My two cents on giving my two cents

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Plus an extra cent to cover expenses

After a brief hiatus, I’ve started giving notes again. It’s always helpful to step away from your own material and dive into somebody else’s. More often than not, it’s a win-win situation.

Sometimes there are exceptions to that rule, but more on that in a minute.

The quality of the writing has ranged from just-starting-out to seasoned professional, so my notes and comments are provided with the level of feedback most suitable to the writer’s level of expertise. One writer might still be learning about proper formatting, while another might want to consider strengthening up that second subplot.

One of my cardinal rules of giving notes is to not be mean about it. I never talk down to the writer, because I’ve been in their shoes. I do what I can to be supportive and offer some possible solutions, or at least hopefully guide them towards coming up with a new approach to what they’ve already got.

One writer responded by saying they were really upset about what I’d said, but then they went and re-read my notes, and couldn’t argue or disagree with any of them.

I’ve always been fascinated by the expression “This is a reflection on the script, not you (the writer).” In some ways, the script IS a reflection of the writer; it’s their skill, their storytelling, their grasp of what should and shouldn’t be on the page, that are all being analyzed. After spending so much time and effort on a script, of course a writer wants to hear “it’s great!”, but as we all know, that doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes I worry my comments are too harsh, but just about every writer has responded with “These are SO helpful!”

About a year ago, a writer I was connected to via social media asked to do a script swap. Some quick research showed they seemed to be experienced with writing and filmmaking, so it seemed like a good idea.

I read their script, and didn’t like it. I said so in my notes, and offered up what I considered valid reasons why, along with questions raised over the course of the story, along with some suggestions for potential fixes.

What I was most surprised about was that this person presented themselves as a professional, and maybe I was naive in taking all of that at face value and believing the quality of their writing would reflect that and meet my expectations.

It didn’t.

It also didn’t help that they opted to not give me any notes on my script. At all. Just some snarky retorts. Guess my lack of effusive gushing hurt their feelings, and this was their method of retribution.

Oh well.

Interesting follow-up to that: I later saw them refer to my notes in a quite negative way, along with “this script has even gotten a few RECOMMENDS”, which is always a great defense.

Follow-up #2: we’re no longer connected on social media.

Could I have phrased my comments in a more supportive way? I suppose, but I figured this person wanted honesty, not praise. And like I said, I assumed they had a thick skin from having done this for a while.

Guess I was mistaken.

And I’ve been on the receiving end of it as well. A filmmaker friend read one of my scripts and started with “Sorry, but I just didn’t like it,” and explained why. Did I pound my fists in rage and curse them for all eternity? Of course not. Their reasons were perfectly valid.

Or the time a writing colleague could barely muster some tepid words of support for one of my comedies. I was a little disappointed, but after having read some of their scripts,  realized that our senses of humor (sense of humors?) were very different, so something I considered funny they probably wouldn’t, and vice versa.

I’ve no intention of changing how I give notes. If I like something, I’ll say so. If I don’t, I’ll say so. You may not like what I have to say, but please understand that it’s all done with the best of intentions. My notes are there for the sole purpose of helping you make your script better.

Isn’t that why we seek out notes in the first place?

Plodding to the next finish line

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Well, one tough part’s out of the way. Got the latest draft of the sci-fi adventure done, clocking in at a respectable 118 pages. (And accomplished in just under a month, so – yay.)

Now it’s time to move on to the next tough part – the initial wave of cleaning it up, which will include cutting at least 7-10 pages.

It’s been a while since the last time I did this sort of editing, and it always seemed to be more problematic than expected. The best way I can describe it is “I couldn’t really see the forest for the trees”. The problems and their prospective fixes were there, but it would be difficult for me to identify them.

This time around, I’m taking a different approach.

I printed out a hard copy of the script, and went through it, scene by scene, and wrote down a very brief summary – a snippet or two of what was happening in each one. No frills. No dialogue. Just “here’s what happens here”.

Along the way, questions would constantly insert themselves into the discussion. Was there a way to still have this happen, but in a fraction as many words? Is this scene really necessary, or could it be combined with another? How can I describe what’s happening so it’s easier for a reader to “see” what’s happening? Everything geared towards telling a story in the most effective ways possible.

Additionally, new ideas and approaches would spring up when they were least expected. A scene or sequence I thought was just fine would suddenly feel totally out of place, or seem like it needed a drastic overhaul. With this still being a work in progress, any and all new ideas are welcome.

Another new development is how I’d initially type something like “MAYBE X DOES THIS” as a potential new part/development of a scene. Then while working on a later scene, see how that suggestion could be incorporated into it. This would then result in me going back and deleting “MAYBE” from the original. Sometimes your gut reaction really is the best one.

Didja also notice how those last-minute inserts are written in ALL CAPS? Just my little way of having a note stand out a little more so it’s easier to spot when I come back to it later on. Simple, but effective.

Even as this draft steadily grew, there were always sections of the story I knew would need some extra attention in the next draft. Rather than spend time going back and trying to fix things, it was just easier to leave it as it and keep pushing on.

Current focus is all about going through the pages and being as analytical as possible. A few minor story problems have been dealt with. Some unanswered questions are no longer unanswered. Opportunities to throw in a small dash of character and story development are opening up.

The strongest takeaway from this latest effort is that the overall process of putting a decent script together, while still quite challenging, is becoming slightly more manageable and somewhat less insurmountable.

Q & A with Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal

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Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal is an independent producer and former development executive with over 15 years of experience on some of Hollywood’s biggest films. He is currently a producer on the upcoming thriller The Kimberlite Process. After graduating with an MFA from UCLA’s Producers Program, Jeff worked in various capacities on numerous productions for Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner including The Last Samurai, Mission Impossible 3, Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Lions for Lambs starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, Ask the Dust starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, Death Race starring Jason Statham, The Eye starring Jessica Alba, Suspect Zero starring Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley and many more.

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a blast. HBO’s Barry is a funny and oddly haunting series. I recently re-watched/re-read Hell or High Water, which is a deceptively simple, sad, and suspenseful story with rich, complicated characters. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House delivered the goods on scares and family dysfunction for me. Issa Rae (“Insecure,”) Jill Soloway (“Transparent,”) Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,”) and Andrea Savage (“I’m Sorry,”) all have unique, exciting, and powerful voices.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I didn’t know anyone in LA when I first moved here but developed a sci-fi project that was quickly optioned by an Academy Award-winning producer (and never made). During that time, I was also accepted into UCLA’s Producers Program where I took Meg Le Fauve’s (“Inside Out” “Captain Marvel”) Development class, which was instrumental to my growth and understanding of cinematic storytelling and how to work effectively with screenwriters. I started cold-calling various companies for internships and was lucky enough to land positions at both Artisan Entertainment and Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures. Back then, Artisan had a deal with Marvel and I was immediately thrown into pitch meetings with various notable writers/directors on properties like Thor, Hulk, The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist, etc. I was also taking pitches at Phoenix – it was an incredible learning experience. I eventually became an assistant briefly to a Hong Kong action director and then used those experiences to land a job with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner once I graduated from UCLA.

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

Though having an eye for quality material can be a natural instinct, it needs to be honed. I ultimately feel that recognizing good writing can be learned and taught.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Generally speaking, a good script maintains a captivating concept, and a flawed but likeable hero with a concrete objective attached to grave stakes (whether intimate or epic). The hero’s emotional flaw is often rectified as a result of him/her achieving their practical goal (he/she should also be active, resourceful, and exhibit a range of change). It’s helpful if the hero’s goal is time-sensitive and somehow socially relevant. Lastly, if the script is a feature, it should adhere to a three-act structure.

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

Too much description, on-the-nose dialogue, flimsy structure, and the lack of a flawed hero with a concrete objective, attached to grave stakes.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not at all opposed to writers using things like “one last job,” “a reluctant hero who can save the world,” “a family in peril,” or “a fish out of water,” etc. The familiar can be very accessible and., if used effectively, can lure a reader into the story. The trick, however, is to infuse that story with other unique and complex qualities so that it unfolds in fresh and unexpected ways. What can make your story different or set it apart? I always urge writers to challenge the reader’s expectations or preconceived notions as to what type of story they’re entering!

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

-Use Final Draft.

-Study the most notable screenwriting books and authors.

-Read every script you can get your hands on whether good, bad, or mediocre.

-Have conviction but be open to ideas – ultimately this is a collaborative industry.

-Don’t be afraid of genre and don’t be afraid to push the boundaries on the tenets of said genre (but know what those tenets are).

-Actively seek feedback and don’t be precious.

-Strive to be both clear and complex in your writing and understand the difference between the two.

-Don’t be a hater – watch all kinds of movies and TV shows, and be mindful of those that are both commercially and critically successful as well as those that aren’t.

-Read the trades to better understand the marketplace.

-Don’t chase trends – write from the heart.

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

“Recommends” are a rare breed. Those that do qualify show a master of the craft, are usually somewhat familiar but also somehow unique, tend to maintain complex characters, rich themes, and have an easily identifiable position in the marketplace (you can visualize the poster, trailer, audience, etc.) That being said, most of the scripts I’ve read, even from the most notable A-list writers in the industry, still needed some further development.

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

I think it can be incredibly important and worthwhile, particularly for young writers, to enter screenwriting contests. However, I would also encourage writers to do some homework on which ones are notable and relevant so as to not waste too much money and time.

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

Go to www.scriptarsenal.com and follow us on FaceBook and Twitter to get updates on upcoming sales and weekly helpful screenwriting tips.

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

Given my mid-section I generally try to stay away from sweets, but a few years ago, I had some homemade pecan pie (numerous pieces actually) for Thanksgiving and it was an absolutely transformative experience…a chemical portal to another dimension that somehow transcended the time-space continuum…okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic but damn, it was good!

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Q & A with Craig Kellem & Judy Hammett of Hollywoodscript.com

Hollywoodscript.com LLC was founded over a decade ago by former Universal and Fox development executive Craig Kellem, who was soon joined by business partner, Judy Hammett (M.A. English/Creative Writing). This family-based, boutique script consultation service is internationally known, serving writers from every corner of the world.

I had the pleasure of talking with Judy about their new book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How.

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

Without a doubt, HBO’s most recent season (#3) of TRUE DETECTIVE. It is truly impressive every week. The writer has an incredible command of dialogue and the structure employed is beautiful. The writer has interwoven various timelines in a very clever and elegant way, wherein the plotline is consistently advanced, yet at the same time, the existential themes being explored are made exceptionally dramatic and emotionally charged as a result.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

We are father and daughter and come from a family that made their living in TV and music, so we both got our first breaks through family/friends. Craig started out as an assistant at a talent agency and worked hard up the ranks to become a talent agent himself. He eventually became a development executive at Fox and Universal, and in time a TV Producer as well. I started as a researcher on a TV series, then did freelance work providing studio coverage on scripts & books while in graduate school for English/Creative Writing. Eventually, Craig founded our company, Hollywoodscript.com LLC and I joined him soon thereafter. We’ve worked together for more than fifteen years.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

We’ve always tended to “think” like writers, and have loved writing just for the sheer pleasure it provides! But neither of us chose to “become” professional writers, or pursue careers as such. We both love working with writers, supporting their craft and analyzing content. This has been our true vocation. We wrote our book together from the standpoint of wanting to reach out to writers everywhere and share what we have learned after almost two decades of consulting with writers the world over. I provide writing services/ghostwriting on occasion, but consulting is my main work.

What inspired you to write your book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How?

Over the years we had clients comment that we should write a book, stating that our general feedback and approach was constructive, inspired and very helpful. So a few years ago, we decided it was time to give the book idea a green light and started putting the chapters together – with the sole purpose of sharing observations and approaches to writing, which have proven the most helpful to writers we’ve worked with to date.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it especially unique?

We hope to offer something which is more intuitive, less “left brain” – a book that invites the writer to stay close to their own experiences, their own strong feelings and their own instincts so that the storyteller inside of them can more easily come to the fore.

Follow-up: having read a lot of screenwriting books, I found this one to be very different in that it’s not so much about “how to”, but more of a “here’s something to consider as you work on your story/script”. Was that your initial intent, or did it gradually develop that way?

Many thanks for your feedback! Yes, that is a wonderful way to describe it. We didn’t set out to compete with the screenwriting greats who’ve written comprehensive “how-tos” beautifully and exhaustively. Instead, we wanted to contribute to the conversation from the hands-on perspective of our day-to-day work with a very diverse range of writers – some of whom have studied the gamut of how-to books, yet continue to struggle with actually realizing their own visions on the page. We wanted to offer a book that helps writers get closer to  “hearing” their “own voice” so to speak – to accessing the vivid, original stories and characters that live inside of them.

One of the chapters that really resonated with me was the one about the practice you call “sandboxing”. Could you explain what you mean by that, and how it could benefit a writer?

Inspiration, ideas and the desire to write often come out of writers having creative shards and glimmers that have emerged from their minds. They get an idea for a scene late at night and jot it down on scrap paper. They encounter some person they think would make a great character type and make a note of it on a napkin. They hear an anecdote that suggests a story and scribble it on an envelope. All these pieces of creative inspiration are wonderful fuel for writing a screenplay, but a few glimmers and shards aren’t enough to justify starting at page one of a one-hundred-plus-page three-act film. Yet zealous writers will often do just that. They plow forward on the faint fumes of too few ideas and assure themselves the rest will come as they write. This approach rarely makes the cut, for the writer hasn’t given enough time and thought to what it is they are actually writing.

Rather than starting a screenplay prematurely, we therefore recommend “sandboxing,” which is a simple method wherein the writer slows down in order to create a much bigger arsenal of ideas from which to choose. Each day they jot down additional possibilities for scenes, character angles, key plot lines etc. – adding to their original seeds of inspiration. It thoroughly preps the writer to eventually sit down to page one of their new script armed with a truckload of ideas from which to write.

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

A clear, strong story is key. Characters who are relatable and believable. A hero with whom the audience can empathize and who breaks into a serious sweat as much as possible. Dialogue that rings true. Lots of suspense, urgency, and conflict that keep the audience riveted and the pacing clipped.

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

-Writing IS rewriting, even when you’re a pro, so best to embrace this notion and learn to enjoy the process of writing, revising and polishing your script before declaring it “done”.

-Getting a script sold, or made, doesn’t happen on any predictable timeline. Just keep writing and derive your pleasure from the creative process, rather than focusing on it as a means to an end.

-If you are cloudy about any part of your script, stop and take the time to fully explore that cloudiness, addressing it head-on. Don’t try to finesse it, or gloss over it, or avoid it in order to deal with the parts of the script that are clearer to you. Otherwise, your audience may get stuck in those foggy sequences and then start detaching from your content as a whole.

-Never lose sight of the fact that a film is a visual art form. As you write, always ask yourself if there’s a way to dramatize the story development through images, cinematic sequences and visual cues first and foremost.

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

-Writers who tend to overwrite and hence interfere with needed momentum. Setting a strong, galloping pace is essential.

-Scripts that are confusing because the writer hasn’t maintained consistent continuity in the plot line or in terms of the character trajectories.  

-Scenes that don’t build the story or move narratives in the film forward.

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

We can be found at hollywoodscript.com and are on Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In – Craig and Judy. And of course, check out our book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How.

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

HA! I’ll take pie over cake any day – especially coconut, chocolate, vanilla or banana cream. Craig likes ice cream too much to think about any other type of dessert.

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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.

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