories to reach out. And I believe storytellers are basically what shaman would have been around that campfire, which is to help the society pull together.
Alex Ferrari 55:25
And that's its purpose. Now, when you made when you made you had a run of the two films back to back, which was pretty successful. You had Robin Hood, and then you had backdraft, which is the Ron Howard movie. And both of them are amazing films again, during my video store day, so I, I made sure to suggest that to many, many people, sir. So. But what was it like cuz I've had other guests on the show, too, when they had that one or two like that. There's moments you've had multiple moments in your career, but that I think that was probably one of the first big
Pen Densham 55:56
exposure that put us in the math in a different way. We've done several features, but nothing has opened the doors as much. And and even though the doors open, they didn't mean you get carte blanche. No. I say scripts are like sperm in this town, there's millions of eggs in production, so that you can frustrate the heck out of yourself. You write a script, and it could be the most beautiful, the most coherent, the most emotionally potent, you can't get it made. And you're damning yourself, because you think you failed. No. When I look at my I vote in the app, it's every year, which is the Academy. And there's usually a list of 300 movies, only 300 movies qualified in America to be considered the best. And so we've got 1000s and 1000s of scripts out there. And it's not a it's not necessarily a statement of failure, when something doesn't get made.
Alex Ferrari 56:54
Now, what was it like I always ask my guests at some time, especially if there's been that moment, that moment that kind of really explodes them in town. What is it like being the belle of the ball, because I remember Robin Hood, when that came out, that was a monster hit. It was a very, very large hit for both Kevin.
Pen Densham 57:10
I mean, Kevin was on that was that was his peak time it Dances with Wolves. So we were getting an enormous amount of dreams, terrible reviews. My son was with us in New York, and he said, Why do these people hate you that has their reviews in the New York Times are horrible, but you know the thing, you know, Time Time heals all wounds and remembers critics. So you know, in a way, you can't judge what you've achieved except, and that comes back to this thing. Do what you do, do it to the best of your skill level, let let time be the judge of it. But if you don't, and I when I say right, create think you don't do it to the point where it's dangerous, which means you're going against the convention, as you're going in, you're taking it, you're not going to find your voice, you're not going to be the significant person. Everybody says, Well, I want to film like his because he's got a voice. And we those don't stick out with novelty and originality, but they're still going to follow the same footsteps of any good story. But they will be in a fresh way. So we get Robinhood we get some doors opened up. But we also get asked to do every bow and arrow film in the world. And then we find their films that the system is not it's you got to love it. And you can't get it let it get you down. But I spent time with Mark Stan actually helping me with my my my writing assistant on that project. I spent time with Arnold Schwarzenegger working on Gulliver's Travels for Disney spent like 18 months, the Disney at that time goes, you know, it's a really good script. I don't know why I'm not gonna make it
Alex Ferrari 58:59
and have and have Arnold attached. Yes. So Arnold in the 90s, which arguably, he was still one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time.
Pen Densham 59:08
So he says, but you But you see, this is normal. And we've gone through dozens and dozens of steps. And you realize that the logistics of this are not why not their survival long enough with keep trying to present the things you care about. So that you're willing to take the risks of exposing yourself to try and get them to become reality. And if you don't care about what you've done, which goes back to don't just do something because you think it will sell. You're not going to keep going through the years and years. Now what we're talking about Harriet Tubman briefly.
Alex Ferrari 59:43
Yeah, so yeah, it's for everybody to know when we're recording this Harriet just came out the weekend prior. And it did bid at the gangbusters and people were like really overperformed so please tell us how you're involved with that.
Pen Densham 59:54
Much more than anybody anticipated, which is wonderful. Harriet Tubman I discovered As an Englishman, listening to a quiz show, which asked what what woman wearing American uniform went into battle soldier. And I got that sounds interesting. It's the only one. And I go and start researching the answer, which is Harriet Tubman and find this extraordinary, mythic, incredible altruistic heroine. And it appeals to me very much to make films which have got a reinforcement of human nature. We managed to get Disney, which was Hollywood pictures that time to write a script with Gregory Allen Howard, who was one of the producers and one of the writers on the Harrier, and we got three drops out, and we couldn't get it made. Run, we were approached by people who had picked up the baton, and proud to say, we did not stand in the way we said, Take the project, did not charge the money for it, and said, just let us stay involved in some way. Give us a credit, if that's comfortable for you. But God bless you go out and get it made, because her story is much more important than us having money in exchange for it. There are things that you you just think America needs that story. Mm hmm. Oh, then the producers on the movie, who took up the challenge? You know, they go through fire, and they got through fire. And they ended up with a beautiful film, a wonderful human statement, a moral purpose that I am so proud to be associated with. But all I did was plant the seed
Alex Ferrari 1:01:41
in you, when did you start that journey? 90? Correct. So I can only imagine trying to get here.
Pen Densham 1:01:50
A 94 when we sold, Greg Allen, how it getting written. So even there was four years of trying to get that.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:57
And during the 90s this was not gonna happen. Like there was just I don't think it would have been very difficult in that environment. I mean, in today's world, it's it's tough. But there's an opening for that there's a conversation about, about minorities and about other other other stories that need to be told from different perspectives and so on. Back then it would have been very difficult, like, I'm just trying to think of the Hollywood pictures logo coming up with that movie. I'm like, in the 90s
Pen Densham 1:02:25
I'm an optimist. So you never know. I mean, that's the thing. You gotta go, you gotta try that. And the beauty of it is it, it takes a team. I was I may have, you know, blown up the football at the beginning.
When I played the game,
it takes a team where we chose a very difficult business.
Alex Ferrari 1:02:49
No, and it is and it's and I always tell people, we've our paintbrush, and canvas is probably the one of the most expensive on the planet, you know, to play with. And other than architecture, I think I always say is like, as far as an art form is concerned, this is probably one of the most expensive art forms there is. And as filmmakers, and as creatives, we have to take some fiscal responsibility with the money that we're given, or that we spend on this on these on this process on this process where I just love when filmmakers we've never made a movie ever. And by the way, I put myself in this category because I said the exact same thing. When I first started, all I need is 3 million. All I need is 5 million, 5 million I can make It's nothing. It's 5 million. It's not that big a deal. The last movie was made for 200 million a Marvel spending 5 million on coffee. it you know, and that's all fine. I did write that. I've heard this. I'm sure you've heard this a million times. anyone listening out there? No. It doesn't work that way.
Pen Densham 1:03:42
Yeah, there's some outliers, of course that have that, you know, they make their their indie movie and then are given a Marvel movie or given a big studio movie or something like that. But they're outliers. It's not the way the business works. Is that fair to say? Well, you can create your own business if you're able to have enough guts or enough partners who are helping you. I do think that movie business as you've been asking is, is changing. But I can't tell you how it's changing. Where's the where would you put your energy right now to try and get movies made? I think that, you know, the apples and the Netflix is still not accepting independent films until you've succeeded, then they'll cherry pick you. So your goal is to try and get something out. That gets viral, that gets emotional responses that gets you to be noticed in legitimate awards, because I think there's a lot of awards comp groups that are out there that may not be actually giving you status whereas the Nicole's are in final draft or the Austin have very sincere, very real judgments on your work. And if you if you get and you got to fight for these things, and and it's hard, frightening, demoralizing, and therefore that's why I keep coming back to if you Have a personal philosophy and you're pursuing it, nothing you do is wasted. Every element that you write, even if that movie doesn't get made, adds to your ability, it's like muscle development, it adds to your ability to the next time you write. And I've seen myself right out of sheer passion, when I suddenly hit the click moment when it's right. And I was talking with another young writer yesterday and talking about exactly the same thing, we tend to write a form. That is our nature comes out of our subconscious, what you're really trying to do is to get it out of your subconscious. And I have tools for that. One of my tools is to look at the process, like a Lewis and Clark Expedition. Any frickin way to the coast is legitimate.
Alex Ferrari 1:05:46
Amen, brother, amen.
Pen Densham 1:05:48
You've never been there before. How can you critique the journey? know that once you get there, the brilliant thing is just get to the end. Because just get any way you can get to the end. And if necessary, I write bits. So I might have an ending and then get, I might have a middle and an end. I don't write in a linear form, I write whatever way it comes to me, and I'm grateful for once you get to the end, then you get to see what you've created. And you see what you've actually subconsciously been given to yourself. And sometimes it's like dictation out of God. You know, you just don't know why you're getting it. But if you question it, you screw yourself. So there's a net, there's a nag in your head, this game is always the time, no one's gonna like it, that neck has nothing to be objective about, what it's doing is it's just trying to prevent you from going into a dark cave. And it's helpful when it's doing that. But it's not helpful when you're writing something you've never written before. So you got to ignore the nag. And then you write down this stuff, and you get to the end, and then you take a giant celebratory sigh, because that's a monumental achievement to get to the end of anything creatively. And then you get the permission to look at it, and see why you really wrote. And now now, you have this opportunity to see what it says to you. And it didn't exist before. So now you're you can make a judgment call. And I call that putting the freeway through. And what you're doing is you cleave off all the things you don't need, you combine two characters, so they become one, you essentially, now know why you and how you want to go and why you're getting there. And then you put up freeway signs. So everybody else can follow you. But you don't do that as one thing you don't right, I gotta be perfect got to get it out of me. And I got to cut it right it so it can be a hit. No, you just get it out of you, and then tune it. And then return it once you've had people read it. So that you make sure that the people who are reading it, understand what your goals were and don't don't just have an ego snip and say, Oh, that's obvious, they should not know if you're going to do that. And you're just damning yourself, because you will find that most people don't know, they don't have the time to read, they read very badly. Or they give it to somebody who does coverages, who's paid 50 bucks to read it in a hurry. And so the more powerful you can make the statement and not allow it to be misunderstood, the more chance you have of selling it.
Alex Ferrari 1:08:15
Now you also you work obviously, as a producer, you've worked with many directors in your in your day. And you you're always looking for collaborators to put like that team together. Specifically, when you're hiring the director, what do you look for in that director? Because I think there's so much misinformation about what filmmakers want, you're smiling. Because Because you're like it because there's so many filmmakers have this illusion of what a director needs to be like I always tell people if you walk on a set and the director has a T shirt that says director or a hat that says director you need to run away. Generally speaking, I don't see Ron Howard, or I don't see Steven Spielberg was the director and everyone just knows who they are. So what do you look for? What are the characteristics you look for for a good collaborator and specifically the director?
Pen Densham 1:09:03
Well, it two different forms. One is in TV, I look for people who will bring the kind of style that I had envisioned for the show to the screen. And you know, I'm I did space Rangers, which was a great fun, I call the rock and roll in outer space compared with Star Trek, which was classical music. We only land we only got six episodes shot. But I chose people that could shoot it like Hill Street Blues with a sense of human. So I was looking for directors who could actually facilitate things I couldn't do myself as a as a show creator. But the other way we look for is people who've written something that's so poetic and beautiful, or so that we understand that we can support them getting it to the screen. And so we frequently work with writer directors. It is or we work with directors whose work we feel simpatico with a visionary, who tend to use the camera in a way that's poetic So that our goal is if we're not, if I'm not doing it myself, I want to do it with somebody whose work I really think is exciting. And my my mentorship as a producer on a set is to ask the questions of the director in the quiet spaces that you get what you want. Don't give up. Let me figure out how to help you. Because I know when I'm on a set, the amount of pressure, the number of people asking you questions, the the, the time issues, the frickin effect didn't work, and you've got somebody tapping and saying, we're going to golden time. I know if you don't shoot it, and it doesn't work, right. Don't accept it. We'll figure it out. Because I've been there. And I know if you accept it, you're the Florida film. And so I'm quietly trying to be an ally, for the vision of the director, not telling him what to do. But I'll sometimes come with a palette of options. Because I'm with pressure, it's really easy to have ideas. Very true, very true. See three different ways you can solve this and any of these help, but never telling him what to do.
Alex Ferrari 1:11:13
No, now you written this amazing book called riding the alligator. Can you go a little bit into details? And we talked about it a little bit earlier in the show. But can you just go into a little detail about what this book is and who should read it. Because you know, it's not just for screenplay writing, I mean, it's also about the business in many ways about how to deal and navigate the business, which is from a person who actually navigates the business and actually has navigated for many years. So tell me a little bit about the book, The origins of the book, and what you hope that it achieves.
Pen Densham 1:11:44
I was invited Well, it's an interesting thing. Again, I'm assistant to us, one of the development execs, who left our company and gone to work for other companies came to me and said, I gotta talk to you. And I go, Okay, what is it? He says, You got to write a book, it's I'm not writing a book, because I don't have anybody explain things the way you do. And I think because I work with partners the whole time. And I and I am a visionary, I don't deny my creativity. I've always had to explain my creativity in some way to try and get other people on board. So we could all go in the same direction. And so he said, write a book on creativity. And I'm never going to do that. And then my partner who's gone to USC, and is now a tenured professor there. So would you like to teach, and I'm going to teach but, and they said, well, it would be the entrepreneurial class, which is the pitching class. And I go, oh, cool, creative entrepreneurial ism, I wouldn't mind to find out what that is. Because maybe this is when I could write a book. But I was too scared to write a book. But it was I wrote one chapter. And I went in that first day, I gave the students my chapter. And I said, under professor, mark my paper, and it was unpatched. And I wrote the book based on what I felt I wanted to communicate, where my biggest vulnerabilities were, where my biggest failings were, were the things I needed to be reassured about, to create a sense of voice, not to dictate what you should achieve, try and find ways to reinforce people's skills, so they could take the risk of being themselves. And my book was determinately, responsive to what I was learning from the MFA students at USC, about what were their instincts and what were their feelings, and how could I give them strength? So my, I, I don't believe in teaching, I believe in inspiring. I didn't want to make a book that was a formula, because I, you know, we one day, we had a young guy get up, run out of the room. And I phoned him up, and I said, what, what happened is that I just panicked. And I decided I'd write a chapter on stress and the good side of stress, and try and put stress in a perspective, which is stress is actually a positive survival mechanism. When you look at it the right way. You know, we're naturally problem solving creatures, but it doesn't mean it doesn't cost us something to try and figure out how to solve the problems. So never seen a book with stress in it. I, when I first went in, I never taught I didn't want to freakin syllabus was I thought it was something had to take penicillin. So I'm looking at the syllabus in this, the previous guy, it was one book, and going, I've got 30 people already in one book, what a waste of time. So I then found 18 books, and I found them on Amazon and I said, Okay, we're going to divide these books up, and everybody's going to do one paragraph on this book, and the 10 most important things that they learned from it, as if this was information you're going to share with your friends. So the first week, the students come in, and they're pitching the books and the 10 things, that's Amanda and and then I put 10 of those in my book which were They could you could sample 10 books on this in this area in Hollywood instantly, and make decisions, whether that books you want to buy where these ideas just sort of fit you. And I also found people like Shane Black and lead a colleague ritas, who are successful Hollywood, I asked them to write a single small chapter on overcoming fear. And what was the worst thing that ever happened to and because I would bring in people, and I wouldn't ask them, How did you succeed? I'd say, what's the worst thing you have? Okay. And you find that then it normalizes the process, you know, I spent, one of the most wonderful things like like was, I got to be able to go and spend two days with David lean. He was at the American Film Institute, doing a retrospective of his films. And what we discovered was that when he went when the film, were happy to introduce it, and he come in afterwards to answer questions, and then he sat in the lobby. So, you know, the guys that were smart, went out in the lobby and spent two days asking him questions. And he complained about not being able to get Dino dilaurentis to greenlight his version of Mutiny on the Bounty, Robert bolt script. And he felt sabotage by that. He talked about his struggles to get things that he wanted done. And it wasn't as obvious and as simple as he makes it look when he succeeded. And it's not that I'm David lean, but what it did was it humanized the process. And it made it so it was understandable and achieve that look at what he is his body of work and see how he work, which, again, just gave me courage.
And so I wanted my book, to take the myths of being perfect. And I really don't like schematic books, except as a checklist at the end of writing, then they're helpful. But at the beginning, if you're trying to write someone else's formula, you're you're going to run into a lot of problems, trying to think like someone else, a lot of these people are wonderful, they developed exactly, they've gotten a lot of experience, but they've never initiated, an initiating is blowing on an ember sometimes, and making it flame up. It's like getting a two year old to ride a bicycle, when they're 15, you got to get all the way to all those stages of creativity. And you don't do that by yelling at it, you don't do it by beating it every time it folds over, it's like, you got to be able to see yourself as nurtured and taking risks and that making mistakes is normal. And it's acceptable. Because if you don't, then you won't be able to take on the challenge of getting to the end of a script. We allow ourselves in film to do multiple takes with an actor, and then we shoot another angle. So you know, we should allow ourselves that life, that having multiple takes, you know, rewriting a book is more important than writing it some way. Because you're able to distill down, what do you maybe took 10 pages to write, you can now distill it down to a more cogent level, you can't do that the first time you write it. And to criticize yourself for not writing coherently immediately is self flagellation is terribly unfair. So my my, my thing was to try and help allow people to jump into the unknown and other things, philosophy philosophy, so choosing an agent or a manager, we tend to think we should get the biggest one, because that's going to be a career bonus. In fact, the biggest one has to deal with the biggest other writers. And so you get very little that person's time, my feeling was searched for the person who is your, what we would call a Fairweather friend, someone who's going to talk to you when it's shitty, not somebody who's going to talk to you when it's easy to sell you that they they're philosophically looking to support the vision and the style that you've got, as a human being in your art. Because if you're working against them, and they say, Oh, I can't sell that console that can't sell that, you end up being demoralized. But if someone says, you know, if you just did that, I could sell it. That difference is enormous. It's it's vital to create a people so my books effort was to try and find and guide people to take steps in a career in a lifetime. So that your work became your life, so that you can integrate both of them and also deal with the fallow periods which along and also deal with the things that you don't necessarily sell because there's just too much out there. And also encouraged to take risks and to stick your neck out and try entrepreneurial ideas and when they don't work switch again. And I you know, I'm and it goes right down to the philosophy of how do you lay out a page, which you can't argue about when you're writing your first draft. But when you get down to it, every word you get off a page makes it easier to write easier to read. So I worry at the end of the process, right down to the whitespace. In the layout, if you see a script that sort of helps you read it, because it's embracing your eye, and it doesn't have big wedges, just an easier script to sell. So every step of my processes is all about trying to get the thing I deeply care about to an audience that can buy it. And if it doesn't go there, at least I've carried it on with a sense of personal purpose, and learn from the process.
Alex Ferrari 1:20:31
Amazing, sir. Amazing. Now, we've gone we've were we could talk for another three hours, I'm sure. But, but I am going to I'm going to ask you a few questions. I ask all of my guests. So first of all, what are the top three screenplays every screenwriter should read? We will I mean, it's not going to be on your gravestone suggests, you know, just
Pen Densham 1:20:56
it's not the sort of thing I think about so I mean, I could I could risk three right now. And then another three. Yeah, gosh, that's awfully difficult. Everybody's gonna say Lawrence of Arabia. Good. Rubble, wrote in a very distilled and powerful fashion, we actually got the privilege of meeting with him and tried to work with him on things and actually did work with his son. And so a bolt script is a great thing to read. I think you should read lethal weapon, which is again, and it has what I call fusion writing. And fusion writing is what I really, again, you have these rules, you're supposed to use the descriptions for certain stuff. No, you're supposed to use the descriptions to support your store. And therefore, when you read it, when Shane Black is like putting punch lines into the description, he sees a gun. It's a big gun. And it's really a hiring gun. You know, your potency is in the description areas as well as in the dialogue. And if you know, practice can carry thoughts that make you see into their mind. So I insist that people write for him. I heard other people say, Oh, no, no, I do. That's against the rules. There are no rules. The rule is sell your story. So if you read lethal weapon, what you're reading is this potency of imagery, this pulp fiction writing, but it's just so dynamic, that it causes you to want to keep reading and pulls you into the characters and into their lives and into their minds. So that's two, three. Okay. It's a Wonderful Life.
Alex Ferrari 1:22:34
Okay, very good.
Unknown Speaker 1:22:36
Unknown Speaker 1:22:36
that'll do. That'll do. All right.
Pen Densham 1:22:38
I yearned to try and make a film like it's a wonderful life, I worked for 12 years on a project of mine called father time, which was about father time, who gives human beings time every year. And he argues with the original architect that we're just a waste of time, and is forced to go down to earth for the last 24 hours before he has permission, not give us any more time, and bumps into a family and friends what it is to be human. And I want to see that movie. What
Alex Ferrari 1:23:03
why is that movie that made
Pen Densham 1:23:06
more films out there than there are people to make them, you know what scripts out. But it's a wonderful life, people can use it as a comedy. But in fact, it's a it's a semi tragedy is a guy, it's going to kill him. And everybody loves him, and he's going to leave them behind. And what it really is illustrative again, of this altruistic heroism, the humaneness of that film is just beautiful. So if you read it, you really get to grips with some of the the elements of it that are very humanistic, and quite troubling, and at the same time, very beautiful. And reinforcing of human nature. Now, what
Alex Ferrari 1:23:45
advice would you give a filmmaker, or screenwriter trying to break into the business today?
Pen Densham 1:23:52
Well, it depends what your goals are. If you want to write, I would say, go and try and write anyway. I, in my book, I have a chapter on what to do if you're not actually in the business, which is go work somewhere that's creative, see creativity going on. Go work for a cable company that's doing local shows for the community, because they're going to likely let you do things because no one is really wants to take on the work and volunteer for it. Try writing things that are that you put out yourself on your cell phone, put them on the internet, put them to the train, try and get noticed. You know, again, don't overwhelm yourself. Another thing that lifetimes nine was selling commercials for life, and that was to not overwhelm the kids. And so sometimes people will do these epic things, which they can't, they struggle to achieve. But if you say I'm going to do a three minute utterly, incredibly potent short film, you'll get people to look at that. You can get that to a studio executive. He said All I want is you know 120 For your seconds or whatever it is. And if you've mastered something, and you can do it, I mean commercials do it every day that is original, different, potent, we've got a better chance of getting noticed. Then if you do something which is 10 minutes and floppy and doesn't quite hold together because you could. So my my attitude is due to tools that help you break in, find allies who are willing to spend time with you already in there. So social go to go take classes on screenwriting, that there are night school because you're going to meet other people that are doing and you're going to find a community. That's the Ken Robinson as the number one TED Talk, which is Weis, how schools kill creativity. What what he talks about is find your tribe and hang out with them. And that means engineers only feel comfortable talking to other engineers because their brains work that way. musicians are most comfortable with other musicians. And they suddenly start grooving off each other and they start giving each other katatak charismatic catalytic ideas. And so you should go try and find where you can hang with people that are doing something you want to achieve in a non dogmatic area, so that you can learn from them. And I say that my buddy who flew me out and said the CBC has got this TV show is the reason I have a career in Hollywood. A friend tipped me off. And interestingly enough, we're still friends and executive producer on his latest movie, which is a movie about the Beatles going to Rishikesh with Maharishi. And yesterday, we're chatting. And, you know, I've tried to help solve these problems. And because from the outside, it's so easy. You know, when you're in the middle of it, you got this cloud around your head. So
Alex Ferrari 1:26:43
is that movie being made is that movie being made, it's made, it's,
Pen Densham 1:26:46
Alex Ferrari 1:26:47
I can't wait to see it.
Pen Densham 1:26:48
I can't wait to see. And, you know, I actually went with him and my wife and another friend to Rishikesh a year ago and went to the ashram, which is now like a jungle ruin. And that the Indian government is slowly trying to turn it back into tourist spot, tourists neck. That's amazing. He went out when the Beatles first were there, and photographed them, because he was running away from a bad breakup. And just like spending the 60 times, Jesus.
Alex Ferrari 1:27:23
Alright, so what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?
Pen Densham 1:27:29
That's the one I have? stick my neck out more?
Alex Ferrari 1:27:34
Really take more chances is what you say.
Pen Densham 1:27:37
Yeah, I'm terrible at it.
Alex Ferrari 1:27:39
You've done okay, sir, you've done okay.
Pen Densham 1:27:42
I, but the interesting thing about creative people, is the thing that you most care about is what you have achieved. Especially if you're working on things that in passion, you have projects, two, or three, which are what I call life scripts. These are the things that forced me to write and tells you, and I am failing my life scripts, if I'm not doing enough to get them made. And I'm not finding the actors that can become the carrier wave to get them laid on. And I'm trying, but I'm not trying hard enough because they deserve more.
Alex Ferrari 1:28:16
Now, what was the biggest fear you had to overcome to make your first film or write your first screenplay?
Pen Densham 1:28:26
Well, self doubt, I think that that's the you know that this is a waste of time. I'm a freakin idiot, who am I, we came to Hollywood. And we sold a couple of projects. And we we determined even though I'd won all these awards for this drama, I sure that I didn't know how to write, and that Hollywood writers didn't know how to write. And so we hired writers. And then we looked at the work realize that no better than us, there were, in fact, some ways we were better interpret, better interpreting my ideas. And I kept doing that kept sort of trying give someone my idea, and have them write it because I was scared, I wouldn't succeed with it. I wasn't good enough. And then when you see the result, you go, Oh, God, why did you do that? And I've done that to two or three projects where you go, Oh, I should have stayed on and had the courage to write to self doubt is the biggest problem and putting yourself with the right people don't hang around with people who do a lot of drugs do Allah, you know, I sound pompous saying that, but I did drugs. When I was a young guy. I tried them all in fun. But I actually want to hang out with people that are constructive, who are self studying, who have a vision of the future that is optimistic, and are going to be problem solving, and they're going to be allies when it gets tough. And that those are the people that you can build a foundation on. And coming to this town to start a career. You have to find the People we have to work together. Which is why trying to find community places like going down to like school or something it, it puts you in a banding opportunity. And going through school or USC or something, I say, keep reaching out that network of people will be vital to you in the future, try and help them try and give them things so they want to trade with because somebody don't mind someone will know some access to something that can change your life.
Alex Ferrari 1:30:32
Now, where can people find your book and more about you?
Pen Densham 1:30:36
Well, I don't promote myself well enough. I did put up a kind of cheesy looking site called writing the alligator calm. And you can download a free chapter from my book, which I love. And also you can download this link to downloading a book I wrote, which is a mini book called a creative person success manager. I wrote that out of passion. When my son wrote me an email. He's also a writer, and we tend to mentor each other. And he wrote me an email one night saying, I hate this is awful. And I decided I had to write him a letter by by six o'clock the next day, of course, myself. And then the ideas kept coming. So I ended up with this, what I call a mini book, which was just a philosophy of structuring the process of creativity in a way that you could embrace it, and see yourself inside it and see that you're normal. And that the feelings you have are part of being a special creative person. And there's things in there, which I wanted to share, learn from other people. So that's for free. I got I persuaded Michael, we see books can give it away. And
Alex Ferrari 1:31:51
that was a big, that's a big, that's a big ask.
Pen Densham 1:31:55
You know, what they see in this? Michael AC books is the best film book company in the world. Because they was Michael says, I will ask an author to write a book, I don't necessarily believe we'll sell profitably, but because I think this voice needs to be in the film community. And so instead of writing books that are like pro forma, which some companies do, you got to have these stereotypical stuffs in a book, he's asking his writers to find their own passion expressed through the book. And they're cool. So you can get if you go to writing the alligator.com, and doing my pitch, which I very seldom do, you can get led to both the download of a chapter, which is designed to inspire you to write, designed to take away that fear that you must do it in a certain process, but to actually embrace yourself as being the instrument and that you're entitled to allow that instrument to play itself as you discover it. And that, that again, is if I could tell if somebody ever gets up at an Oscar and says, You know, I read that chapter and it helped me I will be so proud.
Alex Ferrari 1:33:07
Pen It has been an absolute pleasure talking to you today it is you you've dropped all sorts of knowledge bombs on the tribe today and I truly truly appreciate you taking the time to to share your experience your and your knowledge and your wisdom with us. So thank you again for taking the time out. I truly appreciate it.
Pen Densham 1:33:26
Thank you so much. You're a great interview, and I enjoyed it. It was easy to do.
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- Pen Densham – IMDB
- Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing and Not getting Eaten