Q & A with Jim Vines

Jim Vines

A Beast Is Born COVER (High Resolution) (COMPRESSED)

Jim Vines has been a screenwriter and script consultant for a number of years. His first produced film was THE PERFECT TENANT (2000). He has optioned several of his scripts and has also been commissioned to write or rewrite scripts for numerous producers. He has written a play (staged in 2009), a web series (2009), a book of interviews with screenwriters (2006), and “indie-published” his first novel in 2015. His latest book, A BEAST IS BORN, was released in 2019.

Jim, who was born in New York City but grew up in Los Angeles, and currently lives atop a hill that affords a truly inspirational view of the Hollywood sign.

What was the last thing you read/watched you considered to be extremely well-written?

I kinda hate to say this, but I don’t watch TV per se, so if you asked me to name two or three top TV shows, well, I probably couldn’t do it. But a few years ago, I thought MAD MEN was great. (I should point out the reason I don’t watch scripted TV is that I’m an avid watcher of documentaries and interview shows found on YouTube.) As for theatrical movies, I haven’t been to a new release in about eight years. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD got me back into a theater. I had high hopes for that one. All I’ll say is: I didn’t care for it.

I do a decent bit of reading and tend to go through a lot of biographies. A recent one was of Stanley Kubrick written by Vincent LoBrutto, which was pretty fascinating. I just did a re-read of Jack Kerouac’s excellent THE TOWN AND THE CITY. A few months ago I read Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH which I really enjoyed. I also finally read the Daniel Keyes novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, which was pretty amazing. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s rather poignant novel A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD and wrapped up the audio-book of the classic TRUE GRIT, written by Charles Portis (who passed away recently).

As you can probably ascertain by these titles, I’m drawn to stories about people and their plights, their struggles, where they’re trying to understand where they fit in with the rest of the world. This is what I find interesting.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

It was 1994 and I had been writing scripts with the intent to sell for four or five years. I knew this low-budget producer – she really liked a thriller script I’d written, so she optioned it. She never did get the script off the ground, but at least I knew my writing was solid enough to garner interest from producers. I kept sending scripts out. A couple of years later another opportunity came my way in the form of a script assignment from a budding producer who had read some of my work a year or so before. There was no up-front money but he was pretty certain he could sell the script to a production company where he had connections. So, I wrote the script (based on his story)—and he actually got it sold!

It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the next few years, but the script was eventually produced and the movie did quite well on the cable TV circuit. It played constantly on cable and broadcast stations here in the United States and also around the world (I know this because I’d received some pretty decent foreign royalty checks, which was nice). Having this credit on my resume made getting meetings, script assignments – everything from page one rewrites to doctoring scripts- and optioning original scripts a wee bit easier.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

You need to have interesting and/or compelling characters that people will feel something for. Even if it’s a bad guy, you have to give him (or her) at least a smidgen of humanity. Look at Hans Gruber in DIE HARD. Sure, he was a cold-blooded killer – but c’mon, he had such a great sense of humor! You should have a story that continually moves forward and doesn’t get bogged down. I can’t tell you how many novice scripts I’ve read where ten pages goes by and NOTHING happens. It’s just dialogue or superfluous actions that might seem cool or interesting while you’re writing it, but has virtually nothing to do with the story being told.

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

-Write screenplays because you love to write and love telling stories, not because you
think you’re gonna get rich and famous. (Quick, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar last
year?)

-Writing is work—and if you’re not willing to put your rear end in a chair and your
fingers on the keyboard on pretty much of a daily basis, you probably need to find
another career path.

-Rules were meant to be broken, but first know these rules before you break them.

-Rewriting is your friend.

-Formatting isn’t what makes a script sellable. Sure, you need to get it all looking nice and proper, but the actual words you put on those 100 pages—this is what you need to focus on.

-There is no one particular way to write a screenplay. Your job is to discover the method
that works best for YOU.

-Don’t rush things. Send your scripts out only when they’re ready. As they say, you only
have one chance to make a first impression. If you send an agent or producer a script
that’s still pretty rough, chances are they won’t want to read any of your future work.

It’s my opinion—and I’ve done over 200 critiques/evaluations—that about 99% of all
novice screenplays are nowhere near marketable shape, so please, don’t write your first
two or three screenplays intending to sell them; write them merely for the purposes of
learning the craft.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book A BEAST IS BORN?

For a long time I’ve wanted to chronicle the writing, marketing, production, and afterlife of one of my projects. I just never got around to it. But as the marketing phase of my short horror SUSIE’S BEAST script ground on, I realized I had plenty to write about: all the ups and down, all the gut-punching disappointment. I had personal journal entries (I’ve kept a daily journal since 2004) and emails relating to SUSIE’S BEAST, so I figured it was now or never. I pieced it all together and—voilà—A BEAST IS BORN!

I don’t think most pre-pro (i.e., novice) screenwriters realize how long it can take for a script to finally end up in front of a camera. Whether you’re talking about a 15-page short (which is what SUSIE’S BEAST was) or a 120-page feature, the script-to-screen voyage can take years and years. Sadly, that’s the rule and not the exception. I wanted the reader of my book to get a sense of that journey.

It took 11 years for your script to be produced, which must have really tried your patience. What was it that made you keep going?

It’s not like SUSIE’S BEAST was my entire world. I had a lot going on a personal level. As for my writing life, I was working on my first novel, writing and producing a web series, and had been getting script assignments—so I was keeping busy. Aside from all that, I knew this was a solid script that absolutely had to get made.

What were some of the takeaways/lessons you learned from the whole experience?

I’m not sure I learned much of anything I didn’t already know, but it definitely reminded me that in order to be a screenwriter you need to have a certain doggedness and faith in your own writing. I also realized I might be a little too lenient with people, giving them too much time to get things done or make up their minds. If I hadn’t been so indulgent, I probably could’ve shaved a year or two off that 11-year timeline.

Despite everything you endured trying to get SUSIE’S BEAST made, is writing (and
potentially making) a short film something you’d recommend to writers?

Getting a short film made typically will not do a whole lot for a screenwriter’s career. If the finished film makes any kind of a splash at film festivals, it might do something for the director, the actors, maybe even the director of photography. But for the writer – well, hopefully they get a fun and creative experience. That’s pretty much all I wanted out of it. Luckily, that’s what I got! But having your name on a produced short – especially if it wins some awards – can’t do you too much harm. So, yeah, go for it!

You’ve also written another Hollywood-based book—your novel LUIGI’S CHINESE
DELICATESSEN. What was the inspiration for that?

I figured my first novel should be about something I knew, so I wrote about a young guy going to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a screenwriter. The story is loosely – very loosely – based on some experiences I’ve had in this town. As I’ve mentioned in previous interviews: “The book is 97% a work of fiction—and no, I’m not telling you which three-percent is true.” It’s a fun ride, it really is. One review referred to it as a “cautionary tale,” which I think is pretty accurate!

How can people find out more about you and your work?

A BEAST IS BORN is available on Amazon. Check out Jim Vines Presents which is my “creative page” on Facebook, and my screenwriting blog The Working Screenwriter.

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

This is a very silly question, but an excellent one. Let’s see…I’ll have to go with pecan. I love pecan pie. Pumpkin’s also pretty great, especially when it’s topped with whipped cream. But pecan pie on its own – sooooo good!

Bit of a mishmash, but it works

goulash
Try it. You’ll like it.

The overhaul/revision of the sci-fi adventure outline continues, with some significant progress being made – especially over the past few days.

There’ve actually been a few rough spots just to get here.

One being letting go of how the previous drafts started out, story-wise, and not letting those details affect the new one.

Another has been being able to present important and relevant details and backstory without things being way too expository.

Still another has been figuring out how some, but definitely not all, of the story details could be reorganized, restructured, pretty much rebuilt from the ground up but still have it all work within the context of the story.

It’s been quite the challenge, but the gears have been constantly and consistently turning during the search for a solution.

Took a while to get there, but looks like it’s yielding some results.

But first – a little background info.

I make a point of holding onto previous drafts of outlines and scripts, because you never know if part of it will come in handy for a future draft.

Thus was the case here.

There were sections of the story that were going to stay, but some others simply weren’t a solid fit for the new draft – but there was something about them that still worked and that I wanted to keep.

Getting them to that point took several attempts, approaches and revisions. Took a while, but I got there.

Despite being a slow and somewhat drawn-out process, the new story is gradually coming together. I’m not one to impose deadlines on myself, but once I get all of this a little more organized, the outline should come together relatively quickly.

I like the idea of having a completed first draft, possibly even a revised second draft, by years’ end.

No pressure, but we’ll see how it goes. Probably helps that I’m really enjoying putting this one together.

Send it. Forget it.

master

One of the essential qualities a screenwriter needs is patience. And lots of it. Actually, a ridiculously vast amount of it.

Things never go as fast as you want them to. It’s just the way it is.

Waiting can be tough enough as it is, but when it involves other people and your stuff? Time not only slows to a crawl, but probably feels like it’s standing still.

Once you send it, it’s out of your hands. Absolutely nothing else you can do.

Naturally, you daydream about getting a response in record time. With raving, positive comments, of course. No reason it shouldn’t take more than a couple of days, tops, right?

Anybody who’s been in this scenario knows otherwise. Days stretch into weeks, which stretch into months, and maybe even into years. I know more than a few writers who heard back from a producer over a year after sending in a script. It happens.

When I was just starting out, I couldn’t help but think “What’s taking them so long?”. We tend to forget that the people to whom we’re sending also have lives of their own. It’s pretty likely our stuff isn’t top priority for them, so the odds increase that it’ll get nudged aside for something that is. As a result, your wait time gets longer and longer.

After a lot of trial and error, I’ve found sending a friendly follow-up about 5-6 weeks later can be pretty effective. It at least reminds them that you’re still around. Sometimes they’re apologetic about it, and sometimes you might not hear anything at all.

Helpful tip – DO NOT be the writer who’s offended by being treated this way. Non-stop follow-up calls and emails. Complaining about it on social media. A big part of this business is presenting yourself as somebody who other people would want to work with. Acting like this is most definitely the wrong path to take.

So once you send your stuff out, what do you do to divert your focus and attention? Easy. You’re a writer. You write. Not only does it help pass the time, but you get stuff done. How productive is it to keep refreshing your email every few minutes? Developing and adding new material to your catalog is always a good idea.

When they say “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” the implications behind it go beyond just how long all of this takes. Hopefully you can muster the strength to keep at it on all fronts.

Have a great weekend. Make sure you write something.

More work now, better results later

lalanne

It can be safely said the extensive overhaul of the outline for my pulpy sci-fi adventure story is just about wrapped up. Still have a lingering handful of small details in need of fleshing out, but I’m eagerly anticipating jumping into cranking out pages in the very near future.

Figuring all of this out – including several attempts on the beginning, and then working out the development of events over the course of the first act and the first half of the second act- took a lot longer than I expected, and definitely longer than I wanted. There were many times all I could think was “am I EVER going to figure this out?”.

A lot of writers feel that way while working on a project. We’re an impatient lot, and the ongoing struggle to find solutions doesn’t help. We want it already written. But learning how to do so effectively is necessary. How else will we improve?

It’s probably a safe bet to say that my development skills are stronger than they were – even compared to a couple of years ago, or else this overhaul wouldn’t be where it is now. Every story problem would require a lot of thought and mulling-over, and maybe I’d come up with a slapdash, roughshod placeholder of a solution – just to be able to move on.

A bad and counterproductive idea.

I like to put together stories with a lot of moving parts, and each one requires the same amount of attention in order to make the whole thing a smooth-running machine. If that means taking a little more time to do so, then so be it. I’d much rather make sure as I go along that everything works and connects the way it’s supposed to than have it come to a screeching halt because of something I overlooked or forgot about, or even worse, felt was “good enough for now”.

An added bonus to all the work on developing this story in the outlining phase is that since I’ve already written down what’s supposed to transpire in each scene, including the purpose and the conflict, it’ll make it easier (and in theory, a faster process) to transfer all of that to the actual pages.

Once I do start on pages, I can only hope to see a slight increase in my daily output. After having gone through the outline a few times, editing and tweaking as I go, I’m getting a stronger feel of flow for the story, seeing ways to incorporate more development for the characters, and just an overall sense of “I like the previous draft, but this one feels so much closer to what I set out to do”.

And I most definitely would not have gotten to this point if I hadn’t put in the time and effort to make sure every single part of it did exactly what I needed it to.

Taking it scene by scene

dufresne
Fortunately, I don’t expect this to take 17 years

The daily churning-out of pages for the first draft of the horror-comedy continues – still in Act One as of this writing – and now that November is underway, if I can maintain my current output of approximately 3 pages a day, there’s no reason the typing-out of FADE OUT couldn’t happen by mid-to-late December.

I’d probably be a little further along if it weren’t for my ongoing desire to keep going back and editing/revising what I’ve already written, which is a lot more tempting than you’d expect. But doing what I can to just write a scene and move on to the next one. Once again, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

And since this is supposed to be a horror-comedy, I’ve also gotten into the habit of trying to make sure each scene features some element of each genre – something scary and something funny. Trying being the key word here. This is a much bigger challenge, but again, doing what I can. Also helping – recent touch-up work on my two other comedies.

With one of the definitive screenwriting mantras being “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”, I don’t have any problems with taking an evenly paced and semi-methodical approach. There are some writers who can sit and crank out a draft in record time, but I’m not one of them. I lean towards the “hope I can hit my page goal today” camp.

But most importantly, I’m just trying to not stress about it and enjoy the whole process. It’s a fun story, and I like the concept, so why not make it a positive experience rather than fret and obsess? That way, it seems a lot less like work and more like “here I am having a blast being a writer and stuff”.

Because I’ll take that mindset any day.