Q & A with Paul W. Cooper

Paul7

Paul W. Cooper has been a working freelance television and motion picture screenwriter for more than thirty years. With over 60 television credits and one feature film, his awards include three Emmys, the Humanitas Prize, Writers Guild Award and the Kairos Prize.

He wrote the critically acclaimed film ONCE UPON A TIME…WHEN WE WERE COLORED winning Best Picture honors at the Movie Guide Awards. His television credits include MURDER, SHE WROTE, HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and THE WALTONS. He served as Story Editor on Oprah Winfrey’s dramatic series BREWSTER PLACE, and has instructed Film and Television Writing at Pepperdine University.

Paul has written 21 ABC and CBS AFTERSCHOOL SPECIALS dealing with subject matter exploring every significant social issue including incest, alcoholism, physical abuse, homosexuality and racism. A number of these projects won Emmys as Best Television Specials for their significant social and dramatic impact.

Paul has written a number of films for cable television, which have appeared on Showtime, Disney, the Animal Planet and Family Channels. He wrote THE MALDONADO MIRACLE for Showtime, produced and directed by Salma Hayek. It earned 5 Emmy nominations and won the Writers’ Guild Award. His film for the Hallmark Channel, THE NOTE was the highest rated Hallmark movie of 2007 and 3rd highest rated of all time.

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

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Visually stunning. I ached for the characters.

Two of my favorite genres to write in are straight drama and crime. There are two screenplays I constantly refer to so I’m certain the last material I read are one or both of these screenplays. The first is TERMS OF ENDEARMENT by James L. Brooks. It’s the only screenplay that actually brought me to tears while reading. The second is the crime drama SEA OF LOVE by Richard Price.

Here’s my practice. After I’ve written ten pages, I will pick up my dog-eared and worn copy of SEA OF LOVE. I’ll read ten pages (any ten) then come back to the last ten pages I wrote. Now I find myself re-writing those pages with a different tempo. I’ll knock out words from the dialogue to give it a more staccato and street feel. My shoot-outs become more cinematic because now I’m trying to write UP to Richard Price’s standard. And the more I do that, the better writer I become.

When I write a drama-charged relationship story, I use Terms of Endearment the same way. Again, I’m always trying to write UP to the standards of the masters. So those are two works I refer to constantly and believe are incredibly well-written.

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

I learned I had a knack for writing when, in the 8th grade, the class was assigned to write a short story. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and the world of fiction opened up before me. From that time on I wrote stories, plays, songs and poetry. But I never considered pursuing writing as a career. I was eminently practical and got my degree in business administration.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

There was a war raging in Vietnam when I graduated college. Rather than being drafted, I joined the Air Force, attended Officer Training School, then pilot training. I was a pilot in the Strategic Air Command for six years. I got assignments all over the world including three tours of the war zone and came back registering 61 combat sorties. As a crewmember in SAC, I was also required to sit alert for seven day periods. The Strategic Air Command was our first line of offense in the event of a nuclear war. So we had to be ready. And that meant living in an underground alert facility (mole hole) for those seven-day tours. There’s not a lot to do while waiting for the horn to go off. Guys played poker, shot pool or watched TV.

One night I was watching an episode of MEDICAL CENTER and thought “I can do that”. So I went to my little bombproof room, took out a spiral notebook and started writing. I had never seen a film or television script and had no idea about formatting. So I wrote my story like a play, drowning it in terms like cut to, fade out, dissolve etc. When finished I was optimistically excited and immediately began writing another episode. Then I branched out and wrote for other series popular at the time; MARCUS WELBY, THE WALTONS, SANFORD AND SON, MCMILLAN AND WIFE, and others. Now, none of these scripts was very good, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was I was writing stories, creating characters, giving those characters words to speak. And I loved the sensation, the power I had over these fictional “people” and their lives.

After a year or so of writing television “scripts” I thought it was time for the entertainment world to be exposed to my heretofore undiscovered talent. I wrote to the Writers Guild of America and they sent me a packet of useful information, including a list of agents. So I began firing my material off to agents who would summarily return fire with a politely worded rejection letter and my envelope unopened. Dissolve to a year later when I met my future wife, an Air Force nurse. On a blind date, I discovered she had lived next door to the sister of Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of THE WALTONS. What do you know, I had written two Waltons episodes. Through that connection I contacted Earl and he graciously agreed to read my scripts. I sent them and a week later, he called me and said I should be in Hollywood writing for television. So off to Hollywood I went, Earl became my mentor who put me in touch with an agent, and I was on my way.

Sad to say, my story only reinforces the notion that you have to know someone in the business in order to get into the business.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

People ask, what is or are the most important elements of a screenplay. Some will say character. Others say story. But the answer is – structure. You may have the most beloved character since Hoke (DRIVING MISS DAISY) and an absolute jaw-dropping story (THE RIGHT STUFF), but unless the pieces are stacked properly, the whole construct collapses.

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

The thing I see most often is that a story is derivative. Nothing new. All the same old plowed ground. And this, of course, makes stories predictable. I believe it was William Goldman who said, “Always give the audience what they want, but in a way they didn’t expect.” If it’s true there is no story new under the sun, then at least get us to the desired ending by way of a different road.

Too many words, not enough story. I will often tell a student, “You have a 105-page script here but it only contains 65 pages of story.”

My pet peeves are typos, misspellings and grammatical errors. There’s no excuse for these infractions. They label the writer careless at best and illiterate at worst and create an unfavorable impression for the reader.

Other mistakes are what I call re-hash and deadwood. Never tell the reader what he already knows. And omit anything that doesn’t relate to the premise. Keep the story ever moving forward.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not a fan of superheroes. It always comes down to the hero battling with an equally powerful villain in an epic cinematic struggle only possible with CGI. Yes, it’s visually impactful, but for me, cartoonish. No matter what the bad guy throws at the hero, he/she
always recovers and comes back for more. After ten minutes of lightning bolts being hurled and mushroom clouds rising over the city, I’m bored.

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

-Determine what your premise is. This is found by asking who your hero is and what does he/she want, need or desire. You should be able to state your premise in ten words or less. The premise of Romeo and Juliet is Romeo desires Juliet (boy wants girl). Indy wants to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Rocky needs to go the distance. The premise is your searchlight that must always be in view as you write the story. If it disappears, you’ve taken a wrong turn.

-Be aware of the third question — why do we care? We must be endeared to the hero (or despise the villain) and the hero’s goal must be worthy and important. The implication is obvious. If we’re not emotionally attached to the hero, we won’t care what happens. And if his goal isn’t both worthy and important, we won’t care if he attains it.

-Until the premise is revealed, the story is pointless. In other words, until the audience knows what the hero WANTS, the story has nowhere to go. Example: In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we open with Indy in an Amazon jungle cave stealing some artifact. He barely
escapes with his life and manages to return to his work as a professor at Chicago University. Now what does any of that have to do with the Lost Ark? Nothing. Indy has stated no particular goal so the story is nowhere. But then… he learns of the existence of
the Ark and decides to find it before the Nazis get hold of it. Now the premise becomes, Indy WANTS the Ark. And everything he does from that point on is aimed at achieving his goal. I like to see the premise revealed within the first 20 pages.

-Love is a process. You can’t just put two people together in a story and tell us they’re in love. We may believe it but we won’t feel it. You MUST give us the scenes showing us the behavior that causes one person to fall in love with another. What is it in her that he needs? What does he have that makes her desire him? And it can’t be only physical attraction. We know that people in bars can be physically attracted, fall into bed and the next morning regret it and never see each other again. That’s lust, not love.

-Once the hero has attained his goal… THE STORY IS OVER. Think of it this way. You’re watching a film full of danger and intrigue keeping you on the edge of your seat as the hero hurtles ever onward toward his worthy and important goal. The drama builds. Tension is unbearable. Then, in the exciting climax, the battle between good and evil is waged and the hero wins (or loses as in a tragedy). At that moment, all of the dramatic tension that was built is released like air out of a balloon. At this point, the audience is ready to rise and file out of the theater. THE STORY IS OVER. A common mistake these days is for a writer to keep going with the story even though there is no more tension to be derived. Yes, you often have to spend time to tie up loose ends but this must be done
quickly so you can get out and fade out.

-Think about what the audience is seeing onscreen. I often read a scene wherein two people are at a restaurant. They order. The waitress leaves. The two people converse for about thirty seconds and the waitress returns with their chateaubriand.

-Think of a script as a document of information. Something happens. And that something is first registered in the brain, right? We see and hear the event. Now if that information stops in the brain (intellect), then you’ve failed as a writer. Once it registers in the intellect, then it must go further into the heart or the gut. Those are the places emotion comes from.

-Character development occurs when we create the scenes that show the character behaving in the manner we want him identified with. Don’t tell us Joe is wonderful, he’d give his shirt off his back. Give us the scene where Joe gives the shirt off his back or “Saves the Cat.” Don’t tell us Sam is so evil he’d stick a knife in his grandma’s back. Give us the scene where Sam not only stabs his grandma in the back, but then twists the knife. Those scenes hit straight at the heart and gut.

You’ve written for both TV and film. How does writing for one medium compare to the other?

No difference unless you’re writing for a series. Then you have time (page count) considerations. I’ve written a number of movies for cable television and every one I wrote as though writing a feature film

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

Yes. And the reasons are hard to explain. First, it followed all of the requirements listed above concerning proper mechanics, economy, etc., but beyond that it grabbed my interest on page 2 and never let me go. It had complication, conflict and invention. It gave me the satisfying ending I wanted but in a way that was unexpected.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

Go to my website at www.PaulCooperScreenwriting.com or my IMDb site: http://www.imdb.me/paulw.cooper

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

Coconut cream. The best I ever found was in a little diner/pie shop in Williams, Arizona. My wife and I always stop there on our trips between California and Oklahoma.

coconut cream

Q & A with Bob Saenz

BobNHS

TNIWIT cover1a

Bob Saenz is a screenwriter, actor and author. His produced works include Hallmark’s Help for the Holidays, Rescuing Madison, Sweet Surrender, On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Sound of Christmas, The Right Girl, Christmas in Love,  the theatrical Church People, and the black comedy thriller Extracurricular Activities. He does rewrites and polishes on film and TV projects for Producers and Production Companies. His screenwriting book THAT’S NOT THE WAY IT WORKS was released in 2019.

His acting roles include a 6-year run recurring character run on the TV show Nash Bridges, Hallmark’s Valley of Light, Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, Church People, and The Village Barbershop, among dozens of others. He was a radio DJ on KYCY-FM in San Francisco, played the last 10 years in the 60’s rock band The BSides, and has done voicework on video games, documentaries, and commercials.

Editor’s Note – I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bob personally for a few years. His insight and advice has proven invaluable to helping me become a better writer, both in terms of craft and career.

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

A spec script by a writer named Rene Gutteridge called Where the Wind Comes. Maybe the best spec I’ve ever read. Just spectacular. Was emotionally affected by it. Stunning.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book That’s Not The Way It Works?

Two things. One, I’ve been teaching and speaking at writers’ conferences all over the country the last few years and everyone who was there speaking had a book, except me. I complained to my wife about it and she said, “What’s stopping you from writing one?” So I did.

Two, there’s not a single one I could find out there that spoke plainly about the business of being a screenwriter.

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

The tone. It’s conversational. My experience. It’s filled with what I have learned actually succeeding at it. With more than a dozen films produced, I used all that experience to write about what I know. And, I talk first hand about the business of screenwriting. What the writer needs to know about that part of it, which is just as important as writing a script, and how to approach that.

While the first half of the book is about the actual writing of a script, the second half covers the not-as-discussed “what happens AFTER the script is written (i.e. the business aspects)”. What advice would you give to writers who want to learn more about this?

As I say in the book – find out that it’s not easy, it’s not instant gratification, and you have to work at it. Hard. You can succeed; it just takes time and a business plan. I think the book helps with that. Realizing that writing a script is only the beginning of your journey is a BIG eye-opener for most writers who dream of doing this.

Yes, the script needs to be something people would want to choose to see and has to be good, but that’s not the end of it.

The book has a great chapter about dealing with rejection. What are some key takeaways and advice you’d offer to writers?

The main takeaway is that rejection isn’t personal. Producers and reps don’t care enough about you to make it personal. It’s ALL about the content. Whether they love your script and not or can use it at that time or not. There are hundreds of reasons to reject a script… you have zero control and it’s not personal. Even the most famous screenwriters get rejected on a regular basis. It’s an everyday occurrence. You have to learn to live with it or it’ll destroy you.

Another important issue writers tend to overlook is the need to effectively market themselves in addition to their script. While the chapter about what NOT to do is entertaining (and a bit eye-opening), what are your suggestions about what writers SHOULD DO?

Use the avenues that producers and reps have opened to the writer. Querying. Something that is an art unto itself and something I delve into pretty deeply in the book with a whole section on query letters.

Networking. There’s a huge section in the book about this.  The dos and don’ts. One thing to always remember about networking: It’s about building relationships, not using people. People who can help you absolutely know the difference and will run away from you if you try and use them.

Contests. The Nicholl and Austin are the ones who will pretty much always get you reads in LA if you final or win them. I’ve had friends get their films made doing well in both of these. Neither are easy to do well in because of the sheer number of entries, but they can pay off.

The last way is through referrals, especially to get a rep. If you know a producer or director or star who will refer you… but again, this goes back to networking and having the great scripts to back it up.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The most important thing is a great story. It also has to be lean and mean. Brevity and white space are your friend. You aren’t writing a novel. You want just enough in there to have the reader see the film in their head and to be able to fill in what they want to as they read, engaging them in the story that way. Again, a big section in the book about this.

I will say this: Producers are ONLY looking for STORY. Screenwriters can never forget this. Don’t over-complicate the read. You can write a complex story without making it hard to read. Oh… spelling and grammar are important, too.

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

The main one? Choosing the wrong story to tell. Telling a story no one wants to see. Whether it’s not sustainable, not interesting, ridiculous, something that’s been done a thousand times before, something you can see every day in TV reruns… there are a million reasons NOT to write this kind of story. You need to go through a pretty thorough checklist (in the book) and make sure it’s a viable story before you do the time consuming hard work it takes to write a good script. Why do all that hard work on a story that’ll be Dead On Arrival?

Another big mistake I see all the time is writers not doing their research about the topics they choose to write about. Writing things that would never ever happen. You have to ground your script in the reality of the subject matter before you take liberties with it.

What are some key writing guidelines every writer should know?

-AIS – Putting your Ass In the Seat. You have to be disciplined. Producers expect you to be disciplined. Good to start doing that at the beginning.

-Never give up. This is so hard to do, you’ll get discouraged on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to give up than to stick with it because it takes years to succeed in. Notice I didn’t say it CAN take years, I said it TAKES YEARS, because in every case, it does. You aren’t going to be the exception.

-Don’t cheat on research. Take the time to actually learn about the things you’re writing about. Go out and learn them. A big section in the book about this.

-Again…. for emphasis…. choose a story that is viable for producers and audiences. Don’t just pull something out of the air and write it.

-You’re not writing a novel. Leave everything that isn’t directly hooked to your story or plot points out of your script. One rule of thumb? You know all those people listed in the credits of a film? It’s your job to do everything they don’t. You aren’t a costume designer or a casting agent or set designer…. or… any of them. They don’t ask to write the story, you don’t try and do their job.

You’ve managed to establish and maintain a writing career while living outside of Los Angeles. What are some of the pros and cons about it you’ve experienced?

Pros: I don’t live all that far away (400 miles) and can be at any meeting on a day’s notice, so it’s been fine for me. I am in LA multiple times a year, sometimes for more than a week at a time. It’s expensive… but also my choice. There’s a section is the book about moving to LA and when to pull the trigger and do it if you need to.

Con: I’m not in LA networking all the time. Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing. Not worth moving there for me, though.

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

Peach. Nothing else comes close.

peach pie

May I be of some assistance?

info booth
“Be with you folks in a minute.”

For the most part, working towards making it as a screenwriter is a solitary effort. You’re the one who has to write the script and get it out there. It’s a tough journey, but you don’t have to go it alone.

Hence – networking.

Making that initial contact is great, but you should also strive to make it worth the other person’s while as much as you are for yourself.

Once you start to build up your own personal community of Other Writers, and those relationships gradually develop beyond the “Hi. Nice to meet you” stage, you’ll naturally seek out some help in the form of feedback – your latest draft, a query, a logline, what have you.

And that’s all well and good, but it’s equally important, if not more so, for you to return the favor. Rather than just popping up and saying “Hey, would you read my script?”, try “Hey, we’ve known each other a while, and you seem to know what you’re talking about, so would you be open to reading my script? And I’d be more than happy to reading one of yours.”

Helpful tip #1 – don’t be the person who asks for notes but isn’t willing to give them.

Helpful tip #2 – even if you don’t like what their notes say, you still need to hold up your end of the bargain and give them notes – especially if you’re the one who asked in the first place.

Sometimes the best kind of help is when it’s unexpected – either from you or from somebody you know.

A few years ago, a producer friend of a friend was looking for a certain kind of project. I didn’t have anything that met their criteria, but offered to post the listing on a few social media platforms. At least 20 writers responded. I sent their info to the producer, who then contacted a few of them (as far as I know).

What did I get out of it? Just being happy to help and the appreciation from all the writers – even the ones the producer didn’t follow up with.

I’ve also been fortunate to be on the receiving end, with friends sending me emails and messages about listings seeking scripts like mine.

A little effort really does go a long way – anything from forwarding a script or job listing to a few words of encouragement, or even offering congratulations for somebody acheiving some kind of accomplishment. Don’t you like when somebody does that sort of thing for you?

As much as we’re all working towards our own individual success, we’re also part of a community; one where each member should help support the others in whatever way they can.

-Speaking of helping out… Veteran screenwriter Carole A. Parker is offering a reduced rate of $250 for her 4-week screenwriting course. This includes a script evaluation, weekly writing exercises (for newer writers) or friendly-but-detailed notes on your script (for more experienced writers), career guidance, and if she thinks your script is commercially viable, some help in getting it in front of the right people. Here’s a great article she wrote about staying determined. For more details, contact her at parker.carole@gmail.com.

My game. Upped.

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

So how was 2018 for you?

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

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

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

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

-A few “almosts” regarding representation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s hoping, anyway.

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

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

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

My brain’s helping hands are ready to go

 

vintage handyman
No job too small! (schedule permitting)

Thanks to my ever-expanding network of savvy creative types, I get lots of chances to be on both the giving and receiving ends when it comes to reading scripts.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to get exceptionally helpful notes from a lot of really talented folks. All this feedback has somehow managed to influence my writing for the better, and for that I am overflowing with gratitude.

So the least I can do when somebody asks me “Will you read my script?” or “Can I pick your brain about this idea?” is to say “Of course.”* Maybe I can offer up a few scraps of advice that might somehow work to their advantage. If anything, I can at least point out where a fix in spelling or punctuation is needed. For a script, anyway. That counts, right?

*caveat – it’s taken a lot of work spread over a long time for me to build up my network and establish connections, so I don’t mind if somebody I actually know drops me a note with such a request. If our only connection is being connected on social media and we’ve never interacted – at all, you’re little more than a total stranger to me. So heed that one word and be social. It makes a difference.

I had the pleasure of such an experience this week. I’d connected with another Bay Area creative, and we’d been trying for a while to arrange a face-to-face meeting. After much scheduling, cancelling and rescheduling, we finally made it happen.

This person had an idea for a project, wanted to talk about it, and see if I was interested in being involved. I stated at the outset that I had enough work on my own for now, but would be open to giving notes – time permitting.

After the initial introductions and our thumbnail backstories, we focused on their project. I won’t go into specifics or details about it, because those aren’t the important parts.

What was important was:

-this was a story they’d had inside them for a while, and even though they knew it needed A LOT of work, they were still happy with simply having written it all out

-they were totally open and willing to listen to my suggestions. Some they liked, some they didn’t. Totally fine.

But the more we talked, the more the seeds of ideas were planted in their head. Even though a lot of the details we came up with, including possible paths the story could take, ended up being totally different from their original incarnation, it was easy to see that spark of excitement reignite inside them.

Seeing that happen with somebody you’re trying to help is more satisfying than you can possibly imagine.

We parted ways, with them really rarin’ to go and start developing the latest draft. They added that they really appreciated me being so willing to help out.

I just like doing that sort of thing. I never had that kind of person-to-person help when I was starting out, so why not do what I can for others? Granted, the internet and social media didn’t even exist then, so it’s a lot easier now.

I got a few emails from them the next day showing me what they’d come up with since our meeting. Same concept, but a totally new approach (and, in my opinion, provided the opportunity for a lot of new possibilities). This also included a more thorough write-up of “what happened before the story starts”.

Even though it can be tough to read emotion in text, it was easy to see the spark was still burning strong within them. The way they talked about their plans for what comes next, I could tell they were actually looking forward to working on this.

It was nice knowing I had a little something to do with it.

We exchanged a few more emails (mostly me asking questions about story and characters and them providing sufficient answers), and I wrapped up with “Keep me posted.”

Their response: “Definitely. Thanks again. You’re a good dude.”

That was nice too.