July 99 Interview - Tony Puryear
Thoughts on Making it in Hollywood

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By Carl Davis

Bet you didn’t know Eraser was written by a brother, did you?

The talented screenwriter who penned Schwarzenegger’s Eraser and the inventive mind behind an innovative website, Tony Puryear is the best-kept secret in the African-American film community. Blackfilm.com talked to Mr. Puryear in the summer of 1996 about his current project (Eraser had just been released to big box office approval) and much more.

"My message to beginning screenwriters is write the best screenplay you can. There might be people out there who will discourage you and tell you it's not good. But if you believe in it, that’s the first half of the equation. The second half of the equation is working all of your contacts, all of the time. Just try to keep meeting people. Keep staying in touch with people. Keep learning from people."

Since this interview, Tony Puryear has continued writing big studio films. He wrote Infidels, a film about the intelligence community for Oliver Stone; a remake of Fahrenheit 451 for Mel Gibson and a film version of Buck Rogers is also in the works. His award winning Rebel Communiqué, an inventive online magazine (www.blackrebeldigits.com) is still on the cutting edge of internet technology as well.

CARL DAVIS: What was your inspiration for Eraser?

TONY PURYEAR: I used to live in a Mafia controlled town–Providence, Rhode Island–and I was always hearing about guys in the witness protection program being discovered and killed. So I thought there should be a guy who, even when things were really rough, would be your guardian angel and yourprotector,no matter what.

CD: Are you from Rhode Island?

TP: No, I'm from New York, but I went to Brown University in Providence.

CD: How did you like it?

TP: The education wasn't so great, but I made a lot of interesting friends who wanted to make films. So a lot of my friends ended up here in Hollywood.

CD: Were you surprised when Schwarzenegger picked up Eraser?

TP: Sure. We took it to Denzel Washington's company first, so I had a contact with them. I think his company just slept on it. I don't think they read it.

CD: Can you explain the process that you went through to get Eraser purchased by a big studio?

TP: I worked out here [in LA] for a couple of years and I had sold some small scripts to Disney. In the summer of '94 I wrote the Eraser script and I worked on it the better part of a year. My agents didn't believe in it at all. They thought it was lousy, but I thought it was great. So I told everybody I ran into about it. A friend of mine suggested Keanu Reeves and we went over to Reeve's management company, 3 Art. We met a manager over there who read it and said ‘look, if you let me, I'll try and sell this tomorrow, but you have to fire your agent.’ So I did. Then the next day, we sold Eraser to Warner Bros. They made a preemptive bid for it and I signed with that manager. He's a great guy and I'm still with him. I was lucky that one of my contacts kind of paid off in this weird one in a million way.

CD: Can you explain the difference between a manager and an agent?

TP: Agents typically have larger client lists. A manager, by nature of the kind of thing he does, will keep his client list fairly small. I think my manager manages ten other people. I feel like I get a lot of hands-on treatment. He and I might disagree about a lot of things but I know the guy is really accessible to me and he's spending more of his day working on my career. The downside is my manager gets fifteen percent of what I make, which is a big chunk of my income.

CD: How would one acquire a manager over an agent?

TP: That's a tough one because there are fewer managers in town. Typically, if you're a beginning writer, the Writer's Guild of America West has a list of agents who will look at unsolicited scripts. Some agents don't do it–they don't want to be accused of ripping anybody off, but there are a lot of agents who will. As far as how to contact managers, it really is about who you know. My advice to any beginning writer is move to Los Angeles. I know it sounds crazy, but move to Los Angeles, get a day job–preferably in show business–and meet some people, because it's in the air out here: the atmosphere of who you know, rather than what you know.

I tried for a number of years to get my screenwriting career going from New York and I wasn't very successful at it. Moving out here made a difference. You might try also reading the trades, which is easier to do in Los Angeles since the trades come out the same day here, rather than a week later in New York. They give you full information about who represents a particular director or a particular writer and you might want to get in touch with them directly. You're going to get a lot of rejections, a lot of no's, but you might reach the one person who is willing to listen.

CD: Can you go a little more into the importance of networking?

TP: Contacts matter. I think that's one of the things that keeps African American screenwriters on the outside looking in. We may not have gone to school with the people who are studio executives or agents but we’ve got to jump in and network.

A lot of the breaks in my career came from networking. I got my first job in Los Angeles from a young black executive at Disney who I met back in New York. She got me into the Disney Minority Writers Program, where I made more contacts, and met my agent.

I got my first job outside of Disney working for Sidney Poitier and that job that got me into the Writers Guild. I got my Guild membership and suddenly I started getting the Writers Guild magazine and going to Writer's Guild functions and meeting other writers. That was very valuable to me in terms of meeting producers and learning the ropes.

[Poitier] wouldn’t have found me if the Writers Guild hadn’t supplied him with a list of young minority writers. Just like they have a list of agents who will accept unsolicited material, they also keep an updated list of minority writers who are looking for work–both guild members and non-guild members. So networking definitely matters.

CD: What picture for Sidney Poitier?

TP: I wrote a thriller for him called Red Money that will probably never see the light of day. It wasn't that good. It really is a learning process. At twenty two you think you're going to come here and conquer the world but I had to write a bunch of dumb scripts until I learned the craft and it took a long time. So I would encourage a lot of beginning writers to just keep at it. I wrote a picture for Oliver Stone recently and he used to say "just keep your but in the chair." That's the number one secret to good writing, just keep writing.

CD: Is the Disney program a good route for minorities?

TP: The Disney program had it’s problems, but it also provided a springboard for a lot of very talented minority writers. Many of whom are working today.

Natalie Chaidez, the woman who produced "New York Undercover," was in that program with me. Another writer who was in the program with me is Takashi Bufford who wrote Set It Off and Booty Call. Spike Lee’s Get On The Bus was written by Reggie Rock Bythewood who was also in the Disney Writer's program with me. There are a lot of people working who got their break through the Disney writer’s program.

On the other hand they hired us at three-fifths the compensation of normal union writers. We made 30K to work for Disney. Which is not bad, but it reminded me of that three-fifths rule in reconstruction when a black person's vote was worth three fifths of a white person's vote. Also, we were taking food out of the mouths of union writers. So it's a mixed bag but the good part is I got a gig working in Hollywood that got me a lot of opportunities.

[Part 2: August 99]

 

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