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

A slight course correction

XEaj

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.

Pushing yourself to push further

A little effort can yield major results

The past few days have seen some significant progress regarding the rewrite of the dramedy.

There’s been a lot of cutting, tightening, reorganizing, and at least several attempts at how a particular sequence plays out. Took a while, but I’m happy with the results. Funny how sometimes it always seems to take a couple of tries until you find the “just right” solution.

One thing that happened more than once during all of this was that I would spend a good deal of time rewriting something until I was satisfied with the results, and think “That’s good for now. What can I work on next time?” That would usually be followed by jotting down some notes to be used in that next session, and then shift away from script work.

This time, however, things were a little different. Couldn’t say if it’s experience providing me with a little more insight, or having a little more time to work with (what with Ms V being done with school and soccer), or just my writer’s brain constantly on the job, but as I would wrap up revising one part of the story, there was no hesitation to immediately jump into the next one and start on it.

This occurred more than a few times, and provided some very positive results on several fronts.

Continuously pushing myself to do a little bit more, even if it was just some minor edits or tweaking some a few lines of dialogue, helped take care of stuff that needed to be taken care of, which in turn would (in theory) make the script better than it was. A gradual chipping away at the list of fixes a script needs can complete the list quicker than you realize.

And it certainly must be mentioned about the impact it had on me as a writer. Rather than think “I’ll just take care of it next time,” I got into the mindset of “despite how this might look, it’s not as big a problem as you think. Give it a try.” I did, and while the first attempts may not have yielded immediate or desired results, each one was at least a step in the right direction.

Call it what you will. Positive thinking. Going the extra mile. Exercising the writing muscles. No matter the nomenclature, it’s become a big help for me and will no doubt be an important part of my writer’s arsenal for all future endeavors.

-Since 2003, the National Hispanic Media Coalition has hosted an annual Writers Program in partnership with Comcast, ABC, Disney, and Final Draft in efforts to prepare and place Latinos in writing jobs for major television networks.

The program consists of a five-week, total immersion workshop that is mentored and guided by former NBC V.P. of Script Development Geoff Harris and is conducted in Burbank, CA. A total of 10 writers are accepted nationwide from an established network of non-profit agencies, schools, universities, guilds, and media organizatons. The goal of the program is for writers to garner the skills necessary to obtain employment in the industry.

NHMC’s Latino TV Writers Program has prepared and connected more than 100 graduates sine 2003, and 35 percent haev earned positions on TV and onlin shows featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CW, BET, HBO, Disney Jr., Hulu, Amazon, Lifetime, and Netflix.

The application deadline for Fall 2018 is August 5th, and winners will be announced mid-September to begin the program in the Fall. More information on NHMC and the program can be found here: nhmc.org/writersprogram.

My race, my pace

half-marathon
Focus on finishing, not winning

This past weekend, I ran my first half-marathon of the year. Luckily for me, it was a pretty flat course, and I accomplished my primary goal of finishing under two hours. 1:58:43, to be specific.

That works out to about a 9-minute mile, which for me is pretty good. It’s faster than I run during my training runs.

Because it’s an actual race, I tend to push myself a little bit more. Not because I’m trying to beat any of the other runners, but to see what I’m truly capable of.

Naturally, there will be those who finish much sooner than me. I think I was somewhere around the 7-mile mark when the eventual winner passed by in the opposite direction. They were maybe a minute or two from the finish line, while I had just passed the halfway point, so still had another six miles to go (equaling about a little less than an hour or so).

Was I bothered by that? Not in the least. I’m nowhere near being able to run that fast anyway. The takeaway is that we were each going at the pace that worked best for us. Theirs just happened to be significantly faster than mine.

“Well, that’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with screenwriting?” you might ask.

Easy. The results from when I do a race are similar to the results of when I write: I go at my own pace, which is different from everybody else’s. Some writers will get done faster, and some will take longer. As long as you’re happy with the results of how you did is what matters the most.

I know several writers who’ve had some very productive writing sessions the past few weeks; a few have been churning out pages at a seemingly inhuman rate. Do I wish I could emulate them and crank out double-digit numbers of pages every day? Sure, but my personal circumstances being what they are, that’s just not an option. For me, ending the day with three new pages is a victory.

It’s very easy to see somebody else’s progress, compare it to your own, which isn’t as much, and feel like you’re doing a lousy job.

DON’T.

How somebody else writes is absolutely no reflection on how you do. That’s them and you’re you. Comparing and contrasting both sides is pointless. All of your focus and attention should be on you; everything else is a distraction.

Like with running, if you want to improve, you need to work at it. It’s not easy, and takes time. But if you’re willing to put in the effort and keep at it on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself gradually doing better than you did a few weeks or months ago. That, in turn, will boost your confidence and make you want to keep trying to improve.

Writing a script is a long journey, and every single step gets you a little bit closer to finishing. And all those steps add up.

Put in the work, and you’ll see the results. Today, three pages. A week from now, four. After a month, five, six, or even more. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a completed draft.

All without breaking a sweat.

The drive. The motivation.

feather quill
This would probably be easier with a typewriter or a computer

I’ve been on quite a bit of a tear the past few weeks, with a lot of rewriting, revising and polishing going on for a few scripts. Definitely couldn’t have gotten to this point without some extremely helpful and insightful notes for each one.

Since a few of them involve working with other people, I like to do the polite thing and keep each person updated regarding the progress on the respective script. Where I am in the story, how it went with scenes or sequences that needed work, that sort of thing.

I tend to include my enthusiasm for latest developments and optimism for continuing success in those updates, which seems to garner responses along the lines of:

“I can see it in your energy.”

“I love your work ethic!”

Making headway on a script, no matter how big or small, is addicting. You’re able to make something better, and you want to keep doing it.

To me, it’s really just loving doing this. And the more I do it, I like to think I get a little bit better each time. Probably also safe to say that seeing as how this is what I want to do for a living, enjoying it is a bit of necessity.

It’s always great to see or hear another writer really get into talking about their script because you can see their excitement about it shine through. It’s infectious. But there are also those, myself included, who get frustrated or depressed about their lack of progress. That’s understandable. We’ve all been there. Even the most successful pros.

But at the heart of it all we keep pushing forward, doing our best to not only make the material better, but to also improve how we go about making it better. It’s a challenge, to be certain. One that requires constant effort. Even when you don’t want to, or think it’s all for nothing.

Nobody ever achieved success by giving up.

And I’ve no intention of giving up.