Q & A with Peter Russell

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Peter Russell is a screenwriter who sold two television pilots in 2018 – a crime procedural and a biographical mini-series. He is also a long-time story doctor in Hollywood whose clients include Imagine, HBO, Participant, Viacom, CBS Television and many more. Peter is in demand for his legendary seminars and master classes on film and TV story. Peter’s charismatic speaking style won him UCLA Teacher of the Year in 2009.

Peter ghostwrites for both new and established film and television writers and producers. He has consulted on many TV shows, including GENIUS (National Geographic series 2017-present) MR. ROBOT (Emmy for Best New Television Drama 2015), Chronicles Of Narnia (Lion, Witch & Wardrobe), The Da Vinci Code (Imagine Films) and many others.

Peter privately collaborates with producers, writers, and actors on film and TV story from treatments to pilots and full story development. He teaches his own classes online at: http://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/, and live at major universities, including UCLA.

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

SNOWFALL. Fantastic writing. The way both the showrunner and the staff-written eps broke the beats in every ep was insanely good. They used every trick in the book to surprise you. The beat almost NEVER went where you thought it was gonna go. Surprises, reversals, ticking clocks, raising stakes – I admire the craftsmanship of that TV writing wonderfully. SNEAKY PETE – the storylines – my god, the storylines! Sometimes 12 in a single episode! And they were wonderful. THE DEUCE – again, with the beats and the storylines! Such amazing juggling. My hats off to them. My tv eps have five storylines max, and even then it’s hard to get those to mesh.

Also just saw McQueen’s WIDOWS. Mystery thrillers are so hard to do. He probably wanted to take a swing at a commercial story. He really hit a home run. It’s such a relief, in a way, to watch a movie these days when you work in TV. The form feels so much simpler. It’s not any easier, but it is simpler. I adore McQueen. If you want to see how I talk about to do what they do, go to my newest TV lecture on creating a great story beat: https://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/course/creating-the-great-tv-beats/

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Script reading. I read scripts for CBS and then for companies like Imagine. I learned so much from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. I read scripts for seven years – waaaay too long for anybody in their right mind – it’s suppose to be a year and then you become a supersuccessful industry DYNAMO! LOL. I loooved it, though – I learned so, so much about story, sooo much about every genre. Brian and Ron taught me that a zeal and excitement for the WORLD you wanted to write about was everything.

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

You can definitely learn how to recognize good writing for sure – just read tons and tons of great scripts. Watch any great story and read along with the script. You can learn it; it just takes a while. Learning how to write? That’s a LOT harder than learning how to recognize great story. It takes a shit-ton more time to do that. I only feel like I’ve done that in the last few years, since I started selling my own stuff. But it took for-fucking-ever! LOL. That’s what you gotta know. And I’m no smarter than anybody – here’s a tip – just watch the movie or tv show 50 times! I’m not kidding. Watch the same show fifty times! You’ll see EVERY device behind the curtain. Don’t take my class, don’t listen to me, never buy a thing from me – just WATCH ONE TV SHOW or one movie FIFTY TIMES.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Scripts are the most amazingly complex devices on the planet — far more so than an algorithm. It’s a bit like asking me to explain differential equations in a sentence. Okay, I’ll try. In a movie, a hero is a wounded person given a chance to heal (or bleed out.) In TV, it’s a wounded hero with a fascinating objective and fascinating obstacles in his way. You want more? Right here: peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Okay, I lied. I DO want you to look at my stuff.

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

Characters who don’t have great core wounds. A great core wound (whether in film or TV) is the basis for 90 percent of how good a story is, especially in the first act. Bleed him (or her, or it). BLEED THEM! Show their pain! Instantly!

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I can’t watch 90 percent of network television, simply because the grooves of most of the genres are worn out for me. I loathe seeing hero-worshipping stories about superhero cops and superhero lawyers and superhero doctors – all the old, straight from radio shows (Blue Bloods, CSI, stuff like that.)

None of those professions are worthy of such praise – in fact those professions contain a higher than average proportion of assholes – probably far higher than most professions, and it makes me gag to see the hagiography. But audiences looove to see the make-believe that these people are gods on earth. It depresses the hell out of me.

I realize network TV is a factory and I honor how hard these folks work and the high level of professional product they turn out on an incredibly tight schedule – but that doesn’t mean the product interests me at all. The TALENT involved – both in front of and behind the camera – is insanely great! The level of competence and extraordinary grace under pressure is heroic. Everybody who works in TV has to have extraordinary abilities, or they don’t get on staff. I mean that. The writers I know personally who work in TV – both in writer’s rooms and out – my god, they are sooo talented! It’s just that I find the product godawful. Dick Wolf is a genius, but his product makes me despair.

I do think dark heroes are popular because most people have realized the world is a lot more like a Russian novel than a comic book. Speaking of which, fantasy superheroes, played straight, especially in the DC story world (which suffers from execs who don’t know what they’re doing), are also monumentally boring to me now. Twist the genre – DEADPOOL is genius, THOR: RAGNAROK, too, and the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – they are FUNNY. My god, that’s the greatest thing on earth to be.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Know your craft.

-Know you’ll never really know your craft and that you’ll write a lot of crap. Write anyway.

-Know that you’ve picked a profession that requires either – a) genius-level talent, or b) an enormous work ethic and persistence far beyond what you’ve imagined and that will take you far longer than you believed possible.

-None of these rules apply to a true genius. They can do anything.

-If you have neither genius nor an enormous work ethic, you will absolutely fail. Writing in Hollywood is a job for people who are as smart, or smarter, than nuclear physicists or mathematicians. It’s far harder than, say, brain surgery. I’ve never met smarter, or more mercilessly competitive people, than people in Hollywood. By the way, most of them are also massively unhealthy. This isn’t a business for well-balanced people, in the main.

-The best way forward is to LEARN how to write.

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

In my entire scriptreading life, the number of scripts I have fully recommended is a grand total of two. That’s not unusual, by the way. 95 percent of scripts you read are not good (and this is from the very best screenwriters in the biz). But the big secret is – you don’t have to be very good. You just have to be better than most people.

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

If they motivate you to write, great. Most screenwriting contests are run by mercenary assholes who are making their money by taking your contest fees. There are a couple of big ‘screenwriting’ websites who do nothing but that – they’ve turned it into a marketing algorithm. That’s okay – if they honor their pact with you and legitimately judge your work and then publicize it if you win or place. Some do, some don’t. Most just want your money. Not saying that’s dishonorable. But it’s true and they’re very, very smart in how they market.

How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Just e-mail me at: russell310@mac.com, or go to peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Mention  this interview, and I’ll give you a ten percent discount.

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

There is nothing better than true key lime pie. Not the type that is mostly white froth. The kind with a dense, green, wonderful pie stuffing, and under that – a buttery, flaky, heart attack-inducing crust.

key lime pie

Q & A with Christopher Lockhart of WME

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Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”

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

Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.

How’d you get your start?

I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.

Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?

In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does.  I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.

Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?

A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company.  Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.

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

The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.

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

I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

I take a holistic approach to judging material.  I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves.  The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they  are not dramatized.

What are some very important rules every writer should know?

I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.

Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”

Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.

Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.

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

I’m not much of a pie eater.  I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.

apple pie

What you want VS what the story needs

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Sometimes it takes a little more evaluation

Over the course of several drafts, the core elements of my scripts remain more or less the same. There might be a few changes here and there, but to me, the end result is pretty darn close to what I originally intended.

As part of the development of those drafts, I get notes from trusted colleagues and professional analysts. Everybody has their opinions, of which there were many, and I can pick and choose which ones to use.

I was still presenting my stories the way I wanted to tell them, but is that the way they should be told? Was I falling into the trap of “I’m the writer, so what I say goes! End of discussion!”?

I recently got notes on one of my scripts that offered up some keen insight regarding the antagonist’s storyline. This included the reader’s frustration about what they perceived as a lack of knowing the character’s goal and the reasoning behind it.

At first, that was pretty surprising to hear. But as is usually the case, I took a step back and looked at the big picture, trying to be as objective as possible. Was it really not as apparent as I thought?

And as is also usually the case, their comments were spot-on. I had never made any big changes to how that storyline was written because I saw it as being “just fine the way it is”, which also happened to be the way I wanted it to be.

Which was counterproductive to how the story needed it to be. It wasn’t working within the context of the story itself.

Was it my writer’s ego that prevented me from seeing this through all the previous drafts? Maybe a little. I’ve seen this kind of thing before in other scripts, but just couldn’t see it within my own material.

I knew the script wasn’t perfect, but there’d always been this nagging thought in the back of my mind that it still needed work. Something had to be changed, but I couldn’t identify what. This could also explain why I always felt compelled to keep working on it.

But with those notes, I now had a much firmer grasp of what the reader was talking about, and could begin to rectify the situation.

It took a little time to work through it, including some significant edits and rewrites. It  also entailed cutting some scenes that absolutely broke my heart to see them go, but were totally necessary. All part of the process.

I know I’ve said all of this before, but looking through the latest draft, the script really does seem different now – in a better and much stronger sense. The characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, feel more developed. The story reads as more concrete. I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Once I was able to put what I wanted aside and focus on what was best for the story, it all came together a lot better than I expected. My hope is that this kind of self-analysis will be a bit easier for me to figure out for future drafts of other scripts.

Can’t wait to give it a try.

I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Marion Ravenwood
A handful of lines + a solid right hook = insight into 2 key characters

Of all the notes I’ve received about my western, the ones that really stood out the most were about developing the characters a little more – especially the titular protagonist.

I’ve also been spending some time reading, watching and analyzing the scripts and films that influenced it. Namely, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (along with its sequels) and a few others involving female leads who kick ass.

It’s a great opportunity to explore what makes a character tick. A lot’s been written about the “exposition without being blatantly expository” scene in RAIDERS with Indy and the government men, but I’ve been paying more attention to other scenes; the ones that offer up a bit more about what kind of person Dr Jones is as seen through his interactions with other characters.

-Indy discussing with Marcus the implications of finding the Ark.

-The reunion with Marion (see photo above)

-The encounter with Belloq in the cafe in Cairo.

All of these (and a few more) present an aspect of Indy’s character WHILE ALSO advancing the plot. It takes a lot of effort to do that and do it well.

I’ve also been working my way through the infamous story conference transcript, where Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan work out the story based on Lucas’ idea of a “swashbuckling archaeologist”. While you can easily find the memo itself, check out this phenomenal post that also analyzes some key points of what’s being discussed.

A lot of this is what I’ve been focusing on during this rewrite. More than a few of my notes highlight certain scenes and say something like “This would be a great place to show us more about her.” So that’s part of what I’ve been trying to do.

I originally thought it would be really tough to implement those kinds of changes, but using RAIDERS et al as guidelines and knowing my objectives for each scene, it actually hasn’t been as challenging. Sometimes all it requires is a few extra lines of dialogue or a modified action line. It’s not always easy, but it definitely feels a little less daunting. Also helping – working on one scene at a time.

In the meantime, progress on the rewrite/polish continues at a healthy pace and I really like how this new draft is shaping up. I suspect the end result will be a little more than just slightly different from previous ones, and hopefully the changes will really take the script to the next level.

A change for the better

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A struggle now, but worth it in the end

Ah, the sensation of liberation that comes from not holding back AT ALL when you really throw yourself into a rewrite.

That’s kind of how it’s been working out for the latest draft of my western.

What was originally anticipated as a nerve-wracking ordeal involving constantly second-guessing my choices has actually become quite a fun, thrilling, and surprisingly eduational experience.

Part of the initial objective was to flesh out the characters some more while keeping the story intact. The former seemed to pose the biggest challenge. Tough, but not impossible.

I figured the best approach was to take it scene by scene, starting with page one and the mindset of “what can change about these characters?”

I couldn’t say if it was having not looked at the script for several months, or just going into this with a “just have at it” attitude, but there was definitely something different about this time. Both for me and the story.

The words came, and I really like how it’s coming along so far. There are the expected slight modifications to the story, but nothing too drastic, and overall it feels a little more developed.

In the meantime, the “one scene at a time” approach seems to be working out just fine. I thought the script was pretty decent before, but now think there might actually be a chance the end result could be even better.