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

Just made it tougher for myself (which is a very good thing)

hipster writer
Coffee – check. Notes – check. Fresh typewriter ribbon (took a real effort to find one) – check. Ready to go!

A most interesting development has presented itself for the horror-comedy outline, and you can accurately label me as “immensely grateful”.

Although I’m still working my way through the story, somehow that certain pizzazz that was part of the appeal when I first came up with it had slowly faded away. That’s a problem that needed some immediate fixing or this thing would never work.

I went through what I already had. It’s taken a while just to get to this point in the story, so I’d forgotten about some of it. This made for a nice reminder that I had a lot more material to work with than I remembered.

The basics were there, but what was it that was missing? Since this is at its heart a horror story, some of the standard elements had already been used, but it needed more. Something to really hammer the concept home. My protagonists were already in a pretty dicey situation, and I wanted to up the stakes.

Hence my dilemma.

Have you ever suddenly have a solution just present itself, right out of the blue? One that feels like the light bulb actually popped into existence right there above your head? One that caused the muse to do backflips and handsprings while screaming for joy at the top of her lungs?

Inspiration didn’t just strike; it walloped me upside the head.

This new idea feels like such a perfect match for the story. It creates a ticking clock that really ramps up the stakes to the nth degree, and what might be the best aspect – it gives the whole thing the original approach it so desperately needs.

So now that I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with this, the next step is to go back and reorganize a majority of the outline in order to incorporate it. Pretty daunting at first, but I’m not too concerned. I know exactly what I want to happen. It’ll just require a little more of an effort.

Equal time for B, C, D, and the rest

support beams
Each one doing its job as part of something solid and sturdy

Got a key set of notes back on the dramedy spec, so from this point forward, it’s all about working with those and making the appropriate fixes. (Fortunately, not as many as I expected, but still lots of tweaking in store.) A future post will cover the gist of the advice I was given.

Up until those notes came in, I’d been dividing my time developing the stories of the two new scripts. One of them was revamping an old story, whereas the other was entirely new, so it was really building from the ground up.

Quick sidenote – I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I’d plotted out a brand spankin’ new story. Quite a while. It felt thrilling and a bit intimidating to take it on, but both sensations were heartily welcomed.

While I knew what the main storyline was, the more I worked on filling in the blanks between plot points, the more it became obvious I’d need to start developing the subplots, especially the ones among the core group of characters.

This new story is unlike anything I’d written before, so as part of putting it together, I watched a couple of films of a very similar nature to get a better idea of how things could go. I soon had a stronger sense of what worked and what didn’t from an overall perspective, but also paid close attention to each character’s story – especially the main protagonist, how it connected to the supporting roles, and how all of them factored into the main storyline.

Doing this really helped in several ways:

-the films made it easier to see how each subplot was a part of the main story, as well as being its own separate (and unique) entity.

-each subplot provided lots of opportunities to show character growth and development, again contributing to the main story, as well as emphasizing the theme as it applied to each of the characters.

-because these stories are set in a specific kind of genre, there are certain elements that are more or less required (or “expected” might be a better term). As a result, the subplots provide an almost limitless number of chances to really let the imagination run wild and go for something totally unexpected, as it applies to those elements, but still have it fall within the realm of “this is the type of thing that would happen in this type of film.”

It’s a lot to take into account, but I suspect the more I plan things out, the easier it’ll be to arrange things so all the pieces fall into their proper places.

So for now it’s all about the dramedy, but I know that when I eventually return to working on these two stories (which I definitely will), I’ll have a stronger sense of not only what should happen for the main storyline, but also all the scenes, sequences, and developments of the subplots that go along with it.

Pushing my way forward (x2)

push
Really putting my back into this

This has been a most interesting week. Based on some quality notes, I wrapped up a polish of the dramedy spec (which is now in the process of getting notes). Feedback so far has been encouraging, which is nice.

So now the focus can shift back to developing the two new stories. With most of my recently-completed projects having been worked on for extended periods of time, it’s been a while since I was really starting out from the very beginning.

I’d totally forgotten how much I enjoyed the process of putting a story together. I know what the core concept for each one is, and now it’s all about finding the best and most entertaining way to tell them.

At times it feels like my mind is going in a thousand directions at once, so I’m constantly writing stuff down. A scene or sequence idea here, a line of dialogue there, plot twists, character development, turning the scene on its head; pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle.

Main storylines have been established, with the expected constant fine-tuning and adjusting, and as I work my way forward, the subplots are making themselves known.

Entirely new worlds (or maybe “settings” might be appropriate, since each story is on the smaller side) are being created, populated with unique and hopefully somewhat original characters.

While one of the stories is based on an old script, there’s a constant discarding of a lot of the original content and trying new approaches. Not necessarily “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks”, but kinda/sorta along those lines.

For the other, this is dipping my toes into a genre I enjoy, but wouldn’t call myself a major fan, so doing what I can to avoid tropes and cliches (of which there are apparently many). If that proves more challenging than anticipated, will do what I can to least go for the unexpected.

Added bonus – watching movies of that genre and style to get a better feel for both.

Sometimes I’ll read a writer’s account about what a chore it is for them to develop a story, or how much they loathe this part of the process. I don’t see it that way. Organizing the story and putting it all together is a key part of screenwriting. Too many times when reading a spec, you can tell when the writer didn’t put in the effort to get all the details of the story right before they started on pages.

I recently asked my online screenwriting newwork their thoughts on outlining versus a “seat of your pants” approach. The responses were overwhelmingly in favor of outlining. Granted, there are some writers who prefer the latter, but I’m not one of them. I’m a firm believer in having a rock-solid outline before starting to write the actual script.

But that’s what works for me. Others may feel differently regarding their own process. No matter how you achieve the end result, as long as you’re happy with it, then more power to you.

The whole creative process in developing a story is a beast unto itself, but I think all the long-term work I’ve done for other scripts is really paying off for these two. For now, it’s still a big and unwieldy mess, occasionally feeling very unorganized and all-over-the-place, but a little bit of work every day will gradually pay off. When all is said and done, I’ll have two new scripts.

Like I said – I’m enjoying it.

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.