Q & A with Jon Kohan

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Jon Kohan is a script consultant and award-winning screenwriter from Johnstown, PA, who’s worked in both film and television. His recent horror/comedy short Family Game Night earned him a Best Screenwriter nomination from the Shock Stock film festival (along with winning for Best Actor), and his holiday comedy Deer Grandma recently won Best Comedy at the Show Low Film Festival.

His comedy/crime short Spilled Paint is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, picking up several Best Short and Best Cast awards.

His first feature/backdoor pilot Ernie and Cerbie is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

What’s the last thing you read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-
written?

Mindhunter, season two, on Netflix. The first season was great, and the second was just as good. I love the show for all the tension-filled scenes that can last ten-plus minutes, and usually just between two or three characters. The writers of that show are super-talented, and I look forward to being able to read and study the scripts to see how to improve my own writing.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

The lead-up is a pretty long story- working different writing jobs as I gained more experience and building a resume of work – but I’ll talk about how I landed my first real gig.

I was doing freelance writing work on a site called Fiverr.com. I still use the site from time-to-time. On my page, at the time, I offered joke writing and screenwriting, but only for shorts.

I had a customer hire me for a short story idea they had. I work on it for about a week and sent it back to them. A couple weeks go by and that customer comes back and says they have an idea for a family film that could even be a television show but needs someone they feel has the talent and skill to write a pilot; maybe even possibly a whole first season.

I jumped at the chance to work on that script, and in fact did write the pilot and the entire first season (10 episodes). About a year after I wrote the pilot, the customer reached out to me again to let me know that the project was going into production. That customer’s name was Alvin Williams. Since working on that pilot, titled Ernie and Cerbie (currently streaming on Amazon Prime), we’ve teamed up on multiple projects and he’s become one of my main collaborators in the industry.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Anyone can probably be taught or learn how to recognize good writing, but something you can’t teach is how to tell a good story. Not everyone can do that. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story in the film or television format.

The rules/guidelines of writing a script is what I think makes screenwriting harder
than with other forms of writing. And not everyone can tell an entertaining story. Knowing and understanding what good writing is and looks like makes the viewer smarter, which allows for smarter movies. With a smarter audience, there’ll be a need for more originality – fresh perspectives, which will hopefully open the door to a more diverse and new pool of writers.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

This could be a very long list, but it all trickles down to one major core component: characters.

Not enough big Hollywood movies take the time to craft a film around strong characters, and instead try to build a film around a plot, or worse, action sequences, tone, look, etc.

What do The Dark Knight and Joker have in common other than the obvious that both are Batman films? They’re two of DC’s best films, and both focus more on character than all the craziness around them.

If you have characters we care about, can relate to, or at least understand where they’re coming from, and put them into conflicts that help our characters grow and become something more, you have a winner on your hands.

Even if your film is more about the concept (Independence Day, Godzilla), if you take the time to do the proper character work, you can throw a great one-two punch, something most Hollywood films seem to be lacking nowadays.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Formatting issues. No question. Not everyone uses screenwriting software, which is weird to me. If you’re not just writing a script as a hobby, you should invest in the proper industry tools.

I see formatting issues all the time, and those can easily be fixed, and quickly learned.

One of the most common things to see is a script not written like one. So many writers write action lines like they’re writing a novel. Telling us what the character is thinking, why they’re doing something a certain way, what’s going to happen later without us ever seeing it later.

I urge to my clients how “Show, Don’t Tell” is a huge rule they should always be repeating to themselves. How do you present information in a film or TV show? Either through images or dialogue. If we don’t see it or hear it, we don’t know it. When I have a writer I’m working with go back and look at their script again – with that guideline in mind – they’ll see just how much information is in their script that they are telling the reader, but not showing them.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I don’t know which I hate more:  “You lied to me?” or “There is a prophecy….”

The first is something you hear more in comedies. The second you always hear in
fantasy, adventure, action, etc. If I’m watching a romcom, I KNOW the end of the second act will have “You lied to me?” as dialogue – usually from the female lead.

For most summer blockbusters, fantasy films, the trailer is probably going to have some version of the “There is a prophecy…” line, and the entire setup will be this typical paint-by-numbers hero’s journey story.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know? 

Show, Don’t Tell. (see my response a few questions back)

Formatting – I know just looking at the first page if the read is going to be enjoyable or if it’s going to feel like I’m doing homework. That all stems from the format of the script. If I can glance and see issues, then I know there’s going to be issues with the characters, story, arcs, and so on. Even if you can can’t tell a story, or write good characters, and have something actually happen in your script, at least make the script look like a script. This sets the tone for your reader and lets them know you know what you’re doing.

As a writer, your goal is to get someone to read your script. A horribly-formatted script is an easy excuse for someone not to take the time to read your script. Don’t give them that choice.

DON’T WRITE CAMERA DIRECTIONS! – This is something a lot of first-time writers do in their scripts. I was no different. Learning how to write your action lines properly and how to influence the director in shooting a scene a certain way by the way it’s written not only makes your script stand out amongst the others but it’ll make you a better writer as a whole. I know it has for me, or at least think it has.

Have you ever read a spec script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt
“recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I’ve read scripts from screenwriting friends of mine that have really impressed me. Some of them are super talented, award-winning writers who are going to be names we recognize one day.

As far as reading a spec script that was sent to me to review and give detailed notes on, I haven’t read a script yet I’d stamp “recommend”. Some have come close, but unless you’re lucky and extremely talented, it’s not going to be your first script that you do something with.

The more scripts you write, the better you’ll be. My first script is god-awful compared to my tenth script, and my tenth script is amateurish compared to the latest draft of a script I recently finished.

What would a script need to get a “recommend” from me? As I keep saying, strong characters. Throw in a joke once in a while. Make me want to keep turning the pages. One of the worst things to see is a massive block of action or dialogue, and know the whole script is going to be that way. The more white on the page, the better.

A script could be for the greatest movie ever made, but if’s it’s a difficult chore to read and takes hours – or even days – to complete, I probably won’t see it as a recommended script.

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Worth it – for sure. Screenwriting contests are great to try and win some awards, network with other screenwriters and filmmakers, and get yourself exposure.

With all that being said, if you place in or even win one of the top contests, that’s going to open a lot more doors for you than winning a much smaller contest.

I don’t agree that you must enter contests to be able to get a film produced. I’ve only recently started entering contests and already have several produced projects under my belt, with and more in development.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

The two best to get all the information you need and links to other sites are my Patreon page and my personal website.

On my Patreon, I offer screenwriting and script feedback services through two different subscription tiers. I’ve already had two filmmakers subscribe to have me write their feature films, so that’s been really exciting.

My IMDB page lists the projects I’ve worked on. There’s also a ton of stuff I’ve already done, but hasn’t been officially announced yet.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I bet you haven’t heard this one before – Oreo*. Store bought or homemade. Either works for me. I have a huge sweet tooth. This may sound like a little kid answer, but it’s the truth.

*editor’s note – there is no official site for Oreo pie, along with a ton of other blogs with recipes, so you’ll have to find one that works best for you.

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Assorted ends & odds

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Nothing like a little variety – and at such reasonable prices

A lot of developments on several fronts around Maximum Z HQ this week. Don’t want to go into much detail, but among the highlights:

-outlined a horror-comedy short, and have now moved on to writing it. Seriously considering making it, so watch this space for further developments.

-working on the short, plus some inspiring and motivating comments from a few colleagues, makes me weigh the option of revising the horror-comedy spec I wrote last year. This would be done with the intent to lower the potential budget – smaller number of characters and locations. Defnitely doable.

-I’ve always been a fan of the The Flash TV show, and came up with a story idea I think would be fun to see. So, I’ve decided to attempt to write a spec episode about it. Since I’ve never written for TV before, this will be quite the learning experience.

-forgive the self-promotion, but my western took the top spot in its category for Creative Screenwriting’s Unique Voices contest. I’m quite thrilled, and even if it doesn’t take the grand prize, it’s still something I’m very proud of having accomplished.

-Here a few external items of note:

-There are lots of screenwriting retreats, but how about one at a 5-star game lodge in South Africa? Networking. Mentoring from industry professionals. A safari. All the details at scriptoafrica.com.

-Chris Gore of Film Threat has launched a crowdfunding campaign for his documentary project ATTACK OF THE DOC. If you were a fan of G4TV and/or Attack of the Show, this sounds right up your alley. Donate if you can!

-last, but not least. Yours truly is one-third of a trio of hosts of the new Creative Writing Life podcast, which offers up our thoughts on all sorts of writing and writing-related topics. Co-hosts include author/friend-of-the-blog Justin Sloan and author P.T. Hylton. As of this writing, it’s on Spotify, and we’re working on getting it onto iTunes. No matter what platform you use, feel free to give it a listen!

Hope you have a great weekend. Go write something.

A little praise goes a long way

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Special delivery! Just for you.

While a majority of my focus these days is on figuring things out for the sci-fi adventure revision/overhaul, I’ve also been taking time to read the scripts for films that have had some kind of influence on both my writing and my material.

The ones I’ve devoured so far are THE INCREDIBLES and SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. I have scripts for non-animated films as well, but these were the two I started with.

Both were great reads, and also served as fantastic samples of effective writing. I was impressed to the point of wanting to say so on social media, so I tweeted short statements of praise to the writers. Levels of fanboy gushing were kept to a minimum.

Phil Lord, one of the Spider-Man writers, liked it, which was quite nice to see. No word from Brad Bird or Rodney Rothman, nor was I expecting any. That’s not why I did it.

Although they might not always admit it, every writer wants to know somebody liked their work. It’s great when it’s one of your peers, but there’s a special something to when a total stranger tells you “Hey, I liked this.”

Since you’re reading this, I’m going with the theory that you’re on at least one or two social media platforms, and there’s a pretty good chance that a writer or filmmaker whose work you enjoy is as well.

And they don’t even have to be famous. I’ve seen plenty of shout-outs and “This is a MUST-READ/MUST-SEE!” comments for material from other writers and creatives also trying to break into the industry.

No matter who they are, why not send them a quick note expressing your enjoyment? It’ll take you all of ten to fifteen seconds to write, and that’s all you need. Just some nice words. And don’t ask for anything in return!

You might get some kind of response, and you might not. Both are okay. For all you know, despite their lack of response, your comment may have brightened their otherwise gloomy day.

The important thing is you let a fellow writer/creative know that their work had a positive impact on you.

And who doesn’t like to hear that?

Footing finally found

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Well, that was fun.

After what seemed like endless attempts, I finally came up with what is hopefully a solid beginning for the sci-fi adventure spec. Or at least the first ten to twelve pages or so. If I haven’t grasped you in my yarn-spinning clutches by then and have you begging to turn the page, I’m in trouble.

But with all those previous drafts at hand, along with heeding the guideline that the events of the story need to KEEP PUSHING FORWARD, it all (slowly) came together.

And to make sure I wasn’t deceiving myself, or working with a “Eh. Good enough” mindset, I took a short break (to work on another script, of course). A quick perusal upon my return showed that, yep, it still works.

Finding the right beginning was truly the biggest obstacle. I wanted to really put this world on display, along with better establishing the main characters – primarily the hero and the villain, along with the supporting characters. Numerous options were explored, but none seemed to fully fulfill my requirements. The journey to find that solution was a long and frustrating one, and it was tough to not get annoyed.

But I held on and kept trying, over and over, finally hitting on a solution. Even though the rest of the story looms, I couldn’t have moved forward without reaching this point. Fortunately, most of it is pretty set in place, so hopefully it won’t take too long to work through it.

Quick addendum – during one of my moments of downtime working on this script, I saw several “scripts wanted” listings that were asking for low-budget horror. Last year I cranked out a first draft of a horror-comedy that wouldn’t be too tough to trim down the number of locations and characters so as to make it cheaper to produce. Figure it’s worth a try.

-Writer/filmmaker/friend-of-the-blog Venita Ozols-Graham has put together a crowdfunding campaign to produce a filme version of her award-winning psychological thriller short script WHO WANTS DESSERT? Donate if you can!

Dismantle, reassemble

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Sometimes when you’re working on a story, you just have this feeling that the way it’s being told is the way it should be told. It just feels right.

Even though I’d made some good progress with the ongoing revision of the sci-fi adventure outline, something still seemed…off. What I had was good, including several scenes that now felt necessary, but as a whole, not quite there yet.

As I’ve mentioned before, I keep all the previous drafts of the outline and script on file –  you never know when some of that text will come in handy. The recent work on the current revision was accompanied by another tab on the screen containing the previous draft, serving primarily as a sort of roadmap to help guide me through this latest effort.

Despite telling myself that this new draft was supposed to be different from its predecessor, its siren call was a bit stronger than expected. There was just something about it that couldn’t be denied. Not to say that the newer version was no slouch either.

Parts of this one work, and parts of that one work. Why not combine the two?

Sure, this even-newer draft might occasionally take a somewhat unorthdox approach in how the story’s presented, but by gosh, I still like it. “Rules of screenwriting” be damned.

There’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking parts of the new draft and incorporating them into the previous one where applicable. Of course, it would have been nice to have come to this conclustion a few weeks ago, but sometimes that’s just how it works.

What’s really nice is that for the most part, save for a few problem spots, the previous draft is still pretty solid on its own. Nothing serious, and some of these new elements look like they’ll really rectify that.

Based on some extremely helpful notes, another factor that’ll help this time around is putting more of a spotlight on the characters’ emotions. Even in this kind of story, with all of its fantastical and extraordinary elements, it’s important to show how the characters are still people.

Lastly, all the time I’ve been working on this story, I’d forgotten how the initial concept and earliest versions were all written with a certain kind of tone in mind; something to really convey the vibe of what story of story this was supposed to be and how I wanted it to read. Somehow that aspect’s diminished over time, and I plan on re-introducing it for the next draft.

This is gonna be fun.