An Interview with Pen Densham



Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background and writing career?

I am both a Hollywood based screenwriting filmmaker and a newly published author, I thought I might try and answer your questions by discussing both my worlds.

I head a successful film company with my partner John Watson, “the Trilogy Entertainment Group”. Over the years our Films and TV series have collectively grossed more than a billion dollars. Many of our projects came about as a result of my writing.

When I was asked to teach a Graduate course for the graduating MFA students at the USC Film School, I searched through the existing screenwriting books with my students and could not find one that perfectly fit their goals and needs… so I decided to write one. A holistic approach to the creative process and a realistic strategy for surviving in the business and keeping your creative voice. I left school at 15 and had suffered, and occasionally succeeded, as I invented my own artistic and survival oriented career methods.

I gave each chapter as I wrote them to my students. I jokingly say, I got my students to grade my papers, as I eventually assembled them into a complete book called, “Riding The Alligator, Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (and not getting eaten).”

 

What work(s) are you best known for? Could you please tell us about them?

I am responsible for creating the story for the revisionist of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Which I produced and co-wrote the screenplay with my partner John. The movie starred Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. It went on to become one of Warner Brothers biggest hits. We were also Producers on Backdraft, directed by Ron Howard, Blown Away staring Tommy Lee Jones and Jeff Bridges, Tank Girl – and many other features, including my own personal favorite Moll Flanders. Like our Robin Hood, this was a script that I wrote on “spec” (for myself). I then sold and directed the film, starring Morgan Freeman and Robin Wright.

Our company also produced many series and I was personally responsible for reviving both the Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone anthologies back to television. The new Outer Limits ran for seven years and Trilogy produced 165 unique one hour stories. Working with wonderful writers and creative teams.

In the book “Riding the Alligator” I have drawn on both my success and failures in Hollywood. And, I firmly ask the reader to ignore everything I say that conflicts with their natural creative process. I believe each of us is a unique instrument and that how we create is sacred. My aim is to give as helpful and encouraging support as possible to newer writers trying to establish their own creative careers.

Can you tell us if you are working on a new project and what your goals for the future?

As a filmmaker I have several personal scripts that I am trying to bring to the screen and I am working with Robin Wright and her company as a producing partner on some of these. I have noted that the scripts that I have written from my own passion to tell the story have gotten made more often than the projects the studios paid me to write. I have become convinced that one’s personal passion causes a deeper quality of writing and gives you the strength not to quit on your work. Trilogy also aims to work with other filmmakers we value and who have a similar creative ethic to our own. Like writer/director Todd Robinson, whose project “The Last Full Measure” totally enthralls us.

How did you start writing?

When I was a very small child my parents made 35mm short films for the British movie Theaters. I joke that my first job in Show business was when I rode a seven foot live Alligator in a film about people who kept strange pets.

I found the process of filmmaking magical and knew I wanted to be in the Entertainment Industry for the rest of my life.

When I was 8 my mother passed away, and my father married a very damaged women and there was no support for my creativity in our home. I tried to write as a teenager, I was encouraged creatively by one particular inspiring teacher, and left school at 15. I ended up in Canada at 19 and despite my youth I was embraced by the country and was able to create short films. And with John Watson as my partner in my early 20′s, we won many awards including 2 Oscar Nominations.

All the movies that we made at that time were documentaries. Until finally I found the courage to write a dramatic script. With no formal training I wrote and directed a half hour drama, which to my surprise was reviewed by TV Guide as “the best film of any length ever shown in Canada.” The process had been extremely painful as I was literally inventing my way through the shoot. I was lucky that Norman Jewison a major Hollywood-based, Canadian filmmaker was impressed by the movie and mentored me to Los Angeles.

I considered Norman my inspiration, his films won Oscars like the ” The Heat of the Night,” “Moon Struck”, “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” etc. Most of Norman’s works have a value driven theme hidden in a entertaining story. We believe it is a privilege to make a movie and there should be a deeper human meaning in it, even in an enjoyable action movie like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.

I state in my book, Riding The Alligator, I believe writing the stories that impassion you is a healthier and more productive process than trying to catch some current fad or fashion. When writing from one’s creative nature, even if the scripts do not get made, I believe they have strengthened my story muscles, as I call them. One of the unique things that I discovered as I developed a number of personal screenplays was when none of my characters had mothers and I realized that my writing must be unconsciously be processing that into my work.

The book also explores my philosophy of how to work the business side, how to sell your work, how to find an agent who can be your ally and how to overcome the inevitable stress that comes with putting your own beliefs and values on the line.

In order that mine is not the only voice in the book, I asked 12 other major Hollywood Writers to craft short personal essays on how they work. I wanted the reader to sense the collegiality of the community in this endeavor. The book was published last week by Michael Wiese Productions, cool guys with an artist friendly new agey approach to their work, they also happen to be the biggest seller of film books in the world. Their works include “Save the Cat” and “The Writers Journey”.

They love my book, but have instructed me that I must be more pushy than is my nature to get the book noticed in such a completive market. And that I must reach out for endorsements from people in my Industry and the academic world.

I have been touched and a little humbled at how people like: Ron Howard, Jeff Bridges, Morgan Freeman, Robin Wright and top Academics at UCLA, USC, the CFC, Sarah Lawrence and the American Film Institute, etc. Have given their support to the book. It is the kind of work that I would of liked to read when I was starting out. And the biggest compliment to this book will be if it helps other writers be more successful in achieving their own artistic goals.

For more information about Pen Densham or his book, “Riding the Alligator” go to: www.ridingthealligator.com

 

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