A holiday Q & A with Heather Hughes & Kate Wharton

Heather Hughes and Kate Wharton have been writing together for over 12 years and worked with Disney, Hallmark, and Lifetime, as well as a plethora of indie filmmakers.

They are both graduates of the TheFilmSchool in Seattle and studied with the late, great Blake Snyder.

They are represented by The Nethercott Agency in Los Angeles.

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

Heather: I thought The Queen’s Gambit was extremely well-written. The characters were very real and they avoided all tropes. I really enjoyed the mother and that character defied all my expectations. We also just rewatched Breaking Bad, which is about as far away from Hallmark movies as you can get, but genius
writing.

Follow-up: a Christmas movie, TV or feature, you think is well-written.

Heather: We detail the seven sub-genres of Hallmark movies in our book and we’re huge fans of the “fake boyfriend” sub-genre, which we call “The Christmas Fake Out” or “Rent-a-Boyfriend” and thought The Mistletoe Promise (2016) was quite well done.

We also like Mary Christmas, which has one of the most satisfying and unexpected endings of any Hallmark movie ever. It’s not The Usual Suspects, but for these movies it was a shocker!

Kate: Hallmark’s The Angel Tree is very nicely done. The plot setup involves good Hallmark-appropriate conflict and there are a couple nice plot twists. I think it’s the best of this year’s 40 new Hallmark movies.

How did you get your starts in the industry, and how did you get into writing Christmas TV movies?  

A producer requested our screenplay, which had done well in a contest.  He routinely asks the directors of the contest to send him the winning scripts.  When we started writing together, we were advised that some screenwriting contests were a way to get noticed. That proved to be true for us. We consider Austin, the Nicholl Fellowship, PAGE, Big Break and Kairos to be some of the best contests.

You refer to these films as Cozy Christmas Romances, or CCRs. Is romance a necessary component of the story template? 

Romance is a requirement for this genre. When we first started writing these movies we assumed that any wholesome content would appeal to these networks. We spent a lot of time pitching heartwarming stories that routinely got turned down. It wasn’t until we’d been at it awhile that we realized that these scripts had to be about—to steal from the late great Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat—two people who are better together than apart AND they needed to celebrate Christmas not just take place at Christmas. Or, as one producer told us, “It needs to be about Christmas, not just set at Christmas.”

There is an abundance of CCRs on several channels and streaming services, with new ones coming out each year. To what do you attribute the popularity of the CCR? 

There are several reasons they are so popular. These movies are predictable, safe, and uncontroversial. It’s a great escape! We like to call them the mac-and-cheese of movies. They’re familiar, warm and comforting. You won’t have nightmares after watching them and you can watch them with your 92-year-old grandma and your six-year-old niece. 

No one will be offended by them and they won’t trigger anyone. When we were researching the book, we actually found that a lot of military vets enjoy watching them because they can relax knowing that they won’t encounter any disturbing content.

What was your inspiration behind your book IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE HALLMARK! WRITING A MADE-FOR-TV CHRISTMAS MOVIE?

We learned these rules in dribs and drabs while we were working with and pitching to companies that make films for Hallmark. It would have been helpful to us if someone had written down these guidelines. For instance: we wrote a whole spec script featuring a couple in their 50s thinking it would be perfect for them. After we submitted it, we learned the protagonists needed to be 28 – yes, they actually said 28. We wish the production company had told us that at the start!

How much research went into putting the book together? How many Christmas TV movies did you end up watching?

If you ask our husbands they would say thousands, but it was really more like several dozen. We also did extensive research with a ton of screenwriters, agents and producers. Some were eager to share, but wanted anonymity, especially when talking about money. After doing more and more interviews we began to see specific rules emerging. There are always exceptions to these rules, and we aren’t out to stifle creativity. But when we compiled our findings, we began to see them as a roadmap for writers who would like to write in this genre.

In the book, you list the 7 main types of CCRs. Obviously, that’s not all they’re limited to, but a majority tend to fall into one of those categories. If a writer comes up with something totally different from any of these but could still be considered a CCR, does that hurt their chances of getting it noticed?

We came up with the seven after watching many movies and reading all of the loglines. We’re sure there are more subgenres or ways to put these movies into buckets. We’d love to hear from your readers who identify others!

If a writer comes up with a new and original subgenre it could be great! But the companies seem to be buying similar content. If the idea strays too far from the conventions of the world (a Christmas town full of zombies, for example), it might hurt your chances of selling to Hallmark. Other networks might love it, though! 

Hallmark has honed its brand to the point where they know the 85 million viewers who tune in during November and December and what those viewers expect.

A few chapters involve the CCR beat sheet, along with filling in the blanks about the story. Some might say that there’s a certain predictability to these stories, so what advice would you give to writers striving to come up with something original?

We’ve noticed that many writers struggle with plot. They start writing with a lot of momentum, and then get stuck around page 50 because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The beat sheet is a fill-in-the-blank exercise to teach the writer a structure that is common to all these movies. If you’re great at plot without a beat sheet, then you probably won’t need this roadmap. 

These movies are intentionally predictable, but within that framework there is a lot of room for originality. If you want to write CCR movies, your original ideas will probably center on an unusual hero, and a unique romantic combination. For example: you could find a new reason the female character needs to leave the big city, an unusual job for the male character, or a unique Christmas activity to include in your montage.

You also go into “what to do after the script’s done”, i.e. queries, meetings, etc., and reference several non-professional writers who sold their scripts. While not every script is guaranteed to sell, is this something you would recommend for aspiring writers?

When you write a script, the goal is to get someone to buy it and make it into a movie—unless you want to film it yourself, which is a great option for aspiring filmmakers. After writing your script, the second hardest thing to do is to get people to read it. Our process of research and queries is a good system for getting people to read your script, regardless of your genre.

We think this is a good place for new writers who like these movies to break in simply because of the sheer number of CCRs made each year. This year Hallmark made 40 new movies, Lifetime made 30 and UPtv made 5. There is never a guarantee that a script will be optioned, but there are many companies looking for content.

The two of you are about more than just writing Christmas TV movies. How can people find out more, as well as order the book?

We love teaching and writing together. Readers can contact us through our website writingtherom.com or on our Facebook page We Heart Rom Coms.  You can buy our book on Amazon, and we’d love to hear any thoughts your readers might have about it. Feel free to reach out!

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

We both adore pecan pie with a ton of lightly sweetened whipped cream! No wonder we’re such great writing partners!

If your pie preferences run a bit more savory, we also recommend Costco chicken pot pies. They’re amazing—flaky crust, delicious chunks of chicken, and a light creamy sauce. Find them in the back, by the rotisserie chickens—It’s a cost effective, delicious meal.

Q & A with Peter Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’d you get your start in the industry?

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

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

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

What do you consider the components of a good script?

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

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

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

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

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

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

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

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

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Know your craft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

key lime pie

Tire, meet nail

flat-tire
You don’t expect it, but it’s good to prepared for when it happens

There I was, happily churning out pages for the pulpy adventure spec. The daily output was respectably above average.

(Gotta say, this new practice of writing out/establishing the beats of each scene has proven invaluable.)

If I could maintain this kind of pace, dare I even contemplate the possibility of having a completed draft, if not by month’s end, then maybe by mid-February?

But like the man who operates the guillotine might say, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Story-wise, things are still pretty solid, save for a previously unforeseen wrinkle: I need to do some emergency revision regarding exactly where and how a supporting character is introduced.

What was in the outline is completely different from what ended up on the page, so looks like I’ve given myself a few options:

  1. Leave it as is, but come up with how to tie everything together. A few possible solutions here. Not crazy about it.
  2. Go back and rewrite so it plays out as originally planned. It may lack some of the punch I was hoping to start with, but that sequence already has a significant amount of “attention-grabbing oomph” to begin with.

Some alternate approaches are currently under consideration, as are those of a drastically different nature. It’s also being discovered that implementing some of these changes could actually assist in reducing the number of pages, which was going to happen anyway. Only now it would be sooner. Not a bad result.

No matter which I choose, there’s some serious editing and rewriting in my immediate future.

This whole scenario definitely falls under the “kill your darlings” category because even though I really like what I’ve already written, as we all know, fixing the story takes precedence over placating the writer’s ego.

Keeping with the metaphor of this post’s title, what initially felt like a major problem is, after some careful analysis, evaluation, and plain old level-headedness, slowly developing into more of a bump in the road.