Ask a True Renaissance Script Consultant!*

Julie Gray

*Renaissance as in “those possessing many talents or areas of knowledge”, not the cultural and intellectual movement between the 14th and 17th centuries.

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 Julie Gray. I had the good fortune to interview Julie a few years ago just before she relocated to the other side of the planet.

Bonus question: So much has changed for you since I saw you last – you moved abroad and now live in Tel Aviv, Israel. What’s that been like, and what are you up to?

After ten years in Hollywood, it was time for a change. Tel Aviv is an incredibly vibrant city and there is SO much going on in the art scene here, it’s really exciting.

I work with screenwriters and novelists from New York, LA, the UK and Australia and increasingly, filmmakers here. I just interviewed the writer/directors of the Israeli film Big Bad Wolves, which Quentin Tarantino called the best film of 2013. The interview will be in Script Magazine this fall. I go to London every year and teach at the London Screenwriter’s Festival, which is really fun, and I have been volunteering with Amnesty International in Tel Aviv, working with Sudanese refugees on story telling. I founded the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon in 2013, a group that meets weekly and writes flash fiction. During the war this past summer, I was asked to do a writing workshop for US embassy employees, to write about the trauma of what we all went through and will be doing writing workshops for victims of terror and war here in Israel for an Israeli non-profit later this fall. So I keep pretty busy!

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

I read an hour-long drama pilot by a client of mine and I just went insane, it was SO clever and unique. I can’t talk about the premise because it’s so unique and because I got so excited about it that I sent it to several producer friends of mine in Hollywood and the writer has a bunch of meetings coming up! I was so glad to help him and so impressed by his talent!

This summer, I watched a lot of movies but two really stood out – The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I also watched McConaughey in True Detective; he’s really hitting his stride at this point in his life; it’s a joy to watch him. I’ve been a Wes Anderson fan since day one and so GBH just had me floored. Every single shot, every single moment is so stylized. It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite books, The Hotel New Hampshire.

I went on a real reading bender in the past few months and read A Confederacy of Dunces, All Quiet on the Western Front, Things Fall Apart and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I’d seen the film but the book was better (as is so often said – Wow.) I am also an inveterate reader of The New Yorker and The Atlantic – a real addict of both.

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

I was writing scripts, of course, and attending the Writer’s Boot Camp in Santa Monica – I’d won the 2 year professional program through a screenwriting competition and there, at that program I heard about these “readers” and that you could become one. So I did. I was, as it turned out, really good at it and it wasn’t long before I was reading for some really big deal production companies in LA – Bedford Falls, Red Wagon at Sony, Walden Media – it was a great experience! I met a lot of great producers and agents and read scripts all day every day for a long time. It helped sharpen my own sense of what is original – or not – and what really good writing looks like. That kind of repetition ingrains a lot in you about which scripts have a chance in Hollywood and which do not. Lessons I will never forget.

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

I don’t believe I’ve heard that question before! Well, the answer is complex. In order to recognize good writing, you have to READ good writing a lot. I was a freakishly good reader because I am a freakishly well-read person in the first place – and also a movie nut – so my frame of reference is pretty refined. But the question, for a Hollywood reader, is not whether YOU think it’s good writing, the question is whether the producer or agent will think so. And primarily, whether the script is unique and marketable. You learn what is expected in a rather mathematical way, and you rate those things, one by one. Being a good reader is about knowing what the particular company you are working for is looking for, specifically, what the general rules are in coverage, and then how to write up a great summary about what is good or bad in a script. And doing that very, very quickly, over and over again.

Being a good reader happens through experience. Much more of the skill lies in the ability of the reader to communicate as thoroughly and as objectively as possible what is and is not working. You might read a script of a genre you hate – it doesn’t matter what you like, it matters whether this script is written well for that genre. So – you have to know that genre. That’s why, to be a reader, you really have to know your movies, otherwise you’ll say something is unique and original when it was already done in 1947, and then another take on that premise was done again in 1976. If you don’t know that you will get fired very, very quickly. It’s a bit merciless. Readers really have their feet to the fire. It’s the belly of the beast.

But to answer your question, which is really, “what is good writing” – a good screenwriter is one who takes you on such a ride that you forget you are turning the pages. Every character seems real, every action line is cinematic, every plot twist is totally organic – it’s having a way with words that seems effortless. Can this be taught? I think that writers can be taught how to write but that GREAT writers are born that way, to be honest with you.

4. What are the components of a good script?

GREAT CHARACTERS, GREAT CHARACTERS, GREAT CHARACTERS. Oh – and a unique premise. If you have great characters and a unique premise, your structure will fall into place. You have to understand structure, but it won’t work unless the character arc really flows with the structure – informs it. Structure should not be obvious, it should just feel right.

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

Unoriginal ideas. Writers who don’t test their ideas and look and compare and see who else has done this idea – if anyone. In my book, Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, I go into great detail about idea testing. It’s crucial. It’s everything. Other common mistakes are things like typos, poor format, clunky action and sluglines. But if I had to point out THE worst mistake you could make and the most common one – being unoriginal wins by a landslide.

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

1) Any deus ex machina – something that just magically happens and changes the direction of the story. This is very easy for new writers to do but as you get more experienced, you’ll see why this is a big no-no, not only from a Hollywood perspective, but from a creative perspective as well. Creatively, it’s cheating, It’s taking the easy way out instead of letting the possibilities of the story play themselves out.

2) The person who’s had a big accident or someone they love died and now they are this tragic figure that nobody can reach. Oh man. I’m so tired of that one. It’s not that grief doesn’t have a huge impact – I know – I’ve experienced it – but writers often broach grief like it’s a kind of slam dunk, simple emotion – and it’s really not. Watch Ordinary People if you want to explore grief.

3) In a horror script, the character that goes to the door or UP INTO the attic when they hear a strange sound. They go TO the danger – it’s laughable. Scream really sent that up well – what a seminal film. But writers have to remember that we readers have seen and read every script, so surprise us. Not easy, you say? No. It’s not. If it were easy…

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

1. Don’t write for the money – you’ll never write from the heart.

2. Watch movies – all kinds – all the time. Know your Hollywood history, understand genres and which movies were seminal and why.

3. Don’t be afraid to write badly! Writing is writing, but real writing is REWRITING.

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

A very few times. Most recently, the client I referred to at the beginning of this interview. Unfortunately I cannot divulge the logline, but it was a mixture of a VERY popular cable show and a Bradley Cooper drama. I’m sorry I can’t share it. I read an unproduced film by the amazing writer Ben Queen, called Slanted and Enchanted and I lost it – I flipped out, it was so good. Ben and I became friends. American Beauty made me cry really hard – but it was already in production. Lucky for me, my best friend was the property master of the film so I got to visit the set and later on, Alan Ball and I had offices near each other while he was doing True Blood and I got to hang out with him and it was amazing.

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

I ran a screenwriting competition for six years so naturally I think there is worth in them. But the biggest worth is not so much the cash prizes, etc. but the validation you receive. Sometimes just quarter-finaling in a competition is enough of a good feeling to keep you going, and that can be so important in this pursuit! That said, look, be realistic and know that there are millions of competitions mushrooming all over the place and that you have a budget as a writer. So enter only a few every year – the biggies only – and then spend your money seeing movies, buying a how-to book or two, maybe go to a seminar to meet other writers. The ONLY thing that really matters is your writing, so make sure not to get sucked into lottery-like thinking, that if you buy SIX books on screenwriting or go to EVERY screenwriting event, or enter EVERY competition, that somehow this will magically do something for you. Ass in chair. That’s it. But entering a select handful each year can be fun, it can force you to meet deadlines, and it might get you the validation that you need in order to keep writing. The competitions that I consider really worth entering are: Final Draft Big Break, Blue Cat, Page International, the Nicholl (although it is VERY competitive, so know that…), Slamdance and Scriptapalooza. I may have overlooked some, but those are competitions I am very familiar with and know the people who organize them, so I can recommend them heartily.

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

They can go to my website at juliegray.info or email me at storieswb@gmail.com.

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

Coconut Cream – preferably at the House of Pies on Vermont in Silverlake. So many memories there.

Diverting your attention in a forward manner

Look closely and you'll see a lot of potential out there
Can you see all the potential out there?

I’ve been in contact with a few writers over the past couple of days, and several have mentioned their anticipation/nervousness over the pending announcement of the quarterfinalists in this year’s Nicholl competition.

I’m not going to lie. I’ve been occasionally thinking about it as well.

And it doesn’t help that the folks at the contest have been posting positive anonymous reader comments on Facebook over the past few months. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably read them and thought, “Whoa, that HAS to be my script!” or at least “This could be interpreted in such a way that it vaguely applies to my script.”

I think the number of entries this year was somewhere in the 7200 range, or probably higher. So maybe it is about your script, or maybe not.

The point is: There’s nothing you can do about it now. It’s out of your hands, and obsessing about it won’t do you any good.

Apart from just stepping away (or even actually going outside, where the fresh air will do you good), the best way you can counteract all this hand-wringing is to redirect your focus. Channel all that nervous energy into something more constructive, writing-wise.

How about getting your script ready for upcoming competitions? (Just Effing‘s absolutely final deadline is August 15th, TrackingB‘s late entry deadline is September 28th, and PAGE International will start accepting entries for 2014 in December.)

Or maybe take a closer look at those notes on your recent draft and see what you can do with them, or dig up that killer story concept you came up with a few months ago and fleshing it out a little.

It really doesn’t matter what you do, but it’s important you do something. Your work will be further along than it is now, which always works in your favor.

No matter what your plan is, set yourself up in your ideal writing conditions and have at it.

Devilishly handsome? Sure. But lovely…?

One Lovely Blog

You never know who’s reading your stuff.

Such is the case with this blog. All I know about my readers is how many there are and where they’re reading me, geographically speaking.

So it was a very pleasant surprise to get a message from The Novice Screenwriter: “I really enjoy your blog (and might I add your great sense of humor:) and I just wanted to let you know that I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog award.

In the words of the Cowardly Lion, “Shucks, folks. I’m speechless.”

One of my earlier bosses in radio stressed the importance of PIE. Not the world-changing, life-affirming dessert  (which, granted, is very important), but how your performance should always be Professional, Informative and Entertaining. That’s an acronym I’ve tried to adhere to in all forms of my media output, including this blog, which is why I’m flattered to get this kind of recognition.

And apparently there are rules/guidelines for this as well:

1. Add the “One Lovely Blog” image to your post
2. Share seven things about you
3. Pass the award on to seven nominees
4. Thank the person who nominated you
5. Inform the nominees by posting on their blogs

Thanks to Aarthi at The Novice Screenwriter for the nomination. When somebody tells me they heard me doing traffic on the radio, I always say “It’s nice to know somebody’s listening.” So in this case, it’s nice to know somebody’s reading.

Seven Facts you may or may not know about me:
-I’m the youngest of 5 in a typical Jewish-American family. And by “typical”, I mean there’s a doctor, a lawyer, and the one in showbiz.

-I was born and raised in the great state of New Jersey. The southern half, where there are no accents.

-My wife and I saw HEATHERS on our first date. We’ve been together ever since.

-I really enjoy cooking and baking. One of my specialties is pecan pie from scratch – crust and everything. A friend with strong roots in Georgia was practically orgasmic over it, which must mean something.

-I like to run half-marathons, averaging about 4 a year. My pace is around 9 minutes a mile, with the goal to someday break the 1:55 time limit. The idea of doing a full marathon is intriguing, yet very intimidating.

-I collect comic books, but have never attended Comic-Con in San Diego. Someday I will. In fact, the dream is to be there while The Movie I Wrote is being promoted (with a panel in Hall H and everything!).

-I didn’t go to school for screenwriting. Everything I’ve learned comes from reading books and scripts, watching and studying movies, attending a handful of seminars, and most of all, writing and rewriting.

Here are the seven blogs I heartily recommend:
My Blank Page – good nuts and bolts advice from a working screenwriter
Just Effing Entertain Me – practical advice for writers and a high-profile script competition (hurry! final deadline is Aug 15)
Sex in a Sub – an extremely prolific writer plus fantastic analysis of Hitchcock films
Sprinting to Fade Out – great info for aspiring writers (regrettably on hold for now, but worth checking the archives)
News from ME – a wide variety of topics from a veteran writer-director who works in TV, cartoons and comics
Scott Tipton’s Comics 101 – got a question about comics? More info than you could possibly imagine, especially if you’re a fan of ROM: SPACE KNIGHT
Comedy Film Nerds – actually a podcast about movies, but extremely hilarious, entertaining, informative and very NSFW

I have no idea if there’s an actual award connected with this, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m just happy to be nominated, and will practice my “forced smile to mask my internal pain” look just in case it’s not my name if a winner is ever announced.

Oh so worth it

perfect in so many ways

Today was great on two levels.  I’ll cover the smaller-but-no-less-significant one first.

After much delay, I finally got to work on the DREAMSHIP rewrite. While making my way towards the page 75 twist, I realized I was going to be about 5-6 pages short. Augh! What to do? Got it!  More scenes!  But not just something haphazard and slipshod. No, these have to be scenes that advance the story and character and incorporate the theme.

I did a little brainstorming and came up with at least 3 scenes that should fit in nicely.  Maybe 1 to 2 more, and I’m set.

I don’t mind that progress has temporarily slowed.  It’s been worth it.

Which leads me to the other great thing that happened today.

Since I started working on The Script Adventurer! show, I’ve been sending out emails with requests for interviews with assorted writing-connected folks. Nobody’s said no, but there have been a few “not yet”, which isn’t too bad.

Somebody who agreed almost immediately was Julie Gray from the Just Effing Entertain Me blog/website.  And even better, she was going to be in town for an actual live interview!

I spent some quality time researching her as best I could and prepared my list of questions.

Another sign it was going to be a good day: she found a non-metered parking spot!  Truly a good omen.

While the original plan was to record the interview and insert it into this Monday’s show, at the last minute we opted to do it ‘live’ and will still use it on Monday (1-2PM PST on radioslot.com. Click on number 1 – best mix/listen now).

We talked about her background, how she got into working with scripts, the benefits of social media for writers and her forthcoming plans to move to Israel for her new non-profit Stories Without Borders.

The time flew by and a good time was had by all.  Give it a listen, won’t you?