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September 10, 2023

Lara Croft Writer Michael Collery On How You Can Make It In The Film Industry In 2023

We sat down with the screenwriter Michael Collery, the creative force behind the blockbuster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Extremely talented and a voice of calm and wisdom in a fast paces industry, he shares his journey into screenwriting, tips for breaking into Hollywood, and thoughts on choosing between TV and film writing.

Let's dive in.

Why did you become a screenwriter? 

I come from an industry family. My father was a writer in the fifties and sixties based in New York City, working on a famous kid show, Captain Kangaroo which predated Sesame Street.

Michael Colleary is the brains behind Lara Croft Tomb Raider

When my Dad got sick of writing jokes for kids and wanted to get into the sitcom business we relocated to L.A in the late seventies. And at that time I wanted to be more of a journalist in the post-Watergate era. 

However, most of the friends I made at college were all film students. And that happened to be around the time that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were starting to become the shining stars of the business.

I knew I didn't want to work on TV as I saw my dad's career and they just worked him virtually to death.

Meanwhile, the movie business was, very cash-rich because of the dawn of home video. And so that's how I sort of started to claw my way into the screenwriting movie business as opposed to the TV business. 

How did you make it in the industry?

I got a writing partner named Mike Werb who was very successful. We met at UCLA Film School. Our first spec was Face-Off which John Wu ended up directing a few years later. 

Around the late ‘90s and early 00’s the business started to change. It switched and became more TV-centric. So that required a bit of a pivot.

I worked on my writing partner's TV show, and then another friend of mine brought me onto his TV show, which was shooting in Europe.

What was it like working in Hollywood in the 1980s?

I've been here for 40 years. It just seems like the money is always squirming away to a different place.

When I started, it was all in features. And then by the early 00s movies got too expensive to make and the costs of that went crazy. At the same time, with the advent of cable TV, before that you had, you had network television. So if you didn't get on a TV show or a gig on network television, you weren't gonna make a living as a television writer.

What’s the difference between writing for TV vs film?

There used to be a very rigid divide between television writers and movie writers. Because of JJ Abrams and a couple of other people that all changed.

So that divide has pretty much collapsed now.

You’re kind of required to work in both if you want to because there's a lot more opportunity in TV and then streaming.

So forth, you know? Yeah. This is constantly, it's a constant hotbed of innovation. 

How have Netflix and Amazon changed how you work?

We're at the end of 10 years of streaming and the platforms just pouring billions into content. So that translates into job opportunities. Now, these jobs aren’t always great. That's why we're striking right now. The same contracts that apply to networks don’t apply to the streaming model.

Disney is one example of a streaming disaster. They've spent billions and they need subscribers. And you used to make your money on TV by long-running series like The Simpsons. 

Now they want shows that are short because subscribers want new stuff. Whether the show's over or not, audiences get bored.

If you’re a writer starting how should you go about having your show made given today’s climate?

Despite all the changes, the work itself is pretty much exactly as it was when I started.

You still have to be able to tell compelling stories.

You still have to be able to write compelling characters.

What’s different today is that if it's not based on a comic book, a graphic novel, or a bestseller, studios are not that interested because they rely on that pre-awareness. As a result, original material is more difficult to make.

So, the best thing a young writer can do is write what interests them.

Don't try to follow trends so much. Try to come up with a unique voice, and a unique point of view and then combine that with a high level of craft and a very good work ethic.

In some ways the non-creative qualities are more important than just talent. Try to be a problem solver. Have a vision about how to do your show and what it's about. 

What resources would you recommend for screenwriters learning their craft?

The good news is you can get a film school education on YouTube without really missing much.

John August has a podcast. He's a very successful screenwriter. There’s an amazing amount of smart people out there making videos about cinema.

What was it like working on Lara Croft Tomb Raider

I was very happy to have the opportunity to work on it.

Me and my writing partner ended up having creative differences with the director. This happens very often! It's not an original piece when you're working on something at that level. 

Lara Croft standing in a temple awaiting adventures. It is dark and lit by tourches.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider was one of the standout films of the last few decades

The people on the corporate end of things are going to take an interest. You have to ensure you're looking after what's important to them: audiences come to see the movie. 

The biggest challenge with Tomb Raider was translating a video game into an actual film. 20 years ago, that was a more daunting task. The movies that had tried it before that, like Super Mario Brothers, had been big bombs.

So there wasn't a lot of faith in us. 

They had the most perfect casting in Lara Croft with Angelina Jolie since Sean Connery in James Bond.

I felt very honored to have been asked to work on it but what I saw at the multiplex wasn't exactly what I handed over as a final draft but that's par for the course in a big movie like that.

How did you manage those creative differences?

When the studio, Paramount called us we had just done Face Off for them. They work constantly with people they have worked with before. So Paramount called us and said the rights to Lara Croft were about to expire and they had paid a lot for scripts but they couldn't ‘find’ the movie.

They were having trouble figuring out what the tone of it should have been.

So we came in and we had a very short period - six weeks - to turn it around. If they didn’t sign an A-list actor and an A-list director, the rights would expire. For six weeks no one bothered us.

We had a very specific take on Lara Croft as a person. And we added the subplot of Lara Croft looking for her father. So that gave our pitch for the film an emotional understructure.

At the end of that six weeks, we turned our script in. Angelina Jolie signed onto it and suddenly a lot of directors were interested in it. We were the heroes who saved the picture! 

Until the director came on board that is. Then we were no longer necessary and the director said I'm gonna do this from here. He rewrote a lot of it, I thought to the detriment of the movie. So that never feels good. You always wanna raise your baby. 

But it was fun for sure.

What would you say to writers faced with similar situations when working on a picture or series?

That's just part of the process, unfortunately. You may sell a script on a Friday that is exactly what the studio is looking for. But on Monday, they change their focus to something else. 

Just remember it's not personal. You're stepping into a whole brew of chaos. There are different needs and different agendas you have no insight into and certainly no control over. So the best thing to do is just write as well as you can, and develop your voice.

Also, stand up for what you believe in. Push back on bad notes and bad ideas. Studios will stress test your move. You can't just take dictation because your script will fall.

I remember one meeting with an executive in which an executive ripped out pages from multiple earlier drafts and made a whole new script out of just torn pages from different drafts and said, 'This is what we want.'

I always tell people not to just be a writer, be a producer-writer, or writer-director because those jobs will bring you more control over what's finally put on the screen.

Writers don't have much political clout but directors sure do. 

These days do you need to move to L.A to make it in the film/TV world?

Prior to the pandemic, my advice would be a resounding 'yes'. But now, with the prevalence of virtual meetings, it's more of a 'probably’.

A lot of meetings take place on Zoom anyway, even if you live here.

Do you still need an agent today in 2023? 

Yes, you still need an agent. Agents are very important.

Getting an agent has always been, and always will be harder than getting a job because you can likely find someone willing to hire you if you're a good enough writer based on your material.

But agencies don't need to solicit clients. Some so many people want an agent. So it’s pretty tough.

However, if you say to a studio I don't have an agent right now that doesn't necessarily mean you won't get an opportunity but there'll be an asterisk next to your name until you get one.

Do writers need to go to film school?

Film school isn't a prerequisite like law school is for lawyers; it’s not a strict requirement. I know personally writers who started as agents themselves. It’s really about what works for you. 

So what is the best way to make it today?

Be very hardworking. Learn to be a problem solver and get into the trenches. Hear what your corporate master overlords and creative partners are saying. Figure out how to make that work for them.

Being willing to work hard to write what you believe is the correct answer but also be open-minded to others.

You have to present yourself as better than everybody else at all times because it's so competitive. The business is always looking for new talent.

And so the people whose job it is to find new writers are always looking for people who are focused, who are smart, who work hard, who listen, who want the interaction and the interplay. One of the things I always say is it people, nobody comes into this business to be an executive.

And if you can listen and are able to interact with a lot of these creative folks, you develop very strong relationships that will serve you in good stead.

For more tips on how to make your screenplay a standout success be sure to keep an eye on the Arc Studio blog.

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Lara Croft Writer Michael Collery On How You Can Make It In The Film Industry In 2023
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies.

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