Q & A with Peter Russell

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Peter Russell is a screenwriter who sold two television pilots in 2018 – a crime procedural and a biographical mini-series. He is also a long-time story doctor in Hollywood whose clients include Imagine, HBO, Participant, Viacom, CBS Television and many more. Peter is in demand for his legendary seminars and master classes on film and TV story. Peter’s charismatic speaking style won him UCLA Teacher of the Year in 2009.

Peter ghostwrites for both new and established film and television writers and producers. He has consulted on many TV shows, including GENIUS (National Geographic series 2017-present) MR. ROBOT (Emmy for Best New Television Drama 2015), Chronicles Of Narnia (Lion, Witch & Wardrobe), The Da Vinci Code (Imagine Films) and many others.

Peter privately collaborates with producers, writers, and actors on film and TV story from treatments to pilots and full story development. He teaches his own classes online at: http://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/, and live at major universities, including UCLA.

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

SNOWFALL. Fantastic writing. The way both the showrunner and the staff-written eps broke the beats in every ep was insanely good. They used every trick in the book to surprise you. The beat almost NEVER went where you thought it was gonna go. Surprises, reversals, ticking clocks, raising stakes – I admire the craftsmanship of that TV writing wonderfully. SNEAKY PETE – the storylines – my god, the storylines! Sometimes 12 in a single episode! And they were wonderful. THE DEUCE – again, with the beats and the storylines! Such amazing juggling. My hats off to them. My tv eps have five storylines max, and even then it’s hard to get those to mesh.

Also just saw McQueen’s WIDOWS. Mystery thrillers are so hard to do. He probably wanted to take a swing at a commercial story. He really hit a home run. It’s such a relief, in a way, to watch a movie these days when you work in TV. The form feels so much simpler. It’s not any easier, but it is simpler. I adore McQueen. If you want to see how I talk about to do what they do, go to my newest TV lecture on creating a great story beat: https://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/course/creating-the-great-tv-beats/

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Script reading. I read scripts for CBS and then for companies like Imagine. I learned so much from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. I read scripts for seven years – waaaay too long for anybody in their right mind – it’s suppose to be a year and then you become a supersuccessful industry DYNAMO! LOL. I loooved it, though – I learned so, so much about story, sooo much about every genre. Brian and Ron taught me that a zeal and excitement for the WORLD you wanted to write about was everything.

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

You can definitely learn how to recognize good writing for sure – just read tons and tons of great scripts. Watch any great story and read along with the script. You can learn it; it just takes a while. Learning how to write? That’s a LOT harder than learning how to recognize great story. It takes a shit-ton more time to do that. I only feel like I’ve done that in the last few years, since I started selling my own stuff. But it took for-fucking-ever! LOL. That’s what you gotta know. And I’m no smarter than anybody – here’s a tip – just watch the movie or tv show 50 times! I’m not kidding. Watch the same show fifty times! You’ll see EVERY device behind the curtain. Don’t take my class, don’t listen to me, never buy a thing from me – just WATCH ONE TV SHOW or one movie FIFTY TIMES.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Scripts are the most amazingly complex devices on the planet — far more so than an algorithm. It’s a bit like asking me to explain differential equations in a sentence. Okay, I’ll try. In a movie, a hero is a wounded person given a chance to heal (or bleed out.) In TV, it’s a wounded hero with a fascinating objective and fascinating obstacles in his way. You want more? Right here: peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Okay, I lied. I DO want you to look at my stuff.

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

Characters who don’t have great core wounds. A great core wound (whether in film or TV) is the basis for 90 percent of how good a story is, especially in the first act. Bleed him (or her, or it). BLEED THEM! Show their pain! Instantly!

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I can’t watch 90 percent of network television, simply because the grooves of most of the genres are worn out for me. I loathe seeing hero-worshipping stories about superhero cops and superhero lawyers and superhero doctors – all the old, straight from radio shows (Blue Bloods, CSI, stuff like that.)

None of those professions are worthy of such praise – in fact those professions contain a higher than average proportion of assholes – probably far higher than most professions, and it makes me gag to see the hagiography. But audiences looove to see the make-believe that these people are gods on earth. It depresses the hell out of me.

I realize network TV is a factory and I honor how hard these folks work and the high level of professional product they turn out on an incredibly tight schedule – but that doesn’t mean the product interests me at all. The TALENT involved – both in front of and behind the camera – is insanely great! The level of competence and extraordinary grace under pressure is heroic. Everybody who works in TV has to have extraordinary abilities, or they don’t get on staff. I mean that. The writers I know personally who work in TV – both in writer’s rooms and out – my god, they are sooo talented! It’s just that I find the product godawful. Dick Wolf is a genius, but his product makes me despair.

I do think dark heroes are popular because most people have realized the world is a lot more like a Russian novel than a comic book. Speaking of which, fantasy superheroes, played straight, especially in the DC story world (which suffers from execs who don’t know what they’re doing), are also monumentally boring to me now. Twist the genre – DEADPOOL is genius, THOR: RAGNAROK, too, and the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – they are FUNNY. My god, that’s the greatest thing on earth to be.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Know your craft.

-Know you’ll never really know your craft and that you’ll write a lot of crap. Write anyway.

-Know that you’ve picked a profession that requires either – a) genius-level talent, or b) an enormous work ethic and persistence far beyond what you’ve imagined and that will take you far longer than you believed possible.

-None of these rules apply to a true genius. They can do anything.

-If you have neither genius nor an enormous work ethic, you will absolutely fail. Writing in Hollywood is a job for people who are as smart, or smarter, than nuclear physicists or mathematicians. It’s far harder than, say, brain surgery. I’ve never met smarter, or more mercilessly competitive people, than people in Hollywood. By the way, most of them are also massively unhealthy. This isn’t a business for well-balanced people, in the main.

-The best way forward is to LEARN how to write.

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

In my entire scriptreading life, the number of scripts I have fully recommended is a grand total of two. That’s not unusual, by the way. 95 percent of scripts you read are not good (and this is from the very best screenwriters in the biz). But the big secret is – you don’t have to be very good. You just have to be better than most people.

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

If they motivate you to write, great. Most screenwriting contests are run by mercenary assholes who are making their money by taking your contest fees. There are a couple of big ‘screenwriting’ websites who do nothing but that – they’ve turned it into a marketing algorithm. That’s okay – if they honor their pact with you and legitimately judge your work and then publicize it if you win or place. Some do, some don’t. Most just want your money. Not saying that’s dishonorable. But it’s true and they’re very, very smart in how they market.

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

Just e-mail me at: russell310@mac.com, or go to peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Mention  this interview, and I’ll give you a ten percent discount.

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

There is nothing better than true key lime pie. Not the type that is mostly white froth. The kind with a dense, green, wonderful pie stuffing, and under that – a buttery, flaky, heart attack-inducing crust.

key lime pie

A sensation most euphoric

hepburn jump
Just a few more jumps, then back to work

The early months of this year, or at least the first one – for now, are all about taking some of the scripts I worked on last year and doing what I can to make them better.

Based on some notes, a quick polish was completed on the dramedy. I like how it turned out.

Next up was the pulpy sci-fi. It was a total blast to write, so a new draft felt in order, and inevitable. This seems to fall square in the category of “genre stuff I’m good at writing”. You can imagine what a shock/surprise it was to discover the last time I’d worked on this script was late summer of 2017, so it’s had plenty of time to simmer.

I don’t know how it is for other writers, but after I complete a draft or two, the story as it reads on the page seems a bit more…maybe “cemented” is the proper word? It’s tough for me to change things up. Tough, but not impossible. If I can come up with something that does the job better and in a more creative and original way, that’s fine by me.

I wanted to really change things up for the better with this story – especially regarding the protagonist. The most prevalent comment from my readers was “more depth”. The way the hero is written now just isn’t enough.

The gears began to turn, and my self-imposed resistance against changes, especially drastic ones, began to fade. As much as I like the current draft, why shouldn’t I challenge myself to make it better – no matter what that required?

I’ve written before that you can’t force creativity, but sometimes you can at least give it a little nudge in the right direction. Start the ball rolling, so to speak. I find the best way to do this is simply by asking myself questions, such as…

-The protagonist is LIKE THIS. What would be the total opposite of that? Or something unexpected?

-Here’s an important STORY POINT,  but its current form just isn’t as effective as it could be, or have the impact it should. What’s another way to present that? What would be another way from that one?

-Several readers commented how they felt the protagonist’s backstory seemed incomplete, and could really use some reinforcing. Rather than clinging to what’s there now, what if a 180 approach was taken, and THIS happened instead?

The number of possibilities continued to grow – for the better. Previously unobtainable solutions were becoming easier to find, and would then be shaped and molded to fit within the contest of the story.

A stronger, more relatable and most importantly – original – way to achieve the desired results for the protagonist’s development was forming, and the added bonus of some  great opportunities to show the hero’s emotional arc!

The fuse had been lit.

More and more questions were posed, pondered, and answered, including an alarming number that could be summed up with “that’s good, but not good enough”. Combined with my willingness to jettison parts of the current draft, a totally new approach began to take form.

As expected, this will require an openness and willingness to totally jettison and replace big chunks of the current draft. Rest in peace, my darlings. (There’s a good chance a few instances of reincarnation may take place somewhere down the line)

Suffice to say, I’m absolutely thrilled about all of this.

When something really clicks for a writer – and I mean REALLY clicks – it’s as if a tidal wave of adrenaline and endorphins are flooding through your system.

That being said, my process of plotting, rewriting and revising is well underway. It’s a big job, but I’m feeling quite confident about how this rewrite is developing.

Consider me definitely ready and eager to take it all on.

My game. Upped.

smiling secretary
Behind that innocent smile, the gears are turning. Always.

So how was 2018 for you?

Maybe you established some goals for yourself, and were hopefully able to accomplish at least some of them. If you managed to check off all of them, then all hats off to you.

Among the events of note from my little corner of the universe…

-Completed a major rewrite of one script, the first draft of another, a thorough polish of yet another, and a much-needed updating of an older one.

-My scripts did okay in some contests. Nothing major, but still encouraging.

-A few “almosts” regarding representation.

Would I have liked more from all categories? Without a doubt. Especially the ones regarding getting a career going. While I’m happy with the results, all of this does make me want to really step up my efforts for next year.

Along with more writing, a big part also involves simply planning and strategizing. I already have an idea of which scripts could use more attention; a mix of rewrites and first drafts (with outlining involved all around).

It’s taken time to develop and hone my writing skills to where they are now, and I sincerely believe that working my way through all of these projects will contribute to further improvement for both my writing and my material.

In other words, I’m good, or so I’ve been told, but I’m going to work even harder to get better.

On the contest front, that’ll involve a lot of cutting back. Apart from the big three, I’ll be limiting myself to a handful of smaller ones – most likely those involving a specific genre – mostly to see how my scripts fare. That and those registration fees really add up.

And regarding the ongoing quest for representation, the researching and updating of contact info for reps and prodcos continues. Over the course of this year, I’ve accumulated a somewhat sizable collection of names and email addresses, and am doing what I can to compile and organize a list of potential recipients.

The word that most accurately sums up my approach to 2019 would be “relentless”. I’ve no plan to stop trying. One might even go so far as to say my efforts will see a dramatic increase. Without a doubt, there will be a lot of days where I feel down and defeated, but even then, the fire deep inside me will continue to burn bright and strong.

I know success is not guaranteed, but I’ve made some good progress over the past few years in terms of career and skills, and sincerely believe that my current efforts regarding both could make quite the positive impact on my chances of good things happening in 2019.

Here’s hoping, anyway.

And I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t wish you all the best with every single one of your projects, current and future, in the coming year.

p.s. Over the past twelve months, I’ve also had the good fortune to engage in face-to-face meetings with many writers here in the Bay Area. Some were new, and some were reconnections. No matter what, it’s always a great thing to meet up and chat about our respective writer stuff.

Which is why I’ll once again highly recommend you add networking and connecting with writers, filmmakers, and all sorts of creative peeople to your “to-do” list for 2019.

They said no. Big deal.

baker daleks
Things might seem a bit dire now, but there’s always a solution

When I send out a query letter, I do so with equal parts of hope and optimism, as well as healthy doses of realism and some kind of fatalism.

I totally realize that the odds are against me and that the response will most likely be some variation of “no”. But I send it anyway, because…you never know.

I used to put way too much pressure on myself about this sort of thing, but a steady stream of “thanks, but no thanks” has really built up my resilience. If it reaches the next step, great. If they pass, that’s the end of that and I move on to the next thing.

And there’s always a next thing.

I’ve been very fortunate to have built up a network of supportive creative folks. Many pass on words of encouragement, usually along the lines of “Love how you bounce back!” and “I really admire your work ethic!”

Honestly, I don’t really have a choice. The simple truth is that if I want to make it, I’ve got to keep trying. The failures and disappointments will always greatly outnumber the accomplishments and successess, and the only way to get to the latter is to keep pushing through the former.

There might be a moment of feeling bad about getting told “no” for the umpteenth time, but you have to get over it and move on.

Frustrating as it can sometimes be, I’d rather keep trying and failing than stop altogether. I may not be the most fantastic writer in the world, but I like to think I’ve got some decent talent, and I’ll keep at it. The optimist in me leans towards things eventually going my way – preferably sooner than later.

Be strong, keep trying and keep writing, chums.

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.