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.

 

Be the word

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An early inspiration for my efforts (image by Hirschfeld)

Apologies for the lack of a post last week. We had to travel to a different time zone for a family function, and the jet lag really took its toll on me. It’s tough to compose something when you can barely stay awake.

But I’m back, rested, and ready to get back to work.

Among the items on the “list of stuff that needs attention”:

-continue working on the horror-comedy outline

-work with latest batch of notes on the comedy spec. Hoping to have that latest draft done sooner than expected.

-research potential representation firms to query

-look into setting up at least one networking event for SF/Bay Area writers. Previous ones were pretty successful, and are great for establishing connections.

-Among the comments that came in for the comedy spec was how it might benefit from a table read. Never did one before, so investigating setting one up. Anybody out there who’s done it?

There are a few other items going on, but those are the dominant ones for now. At first glance, it might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. They’re all just parts of the machine that is me working on making a career out of this.

I think the biggest factor here is time management. I do what I can to allot a certain amount of time per task. Work on my own stuff for an hour or two. Spend some downtime at work researching reps and prodcos, then send out some queries. If an idea hits when I’m not actually writing, I jot it down immediately – mostly because I don’t trust myself to remember it a few hours later.

One caveat – If I have to do notes on a friend’s script, all attention is diverted to that. If they were reading mine, I’d want them to be just as focused on my script, so the least I can do is return the favor.

Now, I totally get that no two writers have the same schedule, so everybody will tackle things their own way and at their own pace. Maybe you can only spare an hour a day for anything writing-related, or you get up earlier than you need to because that’s your designated writing time. Any and all of it’s fine. You do what works for you.

The important thing is to be doing something. Anything that helps you along.

Also remember, and I can’t stress this enough – everybody’s path is different. What works for that other person might not work for you, and vice versa. Don’t stress out over feeling like you’re running behind. The only person you’re competing against is you.

Not sure where to start? Easy. Be a writer and write down what you’d like to accomplish. I suggest starting small – list three things you could do today to help yourself out. Write three scenes (or three pages). Send out five query emails. Contact the writer of that logline you liked in that online forum.

Get into the habit of giving yourself stuff to do, and there’s a good chance you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much stuff is actually getting done.

By you.

Exactly! -OR- The perfect fit

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Not as good as a gorilla suit and a retro space helmet, but mighty darned close

The new story has been in development for a few weeks now, and I can proudly say it’s coming along nicely. Plot points are in place, and the filling-in between them continues, albeit slowly. Still quite a ways to go, but any progress is good progress.

The more I work on it, the more excited I am to take this one on. I love the concept, think it’s got a lot of potential, and it just seems like it’ll be a lot of fun to write.

Full disclosure – it’s a horror-comedy, and that’s all I’m saying for now.

Part of my usual writing m.o. is seeking out feedback from other writers. Since the actual story is still under construction, I opted to start with the basics and asked a handful of savvy colleagues their thoughts on the logline.

Reactions were positive. Plus, some keen insight and suggestions as to what might make the story even more unique and original, and how to avoid “stuff we’ve seen in these kinds of stories before”. Those, in turn, triggered a new round of ideas, which then led to unearthing what may prove to be the most important idea of them all:

The thing that gets it all started.

Not the inciting incident, but a certain something that forms the foundation of the story itself – before the actual events of the story get underway. Without this, the story wouldn’t even be able to exist (or at least be a lot tougher to pull off).

It was perfect.

A feeling most satisfactory, to be sure.

But wait. It gets better.

A little more time (plus some invaluable real-life-based research) caused me to discover that not only does this new idea do a rock-solid job of tying the whole story together, but it creates constant, relevant, and increasing conflict for all the characters,  makes for a great ticking clock, and really lets me have fun with the whole concept.

Goosebumps, I tell ya!

As fun as it was to come up with that, the hard work’s just beginning. Second and third acts need a ton of work. Doing whatever I can to avoid cliches and tropes usually associated with this kind of story. And to address the comedic aspect, really trying to make it funny.

Won’t be easy, but as I’ve discovered with my most recent rewrites, might not be as totally insurmountable as expected.

Actually, I bet it’ll be a blast.

Inquiring minds want to know

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Who’d like to go next?

Taking a look at the ol’ calendar on the wall, it looks like it’s been about three months since the last round of the ever-popular Project Status Update Time (or PSUT, which is an extremely lousy acronym, and will henceforth never be used again.)

This is your opportunity to let the rest of us know what’s been going on with you and whatever project or projects you’re currently undertaking.

Got a short you want to share? Trying to put one together?

Finished a draft? Started a new one? Run into a little trouble in Act Two?

Need help with a logline? Trying to finding the right lines of dialogue?

Connected with anybody new? Discovered a phenomenal new gem of a movie?

Got something you want to announce?

I’ll start the ball rolling.

In the middle of providing notes on a couple of scripts. Putting together a new batch of interviews (very excited about these). Gearing up to fine-tune the outline of another low-budget comedy. Considering writing a short. Seriously considering converting one of my story ideas to work within another medium.

Watched TRUMBO and THE REVENANT. Fantastic performances from the lead in both.

How about you?

Knocked down, but not staying there

Skating Waiter
Just give me a sec to get back on my feet. Bonus – drink remains unspilled

The Chinese restaurant script got the standard “Just isn’t what I’m looking for” response from a producer.

Years of experience has taught me how to properly respond to this kind of situation.

“Well, that sucks. Okay. Moving on.”

Thus the struggle continues to gain a new foothold on this constant uphill climb. But I’m in it for the long haul.

Sure, it’s frustrating to get yet another “no” about a script, but getting upset about it won’t do me any good.

And what better way to get over it than by working on something else with the intent of making this one that much better? And there are plenty of something elses to keep me occupied.

A revamping of the outline of an older script continues, with pleasantly productive results (along with some phenomenal feedback on the logline). More insightful notes have come in for the comedy spec. Setting up a few more get-to-know-you meetings with other local writers*.

(*A meeting last week with one writer about her current project resulted in me being able to offer up some suggestions to another writer feeling frustrated about his. He, in turn, felt very encouraged with a renewed sense of hope, and was excited about some possible new avenues to try. I’m just happy to help.)

Hearing “thanks, but no thanks” still stings, but only for the briefest of moments. It’s taken a very long time for me to get to this point.

A few months ago, all that pressure I’d been putting on myself just went away. And I’m a lot better for it now.

And patient.

Success will happen when it happens.

But having it happen sooner rather than later would still be much appreciated.