Q & A with Aiko Hilkinger

Aiko Hilkinger is an award-winning, queer, German-Japanese screenwriter from Colombia. She primarily works in fantasy and animation, and her pilot “Kate and Ava” placed her in Network ISA’s “Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021”. Hilkinger creates magical worlds filled with diverse characters that children and teenagers can relate to and see themselves represented in. Not only does she strive for diversity and inclusion in her stories, but most importantly, she believes that through her animation work she can connect with kids and help teach healthy communication and to own up to their mistakes.

When she’s not writing, Hilkinger works as a script analyst for big screenwriting contests and has recently started her own script consulting business.

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

I feel like I’ve said this to the point where the people who know me have gotten tired of hearing it, but Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix has to be my pick. I honestly think the show made my 2020 much more bearable while also blowing my mind with their imaginative storytelling. The show was planned as a three-season arc and you can tell when watching it that it was meticulously planned as the story is just so tight and has a clear message all the way throughout.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I actually don’t feel like I’ve “made it” into the industry yet. I joke that I graduated from “baby writer” to “toddler writer” in 2020 since it was a learning year for me. After I graduated from film school, one of my teachers helped me get an internship with an agency where I perfected my coverage skills. After that I applied to work as a script analyst for a contest site while entering some contests here and there for the first time.

I won some pretty cool awards this year and was named one of the Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021 by Network ISA. I’m looking forward to new opportunities this year, like getting signed and hopefully selling my first script or getting staffed in a room.

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

I think you can teach someone what to look out for (structure, format, clear goals, etc.) in a script but after a while it becomes a feeling. It sounds strange, and it definitely is, but after reading as many scripts as I have, you start to very easily pick up on things that make a script good or bad. At times it has everything to do with those “rules” we’re taught in film school, and it’s easy to technically say why something isn’t working, but it’s only through practice of your own craft and opening yourself up to criticism that you really learn what works or doesn’t for you, and how to break those rules.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script has something to say. I’m a sucker for a good theme, and I always suggest looking at it as a “thematic statement” or “the lesson the protagonist or antagonist will learn”. When a writer knows what they want to say with their piece, it gives the story direction, and it is much more enjoyable to see them get there.

Oftentimes when a script doesn’t know where it’s going, you can feel it, it’s like you’re wandering around aimlessly through a world, surrounded by characters who don’t know what they want and thus you don’t know what they need. Definitely start your writing journey by knowing your why (why do you want to tell this story and why does it need to be told now?).

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

One of the most common mistakes I see is characters not having a clear goal. A goal is the driving force behind the protagonist accomplishing something by the end of the script and without it, the story can drag on and become repetitive. We don’t want to see someone live their life day to day because it’s not dramatic; not every action pushes the story forward. That’s why it’s important that not only the protagonist has a clear goal, but the antagonist does as well, since they’re the ones who will get in the way of the protagonist.

I also recommend giving other characters goals of their own so that they can be more rounded and have something going on that gives them more depth other than doing whatever the protagonist needs them to do.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m exhausted of seeing every queer story be about “coming out” and dealing with homophobic families, friends, etc. It’s the same annoyance I have about POC films, especially Asian-American stories, only being about the struggle of immigration. There are so many other beautiful stories that can be told outside of the constant struggle to be accepted by a straight, white society that need to be told in order to showcase the beauty of our cultures and communities.

I want to watch a film about queer love that has nothing to do with strife or struggle, and I’m so happy that we’re slowly starting to get there with shows like Schitt’s Creek and She-Ra. And I would love to take my family to watch a film with characters that look like us where they’re just living their lives unapologetically, like Crazy Rich Asians and One Day at a Time.

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

Write with a purpose. Know your why. Why are you writing this story? And why is it important to tell it now?

Fill out a bullet point list of your main structure in order to know your main emotional turns before you start writing.

Always outline, even if you don’t like it. Look at your outline as your first draft.

Make sure your characters have clear goals (wants) and clear needs (areas for growth).

Sneak exposition through conflict.

Make sure your characters are emotionally motivated.

Antagonists should have a clear driving force behind them.

Read as much as you can and make it a variety (both produced and peer scripts) in order to figure out what works for you in terms of storytelling, and to practice pinpointing why they don’t work for you.

You don’t have to take every note you get. Take the ones that resonate and throw away the ones that don’t.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

The main reason is that it’s clear the writer has something they want to say. I know I’ve mentioned this a lot, but it truly is the most important thing you can do. The second I get your voice and understand your point of view, I’m in. It’s our job to make that as clear as possible because our voice is what will set us aside from other writers. It’s what we bring to the table, what we’ll get hired based on, so it’s the most important thing to develop. And through a lot of practice, giving and receiving notes, you’ll get there.

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

Contests can be worth it if you have money to splurge. I know a lot of people who haven’t had a lot of success from them and it can definitely be frustrating. I’ve had a very 50/50 experience. I didn’t make it into a few contests that I was excited about, but then I made it into one that really, really worked for me.

You have to be very clear with yourself about what you want out of these contests (exposure, management, etc.) and make sure you know they’re not your only chance to get into the industry. Also, be sure to ask fellow writers about their experiences in order to find out which contests are the best for you and your goals.

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

I am super active on Twitter – @aikohwrites. That’s where you can find me saying things I probably shouldn’t. And if you’re interested in my coverage services, you can go to aikohilkinger.com/script-coverage to find more information.

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

This is such a good question! My favorite is apple. My mom has always had her own recipe and her apples for some reason always taste amazing. But if we’re being more specific, I love a good, warm and buttery strudel (maybe with some ice cream and caramel).

Boldly swinging into new territory

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As the shelter-in-place continues, I hope you and yours are staying safe and healthy.

I also hope you’re managing to be at least somewhat productive during these trying times. When all of this started, my initial thoughts were “Woo-hoo! I’m going to get SO MUCH writing done!”

Yeah, no.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home, but there’s also all that standard around-the-house-type stuff that needs doing, so while Writing Time is a thing, it’s just not as abundant as originally hoped.

Not that I haven’t been making progress.

-Working on the rewrite of the horror-comedy has been a real eye-opener, especially on the comedy side. Looking back at some older scripts, my idea of comedy was mostly slapstick situations and characters making clever comments. With this one, I’m forcing myself to use those less and focus more on developing funny scenarios that work within the context of the story.

-After something like two, two and a half years of jotting down ideas for it, I finally decided to start mapping out the story for an animated concept. It’s still in the early stages, but I managed to nail down the plot points – including an out-of-the-blue idea for one of the main storylines that feels perfect AND really ramps up the conflict.

-Blew the proverbial dust off some notes for an older sci-fi project in need of a rewrite. Some of the comments made quite an impression, so I’ve been squeezing in some work on applying them to the story – along with some significant changes to give it a thorough overhaul. Still some work to go, but it’s a good starting point.

-Honestly, not much attention has been given to the sci-fi adventure, but it’s still on the latest version of the WIP list.

All in all, hoping to have at least two, maybe three of these as ready-to-go drafts by the end of the year.

Another bonus of working on all these newer projects is re-experiencing the joy and excitement of writing. It’s one thing to go back and do the umpteenth draft of the script you’ve been working for a long time, and definitely another to create new pages for an idea that for the most part is just seeing the light of day.

I tolerate the necessity of the former, but fully embrace the thrill and exhilaration of the latter.

Even better – when they’re ready to go, I can contact my stable of savvy readers and be able to start off with “New script. Whattya say?”

Exciting times, chums.

Hope your writing output-during-quarantine is also coming along nicely.

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A little praise goes a long way

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Special delivery! Just for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And who doesn’t like to hear that?

Q & A with Brian Smith of Monument Scripts

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Brian Smith of Monument Scripts grew up on Cape Cod, long a favorite haunt of writers and artists, surrounded by and loving well-told stories. When he left the Cape, it was to study the techniques and principles of good story telling at the University of Southern California. There he earned an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

He began his career in the industry working for Disney, and then Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation, and he has credits on 24 films and television series. Brian’s been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for such companies as Walden Media and Scott Free Films.

Brian currently lives in Los Angeles, with his wife, three daughters and two dogs.

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

If we’re talking incredibly well-written, I would say the last thing was Coco. Full disclosure here, my background is in animation. I’ve worked in animation my whole career, but I’ve been kind of down on PIXAR for about the last 10 years or so. I felt like it had been at least that long since they put out a complete film. I thought Wall-E and Up were both half-great films in that the first half of each of them was great, but the other half was mediocre to just bad. Other films that they put out during that stretch, like any of the Cars movies, Finding Nemo/Dory, or even Toy Story 3, were really lacking in strong stories. They always had wonderful characters that the audience fell in love with. That allowed for hyper-emotional endings, which was ultimately why those films were so successful. I thought with Coco, they put everything together in a way that they hadn’t since The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and they finally made a complete film. The story was thematically very strong, the stakes were very high, and they gave us a twist at the end I did not see coming. I don’t cry during movies, but I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat at the end. The quality of the writing in the script had everything to do with that.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I fell into it, really. I was working on the Curious George feature years ago, and we were all about to get laid off as the show was wrapping. One of my co-workers suggested script coverage as a way to make some money while being unemployed, and he put me in contact with a creative executive he knew at Walden Media. I contacted him. He had me do a test, which they liked, and they started sending me work. I fell in love with evaluating stories and writing, and have been doing it ever since.

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

Absolutely, and it can be both taught and learned. Writing is one of those unique disciplines that’s equal parts creativity and technique. You have to use your imagination in order to be a good writer, but you also have to use dramatic structure. Determining the merit or quality of a premise or an idea can be a subjective thing, but evaluating a writer’s technique and skill level is absolutely something that can be taught. What a lot of writers don’t understand is that good dramatic structure makes you a better writer. Just as anyone can be taught to implement that structure in their writing, others can be taught to evaluate how successful the writer was in implementing it and how that implementation strengthened or weakened the story.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script is a story well-told; that takes the reader on a journey to a world that the reader can envision and become a part of. In order to do that, a good script needs to have been spawned from a strong premise. A strong premise usually gives way to strong thematic elements, which are also necessary for a good script. A script is almost always better when it has something that it’s trying to say. A strong thematic component is also a way to make us care about the characters, which is probably the most important component. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them. I need to feel some emotional attachment. Without that, you’ve got nothing.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Not adhering to proper story structure is a big one. The transition from Act II to Act III is one that tends to trip people up the most. Poorly written dialogue is another one. Writing good dialogue is hard, and most writers from whom I get scripts haven’t yet mastered the art of subtext, which is crucial to writing good dialogue. It also seems as though a lot of writers think that big words mean good dialogue, which isn’t necessarily the case. Finally, flat characters are a common problem in scripts I get. It’s especially problematic and common in protagonists. Many writers are reticent to give their hero a flaw or some other issue that gives him or her depth, and it’s so important to do so.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The post-apocalyptic sci-fi thing. I love science fiction and there have been some great post-apocalyptic stories. There’s a reason The Hunger Games was huge. It was a terrific story with real pathos and drama. Unfortunately, it made way for a lot of other stories that tried to do the same thing, but just didn’t do it as well. Even The Hunger Games went out on a whimper for me as the last movie wasn’t nearly as good or as compelling as the first. I had the same opinion of the books as well. But that’s a trope I kinda wish would just go away.

What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

Story structure, story structure, and story structure.

Have you ever read a script where you could immediately tell “This writer gets it.”? What was it about the writing that did that?

Yeah, and it was actually a bit annoying. I was reading for a contest, and got a script written by a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer, and the script was about a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer. I know this is super-petty of me, but I really wanted to hate it because it’s really annoying when someone is good and successful at everything they try. But I have to admit it was an exceptional script, with an interesting protagonist, a compelling storyline and meaningful thematic elements, all written in a cinematic style. It was easy to envision this as a courtroom drama worthy of the genre. The writer really understood what it took from a technical standpoint to write a story well, and her personal experiences allowed her to tap into material that was interesting and dramatic.

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

I believe it is worth it, especially nowadays. With studios less likely to option or buy spec scripts, doing well in a screenwriting contest might be the best way for some writers to break in to the business. And the beautiful thing is, you don’t even have to win. You could be just be a finalist, a semi-finalist, or even a quarter-finalist, and there’s a good chance someone from a studio is reading your script and could possibly be impressed with your work. Even people who aren’t winning these contests are getting meetings that could lead to work. You might not sell your script this way, but your talent could be recognized by someone who has the power to hire you to write something else, and that could break you in to the industry. I personally have a friend that experienced that. She got her script into a couple of contests. She didn’t win any of them, but her script caught the eyes of people that could do something with it, and she’s been taking meetings and getting offers for representation. So if you have a quality script you can’t get past the studios’ Threshold Guardians, enter it into a contest, and there’s a chance that the studios could be calling you.

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

People can check out my website: http://monumentscripts.com/ or follow me on Twitter @monumentscripts.

You can also email me directly at briansmi71@gmail.com

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

We must be kindred spirits, because I am definitely a pie guy. I’d rather have pie for my birthday than cake, and will never turn down a slice of pie for anything. That said, I prefer fruit pies to crème pies, and my favorite of all the fruit pies is blueberry. My favorite way to have it is warmed up with vanilla ice cream on top. That is, unless I’m eating it for breakfast. Then it’s just plain.

blueberry pie a la mode

Q & A with Ashley Scott Meyers of Selling Your Screenplay

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Ashley Scott Meyers is a screenwriter and blogger/podcaster at SellingYourScreenplay.com. He has optioned and sold dozens of spec feature film screenplays, with many making it into production. All of Meyers’ screenwriting success has come through his own marketing efforts which he teaches on his blog and podcast.

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

The screenplay for SOURCE CODE is excellent; one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a screenwriter.

I have two young daughters, ages six and three, so I’m watching a lot of children’s movies these days. I just watched THE IRON GIANT for the first time, and thought it was very well-written.

In fact, I’d call MEGAMIND one of my favorite films. In terms of screenwriting, it’s excellent. There are very few films I watch that I think are perfect, but as a screenwriter, I’d consider it one of the few that could be called practically flawless.

My daughters and I recently watched the 80’s classic CLOAK & DAGGER, another very well-written movie. It keeps the action going and all comes together at the end. A very smart script. I saw it when I was a kid and didn’t think much of it at the time, but seeing it again, it’s a pretty solid piece of writing.

Tell us about your writing background, including your “big break”.

I’m not sure I’ve really had a “big break.” Every script I sell or option feels like a monumental effort and it hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, I’d say it’s gotten harder as the DVD market has shrunk over the last decade or so.

But to answer your question… I really never had a background in writing. I just liked movies, and for some reason writing scripts appealed to me. So I decide to pursue screenwriting. I was a terrible student when it came to English, writing, spelling, and grammar. Pretty much every skill you need to be a writer, except one (maybe two)… persistence and determination. So I’ve just plugged away and sold a few scripts.

How did the Selling Your Screenplay blog and podcast come to be?

Believe it or not, I once saw Gary Vaynerchuck speak at a conference where he was talking about not putting your personality into your brands. At the time, I was running a whole bunch of websites, but nothing around screenwriting. So I decided then and there that I needed to do something that combined two of my skills and interests: screenwriting and web development. So I did.

As far as the podcast goes, I just started to listening to podcasts and I thought they were really powerful. So I launched my own.

You’ve had experience with short films. What do you consider the benefits of working on a short, both as a writer and filmmaker?

The biggest thing is that you get to see your work get completed, which is rare as a screenwriter. But if you write a halfway-decent short, it’s fairly easy (nothing is every easy in this business, but it is possible) to find someone who wants to shoot it. You also might get an IMDb credit, win an award at a film festival, and meet other filmmakers. Shorts are a great way to hone your craft. You’re not going to make any money doing them, but they can be a great learning experience.

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

Yes. The more screenplays you read, and the more you write, the more you’ll be able to recognize good writing.

One of the things that makes movies so vibrant is the fact that you can watch a movie or read a script and notice different things every time, depending on where you are in your own life and skill level.

But yes, everyone can get better at writing and recognizing good writing.

What are the components of a good script?

That’s a pretty broad question. If I had to boil it down, I’d say good writing evokes genuine emotion in the reader or watcher. If someone reads your screenplay, and it evokes emotion in them, you’re on the right track. Everything else, like structure, characterization, dialogue, the hook, theme, etc., is really secondary to being able to evoke emotions in people with your words.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The biggest mistake is underestimating the amount of work it takes to be a professional writer. I hear from so many people who’ve written one script, entered it into a handful of contests, and then wonder why they haven’t made it as a professional writer. Nobody gets to pitch for the Yankees after spending one summer practicing. Being a professional screenwriter is probably as hard as, or at least harder than, being a professional athlete. It takes an enormous amount of luck, talent, and lots and lots and lots of hard work.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s often inevitable that you’ll write scenes that feel familiar. I often find myself doing it, so I step back and just mix things up a bit. Try anything that’ll give the tired tropes a new interesting spin, which often boils down to adding a quirky or interesting character to the scene who can mix things up.

I recently watched a short film where a little girl dropped an ice cream cone that fell to the ground in slow motion. It was so clichéd that I really wondered why the filmmaker didn’t try to do something more original.

What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

There are really only two mandatory things to do to be a successful screenwriter: write a lot, and read a lot of screenplays. That’s it.

If you do those two things and really spend time analyzing your writing and the writing of others, you’ll get better and maximize whatever talent you have.

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

Contests are great. Screenwriters should be doing everything within their power to get their work out into the world, and contests can be a part of that plan. But understand that even winning the best contest still means you’re quite a ways away from being a professional screenwriter. And I certainly wouldn’t use contests as my only way to market my material.

How can people find out more about you and Selling Your Screenplay?

I blog and podcast over at SellingYourScreenplay.com. I release a new screenwriting podcast episode every week. In nearly every episode, I interview an experienced screenwriter. I also run a script consulting service.

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

Apple. Not very original, I know. But every once in a while someone will bring an apple pie to Thanksgiving dinner, and as I eat it I think, “Damn, that’s good pie.”