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

Q&A with Landry Q. Walker

 

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Landry Q. Walker is a writer who likes pop-tarts and has been in jail twice and on the New York Times bestsellers list once. He spends his days punching the keyboard until words appear on the magic screen. Books include: The Last Siege, Danger Club, Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade, Project: Terra, and more.

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

The last thing I watched that I felt was incredibly well written… I’m going to go with movies on this one. The film Get Out is the first thing that comes to mind. I came to that one a bit late, and a lot of plot points had been spoiled. But it didn’t matter because the execution was so solid.

How’d you get into writing comics?

I got into writing comics after noticing that a lot of my friends who could draw weren’t doing much with their talents. I was about 18-19 at this time. My friends had talked about making comics for years, and I had always thought there wasn’t a place for me in the process. Then I decided to write – though writing had been at the back of my head since I was a young child (I had written Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings fanfic).

A lot of people hear the term “comic book writer”, but don’t really know what the job entails. How would you describe it?

Writing comics requires thinking visually – much more so than other types of writing. You need to be able to see the action on the page with your minds eye, and work from their. that means understanding how much dialogue can fit in a word balloon, when to let the art tell the story, how the eye scans across a page of art. You can also write with a method where you plot the story, and the storytelling exclusively. But I’m not a huge fan of working that way.

You’ve written for established characters and created your own. Do you have a preference of working with either, or are they two totally different worlds?

Totally different worlds. With established characters you have an easier path as the world building has been done for you, but you also have to stay within certain parameters. As example, a proper Batman story leaves Batman in the same place at the end of the book, so that the next writer can pick up the story and run with it. You’re really just taking turns writing chapters.

Follow-up: is there an established character you haven’t written for, but would jump at the chance to?

Probably? To be honest, it all depends on the restrictions. Some jobs look like dream jobs because of the character you’re working with, but then you get the job and the restrictions are so fierce, you don’t really get to explore what drives you at all.

A key component of writing (and not just for comics) is to make the stories and characters relatable. What sort of approaches do you take to accomplish that?

I honestly don’t think much about whether my stories are relatable to other people. I think that if you stop to consider the “rules” of writing, you’re generally not writing. I tend to work off of gut instinct on whether a story feels right to me.

What are your thoughts on writers who want to self-publish their own comics?

Do it. Everyone who wants to make comics should start by making their own. Experience every aspect of making a comic. Deal with distribution, promotion, balancing schedules. Do all of it. And don’t wait for your work to be good enough. If you do that, it will never happen. Just start now.

What are some of your favorite comics and webcomics?

Favorite comics: Lately, I mostly have been digging into old stuff. Charlton comics mainly. Old Blue Beetle and Captain Atom. A lot of the horror stuff from the 60’s and 70’s too. For webcomics, not many. I follow Dumbing of Age and Questionable Content. I’m behind on it, but I really like YAFGC (Yet Another Fantasy Gaming Comic).

What’s some writing advice you would give your just-starting-out younger self?

Play less Mario Kart.

How can people find out more about your work?

I’m terrible at self-promotion. But you can usually find my latest work by checking out my Twitter feed. I’m currently wrapping up my medieval war epic, The Last Siege, and will soon be announcing a graphic novel series with my long time collaborator Eric Jones (one of those friends I mentioned in the question about getting into writing). I’ve previously written a series called Danger Club about a group of teen heroes fighting against their own reboots, and an all ages Supergirl series called Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade. Lots of of other stuff too. Check out my Amazon author page.

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

Apple. From Hostess.

hostess apple pie

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

A (not) pre-written Q & A with Michael Tabb

Michael Tabb

Michael Tabb is a working screenwriter, decade-long current and active member of the WGA (the Writers Guild of America, West is the Hollywood screenwriters’ union), a multiple-award-winning screenwriting educator, and author of a film-festival-winning Best Screenplay. His new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-By-Step Guide To Generating Stories (available now!) explains the secret of how he develops great, cohesive script ideas.

He has developed feature film projects for and with Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, The Canton Company at Warner Brothers, Imagine Entertainment, Mandeville Entertainment, Intrepid Pictures, Paradox Studios, Producers Sean Daniel, Lawrence Bender, Branko Lustig, Paul Schiff, comic book icon Stan Lee, writers Jonathan Hensleigh and Evan Spiliotopoulos, Directors Thor Freudenthal and Mike Newell, and actor Dustin Hoffman.

For more information about Michael and his book, please go to and register at: www.MichaelTabbWGA.com, or follow him on Twitter – @MichaelTabb

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

I recently watched the Netflix series Lost In Space and felt it did a lot of things right. The characters are really specific and strong, each with really unique qualities that separate them from each other. There was constant danger, whether through the hostile environment or the characters that found their way into the family’s graces (be they human or robotic). Meanwhile, each episode ends with a new and engaging development that hooks the viewers to binge another episode. Between Lost in Space and Stranger Things, I think Netflix is redefining the kind of television an entire family might gather around the flat screen to watch together.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

Star Wars sparked my imagination, and I was drawing and creating science-fiction stories by the age of six. In middle school, I handwrote ten 20-24-page short-form adventure stories of a starship crew called The Alliance inspired by Star Trek. Each chapter was a new mission. I explored superhero and horror spoofs earlier in my high school days until I wrote my first short (44-page) screenplay in a modern, contemporary setting for my final English Lit paper. In short, the more mature I became, the more my stories grew more grounded and closer to reality.

Even though I loved writing, saying I had a knack for it would be far too generous. I was certainly a storyteller, but I was always academically far better at mathematics than English. I did, however, have a knack for drama. I took acting classes at South Coast Repertory and was actively involved in my high school drama program for all four years, participating in every play and musical I could. Acting taught me how important it was to define your character from all the others and to keep the tension at a level high enough to make each scene compelling. Every character had purpose, and it was true no matter what scene or show I was doing. These lessons carry over into writing, but because I wasn’t a gifted English student in my formative years, I never would have suspected I could have a career as a writer. I always thought I was going to be a character actor.

It took me many years and tremendous insight from my teachers at USC, NYU, and UCLA to make me a decent writer. They all earned their money. The time I spent analyzing characters and scripts as an actor was very helpful, including studying at the Atlantic Theater Company in NYC, a brainchild of the great American playwright David Mamet. It took a lot of work to understand how to do each aspect of concept creation and execution correctly. The only thing that came naturally is my escapist imagination.  The rest was hard-fought, learned, and earned over years of writing and rewriting.

What was the script you’d consider gave you your “big break”?

I want to pause a second to say that I think the cliché of miraculously getting that one big break that changes everything is a terribly unhealthy and damaging fallacy. One opportunity may lead to another, and sometimes it doesn’t. Most working writers are constantly “breaking in” over and over again. Anyone who makes a living wage as a creative in this business is fortunate. Just remember, we do this job for our insatiable love of telling great stories. If that’s not your goal, it won’t be worth the amount of work you have to put into this job. Trust me. People have won Academy Awards and not gotten a job for years afterwards. So, if you get a break, save up so the money lasts the unpredictable draughts and keep writing.

With that said, I’ll reply by talking about the script that landed me my first paycheck as a screenwriter.

I was exceptionally lucky that the first screenplay I ever wrote is the one that landed me an agent and my first writing deal. Even so, it didn’t happen overnight. It took several years for it to get into the hands of those in Hollywood that could make a difference for me, and I had written around ten scripts between having written my first and setting it up with producers. The option on that screenplay has since expired, and I own that script again. I still wish someone would make it. It’s a high-concept swashbuckler in the spirit of Shakespeare in Love, The Three Musketeers, and The Princess Bride. It’s a fun-spirited, romantic romp set in the south of France full of swords, gallantry, and a sense of humor.

Taking a look at your bio, you’ve worked in a lot of different genres. Are there any that hold a special appeal to you, and is there a genre you haven’t worked in yet, but would really like to try?

I’ve written in every genre I can think of, most of which were for money, including: rom-com, drama, western, war epic, historical, biopic, science fiction, fantasy, crime, thriller, horror, supernatural, action, and adventure. I love each genre differently and deeply for the gifts each offers us. While I’m very proud of the diversity and breadth of my stories, it has also been my greatest career shortcoming. It would have been a far smoother journey if I picked a lane and stuck with it a bit more, but that’s not how I work.

The more you prove yourself a master of one genre in our business, the more people pay you to write it for them. As an example of this in another profession, when an extremely famous comedic actor gets the chance to play a dramatic role, they often take a big hit in the pocketbook. They don’t get paid the same as they do in the genre of his or her specialty. Even so, working without constraints and limitations is worth it to me. I have a solid batting average for landing writing jobs on which I get to pitch.

When I decide to write a story about something, I refuse to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’m not going to force my story into a genre because that is my specialty. I would rather pick the genre that I feel will be the best and most poignant reality in which to tell it. The story tells me where it must go. Right now, I’m rewriting two screenplays simultaneously, an ensemble reunion-of-old-friends drama and a supernatural thriller. The project before that, which is still being developed, was a period adventure television show. I love writing period pieces, sci-fi, action, adventure, and anything remotely escapist. I adore them all.

What inspired you to write your book Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories?

I had kept a long document of all the tricks of the trade that I liked using best. It ran almost three hundred single-spaced pages. I developed my own approach to writing by putting those tricks together in a certain order. Since then, I have never had writer’s block.

I work on multiple projects at once, and I’ve been asked by tons of writers how I do what I do. Though editing takes a while, others have always been blown away by how quickly I can create a strong and cohesive initial draft. They’d take me to lunch and pick my brain. Later, they’d tell me I changed their lives and approach to developing stories.

I adore giving back, helping writers. Helping one person at a time was great, but I felt I could do better. I got more involved at the WGA, putting panels together for the Writers Education Committee, and I co-created the first ever WGA Mentor Program in my spare time. I guest lectured and spoke when asked in classrooms and served on panels for writer conferences. Finally, I bit the bullet and agreed to teach an actual class online in Full Sail University’s online MFA program while still taking writing gigs for companies like Universal Studios. I’m also going to speak at the Central California Writers Conference in late September.

When I was asked to be on a panel for the Screenwriters World Conference in L.A., I told Jeanne Bowerman of Script Magazine about my 284 pages of notes I planned to turn into a book one day when I had the time. She asked me to write some articles I could use as a kind of running start to writing the book about my method. So, I did that to get the ball rolling. As I fleshed those articles into a full-fledge book, Full Sail University liked the published articles I wrote on character creation so much, they asked me to take over the Character Creation and Development portion of their online MFA Creative Writing program. Based on that, I knew I was communicating my method well, and I should finish the book.

I figured the book was the very best way of helping the most writers at once. In short, it all stems from the hope of giving back to my craft. I am only as good as I am because the writers who came before me taught what they had learned. My goal was to take that knowledge another step forward in the hopes that someday my book will not only help others, but it will inspire another great writer to take my ideas a step further as well. In short, human knowledge is all about continuing to construct our Tower of Babel, evolving our art form by working together to save the world.

Yes, I said save the world.

I believe storytelling is how we inspire others to invent amazing technology, see the world from new perspectives, and provide a deeper understanding of humanity. So, teaching others to write better is my way of getting others to create stories that change the way we think. When we change the way people think, we can change the way people will behave and treat one another.

My job as a writer isn’t to just tell a cool story and make some money. I wouldn’t need to share my tricks if that were my only goal in this trade. Storytelling is an incredibly powerful medium. Think about how it can bring people to euphoric laughter and devastating tears over events that never even happened and characters that don’t exist. As Spider-Man has taught us all, with great power comes great responsibility. Writers have the ability to make the world better for having written their stories. If I help other writers be more effective, I could be helping thousands of writers convey their impactful messages, bettering our world through teaching empathy, understanding, and the potential paths forward (or to avoid) in order to achieve a greater tomorrow for us all.

Yes, that makes all of you writers out there potential superheroes.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it especially unique?

I always said if I’m going to write something, it’s not going to be something they can find anywhere else done the same way. We can’t help but work off of some universally accumulated knowledge, like genre, character types, and three-act structure, but we can strike out on our own by presenting how to assemble them in a new way. The knowledge is all out there, but it’s about how you put the pieces together and in what order.

So many screenwriting books call themselves a “step-by-step” guide, but when you try to apply the steps in the order they offer them, it’s not a fluid roadmap you can follow to construct a story. It’s not really a step-by-step guide. It’s a series of things that leave giant holes for the writer to fill in to get from one step to the next. There’s a lot of explaining what things are and how they work, but they don’t tell the reader how to create those things for themselves. In fact, it’s a lot of analysis. Don’t get me wrong. They’re very educational, but being able to explain and understand the material makes you a potential critic who understands screenwriting and how it works, but it doesn’t necessarily make anyone a writer. They’re simply a more informed reader. This is a great thing, but it won’t get someone who wants to write to the goal of writing his or her own screenplay.

Prewriting Your Screenplay is actually a true-to-form, step-by-step process by which you construct an original story (starting with absolutely nothing at all) through answering questions and completing exercises at the end of every single chapter until you have a complete and original story idea with the characters perfectly designed to serve that cohesive story. It’s an instruction manual for putting together a story with all the elements that should fit perfectly together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Then, the book ends by explaining how to do the whole process in reverse in case you’re in a situation of having to fill in the blanks of a preexisting story idea.

The process explains to writers how I create a well-formulated foundation for a movie, whether working from a blank page forward or having to reverse engineer a soul into a preconceived plot idea. I give all I know and can think of to share with you. I’m keeping no secrets because there’s never a reason to keep the logic of how things work secret. No two writers would execute the same idea the same way, so, even if you have my technique, you’d never execute it the way I would. It’s everything that I learned and use when developing a project that has kept me writing as a decade-long, current and active WGA member.

I thought it was very interesting that you use the word “prewriting” in the book’s title, as opposed to simply “writing”. What’s the reasoning behind that, and how does prewriting apply to the craft of screenwriting?

Put simply, Prewriting is the opposite of rewriting. Rewriting is the work a writer does on a script after the first draft, and Prewriting is everything the writer creates before he or she writes the first draft. This entire book focuses on everything a writer needs to consider before writing “FADE IN,” the old-school first words of a screenplay.

There are a ton of books that explain writing and formatting the actual script. Nobody needs to write another book that explains script format. It’s been done to death.

This book explains how to assemble everything a writer needs in order to write a screenplay. It’s the foundation a writer builds upon. There are many things a writer should figure out before leaping into an outline. Doing this work up front will save writers an enormous amount of time normally spent rewriting after the fact trying to make the story congeal. If time is money, this book can save writers a fortune in rewrites.

And because this book is strictly about how to develop a story concept with an incredibly strong foundation and structure, it is applicable to all mediums of storytelling. It’s a universal storytellers playbook for formulating a cohesive narrative. I’m a screenwriter, so the examples throughout the book focus on films, but the logic of my foundation development for storytelling applies to any and all creative writing mediums, including stage plays, episodic series, comic books, novels, video games, animation, and all other media. In fact, someone told me they’re going to start using my method to redesign history lessons to teach history to their students. It’s applicable to anyone who can use storytelling in whatever they do to be more effective.

No doubt a lot of aspiring writers will use your book to improve their skills. Is there a particular piece of advice you think every writer should know?

Uh… My brain just exploded. That’s a book in itself. It’s a series of books! That said, I offer you these 10 pieces of advice:

  1. If you think you can live a happily doing anything else except screenwriting, this business is so obscenely tough, do something else. With books, you can self-publish. With playwriting, the production is not allowed to change the work without the playwright’s permission. Even in television, there are far more opportunities, and the writers have more say. In film, the writers are hired guns and the director is the creative king. In television, the director is the hired gun, and it’s the writers who develop the show and its seasons. I intend to make that jump when the timing is right, too.
  2. Write what you love and would pay to see, not what’s trendy.
  3. Rejection is common, and you should never take it personally. When you’re starting out, people are hesitant to bet on someone lacking experience. You need 50 to 100 rejections in order to get 1 yes. Even if you are not a good writer yet, you may find someone newer to the industry. This person may get what you’re trying to do and wants to work with you.
  4. Never argue about feedback with anyone giving you feedback as a friend or to help. You can ask questions for clarity, but once you understand the notes, thank the note giver profusely and shut the fuck up. Never argue. If you disagree with the notes, you simply don’t apply them. They’re bound to give you one or two notes that lead to a good change. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
  5. 99% of the time the note giver is correct that there is a problem where they said a problem occurs in your script. 99% of the time, the solution they offer is incorrect. The difference between the note-giver and you is that you are the writer of this story. You will need to figure out how the problem needs to be fixed in order to best serve the story you want told.
  6. Even a horrific writing experience or partnership is a good experience if you learn something meaningful from it.
  7. When you agree to work with someone, get the full terms of your understanding in writing, even a cowriter.
  8. Get in shape. I hate to admit it, but the entertainment business is a ridiculously shallow industry. People hire people they would want to spend time with, of course, and people want to spend time with those who look good and have the confidence that looking good provides them.  You do not have to be attractive; you just need to be the best version of you.
  9. You cannot be afraid to say no and walk away from a deal or offer. If the material isn’t getting you fired up, or the offer is going leave you feeling un-collaborative, it’s best not to engage in something you don’t feel really good about because that will leave an impression. You’ll just ending up not delivering and burning bridges, and there are only so many bridges in Hollywood because it’s such a small industry. Saying no to things you do not feel engaged by is actually a very good business decision. I recently had a dear friend bring me a project with big name people involved. I read the script and instantly knew it wasn’t for me. Friends and industry professionals understand and respect someone that isn’t desperate. They smell desperation from a mile away and find it repulsive.
  10. Always be working on multiple projects at a time. That one actually comes from Robert Zemeckis. I like to work on three. Producers have a slate of projects because they never know which one is going to get momentum or when it will happen. So should you. You never, as an artist, want to put all your eggs in one basket. That leaves the writer feeling desperate, and you know how Hollywood feels about people who are desperate.

You’re listed as serving on the WGA’s Writer’s Education Committee. What is that, and what sort of things do they do?

There are several committees on which WGA members may serve. Some focus on diversity groups and others on general membership. One of the latter is the Writers Education Committee. It was created in 2002 to develop programs that provide WGA members with practical, insider knowledge about how the industry works and how it is changing, emphasizing tips and tools to help writers succeed. The goal is providing the most up-to-date working knowledge for writers.

I’ve chaired and served on a ton of panels for the WEC about the most current trends on going from spec script to studio green light, packaging, multi-platform storytelling, getting writing work with overseas producers, pitching in Hollywood, etc. Any WGA member can join the WEC, run ideas for educational events by the committee, assemble a sub-committee (if approved), and create the event of his or her own design.

You’ve also done a lot of lecturing and moderated panels about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

Be true to you. The only thing no other writer in the world can do is be you. Figuring out who you are, what you stand for, and the original things you want to say to the world before you die will make you a one-of-a-kind writer in this or any industry.

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

This is like asking that genre question again or asking someone to pick a favorite child. It’s just not right. I love rhubarb, coconut cream, apple, pumpkin, banana cream, mixed berry (any berry really – blackberry, boysenberry… is cherry a berry?), and don’t forget the oddly reptilian-named Turtle and Grasshopper pies. So long as it’s filled with something tasty, how can you go wrong? It’s pie. As long as it’s not from Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop in London, I’m game.

 

Sweeney Todd

I would like to add one more thing. The shocking and most wonderful thing for me so far has been the reception my book has received when requesting consideration for an endorsement. You can see a bunch of their responses on the Amazon page under EDITORIAL REVIEWS, including the creators and/or show runners of such shows as Lost, The Big Bang Theory, Hawaii Five-0, The Orville, screenwriters of the Dark Knight trilogy, Star Trek reboot, Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy, icons like Stan Leeand the most recent president of the WGA. After that are the endorsements from educators at AFI, USC, UCLA, NYU, and many more. You can read what they are saying and pre-order my book at: https://amzn.to/2HOMVFg.