William C Martell
Bill Martell has turned the dream of living as a successful Hollywood screenwriter into a profitable reality. Having had over 17 of his finished scripts turned into movies, Martell has successively managed to create page-turning screenplays, which possess the inherent ability to levitate irresistibly towards onscreen reality. In the exploration of his genre of choice: the Action-Thriller, Martell has delved deep into the world of naval submariners with Crash Dive (“Die Hard on a submarine”, made for the HBO Cable Network), peered into the future with Droid Gunner and Grid Runners and pursued the serial killers’ point of view in Night Hunter. In addition to his prodigious output as a screenwriter, he pens a regular column in Script Magazine. Constantly offering opinions and advice on the changing nature of contemporary cinema from the writers’ point of view, Martell is not shy in pointing out the shortcomings of the implementation of story in the modern movie. He has also written a book: “The Secrets of Action Screenwriting”, wherein he passes on his accumulated knowledge of how to create a gripping action yarn.
Martell is refreshingly grounded about his art. He demystifies the glamour of the entire process in a number of swift and candid off-the-cuff remarks. Naturally self-deprecating and realistically cautious of the twisted industry he is embroiled within, Bill Martell is also a committed and indulgent cineaste and an astute and tenacious student of the game. He picks through cinemas’ flaws in order to strengthen the quality of his own work, and one feels that with his ability to tap into interesting and potentially explosive subject matter this straight-to-video prince is very close to a major studio deal.
Bill was in London to helm a weekend master-class for Raindance. Entitled “The Naked Screenwriter”, the intent was to spend a blistering weekend laying out the tools for identifying and developing ideas into successful screenplays. Bill succeeded in delivering an informative and entertaining, if slightly digressive, aural handbook to inspire and galvanise the ardent bunch of audience hopefuls into action. Future Movies managed to grab him on the stairs of a swanky central London hotel, where he indulged our curiosity about the life of the Hollywood script merchant. So are they really as hard done by as we are led to believe?
Future Movies: How did you first becoming involved with Raindance?
Bill Martell: Out of the blue, Elliott Grove (Raindance’s
founder) called me once and asked me if I would be interested
in coming over to teach classes in London. And I said: “I
don’t teach classes, I just write scripts”. I had been
writing a regular column in Script Magazine for a dozen or
so years, and he said: well you know I read your writing and
you know so much about scripts that you could teach screenwriting,
and I replied that I’m not really sure I can do that but I
am willing to give it a shot, and if nothing else I would
get a free trip to London out of it. It worked out OK and
they keep asking me back year after year.
FM: So, how many have you done so far?
WM: Oh, I don’t know I’ve lost count. Four, five, six something
FM: What do you look forward to most about screenwriting
WM: The ability to go to sleep after it’s all over! You know,
the most interesting thing about teaching is that I end up
learning from the experience. Whenever a student asks me a
question, it makes me stop and think and try and figure out
an answer and frequently that helps me with my own scripts.
FM: In your opinion is there such a thing as the Perfect
WM: There’s never a perfect script. Take the best scripts
in the world and I will guarantee that you’ll find one line
of dialogue that could use some improvement or one scene that
can be fixed. But you can certainly try to write the perfect
script and that is really what we’re all trying to do, to
try and write absolutely the best script possible.
FM: Who do you think has come closest to achieving perfection
in the history of screenwriting?
WM: Boy, that’s a good question. There are so many good scripts…
I really liked the John Michael Hayes script for Rear Window,
the first Matrix movie I think had a really well written script
and subsequently worked really well on screen. The new movie
I don’t think works nearly as well. When I was first starting
out I read a lot of scripts by Walter Hill (48 Hours, The
Driver, The Warriors), and those were all really good scripts
to read from the page. I am forgetting people like Lawrence
Kasdan, who wrote Body Heat, and Raiders of the Lost Ark,
and The Empire Strikes Back. Again these were great scripts
AND great movies.
FM: I guess that’s what you want really, something that
will jump off the page.
FM: What specific skills or personality traits do you
feel you possess that have helped you become a successful
WM: I am too stupid to quit, and that’s it entirely because
if I had any brains I would have quit long ago. I had my first
film made when I was twenty-one years old; it was a terrible
film called Ninja Busters and it was made specifically for
drive-in movie theatres in the United States. I thought that
film would be my big break but instead nothing happened in
my career. It was the time when drive-ins were being closed
down in the US and Home Video hadn’t come into being yet.
So I had ten years between the production of my first and
second films. During that ten years I worked in a warehouse
driving a forklift truck and lifting heavy objects and during
that entire time I continued to write scripts, even though
if I had been smart I would have quit because it didn’t seem
like there was a chance that anything would ever happen, but
I stuck with it and eventually I sold another script. I wrote
an average of three scripts per year for the ten years and
therefore ended up with around thirty scripts. I have managed
to sell around 24 out of the 30.
FM: So when you came back into the industry you had a
backlog of material that you could pitch already finalised,
what spurred that move back into the market?
WM: Well, it wasn’t my choice! If it were my choice I would
have been making money all along. I was plugging away all
the time and I had a number of small things that happened.
I had a script that was auctioned to a German production company
during those ten years but it didn’t make enough money that
I could quit my job. Eventually one of my scripts found its
way to Paramount Pictures, not because I had sent it there
but because I had given it to an actress I knew who gave it
to somebody else, who then gave it to somebody else and the
next thing I knew there was a phone call from Paramount announcing
that they wanted to buy the script. I had no idea how they
had got it! I made enough money out of it to be able to quit
my job and pay my expenses for 2 years.
FM: Which film was it?
WM: It was called Courting Death and it was never made. They
intended on making it, but the thing that people probably
don’t realise is the studios buy around 100 scripts per year
and only make 20 films a year, so 80 of the scripts that they
buy don’t get made and the writers don’t own them anymore
and as a result can’t do anything with them. I’ve got around
15 scripts collecting dust at the studios. I worked on two
films last year, one for MGM, and neither of them will get
FM: It’s a double bind really, you are receiving recompense
and recognition but it’s frustrating to think that something
you worked on will never be made.
WM: It is frustrating because although I get paid a lot of
money, enough to buy a red sports car last year, I don’t have
anything to point to and say: ” I wrote that movie!”
Instead it’s like: “What did you do last year?”,
“Well I worked on two scripts that nobody will ever see!”
FM: What were your early influences and motivations?
WM: I grew up watching tonnes of movies, everything from
low-budget horror movies to action movies. Point Blank with
Lee Marvin was one of my favourite movies when I was young;
I’m a big Lee Marvin fan. I also enjoyed all the Bond movies,
and The Ipcress File with Michael Caine. One of my earliest
memories of watching movies at an early age was watching Goldfinger
reflected in the back windscreen of my parents’ car at the
drive-in theatre. I was supposed to be asleep on the backseat
and as a result of that I thought everyone in the movies was
left-handed because of watching it in the reflection.
FM: As you are constantly dealing with the written word
as a screenwriter did you have any major literary influences?
WM: Yeah always, there was plenty of literary influences
too, everything from Dashiel Hammett to Raymond Chandler.
I am a big fan of American pulp writing of the thirties and
forties. There’s a writer named Norbert Davis, who nobody
remembers today, who was probably on of the funniest action
writers around. He had an entire series of stories about a
guy who wins a dog in a poker game and the dog becomes more
famous than him, and they go around solving crimes. David
Goodis, who wrote the book which Shoot the Piano Player is
based on. Anything that is a slightly obscure, 1940’s Amercian
crime fiction writer, I have probably read it. I read a lot
of Elmore Leonard stuff before he was famous. It’s all basically
action-crime writing because that’s what I am into with my
FM: You’re well known for writing Action movies, what
do you feel are the specific challenges of writing in this
WM: Actually writing an action thriller script is really
not that different from writing any other script, you’re still
telling the story through the actions of the characters, even
if your doing a romantic comedy or whatever. I think one of
the challenges of writing an action script is coming up with
new action scenes that the audience hasn’t seen before which
still manage to explore the character. This is often tough
because every action film tries to top those that have gone
before with bigger stunts or more inventive ways to construct
an action scene, and as a writer it’s your responsibility
to come up with a new action scene that is also part of the
movie, forwarding the story and exploring the character too.
FM: How do you react to one of your scripts being poorly
executed on screen?
WM: Hahahahaha, ONE!!! They’ve all been poorly executed on
screen! Here’s the interesting thing: rent out the movie The
Limey, which is a really good movie, and listen to the audio
commentary track. Lem Dobbs (the writer) begins by telling
Steven Soderbergh that he has totally butchered his original
script and that this is the worst movie he has ever seen in
his life. Now, this is a good movie, the problem is as a writer
you know what the original script was like so you know how
it could have been, no matter what happens when it ends up
on screen, it might turn out well, you will always remember
what you wanted it to be.
I have a movie that was made for HBO called Crash Dive that
got a lot of good reviews and I hate this film because they
totally ruined my script. However, it has ended up as a movie
that people other than myself have come to enjoy.
FM: So do you find it hard to let go sometimes?
WM: That’s part of the job. The lesson that I learned there
was from Frank Darrabont (writer-director of The Shawshank
Redemption, The Green Mile). I was over at his house once
and I noticed across from his desk he has a bookshelf containing
a copy of every single script he has ever. I thought this
was maybe a little vain when I saw it but then I asked him
about it and he said that he could look at the scripts and
see his work instead of looking at the movies where sometimes
he can’t see his work. So I started to do that and now I have
my own little bookshelf where all my scripts are exactly as
I wrote them and not how they appeared on screen.
On my website (see link below) I will frequently post one
of my scripts in its first draft format. Two other writers
rewrote my first draft for the movie The Base, which is up
there, after I worked on it and the movie doesn’t resemble
my script at all. So I set a little poser on the site telling
people to read the script and then watch the movie and tell
me which you think is the better of the two. I have yet to
have one person tell me that they think the movie was better
than the script.
FM: Many people look upon the script as a blueprint for
a movie, do you think it is important to stick to the original
written text closely, or in the transition from page to screen
can a certain amount of departure and experimentation be a
WM: I can never say that it can’t be a positive thing because
there is no way to tell. Someone may come up with a brilliant
idea that I haven’t though of, in which case I want it in
the movie, and then I am going to claim credit for it by the
But what happens is, when you write a script, you will weave
things within the script itself that are part of a bigger
picture. An actor, for instance, may not understand that these
are part of the big picture. In one of my movies Night Hunter,
I created a character that carried the theme of the film.
Every line of his dialogue was carefully written so that it
contained a subtext that related to the entire film. The actor
that took the role then decided to make the dialogue his own,
which meant that he took my entire collection of carefully
worded sentences and destroyed them all. Now what he says
doesn’t apply to the whole movie, instead it’s only about
his character and his scenes. Whereas before every word had
a double meaning or another reference, now it only has a single
reference and is therefore less effective.
FM: Which of the films you’ve penned is your personal
favourite and why?
WM: I’ll give you two. One is Hard Evidence, which I wrote
for a US Cable Network. The Director was terrible and the
direction of the film is awful, BUT the script is almost word
for word my script, due to an accident. The film was produced
by an American company but actually filmed in Canada, after
the American company had paid me for all of my steps and all
of my re-writes they sent a note to their Canadian production
company saying that this is Bill’s final draft of the script.
This meant that if they wanted to do any subsequent re-writes
they would have to pay someone else, or me, to do them. So
the Canadian production company thought that they couldn’t
therefore change a word of the script so they didn’t, and
so it accidentally become the most faithful film to my script.
I also have this movie that I wrote for Roger Corman (legendary
American B-movie producer) that I really like, it’s a kind
of guilty pleasure of mine. I believe it’s called Phoenix
2 here in the UK, but it’s called Droid Gunner in the States.
I offer no refunds to those who’ve seen it. It’s a comedy,
and what I liked most is that it just became this silly, dopey
movie that you would go and see after a few beers. It was
really made for all of my friends that I worked with in the
past, because when I worked in a factory we would all get
drunk and go to see these kinds of films. It doesn’t mean
it’s a good movie, it’s just a bit of fun.
FM: How do you think the current cinematic climate affects
the action genre? Do you think the genre has mutated considerably
since its’ considered golden age in the mid-to-late Eighties?
WM: The problem is not with the action film; it’s really
to do with American cinema as a whole. It’s all just gone
straight down the toilet. I think the biggest problem is that
the individuals who are running the studios today are the
employees of Time Warner or News Corporation and all the big
businesses. They are suits and they are not creative, and
their concept of what a good film should be is purely determined
through its ability to make money, not whether it has a good
story too. Obviously a movie has to be able to make a profit
but that doesn’t mean that it has to have a bad story. So
we end up with movies like XXX, I apologise to everyone for
that movie, I had nothing to do with it but I apologise anyway!
FM: You mention on your website that going to the cinema
is a bit like going to a restaurant, what do you mean by this
and have you been served any satisfying dishes recently?
WM: (groans) Going to the cinema is a bit like going to a
restaurant in that if you are going out to an Italian restaurant
you expect to get Italian food, you don’t expect something
weird or unexpected in your Italian meal. Just like if you’re
going to see a romantic comedy you don’t expect to see someone
get beheaded or anything really unusually strange like that.
So a movie has to deliver upon expectation, that doesn’t mean
a movie has to bland, just not so weird that people say: “I
didn’t pay to see This, I thought I was getting something
FM: Is there anyway to subvert that expectation in a way
that is satisfying for an audience, and have you ever tapped
WM: you can. What I decided to do in Night Hunter, was to
do a movie from a serial killers’ point of view. I wanted
the audience to identify with the serial killer and hope that
he kills a lot of people! The serial killer is a vampire hunter,
driving stakes through the hearts of a lot of people, but
the police are after him because they think he is just a psychopath.
Therefore every scene in the film is told from the wrong persons’
FM: Have you ever thought about directing yourself?
WM: I directed some shorts when I started out and a couple
of them won awards. But, because I am a writer I am one of
these people who would much rather be alone in a room than
have 100 people pestering me with questions. I will probably
direct something in the next couple of years purely because
I would like to get at least one thing done right before I
die! I have an edgy, little independent project about five
guys who meet in the same bar after work each night, and when
one of the guys’ finds his wife has been murdered he needs
the others to be his alibi because he was with his mistress
at the time. Two think that he is guilty and that he should
be punished and the other two think they should stand by him
no matter what, it’s all about their unfolding relationship.
It’s a drama with a thriller backdrop, and the environment
is something I can relate to.
FM: Action is a genre that British Cinema doesn’t do very
well at the moment, what do you think the industry here needs
now to make successful action films?
WM: It’s funny The Italian Job remake has just opened in
the states and I thought to myself why wasn’t that remade
in the UK? When I grew up in the seventies a lot of the crime
films I really liked were from the UK and I don’t know what
has happened since? It’s certainly possible to make action
films here, because there have been so many great ones in
the past. Part of the problem may be that these films now
are so stunt orientated. It comes back to The Italian Job
remake; this new one is all car chases whereas the old one
was more of a caper with the car chase at the end. It’s definitely
achievable on a UK budget because a good action scene is purely
conflict, if you have two people grappling with a loaded pistol,
that’s a good action scene.
FM: Who’s the most inspiring person you’ve ever worked
with in the movies?
WM: No one!!! Usually what happens is that I end up hating
all the people I work with. Until I have a movie made that
I am 100% happy with I doubt it will ever happen!
FM: Finally, what’s the single most important piece of
advice you would pass on to budding screenwriters?
WM: Two things. Firstly, write the kind of films you would
pay to see. And secondly, always remember that there is an
audience out there who have just spent the entire week working
in some dreadful job and they just want to spend two hours
escaping into another world where their problems don’t exist,
so write a film that will help them forget about all of their
(Bill’s own website)
Future Movies would like to thank Bill for his time and
eloquence, and Lyndsey of Idea Generation for making this
entire interview possible.
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