Q & A with Christopher Lockhart of WME

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Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”

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

Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.

How’d you get your start?

I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.

Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?

In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does.  I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.

Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?

A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company.  Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.

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

The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.

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

I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

I take a holistic approach to judging material.  I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves.  The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they  are not dramatized.

What are some very important rules every writer should know?

I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.

Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”

Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.

Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.

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

I’m not much of a pie eater.  I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.

apple pie

Script? Boomerang? Bad penny? All of the above?

 

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I was recently reading a column that was about something like “what makes a writer a WRITER.”

It involved a lot of questions to ask yourself, like “are you somebody who just talks about writing, or somebody who actually writes?” or “do you write only when you feel like it, or do you write no matter how you’re feeling?” That sort of thing.

Another was “Are you a writer who keeps working on the same project over and over again, or are you constantly working on something new?”

That one really stuck out for me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I fell into that category – from both perspectives, with a somewhat concerned eye towards the first part.

In case you weren’t aware, I have a script I’ve been working on for the past few years. It’s gone through several significant rewrites, and garnered some moderate recognition along the way.

But here’s the thing. Every time I complete a draft of it, I say “Okay. That’s it. No more.”

And of course, a few months later, I get some notes on it from some very savvy writers and industry folks, and then go about figuring out which of those notes might work best in the next draft.

Full disclosure – I seek out notes because I want to improve the script’s chances as both a calling card and in the big contests. Placing higher than I have in the past would hopefully improve my chances of making some industry connections.

I could legitimately say the script is finished, but on the other hand, it could also stand a little more work. Just a little.

This is the basis for my line of thinking. Have I spent too much time on it? Sometimes it feels that way, but there are also the times I think “Just a few more little tweaks would really work.”

A possible counter-argument to this is the fact that this most definitely has not been the only script I’ve been working on this entire time. I’ve written four others, along with outlines for another two, not to mention the half dozen or so individual pages that consist mostly of loglines and a handful of ideas for scenes and sequences.

So although a lot of attention has been given to the original script, I’ve gotten in the habit of finishing a draft, and then working on one to two others before I come back to it.

“But why don’t you just stop working on that script entirely? Too much tinkering usually has the opposite effect,” some might say, and some have. I won’t argue that, but I can honestly say that by being very, very selective about which notes to use from each new batch, each new draft of the script has been noticeably better than the previous one. Problem is, it’s a slow and gradual process of improvement.

After this most recent batch of notes, there are a few spots in the script I plan on working on, but that won’t happen anytime soon. Current focus is fleshing out and fine-tuning the horror-comedy outline, followed by a rewrite of a sci-fi spec, and maybe then I’ll consider diving back into this one.

But the inevitable rewrite or two is still going to happen.

And hopefully that’ll be it – emphasis on hopefully.

A slight course correction

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For the most part, my involvement with this year’s big contests is more or less over. Top 15 percent for Nicholl – not too bad. Total whiff for PAGE again, which makes me 0 for 4. Not expecting much out of Austin.

Results from some of the smaller contests are about the same. Semifinalist in one, quarterfinalist in another, and a few not-at-alls.

A bit on the disappointing side, but all is not lost. On the contrary. It’s actually helped force me into making a pretty important decision.

After much self-evaluating, I’ve opted to drastically cut back on contests for next year and ongoing. Most likely, I’ll keep it limited to just the big three mentioned above. And even entering those isn’t a certainty. They’re the ones that hold the most potential for getting the ball rolling on a career – not guaranteed, of course – but the most potential.

No delusions of grandeur. I’ll continue to take my chances and see how things go. If I do well, great. If not, no big deal.

And just for the hell of it, maybe one or two smaller ones every once in a while. Might as well have a little fun.

Moving forward, the focus now shifts to improving my writing skills and making my material better. Reading a lot of professional scripts, especially those in the same genres as the ones I’m writing, shows me my level of expertise isn’t where I need it to be.

If I want to make this work, I need to get better. No other way to put it.

It’ll be tough, but I’ve come this far and the final objective continues to feel a little bit closer with each new draft.

I’m fortunate enough to know a lot of savvy writers, along with more than a few quality consultants, so getting constructive feedback and guidance can only work to my advantage.

As a colleague once told me, “It’s not about contests. It’s about Hollywood.” Sure, contests are fun and all (especially when you win, or at least place highly), but I’d rather focus on writing quality material and getting them in the hands of people who can actually make something happen with them. Representation. Assignments. Rewrites. A sale. I’m not picky.

My long-term goal has always been to become a working writer, and I think I can still do it. It may not happen as soon as I’d like, but hopefully by really buckling down and pushing myself to keep at it, I’ll have a better shot at turning that goal from a dream into a reality.

Wish me luck.

Just getting here is a story by itself

Toolbooth on Merit Parkway
Even better, the journey won’t cost you a cent

First, the good news: I wrapped up the rewrite/overhaul of the comedy spec (which seems more like a dramedy now.) Despite my dread and anxiety over whether or not it’s actually funny, it’s been sent out for notes. As I mentioned to one of my readers, as long as nobody says “What made you think you could write something funny?”, I’m good.

So, industrious scribe that I am, I find the best way to occupy my time while I wait to hear about a project is to redirect my focus and work on another one.

It was originally going to be a new take on the pulp sci-fi, but some story issues still need work, so that remains on hold.

But a few weeks ago, I was cleaning up around my office and found a hard copy of one of my earliest scripts: a horror-western. I don’t think I’d seen it or read it in about 15 years.

Wow, was it bad. Like “This first draft is going to sell for a million in no time!” bad.

But the idea behind it still worked, and was something I could definitely tweak and finesse into something a lot more coherent. I did mention how that old script was really bad, right?

So I started putting together ideas for the new draft. Let’s call this SCRIPT #1, or S1 to keep things simple.

Then another twist presented itself: a script with a low budget (the lower the better), a minimal number of characters and locations, and practically no visual effects has a much better shot of being produced than some mega-budget tentpole effects extravaganza.

With that in mind, there were aspects to this story I could use to create an entirely new and different one that met a lot of those criteria, so I jotted down some potential plot points in the same file. This is SCRIPT #2 (S2).

One file, two scripts. With me so far? It gets better.

After finishing the comedy, I decided I’d take on S1. I only had a vague recollection of all the story details, which I saw as a good thing. Although I’d still have the old draft available as a potential (albeit limited) resource, I don’t think I’ll use it all that much. This in turn, frees me up to go in whatever new direction I feel like.

As I thought up ideas for S1, some of the story elements from S2 started creeping in. Since I didn’t want the two to be too similar, more focus was put on developing S1. It’s still a work in progress, but coming along quite nicely. And so much better than that old draft.

Ah, but what of S2? Like I mentioned, there were story elements I really liked, and putting some of them into S1 forced me to come up with new ideas for it. There was one in particular that really stood out for me, and the more I thought about it, the more it felt like it would be able to be the basis for a solid story.

I combined that idea with the aforementioned low-budget approach and came up with what I really think is a great high-concept idea. Such to the point that I whipped up a logline for it, along with a title that feels very “that’s perfect!”

My belief and enthusiasm for both S1 and S2 is to the point that I’m now alternating between both; working on one, then the other. My objective now is to have at least a first draft done for both by the end of the calendar year. It’s already proven to be, and will no doubt continue to be, a most interesting process.

I’ll keep you posted.

The gears, they’re a-turnin’ again

chaplin 2
Sometimes you have to really throw yourself into your work

During a break from working on the comedy spec rewrite, I was digging through some files on some of my other scripts and found a friend’s notes on the pulp sci-fi spec.

I hadn’t read them in months, and vaguely remembered there were some quality comments, so since this is one of the scripts I’m considering working on next, I gave them a quick skimming.

(This is also a good time to remind you that unless you honestly and truly feel that a script is finished, never throw away any of the documents associated with it. You’d be surprised how invaluable those can end up being.)

Yep, definitely some good stuff in here, along with some very valid points about the story and the characters. One of the comments that really struck home for me was that while they liked the story and the ideas behind it, a lot of it still felt too familiar. There were a few moments of uniqueness, but they wanted more. Something slightly different from what they’d read.

“Familiar, but different.” I’ve heard that before.

And it really got me thinking. Even more so this time around.

As it reads now, it’s a good, fun story, but I know it can be better. And different. All while still maintaining the qualities and elements you’d expect for this kind of story, which is what made the idea of developing it so appealing to me in the first place.

Working in my favor is that this was an early draft, so some significant changes were already inevitable, and I at least have a pretty solid foundation from which to start the rebuilding process.

Another bonus is that this is the kind of story where the more new and original ideas I can come up with will only help make the end result stand out that much more.

As I mentioned, this script is a potential “next up”, but not a priority. If an idea or concept for it suddenly pops up, I can easily open up the script’s notes file and jot it down. That way I’ll have it right there and ready to go when that rewrite gets underway.

But for now, back to the comedy.

-A few items for the bulletin board:

-Filmmaker friend of the blog Hudson Phillips is running a crowdfunding project for his post-apocalyptic tale of female empowerment This World Alone. As of this writing, they’re just over 2/3 of the way there, so donate if you can!

-If you’re a screenwriter looking for something a little different in terms of a writing retreat, take a gander at what the Aegean Film Lab has to offer: an international screenwriting workshop in July on the Greek island of Patmos. It’s part of the Aegean Film Festival and a partner of the Sundance Film Festival. I won’t be able to make it, but maybe you will.