Q & A with Jon Kohan

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Jon Kohan is a script consultant and award-winning screenwriter from Johnstown, PA, who’s worked in both film and television. His recent horror/comedy short Family Game Night earned him a Best Screenwriter nomination from the Shock Stock film festival (along with winning for Best Actor), and his holiday comedy Deer Grandma recently won Best Comedy at the Show Low Film Festival.

His comedy/crime short Spilled Paint is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, picking up several Best Short and Best Cast awards.

His first feature/backdoor pilot Ernie and Cerbie is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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

Mindhunter, season two, on Netflix. The first season was great, and the second was just as good. I love the show for all the tension-filled scenes that can last ten-plus minutes, and usually just between two or three characters. The writers of that show are super-talented, and I look forward to being able to read and study the scripts to see how to improve my own writing.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

The lead-up is a pretty long story- working different writing jobs as I gained more experience and building a resume of work – but I’ll talk about how I landed my first real gig.

I was doing freelance writing work on a site called Fiverr.com. I still use the site from time-to-time. On my page, at the time, I offered joke writing and screenwriting, but only for shorts.

I had a customer hire me for a short story idea they had. I work on it for about a week and sent it back to them. A couple weeks go by and that customer comes back and says they have an idea for a family film that could even be a television show but needs someone they feel has the talent and skill to write a pilot; maybe even possibly a whole first season.

I jumped at the chance to work on that script, and in fact did write the pilot and the entire first season (10 episodes). About a year after I wrote the pilot, the customer reached out to me again to let me know that the project was going into production. That customer’s name was Alvin Williams. Since working on that pilot, titled Ernie and Cerbie (currently streaming on Amazon Prime), we’ve teamed up on multiple projects and he’s become one of my main collaborators in the industry.

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

Anyone can probably be taught or learn how to recognize good writing, but something you can’t teach is how to tell a good story. Not everyone can do that. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story in the film or television format.

The rules/guidelines of writing a script is what I think makes screenwriting harder
than with other forms of writing. And not everyone can tell an entertaining story. Knowing and understanding what good writing is and looks like makes the viewer smarter, which allows for smarter movies. With a smarter audience, there’ll be a need for more originality – fresh perspectives, which will hopefully open the door to a more diverse and new pool of writers.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

This could be a very long list, but it all trickles down to one major core component: characters.

Not enough big Hollywood movies take the time to craft a film around strong characters, and instead try to build a film around a plot, or worse, action sequences, tone, look, etc.

What do The Dark Knight and Joker have in common other than the obvious that both are Batman films? They’re two of DC’s best films, and both focus more on character than all the craziness around them.

If you have characters we care about, can relate to, or at least understand where they’re coming from, and put them into conflicts that help our characters grow and become something more, you have a winner on your hands.

Even if your film is more about the concept (Independence Day, Godzilla), if you take the time to do the proper character work, you can throw a great one-two punch, something most Hollywood films seem to be lacking nowadays.

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

Formatting issues. No question. Not everyone uses screenwriting software, which is weird to me. If you’re not just writing a script as a hobby, you should invest in the proper industry tools.

I see formatting issues all the time, and those can easily be fixed, and quickly learned.

One of the most common things to see is a script not written like one. So many writers write action lines like they’re writing a novel. Telling us what the character is thinking, why they’re doing something a certain way, what’s going to happen later without us ever seeing it later.

I urge to my clients how “Show, Don’t Tell” is a huge rule they should always be repeating to themselves. How do you present information in a film or TV show? Either through images or dialogue. If we don’t see it or hear it, we don’t know it. When I have a writer I’m working with go back and look at their script again – with that guideline in mind – they’ll see just how much information is in their script that they are telling the reader, but not showing them.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I don’t know which I hate more:  “You lied to me?” or “There is a prophecy….”

The first is something you hear more in comedies. The second you always hear in
fantasy, adventure, action, etc. If I’m watching a romcom, I KNOW the end of the second act will have “You lied to me?” as dialogue – usually from the female lead.

For most summer blockbusters, fantasy films, the trailer is probably going to have some version of the “There is a prophecy…” line, and the entire setup will be this typical paint-by-numbers hero’s journey story.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know? 

Show, Don’t Tell. (see my response a few questions back)

Formatting – I know just looking at the first page if the read is going to be enjoyable or if it’s going to feel like I’m doing homework. That all stems from the format of the script. If I can glance and see issues, then I know there’s going to be issues with the characters, story, arcs, and so on. Even if you can can’t tell a story, or write good characters, and have something actually happen in your script, at least make the script look like a script. This sets the tone for your reader and lets them know you know what you’re doing.

As a writer, your goal is to get someone to read your script. A horribly-formatted script is an easy excuse for someone not to take the time to read your script. Don’t give them that choice.

DON’T WRITE CAMERA DIRECTIONS! – This is something a lot of first-time writers do in their scripts. I was no different. Learning how to write your action lines properly and how to influence the director in shooting a scene a certain way by the way it’s written not only makes your script stand out amongst the others but it’ll make you a better writer as a whole. I know it has for me, or at least think it has.

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

I’ve read scripts from screenwriting friends of mine that have really impressed me. Some of them are super talented, award-winning writers who are going to be names we recognize one day.

As far as reading a spec script that was sent to me to review and give detailed notes on, I haven’t read a script yet I’d stamp “recommend”. Some have come close, but unless you’re lucky and extremely talented, it’s not going to be your first script that you do something with.

The more scripts you write, the better you’ll be. My first script is god-awful compared to my tenth script, and my tenth script is amateurish compared to the latest draft of a script I recently finished.

What would a script need to get a “recommend” from me? As I keep saying, strong characters. Throw in a joke once in a while. Make me want to keep turning the pages. One of the worst things to see is a massive block of action or dialogue, and know the whole script is going to be that way. The more white on the page, the better.

A script could be for the greatest movie ever made, but if’s it’s a difficult chore to read and takes hours – or even days – to complete, I probably won’t see it as a recommended script.

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

Worth it – for sure. Screenwriting contests are great to try and win some awards, network with other screenwriters and filmmakers, and get yourself exposure.

With all that being said, if you place in or even win one of the top contests, that’s going to open a lot more doors for you than winning a much smaller contest.

I don’t agree that you must enter contests to be able to get a film produced. I’ve only recently started entering contests and already have several produced projects under my belt, with and more in development.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

The two best to get all the information you need and links to other sites are my Patreon page and my personal website.

On my Patreon, I offer screenwriting and script feedback services through two different subscription tiers. I’ve already had two filmmakers subscribe to have me write their feature films, so that’s been really exciting.

My IMDB page lists the projects I’ve worked on. There’s also a ton of stuff I’ve already done, but hasn’t been officially announced yet.

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

I bet you haven’t heard this one before – Oreo*. Store bought or homemade. Either works for me. I have a huge sweet tooth. This may sound like a little kid answer, but it’s the truth.

*editor’s note – there is no official site for Oreo pie, along with a ton of other blogs with recipes, so you’ll have to find one that works best for you.

No-Bake-Oreo-Cream-Pie-3

That’s not the question you should be asking

classroom
Class, who can tell me what “familiar, but different” means?

I see variations on this question a lot throughout many online forums:

What kind of script should I write?

Seriously?

And I say that in the least condescendingly way possible.

It amazes me that somebody who wants to write a script has to ask what they should write. Shouldn’t you already know? Isn’t that why you’re doing this in the first place?

Then again, I’ve always been a writer, so it was never a question of “What do I write?”, but more of “Which one do I write now?” and “How do I write this so it’s good?”

But back to the topic at hand…

My immediate response to the question in question is “Write something you would want to see.” But that’s my approach. Others may take a different stance.

One caveat – make sure whatever you write is as original a story as you can come up with that contains original characters and situations. Do whatever you can to make it your own. Readers will instantly recognize if you’ve “borrowed” something.

I recently read a script that was a blatant rip-off of a well-known franchise. Did the writer know this when they wrote it? I don’t know, but the actual concept behind their story seemed unique unto itself, with lots of possibilities, so it was actually kind of surprising and disappointing to see them follow that well-trod path instead of seeking out something new.

Something else to keep in mind – using well-known characters not created by you is a very, very bad idea. A writer friend has a connection at Marvel Studios who handles the non-stop influx of unsolicited spec scripts. No doubt your Spidey spec is brilliant, but you’re seriously fooling yourself and wasting your time.

Wouldn’t you rather your script be known for offering up something new and unique?

A lot of newer writers see what’s hot at the box office and think “I can crank out something like that in no time!” Also a waste of time. Trends come and go very quickly. What’s hot today could be ice-cold tomorrow. And you probably think you’re the only one to come up with some variation on that current big idea.

You’re not. It’s even money deals involving clones of that idea will be announced in the near future, all while you’re still churning out pages.

DON’T CHASE TRENDS. You’ll never catch up.

A writer I’ve exchanged notes with concluded our most recent email conversation with “Also wanted to pick your brain. I want to write a script about ____ . It’s an idea I’ve had for several years, but I don’t know if anyone would want to see it.”

Their concept seemed good with lots of potential, but also sounds very similar to a recent series on Netflix, which I thought increased the chances of inevitable comparisons between the two. But if it’s a story that’s been percolating for that long and they feel really passionate about it, then by all means, have at it.

As a spec writer, you have the freedom to write whatever you want. I suspect a lot of us are inspired by the films we grew up watching up to the ones we enjoy now.  Start there and see where it takes you.

Strive for originality, chums.

A scary good Q&A with Jimmy George

JImmy George

Jimmy George, aka Script Butcher, has been writing and producing films for over a decade. Along with optioning several screenplays, Jimmy has lent his name as co-writer/co-producer to six award winning feature-length films, garnering rave reviews, and boasting international distribution.

He has a talent for engineering fun and innovative productions on shoe-string budgets with few of the modern technological marvels used in major Hollywood blockbusters. Each of his films have been praised for circumventing their meager budgets, standing out through memorable storytelling.

Jimmy co-wrote and co-produced WNUF Halloween Special (2013), which won numerous festival awards, alongside national press from The New York Times, VICE, MTV, Birth.Movies.DeathFandango, and Red Letter Media, and is currently available on the AMC Networks’ streaming service, Shudder.

After tearing up the festival circuit, his most recent film, Call Girl of Cthulhu generated enormous buzz in the horror industry. Harry Knowles of Aintiticoolnews declared it “fun, better than it should be and quite splattacular.”.

Jimmy’s current project (and his seventh feature), What Happens Next Will Scare You, will be released next year.

In addition to writing and producing, Jimmy has a passion for helping creators succeed. As the Script Butcher, he consults with screenwriters, empowering them with the necessary tools to sharpen their scripts into dynamic stories that slice through the competition.

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

The pilot episode for GLOW. The world-building is excellent. It takes you into a sub-culture that’s mysterious and relatively unknown. The characters are memorable and entertaining. We meet the lead character at her lowest point. It leaves us with so much promise for what could take place during the series. Does everything a pilot should do and more.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

There are many screenwriting gurus out there. I am not one of them. I’m just a guy who’s written a ton of screenplays, produced a half-dozen movies of my own, and learned a lot along the way.

Over the last ten years of making movies, I’ve become the go-to script doctor for a lot of friends and colleagues. I’ve been doing this for free for a decade and it became clear a few years ago that this was my purpose. So I decided to start this service and try to make a living doing what I love.

Telling stories is what I was put on this Earth to do. Helping others fine tune their stories is a close second. I’ve been in your shoes. I know the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to complete a screenplay. This isn’t a job for me. It’s my passion. It’s what I live for.

Where does the moniker “Script Butcher” come from?

Whenever someone would ask for notes, I always delivered their script covered with red ink. The pages looked bloody. I once joked with a friend that I was their “script butcher” and it just stuck. To this day, every time I finish a set of notes my hands are covered with red ink splatters. I have a background in horror so a lot of people assume those are the only scripts I work with, but I provide the same exhaustive notes for all genres. I’d say 75% of my clients don’t write horror.

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

Writing well and recognizing good writing are skills that go hand in hand. Both can be taught and learned. For me, recognizing good writing as compared to bad has come from reading thousands of scripts at all levels of the talent spectrum. Having my own scripts brought to life on a frequent basis, sitting in theaters watching what works and doesn’t has also taught me invaluable lessons most script doctors haven’t had the opportunity to learn or pass along.

Studying the work of pros is a must too, but a lot of scripts available to the public are shooting drafts which are different from spec scripts and teach new writers bad lessons. So much can be learned from script consultants as well. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentoring advice and guidance I received from my own trusted script doctors.

I didn’t go to film school. The notes I received from these professionals over the course of a decade and a half, became my film school. By failing time and again, by continuing to experiment with the form and seeking constant feedback, I learned the craft. I never stopped trying to get better. Growing thick skin and learning how to use feedback to improve your stories is an important skill set for a writer.

Sending my scripts for notes became a crucial part of the writing process and continues to be.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script should have an original, marketable concept.

With flawed relatable characters who are actively seeking something they care deeply about, that we can emotionally connect with and root for, and that deals with the most important events of these character’s lives.

It should present a visual goal for the character or characters to achieve which form the central story question, and present primal, relatable stakes for what will happen if they fail to achieve those visual goals with formidable forces of antagonism that cause never-ending complications, standing in the way of the character’s achieving their goals.

It’s properly formatted on the page, relies on visuals instead of dialogue to tell the story, with plausible surprises and reversals of expectation at every turn.

And it builds to an emotionally satisfying climax that answers the central story question of whether our characters will achieve their visual goal in a positive or negative manner.

Other elements such as a quick pace, character arcs, thematic resonance, and memorable dialogue are a bonus, but not absolutely necessary for a script to do its job.

(Some of this is inspired by Terry Rossio’s 60 Question Checklist, which every screenwriter should read here.)

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

1) FAILURE TO DELIVER ON THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE

A story is a promise. Imagine Mrs. Doubtfire if the story followed Robin Williams working as an accountant instead of following the trials and tribulations of trying to reconnect with his wife and kids while dressed as an old woman.

The audience is waiting for you to deliver on the promise of your concept. If your script is about killer beer, you better have a beer pong massacre scene.

2) TONAL IMBALANCE

If you’re writing Schindler’s List, there’s no room for campy comedy. Vice versa.

Even if you’re mixing genres, keep your characters’ reactions to the events around them and the events themselves consistent in tone.

3) LACK OF CLARITY EMOTIONAL OR OTHERWISE

Clarity of what a character is feeling in reaction to a situation or what is being conveyed in general is a common issue I encounter with client scripts. Because the story is alive in your head, it’s difficult to tell what is and isn’t conveyed on the page. It’s all crystal clear for the writer, but often muddled on the page.

There are many more common mistakes, but these are the big ones.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

UNDESERVED CELEBRITY STATUS – I see so many scripts that give their characters a level of celebrity status that’s unbelievable simply for the sake of telling the media-frenzied story they’re trying to tell. The paparazzi and press are very specific about the types of people they will follow. Make sure your characters are worthy of the celebrity status you’re giving them in your story.

USING NEWSPAPER HEADLINES AS EXPOSITION – Many of my clients rely on one newspaper headline after another to show the passage of time and relay important exposition. Media has changed. This is an antiquated story device that no longer holds weight with the audience.

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

1) REVERSE EXPECTATION at every turn in a way that feels organic to the story and not calculated or contrived.

2) FIND THE CLICHE AND THROW IT AWAY. If we’ve seen it or heard it before, find another way to show it or say it. This will ensure your story always feels fresh and unique.

3) MAKE IT VISUAL. If dialogue comes last instead of first when you’re crafting scenes, it will ensure your story is cinematic and not better suited for the stage.

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

I have once, it’s called BaSatai by my longtime client Suzan Battah. She’s in the process of turning it into a graphic novel. You can find out more here. https://www.patreon.com/suzanbattah

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

Not worth it. Writers put so much time, emphasis, and worst of all, money into contests. In my opinion they’d be better off spending that time improving their craft and spending their money on attending networking events and writing workshops.

While I understand the allure of getting a festival or contest win to stand out from the crowd of writers trying to break in, a contest win can be detrimental to a writer’s sense of skill level and give them a false sense of completion with their scripts.

I’ve worked with dozens of screenplays that were “award-winning” with multiple festival monikers to their name, that I don’t feel would get a RECOMMEND from a single studio reader.

Writers are paying money to contests, being assured their scripts are good enough, when they aren’t ready yet. There’s nothing more detrimental to your career than trying to shop around a script that isn’t ready.

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

My website has all the details you’ll need at www.scriptbutcher.com/services

You can also find me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/scriptbutcher

Instagram at www.instagram.com/_jimmygeorge

And Facebook at www.facebook.com/scriptbutcher

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

Offbeat answer here. My wife and I were passing through Intercourse, Pennsylvania, otherwise known as Amish country. There was a gift shop that sold Shoofly Pie with cartoonish construction paper flies advertising how fresh it was. We bought a slice. Needless to say, it was so delicious we left with two whole pies.

What comes after you ride into the sunset?

And the journey continues...
And the journey continues…

At long last, the latest rewrite/polish of my western has reached a satisfying conclusion.

For now.

Several drafts later, it’s 6 pages shorter than the original, and packed with more character development and tighter scenes. That’s how I see it, anyway. Looking forward, as always, to the helpful feedback from trusted friends and colleagues.

This happened just in time, too. I was feeling pretty close to total burnout, so now I can rest and recharge, let alone even contemplate the idea of taking on another inevitable rewrite.

It’s an odd experience when you finish a project to which you’ve dedicated so much time and effort. You work, toil and slave away at it almost to the point of obsession, and then all of a sudden, poof! It’s done. You might not even know what to do with yourself.

“What now?” you might wonder. Treat yourself to a little reward? (Pie, as always, a great option) Take a break? Start something new? Maybe just kick back, relax and watch something (Netflix sent us THE MONUMENTS MEN, so maybe that) There is no wrong choice, so enjoy it. Bask in that glow of self-accomplishment. You’ve earned it.

I haven’t decided what to do yet, but knowing me, it’ll probably involve a day of not actually writing combined with thinking about the next big project, followed the next day with actual writing.

Not sure yet about the pie, though.

Typing with frostbitten fingers

Yeah, kind of like that
Yeah, that’s kind of how it feels

Technically, it’s not winter yet, but you wouldn’t know it around here.

32 degrees in San Francisco? Amazing, but true. Not to mention harsh, bitter and just plain unpleasant.

At least it’s not snowing. Traffic is hellish enough around here when it rains. I can’t imagine what would happen if Bay Area motorists had to deal with snow. And don’t even get me started on what some of the larger hills would be like.

So with several layers in place and a large cup of coffee at my side, I’ll do my best to stay warm while recounting recent goings-on from my slice of the frozen tundra.

-Work on the mystery spec continues. Page output varies from day to day. Have to keep reminding myself it’s an early draft, so everything doesn’t have to be perfect this time around. The “this plot point happens on this page” concept is already out the window, but for now, it’s all about just getting it written. Fixes come later.

-Notes on the western spec from friends and trusted colleagues continue to pour in. A wide variety of comments to take into account for that inevitable rewrite.

Several people had the same comment/suggestion about a significant story point, which has made me seriously reconsider how it plays out. I’ve been foolishly stubborn about not wanting to change it, but taking everything into account, the alternative may actually be the best fit.

-Slowly working my way through Season One of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA on Netflix Streaming. Worth the wait.

-Signed up for my fifth half-marathon of the year, taking place on Dec 28th. Which means I have to go outside and train. Safe to say that shorts will not be involved.

As much as I’d like to hit 1:50, I’ll be happy with anything under 1:55 and actually more concerned with not freezing my ass off.

Stay warm, friends.