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October 7, 2013

Interview with writer-director Michael Dugan 
for “Muse, no blues” blog – October 2013

Michael Dugan is a WGA writer who wrote and directed the award winning, HBO feature comedy, "Raging Hormones."  He has also sold a feature comedy to SONY Pictures, a Movie of the Week to NBC, and written several screenplays on assignment. His television writing credits include "Santa Barbara," “General Hospital,” "Days of Our Lives" and 5 regional EMMY awards. Michael Dugan’s website is

Michael and I met when we were both students in the online class called the ProSeries Professional Screenwriting Program presented by

MNB: Thank you very much for taking the time discuss screenwriting with Muse, no blues, Michael.  First, may I ask what inspired you to become a professional screenwriter?

MD: I wanted to be a writer since I was about 10 or 12. I always loved commercials and advertising and had most of them memorized.  I actually thought I would be a commercial writer which I have done since I was 24, but I got the bug to start writing novels during semester breaks at grad school.  Once I became a copywriter at one of the big New York Agencies, I decided to turn one of my novels into a screenplay.  I joined a group of playwrights and they had a reading of it.  I was hooked.  To see my work performed rather than simply read was addictive.  I gave up novels and focused only on screenplays ever since.

MNB: What was your first big break?

MD: While I was working in New York, my brother was at USC Film School. He took the first screenplay I wrote to "Agent Night" and someone offered me an option on it. Like a knucklehead, I thought I was in. I quit a perfectly good job as a writer in New York and moved out to LA. The deal fell through, and in about a half an hour, I was a night watchman at the Jonathan Club downtown. I was absolutely starving, and I applied for a job as a secretary on "General Hospital".  The producer would not hire me, so I asked him for 3 names of people that might hire a production assistant.  He complied, so the next day, I called each one.  One was hiring for the "Mousercise Show" for the Disney Channel and I took a job as a PA/Runner.  The producer saw I had a Wharton MBA and did not believe I would do the lowly job of a PA. I told him I did not care what it paid, I was desperate to get into the industry. He asked me when I could start and I said "NOW"! As luck would have it, the writers could not keep up with the demand for the 30 shows we were producing, so the producer asked me if I would write a few.  That was a dream come true... writing for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy.  I dove into the assignment.  Another fortunate turn happened when there was a Director's Guild union problem since it was a non-union show.  Suddenly, I was directing the show and got 20 credits for directing.  

The news of going from the runner getting everyone sandwiches and coffee to directing the show within about 3 months caught a lot of people's attention.  My next job was at the Dick Clark company, I was able to land an agent who got me writing soap operas, and suddenly... I was in!!!   

MNB: What would you like to say about the business side of screenwriting?

MD: The business side of screenwriting is often difficult. Since the writer comes along at the beginning of the investment, unless it is a studio project, the producers usually try to tie up your script or get you to write their idea for free - with the promise - "We'll all get rich when this goes."  Too often, most projects never make it to production, so if you write for free hoping to make it in the backend, you can do a ton of work for no money.  No one would ask a lawyer to work for free or an accountant to work for free, but for some reason, no one thinks writers have to eat and support their families. A brick layer lays bricks and a writer writes... that is how we keep food on the table, and too often, producers try to get around paying you up front so they don't risk their money at the early stages.  The problem is that if they pay nothing for your work, there is no clock ticking pressuring them to go out and set up the project. Their attention goes to the project they have money invested in and you are left out in the cold.

MNB: What would you like to say about the craft of screenwriting?

MD: Screenwriting is a craft all to its own.  There is a form and a structure that must be conformed to. The three act structure for a film is the rule, and the page count better not go over 120.  That means you must craft your story within those parameters for it to simply get over the transom of a production company.  I cannot think a any craft that is more satisfying and fun; however, it should be pure self-entertainment to write.  I always fall in love with my characters, my plot, and my subplots.  I get lost in that world and forget about the real world.  What other job allows you to do that?

MNB: Was it challenging to accumulate the requirements to become a member of the Writers Guild of America?

MD: It was challenging to meet the requirements to become a member of the WGA. That was one of my biggest goals when I moved out to Los Angeles, and it took 2 years to accumulate the requirements.  For me, the soap operas were my ticket in.  My agent got me assignments writing scripts for "Loving", "General Hospital", and "Santa Barbara". Those credits finally got me into the WGA.

MNB: How has becoming a WGA Member helped you?

MD: Being a member of the WGA has helped in many ways.  It gives you some credibility as a professional writer, the health plan is very good, and the minimums are far higher than you could get as a non-guild writer.  Having the cache of being in the WGA can help you get in the door and past the gatekeepers.  On the other hand it is often a battle to get Independent Producers to work with you because they do not want to pay the minimums.

MNB: Was it challenging to transition from being a screenwriter to being a writer-director?

MD: Transitioning from a writer to a writer-director happened to me on a smaller scale before I got to direct a movie. I started directing the commercials I was writing, and made several hundred of them.  When it came time to produce my film, "Raging Hormones", I did not even consider anyone else to direct.  As the writer, I knew the characters so well that they were like my children, and I would never put them in anyone else's hands.  I know that when I sell a script to the studios, I don't have the choice to direct.  I am willing to give that up in order to be involved in bigger projects; however, I am hoping that after a couple of studio pictures, I can get the nod to direct my own work.

MNB: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out?

MD: When I was starting out, I did not understand the business of filmmaking.  It is a very pragmatic industry. It is about selling your creative product and convincing people that they can either advance their career or make a lot of money if they team up with you.  Agents, managers, producers, and studio execs all have jobs, and your script must be something that they know they can make money with.  They have to feed and educate their children too. Sometimes you may think that they are being cruel when they reject you, but if it is not clear how you can help them make money with your script, then they are not going to give you the time of day. It is hard enough for them to make a living in this industry. It is a business not a charity, so you cannot expect them to buy your script unless it is clear that they can get a payday out of it.

MNB: What is your favorite experience working with a producer?

MD: I loved working with Ken Corday, the Executive Producer of "Days of Our Lives". After writing an MOW with a partner for him that never got produced, he hired me to write a feature with him.  He had a story idea that he wanted to develop and thought I had a edge about my writing that would help the story. He was smart, creative, and a lot of fun.  I was relatively young and felt I was in over my head, but he was very positive to work with.  Together, we wrote one of my favorite scripts so far. It never made it to production, but it is one of those loved scripts we all have in our trunk for another day.

MNB: What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?

MD: WRITE!!!! Take the time to learn the craft and the form.  NEVER quit!  I have seen too many people come out to Hollywood and say, I am going to give it six months and if it doesn't happen, I'll go back to my old job.  You cannot see it that way.  You never know when you are going to break in and you cannot put a date on it.  There will be times when you are literally starving and aching from constant rejection, but if you keep learning and network properly you will find your way in.  I was working as a production manager for a commercial production house and in the middle of a shoot in Las Vegas when I got a message that I sold a script.  A few minutes later, I got another message that I sold another script, and about an hour later, I found out that I had sold a third script.  It took about five years and a lot of rejection to get to that day.  You must not let anything stop you, and you must continuously update and improve your skills.  That is why I took the ProSeries 44 screenwriting class. You can always learn, and I am amazed at how much better I am writing now than I was before the class. 

MNB: Thank you very much, Michael!


October 3, 2013

Script Consultant - Chris Soth - tips to aspiring screenwriters



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