Q & A with Mitchell Levin

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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.

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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.

 

Ask a Guy Who Takes Comedy Very Seriously!

Steve Kaplan

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today focuses on writing comedy, so the spotlight is on Steve Kaplan, who runs the Comedy Intensive course.

1. What would you call a good example of some great comedy writing in recent TV or film?

It’s sometimes difficult to separate great comic writing from great comic performances. That being said, I think the best comedy writing on television occurs, day in and day out, on The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Both shows are able to combine sharp satire with great comic characters, and in the case of The Daily Show, much of the comedy benefits from the relationship between Jon Stewart’s somewhat befuddled and beleaguered news anchor and his crew of inspiringly loony correspondents.

Much has been written about the death of the sitcom, but Network TV still offers the great work from The Simpsons (25 years, and still going strong) and Modern Family’s writing staff, while cable is a treasure trove of niche delights, from sketch shows like Inside Amy Schumer to episodics like Louie, Veep, Getting On, and Episodes. I’m also looking forward to the Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul.

The comedy feature record is spottier. Big hits like Dumb and Dumber To and Hangover 3 may have made a lot of money, but for me, my favorite comedy of 2014 was The Grand Budapest Hotel—funny, lovely, odd, stylish, a little sad, touching and in the end, really about something. (As of this writing, I still haven’t seen The Interview, but I’m really looking forward to it. The trailer made me laugh out loud, it provoked North Korea into a mammoth cyber-attack on Sony—what’s not to like?)

Film comedies I’ve enjoyed from the past few years include Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Moonrise Kingdom, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, This Is The End, Nebraska, Warm Bodies, The Way Way Back, Ted —exactly the way I like my comedies. Some were silly and looney, but looking over the list, most were funny, lovely, odd, stylish, a little sad, touching and in the end, really about something. What can I say. You might like vanilla; I like chocolate. In the end, it’s subjective.

2. What’s your comedy background?

As a kid, I was awkward and kind of odd—I was drawn to comedy because I noted that in comedy movies, the funny guys were awkward and kind of odd, but sometimes got the girl! That was good enough for me!

In college, I studied acting and directing. After college, I was given an opportunity to start an Off-Off Broadway theatre. I convinced my two partners that we should start a theatre that was completely devoted to comedy. Manhattan Punch Line helped launch the careers of actors like Nathan Lane and Oliver Platt, and writers like Michael Patrick King, Peter Tolan and David Crane. While at the Punch Line, I taught classes and worked with and directed sketch groups. I began to wonder why something that was incredibly funny on Thursday night would get no laughs on Sunday. Why sometimes the funniest performance of a play was at its very first table read? What was going on here? That’s when I started seriously exploring the art and the science—some would even call it the physics—of comedy.

At the time, I was teaching an improv class. Without telling the actors, I started experimenting with them—devising improv games to get at the core of comedy: how it works, why it works, what’s going on when it stops working, and what the hell can you do about it?

These experiments led to the discovery of a series of techniques, which in turn led to a forty week Master Class in comedy. When I moved to LA, I it was suggested to me that I gear my course to writers. “You could be the Robert McKee of comedy!” was how Derek Christopher (who produces the annual Story Expo in LA) put it. That led to teaching comedy around the globe, and working with companies like DreamWorks Animation, Disney Animation, Screen Australia and Film Victoria, working as a consultant with writers and producers, publishing my book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy, and ultimately, being interviewed by you.

3. Who are some of your comedic inspirations/role models? What is it about them in particular that appeals to you?

That’s a hard question to answer. I’m a fan of great comedy, and the list of great comedy writers performers and creators could go on and on. There are parts of careers that inspired me—early to mid Woody Allen, late George Carlin, some Mel Brooks, Bob Hope in the “Road” movies, Steve Martin in Roxanne and L.A. Story and Bowfinger, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld, Lily Tomlin, The Bob Newhart Show, All In The Family, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Louie C.K., Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Tom Lehrer (okay, and Allan Sherman), George Burns, Bill Irwin, Judd Apatow, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets. I’m sure I’m leaving out twenty that after this is posted, I’ll hit myself on the forehead, shouting, “How could I forget _________?!!?”

What they all have in common, in some fashion, is an immediacy, honesty (in some cases, a ferocious honesty), an ability to see a slightly off-centered view of the world, and then share it so we see it as well. They all made me laugh, and most had the ability to touch the heart, to make you care and still be funny!

4. Do you think someone can be taught to be funny, or is it something that just comes naturally?

Groucho Marx once said “you can’t teach funny.” But the Marx Brothers were a terrible, just terrible, act when their Mother Minnie first pushed them out on stage. But working eight a day in vaudeville, picking up hints and tips from the other performers, they honed their act into one of the greatest comedy teams of all time. But it wasn’t ‘natural,’ it was through apprenticeship, observation and yes, being taught by other performers.

While you can’t teach someone to be more talented, you can teach someone to act and write to the best of their ability.  And just like you can teach drama, you can certainly teach comedy. Yes, comedy can be taught.

5. What would you recommend for a writer who wants to develop or sharpen their comedy-writing skills?

What can writers do to sharpen their skills? Hang around with other funny people.

There are two great ways to do that. One would be to join an improv group or take improv classes. Since much of comedy is character-based, the best way to get inside a character’s head is to be one. Even if you’re not interested in being a performer or stand-up, the comic skills you’ll pick up are invaluable when writing material, whether it’s long form or short form, or just a set-up and punch line.

The second piece of advice would be to form or join a writers’ group. Once you’ve written your material, it’s imperative to hear the material read out loud in front of even a small group of friends and colleagues. It’s basic to comedy: the interaction between script/performer and audience. You’ve got to hear how those golden pearls play when read by humans to humans. You’re not looking for hours of rehearsal and polished performances, but just an intelligent read can tell you what’s alive and kicking in your script, and what’s dead as a doornail, only you don’t know it yet. So, in a nutshell: Funny people get funnier when in the company of other funny people.

6. Are there any comedy cliches you consider overused? Which ones are you just tired of seeing?

I’ve really tried to think of some that I hope never to see again, but I kept coming up with exceptions to the rule. Spit-takes are overdone, yet I still laugh when Desi or Danny does one. Getting kicked in the balls is another, yet there’s a beat in Monsters, Inc. when Billy Crystal’s one-eyed character lands hard on his privates, and I’m sorry, it’s only a cartoon, but it’s funny. At least I thought so. I guess the difference is a meme or bit done by rote, and one enhanced by a great character or performance.

The things I am tired of seeing are scripts overloaded with weak, puerile jokes; scripts in which every character is a wise-cracker or failed stand-up comedian.

7. What’s the funniest joke you’ve ever read or heard from a non-professional ?

Hmmm. . . my six-year old niece once asked me, “Did you hear about the peanut walking alone in the park at night? It was a salted.” I thought that was pretty funny.

8. How can people contact you to find out more about your services?

My website is www.KaplanComedy.com, and my email address is Steve@KaplanComedy.com. In addition, you can follow me on Twitter at @skcomedy or on Facebook at Facebook.com/KaplanComedy. In addition to presenting one and two day workshops in the US and abroad, I’m also available for script consultations, whether on full-feature scripts, pilots, webisodes or treatments.

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

Man, that’s a tough question. I love Boston Cream Pie and apple pie a la mode, but if I’m on a desert island, and can only have one slice, I’ll go with pumpkin pie—ice cream on the side!

Ask a One-person Multimedia Empire Script Consultant!

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This is what happens when you offer me a choice of photos

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Pilar Alessandra of On The Page.

Pilar Alessandra is the director of the writing program On the Page®, host of the popular On the Page Podcast and author of “The Coffee Break Screenwriter.” She started her career as Senior Story Analyst at DreamWorks SKG and, in 2001, opened the On the Page Writers’ Studio in Los Angeles. Her students and clients have written for The Walking Dead, Lost, House of Lies, Nip/Tuck and Family Guy.  They’ve sold features and pitches to Warner Bros, DreamWorks, Disney and Sony and have won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and Austin Screenwriting Competition.  As a teacher, Pilar has traveled the world teaching in the UK, Vietnam, Poland and across the United States.  In Los Angeles, she’s trained writers at ABC/Disney, CBS, Nickelodeon, UCLA and The Los Angeles Film School.  Pilar was named “The Script Whisperer” by Script Magazine and was one of LA Weekly’s top 100 people. For more on Pilar go to www.onthepage.tv

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

Keep an eye out for a script called “Bullies,” written by Mike Grebb, one of the writers in my writing groups. It’s dark, honest and incredibly well written.   I also just read a student’s script inspired by the classic “Shane,” that takes place in the world of Mexican drug cartels. I loved how it captured the tone of an old western, while also updating the story. That one is called “Rip Current.”

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I was one of those oddballs who actually loved writing term papers in college. A friend of mine knew that and asked me to read a few scripts for an independent company she was working for. When I found out this was a real job, rather than just nerdy fun, I sent in my coverage samples to Amblin Entertainment and they hired me.

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

Good analysts have a strong story sense to begin with, but I they also need to keep learning about how genres and writing styles change. They need to be observers of human nature to truly empathize with and understand characters.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A fresh idea. A compelling story. Descriptive but concise scene direction. Authentic dialogue.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Writing “movie” characters. Many writers actually do this well, but they’re borrowing behavior and voices from characters they’ve seen onscreen, rather than inventing new ones from their own imagination.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

A man’s family is kidnapped or missing and he wracks up a high body count getting them back.   Though to be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing this with a female lead. Could be a fresh take.

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

-There are less “rules” in screenwriting than you think.

-Learn what those are anyway.

-Then break one of them purposefully and artfully.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?    

“Adding insult to his already tragic life, a man is terrorized by a small bird.” The script is called “The Starling.” I know it sounds weird, but it’s beautiful. It was written by Matt Harris, a student of mine. It’s received lots of attention over the years, but has yet to be made. Cross your fingers.

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

Worth it because some agents and managers use the big ones to vet material. Worth it too because they’re writing contests, not selling contests, so you have a chance with a script that isn’t conventionally commercial.

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

Check out www.onthepage.tv to find out about classes, consultations, online offerings, book, DVD and the “On the Page Podcast.” You can also e-mail me directly at: pilar@onthepage.tv

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

Pumpkin, of course! It’s sweet and spicy. What’s not to love? (This is the best question ever.)

Mistake. Not learning. Doomed. (repeat)

You’d think I’d get it by now

Sometimes I do things that are counterproductive. Almost even stupid in their execution.  Practically on a level of “what the hell was I thinking?” And apparently I’ve done it again.

I went to the internet seeking somebody’s opinion on my work. Yeah, I know.

I posted my logline on a few message boards, curious to know if it works. Some comments have been positive, while others…  Let’s not call them negative, but there does seem to be a strong critical-without-guidance vibe. Do some of them realize they’re coming across as snobbish?

It’s also important to remember that these are public forums, which means the public is responding, which means there are varying degrees of experience out there.  Probably some with even less than me, of which I suspect there are more than a few. Curious to know if any of them are actual working screenwriters.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate every single comment (albeit to a certain degree), but don’t like feeling like I have to keep changing my stuff to make them happy.  I also have to remind myself it’s my script, and it ultimately comes down to what I think works best.

And at this point, it’s probably time to stop using the message boards as much and start seeking professional feedback. Guidance from somebody with actual industry experience seems like it would be a little more reliable.

*side note – it’s fascinating to see how people interpret what they read. Some of the revamped loglines focus on key words and take a sharp turn from there.

-Movie of the Moment: It’s been a while, but I’ve seen three new releases in the past week.

BRAVE – beautiful to look at, but haven’t we heard this story before? I was really expecting something a little more different from the folks across the Bay in Emeryville, although the bear subplot was unexpected.

MADAGASCAR 3 – surprisingly funnier than I thought it would be.  Especially nice how they wove subplot threads throughout and wrapped them all up in the end.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN –  okay, but not as fun as THE AVENGERS, but I did like the Spidey POV shots while he’s swinging around New York. Also impressed with how they made the Lizard an actual formidable bad guy, but really felt they could have done more with it. No great desire to see it again or own it. Hope they use Raimi’s Spidey #2 as a guide in terms of fun and quality for the sequel, but please: stop taking off the mask, and NO VENOM.

Regarding THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: the trailers are doing a phenomenal job in increasing my desire to see this. I may even be so bold as to consider seeing it in IMAX.