Mark Valenti is an American writer best known for family-oriented films, series, and novels.
Valenti began his entertainment career as an actor with the St. Louis, The City Players. Moving to Los Angeles, he studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute with Sally Kirkland and Marc Marno. During this period, Valenti appeared in several Los Angeles stage productions and took on roles in sitcoms and soap operas, including NBC’s The Facts of Life.
Moving from acting to producing, Valenti became a production assistant for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Spielberg had started a program whereby assistants would be given the opportunity to learn as much as possible in two years, identify a career path, and then move into their chosen field. Valenti took the role of vice president of development for John Hughes. During his three-year tenure, Hughes produced ten films, including Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Uncle Buck.
Having been intimately involved in Hughes’ screenwriting process, Valenti left the executive ranks and began writing film scripts. His first produced film, Menno’s Mind,  starring Billy Campbell and Robert Vaughn, was filmed in 1998 and was seen on Showtime. The screenplay was based on a short story he had written as a senior in high school. This was followed by a flurry of script spec sales for DreamWorks (Planet Fred), Nickelodeon Movies (Bob the House), ABC Family (Like Santa Claus), Hallmark (The Christmas Pageant) and many more.
Valenti was a creative manager for a team tasked with reimagining Disney’s California Adventures theme park in Anaheim. He also served as a creative manager for Disney Interactive.
In 2003, he was back in the writing role, becoming head writer for the Nickelodeon TV show LazyTown. Filmed in Iceland on a sound stage in the middle of a lava field, LazyTown debuted as Nickelodeon’s #1 show and has produced over 75 episodes, viewed worldwide. Valenti has also written and co-written lyrics for many of LazyTown’s popular songs. Since then, Valenti has continued to write extensively for outlets including Hallmark, Lifetime, PBS Kids, Netflix, NBC, CBS, Disney and CBeebies. In his role as a Creative Consultant for the international children’s television market, he advises companies from China to Colombia, with a focus on translating and enhancing properties for the North American market.
You started out as an actor, but during a break, you ended up moving into production, working on amazing projects and eventually moving into screenwriting. Was this desire to work on film and series production and scripts already something you had in mind or did you end up seizing the opportunity and identifying with it over time?
I wrote short stories when I was in primary school, often completely alone at home, not doing part of the class assignments. I was an avid reader, spent a lot of time in libraries, and it was natural for me to want to write my own stories.
I was also a huge fan of movies and television, and the two connected in my mind, movies and writing. I never thought of my writing as anything special because it came easy to me and it was fun. I didn’t think something fun could also be the basis for a career. I took a detour into acting in high school, and for a while my love of film and television led me to consider a career in acting. But after trying New York as a teenager, and then moving to Los Angeles and getting roles on sitcoms and soap operas, it was obvious that acting wasn’t for me.
Before the internet and social media, actors had very little control over their own lives and careers. Living with that kind of uncertainty didn’t appeal to me, so I looked for a job in the entertainment industry, but not as an actor.
Your first screenplay was based on a short story you wrote in high school. Did you have any difficulties bringing your past tale into a more elaborate script? What was it like having Billy Campbell and Robert Vaughn star in your first movie?
It was an easy transition from my school short story to writing a screenplay based on it because I could “see” the entire movie in my mind. I was already prepared to be a screenwriter after having written so many stories and immersed myself in filmed content since early childhood.
I had grasped the structure of the narrative and begun to understand the nuances and subtleties of creating interesting characters and plots that held the audience’s interest. Being around “movie stars” for the first time is always fun, but when you’re making a movie or TV show, the hours are really long and the work is hard.
So, there wasn’t much time for the fanboy to see them in person. I thought it was cool to work with Robert Vaughn. He was a personal hero to me when he played Napoleon Solo on a TV show I loved as a kid called “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Meeting him was a lot of fun.
Analyzing your entire resume up to the present day, how do you define your career? Is there anything you regret doing or not doing during that time?
I am delighted to be able to continue working as a writer for over 35 years. It’s hard enough selling a script, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a dozen movies made. Of course, there were ups and downs, but I managed to live and work in the world of ideas and carry them out.
I have written over sixty feature film scripts; I’ve written and edited over 200 hours of television. I’ve contributed to an industry I’ve loved my whole life. There’s satisfaction in that, and I continue to write for a range of projects, from movies to books to TV shows.
As for regrets, I really don’t have any. As a working writer, I would like all my scripts to be filmed, but that’s not realistic. Nobody in showbiz has a perfect batting average.
For most of his career as a screenwriter, his series have always been aimed at a family audience. Since today, entertainment has been more and more controlled in terms of age-appropriate content, how careful are you when thinking about scripts for programs?
Writing for children can be a challenge because, as you point out, we are in a global environment where many different cultures and customs are experienced by our viewers.
It is important to be careful not to marginalize or create humor at the expense of someone’s personal beliefs or behavior. But the other point is that children are pretty much the same all over the world. They laugh at silly things; they like action and drama.
In a way, children’s entertainment is a way for children to recognize our similarities, especially in a world where we see adults focusing so often on our differences.
Early in your career, you were an actor in the St. Louis, The City Player, not to mention productions like NBC’s The Facts of Life. How was your transition from in front of the camera to scripts, and what was the first production you wrote like?
I wrote ten scripts before I sold one. But in that time period, my scripts gave me access to studio and network executives and agents. I had dozens of meetings to pitch ideas, listen to criticism of my work, etc.
There will always be writers who sell their first script for a million dollars, but I think there’s real value in earning your first sale through hard work. When you first go into production, you will more fully understand the needs of the entire team.
You learn that a script doesn’t just tell a story. It is also a technical job. It powers many different departments in a production. Casting, props, special effects, music. A script is a project, it is a living and functional document that allows dozens of people to do their jobs.
For a while, you worked on the Amblin Entertainment production of renowned director Steven Spielberg, responsible for directing films such as “E.T – The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Jaws”. How was your experience during this period?
Steven Spielberg created a program for young people to work as Production Assistants for a few years, gain as much knowledge and experience as possible, and identify areas of the business they want to break into.
Editing, directing, set design, production – all were disciplines that were on full display at Amblin. And because Steven was such an important force in the industry, people came to him with their best projects.
He was like the leader of a small country, being courted by the biggest names in showbiz and outside the industry. And he was personally kind and encouraging.
During a two-year period at John Hughes, we cannot forget that you were involved in the production of films that established themselves in the world cinema market, such as Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Uncle Buck. After so long, how do you see the continued success of these works that have become cult classics?
Some of the films we worked on with John Hughes went on to have a long shelf life, particularly ones that feature holiday themes. But it’s impossible to predict which movies will have that kind of enduring following.
At the time they were made, they were simply our last project. And it’s important to note that while many of John’s films have become classics, some of them have long since been forgotten.
Nobody talks about Career Opportunities or Dutch, even if they were fun. I learned a lot from John about creativity, persistence, and the relationship between starting an idea and following that path to opening night at a movie theater.
In addition to film and television, you also left your mark on the Walt Disney Company, being responsible for the reimagining of Disney’s California Adventures in Anaheim, as well as creative manager for Disney Interactive. How was the responsibility of working with such a large project and which already has such a strong vision among the public?
When you work for Disney, everything you create belongs to them. Projects must go through the Disney pipeline, which means that if you create a character for Disney Interactive, then the Imagineers, the theme park staff, the artists, the TV channel staff – they all get brought into the project. Because two or three years from now, if the character is successful, he potentially becomes part of theme parks and other Disney-owned locations.
It’s an interesting challenge to write for characters like Buzz Lightyear because they have such a strong, long-term fan base. You want to bring something new without detracting from what the fans already appreciate.
Another highlight he had on television, among many others, was at Nicklodeon Studios, where he was part of the script team for the series Rugrats, Hey Arnold!, CatDog, Angry Beavers and Rocket Power. What are the main differences felt between working with cinema and television and which demands more from the screenwriter?
There are differences between writing for film and writing for TV, especially if the TV show is animated. Most of the movement that appears on screen has to be written into the script so artists know what to draw.
This includes detailed stage directions describing action, props, a character’s movement, facial mannerisms, etc. Often these stage directions are describing comedy, setting up a situation, or paying one off.
It’s not good practice to have animated characters just talk for long periods of time. They have to move, they have to do things to move the plot forward. I prefer to write film scripts because I specialize in dialogue and there’s more room for clever back and forth in a feature film script.
Still on television, the series LazyTown, filmed in Iceland, brought you the job of working on the composition of some songs for the soundtrack of the series. How is your relationship with music production?
LazyTown has given me the opportunity to write lyrics, which I enjoy. And working with the show’s composer, Mani Svavarsson, has always been fun and satisfying.
Mani is a genius, he can create any kind of music you can imagine. His willingness to collaborate, his never-ending stream of musical ideas and the peace and quiet of his recording studio made working with him a pleasure.
He’s become one of my best friends, and whenever I hear a LazyTown song or see a LazyTown meme online, I’m reminded of the fun we had writing songs together. Maybe we’ll have another chance to work together someday. Hope so.