Screenwriter of Sweet Home Alabama, and author of multiple books
Who doesn’t like a good romantic comedy? Of course, they don’t exactly make them like they used to, do they? Whatever spark, whatever magic the rom-coms of our youth had, seems to have fizzled out. Sometimes, you’ll rewatch one of them and think, “This really stood the test of time,” while others have you thinking, “Why did I think this was funny?” Well, recently I had an itch to watch Sweet Home Alabama, for no reason other than I remember it being exceptionally good. It did NOT disappoint! I consider it one of the all-time best romantic comedies ever made!
After watching it, I reached out to my grown children—two millennials, a boy and a girl—and asked if they’d seen it lately. They both had! They each said the same thing: “Oh, Mom, it was still so funny and such a great movie! It really stood the test of time!” Well, now I had to look into who wrote the screenplay. I needed to know what kind of writer could create such a timeless, feel-good story. I found out it was Douglas Eboch.
I reached out to Doug, thinking I stood no chance of hearing back from him. To my delight, I did hear back. He agreed to an interview, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let me tell you a little about Doug.
First, he has written not only screenplays but also novels and how-to screenwriting manuals. He teaches college screenwriting, too. Aside from his prequels to Sweet Home Alabama, he has a newer book out that anyone interested in the 1980s will love (if you’re also into time travel, even better!).
I hope you’ll enjoy learning about Douglas Eboch as much as I have. I was particularly excited to share this interview with my readers because we normally only cover novel writing, but Doug touches heavily on screenwriting, too. Enjoy!
L.A. Can you introduce yourself to my readers?
D.E. I was born near Chicago, but I mostly grew up in Saudi Arabia and Alaska because my father was an oil economist. I saw Star Wars when I was a kid and was blown away. It felt like it supercharged my imagination. I read everything about it that I could find. In the process, I learned about this guy named George Lucas who made up the story and thought, “That sounds like a cool job. I’ll do that when I grow up.” That interest never faded, so I went to USC film school to study directing. Along the way, I shifted my focus more to cinematography. After graduating, I worked as a gaffer and camera assistant for about a year, but I felt like I wasn’t on the right path, so I went back to USC to study screenwriting. That’s when I wrote Sweet Home Alabama as my master’s thesis. After graduation, I went to work at Disney Feature Animation while I pursued screenwriting. It took a while, but I won a contest with one screenplay, got an agent with another, and eventually sold my “old” script, Sweet Home Alabama, to producers who were initially interested in a different script. Since then, I’ve been doing all kinds of writing – movies, plays, novels, short stories, even a video game. As far as interests outside of writing and movies, I like skiing, hiking, board games and music.
L.A. What initially made you think of yourself as a writer?
D.E. Since I was modeling my dreams on George Lucas and Star Wars, I saw myself as a writer from the beginning, but not primarily as a writer. I did write some short stories in high school and got through a couple chapters of a novel before losing steam. But it wasn’t until grad school that I really started focusing on screenwriting as my primary job. It turned out I was good at it and that people in the business were much more interested in my writing than in the other stuff I’d done.
L.A. What was your first big break in writing?
D.E. I think success is usually a series of little breaks, not one big break. Getting into USC’s film school was certainly a break. An intern at a production company read Sweet Home Alabama when I had just graduated and recommended it to her boss. I sent her my next script, and she helped me get my first agent, so that was an early break. But there were really a lot of things that added up to my first sale. It seems like luck sometimes, but you can only get lucky if you have the material and put it out there.
(On writing novels vs. screenplays) “…novels are easier if you want to go the independent route, because the costs of self-publishing are within most people’s means, but the cost of making even a “low budget” film is still daunting unless you’re very wealthy.”~Doug Eboch
L.A. You have written both screenplays and novels. Can you talk about some of the differences? (Which comes more naturally to you, which is harder to get in front of the right people, etc.)
D.E. Since I started in film, screenplays still come more naturally to me. The biggest difference is that a screenplay is really a guide to create a movie, while a novel is the final product. In a novel, you can’t rely on an actor’s performance, or the production designer, or the score. You have to bring everything to life with your words. That takes a different mindset. That doesn’t mean screenplays are easier. There are all kinds of production considerations that go into a screenplay that you don’t have to think about in a novel. And screenplays have to be incredibly tight –every word counts. In terms of what’s harder to get in front of people, they’re both hard. And I can’t be totally objective because when I started screenwriting I had no credits, but when I started writing novels, I had a reputation as a writer. I think perhaps there are more ways for screenwriters to get attention through contests, fellowships, etc. But novels are easier if you want to go the independent route, because the costs of self-publishing are within most people’s means, but the cost of making even a “low budget” film is still daunting unless you’re very wealthy.
L.A. Your website says you critique screenplays. Can you talk a little about that?
D.E. I get asked to give feedback on screenplays all the time. It takes a lot of time to give good critiques, so I can’t afford to do it for free unless it’s a good friend. Plus, I teach college screenwriting, and those students pay a lot for my guidance. I set up the critiquing service as a way for other people to hire me. I take on clients depending on how much time I have. I think I give good value for the fee, but I’m not pressuring anybody to hire me! It’s certainly not my main line of work.
L.A. Do you do any manuscript critiques?
D.E. I haven’t done any manuscript critiques, and frankly I’m a lot less confident in my prose skills, so I don’t intend to offer that service any time soon.
(On the inspiration behind his screenplay, Sweet Home Alabama) “My inspiration for the story was moving from Juneau, a town of about 28,000 people, to USC where the campus population is over 30,000.”~Doug Eboch
L.A. I’m excited to talk about your novels, as most of my readers are striving to see their books published. However, can you touch briefly on your experiences with Sweet Home Alabama? (Did you get to visit the set? How much creative control did you have? *Big question from me is what was your inspiration for the film’s plot?)
D.E. My inspiration for the story was moving from Juneau, a town of about 28,000 people, to USC where the campus population is over 30,000. Back then, pre- internet, Juneau was a couple years behind most of the country in terms of music, fashion, etc. while USC was a couple years ahead. As a result, I sometimes felt like a “hick” in college and would try to hide that. So Sweet Home Alabama grew out of that feeling of being a little embarrassed of where you came from but ultimately learning to embrace it. Especially for artists, that’s how you find your voice –embracing what’s unique about yourself, not trying to fit in. I sold the screenplay to the producers, who set it up at Disney. Another writer was hired to do a rewrite, but the producers kindly kept me in the loop throughout. Screenwriters don’t really have any creative control, but we can always advocate for our point of view. As long as you do that respectfully, I find it’s usually welcome. They hired you for a reason, after all. One of the interesting things about screenwriting is that you have the first opportunity to lay out a vision of the story, but then a bunch of other people come along and alter that vision. And that’s what’s supposed to happen. You have to make peace with being part of a collaborative process, and hopefully the other talented artists make something even better than you imagined.
L.A. Do you think you’ll ever write another screenplay?
D.E. I’m still writing screenplays. The hard part is getting the movies made! Even most screenplays that sell don’t end up getting made into movies. Film is a high-risk business, and a lot of pieces have to come together – casting, director, budget, etc. The screenplay is only the first step. For Sweet Home Alabama, more than half a dozen stars were attached to play Melanie or Jake at one time or another. It wasn’t until we got the combination of Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, and Patrick Dempsey, with Andy Tennant directing, and all their schedules lined up, that Disney finally gave it the green light.
L.A. Can you talk about your novel-writing journey as far as publishing is concerned?
D.E. I had connections, although I’ve often chosen self-publishing for various reasons. I have the novelization rights to Sweet Home Alabama, so I teamed up with my sister, who’s published a lot of novels, to write a series of prequel novels. On the advice of our agent, we’re publishing those ourselves because I only have the publishing rights, and most big publishers want the ability to sell movie and other rights. Self-publishing can be a more lucrative way to go if you’re willing to invest the time for marketing and the money for things like a good cover design. It’s definitely not as simple as uploading your manuscript to Amazon.
(On the inspiration behind Totally Rad Wormhole) “The original impetus was going to my high school reunion and wondering what my eighteen-year-old self would think of me today.”~Doug Eboch
L.A. Your latest book, Totally Rad Wormhole, seems like it was great fun to write. Can you talk about how long it took you to complete it and any details you’d like to share about its plotting and how the book has been received?
D.E. The original impetus was going to my high school reunion and wondering what my eighteen-year-old self would think of me today. And then realizing that many of the things I thought I wanted are not that important. So that inspired a story of two high school nerds from the eighties who time travel to today and meeting themselves. They’re horrified at what they’ve become, so they try to figure out how to change their fates. But their future selves also have an agenda. Originally, I wrote it as a screenplay. It was partially set up once, then funding fell apart. Then it was set up again, but the pandemic shut everything down. But the story was so personal, and I loved it so much I decided to adapt it as a novel to get it out into the world. People seem to be responding to it, which is gratifying.
L.A. You have also written nonfiction books on pitching to Hollywood and the stages of screenwriting. Why was it important for you to create these guides for up-and-coming writers? Also, do you think you’ll write any additional guidebooks?
D.E. Both grew out of classes I was teaching at ArtCenter College of Design. I teach a pitching class with a producer, Ken Aguado. There are only a few other books on pitching out there, and they’re all pretty dated, so we decided to write one for use in our class. Pitching is such a crucial part of what screenwriters do to get work, and it’s not discussed very much. The book has really taken off and has been embraced by the industry. That’s a double-edged sword, because now I’m known as the “pitching expert” which puts a lot of pressure on me when I’m doing my own pitches! On the other hand, there are a ton of screenwriting how-to books. None of them quite matched what I wanted to do in my class, though, so I decided to write my own. I’ve gotten a lot of praise particularly for the idea development section, so I guess I found some new things to talk about. It’s interesting that most screenwriting books are written by people who’ve never had a movie made. That doesn’t make the books bad, but you do learn things from the process. I tried to include many of those lessons in my book. In terms of writing more how-to books, I have no plans to, but I would if I had an idea for a topic in which I had some expertise if I thought there was a market for it.
L.A. Many of my readers are unpublished writers. I have just completed my first manuscript and will be searching for an agent soon. Can you share any tips, advice, warning, or relevant information to help us avoid common pitfalls?
D.E. The temptation is to jump at the first agent who offers to sign you, but it’s important that any agent connects with your work and sees the same career path that you do. First books don’t make much money, so it isn’t about one manuscript, it’s about building a career. I recommend having those conversations with the agent before signing. Also, there are some scammers out there, so always do your research.
L.A. What are you currently working on? What can we expect from you in the future?
D.E. I’m hoping to get the movie version of Totally Rad Wormhole going again, and I’m writing a new spec screenplay. The third Sweet Home Alabama prequel novel, Felony Melanie and the Great Prank War, will come out in a couple months as well, and I’ve just finished a new manuscript called Genome, so I’ll be looking for a home for that.
Douglas Eboch, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, and to share your professional insights on writing, screenwriting, publishing, and Hollywood. It has been a true pleasure!