Q & A with Mitchell Levin

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Mitchell Levin was born in Detroit, Michigan. He received his BFA in Film from Columbia College, Chicago and his MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He began his career as a Story Analyst at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, and as a development executive there worked with Arthur Miller on his screen adaptation of THE CRUCIBLE, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis.

Mitchell has worked, at one time or another, for every major Hollywood studio and has taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension. He recently left Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks after 22 years as senior Story Analyst. There, he worked on films including GLADIATOR, ROAD TO PERDITION, THE RING, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE HELP, BRIDGE OF SPIES, and more. He is now working as a freelance script consultant for film and TV and can be reached via his webpage ScriptsRX25.com.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

It was a clip someone posted of a single scene from the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS, which I hadn’t watched but now will. So tense! Two male and one female gangster threatening a nun at an orphanage where a little girl had been abused. Masterfully written, performed and shot. Very still, but very edge of your seat, very heart in your mouth.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

While I was getting my MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU back in the ‘80’s I did an internship as a reader for a producer named Martin Bregman, who made SERPICO and SCARFACE, among others. They hired me after the internship was over.

You were a Story Analyst at several major studios. What did that job entail and what were your responsibilities?

I started at 20th Century Fox when I moved out here. Not everyone knows this but the major studios are all signatory to the Story Analyst’s Union, which pays quite well, as opposed to freelance reader jobs. The union was very difficult to get into, even back then, and is virtually impossible now. I was then promoted to development executive and set up THE CRUCIBLE. I actually gave notes to Arthur Miller (he implemented all but two!) I told him, in our first meeting with then-president Roger Birnbaum, that we decided to set THE CRUCIBLE in space. Cute, huh?

After three years I realized being a corporate executive was not for me. I worked as a story analyst for every major studio at one time or another, but spent the past 22 years at DreamWorks. My job was to cover submissions, but also to help develop projects by doing in-depth notes from the time we acquired scripts or books to the time they either went into production or into turnaround.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

Clear, coherent writing. Compelling premise and protagonist. Authentic sounding dialogue. Well-choreographed, not too-dense action if it’s an action piece. Clearly defined central conflict. An interesting world or a new spin on a familiar idea. And hopefully, a story behind the story, i.e., a bigger theme.

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

The only script I remember giving a Recommend to was called THE ASSUMPTION OF THE VIRGIN, back around 2002. It wasn’t a spec, it was written by Anthony Minghella, based on a book set in the Renaissance. Sydney Pollack and Benicio del Toro were attached.

Readers shy away from Recommend because it sets off too many alarms. A Double Consider (for script and writer) is sufficient to let the exec know you’re excited. A Recommend is really sticking your neck out, and if the exec doesn’t agree with you, you worry you’ll be in trouble even if you’re told you won’t be.

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

To some extent, of course. Then again, it’s also subjective. One person’s cup of tea may be another person’s cup of swill.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

First of all, a great premise, but they are hard to come by. Beyond that, a compelling protagonist (who doesn’t have to be likable if he/she is fascinating), dialogue that pops, a clearly defined conflict, and always, escalating stakes and hopefully a sense of surprise.

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

– Know your logline. Often I get the sense a writer couldn’t tell me their logline if asked; not concisely, anyway. A one or two sentence synopsis of the story that tells me the inciting incident, who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, what the central conflict is, what the stakes are, and gives me a sense of the possibilities within the story without giving away the ending.

– Leave plenty of white space on the page. Readers hate lots of dense black text. Don’t overwrite. That goes for dialogue and action.

– Don’t introduce too many characters at once that will be hard to keep track of.

– Don’t give character similar names (Jenny, Joanne, James)

– While the reader has to read and synopsize your entire script, the exec may not read past the logline on the coverage, or past the first 15 pages of your script. You have only that brief window to really engage him/her and let them know “what is” – who, what, where and why – and really grab them.

– Very important – Don’t be boring!!

Are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I hate clichés always, and a trope isn’t necessarily a cliché. If by trope you mean a metaphor or archetype, they can always be done well or poorly, whether it’s “cross-cultural romance” or “reluctant hero”. Certain clichés bug me more than others, because they come up so frequently, like: “EMILY, 25, beautiful but doesn’t know it” or when the villain says to the hero “We’re not so different, you and I”. Or villains named DEVLIN because it sounds like DEVIL. Or when a character says “I just threw up in my mouth a little,” which makes me throw up in my mouth a little. It was funny the first time I heard it in a ‘90’s sitcom, but hasn’t been since. Likewise, the word “amazeballs,” which comes up a lot in comedy scripts, but I doubt anyone has ever actually said it in real life.

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

Since leaving DreamWorks, I’ve been working as an independent script consultant. My webpage is ScriptsRX25.com. I work one-on-one, in-person, or via Skype or Zoom. I work conversationally, as opposed to using written notes. I find it’s far more productive for writers and far more stimulating for both them and me. I can help with screenplays or TV pilots.

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

When I was a kid I wasn’t fond of birthday cake and always asked my mom to make me a cherry pie. My tastes are more sophisticated now. Unfortunately, I’ve since been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. This surprised me, as I don’t have a weight problem. When I asked my mom about it, she said, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you.” It seems it runs through the whole family on her side, but it skipped her.

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So the only pie I tend to eat these days is humble pie, usually on those occasions, and there have been many, when I embarrass myself in front of famous people.

 

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