Q & A with Melody Jackson of Smart Girls Productions

2018-03-03_17-48-20

Melody Jackson, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Smart Girls Productions and Hollywood Business School, is a self-described “Marketing Person” and Entrepreneur.  After working as a Marketing Person selling to the film industry for several years, she started Smart Girls Productions in 1992.

To learn more about Melody and the services provided by Smart Girls Productions, check out their screenwriting blog.

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

That question is a little bit funky for me to answer and I’ll tell you why.  Years ago I took the famous/infamous Robert McKee screenwriting course, and there was one thing that really stuck with me. In that legendary, deep gruff voice with his big scary face belting from the stage, McKee shouted out:  “I’m not doing this class to try to make you guys win Academy Awards…. I’m teaching this class to try to raise the overall quality of films that are out there.” Something to that effect.

He talked about how, when he was a young boy, he would go watch every single film that came out in the theaters near him — even as a young kid, he went to see everything.  All types of films. He just loved the medium of film.

The thing I learned from him is not to be so hung up on what is great writing, but to learn to enjoy film as a whole.  Most scripts are not going to be great or really well-written. It’s easy to critique and criticize most of them. But in that class, I learned to have a different perspective, and that makes a difference for me as a script analyst and for my clients.  

Sure I can go deep into “analyzing” structure and character arcs and all kinds of stuff. But ultimately, it’s a question first and foremost of “did this script cause me to have some kind of emotional experience? Regardless of anything else.”  Then, and only then, do I engage my left brain and start seeing how it could be made better. With better writing, you tend to appeal across a broader group of people.  

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Prior to starting my company Smart Girls Productions, I worked for a company that was involved with film distribution — both domestic and international — and I learned a fair amount about that.  At one point, I just had to quit — no really good reason; they were great. But I just wanted to do a business on my own. That’s when I started Smart Girls.

I was actually working on an acting career at that point and need to figure out how I was going to make money.  Since I read scripts as an actress, I thought, “Hey, I could make money typing scripts.” Yes, typing! I ran an ad in the Writer’s Guild magazine and got a call right away.  The truth is, I didn’t even know how to type a script. I called an aspiring producer friend of mine who was also my mentor. And I asked him desperately, “How do I type a script?”  He told me to get some book from Samuel French bookstore and I did. It took me forever to type those first two scripts. But after that, I typed a LOT of scripts…. we still do!

Then once I learned to type a script, I took lots of classes on screenwriting. Then I began writing my own scripts. Got hired to write a couple. I got a WGA agent. I went on to get my Ph.D. in mythological studies.  And along the way, I added script analysis to my list of services and it turns out, I apparently have a knack for it. I ended up being rated one of the top 5 Script Consultants on three different occasions by Creative Screenwriting Magazine.  

Your company’s called Smart Girls Productions. What’s the story behind the name, and what kind of work does the company do?

This one is short.  When I started my company, I brainstormed a list of about 30 company names. I read it to my Mom, and she said, “Definitely Smart Girls.”  And so it was. Told you it was short.

You have a PhD in Mythological Studies. Has that helped you in analyzing scripts?

For sure. Joseph Campbell, the father of bringing mythology into an understandable form, is the one who identified The Hero’s Journey.  That’s the foundation of almost every great Western story. My studies in mythology looked at story from innumerable angles…. not just Campbell’s but many others.  So yes. It is in my DNA that it informs my analysis.

What are the components of a good script?

For me this is where the Hero’s Journey meets Aristotle’s Poetics.  The Hero’s Journey focuses more on the experience of the character and the inner transformation.  The Poetics has more of an emphasis on plot. But if you work both angles, then you’re going to have things that appeal to more audience members.  That’s the big picture.

If I had to say what those elements are, it would be something like… You need to have a character that has something he or she NEEDS to learn, some kind of lesson, some area of their life where they are misguided.

They then get pulled into some external plot in which they will be forced to confront that thing they have not learned. They will come face-to-face with it in the external plot.

Their choice and how they handle it is the big lesson for them and for the audience.  The biggest component for a good script for me is that the the main character has some kind of transformation. That they are somehow a bigger, better or wiser character by the time the story ends.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The most common big mistake I see is no solid theme developed in the story. You have to have some point to telling the story, otherwise it’s a boring story about going to the store.

Gotta have some point about human nature that is revealed in your story, or what’s the point? That is the biggest mistake new writers make. I would also venture to say it’s also why more sophisticated movie-goers don’t like straight-up action films. Too many times, the focus is not on any kind of transformation, but on other fun stuff like chase scenes and explosions and cool special effects. Nothing wrong with that, but it does nothing for the soul. The soul longs for transformation, and personal development. The theme is the highest articulation of that. The most common mistake I see — actually I don’t see it as a mistake, but more like the most underdeveloped aspect of scripts I read is theme. And I say it that way, because I find that most writers have some place of meaning they are writing from; they just haven’t consciously identified what it is.

One of the non-writing necessities of screenwriting is the writer’s ability to market themselves. Seeing as how that’s one of your specialties, what are some key pieces of advice that writers should keep in mind?

You’re not going to be successful overnight or next week. You’re not going to sell your first script for a million dollars. Or even $250,000. The first person who reads your script is not going to fall in love with it and suddenly introduce you as this newly discovered gem that Hollywood has been waiting for.

Many screenwriters really have no idea how hard it is to get a deal and then get your movie made. It’s a long shot. I’m not saying you should give up, but I am saying that my best advice is to learn more about the BUSINESS side of the business. It’s far more likely that a writer will get hired to re-write a script if they’re a great writer than it is that they will actually sell their film and have it be produced. Trying to convey this idea and educate writers on this is why I launched my Hollywood Business School at HollywoodBschool.com.  My mission there is to help actors and writers better understand the business so they can have a much better chance at reaching their goals.

To boil it down to a few simple bits of advice:  Keep learning as much as you can about the business. Get great at your craft. Market market market. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.  Enjoy the pursuit. Be positive and be persistent. And don’t quit your day job. — BUT… do everything you can to help your career while you still have that job.

Part of your bio lists being the former emcee at the Hollywood Networking Breakfast. Could you provide a little more detail about the event and is it something screenwriters should consider attending?

My dear friend Sandra Lord is the Networking Guru of Hollywood. She was my manager for a period of time when I was acting. She started The Breakfast at that time, and she excelled at finding top level producers and agents to speak.  For the nine years I emceed that and heard the speakers, I got a deep education in how Hollywood works and what execs want.

Sandra still hosts the breakfast several times a year.  She also runs an event called “Let’s Do Lunch” and the L.A. Film and Television Meetup.  She is the first person that I recommend for every aspiring filmmaker, actor, set designer — anyone who wants to get into the business — go to her events as much as you can.  You will definitely start making connections. And it’s also not just for newbies. You’ll find a lot of working industry people there as well.

What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

“Most” important?  I tend to stay away from hyperbole because how can I really boil it down to MOST important?  It’s a great question that writers need to know, so it’s not the question that’s an issue — it’s just my picky resistance to saying what is my most anything…Let me slightly modify and simply tell you what I think are some generally important rules.  Here are the three I pick for now:

  1. Learn story structure.  Study screenwriting. If you haven’t studied screenwriting, I guarantee you don’t know how to do it well. 100% guaranteed.
  2. Tap into your authenticity and write from there. In a very positive way, I think everyone has a great story to tell — of their own life even — if you find the right bits and pieces. Whatever it is that moves a screenwriter to spend weeks, months, and years on their screenplay, that tells me they have something important to say.  This goes back to the theme I mentioned above. They may not have completely identified what their theme is — and why their story is important to them. But I will also guarantee this …. if they tap into their authenticity and why they are so moved by that story, that story will have a hundred times more impact — on them and their audience.  If they get to their authenticity about it, there is deep fulfillment and satisfaction in writing a story like that. Then your passion makes it much easier for others to see its greatness.
  3. Don’t take anything you hear from a producer or agent at face value. You have to know how to read between the lines.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s less a story trope that I’m tired of because they can be told in different ways.  What I find hard to watch or read is when the writer or filmmakers have not tapped into their unique vision — again I would call it lacking authenticity — but then … I don’t want THAT to come across as a TROPE!  If I had to say it another way, it’s when people are not digging deep enough into their soul to get to their authentic, unique perspective.

You could see the same story ten different times and if the filmmakers or screenwriter truly tapped into their own unique take deep within, it could still be interesting. It’s like when a great song is recorded by many different artists.  Whether it’s “Over the Rainbow,” “Amazing Grace,” “Yesterday,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love” or “To Love Somebody,” when a great singer does their unique rendition, we can hear it over and over and still be moved by it. The same with a story or a story beat.  The problem lies in the lack of tapping into the truth of the individual writer.

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

Gotta be pumpkin!  I need to find a good source for pumpkin pie here in Los Angeles. Got one?

pumpkin pie

Ask a Guy Who Takes Comedy Very Seriously!

Steve Kaplan

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today focuses on writing comedy, so the spotlight is on Steve Kaplan, who runs the Comedy Intensive course.

1. What would you call a good example of some great comedy writing in recent TV or film?

It’s sometimes difficult to separate great comic writing from great comic performances. That being said, I think the best comedy writing on television occurs, day in and day out, on The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Both shows are able to combine sharp satire with great comic characters, and in the case of The Daily Show, much of the comedy benefits from the relationship between Jon Stewart’s somewhat befuddled and beleaguered news anchor and his crew of inspiringly loony correspondents.

Much has been written about the death of the sitcom, but Network TV still offers the great work from The Simpsons (25 years, and still going strong) and Modern Family’s writing staff, while cable is a treasure trove of niche delights, from sketch shows like Inside Amy Schumer to episodics like Louie, Veep, Getting On, and Episodes. I’m also looking forward to the Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul.

The comedy feature record is spottier. Big hits like Dumb and Dumber To and Hangover 3 may have made a lot of money, but for me, my favorite comedy of 2014 was The Grand Budapest Hotel—funny, lovely, odd, stylish, a little sad, touching and in the end, really about something. (As of this writing, I still haven’t seen The Interview, but I’m really looking forward to it. The trailer made me laugh out loud, it provoked North Korea into a mammoth cyber-attack on Sony—what’s not to like?)

Film comedies I’ve enjoyed from the past few years include Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Moonrise Kingdom, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, This Is The End, Nebraska, Warm Bodies, The Way Way Back, Ted —exactly the way I like my comedies. Some were silly and looney, but looking over the list, most were funny, lovely, odd, stylish, a little sad, touching and in the end, really about something. What can I say. You might like vanilla; I like chocolate. In the end, it’s subjective.

2. What’s your comedy background?

As a kid, I was awkward and kind of odd—I was drawn to comedy because I noted that in comedy movies, the funny guys were awkward and kind of odd, but sometimes got the girl! That was good enough for me!

In college, I studied acting and directing. After college, I was given an opportunity to start an Off-Off Broadway theatre. I convinced my two partners that we should start a theatre that was completely devoted to comedy. Manhattan Punch Line helped launch the careers of actors like Nathan Lane and Oliver Platt, and writers like Michael Patrick King, Peter Tolan and David Crane. While at the Punch Line, I taught classes and worked with and directed sketch groups. I began to wonder why something that was incredibly funny on Thursday night would get no laughs on Sunday. Why sometimes the funniest performance of a play was at its very first table read? What was going on here? That’s when I started seriously exploring the art and the science—some would even call it the physics—of comedy.

At the time, I was teaching an improv class. Without telling the actors, I started experimenting with them—devising improv games to get at the core of comedy: how it works, why it works, what’s going on when it stops working, and what the hell can you do about it?

These experiments led to the discovery of a series of techniques, which in turn led to a forty week Master Class in comedy. When I moved to LA, I it was suggested to me that I gear my course to writers. “You could be the Robert McKee of comedy!” was how Derek Christopher (who produces the annual Story Expo in LA) put it. That led to teaching comedy around the globe, and working with companies like DreamWorks Animation, Disney Animation, Screen Australia and Film Victoria, working as a consultant with writers and producers, publishing my book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy, and ultimately, being interviewed by you.

3. Who are some of your comedic inspirations/role models? What is it about them in particular that appeals to you?

That’s a hard question to answer. I’m a fan of great comedy, and the list of great comedy writers performers and creators could go on and on. There are parts of careers that inspired me—early to mid Woody Allen, late George Carlin, some Mel Brooks, Bob Hope in the “Road” movies, Steve Martin in Roxanne and L.A. Story and Bowfinger, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld, Lily Tomlin, The Bob Newhart Show, All In The Family, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Louie C.K., Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Tom Lehrer (okay, and Allan Sherman), George Burns, Bill Irwin, Judd Apatow, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets. I’m sure I’m leaving out twenty that after this is posted, I’ll hit myself on the forehead, shouting, “How could I forget _________?!!?”

What they all have in common, in some fashion, is an immediacy, honesty (in some cases, a ferocious honesty), an ability to see a slightly off-centered view of the world, and then share it so we see it as well. They all made me laugh, and most had the ability to touch the heart, to make you care and still be funny!

4. Do you think someone can be taught to be funny, or is it something that just comes naturally?

Groucho Marx once said “you can’t teach funny.” But the Marx Brothers were a terrible, just terrible, act when their Mother Minnie first pushed them out on stage. But working eight a day in vaudeville, picking up hints and tips from the other performers, they honed their act into one of the greatest comedy teams of all time. But it wasn’t ‘natural,’ it was through apprenticeship, observation and yes, being taught by other performers.

While you can’t teach someone to be more talented, you can teach someone to act and write to the best of their ability.  And just like you can teach drama, you can certainly teach comedy. Yes, comedy can be taught.

5. What would you recommend for a writer who wants to develop or sharpen their comedy-writing skills?

What can writers do to sharpen their skills? Hang around with other funny people.

There are two great ways to do that. One would be to join an improv group or take improv classes. Since much of comedy is character-based, the best way to get inside a character’s head is to be one. Even if you’re not interested in being a performer or stand-up, the comic skills you’ll pick up are invaluable when writing material, whether it’s long form or short form, or just a set-up and punch line.

The second piece of advice would be to form or join a writers’ group. Once you’ve written your material, it’s imperative to hear the material read out loud in front of even a small group of friends and colleagues. It’s basic to comedy: the interaction between script/performer and audience. You’ve got to hear how those golden pearls play when read by humans to humans. You’re not looking for hours of rehearsal and polished performances, but just an intelligent read can tell you what’s alive and kicking in your script, and what’s dead as a doornail, only you don’t know it yet. So, in a nutshell: Funny people get funnier when in the company of other funny people.

6. Are there any comedy cliches you consider overused? Which ones are you just tired of seeing?

I’ve really tried to think of some that I hope never to see again, but I kept coming up with exceptions to the rule. Spit-takes are overdone, yet I still laugh when Desi or Danny does one. Getting kicked in the balls is another, yet there’s a beat in Monsters, Inc. when Billy Crystal’s one-eyed character lands hard on his privates, and I’m sorry, it’s only a cartoon, but it’s funny. At least I thought so. I guess the difference is a meme or bit done by rote, and one enhanced by a great character or performance.

The things I am tired of seeing are scripts overloaded with weak, puerile jokes; scripts in which every character is a wise-cracker or failed stand-up comedian.

7. What’s the funniest joke you’ve ever read or heard from a non-professional ?

Hmmm. . . my six-year old niece once asked me, “Did you hear about the peanut walking alone in the park at night? It was a salted.” I thought that was pretty funny.

8. How can people contact you to find out more about your services?

My website is www.KaplanComedy.com, and my email address is Steve@KaplanComedy.com. In addition, you can follow me on Twitter at @skcomedy or on Facebook at Facebook.com/KaplanComedy. In addition to presenting one and two day workshops in the US and abroad, I’m also available for script consultations, whether on full-feature scripts, pilots, webisodes or treatments.

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

Man, that’s a tough question. I love Boston Cream Pie and apple pie a la mode, but if I’m on a desert island, and can only have one slice, I’ll go with pumpkin pie—ice cream on the side!

Ask a Thoroughly Meticulous Script Consultant!

Jim Mercurio

 

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Jim Mercurio of A-List Screenwriting.

Jim Mercurio is a filmmaker, writer and teacher. The high-concept horror-thriller he directed, Last Girl, won best feature in the 2012 DOA Bloodbath Film Festival (as #12). The Washington Post called his Making Hard Scrambled Movies (production tutorials) “a must for would-be filmmakers.” His workshops and instructional DVDs, including his recent 10-hour set Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List, have inspired tens of thousands of screenwriters. One of the country’s top story analysts, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers. He is finishing up the first screenwriting book that focuses solely on scene writing, The Craft of Scene Writing, for Linden Publishing. To find out about working with Jim, visit his website at http://www.jamespmercurio.com.

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

I used to try to see almost every film that was released in a year. Lately, for better or worse, I have had less time to be a viewer. Although I only watch 3-4 TV series at any given time, I really liked True Detective. I like Girls. Lena has a great voice and the show, as well as You’re the Worst, for me, fills in for the quirky little indies that seem to be on the decline. I thought Her was exciting because it was high-concept but indie in spirit. And it could have been made for almost any price. It was one of those films where I can say, “I wish I had made it,” or “I could have or should have written that.” I also look for gems of craft in surprising places. Who can’t love – capital L-O-V-E — the moment in The Avengers when Bruce Banner reveals the secret to the Hulk: “I’m always angry”?

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

After grad school, I wanted to figure out screenwriting inside-and-out because I loved screenwriting but I also thought it would be a means to be able to direct. I read probably every screenwriting book and resource available in the 90s. I worked as a development exec for an indie company owned by one of the producers of Gas-Food-Lodging. And then I attended 120 hours of classes from the so-called “gurus” including, McKee, Hauge, Truby, etc. for a review article in Creative Screenwriting. That experience expanded my perspective and spurred my ability to be able to identify and clearly articulate issues in a script. I would do notes for friends and, by word of mouth, I eventually got more people who wanted feedback, so that’s how I started working as a story analyst. With my development background, my private story analysis and contests I have run, I have read more than 5,000 feature screenplays.

3. Is recognizing good screenwriting something you think can be taught or learned?

For the most part, yes, assuming that a reader has some affinity for screenwriting and storytelling. Recognizing a good or very good script that is a good read is a common developable skill. A rarer skill is when a reader can accurately determine whether a script will play as a film. Some scripts deliver a smooth and emotionally satisfying read but would not translate as well to film as would some scripts that may be a less satisfying read.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I like to see solid execution: great dialogue, exploiting concept, unity of theme… all the craft elements that I preach. No longer in the acquisition side of development, I have a more solipsistic approach to material. I want to find scripts I can direct or produce: High-concept scripts with modest budget a la Her or Buried. Or a script with such awesome characters and dialogue that it is imminently castable or packageable. In general, with shrinking or nonexistent development budgets, I encourage all writers to nail the execution, so their scripts are as ready as possible to being shot.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

My development for outside companies consists of intensive feedback on a few scripts or rough cuts per year. I no longer read 20 scripts per week, so that’s why I combined these two questions. And I will deal with craft issues below.

Impatience. Writers want to rush material to market that isn’t ready. In general, scripts usually aren’t done. The execution isn’t there. It’s several drafts away from being ready to be a movie. For my clients who aren’t already successful writers, the best thing they can do for their career is to go from good to great and write an amazing script.

Clarity. Writers often don’t have a clear picture of how their material relates to the marketplace. I have made several low-concept feature films, so you can learn from my, ah, pain and experience. If you are writing low-concept dramas, unless the script is a masterpiece or can be cast with name actors, you have to accept that the script will only be valuable as a writing sample. If your goal is to sell your next script, you are going to have to say “no” to a lot of your story ideas based solely on their concepts.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

There are no rules and break them at your peril.

I spent a few years and tens of thousands of dollars creating a 10-hour DVD set where I tried to cover the dozens of craft elements writers need to know including story structure, theme, character orchestration, dialogue, writing cinematically, concept, handling exposition and scene writing. I am not sure I can narrow it down to just three from a craft perspective.

I work with Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning talent whose material is always good, yet they aren’t satisfied. If successful professionals are still fighting to make their scripts better and improve their craft, so should beginners. Regardless of your genre, aim to transcend it. Rewrite it until it sings. Along with concept, one of the most important factors in giving your script a chance is nailing the execution.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

If you are giving a recommend that means you are reading for someone else and evaluating the material relative to their tastes. There have been scripts that I have loved that weren’t right for the company I was reading for. I get more excited about writers who are a recommend. I want to know what else they have or what they are considering working on next.

There were writers I championed while running the Screenwriting Expo Competition whose scripts would be almost impossible to produce – a $200-million biopic of Michelangelo; a magical realist masterpiece for which there is literally not a young actress in the world whose box office value could carry the movie; a chamber-play western; a devastatingly bleak low-concept drama. But more than a decade later, I keep in touch with those writers: Bill, Nathan, Naida and Lorelei.

I have even helped a few of them to get some non-guild writing work. Not life-changing money but the chance for valuable experience. A reminder that a great writing sample, even if it doesn’t sell, has tremendous value.

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

See above.

Of course, they are worth it. But be practical about what you hope to achieve from them. Only a miniscule percentage of writers should look at contests as a money-making endeavor.

But contests can pay off in other ways. They can inspire you creatively, encourage you to make your deadlines and help to promote your work. There is also a social aspect. They can lead to you meeting other people.

They can also be a tool to evaluate your writing. There is always subjectivity in reading scripts, but if your script hasn’t advanced in 9 out of 10 (appropriate) contests, then I would suggest not spending more money on contests. Work on making the script better and maybe even consider spending your contest budget on feedback.

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

They can look in to working with me at my story analysis site, www.jamespmercurio.com, or check out my new DVD set Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List at www.a-listscreenwriting.com. My coaching and mentoring approach creates a relationship with clients where I can push and challenge them throughout several drafts of a script until it’s where we want it to be.

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

I have gross points in my last film, so if it ever makes money, that will be my favorite piece of the pie.

Ask a Straight-talkin’ Script Consultant!

Jim Cirile - Coverage Ink

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Jim Cirile of Coverage Ink.

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

After binge-watching “Sons of Anarchy” season 6, you really have to marvel at the craftsmanship. The upheaval and complications are so constant as to be ludicrous, yet it’s so devilishly well-written that you just strap in and hold on tight. And blowing our own horn a bit, the last script I read which was truly special was Brandon Barker’s “Nottingham and Hood,” which we found as part of our last Get Repped Now! promotion this summer. We got him into Benderspink, where he’s now working with their head of lit Jake Wagner. So, win-win. A real talented guy with a bitingly funny comic voice.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Kind of fell into it, really. I originally founded Coverage Ink to offer my small handful of analysts, whom I’d assembled to help develop my own material, to other writers at low cost. Getting feedback from smart readers is a major part of my process and always has been. In fact, the very first person I met when I moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago was a union studio reader, and that fellow was enormously gracious in giving me feedback and teaching me how the biz really works. Over time, as a writer myself, I gave feedback to plenty of other writers and realized I had a lot to say in that regard. Our approach is based around writer empowerment – giving constructive feedback as opposed to humiliation. This is in part a reaction to some of the astonishingly humiliating and unhelpful coverage I’ve received on my own scripts and have seen others receive over the years. I figured there had to be a way to give helpful guidance without belittling the writer. So all of that combined to get the CI ball rolling in 2002.

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

Yes, but to a point. Obviously anyone can read a bunch of books, take classes on writing and so forth, and get down your Save the Cat!, Syd Field, McKee, etc. However, some folks have a hard time putting aside their egos — the frustrated writers out there who fancy themselves story analysts. These folks project their personal tastes and frustrations onto material as opposed to appreciating it for what it is and trying to help it become the best possible version of itself. I’ve had to let go of several very smart people who fancied themselves as story consultants because they actually could not recognize good writing or material with potential.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Great, multidimensional characters. Solid structure. Avoiding clichés and surprising the reader. Snappy, tight pacing. And of course, good storytelling. That said, a lot of it is about hitting your marks and doing it in creative ways – nailing those structural beats that Hollywood uses to judge whether you’ve got game or not, such as the inciting incident by page 15, Act II beginning by page 25, etc. Even things like whether you know how to write down the page or use sluglines and white space properly all contribute to the first impression as well as perceived ease of the read. A good screenplay is simply a fascinating story well-told. If you’re facile with words, that’s a start – but that’s all it is. You still have to study the form.

5-6. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

By far the biggest one, and I’m just as guilty of this, is sending a script out before it’s fully cooked. We finish a script and we’re so excited that we immediately contact our industry friends and before long, you’re dead in the water. It took a long time to learn to never send out first or even tenth drafts (if I can help it.) Taking the time to develop a screenplay until it’s bulletproof is crucial. My current spec is on its 11th draft and we only just got our first consider. It will probably be three more drafts until we nail it and get consistent considers, which will indicate we’re finally ready to go, and even then we’ll still have to do at least another draft or two for our manager.

The second one is: is your concept really multiplex-worthy? You have to really think about whether your idea is one that makes sense in the current filmmaking climate – be it studio film, indie or festival darling. There are certain stories that just work better as a book, stage play, web series, or whatever, than a feature. Or maybe it just isn’t an exciting idea at all, or is just too played out or derivative – how many spy or vampire movies can they make? Unless you can find a way to bring something really fresh and innovative to those genres, you’d best keep looking for the killer concept.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. Be a student of the business. There’s no point in trying to be a screenwriter if you don’t learn what that actually means and how the game is played.

2. Learn your craft. Just because you wrote a great thesis in college or even a novel doesn’t mean you have any idea how to write a screenplay. Take classes at your local community college or online, get into a writer’s group, read scripts and how-to books and study. Can you get hired as a doctor or lawyer without years of study? So why would you expect another lucrative job like screenwriting to be any easier to learn or break in to?

3. Don’t expect to find representation until you are really, really ready – and by that I mean they come to you because you’re winning contests, or producers and industry types are championing your material. We all want to get representation, but usually an agent won’t even read you unless you’ve already got some heat.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

The aforementioned “Nottingham and Hood.” The Sheriff of Nottingham captures and attempts to transport his prisoner, Robin Hood, to trial. Complications, as they say, ensue. “Midnight Run” in Sherwood Forest. Boom.

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

Our contest Writers on the Storm has gotten several of our winners into agencies like UTA, and last year’s “Cake” was produced and stars Jennifer Aniston. (WOTS is on hiatus this year.) So the answer is – damn right they’re worth it, but it depends on the contest. There are really a few worth the money – Tracking B, Nicholl, Scriptapalooza, Final Draft Big Break, Script Pipeline, maybe one or two others. But the rest – no juice. Save your money. Sadly, no one cares that you made the top ten of the Terre Haute Screenwriting Showdown 2003.

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

Email me at info@coverageink.com, or check out our website – www.coverageink.com

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

Here in Culver City, there is an amazing 2-piece band, a guy and a gal, who play often at the Culver Hotel, my favorite watering hole. They’re called Pie. I’d have to go with them, since they go quite well indeed with an Absolut martini with lime. Other than that, Boston Cream, baby!

Taking back control

Super-busy this afternoon, so not much time to work on LUCY.  I did, however, discover a solution to a problem that has been bothering me for a few days.

I can’t remember exactly how it goes, but there’s this screenwriting tenet that basically advises the writer to not let the characters take over how the story progresses.  It’s up to me to steer things the way they’re supposed to go.

And when I was working on the handful of scenes I developed yesterday, I wasn’t the one in charge.  After I wrote out my little 1-2-sentence scene description, something felt…slightly off.  How would I get Lucy out of this set-up and closer to where I want/need her to be?  And didn’t we just finish up a thrilling action sequence?  There needs to be time to let the audience catch their breath.  I’m not Michael Bay, storming from one hard-to-tell-what’s-going-on sequence to the next.

I was NOT driving this bus, so to speak.

Although I was busy doing other stuff today, I used every chance I had to think about where I left off in the story and what was wrong with it.  It took a while, but I realized why I was stuck.

I had too much going on.  The story needed to slow down.  And since another screenwriting tenet is “kill your darlings,” that’s what I’m going to have to do with the couple of scenes I worked on yesterday.  While the idea of Lucy joining up with a wagon train of Mormons may seem brilliant now, I want to avoid falling into the trap of “then this happens, and then this, then this and then this…” and work more on making it “this happens, which leads to this, which leads to this, etc.”

Much as I dislike Robert McKee, he’s got a valid point with his rule that one scene should lead into the next; don’t just have things happen at random.

That’s what I need to focus on for the time being.  I’ve got a lot of ideas and potential happenings ready for this script, but I want it to flow along…organically.

Like no other scene could follow that one EXCEPT the one coming up next.

My work is so cut out for me.

Movie of the Moment:  It seems like HBO is running AVATAR every 5 minutes.  I saw it in the theatres and came out thinking DANCES WITH ALIENS.  Same plot, but very good in execution.  I turned it on today as the military is flying in to destroy the giant electric weeping willow.

Since she has no desire to see it, I briefly explained to K what was going on.  While the story was a bit on the familiar side, I really give Cameron credit for making it look fantastic.  It was fun playing ‘real or cg?’

It was also a little evident that this was made for 3-D.  There are lots of obligatory “in your face” shots, but watching it today I was reminded of how he uses it to make everything seem real.  The little floaty glow-in-the-dark mushroom/dandelion things.  Particles of dust in the air.  The 3-D is there to emphasize the scene, not cash in on a hopefully-dying trend.

Which could be why when you see ‘in 3-D” at the end of a trailer, chances are fairly high the audience will let out a collective groan.

Studios take note: 3-D only when necessary!

Oh, and original stories of interesting characters that don’t treat the audience like idiots.   Yeah, I know. Dream on, kid.