As a young writer, Stan Lee encouraged me with three words. Always. Number. Pages.
When I was a younger man (and I’m not that old!), I landed my first gig interning for Stan Lee at his POW! Entertainment office. As an intern I was given many office tasks, but my main project was writing log lines.
In the office there was a monolithic wall of filing cabinets filled with unproduced Stan Lee POW! stories – anything from one-page ideas to treatments to scripts. I was to sift through, read them all, and write log lines for each one so that they were easily identifiable in a digital catalogue.
In addition to this I also did script coverage. This entailed reading script samples from potential writers and evaluating their work. One day Stan called me into his office after I had written some coverage for a particular script. Without getting into specifics, it was about a cop… who could transform into a gorilla. It was a wild script, and I wrote some wild coverage for it.
Stan had never called me into his office before, and I was appropriately terrified. He and his business partner Gill had read my coverage and wanted to ask me more about the plausibility of a gorilla law man.
After our fascinating discussion, Stan told me that if I ever wanted to pick something from the filing cabinets and take a crack at writing a treatment, we could talk. I was ecstatic! I combed through the files searching for the perfect project. I picked a short one, so that I’d have more leeway to do my own thing with it.
I spent time working on it at home and in between writing log lines. Finally, the day came to hand my treatment in. Treatments usually run 3-10 pages, just long enough to briefly outline the basic story beats for a potential script.
I handed Stan 60 pages.
“What’s this?” he asked. “You’ve written a script without dialogue!”
I was mortified. Stan clearly saw that I didn’t know what to say. Swooping in for the save, he immediately launched into a story about the first time he had written a feature length screenplay.
Film scripts are normally 90 to 120 pages. Stan recounted to me how he had once submitted a 150-page opus, overflowing with dialogue. He was so accustomed to writing boundless banter in comic books, that it never occurred to him to limit the chatter when penning a movie script. The producer asked him to write another draft and cut down the length. Contrary to how Stan’s story turned out, he then told me that he would take my extremely long treatment home and read it over the weekend.
The next time I came into the office Stan slapped me on the back and said, “Always number pages!” I was shocked. Stan Lee had actually taken the time to read something that I wrote! I immediately wanted to write a thousand more pages so that Stan could read them all and yell at me about numbers.
As I dreamt of overwhelming Stan with mountains of disorganized words, he continued on, explaining to me that in order to give notes he needed page numbers to refer to. So, he took the time to number each sheet by hand.
Stan then went through the entire story with me page by page. He had thoroughly examined and written notes throughout the whole manuscript. Stan expressed to me what worked and what didn’t. He gave me pointers on how I could make it better. He threw out incredibly smart suggestions like it was second nature. It was as if he really cared about how this intern’s trial run was going to turn out. At the end of our meeting he signed and dated the treatment (filled with his handwritten notes) and gave it to me to keep. He told me to keep writing and he would keep reading.
You’d think that because I was working as an intern in his office, that Stan’s enthusiasm was a special case, but no. I witnessed Stan treat every young writer who asked for his guidance with the same attention and enthusiasm that he would have given to a seasoned professional. He never talked down to anyone. He spoke plainly and told you like it was. This is how Stan encouraged young writers, by treating them like equals.
Working with Stan over the years, I received endless encouragement and I learned a heck of a lot from him, like making sure every character has their own distinct voice! Knowing what your ending is going to be before you start! Constant alliteration is key! Don’t shy away from exclamation points!!! And of course…
Always number pages!
-Steve Voccola, POW! Head Writer