HOLLYWOOD WRITER/DIRECTOR - PEN DENSHAM
Pen Densham is an award winning writer, producer, director and owner of Trilogy Entertainment Group. With a career spanning over 40 years, beginning in documentaries, Pen co-wrote and produced ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, wrote and directed ‘Moll Flanders’ and produced many feature films including ‘Backdraft’, ‘Blown Away’ as well as reviving the classic
television shows ‘The Outer Limits’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’.
His most recent feature film was the submarine thriller ‘Phantom’ starring David Duchovny and Ed Harris. Pen has worked with an extensive list of talent including Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, and Robin Wright to name a few.
Pen has also been an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts and has written a best selling book on scriptwriting titled ‘Riding the Alligator’.
HOW DID YOU GET IN TO THE INDUSTRY?
I was lucky enough to be raised in a family where my mother and father were making 35mm
theatrical shorts, including one where they had me ride an alligator at the age of 4! This was a study
of people in England who kept strange pets. The film travelled with ‘The African Queen’ in
theatres and they had an incredible response to it. My folks took me with them as they worked, and
it was all incredibly impressive and at that point, as a child, I knew what I had to do. I use the term
“to cast spells with my imagination on the screen”. My father and his twin brother were both
cameramen, they had a movie projector from the age of 6 and ran a film club from their early teens.
They both had technical interest and my mother was a child extra in films too. My son is now a
screen and TV writer, so I’ve come to the conclusion that this may not be something I chose, but
may be genetically my natural evolution.
My mother died when I was 8 and my father re-married and a lot of the joy went out of my life. I clung to photography as an emotional escape. The school system was set up to process me to be an “employable person”, and punished me for my poor math, bad handwriting etc. But, I had one
teacher who actually read what I was writing in that poor cursive and believed in me. He gave me
the lead in the school play, I won the school photography prize and had articles printed in the school
magazine. Thanks to him I found I could embrace my seedling creative side. I also feared things
would never be better in their system and left at 15. My father tried to get me to work in an electric
blanket factory. I was lucky the owner didn’t want me around to electrocute his customers. I
went out to work in photography and eventually tried to start my own business. I photographed the
Rolling Stones for the BBC and wrote articles that got published. But the returns were small and a
career seemed far away. I realized that self-starting required one to overcome fear and overcome
doubt and, at 19, I felt like a failure.
I then fled to Canada thinking it was all over. When I was there, I got a job in a film laboratory in the QC (quality control) department. This role meant I could watch all the films coming through the lab to make sure they were okay from a technical standpoint but I also got to see the entire spectrum of what was being made in Canada. Then I offered myself to a company that was making the most films at that time, I was hired and at 19 found I was put in charge of guys just coming out of college, much older than me because of my years of English work experience. Even though the company was making educational short films that were successful, they were films I couldn’t value; they had no love for the medium. They were commerce over caring, their was no magic in their work. Moving forward, I was lucky to then work for a company that had a visionary approach going out raising finance for films that they believed in. I watched their financing and distribution process and knew I wanted to do that. I was also networking with young film-makers a lot and that was vital to our learning how to survive as independents. I met a couple of like minded young film workers, started a company and we began making our own shorts. The Canadian government television was giving us funding to make five or six of these three or four minutes films in a row. It was like we were being supported and taught how to make miniature film pieces. Then we made a series of these on one subject; and joined them together. Our first 20 minute short was a study on the life of a thoroughbred race horse. That film sold around the world as there was no spoken narration, just visuals.
What we learned was that making the film on its own wasn’t sufficient, you have to exploit the opportunities, create a market, as no-one else will do it for you. One of our films even got an Oscar nomination and we made sure we got masses of publicity as we flew nine kids who featured in making the film to the awards in Hollywood. That one film’s publicity from just the nomination (we didn’t win) put our company in the public mind in Canada.
WHAT ONE SKILL OR PERSONAL ATTRIBUTE WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE BIGGEST FACTOR AS TO WHY YOU GOT TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
Irrepressibility. I get down, I get depressed. Then I come back and realise there’s something I want
to achieve. I find it hard to validate my past. My awards and successes don’t have much impact. I
only look forward to things I want to accomplish. One thing I do know, the years gives one a
perspective. I can see over and over again, I pursued my original ideas and once in a while they
succeeded, like talking the BBC into letting me photograph the Rolling Stones, getting a grant to
teach young people to make a film that got Oscar nominated. You have a few ideas that don’t hit but
then you have one that does hit. I found if you don’t push, no-one else will. So I entered our own
work in to lots of festivals. I had realized people think if your movie has an award attached to it, it
“must” be special as they really don’t know how to judge movies. We ended up winning around 80
awards for our films including two Oscar nominations, because we entered the festivals and we got
this supposed ‘kudos’ as we knew that it would educate the buyer in to thinking the film was
Even after ten years of awards, we found that no-one would support us when we decided to try drama. My idea was ‘I wonder if I could write something?’. I heard about a TV show for younger
film-makers on the CBC that would allow you to choose your own subject. We had made a number
of documentary films about thoroughbred horses and I heard an amazing story about when a horse is breach-birthing, you have 20 minutes to turn the foal in the mare or you must choose which one will die. So I decided to write a drama about that from the perspective of a trainer whose whole future was wrapped up in that foal. It was a time-bomb plot and I was supported by the CBC TV show. I shot it with an all documentary crew, we missed half of the protocols of shooting drama and it was so painful. I had never worked with an actor before either. But they trusted me as I had written the script — even though I didn’t know how the official formatting worked. It was the most
overwhelming experience of my life, I was trying to invent the drama process. My highly skilled
and award winning documentary editor and partner took out all the pauses when he cut it so that it
felt dynamic like a sports film. All our other films required we cut tight to keep it energetic. But we
discovered there was no emotion coming from the characters. I thought I had screwed up and I was
a terrible director. So I sat down with my partner at the editing machine and we started putting the
pauses back in before people spoke. We took looks from different characters and cut them in
between other people’s dialogue where they spoke too quickly to expand the moment. I thought I
was doctoring the movie and salvaging it. I was stunned when, what I thought was a patch-job, won
14 awards. Director Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair, Moonstruck) saw it and said he
wanted to take me to Hollywood! I said, I had “imposter syndrome” I thought I’d failed. All the while, the film was being reviewed as the best ever shown on the CBC! What I now know is I have a natural instinct for drama. But it would have been useful to know it back then.
What you need in this business is allies in the creative field you have chosen, friends who share their knowledge. People who give you a moral boost because they too share your feelings about a unique and challenging business. In the script writing process I call them, ‘story midwives’. People who are helping you through the pain of giving birth to a story, but not demanding what sex the child is or how you’re going to raise it. They are just there to help you get to the goal that often isn’t quite clear yet. That’s why I get so protective of artistic people, as creativity in its birthing and evolution can seem so imprecise. Sometimes, more conservative and unimaginative people, will ask questions or make demands early that can be totally destructive without meaning to be. Just by saying “that doesn’t make any sense” can kill ideas early. You have to stay away from arrogant people, downers, selfish, and jealous people too. Just stay away. At some point they can see your project, it is a medium for audiences, but don’t let them in early. That’s why story midwives are so important. A midwife’s job is to be a good sounding board and encourage, but never to tell you what to do.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A CV/EMAIL FROM STUDENTS TRYING TO BREAK IN TO THE BUSINESS?
I have learned that people don’t buy from a stranger. Most job seekers never use the internet to try
and Google the people that they are trying to sell their services to. What I would suggest, is you
study the talent and executives at a company you would like to seek employment from. Write a
personal letter. If possible a letter that is either handwritten or typed that gets sent in the real mail.
So few people make that effort, and if you do it makes you exceptional. Emails are seen as
You have to personalize your approach. Talk about them first. Show that you value what they have achieved. For me maybe you say, “I’ve seen ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, your ‘Moll Flanders’ movie and I see you like making character studies with a historical bent . . . ”... Then make an
introduction about you, what you’ve done, and why it would be great to learn from our experience.
The difference is enormous! When you get rapport by saying you authentically value the person
you’re writing to and they have been an influence on you, then they are more likely to answer.
Another good point is to never look for a job, but to look for advice. If you ask to talk about what
they’ve accomplished and how you would like to learn from them, you’ll get in the room a lot of the
time. Another way to get to know a film-maker would be to write a legitimate article for a website or magazine and ask to interview the subject and send it to them afterwards. And keep in touch.
As a potential employer I’m interested in seeing if the person is a self-starter, ethical and capable of
seeing the world through the filters that I value. As opposed to a CV or resume which is just an
impersonal list. When I teach, I say you need to put the most important things that will appeal to
your buyer at the top of your CV. Tailor your CV to them. What I am buying is a personal
relationship, not a mechanical one. Having your Professor say in your resume that you are one of
the brightest students they’ve taught in the last few years, means I’m going to pay attention. That is
far more important to me rather than a long list of past schools, so endorsement is important.
WHAT IS YOUR ATTITUDE AND OUTLOOK ON THE CURRENT STATE OF THE INDUSTRY? ALSO, HOW HAVE THINGS CHANGED FROM WHEN YOU BEGAN AND HOW HAS THIS IMPACTED ON YOUR WORK?
I made a choice to not work within the studio system, unless it’s on my own terms. I found there is
an enormous time wasted and you have to listen to opinions of people who don’t have your skills.
You might spend two years on a project and then they’ll kill it as they’re used to having a servant
process with the artist. Creative people are there to fulfil the role of something as a commodity that
you flip through and decide if you want to use or not. I want to create something that I can control
and I’ve had enough experience of that to know that I can do that often enough on my own terms to
be worth the efforts.
When I created something new like ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ (1991), I had three studios that didn’t want it or had any idea of its marketing value. They said “No-one wants to see men in tights, audiences want to see guys with guns”. But I wrote the initial story with deep passion and my partner, John Watson, who collaborated on the screenplay and I were lucky to find a market for our finished script by describing it in terms the Studios valued. I had asked a studio friend why ‘Batman’ (1989) sold as well as it did and he said, “Because we wiped out everything audiences knew about the old TV show, when we called it dark”. So I sold ‘Robin Hood’ as dark and different, and told them they were making another ‘Batman’. Studios often don’t know how to invent the future, only reproduce the past, so when you’re selling you have to find ways of describing your projects to the buyer, so they see themselves succeeding. Using truthful analogies to other hits means you’ve defined what they’re buying within other successes. You create goal posts by using examples the buyer likes and then kick your project through them. After ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ became the highest grossing Warner Brothers movie, at that time, I contacted my old high school teacher in retirement and told him of its success and thanked him for his faith in me which had stayed in my heart all those years. It was a gratitude that I was delighted to share.
My overview of the current entertainment industry is that it is the most extraordinary time we’ve ever seen in the history of communications. It is like a technology gold rush. Nobody knows what is going to be selling in the future. We have multiple sources of entertainment and information, every website now uses video. Individuals can sell their movie on YouTube or other brand new markets. Phones are shooting at 4K resolution, and you can edit for free. When I started out and flipped on a camera and ran film through it, it was like a cash register running. Now anyone who has the dream I had can start to play with the medium for FREE. If you don’t use these tools to discover, you’re wasting opportunities. Young artists can now pioneer their own 4k movies and TV on their own terms and potentially learn to create and compete with the industry people who have been doing it for all of their lives.
ON SET/IN YOUR WORKING ENVIRONMENT:
CAN YOU OFFER ANY ON SET/PRACTICAL HINTS AND TIPS?
As a director my biggest issue is using the strongest relationship I can to get the best performance
from my actors and I also like to cast my crew well too. My attitude to making a movie is like
travelling on a sailing ship - you get across the ocean by tacking and turning and getting your crew
to pull together. I hire people who are kind, considerate and supportive, not people who are full of
self importance. My make-up and hair people are important to me as they are the first people to see
my actors in the morning and those people’s attitudes and feelings are useful to give the artist the
best possible way to start the day. I also want them to come and tell me if the actor is unhappy, so
then I can give the actors the support that they need. I don’t mean that the hair and make up people
are betraying confidences, but are supportive enough to know that they should let me solve problems for my actors that are coming up.
WHEN YOU ARE FIRST BROUGHT ON TO A PROJECT, WHAT ARE YOUR IMMEDIATE THOUGHTS AND PROCESSES?
As a director when I get sent a screenplay, 90% of them I don’t want to direct as they don’t
impassion me to take on the pain of making the movie. I don’t want to go through that exhausting
process unless the end result is something that I would absolutely treasure. I find it an organic
process, not an intellectual one.
I’ve written stuff that was against my nature, and it was horrible and exhausting. I’ve written scripts that I was writing just to make money and it was like pulling words from my flesh. But when you write from your soul, the material will often pour out of you. You have to get out of the way of it and let it tumble out like ethereal dictation.
When you initiate a script, just get the damn thing out of you. Don’t worry about what others think. Tell yourself you are just writing a piece of fun crap. You can’t create and analyse at the same
time. You have to get the ideas or script out of you first in a way that is non-critical, then you can
look back and see what you have accomplished. You then allow different parts of your brain to cut
in. You have the ability to review what you have accomplished and to make sure it makes sense to
the reader. You cut off the loose ends you didn’t need and put up sign posts so everyone knows
where you’re going. It has to be understandable. You have to tighten as much as possible - to take the free-way through the story, not the country route or you’ll bore the pants off us. We have a thing
called ‘asshole proofing’. Meaning the script only truly works when everyone who can buy it
clearly will understand what you were trying to achieve.
WHEN OR IF DID IT FEEL LIKE YOU’D MADE IT IN A WAY THAT FELT LASTING? WITH A BIG HIT LIKE “ROBIN HOOD”, DID YOU FEEL LIKE YOUR NEXT THING WAS A GIVEN OR DO THINGS ALWAYS RESET?
There’s no given. What people see from the outside is entirely different from how we perceive it.
‘Robin Hood’ gave us opportunities but we didn’t get them given to us, we still had to fight for
them. Even when we finished that movie, our company was close to broke. We wrote a number of
scripts that didn’t get made, which was very frustrating. I wrote a script on ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and
we had one on ‘Merlin’ from my partner John Watson and neither of them got made. You realise the
odds of getting a feature made are slim, (the TV world is far more fertile with thousands of hours to fill) as the number of distribution slots are very small. When I vote on the Oscars, we see a list of as few as 200 to 300 features that qualify. There were probably 10,000 viable films that could have gotten made. But like sperm, very few make it to the egg of financing.
So even when you’ve succeeded like we had, the odds are long so you keep fighting. I chose a very difficult life dream and no-one knows the future in our business. There are easier jobs with daily routines that last a lifetime. So one must enjoy the process and not the end result. Getting a movie made is almost a miracle some times — and believe me most of the other non-star film-makers have a similar struggle. Not getting made is not always an indication of a bad project. It can be just luck on top of staying with what you passionately believe in. We are tied to needing maybe millions or tens of millions of dollars of other people’s funds. (If you really want creative freedom maybe write books, as you don’t have to please so many people.) But I am optimistic that big changes are coming. And people are making more movies now for $300k or $500k that are critically successful. Many are not commercial enough yet for theatrical distribution. But it’s going to happen, someone will make a movie on an iPhone and shake it all up.
ADVICE AND MISTAKES:
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
The best advice I’ve ever been given, I’ve never been able to totally follow. That is just do what you
want to do artistically and not let people push you around. And even Steve Jobs said to some
students once, “Live like you’re going to die”. And that’s easy to say, mythically right and so hard to
do. We are constantly being influenced and have to keep adjusting to try and meet life’s winding
road. But, we can all do our best to follow our true instincts, no one is perfect. But when we do we
are building on layers of who we truly are and strengthening our individual magic as an artist.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU COULD GIVE?
To take your work to the imaginative extreme, as far as you can creatively go, be dangerous. If it
has enough of your voice and passion in it, others will see it as original and it will stand out and get
noticed. Don’t create bad copies of genres that you don’t value. If what you write is original then
you have no competition. All you have to figure out is how to sell the originality.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE BLUNDER?
Doubting myself everyday. That’s the thing we all struggle with. Not going forward. My errors of
omission have punished me far more than my errors of commission. I’m much more angry at myself
for not taking that risk and embarrassing myself going for my goal, than I am for the few times that
I’ve failed that have been slightly humbling. You need to be more assertive to give yourself more opportunities to succeed. I feel creativity is a state of being that is awesome and vulnerable. When you create something new, very few people know how to judge what it’s worth, so you can feel very alone. I write frequently about how being passionate and doing things that you have a giant desire to achieve, in a way immunizes some of the doubt. Your passion will carry you in to places, whereas writing something you don’t value that is just a commodity to you, or what you think people want, can cause you to give up. When you live a life of passion, you’re not actually working.