This month we are featuring screenwriter Paul W. Cooper.
Mr. Cooper has over 25 years of writing experience in film
and television. He has about 60 TV credits (including one
of our favorite TV series that we hate to admit we loved-"Little
House On the Prairie"), numerous cable movies, and feature
films. He has been awarded 3 Emmys (5 nominations), the
Humanitas Prize (2 nominations), and 3 Writer's Guild Award
nominations. He wrote the screenplay for Clifton L. Taulbert's
book "Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored", which won
the best movie award at the 1st Black Film Festival. He
also teaches writing for film and television at Pepperdine
University, and does script analysis for screenwriters.
Mr. Cooper has been so kind as to take time out of his
busy schedule to answer some questions about screenwriting,
and the screenwriting business.
BSP: From reading your Bio, you have had long, and
diverse writing career. How did you get your start?
Paul: There's a short answer to that question and
a long one. I'll give you the short skinny. When I graduated
from the University of Tulsa, there was a little war going
on over in Southeast Asia. I joined the Air Force and began
Officer Training School in San Antonio, Texas. While there,
I met a funny looking little stray dog that had somehow
wandered onto the base some time earlier and had taken a
liking to military life. He had been adopted as the school
mascot and was given the name O.T. Dog (O.T. stands for
Officer Trainee). Some truly remarkable things happened
involving that dog during the 90 days I was there and ultimately,
the animal was recognized and promoted to the rank of A.F.
Brigadier General. I knew this was a great story and felt
I was actually living in a Walt Disney movie the entire
time I was there. I vowed to someday tell O.T. Dog's story
to the world.
Following OTS, I entered pilot training in Georgia. And
one year later, I was assigned to fly the KC-135 tanker
for the Strategic Air Command, based at Travis AFB near
San Francisco. The tanker is a 707 aircraft modified for
refueling bombers and fighters in midair. I had some tours
of duty in Vietnam and elsewhere but our main occupation
was to sit on 24 hour alert in an underground facility in
the event of an attack which would require us to take off
and refuel our bombers headed to Russia and China (WWIII).
It was while sitting those long, interminable hours, days
and weeks in a "mole hole" that I turned to my passion of
writing and found the time to tell the story of O.T. Dog.
I wanted to write a screenplay. I had never seen a screenplay
or even a TV script before and had no idea how to begin.
So I wrote my story like a play and filled it with terms
such as FADE IN, FADE OUT and CUT TO, etc. in the most inappropriate
places. When finished, I had a 176 page "screenplay" that
I thought was wonderful and I was eager to release it to
an entertainment-starved world.
Silly me. My script, of course, was horrible. It was much
too long, followed no discernable format, was filled with
rehash, deadwood and tedium and was, simply, an abomination.
But none of that really mattered. What that script did was
get me hooked on screenwriting and I owe my entire career
to that funny little dog who so inspired me back at OTS.
I just kept writing. I couldn't stop. I wrote episodes
of existing TV shows; MEDICAL CENTER, THE WALTONS, SANFORD
AND SON, McMILLAN AND WIFE, MARCUS WELBY and others. After
about a year, I had a stack of maybe ten original scripts,
each one just a little better, more crafted and refined,
than the previous (even though they were still formatted
entirely inappropriately). I found the address of the Writers
Guild of America and wrote to them. They sent back a list
of agents. I started sending out my best samples to these
agents and routinely got my scripts back with very polite
rejection notices. Of course, now it's so clear to me that
all anyone had to do was thumb through the pages and see
my "unorthodox" formatting style and they wouldn't even
bother to read the material. After two years of this frustration,
I had enough rejection slips to paper the bathroom.
And then – my lucky break. I met my wife. An A.F.
nurse. Blind date. Over dinner, I mentioned my writing hobby
and listed some of the TV series episodes I had written,
among them, The Waltons. She informed me that back in Richmond,
VA, she lived next door to the sister of Earl Hamner, creator
of The Waltons. In fact, her neighbor was the real Mary
Okay, my short version of this story is starting to turn
into the long version so I'm going to short hand it from
here. My wife-to-be put me in touch with Earl Hamner who
read my material (no doubt holding his nose) saw merit in
it and encouraged me to come to Hollywood. I took him up
on his recommendation and he mentored me into a career.
BSP: Where do you get your ideas for your screenplays?
Paul: Ideas, of course, come from everywhere. You
have to be receptive to them. Anytime a news story, for
instance, strikes you as been odd or quirky or seems to
hold some particular fascination for you, then put some
thought into it. Imagine how you might tell that same story
your way and how you would develop the characters involved
in the story. Sometimes, a story begins with an opportunity.
Some one might tell me that a producer is looking for a
particular kind of story in a particular genre. My first
instinct is to look over my own catalog of stories I have
on hand. Is there anything there I could submit or redefine
in a way to interest the producer? If not, then I put myself
in the genre mode. The producer's looking for a family,
outdoor adventure story, so I begin with the arena (the
world in which the story takes place). Outdoors makes me
think of mountains. Mountains translates into animals. What
if a wolf is caught in a poacher's trap and will be killed
unless set free. But who's going to set it free? I need
a character. A man is riding his horse in the mountains...
no, a woman is riding her horse through the woods. The horse
is spooked by a wolf who lunges out causing the horse to
buck and throw the woman. The woman crashes to the ground,
breaking her ankle and the horse runs away leaving the woman
facing the jaws of a ferocious wolf. But now the woman discovers
the wolf is caught in a snare trap and can't get loose.
Now we have a life and death situation. A woman is stranded
high in the mountains with a broken ankle, no one knows
she's missing and her only companion is a doomed wolf caught
in a trap. I've got a good start. A powerful and dramatic
situation. Now it's a matter of filling in the details.
Who is the woman? Why is she here? What relationship will
she develop with the wolf? What will the poachers do when
they come? Can she save the wolf? Can she save herself?
When you've worked out all the details, you have a story.
BSP: What is your favorite movie?
Paul: My favorite movie of all times is DR. ZHIVAGO.
I saw the film in a brand new theater in all it's Cinemascope
majesty and with the best sound possible and I was transported.
David Lean, the director, is famous for his meticulously
crafted films. This was a masterpiece that held me in a
state of suspended animation for 3 full hours and I never
wanted it to end. Another film of nearly equal proportions
is APOCALYPSE NOW. But it is vital you experience these
films originally in a theater and not on the minute screen
of a television. I believe you lose a full 50% of the experience.
Two more almost perfect films are DRIVING MISS DAISY and
BSP: What is the hardest part you find thing you
find about screenwriting?
Paul: The hardest part of screenwriting for me has
always been just getting started. I come up with a great
idea. But it won't mean a thing unless and until and I can
get the words on the page. Facing that blank computer screen
is the most difficult job in the world. I'm certain everyone
reading this can identify with me on some level. The danger
you face is making a false start. In other words, you start
your story in the wrong place and don't have a good handle
on those critical first five pages. If this happens, you
will soon learn your story is going nowhere, you get discouraged
and will maybe even scrap the project. That would be a shame.
Here is what you must do. Give a lot of thought to your
opening before you write a word. Come up with that first
image that will appear on the screen and dream up a scene
that will immediately grab an audience. That's just fundamental
storytelling, isn't it? Once, you are convinced of your
opening scene, write it! Work it, refine it until you know
those first two to five pages are going to open the eyes
of some cynical, squinty-eyed studio reader. Now you've
got a base. And once you're happy with those pages, you'll
be surprised how quickly the pages will come thereafter.
Remember this – a good story writes itself. If you've
got a good story, don't stand in the way, let it come out
and you'll be flying all over the keyboard as fast as you
BSP: Do you use screenwriting software? If yes,
do you think it is helpful to new screenwriters?
Paul: I do not use screenwriting software and can
give no recommendation concerning this subject. I work in
MS Word. I developed my own style sheet years ago and continue
to use it today. I'm comfortable with it and it serves me
well. I'm always amazed at amateur screenplays I read where
the software program cut a block of dialog in the wrong
place or whatever and the writer allowed the error to stand
in the false belief that the program is wiser than the writer.
I prefer to format my own work as I go along. I find myself
often times editing a block of dialog or narrative just
to get it all on one page rather than to flow over. I am
careful about how each page looks. Remember, the goal is
to make the script read as easily and naturally as possible.
BSP: Do you feel that an agent is necessary to get
your screenplays turned into movies? How does a person go
about getting an agent if it is necessary to have one?
Paul: . A very important subject and one I have
strong opinions about. Imagine someone going to the art
supply store and buying a large 30"x50" canvas. He pays
a fortune for a box of oil paints and buys the best camel
hair brushes recommended. Then he takes all this home and
begins painting. And all the time he is smearing oils onto
the canvas, he's debating in his mind if he will demand
$100,000 for his painting or will he settle for $75,000
even though he's never painted anything before in his life.
Sounds ludicrous doesn't it? And yet, I see so many screenwriters
out there who approach writing in this very same way. STOP
Remember, storytelling is an art, screenwriting is a craft.
LEARN YOUR CRAFT. Don't give a thought to acquiring an agent
or trying to sell your script until you've actually become
a screenwriter. As a rule, one or even two screenplays don't
do the job. Remember in my little story above, I wrote maybe
10 or 12 scripts over a period of a year or longer before
I even began to seek an agent and even then, I wasn't really
prepared. You'll know when you have a professional screenplay
to show. Lots of writers recognize their script has weaknesses
but believe if only a producer will read it, he will be
so enthralled with the concept he'll overlook the faults
and write a check for half a million dollars. FORGET IT!
Pay your dues. Write, write and write. If, in fact, you've
written one screenplay and have no inclination, desire or
ambition to write another until you've sold the first one,
then you are not a writer. You're a one trick pony and you
have no future in filmmaking. Remember, an artist paints
because he has to. A dancer dances because she has to. A
musician makes music because he must. A writer writes because
she has no choice. The stories are inside her, bursting
to find release. And whether or not she ever gets a dime
for her stories, she will continue to write simply because
she's an artist.
If, in fact, you have paid your dues, you've written extensively
and have a strong viable property ready to be read then
-- you need an agent. There are lots of articles and books
written on the subject of getting an agent that are probably
more current than any advice I may give since I have had
the same agent for 25 years. Essentially, what you must
do is contact the agent with a very strong and meticulously
worded query letter that will get him/her to respond positively
and invite you to send your script. Never send a script
without being asked. The query letter is, as you can see,
critical. Again, there are articles all over the web on
how to write your letter. Once you get your script into
the hands of an agent willing to read it, then it's up to
the words to do the rest.
BSP: Do you think that screenplay contests are a
good start for new screenwriters?
Paul: Screenplay contests. I really have no practical
experience with contests therefore can offer little advice.
I presume, like anything, some are helpful, others are useless.
Certainly the Nichol contest is the most prestigious and
I assume if you score well there, your script will get read
by the right people. There are probably other such contests
but I'm unaware. I guess my general attitude is, if it don't
cost too much to enter, it can't hurt.
BSP: When you wrote the screen adaptation for “Once
Upon a Time...When We Were Colored”, how were you
able to maintain the balance between the original author’s
novel, and what you wanted to accomplish in the screenplay?
Paul: Now let's talk about "Once Upon a Time... When We
Were Colored." I met Clifton Taulbert, author of the book,
about 20 years ago. We lost touch. And then about 12 years
later, he called me and told me he had written his autobiography.
It had gotten great reviews and a lot of literary notice.
Now he was trying to sell the book to Hollywood. He had
an entertainment lawyer taking it around but so far no luck.
Everyone said they loved the book. It had great characters.
Was evocative of the era. But what's the story? No one could
see a story. The book was essentially Cliff's memoirs and,
though filled with characters and events, there was no through
line to hold everything together. I could see the problem
easily. But I was so captivated by the strong characters,
I just knew I had to bring Papa and Ma Ponk and Cliff and
Ma Pearl to life. So I took what the book gave me. I had
my core characters, I had a historical period and the Mississippi
delta as my arena. I used events occurring in the book as
landmarks. And I used the young Cliff character as the catalyst
to hold it all together. And I started to write. I wanted
that much-needed strong, heart-clutching opening so I had
Cliff born in a cotton field. Now in reality, Cliff Taulbert
was not born in a cotton field. But I'm a writer, a storyteller,
a dramatist. And my instinct was to put Mary on her back
in labor between the rows of bursting cotton and have that
little, innocent baby fall into the hands of Ma Ponk and
into a world of bigotry, pain and toil.
If you read Cliff's wonderful biography and then watch
my filmed adaptation, I believe you will have a sense they
are one in the same. But if you look closely, you'll find
that I created many scenes and characters not found in the
book. Melvin, Alice, Sammy and Miss Nila are major characters
in the movie but never actually existed. Miss Mabry is a
composite of two characters described in the book. The whole
tent show episode with Miss Nila came about because of a
single paragraph in the book describing Uncle Cleve's visit
once to a tent show in Jackson. And finally, the climax
involving the showdown between the colored community and
the A&D Ice Company was not in the book. But the episode
came about after discussing with Cliff the need for a dramatic,
life-affirming finish to the story. He recalled then the
"ice war" and I jumped on it and turned it into our climax.
I know Cliff is proud of the movie which he calls the "Hollywood
version of his life" and he's exactly right. The screenwriter's
obligation is to the audience. I took dramatic license in
bringing Clifton Taulbert's life to the screen but I believe
I maintained a fair and accurate sense of the time and place
and know for a fact, the story would never have been made
into a film without the screenwriter's contribution.
I wrote the script on spec. Cliff submitted it to Tim Reid
who was already a fan of the book but, until he read my
screenplay, had no idea how to adapt it. He immediately
optioned the book and screenplay and made the movie.
BSP: You have written original movie screenplays,
TV scripts, Cable movies, and a screen adaptation from a
novel (“Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored”).
Do you take different approaches when you write for these
Paul: TV scripts, cable movies, films and screen
adaptations are all basically the same thing. They require
the ability to tell a story. I approach every assignment
or spec project exactly the same, that is, with my own personal
style and approach to storytelling. Everyone has his own
style. It is developed over time and experience. It is something
you master but only through doing. Hence the saying, "Writers
write." Adaptations are a special challenge in that the
screenwriter must override the novelist and instinctively
know what in a book is retained and what is discarded. It
is a special talent that, again, can be mastered through
experience. But once you've determined the thrust of the
story and settled on characters and events, then all the
same rules of screenwriting apply.
BSP: Once a studio has optioned your screenplay,
do you have much control over any changes that maybe required
to the script?
Paul: Legally, once you've sold your rights to your
screenplay, the studio/producer, etc. may do anything they
please with your property. Often times they will hire another
writer to do rewrites and often your original work can be
changed drastically. I've been fortunate. I've never been
rewritten. All of the producers I have worked with have
allowed me to do the rewrites and polishes so, generally,
everything that went on the screen was in my final drafts.
BSP: Besides from screenwriting, you also do script
analysis for screenwriters. What are the main elements you
look for in a good screenplay?
Paul: When I read screenplays from beginning writers
there are specific things I look for. Most of these points
have been covered ad nauseam in books and articles but I
feel compelled to repeat many here. First. Neatness counts.
Write your script in a proper, recognized format, 12 point
courier. NO TYPOS. Insure proper grammar. An improperly
formatted screenplay, careless grammar and punctuation and
typos brand you as an amateur regardless of story content.
Next. I can tell a lot about a writer in the first half
page of the script. Besides format and neatness being revealed,
I already get a sense of the writing style and competence
of the writer. In a half page I can tell if the material
is written by a professional or an amateur. Most of it has
to do with the words chosen to tell the story. Is there
an economy of words or is there an abundance of unnecessary
words. A flow is established immediately and I can tell
the nature of the flow. I am already getting a sense of
the writer's style and right out of the box, in that very
first image offered, I can tell if the writer is visual
and cinematic. All of this is revealed before hardly any
story content comes out. That is why those first 3 to 5
pages are sooooo important to the success of a screenplay.
You're either going to win your reader over or not in those
first few pages.
BSP: The main goal of BlackScreenPlays.com is to
increase the number of African American screenwriter, and
films. The WGA reports that only 6% of screenwriters are
minority. What do you feel could be done to increase the
number of minority screenwriters?
Paul: Concerning the subject of minority screenwriters.
The WGA has an official Black Caucus and there have been
and are efforts to create new open door policies. My opinion
on the matter is this. Writers should first be writers.
The question was asked, if an African American writes an
African American screenplay, does he run the risk of becoming
pigeonholed into writing only African American movies. I
believe if a writer persists in writing only one kind of
material, then yes, he certainly runs the risk of being
pigeonholed. Generally, successful action movie writers
will get a reputation as being able to deliver an action
movie. Comedy writers write comedy. If, in fact, you don't
want to be "typed" then diversify. I personally write in
a very wide range of genre. I just keep writing and throwing
stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I write what interests
me and there is not just one single subject or genre that
My advice is, take a look at what is commercial at any
given time and see if there's anything there you could find
interesting. If there is, then work up a story in that commercially
viable genre with a subject that is of interest to you.
From there on, WRITE FOR YOURSELF. Make it the kind of movie
YOU would go and see. If you're successful and not so terribly
esoteric, then when you've finished, you should have a pretty
good script in a commercially viable genre for the market.
My best advice. To learn how to write screenplays, you
must READ screenplays. They're easy to find. They're all
over the net for free even. Download some. Read in all genres.
Read 30 scripts. Then start focusing on scripts written
in the genre that most interests you. These screenplays
now become the models to which your writing will aspire.
You should be thinking in terms of writing an original
2 hour feature film. Don't write Rocky VI or Jaws 4 or Scary
Movie III. You don't own the rights. Make it totally originally,
totally yours. This script must be the best work you can
do and when you at last have it in saleable shape, this
is the one you will offer to agents. This will be your calling
card. And the beauty is, it doesn't matter your sex, race,
nationality, religion or sexual persuasion... all that matters
are the words on the pages. Writers tend to be anonymous.
All anyone knows is your name. They don't care about any
of the rest of it so long as you've created a product that
can be sold and produced and distributed for a lot of money.
That's Show Biz.
Good luck. And keep writing.
We would like to thank Mr. Cooper for this time, and help
with this site. As a special bonus Mr. Cooper has supplied us with a copy of his screenplay Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored.,
and the Film Review.
Mr. Paul W. Cooper can be reached at his web site: Hollywood Working Writer
He offers a script analysis service (see our example
screenplay page for examples of what he can do for your
screenplay) for screenwriters, as well as a free Mini Course
in Screenwriting paper. Here is his film credits.