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 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.

My race, my pace

half-marathon
Focus on finishing, not winning

This past weekend, I ran my first half-marathon of the year. Luckily for me, it was a pretty flat course, and I accomplished my primary goal of finishing under two hours. 1:58:43, to be specific.

That works out to about a 9-minute mile, which for me is pretty good. It’s faster than I run during my training runs.

Because it’s an actual race, I tend to push myself a little bit more. Not because I’m trying to beat any of the other runners, but to see what I’m truly capable of.

Naturally, there will be those who finish much sooner than me. I think I was somewhere around the 7-mile mark when the eventual winner passed by in the opposite direction. They were maybe a minute or two from the finish line, while I had just passed the halfway point, so still had another six miles to go (equaling about a little less than an hour or so).

Was I bothered by that? Not in the least. I’m nowhere near being able to run that fast anyway. The takeaway is that we were each going at the pace that worked best for us. Theirs just happened to be significantly faster than mine.

“Well, that’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with screenwriting?” you might ask.

Easy. The results from when I do a race are similar to the results of when I write: I go at my own pace, which is different from everybody else’s. Some writers will get done faster, and some will take longer. As long as you’re happy with the results of how you did is what matters the most.

I know several writers who’ve had some very productive writing sessions the past few weeks; a few have been churning out pages at a seemingly inhuman rate. Do I wish I could emulate them and crank out double-digit numbers of pages every day? Sure, but my personal circumstances being what they are, that’s just not an option. For me, ending the day with three new pages is a victory.

It’s very easy to see somebody else’s progress, compare it to your own, which isn’t as much, and feel like you’re doing a lousy job.

DON’T.

How somebody else writes is absolutely no reflection on how you do. That’s them and you’re you. Comparing and contrasting both sides is pointless. All of your focus and attention should be on you; everything else is a distraction.

Like with running, if you want to improve, you need to work at it. It’s not easy, and takes time. But if you’re willing to put in the effort and keep at it on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself gradually doing better than you did a few weeks or months ago. That, in turn, will boost your confidence and make you want to keep trying to improve.

Writing a script is a long journey, and every single step gets you a little bit closer to finishing. And all those steps add up.

Put in the work, and you’ll see the results. Today, three pages. A week from now, four. After a month, five, six, or even more. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a completed draft.

All without breaking a sweat.

I’m here, but need to be up there

mountain climber
Onward and upward! (snappy hat optional)

I’ve been writing screenplays for quite a number of years, but only in the past, say five to six have I shown some significant improvement.

More than a few readers who’ve read my last three scripts have commented that each one displays a step up in quality a compared to its predecessor. Which is very nice to hear.

Feeling pretty confident in my skills and material, I submitted some of them to a few of the high-profile contests (or at least the ones that really matter). The results were less than encouraging. Don’t get me wrong. Top 15 percent in the Nicholl is nice, but it’s still falling short of expectations.

You can have the most incredible script you’ve ever written, enter it in a contest, and chances are it might still go nowhere. Contests are just one way in.

But I digress.

I figured there was nothing more that could be done with the scripts, so I might as well file them away and move on, using them for occasional query letters.

However.

While my scripts may not be similar to those that win contests (can you imagine me writing a coming-of-age story set in 70s Reno?), they’re still fun, entertaining reads, and my passion and enthusiasm for them continue to burn strong and bright.

Like with my writing skills, they’re good, but can still be better.

That’s why I’ve decided to do what I can to make that actually happen. I’ve already gotten several sets of notes on some of my scripts, and most mention the same issues, along with some potential fixes.

As always, I have the luxury of picking and choosing which suggestions to implement, and I sincerely hope the end result is a collection of scripts of decidedly higher quality.

It’s been quite an effort for me to get my writing to get to the level it is now, and spending a little more time on trying to make it better will be definitely worth the effort.

Gosh, what a full plate!

primanti bros
It’ll take time, but feeling confident I’ll accomplish that which I set out to do. (In the meantime, anybody up for Primanti Brothers? (Pittsburgh shout-out!))

My projects over the next couple of months are shaping up nicely.

-Finish overhauling the outline for the comedy spec and convert it into pages

-Some more fine-tuning on the pulp sci-fi (courtesy of a steady influx of good notes)

-Maybe one more pass on the western. Yeah, I know. But I recently got some keen insight on a few parts which could do with a little improvement.

The potential is still strong for all three, both in terms of contests and queries.

I have to say that this time around, my analytical and editing/proofreading abilities feel a bit stronger. Not that they’re the pinnacle of perfection, but at least slightly more developed than, say, a few years ago. That’s a definite plus. Nor would I hesitate to take full advantage of the sage advice of my squadron of savvy readers.

I feel a bit more prepared now, as well as a little more confident about ending up with a triad of really solid scripts.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Another part of my enthusiasm comes from seeing the results of some of the major screenwriting contests, some of which I entered and didn’t fare as well as I’d hoped. I’ll work on these scripts, send ’em out and hope for the best.

On a brief side note, I recently read the comment on an online forum – “Waiting for notes. What should I do to occupy my time?”

I suggested “Start working on your next project.” It’s what I would do. Can’t think of a better way to get your mind off a finished script than starting a new one or digging into the archives and touching up an older one. Gets the creativeness pumped up and really does help pass the time.

Anything that lets you flex your writing muscles while adding to your arsenal of material can only be seen as a good thing.