Q &A with David Schwartz

David Schwartz is a freelance screenwriter and script consultant. Prior to being a script consultant, he took a few screenwriting courses in college along with other film courses. After college, he continued working on his first feature and started submitting his scripts to a variety of screenwriting contests. In fact, his first feature made it as a quarterfinalist in the 2019 Bluecat Screenwriting Competition. He’s written several scripts, mainly short films, and is focusing on helping writers with their scripts!

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

In my spare time, I’ve been watching a variety of things, but as for shows that have been well-written, I’d say WandaVision and Bridgerton. I thought I wouldn’t like those types of shows because I’m not much of a comic book fan and had never heard of Bridgerton, but I find both shows enjoyable to binge. I’m usually someone who likes musicals, so this might sound a bit cheesy, but I’m really enjoying Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist! It’s got humor, heart, and great songs that tell a story and moves the plot forward. At first I thought the concept sounded corny, but seven minutes into the pilot, I was hooked and became totally obsessed. I sometimes get emotional during that show. Oh, and I also like The Mandalorian.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I started when I first took a screenwriting course in college. At first, I thought it was going to be a real challenge. Prior to taking the course, I had no idea how much work it takes to write a script. But after completing the course, I actually found screenwriting very enjoyable and took a few more courses to develop my craft. In fact, I’m still working on a script I started writing during one of my courses. After college, I continued working on my script and started submitting it to contests and paying for some feedback. After receiving feedback from professionals in the industry, I was inspired to start my own script consulting business.

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

I think it’s a mix of both. When I look at a script, I can tell the writer’s experience based on their writing. For example, if someone has dialogue that’s flat or very on-the-nose, I can tell they’re just starting out. But then again, lots of writers, even professionals, tend to sometimes have some on-the-nose dialogue in their writing. When it comes to writing, I see myself as both student and teacher so it could go either way. When I read a script, my feedback is based on both what I’ve learned in my screenwriting courses and the feedback I’ve received on my own scripts.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script in my opinion is a solidly structured story. If you don’t have a structured story from start to end, the reader tends to lose interest early on. I’ve noticed this in more than a few scripts I’ve read, but it can be easily fixed. Before anyone starts writing, I’d suggest having a beat sheet so the writer has a blueprint of their script from beginning to end. Another component of a good script is conflict. Every scene, whether it’s big or small, has to have conflict. And finally, character development is extremely important. I love seeing characters develop from start to end, and that’s what makes movies great.

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

The most common mistake I see is sometimes the writers will start their script with the inciting incident at the very beginning and continue on from there. The problem with this approach is I don’t get a sense of who the protagonist is as a person. I don’t necessarily have a reason to root for them to achieve their goal over the course of the film. That’s why I strongly recommend writers have a beat sheet before they jump into writing their script. It’s going to make things so much easier for the reader and the script is going to be a smooth read. (If you want to know more, I’ve written a blogpost about it.)

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m kind of tired of seeing love triangle plotlines. If I wanted to watch a love triangle plotline, I’ll just rewatch Friends. I also hate it when two people are having a conversation in the car and the driver takes their eyes off the road and continues talking with the passenger for 30 seconds or longer. Seriously, it irks me a bit.

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

Don’t be boring.

Every scene must have conflict and serve a purpose. Additionally, each scene needs to drive the plot forward.

If you have writer’s block, keep writing and come back to it later.

It’s okay to take a break every now and then. Sometimes it’s best to rest after 2 hours of writing nonstop.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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

I remember reading a script a while ago where it was a bit hard for me to provide critical feedback on their script because it was so well-structured. I was in awe of their script and in fact, made a few minor suggestions to them in the feedback. A few months later, they posted in one of the Facebook screenwriting groups that their script made it to the quarter-finals in a screenwriting contest.

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

It depends on the contest. Some contests, like Bluecat for example, have a reasonable price and the feedback is free. The best part is writers can resubmit their scripts twice, which is nice. But not all feedback is free, and you have to pay an extra fee to get feedback on your script. Plus, depending on where you’re submitting, the contests can be very competitive. As a script consultant, my goal is to help writers develop their craft before they start submitting their work to the professionals in the industry.

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

Check out my website: www.davidschwartzconsulting.com. I’m also on Instagram: davidschwartzconsulting

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

I’m going to go with apple pie. Mmm…apple.

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).

Q & A with Buzz McLaughlin

Buzz McLaughin photo

Buzz McLaughlin is a playwright and screenwriter, theatre and film producer, script consultant, and teacher. His plays have been produced throughout the U.S. and Canada and have won numerous awards including the National Repertory Theatre Foundation’s National Play Award for Sister Calling My Name, the most recent staging of which was at the Sheen Center, NYC in early 2020. With his wife Kris he has written several screenplays and teleplays.

He is co-founder/producing partner of the independent film company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight), the Founding Director and former Artistic Director of Writers Theatre of New Jersey, and for many years was professor of Theatre Arts at Drew University. The author of The Playwright’s Process: Learning the Craft from Today’s Leading Dramatists, he holds a doctorate in theatre and dramatic literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Writers Guild of America. Currently he teaches playwriting and screenwriting in New England College’s Creative Writing MFA program.

His website is www.buzzmclaughlin.com and he can be reached at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com.

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

THE TWO POPES, written by Anthony McCarten, based on his play. The film was directed by Fernando Meirelles and stars Jonathan Price and Anthony Hopkins. Nominated for best screenplay by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes as well as for best actor and best supporting actor. A wonderful example of excellent writing scene after scene with a script so real that you forget you’re watching a make-believe story as the actors really sink their teeth into the material.

Another film I must mention here is the indie PIECES OF APRIL, written and directed by Peter Hedges and co-starring Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay by the Independent Spirit Awards. It was one of the first films shot on all digital and has become somewhat of a classic, especially in regard to its impeccable dramatic structure. I have used it for years as a teaching tool on how to construct a successful story for the screen. Well worth a close look.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

As a stage actor and director, then later I moved to writing because I started having my own ideas for scripts and felt I could do this, too (if not better than most).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A well-constructed story with relatable characters that draws you in and keeps you engaged from start to finish. There are many ways to accomplish this, obviously, but that in a nutshell is what makes a good script. The main components are having one central character who wants something badly but who runs into road blocks preventing him or her achieving it. In the best stories, this central figure discovers along the way that what they think they wanted isn’t what they really need and as a result the character comes out a very different person at the end of the journey. And this gives the story its ultimate emotional power. My book The Playwright’s Process goes into the details of how you build or construct this kind of story one step at a time.

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

By far the biggest screenwriting mistake I encounter is faulty dramatic construction, scripts that wander too far away from some configuration of the three-act paradigm and as a result stall out and are unable to deliver the goods as all successful storytelling must do. Writing snappy and engaging dialogue is important, obviously, but if the story’s foundational structural underpinnings are faulty, the whole script comes tumbling down.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Formula and predictable action films and stories that are obviously agenda driven. In other words, stories that are primarily designed to thrill with violence and manufactured suspense or those that promote – sometimes quite heavy-handedly – a particular political or cultural persuasion.

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

-Determine who is your central character and what his or her primary external want and true internal need are going to be.

-Your central character should be a changed person by the end of the story.

-Take the time and effort to get to know your characters’ backstories well before plunging into your first draft. Burn into your brain that nine-tenths of the iceberg is under the surface. Remember that you are already writing your script when you engage in this pre-draft exploratory work.

-Make an initial attempt to define your dramatic premise up front – what the overall point of your story is going to be – and believe it fully yourself.

-Allow yourself to become the structural engineer and work out a three-act outline of your story with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end before starting your first draft. In other words, create a road map that will take you through your story’s journey so if and when you find yourself lost (which you most likely will) you still have that roadmap on the seat next to you and you have a way to get back on track.

-If at all possible, set your story in a world you know well.  Otherwise, research it to death.

-Train yourself to never listen to the negative voice as you develop your project.

-Never share a work in progress with anyone until you have a completed draft you think is ready to release to others. The creative process is precious and intimate and it should be shared between only you and your characters. This should be your private creative world. The time will come soon enough to get outside input, but it shouldn’t happen until you have something substantially complete to share. Otherwise your own personal vision for the script is contaminated and you risk having your whole project derailed prematurely. The only exception to this rule is when you’re working with a collaborator or a script consultant – folks whom you have invited into a creative partnership with you.

What would you consider are some key similarities and differences between writing for the stage and the screen?

The biggest similarity between a play and a screenplay is the structural design of the story itself. Both have a version of the three-act configuration: the set up, the struggle, and the solution.

The biggest difference is that plays are primarily verbal and films are primarily visual, meaning the stage play’s story is largely communicated through dialogue coupled with physical action and the film story is largely communicated through what the camera sees action-wise, coupled with dialogue as needed.

Another way to compare the two mediums is to look at the opportunity for theatricality in writing for the stage – inviting the audience to engage imaginatively with passages of time and shifts in settings and so forth – as opposed to the numerous cinematic devices available in writing for the screen such as using the dissolve, narrative voice-overs, etc. In a real sense, the two mediums are attempting to accomplish the same thing – inviting the audience to creatively enter into the unfolding story. And this is one reason why writers are often able to shift back and forth between writing for the theatre and writing for film or television.

A common recommendation to screenwriters is to take an acting or improv class. As someone who works with both writers and actors, do you agree or disagree?

I strongly agree. My experience has shown me that writers who are also actors (or have had some acting experience) are generally ahead in the game in terms of motivations and getting under the skin of a character.

As a producer, is it difficult for you to read a script without using your “reader’s eye”?

This is definitely difficult for me regardless if I’m experiencing a screenplay or play. And it starts on page one. Call it the curse of the producer. I’m so conditioned to look and wait for the inciting incident to grab me that if it doesn’t happen within the first ten pages the read often becomes an exercise in frustration.

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

Check out my website at www.buzzmclaughlin.com. Or email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com. As a script consultant I can work with you on a finished draft or help you structure an idea into workable pre-draft shape. In other words, I can meet you where you’re at with your project.

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

Warm apple, with a slice of cheddar cheese.

apple pie w:cheese

Q & A with Barb Doyon of Extreme Screenwriting

BarbDoyon

Barb Doyon is the owner/founder of Extreme Screenwriting, a Los Angeles-based screenplay and TV pilot coverage service. She is well known among Hollywood producers as a skilled ghostwriter who is also a produced screenwriter, producer and award-winning documentary writer.

She’s a yearly keynote speaker at the Script-to-Screen Summit and has authored books on screenwriting including, Extreme Screenwriting: Screenplay Writing SimplifiedExtreme Screenwriting: Television Writing SimplifiedTurn Your Idea into a Hit Reality-TV Show, 10 Ways to Get a Hollywood Agent to Call You! and Magnetic Screenplay Marketing. Before opening Extreme Screenwriting, she worked at Walt Disney Studios writing press releases for the studio and Disney Sports.

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

Extreme Screenwriting’s client Larry Postel’s upcoming Netflix movie The Main Event was a solid, inspirational read. Larry captured the Follow Your Dreams theme and wove it into a compelling conflict that incited a hero to break through his flaws and become a champion. It’s the story of a little boy who takes on WWE Superstars and I love how the trailer states the theme.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I worked at Walt Disney Studios in the press room where I wrote daily press releases for then-CEO Michael Eisner and the studio’s production companies. One day a producer asked if I had time to do coverages and he showed me how to spot the diamonds among the coal heap. This eventually branched into my company Extreme Screenwriting.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Whether they realize it or not, audiences want to viscerally live through a hero and experience the types of change they can’t, won’t, or are too afraid to implement in their own lives. Regardless of genre, the writer should make sure that the external and internal conflicts are interlocked, resulting in an external conflict that forces change in a hero. Most writers are excellent at coming up with unique concepts, but fall short when it comes to the hero’s flaw and arc. A good script combines external and internal conflicts to solidify a hero’s arc.

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

-Interlock internal and external conflicts, as noted above.

-A producer should be able to remove all dialogue from a screenplay and still know what the movie is about. It’s called a ‘motion picture’ for a reason.

-Don’t take format for granted. Learn how to use it to create pacing, emotion and to help guarantee fewer scenes are rewritten or deleted during the development phase.

-Stop asking gurus to explain subtext and start listening. Learn to hear subtext in everyday dialogue. This is fastest, easiest way to learn how to write it and how to become a pro at lingo.

-Don’t toss in something because you think it’s interesting. If Mona’s red skirt doesn’t mean something to the story as a whole, then leave it out.

-Learn the genre rules! Producers buy screenplays based on genre.

-Start thinking of description as action and create moving picture. Don’t tell us the room’s filthy. Show John walk in, toss cigarettes into an overflowing ashtray and kick his feet up on a pile of yellow newspapers.

-Be able to state the screenplay’s theme in one line. Producers ask, ‘What is the theme?’ to weed out amateurs from pros. Amateurs can’t answer this question.

-Your hero should get the best lines, the last line, the big scene moments, a grand entrance, and the worst-case scenario should happen to them and they alone should resolve the main, external conflict.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book Magnetic Screenplay Marketing?

It’s heartbreaking to see extraordinarily talented, aspiring screenwriters struggle for years to get a producer to read their material. Extreme Screenwriting does help writers promote their material in our monthly newsletter, but writers need to spend as much time marketing as they do writing. Most do not! Instead, they send out a few queries here and there, maybe attend a pitch festival every couple of years and that’s it.

The market is rapidly changing, and if aspiring screenwriters don’t change with it, they’ll be left behind with little hope of getting their material into the right hands. The change in the industry requires a new way of thinking and it does have a learning curve, so that’s why I decided to make a book detailing how to get ahead of the curve and beat the competition with this a marketing strategy.

This book is very different from other screenwriting books in that it focuses more on what a writer can do AFTER they’ve gained some experience and have market-ready scripts. Is what you describe a newer development for screenwriters, and what results have you seen from it?

The marketing technique I outlined in the book, related to getting a producer to call you, isn’t new to the industry. It’s been around for a long time, but until recently, this strategy hasn’t applied to screenwriters. However, there’s been a shift in the industry. Like any other product (yes, a screenplay is a product), the buyer (producer) wants social proof of its viability and is even hiring staff to find material with this ‘proof’ attached.

The Magnetic Screenplay Marketing book teaches the writer how to develop this marketing strategy and put it to use. Prior to publishing the book, I worked with 13 writers to beta test the strategy resulting in agent representation, three options, a television pilot deal and 362 combined read requests, averaging 27 per beta tester. A few did fail at the process, but they didn’t complete the steps, skipped steps, or simply quit before even giving it a try. Therefore, results will vary, but the bottom line is the fact that the industry is changing. I highly recommend aspiring writers get aboard this fast-moving train before they’re left behind.

One portion of the book is about writers obtaining “bread and butter assignments”. What does that mean, and why are they a potential avenue for writers?

This pertains to one of the strategies outlined in a section of the book on how to get an agent to call you. The first agent 99% of writers sign with will be from a boutique agency. These are the smaller agencies in town and while they do make sales, most of their commissions are generated from writing assignments, rewrites, and ghostwriting. It’s so prevalent that it’s literally become their ‘bread and butter’, in other words it’s the main moneymaker.

However, a lot of writers refuse to do this type of work. They’d rather wait around to sell their own screenplays. This sounds reasonable, but if it’s been a year (or 2) and a writer’s work hasn’t sold and the writer won’t do this lucrative work, they become dead weight for the agent. This creates an ‘opening’ for the aspiring writer who notes in queries that they’re open to all kinds of writing assignments! During the beta test, one of our writers gained representation using this strategy. A writer who isn’t open to doing assignments is leaving a lot of cash on the table and missing out on a golden opportunity to gain representation.

You mention sending in writing samples (when and only when requested). One of the options you suggest is to send the last 10 pages of a script. Why the last 10 as opposed to the first 10, and what results have you (or other writers who’ve done this) seen from this?

This is a strategy I decided to add to the book after several years of hearing of its success. Most agents, producers and story analysts agree that most writers know how to nail Act I, but then the material starts to fall apart. The result is an accumulation of story points that miss the mark.

Therefore, if a writer can still intrigue them with a strong ending that reveals voice, theme, solidifies a plot, and nails down pacing while intriguing them to want to know more, then the screenplay’s worth reading. This isn’t the preference for all agents and producers, but even those who start off requesting the entire screenplay often flip to the end first.

You also have a section of the book regarding writers creating teaser trailers for their scripts. What’s a teaser trailer for a script, and what’s the advantage in doing it?

This is part of the new marketing strategy that involves creating an audience for a screenplay via social media, primarily YouTube. This doesn’t involve a Hollywood-style trailer, but rather a simple teaser video that can literally be done for $0 cost (the book shows how) and all the writer has to do is write a 1-page script.

Think about it. For years, producers have purchased books and reality-TV concepts that got their start on social media, based solely on the fact they came with a built-in audience. When a writer sits down to pitch a script, I guarantee the producer is wondering if the story can draw an audience, but imagine the potential for a sale if the writer walks in the door with an audience already attached to the screenplay. It’s a huge advantage and can make the project a hot commodity!

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

Extreme Screenwriting invites writers to visit us at www.ExtremeScreenwriting.com. We offer coverage, a free monthly newsletter, and see the Bookshelf tab for the Magnetic Screenplay Marketing book (available for instant eBook download).

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

Homemade blueberry.

blueberry pie

Q & A with Mitchell Levin

red shirt

Mitchell Levin was born in Detroit, Michigan. He received his BFA in Film from Columbia College, Chicago and his MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He began his career as a Story Analyst at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, and as a development executive there worked with Arthur Miller on his screen adaptation of THE CRUCIBLE, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis.

Mitchell has worked, at one time or another, for every major Hollywood studio and has taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension. He recently left Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks after 22 years as senior Story Analyst. There, he worked on films including GLADIATOR, ROAD TO PERDITION, THE RING, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE HELP, BRIDGE OF SPIES, and more. He is now working as a freelance script consultant for film and TV and can be reached via his webpage ScriptsRX25.com.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

It was a clip someone posted of a single scene from the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS, which I hadn’t watched but now will. So tense! Two male and one female gangster threatening a nun at an orphanage where a little girl had been abused. Masterfully written, performed and shot. Very still, but very edge of your seat, very heart in your mouth.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

While I was getting my MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU back in the ‘80’s I did an internship as a reader for a producer named Martin Bregman, who made SERPICO and SCARFACE, among others. They hired me after the internship was over.

You were a Story Analyst at several major studios. What did that job entail and what were your responsibilities?

I started at 20th Century Fox when I moved out here. Not everyone knows this but the major studios are all signatory to the Story Analyst’s Union, which pays quite well, as opposed to freelance reader jobs. The union was very difficult to get into, even back then, and is virtually impossible now. I was then promoted to development executive and set up THE CRUCIBLE. I actually gave notes to Arthur Miller (he implemented all but two!) I told him, in our first meeting with then-president Roger Birnbaum, that we decided to set THE CRUCIBLE in space. Cute, huh?

After three years I realized being a corporate executive was not for me. I worked as a story analyst for every major studio at one time or another, but spent the past 22 years at DreamWorks. My job was to cover submissions, but also to help develop projects by doing in-depth notes from the time we acquired scripts or books to the time they either went into production or into turnaround.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

Clear, coherent writing. Compelling premise and protagonist. Authentic sounding dialogue. Well-choreographed, not too-dense action if it’s an action piece. Clearly defined central conflict. An interesting world or a new spin on a familiar idea. And hopefully, a story behind the story, i.e., a bigger theme.

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

The only script I remember giving a Recommend to was called THE ASSUMPTION OF THE VIRGIN, back around 2002. It wasn’t a spec, it was written by Anthony Minghella, based on a book set in the Renaissance. Sydney Pollack and Benicio del Toro were attached.

Readers shy away from Recommend because it sets off too many alarms. A Double Consider (for script and writer) is sufficient to let the exec know you’re excited. A Recommend is really sticking your neck out, and if the exec doesn’t agree with you, you worry you’ll be in trouble even if you’re told you won’t be.

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

To some extent, of course. Then again, it’s also subjective. One person’s cup of tea may be another person’s cup of swill.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

First of all, a great premise, but they are hard to come by. Beyond that, a compelling protagonist (who doesn’t have to be likable if he/she is fascinating), dialogue that pops, a clearly defined conflict, and always, escalating stakes and hopefully a sense of surprise.

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

– Know your logline. Often I get the sense a writer couldn’t tell me their logline if asked; not concisely, anyway. A one or two sentence synopsis of the story that tells me the inciting incident, who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, what the central conflict is, what the stakes are, and gives me a sense of the possibilities within the story without giving away the ending.

– Leave plenty of white space on the page. Readers hate lots of dense black text. Don’t overwrite. That goes for dialogue and action.

– Don’t introduce too many characters at once that will be hard to keep track of.

– Don’t give character similar names (Jenny, Joanne, James)

– While the reader has to read and synopsize your entire script, the exec may not read past the logline on the coverage, or past the first 15 pages of your script. You have only that brief window to really engage him/her and let them know “what is” – who, what, where and why – and really grab them.

– Very important – Don’t be boring!!

Are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I hate clichés always, and a trope isn’t necessarily a cliché. If by trope you mean a metaphor or archetype, they can always be done well or poorly, whether it’s “cross-cultural romance” or “reluctant hero”. Certain clichés bug me more than others, because they come up so frequently, like: “EMILY, 25, beautiful but doesn’t know it” or when the villain says to the hero “We’re not so different, you and I”. Or villains named DEVLIN because it sounds like DEVIL. Or when a character says “I just threw up in my mouth a little,” which makes me throw up in my mouth a little. It was funny the first time I heard it in a ‘90’s sitcom, but hasn’t been since. Likewise, the word “amazeballs,” which comes up a lot in comedy scripts, but I doubt anyone has ever actually said it in real life.

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

Since leaving DreamWorks, I’ve been working as an independent script consultant. My webpage is ScriptsRX25.com. I work one-on-one, in-person, or via Skype or Zoom. I work conversationally, as opposed to using written notes. I find it’s far more productive for writers and far more stimulating for both them and me. I can help with screenplays or TV pilots.

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

When I was a kid I wasn’t fond of birthday cake and always asked my mom to make me a cherry pie. My tastes are more sophisticated now. Unfortunately, I’ve since been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. This surprised me, as I don’t have a weight problem. When I asked my mom about it, she said, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you.” It seems it runs through the whole family on her side, but it skipped her.

cherry pie 2

So the only pie I tend to eat these days is humble pie, usually on those occasions, and there have been many, when I embarrass myself in front of famous people.