For those unaware, I had the good fortune last year to connect with a producer-director seeking a writer for their microbudget feature project.
After hearing their ideas and what they were looking for, I started developing the story, keeping them updated as things progressed at a decent clip.
One of the comments occasionally made during all this back-and-forth was, and I’m paraphrasing here – “Is there a way to cut the costs on that?” Since this is a micro-budget project, it’s imperative we get as much out of every dollar as possible.
Thus the changes and alterations began. A scene originally intended for a hospital room now takes place in somebody’s bedroom. A scene in a restaurant now has the two characters drinking to-go coffee and talking on a park bench.
You get the idea.
As the writer, it can be a bit of a challenge to revise a scene or sequence to accommodate the budget, but it also forces you to dig deeper into that creativity and come up with a solution that works just as effectively, if not more so.
If this were a regular spec, working within a budget wouldn’t be an issue. I’d just write whatever worked for the story. But if that script got picked up and the producer needed changes made, then they would be made.
Looking over some of the revisions, I also realized that some scenes could pack even more of a punch by utilizing sound and lighting (or lack thereof) for emphasis, rather than on just what we see. Leaving things to the imagination – what you hear and don’t see – has the potential to be much more effective.
(For a strong example of this, check out the 1942 classic horror-thriller CAT PEOPLE.)
Taking this “less is more” approach also helped with resolving a story problem in a significant way. A sequence that would already have been challenging to make is now drastically different but would be very simple to pull off, and we’re both very enthusiastic about how the end result would look.
While some aspects of the story and how it’s presented may have changed, the tone remains the same. There’s still a ways to go with the script, but writing it with this kind of mindset helps me figure things out so the story is just as compelling while also getting the most bang for the buck.
After countless hours, drafts, contests, emails, queries, coffee chats, and just about everything else I could do to help things work out in my favor, yours truly can now officially be called a professional working writer.
I kid you not.
A trusted colleague referred me to a producer seeking a writer for their microbudget project.
We talked, hit it off, and signed a contract.
(Once again showing the value of networking.)
Work on developing the first draft starts immediately, so the fantasy-comedy rewrite is on hold for the time being, which is fine by me.
And this producer already has a few films already under their belt, so the odds are better than average that this project will end up being a completed film. (As a friend said – always great when you can add a produced title to your resume.)
It’s all a bit overwhelming, but also quite thrilling.
This is what I’ve been working towards all this time. It may not be a huge industry-shattering deal, but it’s still me being hired to write a script for a movie.
Which is what this whole journey has been all about.
Fingers fully crossed that this is the first of what will hopefully be many more finish lines in this ongoing and never-ending race of mine.
I hope you have an excellent and productive weekend. Mine will most likely involve a celebratory piece of pie. Feel free to enjoy one wherever you are with my compliments.
Brooks Elms is a screenwriter and independent filmmaker. His specialty is grounded personal characters and writing stomach-churning story tension.
He’s written 30+ screenplays, a dozen of them on assignment, and sold several scripts, including one this year with Brad Peyton as Executive Producer. Brooks was recently hired to rewrite a screenplay started by an Oscar-winning writer. Brooks began his career writing, directing, and producing two indie features (personal dramas) that he screened all over the world.
Here’s an interview with Brooks from last year. He also loves coaching fellow writers who have a burning ambition to deeply serve their audiences, and has two new programs available to give them a helping hand.
You started your new mentorship program ANSWER THE CALL in late 2020 and the online course UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER in early 2021. There are a lot of similar screenwriting courses and programs out there. What is it about yours that sets it apart from the rest?
Depth. I go ALL IN on the success of my writers. Most consultants give you their best for an hour or two, or maybe for the month you take their online course. And they play the numbers game. But since I only work with a few writers at a time, I’m better positioned to move the needle for you in a BIG way. I fully invest in writers: giving my time, my contacts, my everything – for life. I love helping them succeed as much as I love serving my audience with my own screenplays.
Is this a course more applicable for screenwriters just starting out, those with a few scripts under their belts, or both?
I enjoy new writers, but the best way I can help them is through my free tips found here https://www.brookselms.com/new/. I’m on the planet to serve my own audiences, and to help talented intermediate-level writers turn pro ASAP, and to keep them working at their highest levels – for life. And by intermediate, I mean they’ve written a couple scripts OR they’re a working professional in an adjacent creative field: copywriting, journalism, novels, acting, producing, directing, etc…
Do you consult with writers regarding which program would be the best for them?
The website helps writers with that. But the summary is that if you want a working WGA screenwriter to uplevel every facet of your game, consider the in-depth 1:1 story development program – ANSWER THE CALL. If you want help getting your script to people in Hollywood to launch your career forward, consider the outreach course & community – UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER.
What was the inspiration for calling the programs ANSWER THE CALL and UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?
ANSWER THE CALL is from Joseph Campbell’s work about the mythic CALL that begins every great story. Too often, writers Refuse The Call to get the support they need to move to their next level – and they remain stuck in Act 1 in agony and cynicism. My program is for writers ready for the emotional risk to ANSWER THE CALL. UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is just a fun way to think about branding and outreach, because that side of the game, more than any other, needs a playful approach to be GREAT at it.
One of the aspects of your ANSWER THE CALL program is that you work with several writers as a group, as opposed to just keeping it one-on-one. Do you find that more beneficial, and why?
The group coaching calls add dimension to learning the system. Sometimes, I’ll show you a craft adjustment 1:1, and you kinda get it, but then in the group call you see me coaching a different writer on that same principle and it will now totally click for you. And the writers I select are super-creative so our group calls are an amazing sounding board for getting quick collective reactions. Plus, having a circle of peers that are ambitious, team-oriented and active in the business – keeps you inspired. Because when one of us win, all of us win.
How extensive is your work with writers for ANSWER THE CALL? Do you help them develop a script from beginning to end, or should they come in with one already written?
We go the full distance. So you can repeat the process, for life. We’ll take a deep dive into your favorite films & shows and why you love them. Then discuss an idea for a new story, or it could be re-writing a previous story you couldn’t crack.
I take you through every step in my simple, proven professional process, to be sure you’re squeezing ALL the creative juice from your story idea. I help you answer all your audiences questions that you didn’t think to ask yourself. I am your first and best audience member that’s rooting you on every step of the way.
And even when you get several drafts into the screenplay, I’m still with you and tapping into all my personal contacts to get this project set up, get you representation, and get you all the other success you want.
I can’t guarantee WHEN this will happen for you, but I do guarantee you WILL cross significant career milestones with this system if you keep using it.
And I haven’t found a more comprehensive and effective system for success as a screenwriter anywhere — because of the in-depth 1:1 attention, and the inspired community I cultivate.
Part of the ANSWER THE CALL program is that you select 5 out of all applicants to participate. How do you determine who makes the cut, and what if somebody applies and doesn’t get selected?
I help everybody that applies. Some writers will be the best match for me, and I work with those 5 people myself. And because I’m getting so many serious writers applying, I’ve also brought in 2 guest mentors (with better credits than mine!) to support others I can’t work with myself. IF the writer and that other mentor hit it off, they’re still in my program with my community and group coaching calls, and they just get their 1:1 support from an even more fitting working writer than me.
For the writers that aren’t the best fit for my program, I still make an introduction to another amazing mentor colleague who works hourly, which allows them to still get custom support.
The qualities I look for in the writers that are a match for this program are:
– ambition while being open to earn how to fulfill that ambition
– team player
– talented – I don’t have to love their genre, but I have to love their creative approach and POV on life
– demonstrated commitment to the craft (written several screenplays, or created something else at the professional level and are ready to write screenplays)
– willing to go to the deepest places in themselves, so they can move their audiences in the deepest way
But most of all, I get a feeling when I do the first free coaching session that tells me “Hell yeah I want to help this person succeed myself AND they’re ready” or “I love that this person applied and I’m excited to help them a different way.”
It’s a soft landing for you either way, and just filling out the free (and fast) application will get you leaning forward in your career anyway. Easy!
While ANSWER THE CALL covers the actual writing of the script, UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is more about what a writer can do once the script is ready to go. Is this a topic that’s challenging to a lot of writers?
Oh yeah. Writers tend to create a lot of drama in the outreach process, and that’s the single biggest factor that’s slowing down your career. Whatever level of talent you have, the speed of your success hinges upon the quality of your outreach game. Lean into your outreach game, and you’ll move into the fast-track of your success.
Follow-up – how would you work with a writer who at the very start says “I’m a complete mess when it comes to pitching”?
I welcome that! We all are on the journey. Myself included. So we just practice, and then we become a little less of a mess, and practice some more — so we become “okay.” And we practice some more until we get good… and even great. And what’s most important is we enjoy that journey of developing our game, and to not take ourselves too seriously as we’re learning. It’s lots of fun.
A lot of writers say lack of access to the industry is one of the biggest obstacles to establishing a screenwriting career. What are your thoughts on that, and how do you help writers with it?
When writers say their problem is “lack of access,” I see the real problem is “lack of a good habit” to face their fears of socializing.
News flash: over half of Hollywood is online posting about all sorts of things. Go to them directly! Get into genuinely engaging conversations with YOUR people – for the sheer fun of it.
Some of those online conversations will escalate into deeper colleague connections and even attachments to your projects – IF and only if – you’ve got the goods. So… the only thing stopping writers from their own amazing outreach game is their habit of wallflowering. But since they chose that habit, they can choose a new one. With practice. Totally in their control and power.
Say a writer completed a script in ANSWER THE CALL that you felt was of above-average quality. What would your next steps be? Pass it along to an agent, manager, or producer? Recommend they enroll in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?
Once I make sure their script is as great as it can be, I map out a sales strategy for them and introduce them to my own contacts. I got one of my mentees signed to my own manager. Everybody in the core development program ANSWER THE CALL is automatically enrolled in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER as part of me helping them succeed.
Are there any success stories regarding former students you can share?
There sure are. In the very first year of the program, writers have already been advancing in contests, got an 8 on the Black List, gotten a handful of paid writing assignments, got producer attachments, and a former client won a Nicholl Fellowship last year (top 5 out of 7200 scripts).
Did I mention it was the first year of the program?
Success begets success, and this snowballing has just begun.
How can somebody interested in either or both of these courses get in touch with you?
Tim Schildberger is an experienced writer, script coach, and co-founder/Head Judge of Write LA – an annual screenwriting competition that gives writers a chance to get read by managers, and hear their winning script read by professional actors in LA (and posted on YouTube). He cares far too much about helping writers improve their craft and get access to the industry. Tim is an expat Australian, a former TV journalist, writer on the globally popular soap opera NEIGHBOURS, newspaper columnist, creator of a comedy/reality series for the Travel Channel called LAWRENCE OF AMERICA, and one of the key members of the original BORAT team. He has stories.
In his spare time, Tim is a husband, parent, tennis player, road tripper, and he and his family foster kittens. Seriously. Twitter: @write_la Instagram: @writela
What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?
I hate to be a cliche, but THE CROWN – sets the bar very high. Peter Morgan is a genius. His ability to tell story with and without words, and build tension in scenes that on the page might appear boring, is remarkable. THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT had similar skill, attaching us to an unconventional character quickly and effectively. Feature films – I loved PALM SPRINGS – structurally, and characters/dialogue, and who doesn’t love a woman solving the problems using education and intellect!
How’d you get your start in the industry?
I was 22, living in Australia (where I’m from), working as a trainee TV News Producer. I had applied to newsrooms, and I’d called up various TV series, asking if they needed a writer. It was a simpler time. A nightly soap opera, NEIGHBOURS, let me do a writing submission, which they liked – and said they’d get back to me. In the meantime I got the job in TV news.
One day, six months later, I got a call in the newsroom, it was NEIGHBOURS, asking if I’d like to write an episode. I said yes, obviously. They mailed me the scene breakdowns, I typed my script on a typewriter, and ten days later mailed it back. All after working a full day in the newsroom. I did that 5 more times before it all got far too overwhelming. I was the youngest writer they’d ever had, and that experience made it clear to me that writing, in all its forms, was my future.
What was the inspiration for creating the Write LA competition?
We wanted to create a competition we’d want to enter. I’ve been writing for a long time – and I’ve entered competitions large and small. I’ve won a few, placed in a bunch, and it became clear that many of the writing comps out there don’t really do much when it comes to attracting attention, gaining industry access, or launching careers. And pretty much none put any kind of focus on helping writers improve their command of craft. So our goal was to build a competition that somehow combined both goals – to help with the craft, and to help with the access.
What makes Write LA unique compared to other screenwriting competitions?
Two things I think separate us. First, we are a competition run by actual writers. So we are able to deliver a certain degree of respect and admiration for the act of actually finishing a script and entering it – that many competitions lack. We know how it all feels.
Second, we stand proudly in front of the competition. Everyone knows I’m the co-founder and Head Judge. When you email a question, it comes to me. I do an enormous amount of reading, and I’m supervising every aspect of the competition. We try hard not to be a faceless comp where sometimes it can feel like you’re sending your script into a void, and then hoping something emerges. It matters to us that the entrants feel ’seen’.
A big concern for writers entering a screenwriting competition is the quality/experience level of its readers. How does Write LA address that?
I hear that. And I’ve experienced it first hand. A script will make the Nicholl semifinals, and won’t make it out of the first round somewhere else. And then you get ‘feedback’ that feels like it was written by someone who never actually read the script, they just strung a few buzzwords together.
So to address that – I’m heavily involved in the reading process. I’ve handpicked our small team, I do a ton of reading personally, and I set pretty clear parameters when it comes to what I’m looking for when it comes to command of craft. Every script that makes it into our top 15 semi finalists will have been read by at least three different people, including me.
We give every script, whatever the genre, or whether it’s a TV pilot or feature, full respect and attention. And all the additional feedback (offered at an extra fee), is done by me personally. So there is a consistency of the feedback, and a name attached to it (mine). I’m not interested in telling anyone what I would do, I’m focused entirely on maximizing the opportunities presented by the writer and doing my best to empower them to bring the most out of their idea, and their skills.
What do you consider the components of a good script?
Gosh – this isn’t easy to answer quickly, but I’ll try. For me, a good script needs fleshed out characters, who face clear challenges – no matter how big or small. Because no matter how detailed the world, or ‘big’ the story, if we don’t care about the characters, it’s all a waste of time.
Also, an understanding of the audience experience is awesome. A writer who is aware of audience expectations, and is able to manipulate those expectations is exciting. And finally, a clear sense of where the story is heading. Not a lot of extra clutter. Just a solid story, competently and confidently told.
What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?
Misuse of Scene Description is HUGE. Using it to reveal character details an audience couldn’t possibly know. Using it to show off a writer’s literary command – with all sorts of flowery descriptions that waste time, rather than establish ‘mood’.
Not writing an outline. I’m confident I can pick within 5 pages if a writer has an outline, and a firm idea of who this story is about, and where it is going. And taking too long to dive into story. Spending page after page building a complicated world, and then finally starting some sort of story – is a big mistake. Even STAR WARS had a brief title explanation, and then we were into Darth Vader storming Leia’s ship. The rest we figure out as we go.
Lastly, I have to add too many spelling errors. A sloppy script does not inspire confidence.
What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
A character waking up, turning off their alarm, and getting into the shower as the first thing we see. Happens WAY more often than you would expect, and is not only dull, but unwise. What viewer who sits in a darkened movie theatre wants to see a feature film start that way?
I’m also not a fan of drawn out action sequences. It’s great that you see the car chase in your head, but all a reader cares about is ‘does someone important die?’
Oh, and a shot of ‘overdue bills’ on the kitchen table. Anything but that please. I see a lot of stereotypes with the characters too – which usually tells me a writer is basing a character on another character they’ve seen in a movie or on TV – rather than an actual, flawed, complex human being.
What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?
What you are doing is more about hard work than flashes of inspiration. It’s less about talent than it is about grind.
Accept that re-writing is inevitable. Your first draft will not be a work of art. It’s a starting point.
Learn to receive notes as comments on the words on a page, not a personal attack, or a statement on your writing ability.
Characters are more important than story nowadays. Put the extra effort into figuring out who they are, and their emotional journey through your story.
What you are doing is brave, and awesome, and you should feel very proud of yourself every time you finish anything. Every time. Plenty of people talk about writing something. You went and did it. That’s huge and should never be ignored.
There is no work of art in the history of human beings that has ever been loved by 100% of the people. Accept that your work will not be universally loved – because humans are humans.
Details matter. Every scene matters. Every line of dialogue matters. Everything you do is conveying a message to an audience. Understand and embrace that.
Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?
I read many scripts like that! I read hundreds of scripts a year, so I regularly find writers who are very skilled. As for reasons, I would say the absolute, clear number one is making me feel something. I’m not alone in this. I tell anyone who’ll listen if you can make a reader feel a genuine human emotion, that is FAR more important and impactful than any set piece, world, intricate story or cute scene description. It isn’t even close.
Also, it’s fun to read scripts by writers who think about the audience, and work hard to provide us with a rich, enjoyable experience. I know the expression “write what you know” is popular. My version is “write what you know, but make it accessible to strangers.”
And while I’m here, let me add that writing what you know really refers to your emotional experience and authenticity. Not your time in middle school. If you can dig into your emotional space, which is uniquely yours, and share that on the page – that authenticity connects you with a reader/audience, and goes a long way to establishing what the industry likes to call your “voice”. I’d like to say it was easy to do. It’s not. But it’s important.
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
I have to say I’m a big fan of custard. There’s a custard tart in my homeland Australia – a mini pie – which is very much my favorite. But as that doesn’t really exist here – I’m going to say I like banana cream, apple, peach, and I’m a big fan of all the cobblers and crumbles too. I don’t think I’d refuse any pie that came my way.
Both have recently achieved success, but of very drastic varying degrees.
The first writer has had some tremendous accomplishments over the past few weeks. Their work has placed very highly in some prestigious contests, resulting in sales, professional writing assignments, membership in the Writer’s Guild, and representation with a management company of significant importance.
The other writer had a script do well in a small contest, and had some nice things said about their writing during an online forum chat.
At first glance, the first writer definitely had the better results. Who’d complain about all of that? This is what we’re all working towards, right? That’s like a dream checklist with every box checked off. No doubt ones such as “script produced”, “film/TV show produced and released”, and “box office/ratings hit” still remain, but this is the initial phase.
Even the writer admitted they’re a bit overwhelmed by all of it.
Meanwhile, for the other writer, the contest win is nice, and while it may not be “makes the industry take notice”-level, it still fills them with a certain sense of pride. They sent their script out, hoping for something good, and that’s what happened.
Regarding the online forum chat, the moderator has raved in the past about the professional-level quality of the first writer’s material, so for the other writer to also receive similar praise was pretty uplifting and encouraging. Truth be told, it was just about the first page of a script, but why quibble?
While the first writer’s journey to success seems to be coming to fruition right before our eyes, the other writer continues to sit at their laptop, diligently plugging away and working on scripts that will hopefully garner some attention from reps and producers.
Also important – the other writer is thrilled for everything the first writer has accomplished. They’ve earned it. There might be a smidge of jealousy, but that’s expected, and the other writer can use that as motivation to do better.
The moral of the story is twofold:
First – be proud of anything you accomplish with your writing, no matter how big or small it might seem. This isn’t an easy thing we’re doing, so try to enjoy the journey and celebrate the high points whenever possible. Don’t hesitate to toot your own horn – within acceptable limits, of course.
And second – everybody’s path to success is going to be wildly different from everybody else’s. What works for one person might not work for another. It’s up to you to find your own path and keep pushing forward on it. It might take you longer than you want to reach that finish line, but it definitely feels worth it when you get there.