Q & A with Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal

Jeff Photo

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!

pecan 2

Making it not what it was before

spiderverse
Well-known material, executed in an entirely new and original way

The key word for this overhaul of the pulpy sci-fi spec is exactly that: an overhaul.

And a really big one at that.

One of the notes I got on the previous draft was “It’s a fun story, but there’s still a feeling of ‘we’ve seen this before'”.

What a powerful motivator to really shake things up. The last thing a writer wants to hear is that their work is predictable or just filling in the blanks for a template with this kind of story. Readers and audiences want originality, so that’s what we need to give them.

Regarding this story, while the overall concept and primary plotline are still the same, a good majority of the rest of the details have changed in some way or another, with no doubt more to come.

Even though I’ll jot down ideas for particular moments, scenes or sequences occurring throughout the story, I gather them up and then write/develop them in a linear manner – working my way through the story from start to finish. A leads to B, which leads to C, and so on and so on. Not everybody’s style, but it work for me.

It’s probably safe to say I worked my way through at least four or five versions of Act One before arriving at its current version – the one I felt was the strongest. And even that’s been tweaked here and there since then.

Despite having a hard copy of the previous draft readily available – more as reference material than anything, a key part of this process has been for me to NOT look at it – especially when I was feeling stuck. My objective is to keep trying something really different, and sneaking a peek at what I’m trying to avoid won’t help. If anything, it would probably point me in a wrong direction.

I’ve written before about a writer should do what they can to avoid having the reader/audience know what’s going to come next. Such is the case for this rewrite.

As I work my way through, it’s with a mindset that looks at a scene or sequence as a whole, along with “what’s the most likely thing to happen here?”

That’s followed immediately by “what would be the total opposite of that?” or “what would be completely and totally unexpected here, but still works within the context of the story?” Really striving towards taking a new approach is yielding some positive results. It’s quite a thrill when an idea pops out of nowhere, and it works even better than expected.

Added bonus – by forcing myself to come up with new ideas, there’s less need for me to keep the hard copy of the previous draft nearby. The more I avoid looking at it along with figuring things out for this draft, the more changes it produces. All that being said, I’ll still hold onto it, since there’s always a chance I might need something in there, but with the story constantly changing, even that’s becoming less likely.

The whole point of overhauling this story is to take what I had before and put an entirely new spin on the initial concept. I have a pretty good idea of what needs to happen, what I’d like to happen, and that big nebulous category of what could potentially happen (still working out the kinks on that one).

The road between what I started with and what the end result will be is without a doubt one that’s going to be very long, very twisted, fraught with hazards of numerous kinds, and might, at times, seem to go on forever.

Sounds like quite a hellish journey. And I’m loving every step of the way.

Q & A with Jim Mercurio

img_7574_edited_paul-option-e1548902704525.png

Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed and produced five feature films, and helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners.

Editor’s note 1 – a q&a with Jim was featured in a series of interviews with script consultants that ran on this blog between 2014 and 2015.

Editor’s note 2 – full disclosure: Jim played the role of adviser/sounding board for the rewrite of my dramedy spec.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

I was prepping my webinar on February 7th for The Writers Store on Personal Voice, (FYI – Feb 1 is the last day to save $20 on registering) and I stumbled upon the idea that a writer must figure out what is special about what he does and then focus on that. I feel like it is the same way with me and the book.

I have always focused on the nitty-gritty of craft. Probably because I worked so hard trying to figure it out for myself as a writer. When I directed the 40ish DVDs in the Expo Series, I did my own class concentrating only on theme.

Years ago, I happened to be prepping for a feature I was directing. In a week, I saw the same scene performed more than 200 times by a hundred different actresses. I was trying to figure out what I could do that hadn’t been done before as far as a screenwriting book. My experience as a filmmaker has always informed my approach to understanding and teaching screenwriting. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to me sooner. I had an “A-ha!” or better yet a “Duh!” moment — SCENE WRITING!

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What makes this one unique?

The obvious distinction is that it focuses solely on scene writing… the first screenwriting book to do so.

I was fortunate enough to have story gurus Richard Walter and Michael Hauge review the book. Something Michael said really touched me. He said that there were a lot of ideas in the book he hadn’t even thought of. I wanted to cover new ideas or at least some seldom taught concepts in a novel way.

Having been in the screenwriting education niche writing for Creative Screenwriting, directing, creating 50 hours of educational DVDs and working as a consultant, I know what’s out there. I believe this book will carry the torch and be among the next go-to books for all screenwriters entering the field.

As I mentioned, my filmmaking experience and the fact that I am actively writing screenplays and making projects impacts my perspective. I try to be very specific in my examples. For a given topic, I may start with theory but I always try to end with concrete principles and tools that you can apply to your writing on the spot.

Some books are geared more towards covering the screenwriting basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. Is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I feel very strongly that this book will appeal to writers across a wide spectrum of skill levels. A friend of mine said I teach the last hundred pages of “the screenwriting book” more than I do the first hundred. So, if anything, I would be more concerned about whether this would serve beginners.

I even asked my editor if it did and she gave me a great response. But then out of the blue, the universe gave me a better answer. My 23-year-old stepson who is a computer engineer texted me. He said he was halfway through the book and said “It’s very accessible… nothing’s confusing.”

The only research I did while writing this book was to watch movies and think about them. Each chapter is like a stand-alone piece on topics such as exposition, concept, theme, and rewriting. I tried to begin with my, at least somewhat, original and basic take on a topic to ease the reader in and to orient them. A new writer can jump right in.

More advanced writers might recognize my approach as somewhat novel. I then try to go as deep as I can with the material, so that even professional writers might benefit. A writer who read the book said that 70-80% of it was stuff he had never heard before. He might be overstating it, but I’m proud that the book feels that way. I wanted to offer new insight into the nitty-gritty challenge of craft.

Even though the book’s title is THE CRAFT OF SCENE WRITING, what else does it cover besides writing scenes?

At its essence, scene writing is storytelling and the same principles apply. You are poring over characters, characterization, idiosyncrasies of the world, setups – to create reversals. You’ve heard of turning points, right? Writers have to turn a story. They also have to learn how to turn a scene. Or a line of dialogue.

However, I wanted this to complement all of the other screenwriting books that cover story structure. I am looking at screenplays at the molecular level. In the final section of the book, I cover rewriting in a parallel way to how I discuss scene structure. And then I explore how to discover and use your personal voice in your screenplays.

One of the phrases you really emphasized during the process with my script was “write to concept.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Whew, no softballs here. Making me earn my pie.

There are 7500 words in my chapter on concept, which have been through the wringer with my 18 copyeditors, but I will try to summarize with insightful pithiness.

Like I mentioned, as a writer you should use what’s special about yourself and your writing. Writing to concept means that you are using what’s special about your story as the main inspiration for its surprises. For fun, consider a 3-D horror movie where an axe flies across the screen left to right. Do you see how on some level that’s just wrong? It should be flying toward the camera. Otherwise, it’s ignoring the most prominent element of its medium.

Of course, I’m not that rigid, but writers have to narrow down the handful of elements that are essential to their concept because not only do their surprises spin out of them, but, for the most part, they spin out only from them. I don’t know if I can teach that here. Hopefully, I can intrigue you to go to the source.

Writing to concept allows you to find a unique way to express what otherwise might be a familiar story beat. Based on their concept, the moments will look very different. In Memento, Natalie hurts Leonard by hiding pencils. In Her, Samantha, an operating system, hurts her lover by telling him she’s in love with 641 other people.

Another of your favorite phrases during the writing process was “go deeper.” What should that mean to a writer?

It refers to a missed opportunity to get at more emotion with a character or to complicate a relationship, which would hopefully do the same. While we were working on your script, there’s a scene I pointed out featuring a moment where you were on the verge of discovering a powerful and transcendent moment, but then it was all over too soon. Sometimes writers hit a beat (in the broader sense), and maybe they are worried about a looming expansive page count or don’t appreciate what they have stumbled upon, so they move on too quickly. They might be better off — pick your metaphor — milking or massaging a moment for a bit longer and letting it play out.

Take a look at the long and emotional monologue in Good Will Hunting where Will’s best friend Chuckie tells him that he should “cash the winning lottery ticket” and get out of town to find a better life. He even tells him that the best part of the day is in the morning when he comes to pick him up, he has a moment of hope that Will has left — without even leaving a note. Imagine, if we cut that down to a sentence: “I will miss you but you gotta get the hell out of here.” We lose Chuckie’s voice, the suspense of it, the emotional heft and importance. It goes from a set-piece scene to a bland, merely functional one.

In addition to the book, Jim also provides a script consulting service. How can people get in touch to find out more?

Easy. Go to my site at www.jamespmercurio.com. I discuss why coaching is my preferred mode of working with writers. You can check out my DVD set and sign up for my free e-newsletter Craft & Career, which will also let you stay informed about classes and workshops I’m offering later in the year.

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was the metaphoric “gross points from my last film”. Still the same today, or something different?

A pie in the hand is worth two gross points in a bush. Or 20 for that matter. So, hand me some Dutch Apple, please.

dutchapplepie

Just made it tougher for myself (which is a very good thing)

hipster writer
Coffee – check. Notes – check. Fresh typewriter ribbon (took a real effort to find one) – check. Ready to go!

A most interesting development has presented itself for the horror-comedy outline, and you can accurately label me as “immensely grateful”.

Although I’m still working my way through the story, somehow that certain pizzazz that was part of the appeal when I first came up with it had slowly faded away. That’s a problem that needed some immediate fixing or this thing would never work.

I went through what I already had. It’s taken a while just to get to this point in the story, so I’d forgotten about some of it. This made for a nice reminder that I had a lot more material to work with than I remembered.

The basics were there, but what was it that was missing? Since this is at its heart a horror story, some of the standard elements had already been used, but it needed more. Something to really hammer the concept home. My protagonists were already in a pretty dicey situation, and I wanted to up the stakes.

Hence my dilemma.

Have you ever suddenly have a solution just present itself, right out of the blue? One that feels like the light bulb actually popped into existence right there above your head? One that caused the muse to do backflips and handsprings while screaming for joy at the top of her lungs?

Inspiration didn’t just strike; it walloped me upside the head.

This new idea feels like such a perfect match for the story. It creates a ticking clock that really ramps up the stakes to the nth degree, and what might be the best aspect – it gives the whole thing the original approach it so desperately needs.

So now that I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with this, the next step is to go back and reorganize a majority of the outline in order to incorporate it. Pretty daunting at first, but I’m not too concerned. I know exactly what I want to happen. It’ll just require a little more of an effort.

My brain’s helping hands are ready to go

 

vintage handyman
No job too small! (schedule permitting)

Thanks to my ever-expanding network of savvy creative types, I get lots of chances to be on both the giving and receiving ends when it comes to reading scripts.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to get exceptionally helpful notes from a lot of really talented folks. All this feedback has somehow managed to influence my writing for the better, and for that I am overflowing with gratitude.

So the least I can do when somebody asks me “Will you read my script?” or “Can I pick your brain about this idea?” is to say “Of course.”* Maybe I can offer up a few scraps of advice that might somehow work to their advantage. If anything, I can at least point out where a fix in spelling or punctuation is needed. For a script, anyway. That counts, right?

*caveat – it’s taken a lot of work spread over a long time for me to build up my network and establish connections, so I don’t mind if somebody I actually know drops me a note with such a request. If our only connection is being connected on social media and we’ve never interacted – at all, you’re little more than a total stranger to me. So heed that one word and be social. It makes a difference.

I had the pleasure of such an experience this week. I’d connected with another Bay Area creative, and we’d been trying for a while to arrange a face-to-face meeting. After much scheduling, cancelling and rescheduling, we finally made it happen.

This person had an idea for a project, wanted to talk about it, and see if I was interested in being involved. I stated at the outset that I had enough work on my own for now, but would be open to giving notes – time permitting.

After the initial introductions and our thumbnail backstories, we focused on their project. I won’t go into specifics or details about it, because those aren’t the important parts.

What was important was:

-this was a story they’d had inside them for a while, and even though they knew it needed A LOT of work, they were still happy with simply having written it all out

-they were totally open and willing to listen to my suggestions. Some they liked, some they didn’t. Totally fine.

But the more we talked, the more the seeds of ideas were planted in their head. Even though a lot of the details we came up with, including possible paths the story could take, ended up being totally different from their original incarnation, it was easy to see that spark of excitement reignite inside them.

Seeing that happen with somebody you’re trying to help is more satisfying than you can possibly imagine.

We parted ways, with them really rarin’ to go and start developing the latest draft. They added that they really appreciated me being so willing to help out.

I just like doing that sort of thing. I never had that kind of person-to-person help when I was starting out, so why not do what I can for others? Granted, the internet and social media didn’t even exist then, so it’s a lot easier now.

I got a few emails from them the next day showing me what they’d come up with since our meeting. Same concept, but a totally new approach (and, in my opinion, provided the opportunity for a lot of new possibilities). This also included a more thorough write-up of “what happened before the story starts”.

Even though it can be tough to read emotion in text, it was easy to see the spark was still burning strong within them. The way they talked about their plans for what comes next, I could tell they were actually looking forward to working on this.

It was nice knowing I had a little something to do with it.

We exchanged a few more emails (mostly me asking questions about story and characters and them providing sufficient answers), and I wrapped up with “Keep me posted.”

Their response: “Definitely. Thanks again. You’re a good dude.”

That was nice too.