A most informative Q & A with Andrew Zinnes

 

andrew zinnes

Andrew Zinnes is a UK-based screenwriter, screenwriting consultant and producer who’s worked for production companies, read for contests, and co-author of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking and The Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Film Making. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Screenwriting at The Bournemouth Film School at Arts University Bournemouth, the London Film Academy, and the University of Portsmouth.

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

I have small children so I don’t get to the theater as much as I’d like, but I recently saw I, TONYA and thought it was fantastic – a real pleasant surprise! I remember the Nancy Kerrigan incident vividly and, at the time, there wasn’t a bigger villain than Tonya. Yet Steve Rogers managed to make her sympathetic by focusing on her relationship with her mother and other aspects of her home life. Then you add breaking the fourth wall and other stylistic choices, and the characters became self-aware in a manner that added to their depth and relatability. BABY DRIVER was great, too. Loved the way they used music to tell the story. Very Edgar Wright.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I became a script reader for a small production company based at Sony. I read for free as I wanted anyway into the machine. I would go in on off days or they would messenger me scripts, back when that was a thing, and I would write up coverage and fax it back to them, when that was a thing. I became friends with the assistants in the office and when I said I wanted to do development, they put me up for other assistant gigs.

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

From my experience, recognizing good writing is innate. Many years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving and took my weekend read with me. My sister got curious and started reading some of them. She read one that was a spec from an unknown writer and she was surprised at its mediocrity. She stopped reading after 40 pages and picked up another. This time she started laughing straight away and continued through the whole 100 pages. That script turned out to be AMERICAN PIE. She knew the difference between the two scripts quality-wise with no training, but what she wasn’t able to do was tell me what was wrong with them via screenplay/story theory or how she would have fixed any issues. That part needs to be learned and practiced as one would with any craft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The biggest component revolves around making the story or premise personal to you, the writer. If it’s not something you’re passionate about then how are you going to put 100% effort into it? If you can’t connect to the premise, then how can the reader or the viewer? John Truby says this issue leads to generic, unoriginal work and I have seen this first hand with my college/university students. Just recently, one wanted to do a crime thriller that had an okay hook, but was otherwise unremarkable. I asked why he wanted to do this project and he said it was because he loved those kind of movies and this sounded cool. I told him my doubts and he got frustrated. He said that he has trouble making decisions about writing because he doesn’t want to make mistakes that can’t be undone easily. When I pressed, he said he felt that way about many things in life, not just writing. I told him he should write about that concept. His eyes lit up!

The other key component are the forces of antagonism. I don’t just mean the villain. I mean everything that holds back the protagonist(s) from their goals. The better they are, the better the tension, drama and comedy become.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Because I work with many writers in the development of stories from early in their conception, impatience reigns the king of mistakes. Often times writers want to rush into the actual writing before they’ve explored a premise fully. The don’t want to do enough research to make the story richer or come up with alternative character motivations and story points that might make their project surprising and original. They don’t want to take hard looks at their structure because they have something in their head and want to get it out.  I get it. I’ve felt the rush of getting something down in Final Draft, too. However, whenever I’ve let a client or student get on with it despite my objections, it always goes wrong. They create a story and/or characters that are generic or derivative. They come to the point where the structure doesn’t work and either get stuck or plow forward anyway and there’s structure or story flaws. Now for some writers, this is the process they need to go through. This is how their brains process information. That’s fine, but whether that is the case or they are just steadfast, we end up going back to the drawing board to pull everything apart as we should have done originally.

Aside from that, overwriting tends to be an issue, especially with newer writers. Screenplays are meant to be quick reads and having a lot of black on the page slows that down. Learning economy of writing is essential. I realize that many people, myself included, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’s style, which creates these dense, epic screenplays and, that further, feel they should follow suit. However, one, that’s being derivative; two, they’re directing the work so they probably doing it partially because they don’t want to forget anything; and three, they’ve earned it as they had to fund their first films in this style mostly themselves and became successful with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes don’t bother me. It’s what is done with the tropes that matters. Whenever a superhero movie comes out social media garners a a lot of eye rolls and hate from various creative or general public communities and then WONDER WOMAN, DEADPOOL or BLACK PANTHER comes out and shakes things up. Teen horror films is another one that gets a lot of grief, and then HAPPY DEATH DAY hits the screens and all of a sudden cyberspace is hit with short memory syndrome. Take tropes and tell them in unique ways.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Observe people, places, things and ideas.
-Observe by asking questions and listening to what people say and don’ t cut them off to speak about yourself.
-Travel and observe what’s around you.
-Write down what you observe and think about what universal truths of the human condition emerge that matter to you.
-Read good scripts and watch good movies so you know what works.
-Read bad scripts and watch bad movies so you can recognize problems to avoid.
-Notes are opinions. They aren’t personal.

Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I haven’t read many. TRAINING DAY may have been one. THE SIXTH SENSE may have been one, too. The reasons are for the usual hallmarks: great voice, original take on a premise, explored some kind or large idea, writing that moved my emotions (tense, scary, etc) and structured well. Then the other side of the equation, the business side, saw great roles for movie stars to play, was something my company might do and had general commercial appeal.

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

That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you can win one or at least become a finalist, it can get you noticed. The bigger the competition the better your chances, obviously. If you live outside of Los Angeles or don’t have a friend that works in the industry, it may be one of the only ways that you can garner attention. On the other hand, if you enter many of them, it can get expensive. Also there is a fundamental truth about screenplay competitions: there has to be a winner. It’s the best of what a competition gets that year, not necessarily the best written thing that would attract an agent or manager and that sometimes makes Hollywood impatient with competitions. But all in all, I say they are worth it. Especially if there’s some sort of networking attached to winning or placing.

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

I’m very easy to find: andrewzinnes.co.uk. You can message me from there. I live in the UK, but work with writers all over the world. Thank you FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp!

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

Blueberry! I make a mean one, too.

blueberry pie

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

I know the rules, and do not hesitate to break them

breaking free
Took a while to be able to do it, but well worth the effort

Used to be that when I would outline a story, I’d try to be as spot-on about hitting industry-recommended page numbers as I could.

Statement of theme on page 3, inciting incident on page 10, etc., etc. That’s how I learned it, so that’s how it must be.

These days? Not so much.

I don’t go crazy, you understand. No scenes lasting 10 pages or anything of that nature.  More like “this happens…around here-ish”.

When I first gave it a try, my immediate thought was “Is that going to be a problem?” It had become so ingrained into my process that this was how it was supposed to be, and any deviation from that was wrong.

Then my writer’s sense of craft kicked in with a hearty “Nope. Have at it, kid”.

As far as I know, the screenwriting police (is there such a thing?) aren’t going to shut me down because something doesn’t happen where THE RULES say it should. I’d rather focus on telling an engaging story with an intelligent plot and well-developed characters than worry about this kind of pettiness.

And honestly? It’s incredibly liberating.

I’m much more interested in telling the story in a way I deem appropriate, rather than drastically cutting something or even cutting it altogether just to make sure the beats happen on the designated pages.

So if my opening sequence runs a page or three longer, so be it. Does it work against me? I don’t think so. My writing usually moves at a good pace, so if something happens a little sooner or later than you expect, and if I’ve done my job in really grabbing your attention, chances are you probably won’t even notice it.

Unless you’re a real stickler for that sort of thing. Most of the writers who read my stuff aren’t; they’re more interested in reading a good script.

-Through September 30th (that’s this Sunday!), the fine folks at LiveRead/LA are offering the discount code MAXZ15 for 15 percent off their script services and the fee for their contest where your script could  be one of two read live by professional actors in Los Angeles in October. Following the read (30 pages max), feedback will be provided, including from veteran production exec & producer Debbie Liebling – Comedy Central, Fox, now working with Sam Raimi. Writers from everywhere are encouraged to submit. The event will be livestreamed, so if your script is chosen and you can’t attend, feedback will be provided live via Skype.

-Filmmaker Scott Kawczynski is running a crowdfunding project for his animated film Light Work. It’s a pre-sale, so even for $1, you can watch the film. Donate if you can!

Q & A with Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger of Write/LA

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hs-e1521810938693.jpgTim S

Screenwriters enter contests for a variety of reasons: industry connections, cash, software, notes on their script. And there are a lot of contests to choose from. How your script places can make a significant impact on helping you establish a screenwriting career.

And now there’s a new contest that wants to help you do just that.

Write/LA launches today (with early bird pricing in effect until April 30th), and is the brainchild of Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger. I had the opportunity to speak to them about it.

But first, a little background info…

Angela Bourassa is the founder and editor in chief of LA Screenwriter, a leading online resource for working and aspiring screenwriters around the world. Angela graduated from UCLA back in 2008 and has been writing feature screenplays — mostly comedy — ever since. In addition to writing, she spends much of her time wrangling her 18-month-old son, watching Survivor (#DropYourBuffs), and trying to keep track of which jail her public defender husband is visiting today.

Tim Schildberger is the founder of LiveRead/LA as well as a script consultant, writer with thirty years’ experience, an expat Australian, creator/writer of a Travel Channel comedy/reality series no one saw, and the man who led the team who found all the people for the feature film Borat. He’s a big fan of Aussie rules football (which isn’t anything like football or soccer or any other known sport) and baking treats with his twin girls for LiveRead/LA’s events.

Both of you have extensive experience providing information & resources to screenwriters. Tell us about your respective paths to get there.

Tim: I started writing for an Australian soap opera called Neighbours when I was 21. For the last twenty years I’ve been in the USA, and I’ve been a member of a writing group that holds weekly live reads. Not only has working with actors helped me enormously as a writer, but so has hearing all the feedback from my peers. That experience helped me overcome my hatred of re-writes (does anyone like re-writing?) and showed me the only path to becoming a better writer is writing more, sharing your stories, and being open to feedback. It also showed me I have an aptitude for identifying strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, offering suggestions while maintaining the writer’s self respect.

In 2016, I decided that rather than continue assisting others with their scripts as a favor – which was becoming a little time consuming – I would put my own spin on the live read concept and build a new collaborative community, so I launched LiveRead/LA – and it’s already helped many writers. But I wanted to do more – to help more writers, to reach more people. I couldn’t make it happen alone, though, so it wasn’t until I met Angela and we discovered we had a similar sensibility about helping and giving back that Write/LA was born.

Angela: I started LA Screenwriter in 2011, and at first it was just a small blog where I would bring together produced scripts that I wanted to read and screenwriting articles that I found helpful as I worked toward my own dream of becoming a working screenwriter. But over the years, it’s really taken off, and now thousands of people a day come to the site for advice and resources, and that’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

I’ve thought about launching an annual competition before, but I honestly think that a lot of the screenwriting competitions out there – maybe even most of them – are ripoffs that don’t have the writer’s best interests at heart, and I didn’t want to be part of that cycle. I only wanted to start a competition if I had the ability to offer great prizes and great judging that could actually help writers in their careers, and that ability showed up in the form of Tim.

What prompted you to create Write/LA?

Tim: I was prompted to create Write/LA because I wanted to share what I’ve learned about writing, about the power of hearing your work read by actors, and about giving and receiving feedback. And the importance of interacting with working industry folk. Los Angeles is the global epicenter of writing for TV and film, so it seemed obvious to try to find a way to bring people to LA to learn, connect, and be celebrated for what they’ve achieved so far.

Angela: And I really wanted to be a part of Tim’s vision, because his idea for this competition and the prizes got me excited. Both of us are writers, so we know what it feels like to do well in a competition and then end up with no real benefit. We’re trying to change that by creating a competition that we both would want to enter.

What makes Write/LA different from other screenwriting competitions?

Tim: Write/LA is a competition aimed at the process of writing at a professional level. Most other competitions offer prizes in the hopes of discovering a script that can sell or a writer who can get representation. We’re focused on building command of the craft. Let’s be clear – our three grand prize winners will be writing while they’re in town. They’ll also be mingling with working writers and Industry people and gathering knowledge and experience that’s vital for lasting success. We aim to help our writers become professionals, not just one-hit wonders. It’s that combination of experience, education, and celebration that sets us apart.

What sort of criteria are you looking for in scripts that are entered?

Tim: We’re looking for evidence of command of the craft. That means we want original stories, compelling characters, an understanding of format and genre, and way above all else – an emotional connection with the material. There has been so much written about the structure of writing for TV and film: act breaks, inciting incidents, midpoint turns, and the rest. As a result, many writers are good at moving characters from point A to B to C.  But very, very few are good at letting us know what this particular story is doing to the emotional well being of the characters. An audience needs to feel something, or the script is flat.

As I like to say, no teenage girl saw Titanic ten times because it was a cool special effects movie about a boat sinking. They felt for Jack and Rose. We want to find scripts that make us feel, show us the writer knows how to tell a story, and will really benefit from the grand prize we’re offering.

Angela: That’s why we’re not judging film and television scripts separately. We’re accepting both, and we might end up with completely different genres and formats for the three grand prize winners, which I’m personally really excited about. We’re interested in emotional, engaging storytelling above all else.

Seeing as how this is Write/LA’s inaugural year, what are you hoping to establish with it in terms of opportunities for screenwriters?

Angela: We want to establish ourselves as a different kind of screenwriting competition. Our prizes stand out from the crowd, and we’re hoping a lot of writers out there understand the undeniable value of a private, intensive writing lab, an inside look at the industry, and the value of having their words read in front of an invite-only LA crowd.

Tim: Our winners will have a rare gift for any writer – a moment to be celebrated. Obviously, we hope their time with us will be a springboard to a writing career, or perhaps the final step toward breaking through, but what we’ll be focused on is helping them make connections and bring their writing up to a professional level so that – when they’re ready – they can begin long and successful writing careers.

We will also give everyone who makes the quarterfinals and above something of value. Being named a quarterfinalist feels good, but usually means little else. We want to change that.

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

Tim: Gosh. I love pie. But if you’re forcing me to choose, I think I lean toward the more pudding/custard pies. In Australia we have custard pies, which are my absolute favorite. But here in the US, I love a good banana cream pie. No disrespect to the fruit pies – as I said, I wouldn’t say no to any of them!

Angela: For me it has to be blackberry. Blackberry pies remind me of my childhood. But I’m a sucker for basically any sweets that don’t have nuts. (Apologies to the pecan pie fans out there.)

banana cream pieblackberry pie

A contrast in opinion(s)

pecan & cream
One thing we can all agree on: pie is wonderful. Anybody who believes otherwise is just wrong.

During my recent sojourn to Los Angeles, I filled up a lot of my schedule with in-person meetings with several folks with whom I’ve only interacted via social media or the telephone.

To those I’d contacted but we couldn’t make happen – maybe next time.

But back to the matter at hand. Every one of those meetings generated some thorough conversations about working within, or at least working on breaking into, the industry. Some were more experienced than others, but everybody had a lot of interesting things to contribute.

Plus, they were all well aware of my goal/ambition to be a working writer, so suggestions and advice were plentiful and happily offered, and I was more than happy to receive them.

And that’s also where things got…interesting. As you’d expect, there was a wide variety of information offered. One person would suggest something, another would suggest something different, and more than once did these two suggestions totally contradict another.

Someone says “THIS is what you need to do,” while another says “Whatever you do, DON’T do THIS.”

What’s an aspiring creative-type person to do?

One of my meetings was with a semi-retired industry veteran. I’d received some advice the day before, and was a bit hesitant, or maybe call it skeptical, to accept it. Seeing as how the person I was meeting with was pretty savvy, I asked what they thought about it. They had that “Huh?” look. “I’ve never heard of that before,” was their response, followed by some rational explaining why they respectfully disagreed.

It’s been my experience that everybody has an opinion about what works and what doesn’t work, but that’s also based on how it applied to them. Circumstances and conditions will always be different in every situation for each individual. What worked for somebody else may totally backfire for you. Figure out what you think works best for you.

And be forewarned – sometimes you might choose wrong. It happens to everybody. Use it a learning opportunity to help ensure it doesn’t happen again. In theory, you’ll only make that kind of mistake once.

I was very fortunate to be able to meet with so many knowledgeable people, which now enables me to more or less cherry-pick from the suggestions and advice I think are the most appropriate and applicable.

Hopefully, they’ll yield the desired results. I’ll let you know how it goes.