A most informative Q & A with Andrew Zinnes

 

andrew zinnes

Andrew Zinnes is a UK-based screenwriter, screenwriting consultant and producer who’s worked for production companies, read for contests, and co-author of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking and The Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Film Making. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Screenwriting at The Bournemouth Film School at Arts University Bournemouth, the London Film Academy, and the University of Portsmouth.

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

I have small children so I don’t get to the theater as much as I’d like, but I recently saw I, TONYA and thought it was fantastic – a real pleasant surprise! I remember the Nancy Kerrigan incident vividly and, at the time, there wasn’t a bigger villain than Tonya. Yet Steve Rogers managed to make her sympathetic by focusing on her relationship with her mother and other aspects of her home life. Then you add breaking the fourth wall and other stylistic choices, and the characters became self-aware in a manner that added to their depth and relatability. BABY DRIVER was great, too. Loved the way they used music to tell the story. Very Edgar Wright.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I became a script reader for a small production company based at Sony. I read for free as I wanted anyway into the machine. I would go in on off days or they would messenger me scripts, back when that was a thing, and I would write up coverage and fax it back to them, when that was a thing. I became friends with the assistants in the office and when I said I wanted to do development, they put me up for other assistant gigs.

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

From my experience, recognizing good writing is innate. Many years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving and took my weekend read with me. My sister got curious and started reading some of them. She read one that was a spec from an unknown writer and she was surprised at its mediocrity. She stopped reading after 40 pages and picked up another. This time she started laughing straight away and continued through the whole 100 pages. That script turned out to be AMERICAN PIE. She knew the difference between the two scripts quality-wise with no training, but what she wasn’t able to do was tell me what was wrong with them via screenplay/story theory or how she would have fixed any issues. That part needs to be learned and practiced as one would with any craft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The biggest component revolves around making the story or premise personal to you, the writer. If it’s not something you’re passionate about then how are you going to put 100% effort into it? If you can’t connect to the premise, then how can the reader or the viewer? John Truby says this issue leads to generic, unoriginal work and I have seen this first hand with my college/university students. Just recently, one wanted to do a crime thriller that had an okay hook, but was otherwise unremarkable. I asked why he wanted to do this project and he said it was because he loved those kind of movies and this sounded cool. I told him my doubts and he got frustrated. He said that he has trouble making decisions about writing because he doesn’t want to make mistakes that can’t be undone easily. When I pressed, he said he felt that way about many things in life, not just writing. I told him he should write about that concept. His eyes lit up!

The other key component are the forces of antagonism. I don’t just mean the villain. I mean everything that holds back the protagonist(s) from their goals. The better they are, the better the tension, drama and comedy become.

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

Because I work with many writers in the development of stories from early in their conception, impatience reigns the king of mistakes. Often times writers want to rush into the actual writing before they’ve explored a premise fully. The don’t want to do enough research to make the story richer or come up with alternative character motivations and story points that might make their project surprising and original. They don’t want to take hard looks at their structure because they have something in their head and want to get it out.  I get it. I’ve felt the rush of getting something down in Final Draft, too. However, whenever I’ve let a client or student get on with it despite my objections, it always goes wrong. They create a story and/or characters that are generic or derivative. They come to the point where the structure doesn’t work and either get stuck or plow forward anyway and there’s structure or story flaws. Now for some writers, this is the process they need to go through. This is how their brains process information. That’s fine, but whether that is the case or they are just steadfast, we end up going back to the drawing board to pull everything apart as we should have done originally.

Aside from that, overwriting tends to be an issue, especially with newer writers. Screenplays are meant to be quick reads and having a lot of black on the page slows that down. Learning economy of writing is essential. I realize that many people, myself included, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’s style, which creates these dense, epic screenplays and, that further, feel they should follow suit. However, one, that’s being derivative; two, they’re directing the work so they probably doing it partially because they don’t want to forget anything; and three, they’ve earned it as they had to fund their first films in this style mostly themselves and became successful with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes don’t bother me. It’s what is done with the tropes that matters. Whenever a superhero movie comes out social media garners a a lot of eye rolls and hate from various creative or general public communities and then WONDER WOMAN, DEADPOOL or BLACK PANTHER comes out and shakes things up. Teen horror films is another one that gets a lot of grief, and then HAPPY DEATH DAY hits the screens and all of a sudden cyberspace is hit with short memory syndrome. Take tropes and tell them in unique ways.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Observe people, places, things and ideas.
-Observe by asking questions and listening to what people say and don’ t cut them off to speak about yourself.
-Travel and observe what’s around you.
-Write down what you observe and think about what universal truths of the human condition emerge that matter to you.
-Read good scripts and watch good movies so you know what works.
-Read bad scripts and watch bad movies so you can recognize problems to avoid.
-Notes are opinions. They aren’t personal.

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

I haven’t read many. TRAINING DAY may have been one. THE SIXTH SENSE may have been one, too. The reasons are for the usual hallmarks: great voice, original take on a premise, explored some kind or large idea, writing that moved my emotions (tense, scary, etc) and structured well. Then the other side of the equation, the business side, saw great roles for movie stars to play, was something my company might do and had general commercial appeal.

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

That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you can win one or at least become a finalist, it can get you noticed. The bigger the competition the better your chances, obviously. If you live outside of Los Angeles or don’t have a friend that works in the industry, it may be one of the only ways that you can garner attention. On the other hand, if you enter many of them, it can get expensive. Also there is a fundamental truth about screenplay competitions: there has to be a winner. It’s the best of what a competition gets that year, not necessarily the best written thing that would attract an agent or manager and that sometimes makes Hollywood impatient with competitions. But all in all, I say they are worth it. Especially if there’s some sort of networking attached to winning or placing.

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

I’m very easy to find: andrewzinnes.co.uk. You can message me from there. I live in the UK, but work with writers all over the world. Thank you FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp!

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

Blueberry! I make a mean one, too.

blueberry pie

Ask a Fount-of-Knowledge Script Consultant!

Matt Lazarus

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Matt Lazarus of The Story Coach.

Matt Lazarus has worked in the industry since 2003. He started in development with jobs at Untitled Entertainment, CAA, and Platinum Studios (Cowboys and Aliens). He joined the WGA in 2007 by selling a horror script to RKO, and he sold a movie to Cartoon Network in 2011. Matt’s story coaching was designed to be affordable, regular, and useful, and he excels at breaking advanced concepts into simpler processes and exercises.

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

Short Term 12, a thoughtful, sad drama about a foster home for displaced youth and the human condition. I saw the trailer and it hooked me. The world, performances and characters are all on point. It’s a great example of a drama, and of wringing the most entertainment and potential out of a simple concept.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, and I got my first assistant job after working really hard at an unpaid internship. I wanted to be a writer, and I talked about it way too much. Anyway, I got good at reading scripts and it always provided me an entry to meeting lit agents and executives who wanted to ask follow up questions on material. I’ve been a freelance reader for some studios for years, and there was a time I was even unironically working on a book on how to cover (most of it made it onto my blog). I’ve been a sporadically working WGA writer since 2007, but the financial security of coverage has always given me something to fall back on.

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

Good writing is hard to define. You want it to be accessible: a mediocre scifi appeals to scifi fans, a great one appeals to everyone. You want it to be engaging: no one goes to the movies to not be affected. You want it to help your career. It’s great to sell a script, but if a script doesn’t sell but gets me in a room with someone who can hire me for my next job, I’ll take it.

Anything can be learned. Not everyone who studies piano will become Glen Gould, but they will get somewhat better at piano. I was pretty cineliterate when I moved to LA, and my years in the development trenches helped me marry my base of knowledge to a working understanding of how the industry works and what the powers that be tend to look for.

4. What are the components of a good script?

“Good” is a hard term to define, a semantic minefield. The components of a good script are the same as the bad ones: they both have the same main four (character names, dialogue, sluglines,descriptions), they both take up the same amount of space.

The difference is harder to measure. We see a thousand faces a day, but only a few make us stop and say wow. We hear new songs on the radio every day, few of them will become our favorite. Most would agree that a good writer can do more in the same space than a bad writer, but the ways in which they are better will always and should always be argued over.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The most common is writing a script without a premise. I use something called the premise test. It breaks things down to what’s simple. It’s not the only way to look at scripts, but it’s as good as any, better than most:

“An <ADJECTIVE> <ARCHETYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and (optionally) learns <THEME>.

This seems simple, but the doing is the real meat of the movie. If a naive accountant must raise 100k or his daughter dies, different doings give you very different movies (for example, he could win a surf contest, kill a vampire lord, or invent a time machine and go back to 1979). If you can’t explain what’s interesting about your script in 50 words, you’re unlikely to improve things by writing out 100 boring pages.

Writing is a lot like being a chef. Both are creative forms that have structural limits and immense room for interpretation. Tastes are subjective, but a good chef can anticipate the audience and when he serves something he should have a rough sense of why the average patron might find it delicious.

Most writers write without a real sense of the audience. We’re writing to entertain, to deliver a satisfying emotional experience to the audience. If a writer isn’t writing with a sense of empathy for the audience, the end result is likely to be disappointing.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

-Scripts about Hollywood power brokers written by people who haven’t met Hollywood power brokers.

-TV pilots that spend their entire length explaining how we got to the premise without every showing what’s fun or interesting about the premise (see #5). There won’t be a second episode. What are you saving it for?

-Comedies that aren’t funny. I recommend taking an improv class and reading the UCB Handbook.

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

The word “rules” needs to die. It always starts a fight. People have an unending appettite for hearing that they can write, but any suggestion of how one might approach writing is generally taken as a suggestion of how one ought to write, and then an unproductive argument ensues. Here are three general principals:

-Entertain. You should know exactly what feeling you want to create in your audience.

-Use unity. Once you’ve set up your script, you want everything to feel connected, organic, and like a ramification of what’s come before. Bad scripts keep inventing random stuff throughout the second act, and it leads to a script that feels arbitrary.

-Be specific. A lot of writers will write in variables, keeping things loose (my character is either an architect or a deli owner… I haven’t decided which) because they think it will prevent them from getting lost or stuck in the later stages. This never works. Imagination thrives on immediacy and specifics. It’s better to commit to an idea and follow it to its conclusion. Even if you went in a wrong direction, the specifics you generate add value to your story. If you keep things vague, you’re building on sand and it’s hard to move the story forward when things exist in a vacuum.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

In 2003 I read a really funny script called Underdogs. I couldn’t stop reading it or quoting the dialogue. It ended up turning into DODGEBALL starring Vince Vaughan. The movie is really funny, the script is funnier.

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

It depends on the contest. When I was at big companies, execs would usually read the top Nicholl scripts out of a morbid curiosity, but other big script contests (Scriptapalooza comes to mind) would try to get executives to read their top three, and the execs were lukewarm. For instance, a lot of people are selling off the Black List right now. It’s useful now, but might not be in three years.

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

I can always be reached at thestorycoach.net.

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

Humble pie. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll be served it more times can be counted. Alternately, strawberry rhubarb. I’m from Vermont, and it reminds me of a childhood garden.

Ask an Ubiquitous* Script Consultant!

Danny Manus
*Seriously. The guy’s, like, everywhere. Podcasts, social media, online articles, you name it.

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Danny Manus of No Bullscript Consulting.

Danny Manus is the former Director of Development for Sandstorm Films (The Covenant, 8MM2) and Clifford Werber Productions (Cinderella Story, Just Add Water), where he sold “To Oz” to United Artists. He’s the author of “No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective” and was ranked one of the Top 15 “Cream of the Crop” script consultants in CS Magazine. He was also named one of Screencraft’s “25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter.”

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

The best written things I’ve watched lately have been on TV. There are movies I’ve really enjoyed – Chef, Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Fault in our Stars, Bad Words, etc. – but none this year yet that I thought were OMG fantastic writing. To be fair, I haven’t seen Boyhood yet. But for me, TV is where the best material is these days. My favorite new comedy is You’re the Worst on FXX. I also really enjoyed The Last Ship on TNT and Masters of Sex on Showtime this summer. I’m sure there are wonderfully written books out there, but I don’t get to read them.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

My first start was as an intern about 13 years ago at Columbia Tri-Star in TV Development and 20TH Century Fox Feature Casting. I was charged with reading everything that came in and doing coverage on them. But I used to go through their archive library and just read as many as I could, especially at Tri-Star. My coverage was liked by the VPs I worked under so much that they loaned me out to the SVP (Sarah Timberman at the time, who would not remember me if you paid her) and then the President at the time. Those gigs gave me enough coverage samples to land my first assistant job after I graduated.

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

Recognizing bad writing is something anyone can do. Recognizing great writing is something that can be taught and learned with time and experience. As a first year assistant and intern, I could tell you what was written poorly. But it took a few years of reading hundreds and hundreds of scripts to TRULY understand good writing. And many thousands of scripts later, I’m still learning.

You can’t read a book on screenwriting and think you’re suddenly able to be a professional consultant or reader or writer. There is no checklist given to new readers, it’s learned on the job – that’s why it’s SO important for writers to READ. Though I actually did develop a checklist I used to give to my interns. It was 110 items long. But if you’re a great reader, they are all just in your head and you notice them naturally.

4. What are the components of a good script?

There are basic elements everyone agrees on – a concept and hook that sparks a reaction and has potential to lead somewhere intriguing; compelling, three-dimensional characters who make you want to follow them; dialogue that feels sharp and precise yet natural and flows; enough growing conflict and high enough stakes to keep ones interest; and a plot that progresses throughout the script in interesting ways. Every script should have strong setups, executions and payoffs. But to make it go from good to great, it’s about the X-factor. Some of that is voice, but some of it is just the right writer writing the right story in the right way at the right time. That’s when true brilliance strikes. And it doesn’t happen often.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

I see them all. I mean, the biggest mistakes are that writers are writing stories that aren’t MOVIES. They’re just not strong enough ideas or hooks to be movies in the current studio or indie marketplace. Or that the writer doesn’t know the hook of their idea. Or that the writer uses too many COINCIDENCES or serendipitous moments to create plot.

Actually, you know what the #1 mistake I see is? The use of YOU’RE and YOUR! I mean, WTF people – it’s not that hard to know the difference. Thinking that typos and grammar and format don’t matter – they do!

The biggest non-craft mistakes writers make is not doing their research and not knowing ANYTHING about the actual business. And secondly, submitting projects LONG before they’re ready to be submitted. Querying and pitching on a first draft or before a script is even written, entering contests with a first draft, posting their second drafts on websites. The biggest mistake I see is desperation and impatience outweighing common sense and good judgment.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I could go the rest of my life without seeing another Geek to Chic Teen story. Or the Christmas tale of someone losing their Xmas spirit until X happens. Or the story of the struggling writer trying to break into Hollywood and X happens. The Screenwriter protagonist CAN work – but 98% of the time it doesn’t and I like to play the odds. In terms of character, if I never have to read about another female rape victim or domestic abuse victim, I’d be okay with that too. Those are so common in scripts it’s lost its meaning. But in the end, what I always say is – Don’t run from the cliché, just make it seem NOT cliché. That’s a writer’s job.

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

-It’s not called the artist colony, it’s called the Film Business. So treat it like one. And if you want this to be a career, treat it like one.

-Writing is rewriting and if you can’t take notes and really truly rewrite, you’ll never have a lasting career.

-Your first draft and first script is SUPPOSED to suck. If you think your first script is going to sell and make you rich, you’re living in a dream world. Just. Keep. Writing.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Absolutely. But most were already projects in development written by top notch writers. I have had a number of clients whose projects were Recommends – but none were like that on the first draft. I can’t really divulge the loglines though.

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

There are about 15 contests out there that are completely worth it that I highly recommend, and about 250 contests out there that aren’t. If you win a major, prestigious contest it can definitely start your career and get you noticed. But if you’re continuously a quarterfinalist or not even making the quarters, then you’re not ready yet. Or your script isn’t. Contests are absolutely worthwhile IF your script and writing is at a level where you can be in the top 100 writers out of 8,000. If you can’t say that, then you’re probably wasting $40. Keep in mind – the Top 10 contests get about 45,000 submissions total. And they give out about 150 prizes to finalists and winners. So, those are your chances. Your script has to be REALLY fucking good. But as someone who has had multiple major contest winners and finalists as clients, that’s what I’m here for.

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

You can always check out my website and services at www.nobullscript.net and follow me on Twitter @Dannymanus (I was named one of Screencraft’s 25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter).

And if interested, I’m running a 4-week online course “Creating More Compelling, Castable Characters” which starts Sept 26th and it’s going to be a great class. So, I encourage everyone to check out details at www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

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

I’m an apple pie guy, though a good chocolate cream pie with the chocolate mousse and whipped cream…nom nom nom.