Q & A with Jim Vines

Jim Vines

A Beast Is Born COVER (High Resolution) (COMPRESSED)

Jim Vines has been a screenwriter and script consultant for a number of years. His first produced film was THE PERFECT TENANT (2000). He has optioned several of his scripts and has also been commissioned to write or rewrite scripts for numerous producers. He has written a play (staged in 2009), a web series (2009), a book of interviews with screenwriters (2006), and “indie-published” his first novel in 2015. His latest book, A BEAST IS BORN, was released in 2019.

Jim, who was born in New York City but grew up in Los Angeles, and currently lives atop a hill that affords a truly inspirational view of the Hollywood sign.

What was the last thing you read/watched you considered to be extremely well-written?

I kinda hate to say this, but I don’t watch TV per se, so if you asked me to name two or three top TV shows, well, I probably couldn’t do it. But a few years ago, I thought MAD MEN was great. (I should point out the reason I don’t watch scripted TV is that I’m an avid watcher of documentaries and interview shows found on YouTube.) As for theatrical movies, I haven’t been to a new release in about eight years. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD got me back into a theater. I had high hopes for that one. All I’ll say is: I didn’t care for it.

I do a decent bit of reading and tend to go through a lot of biographies. A recent one was of Stanley Kubrick written by Vincent LoBrutto, which was pretty fascinating. I just did a re-read of Jack Kerouac’s excellent THE TOWN AND THE CITY. A few months ago I read Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH which I really enjoyed. I also finally read the Daniel Keyes novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, which was pretty amazing. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s rather poignant novel A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD and wrapped up the audio-book of the classic TRUE GRIT, written by Charles Portis (who passed away recently).

As you can probably ascertain by these titles, I’m drawn to stories about people and their plights, their struggles, where they’re trying to understand where they fit in with the rest of the world. This is what I find interesting.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

It was 1994 and I had been writing scripts with the intent to sell for four or five years. I knew this low-budget producer – she really liked a thriller script I’d written, so she optioned it. She never did get the script off the ground, but at least I knew my writing was solid enough to garner interest from producers. I kept sending scripts out. A couple of years later another opportunity came my way in the form of a script assignment from a budding producer who had read some of my work a year or so before. There was no up-front money but he was pretty certain he could sell the script to a production company where he had connections. So, I wrote the script (based on his story)—and he actually got it sold!

It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the next few years, but the script was eventually produced and the movie did quite well on the cable TV circuit. It played constantly on cable and broadcast stations here in the United States and also around the world (I know this because I’d received some pretty decent foreign royalty checks, which was nice). Having this credit on my resume made getting meetings, script assignments – everything from page one rewrites to doctoring scripts- and optioning original scripts a wee bit easier.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

You need to have interesting and/or compelling characters that people will feel something for. Even if it’s a bad guy, you have to give him (or her) at least a smidgen of humanity. Look at Hans Gruber in DIE HARD. Sure, he was a cold-blooded killer – but c’mon, he had such a great sense of humor! You should have a story that continually moves forward and doesn’t get bogged down. I can’t tell you how many novice scripts I’ve read where ten pages goes by and NOTHING happens. It’s just dialogue or superfluous actions that might seem cool or interesting while you’re writing it, but has virtually nothing to do with the story being told.

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

-Write screenplays because you love to write and love telling stories, not because you
think you’re gonna get rich and famous. (Quick, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar last
year?)

-Writing is work—and if you’re not willing to put your rear end in a chair and your
fingers on the keyboard on pretty much of a daily basis, you probably need to find
another career path.

-Rules were meant to be broken, but first know these rules before you break them.

-Rewriting is your friend.

-Formatting isn’t what makes a script sellable. Sure, you need to get it all looking nice and proper, but the actual words you put on those 100 pages—this is what you need to focus on.

-There is no one particular way to write a screenplay. Your job is to discover the method
that works best for YOU.

-Don’t rush things. Send your scripts out only when they’re ready. As they say, you only
have one chance to make a first impression. If you send an agent or producer a script
that’s still pretty rough, chances are they won’t want to read any of your future work.

It’s my opinion—and I’ve done over 200 critiques/evaluations—that about 99% of all
novice screenplays are nowhere near marketable shape, so please, don’t write your first
two or three screenplays intending to sell them; write them merely for the purposes of
learning the craft.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book A BEAST IS BORN?

For a long time I’ve wanted to chronicle the writing, marketing, production, and afterlife of one of my projects. I just never got around to it. But as the marketing phase of my short horror SUSIE’S BEAST script ground on, I realized I had plenty to write about: all the ups and down, all the gut-punching disappointment. I had personal journal entries (I’ve kept a daily journal since 2004) and emails relating to SUSIE’S BEAST, so I figured it was now or never. I pieced it all together and—voilà—A BEAST IS BORN!

I don’t think most pre-pro (i.e., novice) screenwriters realize how long it can take for a script to finally end up in front of a camera. Whether you’re talking about a 15-page short (which is what SUSIE’S BEAST was) or a 120-page feature, the script-to-screen voyage can take years and years. Sadly, that’s the rule and not the exception. I wanted the reader of my book to get a sense of that journey.

It took 11 years for your script to be produced, which must have really tried your patience. What was it that made you keep going?

It’s not like SUSIE’S BEAST was my entire world. I had a lot going on a personal level. As for my writing life, I was working on my first novel, writing and producing a web series, and had been getting script assignments—so I was keeping busy. Aside from all that, I knew this was a solid script that absolutely had to get made.

What were some of the takeaways/lessons you learned from the whole experience?

I’m not sure I learned much of anything I didn’t already know, but it definitely reminded me that in order to be a screenwriter you need to have a certain doggedness and faith in your own writing. I also realized I might be a little too lenient with people, giving them too much time to get things done or make up their minds. If I hadn’t been so indulgent, I probably could’ve shaved a year or two off that 11-year timeline.

Despite everything you endured trying to get SUSIE’S BEAST made, is writing (and
potentially making) a short film something you’d recommend to writers?

Getting a short film made typically will not do a whole lot for a screenwriter’s career. If the finished film makes any kind of a splash at film festivals, it might do something for the director, the actors, maybe even the director of photography. But for the writer – well, hopefully they get a fun and creative experience. That’s pretty much all I wanted out of it. Luckily, that’s what I got! But having your name on a produced short – especially if it wins some awards – can’t do you too much harm. So, yeah, go for it!

You’ve also written another Hollywood-based book—your novel LUIGI’S CHINESE
DELICATESSEN. What was the inspiration for that?

I figured my first novel should be about something I knew, so I wrote about a young guy going to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a screenwriter. The story is loosely – very loosely – based on some experiences I’ve had in this town. As I’ve mentioned in previous interviews: “The book is 97% a work of fiction—and no, I’m not telling you which three-percent is true.” It’s a fun ride, it really is. One review referred to it as a “cautionary tale,” which I think is pretty accurate!

How can people find out more about you and your work?

A BEAST IS BORN is available on Amazon. Check out Jim Vines Presents which is my “creative page” on Facebook, and my screenwriting blog The Working Screenwriter.

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

This is a very silly question, but an excellent one. Let’s see…I’ll have to go with pecan. I love pecan pie. Pumpkin’s also pretty great, especially when it’s topped with whipped cream. But pecan pie on its own – sooooo good!

A tentpole frame of mind

 

kids-movies
My objective. Every single time.

Here in the US, we are heading into what’s known as Memorial Day weekend, where we honor those who have given their lives in the service of our country. It’s also considered the kickoff of the summer season, even though summer doesn’t officially start for a few weeks.

Once upon a time, Memorial Day weekend was when the summer movie season kicked into high gear, with each weekend seeing the release of a potential blockbuster. It has since crashed through the barrier of time limitation, with some summer-appropriate fare being released as early as late March.

I was fortunate enough to have come of age when each summer saw its fair share of films that could be categorized as prime examples of not only filmmaking, but also of storytelling.

Definitely storytelling.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. GHOSTBUSTERS. BACK TO THE FUTURE. ALIENS. ROBOCOP. DIE HARD.

Each one has made its indelible mark on me, making quite the impact on my psyche and personality, and severely influencing the way I write. I make no secret about loving to write these kinds of stories.

(Author’s note – I’m no fool. Nobody’s going to take a chance on a mega-budget script from an unknown. Hopefully once I establish a foothold with my smaller scripts, I can eventually bring out the bigger ones.)

Some may see a summer release as Big Dumb Fun, which admittedly some of them are, but I make a point of treating the audience as intelligent people and want to give them a story that goes beyond simplistic expectations.

I strive to write material that entertains more than just the eyes and ears; I go for the brain, too. It takes a lot of effort to put together a story that stimulates the viewer on more than just a sensory level, but when it’s done in a smart and efficient way, the satisfaction of seeing it pay off is well worth it.

Will I ever get paid to write these kinds of stories? I like to think so. It doesn’t hurt to at least daydream about it.

Imagining that sometime in the relatively near future, a trailer will come up that features snippets of characters and dialogue, all of my creation, all culminating with those words laden with the excitement of anticipation:

“Coming this summer to a theatre near you”

A big smile and chills up my spine, believe you me.

Unstoppable force, say hi to immovable object

There is something in this man's way
There is something in this man’s way

Pop quiz time!

Apart from advancing the story, theme and character development, what is the one key component every scene should contain?

Okay. Pencils down.

A big ol’ piece of pie to everybody who said “conflict”. Without it, your script’s on a one-way trip to Boringtown.

I recently became involved in a discussion with a starting-out writer who asked about the best way to describe how a sequence in his script could play out. After looking at the source material (based on true events), I said if he only writes what happens, there won’t be any drama to it. It needs conflict.

“Conflict how?” he asked.

That’s what it come down to, isn’t it? A lot of newer writers hear “conflict”, and they immediately think two characters are supposed to be arguing. Sometimes that might apply, but it’s not necessarily what it means.

Conflict is two opposing forces going up against each other, and those two forces could be anything (within the limits of your story, of course). Most of the time, one side will be your character and the other will be something or someone standing in their way of achieving their goal, be it immediate or overall.

Which would you rather watch? A story where everything goes just fine for the main character, or one where they’re always dealing with some kind of problem?

One of the great things about conflict is that it can come in any shape or form.

“What if a character opens a window?” was the follow-up question. “Where’s the conflict there?”

There isn’t any. If you’re reading a script and get to a scene that only involves a person opening a window, you’d think “What purpose does this serve?” and tell the writer to cut it.

The conflict would be if it won’t open. There’s a story there. Your curiosity is piqued. Questions are raised. Why won’t it open? Why do they want it open? What are they willing to do to get it open? What’ll happen after they get it open?

Conflict helps move the story forward. Part of our jobs as writers is to come up with new, original and imaginative ways to portray that conflict. The way I have the character open that window is probably totally different than how you would.

Even the central question of your story shows conflict: Will the main character achieve their goal?

While you work on your latest draft, take the time to examine each scene, even the ones only a line or two long. Is there conflict of some sort?

If there is, great. If not, you need to get some in there.

What happened to the action movie?

Often imitated, rarely equaled
Often imitated, rarely equaled

A little over a week ago, a friend posted the following question on Facebook – “Is RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK the best action movie of all time?”

As would be expected, this led to a somewhat lengthy discussion. Several other titles were bandied about (DIE HARD, ALIENS, several John Woo HK films), and was summarized quite succinctly with “The main lesson here is that the 80s were a goldmine for high-quality action films.” (mea culpa – I’m the one who said it).

All I can think of for the 90s are TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY and SPEED.

While you’re thinking about those, compare them to some more recent ones, such as:
-THE EXPENDABLES – a nostalgic remembering of the genre itself
-THE EXPENDABLES 2 – silly, over the top parody
-PACIFIC RIM – cool to look at, but that’s about it
-FAST & FURIOUS 6 – haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it
-THE LONE RANGER – couldn’t bring myself to see it, but will catch it on home video. Is it as bad as they say?

Now there’s this. Oy. Someday I’ll discuss how much I dislike reboots.

So why do action films from 20-30 years ago still hold up?

Looking at strong examples of the genre, they all have: Original stories. Smart writing. Three-dimensional characters. Action that enhances and supports the story.

If you’re writing an action spec, these should be your goals and objectives. Yes, it’s a lot of fun to blow shit up, but don’t use an explosion or shootout just for the sake of having one. It’s pointless.

Make the action part of the story, not what the story’s about. Use it to move things forward. Ratchet up the tension and create more conflict for your hero.

Need a refresher course in how it’s done? Pick one you’ve always liked, and watch it as a writer. Take notes. See how it all fits together. Then see if any of it can be applied to your story and rewrite accordingly.

If only all learning could be this enjoyable.

When all else fails, go to DIE HARD – or – Thank you, John McClane

An action film done right

Unusually busy this week, including initial prepping for a potentially huge project, so not much progress on the rewrite front.  I also feel like I’ve been ignoring LUCY, so I brought the trusty notepad to last night’s hockey practice in an effort to see what I could come up with.

I’m up to around the page 75 mark, and need to get to the end of Act Two.  The action and stakes have to be ramped up, and just about everything in that part of the initial outline wasn’t going to work.  Simply put, I’m starting over.  Sometimes that can be good and inspirational, but looking at that blank page didn’t help.

My good guys need to reconnect with the bad guys. The situation has to be progressively harder for them, with the title character driving things forward.  But how to make this happen?  Ding! The light bulb appears.  Pick ’em off, one by one, leading to the showdown in Act Three! That’s it! Wooo! And what better an example of this than DIE HARD?

*Side note – you gotta admit it’s incredibly cool that DIE HARD is now considered a Christmas classic, right up there with A CHRISTMAS STORY and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  No holiday season should be without watching it.

While there have been numerous copies, some done right, some not, this is a great blueprint to follow for a solidly-constructed action story.  Hard to find any big flaws in it.

For an entertaining analysis/review, click here.

Now that I have an idea of how to move ahead, I can work out the details of how to break up each sequence into 2-3 scenes per scenario, all of which will lead into the “all is lost” moment at the end of Act Two.  I still have a few gaps to fill, but confidence is running high.

Gotta tell ya – feels pretty good to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.