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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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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