Screenwriting

Writing Advice from ‘Tarzan’ Screenwriter Bob Tzudiker

By January 4, 2021January 6th, 2021No Comments

Bob Tzudiker is an actor and writer perhaps best known for his work on Disney classics like TARZAN, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and THE LION KING. His road to success was somewhat unusual; he didn’t go to school for writing, the 1988 writers strike cancelled what would have been his entrance into television, and his breakout film, NEWSIES, was meant to be a non-musical drama.

Still gainfully employed by Disney, Tzudiker also teaches screenwriting at the University of Southern California. He knows the ins and outs of a successful writing career — and he’s got some great advice for WeScreenplay writers. 

Plus, he’s genuinely a great and kind person to talk to (as is his wife, Noni White, who has been Tzudiker’s writing partner since NEWSIES).

Here are the biggest takeaways from our conversation:

Join a writers group

When Tzudiker first started writing, he joined a writers group run by another then-emerging writer, Jane Anderson (OLIVE KITTERIDGE, THE WIFE). It was a group of friends who paid $1-2 per week “to cover the snacks” and encourage some investment.

“You’d read it aloud, hash it out, and have a discussion about it,” he said. It helped that many of the writers were also actors. “Hear your script out loud and get a response,” he tells writers.

It’s critical for writers to get the words off the page to hear what works and what doesn’t. 

Set a deadline by any means necessary

Tzudiker calls himself “completion challenged,” a condition many writers can relate to. You have to actually complete your screenplay in order to get it read/sold/produced. You have to revise it. You have to revise again. You have to submit it places. All of these steps are daunting.

And many emerging writers don’t have a hard and fast deadline so it’s very easy to put off those pages until tomorrow.

“In my writers group, I would schedule myself to be read before I had written anything. By setting a deadline and having accountability with my group, I would get to work,” he confessed. 

Whether you sign up for a table read, commit to entering a contest, or have a buyer waiting for your pages, give yourself a deadline to meet.

WeScreenplay’s Feature Screenplay Competition deadline is approaching.

Read screenplays

Tzudiker didn’t get an MFA — instead, he read. A lot. He worked on sets and absorbed the rhythms of dialogue. And he got to work writing. 

“The main qualification for writing is curiosity,” he shared with me. “If you’re not curious, I don’t know how you would write.” 

There are free screenplays online that any writer can — and should — study. You can also purchase your favorites as bound books, which affords you the opportunity to write in them, study them, break them down by scene and page, and just enjoy them. At USC, Bob even developed a script feedback platform: Zoodiker

Understand the business

Before signing any contract, Tzudiker encourages writers to understand the legalities of it. When selling your work, get a solid understanding of who will own the copyright (it’s often not the screenwriter), what the Writers Guild minimums are, and what contract you’re agreeing to. 

“It’s very important to understand the business,” he affirmed.

Just finish!

“It’s best to finish things, even if they’re bad,” he told me. There are many forms of this philosophy: done is better than perfect or launch at 85%. The point is that every step along the way is a step closer to the final product that will appear on screen.

Write your first draft. Then edit it. Then edit it again. Then keep editing until you’re done editing. Then get feedback from someone else. “Find a reader who can help you make your script,” suggested Tzudiker. Then edit with their notes in mind. Don’t worry about the final product, just take the next step. 

Final thoughts from Bob Tzudiker

Taking it back to NEWSIES, Tzudiker and White couldn’t have predicted what would happen when they pitched their idea to Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg. “As wonderful as NEWSIES has been for us, we’ve never seen the movie that’s in our head. In a way, it was heartbreaking,” Tzudiker shared. 

Based on the real-life Newsboys strike of 1899, NEWSIES has gone on to reach cult status. It was adapted for Broadway, where it grossed over $100 million and garnered eight Tony Award Nominations, winning two.

The takeaway is that writing evolves. So write the best script you can and then expose it to other people. Guide it toward the project it is meant to become. Approach with curiosity and just create.

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Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL TEAM and THE ROOKIE. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!