Aug 3 2013 | 11 Comments
THE LAST TIME I SPOKE WITH BLAKE
As many people who have been following this blog since it began know I had a best friend for forty-eight years. His name was Blake Snyder. We grew up together. We worked together. We even sort of looked alike. He was the closest thing to a sibling I have known. He died suddenly four years ago today.
Every year on the anniversary of his death I write something to commemorate his life. This year BJ Markel, Blake’s friend and business partner who continues to run the company that handles the screenwriting books and seminars for his bestselling SAVE THE CAT series asked me to be the first in group of blogs they are running on his site to celebrate his life and work. They are called The Last Time I Spoke With Blake.
I was very honored when BJ Markel asked me to be the first blogger on this series: “The Last Time I Spoke with Blake.”
It allows me to actually reflect on the last conversation I had with Blake and the wisdom he left me with.
There is a lot of wisdom that goes back 40 years. OK, he might have been more wise-ass than wise when he was in his teens. But life taught Blake wisdom. And in turn Blake gave it back to the world in the form of his now iconic scriptwriting books.
At first I thought BJ wanted the greatest lesson I learned from Blake and I kept thinking what that would be. I can’t leave it out as I have been pondering it for weeks: So I will give you two bits of Blake wisdom.
Blake used to always have a way, long before Save the Cat!, where he would lasso you back to the story. Find those real beats. Figure out the first act perfectly. This is what would become the spine of a script and the basis for STC!
We would be working on a project and inevitably get off on some tangent…
And then the guy drinks this magic potion and he turns into a.. a.. a…Damn. What does he turn into?
High Fives Exchanged.
Right a seal and then… then… he goes and they hire him to work at..at…
Tie ins!!!! Sea World and McDonalds. Little seals with your Happy Meals.
We would then either make little seal sounds or sing a few rounds of “Little Seals with your Happy Meals.”
More High Fives.
This is good. A seal. A girl. A guy. Human to animal transformation. Plus a love story, a kind of….of a…of… love that Happy Meal tie in. Amazing. This is so Disney.
Big meets Nemo!!
Right, yeah. So Disney. Big meets Nemo!
This is brilliant.
Better than brilliant. Genius.
Now we have all had those moments when our imaginations ride roughshod and we get carried away. And Blake and I loved to play imagination rules.
But Blake, who was usually pacing, would stop, and do that finger on the chin thing he did when he was thinking, and he would look at me and say the thing he always came back to.
But what is the story?
Right. The story. You know it’s the fish, the seal..person..the person who turns into the seal…. The guy who loved the girl turns into the seal and then well… she’s a trainer at Sea World. And then the main trainer guy can be really funny. Maybe like John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda. And then there are all the scenes with the wacky people who come to the park. Maybe his mother shows up. And then the moment the female trainer realizes she’s in love with a seal and that he’s the guy she turned down but as a seal…. she loves him?
What is the story, Tracers?
What is the story, Tracers?
I ask myself this all the time. Sometimes pretending I’m Blake.
I do it when I’m blogging, writing a book, or what for me is now the occasional film.
The essence of what Blake was about: What is the story? Without that you are left with nothing. Pure Blake Snyder wisdom. All the funny scenes and Happy Meal tie-ins in the world mean nothing if you don’t have a story to tell.
Now to address BJ’s wishes. The last conversation I had with Blake also has wisdom that is very valuable to screenwriters and people at large.
I will try and make this brief. In June of 2009 DreamWorks Animation came to me with an idea for an animated film called Imperial Death Monkeys. I don’t have time to explain it here. Suffice to say it was based on the Ramayana. I had done a lot of work in India. But I knew I needed Blake’s sense of what is the story to work this out. Plus I knew they liked him at DreamWorks. Plus we were always looking for things to do together.
So we came up with a really cohesive story. We pitched it. I remember I was driving on Long Island and he was waiting at LAX to fly to Hawaii.
We did a great job despite the distance and the unorthodox circumstances. We thought we had it in the proverbial bag.
Two days later they called and said we “had too much story.” They did. They said they liked to just have loose ideas and come up with the story as the characters came to life. We had done too much work. So they were going to go with people who did less, even though ours was great.
Trust me, they had asked for a full story. We told them we could take some of ours back. They didn’t go for it.
We hung up from the conference call, then called each other back. Which was always our way.
“They led us on,” I said. “I feel tricked. They said they wanted story.”
Now Blake used to have two ways of looking at the loss of a job.
One was denial. He would say, “We might still have a shot.” I would say, “They said No.”
He would say, “They could come back to us.” Denial or eternally optimistic — take your pick.
Or we would mutually trash whoever had just rejected us.
But he had gained insight and this time he did neither. He said, “It’s their loss, Tracers. If they can’t see how good we are, it’s their loss and they won’t get anyone as good and my bet is it won’t get made. There is always next time.”
He was wrong about their being a next time for us — though right about everything else.
But the wisdom is — when you get rejected, tell yourself it’s their loss. You are good and look to the future. He had learned to do that. Time and loss had taught him that important lesson.
It’s bad to ask me to start talking about Blake, as I can’t stop. But I thought I would end with our last email correspondence, which was a few weeks before he died.
This is what he said to me. In true Blake fashion, he went out on a joke. And the reference to Sunshine is the nursery school where we met when we were three years old.
“p.s. Joke for your book. I noticed in the gym yesterday that 40 year old men wear t-shirts with their college on them, then saw 60 year old with a t-shirt of his prep school. I guess you know you’re on your way out when you start sporting a Sunshine Nursery School T! ”
My last words to Blake.
“U r too funny.”
And he was.
To read more about Blake – I did a series on the time we almost worked for Howard Stern. It’s one of my favorite bits of blogging.