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

The familiar thrill of a new undertaking

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One of several contributors to my horror-comedy education

Been splitting my time the past few days between doing notes for scripts for notes and working on the outline for the horror-comedy. This post will focus on the latter.

I’ve never really been a big horror fan. Especially the ones that push plot aside and put an emphasis on gore as the writer goes through a laundry list of devising ways of killing people. Just not something I want to read or see.

So why would I even consider writing one? Well, I came up with the idea and thought it would be fun to write. Works for me. And I want to make sure that when somebody reads this script, they can tell without a doubt that I wrote it.

Mine incorporates variations on elements of this particular sub-genre, or maybe “certain/expected aspects” is a stronger way to put it, so as I work out the core story-centric details, I find myself continuously dipping into previously untapped creative reservoirs of a somewhat…darker tone to emphasize the horror parts.

And my gosh, is it fun. Pretty much in a “mad scientist rubbing his hands together” kind of way. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, but, as always, striving to offer up something new and original. This time it just happens to involve adding corn syrup, red food coloring, and raw chicken parts to the prospective special effects budget.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

All the fun stuff aside, the first and foremost objective is to make sure the story works, or at least as much as it can for this kind of story. Without that, the rest of it will all be for naught. Once that’s more or less in place, I can really go to town as I seek out opportunities of where a joke would work – especially one that works within the context of the scene. I love those.

Then a little more fine-tuning, and probably a rewrite or two, and voila! A finished script.

That’s the plan, anyway.

Each day I try to get a little bit more done, and the rewriting and tweaking has already begun; to the point that it’s noticeably different than when I started on it a few weeks ago. But the core concept remains the same, which is good. It’s all coming together.

I never really pictured myself writing in this genre, but as has usually been the case for me, once I came up with the idea, I felt compelled to follow through on it and make it an actual thing.

With the added benefit of being able to use movies of a very similar nature as research, references, and guidelines, I suspect getting the outline and subsequent first draft done might not take as long as I think.

Writing in your own voice

Marilyn script
“Hmm. Billy’s new script. Men dressing up as women to hide from gangsters? Sounds funny.”

When I’ve done script notes for writing colleagues, no matter what the genre is, I can usually tell who wrote it – because of the way it reads. Each writer has their own particular style, so each of their scripts has its own corresponding “sound”. Or I’ll get notes back on my material which often includes a comment along the lines of “this sounds like something you’d write”.

This isn’t just about dialogue. It’s about a writer’s overall style, or how they tell the story of their script. You don’t just want the reader to read your story; you want them to experience it. Which can be accomplished by adding that extra layer.

Everybody develops their own individual style, and it takes time to find it. The more you write, the more you’ll be able to hone your writing to reflect your own individuality.

Just a few things to think about:

-How does your script read? Is the writing crisp and efficient, or are you wasting valuable page real estate with too many lines of  your loquacious verbosity? Taking it one step further, do you use the same words over and over, or do you relish any opportunity to give your thesaurus a solid workout?

-How is your story set up and how does it play out? Is it simple and straightforward, or complex and full of deliciously tantalizing twists and turns? Are you working that creativeness to show us things we haven’t seen before, or is just page after page of the same ol’, same ol’?

-Is it a story somebody besides you would want to see? Just because you find the subject matter interesting doesn’t mean it has universal appeal. However, there is the counter-argument to that in which you could attempt to have your story include elements that would satisfy fans of the genre while also appealing to newcomers.

-Can’t ignore the population within the pages. Are your characters well-developed and complex, or do they come up lacking? Do we care about them, or what happens to them? Can we relate to them?

-What are your characters saying, or not saying (subtext!)? How are they saying it? Do they sound interesting or dull as dishwater? Very important – do they sound like actual people, or like “characters in a movie”?

Remember – the script is a reflection of you. A solid piece of writing shows you know what you’re doing. Offering up something sloppy is simply just sabotaging yourself.

Who hasn’t heard a variation on the line about a script being a cheap knockoff of a more established writer? While I can understand admiring a pro writer’s style, why would you attempt to copy it? It probably took them a long time to find their own voice, and by trying to write like they do, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to do the same thing for yourself.

Or to put it another way: they didn’t take any shortcuts to become the writer they are today, so why should you?

Q & A with Brian Smith of Monument Scripts

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

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

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

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

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

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

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

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

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

What are the components of a good script?

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

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

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

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

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

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

Story structure, story structure, and story structure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blueberry pie a la mode

A route most circuitous

twisty road
Hang on! This’ll be a bit of a wild ride.

Most of my attention this week has been on one of my new projects. I’ll admit to originally thinking it would be a little easier to put together, which is most definitely has not.

I started out with the core concept and then proceeded to work on building the story around it. Since that initial effort, it’s probably safe to say I’ve gone through at least half a dozen variations on it. It was a constant state of flux, accompanied by me always thinking “Am I ever going to come up with something I like?”

For a few days, that was the dominant thought. But I knew the concept was solid, so it was just a matter of time and continuous trying before I found the one that worked. A new idea would spark, I’d ruminate over it a little, and if I thought it worked, would keep going. Suffice to say, there were a lot of starts and stops.

Again, I had faith in the concept. The right way to tell the story was out there, but my creativeness still hadn’t connected to it.

The story is in a specific genre, so there were several factors to keep in mind: how this world works, what’s expected, what could be twisted around and given a unique spin while still adhering to the “rules”, and most especially, any original ideas I could add in that reinforced the concept of the story.

As I racked my brain, more and more possibilities for each of those popped up. I doubted I could remember all of them, so I created a second document for the sole purpose of being an idea reference guide. That’s proven to be very helpful.

To also increase the chances this script could actually be produced, I’m putting it together with the plan of keeping things on the cheap: minimal locations, low number of characters, etc. A few of the original ideas threw some of those out the window, so they’d be cut and replaced with something a bit more on the practical side. Again, quite helpful.

As you’ve probably surmised, there was a lot going on both in my head and on the page. But as I continued push forward, with all the writing, cutting, and tweaking, it slowly started to come together.

I like how this new idea builds on that one from a few days ago, but with a great new twist, or modifying this scene in a new specific way does exactly what its previous incarnation did, but now in a more effective way. There’s been a lot of that.

It’s still a work in progress, but despite the delays, the whole thing’s slowly coming together. The plot points and the scenes between them are being filled in a way that works for me and the story.

There will definitely be a lot more work to do on it before I think it’s ready to transfer to script pages, but what was originally a big, jumbled and incoherent mess of ideas is gradually being organized into a well-structured, smartly-put-together (in theory), fun, and entertaining story.