Collin Friesen is a screenwriter and director living in Los Angeles. Born in a small town in Saskatchewan, Friesen grew up in Winnipeg and attended the University of Manitoba. After starting out as a reporter and working for the CBC in Alberta, Friesen moved to L.A. to attend the American Film Institute and pursue a career in screenwriting. He has written multiple features, such as the Big White (2005), The Con Artist (2010) and Sorry For Your Loss (2018), which he also directed. Friesen also wrote for the television series The Lone Gunmen and Schitt’s Creek.
You sold the first script you ever wrote? The Big White?
Yeah, I made the mistake of thinking it was that easy, and guess what, it wasn’t. So when the movie came out, it was almost direct to video, and didn’t get a major release and all of a sudden, I was sort of in “movie jail” for a little while. Which is where you go when you put something out into the world and it doesn’t do that well, and it gets very difficult to get your next job.
Do you have any advice for writers trying to break into the film industry?
There are more avenues than there used to be, with writing contests and things like that.
First off, be talented. If you’re not talented, go do something else. There are easier ways to make money in this world. But if you absolutely have to work in film or television, the trick is getting past the gatekeepers. The industry is set up to filter out things that aren’t good until you sort of get to the top of the pyramid.
And one good way to test how good your material is, if you’re a writer, to enter screenwriting contests, because eventually when you start to send your stuff out to an agent, if you can say, “Well, I was a finalist in this contest, this contest, and this contest,” they’re much more likely to read it than if you’re a cold submission coming in saying, “Please read my logline, I have a wonderful idea for a screenplay.”
What’s your advice for Canadian writers who want to pick up and move to LA?
Back in the day, you would be able to come down here, find a job, and deal with all your immigration stuff after. I think that’s a lot tougher to do now. I went to university down here —which is bloody expensive, by the way, but that allows you a one-year window after that to work in the country and get your immigration set up.
So either that or find an American to marry. Honestly, sometimes that’s the easiest way to go. You know, fall in love and all that shit. Find an American to marry, just do it that way.
What’s the film industry in LA been like during the pandemic?
The industry has moved on to Zoom; pretty much everything is happening there. And it’s been…interesting. You’d think it would speed things up, right? Because you don’t have to drive to meetings. You’d think that the town would move a little quicker, but it took such a long time to make that transition to digital that things feel even slower.
And there’s so much material in the pipeline now that they’re just starting to get back into production. Every writer who’s been at home has probably cranked out two or three screenplays. So I think there’s gonna be a lot of stuff coming onto the market, which always makes it a little more difficult to get attention for whatever it is you’ve been working on.
What does your writing process look like?
My process, God. Really good writers outline things. I should outline a lot more than I do.
I basically scribble down some notes when I have a reasonably good idea of what I want to do, and then I’ll start to write. I rewrite a lot more than people who go to all the trouble of putting a really solid outline together, just because that’s my process. Everybody has a slightly different process but for me, I like to play around on the page for months and months, as opposed to, you know, working out all the problems ahead of time. Once again, I don’t do it the right way. I don’t do it the smart way. Don’t do what I do; do what you’re supposed to do, which is to knock out all the issues ahead of time, if possible.
Before screenwriting, you reported on things like the genocide in Rwanda, yet you wound up writing comedy. What draws you to the genre?
I guess I’ve always wanted to be funny. You know, if you can’t be handsome, you’d better be entertaining. Maybe that’s sort of the way to go through life. I just always liked to write jokes and make people laugh as a desperate plea for attention.
That’s the other nice thing about coming from a journalism background: you learn to write really, really fast. So you tend to crank things out at sort of a higher rate of speed than an awful lot of other people down here. But I always find that — if I’m confessing things, which is apparently what we’re going to do now — it’s easier for me to crack a joke than to dig into the absolute true emotions of any situation. You know people who use humour as a shield? I might be one of those people.
Is there a unique approach to writing for comedy?
I think writing [comedy] is not, as some people say, harder than drama. I say it’s sort of the other way, because I already know what my target is. My target is to amuse, and that’s the basic response I’m always going for. That’s what I want to hit.
With drama, it can be “I want to scare you, I want to make you cry, I want to make you think, I want to trigger all these different emotions.” For me, it’s a very specific thing I’m aiming at, and when you’ve done it for many, many years, it becomes kind of second nature.
We were saying earlier about almost using [comedy] as a defense mechanism. But do you find with comedy, you’re still able to write from a more emotional perspective, or write more of a human story?
I think if you can get people laughing, you can slide your message in right beside it. Because nobody likes to be told that, “this is the message I’m bringing to you,” so if you can find a way to amuse them while sharing your message you can be as profound and real as you set out to be.
Are there any examples from your own work where you’ve been able to write comedy from a more emotional, human, or personal perspective?
My wife just had breast cancer surgery a little while ago and we decided to turn that into a podcast. And then I decided to turn that into a screenplay. So we’re working on this thing right now called Chemo Skinny, which is the cancer comedy you didn’t know you needed to see. I think your writing generally reflects your approach to life, and in this particular case, it was, that you might as well laugh, because if you don’t laugh, you’re just gonna start crying about the whole thing.
I found an article from about 10 years ago where you essentially gave your advice of writing in Hollywood and said sort of, almost like “Don’t do it,” and went off a big spiel, like even right now: you’re very self-deprecating—
—You have to be self-deprecating if you’re Canadian, otherwise they don’t let you back into the country.
—You’ve kept at it all these years, what keeps you going through like the frustrations of screenwriting? What keeps you returning to it?
The thrill and excitement of just creating and putting something on the page and then having someone else look at that and go, “I like this.” And then having someone else say, “I’m going to give you a million dollars to go make this.” That’s a pretty big rush and it’s a pretty big ego bump when those things come along.
But the other reason I keep doing this is because after so many years as a writer, I have lost every other marketable skill set that could lead to any other form of employment. I am completely unemployable as a human being right now. It’s like, “Yeah, I can write dick jokes.” That’s not going to get you a job in an office or something like that. So eventually you’re talking about writing yourself into a corner and I’ve sort of written myself down into a cave. I may never be out of this. So you know, this is it. Without any other marketable job skills. I’m kind of stuck here.
What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on to date?
I love them all equally. They’re all my children. The Big White was pretty trippy because you know, when you write a movie, and you really hope it’s gonna sell, and finally it gets picked up, and then all of a sudden Robin Williams is going to be in it, and Holly Hunter is going to be in it, and Woody Harrelson is going to be in it, you know, that’s kind of a high. That’s what you live for if you’re a writer, that moment of living the dream. And then they give you a check with a lot of zeros at the end, and you’re like, “I’m living the dream, and more.” So I think that would have been the zenith of the career in terms of pure, unadulterated joy.
And then, of course, it doesn’t do well and you’re back down into the doldrums. You know, a writing career or directing career in Hollywood is a friggin’ roller coaster. Enjoy the time at the top, because there’s a bottom coming right around the corner.
How did you get through those tough periods? What keeps you going?
Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol.
You know, this town ain’t for the faint of heart. And I read a quote, and I can’t remember who said it, but generally speaking, you either give up on Hollywood or Hollywood will give up on you. It’s going to be one of those two things, you’re either going to go, “Screw it. I’ve had it. I’m leaving town. I’m going to go do something else.” Or the town will just go, “Yeah, we are no longer interested in anything you have to produce.” And it is never an official declaration; you don’t get a memo.
So the way to get through it? My approach has always been to just keep creating material. I know a lot of people who will write a script and then it’s like, great, here’s my script, and I’m gonna wait and see what happens. I will try to put one out and then go, “Okay, what do I work on while it takes three months for people to decide whether the last thing I did was any good or not?”
So do you take a really regimented approach to writing? Almost 9 to 5?
Oh, I wish I did.
I would say I like to write every day, but there are days when there are happy little distractions out there, like “Oh, I have to take the car in for servicing,” and I can’t write right now, because I’m going to be busy doing something like that. So you have to sometimes push yourself to actually continue to try and create.
And then the other problem becomes — and I ran into this just a little while ago — it’s like, “Oh, I should start working on something new.” I’ve got 15 screenplays that have never seen the light of day. Every good idea I’ve already put through the machine, and nothing’s happened with it. So even the act of trying to come up with something new again, and again, and again, can just be emotionally exhausting, and intellectually draining.
So, with all that, do you still find the rush is worth it when you get that little bit of success?
Oh, yeah. You’re going to find out really early if you love to do this. And I would not do anything else. This is fun.
And then when you transition into directing and you realize what a pain in the ass writers are — especially if you’re directing your own material. But if you’re someone new coming into the business, you will know pretty soon whether this is for you or not. It’s a lot of time on your own and a lot of a lot of “no’s” to get to the very few “yes’s,” but those yes’s are just the world to you.
Screenwriting, and filmmaking especially, it’s so collaborative. How is it, handing off your work to other people to produce?
It’s interesting because your agent is usually the first one to see it. Actually, that’s not true. Most writers have a circle of friends who will give them notes on their scripts. It’s not, “Oh, I cranked this out, did a spell check and I threw it to my agent to see what they can do,” a lot of other eyes have gone into it, or have gone over it, before you get to that particular point. It’s still kind of a lonely slog, because you get to the end of the road and it’s a meritocracy in terms of the material in the script. But at the same time the failure is all on you if it’s not good enough.
When it does get the green light, then it’s given over to the actors and director; what’s it like watching your baby being born?
When Robin Williams was saying the lines that I wrote for him, it’s like, “Holy crap, I’ve got, I’ve got a little footnote in the history of Hollywood all of a sudden.” And that’s just a really cool thing when you see what you put on the page, you hear it in your head that certain way, and then an actor comes along and makes it 100 times better. That’s — that’s the juice. That’s the stuff that keeps you coming back.
You worked as a story editor on Schitt’s Creek. What’s it like working collaboratively with other writers?
Here’s the advice I would give to somebody who finds themselves as a story editor or moving into a writers’ room as a staff writer, or sort of at a lower level: figure out what your job is.
Because your job might be to help them develop stories. It might be to pitch jokes. It might be to pitch storylines. It might be to do all that stuff. Or your job might be to make sure that the higher-ups feel supported and loved and that everything is going well for them. You don’t know what you’re going to be slotted into until you’re actually there. And if someone wants you there to laugh at their jokes, then make sure that’s what you do. Because that’s how you manage to stay on the show and get to the next one.
Is it a balancing act? You know, pushing your own work or what you want to be doing there and sort of getting that feel for, “I’d like to keep a job.”
Your job is to be invited back next season. Once you get in the room, that is your job – to not get fired, and to be invited back. And to do that, like I said, manage the workplace. And then, if you’re lucky, you will get a chance to actually put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.
Then what you have to do is make sure you are mimicking the show, which is usually something that the show runner has created, right? You have to give yourself over to someone else’s writing style. For some people, they do it really well, and for other people, it’s a bit of a shift, and it’s not as easily accommodated. Sorry, let me rephrase that: it’s not super easy to do for everyone, especially if you’re sort of a hardheaded person who thinks he knows better than anyone else in the room, which is not me. I’m lovely.
Is there anything maybe even just from your years in Hollywood, that you just wish you had known starting out?
Read the room.
I’m going to tell you another story, which will sort of answer the question.
A friend of mine’s a writer on a show; one day, the show runner came in and said, “Hey, everybody, I got you all yoga mats because we’re going to start doing yoga first thing in the morning. You know, come in a little bit early, we’ll do yoga.”
And my friend who’s sort of a middle aged schlub like me, he’s like, “I’m not doing the yoga. I don’t want to do yoga. I hate yoga, I have no interest in yoga…” Didn’t do the yoga, got fired from the show. Right? Wasn’t asked back. So now, whenever he and I are in a similar situation where the show runner is asking for something — where it’s sort of the ‘go along to get along thing’ — our shorthand is, “Hey, do the yoga.”
So my advice to aspiring screenwriters is once you get in the room, do the yoga.
What do you feel you’ve most improved on in your time as a screenwriter?
In terms of actual scenes I write, I’ve gotten better over the years at “get in as late as you can and get out as early as humanly possible,” right? Which is always a really solid piece of writing advice.
You write a scene of someone walking in and talking to somebody and some information is conveyed, and then they walk out. It’s like, what’s the quickest you can get in and out where the story will still make sense? Because everything else is just extraneous, and everything past a certain point is going to be extraneous too. So I’ve become better at, I think, editing my own material. And I’ve become really good at ripping my friends’ scripts apart, which is always a good time. We have a rule that whenever I read someone’s screenplay, I find something wrong on the first page. If you break their will early, they’ll be more willing to take your notes down the road, it’s a form of psychological warfare.
How do you deal with rejection in writing?
My teenage dating years prepared [me] well for life in Hollywood.
Don’t kid yourself. Just keep going and try not to take it personally because there’s not a writer in this town who hasn’t been fired or replaced multiple, multiple times. And it’s not always about you — sometimes it’s about you, but it’s not always about you. Don’t take it personally — it’s just business and someday you’ll be the one getting rid of people for not doing yoga.
See, I brought that back. In writing terms, we call that a call back.
Do you have any particular blogs, books, examples of screenplays that you just recommend an aspiring screenwriter to consume?
If you’re writing features, I’m a big fan of “Save the Cat,” which is a screenwriting book that I think a lot of people have heard of. It’s really smart. If you’ve got talent, it will help you slot it into the places where you need to slot it into.
I’m a big fan of “Dead Pilots Society,” where they take pilots that never got made, and do staged readings, so you can actually hear what sort of things were sold, and sort of grade yourself against other very talented people. Those are two that I would certainly say, listen to those and you’ll actually learn a thing or two.
Oh, and “Script Notes,” which is the John August & Craig Mazin podcast. There are hundreds of episodes, and they talk about all different aspects of screenwriting. That’s really helpful too, because they’re two very, very smart guys.
Let me know when this is up and I’ll critique your editing of my ramblings.
Yes, please find something wrong in the first paragraph.
See, you’re getting it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview by: Ethan Lycan-Lang, Hope Latta
Edited by: Jennifer Lee, Theo Giesen
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