Burt Weissbourd has created characters with rich, interesting, and engaging backstories. As it turns out, the acclaimed Thriller author has a fascinating background of his own. Before penning his thriller novels, from which Corey and Callie of The Corey Logan Trilogy and Danger in Plain Sight were born, Burt was a young, successful producer in Hollywood, brushing elbows with some legendary stars, and working at the helm of some incredible films. How does a novelist emerge into the craft from such a vastly different medium? We wanted to know, and spoke to the man himself to find out.
FROM HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER TO THRILLER NOVELIST
I came to Hollywood in 1977 to produce feature films. I was 28-years-old, I didn’t know anyone in the movie business, but I’d stumbled onto a timely idea — I was going to work with, and most importantly, back screenwriters. That is to say, stand behind their work — and I say this with hindsight — protect them from being rewritten, include them in the process of choosing a director, casting the picture, all of the decisions that go into making a feature film.
At that time, Writers Guild minimum for a high budget screenplay was $9,600. No, I’m not leaving out any zeros. You could hire the most accomplished screenwriter, if he or she agreed to work for the minimum, for $9,600. Also, screenwriters were at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain. Their screenplays were often rewritten at the whim of a star or a director or a studio executive, they weren’t often consulted about most of the important choices that go into making a movie.
Finally, it was a golden age in Hollywood — filmmakers were taking risks and studios were giving directors free reign to make daring movies. In this creative context, writers were eager to work on exciting projects, especially if they could stay with the project as it moved toward becoming a film.
In Chicago, I’d learned filmmaking working on educational films. I was the first one on and the last one off—doing everything from writing, to cinematography, to directing actors, editing, etc. But it was a big jump to producing feature films in Hollywood, so I went to business school and raised a small amount of money (less than $100,000) to go to Hollywood to finance screenplays.
I was young, optimistic, and emboldened by the films being made. I approached writers that I loved and made unconventional deals. I was successful enough developing screenplays, and attracting actors, that early on, studios were financing the screenplays I wanted to develop.
I worked with writers of some of the best screenplays of their time, including Andy Lewis (“Klute”), Frederick Raphael (“Two for the Road”), Alvin Sargent (“Ordinary People”, “Julia”), Joe Esterhas (”Basic Instinct”), Ron Bass (“Rain Man”), Jeanne Rosenberg (“Black Stallion”) playwrights Thom Babe and Murray Mednick, Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause”). William Wittliff (“Lonesome Dove,” Raggedy Man”), and Larry D. Cohen (“Carrie,” “Ghost Story”). (Film credits are for writer identification purposes only.)
As I had some success, I began developing screenplays working directly with actors including: Robert Redford, Lily Tomlin, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Sally Field, Jill Clayburg, and Al Pacino.
- Early in my producing career, I had the privilege of working with author Ross MacDonald, a legend in crime fiction, on his only screenplay.
- I went to London on the way to the Cannes film festival with Marty Scorsese. This was the year he won for Taxi Driver. We went to meet screenwriters for a project based on the book, Haunted Summer. I still remember our first meeting—in the lobby of the Dorchester Hotel—with Freddie Raphael who went on to write the screenplay.
- Selling an Andy Lewis screenplay I’d financed with a partner for approximately $25,000 to Warner Brothers for $300,000.
- I had a memorable trip to NYC to read a Frederic Raphael screenplay I had worked on — A New Wife — with Diane Keaton and Al Pacino. It was just after The Godfather, and we met in Mr. Pacino’s office to read the entire screenplay (I read a secondary character).
- Being called on the carpet at 2 different studios by prominent executives who scolded me for making unconventional deals with writers that gave them too much control—like guaranteeing them the right to do the first rewrite of their own screenplays. These executives felt I was setting precedents that would be negative for the industry.
- Dinners on location for Ghost Story with Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and Melvyn Douglas. They were all marvelous raconteurs and told amazing stories of the old days in Hollywood.
I left Hollywood in 1987 – the golden age was over, and I wanted to write. I still remember why I started writing. I was a successful movie producer, and I felt that my movies were well supported by the studio, Universal. Some made more money than others (Ghost Story), but none were huge hits. At that time, I felt that I would do better with my films if I had more control of the final product (which was finally not controlled by the producer). I thought about becoming a director, who generally had more control over the final character of the movie, or becoming a novelist, who had even more control over the final product. I had young children that I wanted to spend time with and being a movie director meant spending a lot of time away from your family. After carefully considering both choices, I decided I wanted to write novels. I never looked back. I loved writing, I loved managing my own problems and preoccupations rather than managing others, which is a producer’s main job. And, at the end of the day, I loved the books I wrote. They were exactly what I wanted to write. There was no one else making changes or rethinking the work. I had met my goal—the final product was exactly what I wanted it to be.
In hindsight, the best screenplays I’d worked on never got made. Nevertheless, it was a great experience. As a producer developing a screenplay, you look for stories with strong, complex characters and a “rich stew”—that is to say a situation with conflict, emotional intensity, and the potential to evolve in unexpected ways. That is exactly how I approach the books that I write. I learned how to do that as a producer working on screenplays.
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