Ask a More-Than-Just-Horse-Sense Script Consultant!*

Tracee Beebe

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 Tracee Beebe of The Script Coach.

Tracee Beebe is a working screenwriter whose work focuses on damaged characters and their relationships with each other. An optioned screenwriter, she has had screenplays finish among the top 20% of the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship out of 7,000 entrants and as a quarter-finalist in the 2013 Scriptapolooza screenplay competition. As a script coach she enjoys helping writers bring out the best in their scripts as well as learn skills that will help their future screenplays.

Her previous career as a horse trainer, and her work in animal rescue, has flavored much of her work and given her the tenacity to believe that anything is possible if you just work hard enough along with the humility to know that there is always more to learn.

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

I just rewatched To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and fell in love with it all over again. Wonderful, unique characters, tons of subtext, and it just grips you right from the start.

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

I started out just exchanging scripts with other writers for feedback. After some particularly helpful notes, a Facebook friend offered to pay me to do detailed notes for him, word got out and more and more writers came to me for script coaching/consultation. After about a year of that, I saw an ad on ISA looking for experienced readers to do coverage for a new management company and applied.

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

Absolutely. I think that part of it is innate, but the more scripts you read (both good and bad), the more you can start to really see what makes a great script.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Entire books are written on this topic, but I think the most vital are structurally sound, unique concepts and really strong, interesting dialogue. Without those, you’re in trouble.

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

Exposition is probably the worst and most common mistake I see. Another rookie mistake is coming in to a scene too early and not leaving soon enough.

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

There are things that make me roll my eyes and say “really? that’s the best you could come up with?” but thankfully nothing I see over and over again. I will say I am not a fan of anything resembling “Let’s get ‘em!” People don’t say that kind of stuff in real life. Oh, and a personal pet peeve (though not really a trope) is a writer using “we see” – to me it denotes lazy writing.

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

-Show, don’t tell.

-Don’t write it unless it is important to the story.

-Make every word count.

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

It’s rare, but there have been a few. One was a very clever comedy about a personal chef to a mob boss. “When the mob boss’s personal chef gets wind he’s about to be flambéed, he must find a way to take down the Family before his goose is cooked.”

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

Yes, some of them. Some of the bigger contests are now so flooded it’s not worth entering unless you have gotten solid coverage and done some strong rewriting before you submit. But there are some good contests out there that also provide coverage to entries. I think that makes it worth the entry fee.

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

www.TraceeBeebe.com

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

Pumpkin, with lots of homemade whipped cream! Now I have to go find myself a piece!

 

*because she works with and writes about horses. A terrible joke, I know, but how could I resist?

Ask a Fount-of-Knowledge Script Consultant!

Matt Lazarus

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 Matt Lazarus of The Story Coach.

Matt Lazarus has worked in the industry since 2003. He started in development with jobs at Untitled Entertainment, CAA, and Platinum Studios (Cowboys and Aliens). He joined the WGA in 2007 by selling a horror script to RKO, and he sold a movie to Cartoon Network in 2011. Matt’s story coaching was designed to be affordable, regular, and useful, and he excels at breaking advanced concepts into simpler processes and exercises.

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

Short Term 12, a thoughtful, sad drama about a foster home for displaced youth and the human condition. I saw the trailer and it hooked me. The world, performances and characters are all on point. It’s a great example of a drama, and of wringing the most entertainment and potential out of a simple concept.

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

I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, and I got my first assistant job after working really hard at an unpaid internship. I wanted to be a writer, and I talked about it way too much. Anyway, I got good at reading scripts and it always provided me an entry to meeting lit agents and executives who wanted to ask follow up questions on material. I’ve been a freelance reader for some studios for years, and there was a time I was even unironically working on a book on how to cover (most of it made it onto my blog). I’ve been a sporadically working WGA writer since 2007, but the financial security of coverage has always given me something to fall back on.

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

Good writing is hard to define. You want it to be accessible: a mediocre scifi appeals to scifi fans, a great one appeals to everyone. You want it to be engaging: no one goes to the movies to not be affected. You want it to help your career. It’s great to sell a script, but if a script doesn’t sell but gets me in a room with someone who can hire me for my next job, I’ll take it.

Anything can be learned. Not everyone who studies piano will become Glen Gould, but they will get somewhat better at piano. I was pretty cineliterate when I moved to LA, and my years in the development trenches helped me marry my base of knowledge to a working understanding of how the industry works and what the powers that be tend to look for.

4. What are the components of a good script?

“Good” is a hard term to define, a semantic minefield. The components of a good script are the same as the bad ones: they both have the same main four (character names, dialogue, sluglines,descriptions), they both take up the same amount of space.

The difference is harder to measure. We see a thousand faces a day, but only a few make us stop and say wow. We hear new songs on the radio every day, few of them will become our favorite. Most would agree that a good writer can do more in the same space than a bad writer, but the ways in which they are better will always and should always be argued over.

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

The most common is writing a script without a premise. I use something called the premise test. It breaks things down to what’s simple. It’s not the only way to look at scripts, but it’s as good as any, better than most:

“An <ADJECTIVE> <ARCHETYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and (optionally) learns <THEME>.

This seems simple, but the doing is the real meat of the movie. If a naive accountant must raise 100k or his daughter dies, different doings give you very different movies (for example, he could win a surf contest, kill a vampire lord, or invent a time machine and go back to 1979). If you can’t explain what’s interesting about your script in 50 words, you’re unlikely to improve things by writing out 100 boring pages.

Writing is a lot like being a chef. Both are creative forms that have structural limits and immense room for interpretation. Tastes are subjective, but a good chef can anticipate the audience and when he serves something he should have a rough sense of why the average patron might find it delicious.

Most writers write without a real sense of the audience. We’re writing to entertain, to deliver a satisfying emotional experience to the audience. If a writer isn’t writing with a sense of empathy for the audience, the end result is likely to be disappointing.

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

-Scripts about Hollywood power brokers written by people who haven’t met Hollywood power brokers.

-TV pilots that spend their entire length explaining how we got to the premise without every showing what’s fun or interesting about the premise (see #5). There won’t be a second episode. What are you saving it for?

-Comedies that aren’t funny. I recommend taking an improv class and reading the UCB Handbook.

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

The word “rules” needs to die. It always starts a fight. People have an unending appettite for hearing that they can write, but any suggestion of how one might approach writing is generally taken as a suggestion of how one ought to write, and then an unproductive argument ensues. Here are three general principals:

-Entertain. You should know exactly what feeling you want to create in your audience.

-Use unity. Once you’ve set up your script, you want everything to feel connected, organic, and like a ramification of what’s come before. Bad scripts keep inventing random stuff throughout the second act, and it leads to a script that feels arbitrary.

-Be specific. A lot of writers will write in variables, keeping things loose (my character is either an architect or a deli owner… I haven’t decided which) because they think it will prevent them from getting lost or stuck in the later stages. This never works. Imagination thrives on immediacy and specifics. It’s better to commit to an idea and follow it to its conclusion. Even if you went in a wrong direction, the specifics you generate add value to your story. If you keep things vague, you’re building on sand and it’s hard to move the story forward when things exist in a vacuum.

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

In 2003 I read a really funny script called Underdogs. I couldn’t stop reading it or quoting the dialogue. It ended up turning into DODGEBALL starring Vince Vaughan. The movie is really funny, the script is funnier.

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

It depends on the contest. When I was at big companies, execs would usually read the top Nicholl scripts out of a morbid curiosity, but other big script contests (Scriptapalooza comes to mind) would try to get executives to read their top three, and the execs were lukewarm. For instance, a lot of people are selling off the Black List right now. It’s useful now, but might not be in three years.

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

I can always be reached at thestorycoach.net.

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

Humble pie. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll be served it more times can be counted. Alternately, strawberry rhubarb. I’m from Vermont, and it reminds me of a childhood garden.

Ask a True Renaissance Script Consultant!*

Julie Gray

*Renaissance as in “those possessing many talents or areas of knowledge”, not the cultural and intellectual movement between the 14th and 17th centuries.

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 Julie Gray. I had the good fortune to interview Julie a few years ago just before she relocated to the other side of the planet.

Bonus question: So much has changed for you since I saw you last – you moved abroad and now live in Tel Aviv, Israel. What’s that been like, and what are you up to?

After ten years in Hollywood, it was time for a change. Tel Aviv is an incredibly vibrant city and there is SO much going on in the art scene here, it’s really exciting.

I work with screenwriters and novelists from New York, LA, the UK and Australia and increasingly, filmmakers here. I just interviewed the writer/directors of the Israeli film Big Bad Wolves, which Quentin Tarantino called the best film of 2013. The interview will be in Script Magazine this fall. I go to London every year and teach at the London Screenwriter’s Festival, which is really fun, and I have been volunteering with Amnesty International in Tel Aviv, working with Sudanese refugees on story telling. I founded the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon in 2013, a group that meets weekly and writes flash fiction. During the war this past summer, I was asked to do a writing workshop for US embassy employees, to write about the trauma of what we all went through and will be doing writing workshops for victims of terror and war here in Israel for an Israeli non-profit later this fall. So I keep pretty busy!

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

I read an hour-long drama pilot by a client of mine and I just went insane, it was SO clever and unique. I can’t talk about the premise because it’s so unique and because I got so excited about it that I sent it to several producer friends of mine in Hollywood and the writer has a bunch of meetings coming up! I was so glad to help him and so impressed by his talent!

This summer, I watched a lot of movies but two really stood out – The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I also watched McConaughey in True Detective; he’s really hitting his stride at this point in his life; it’s a joy to watch him. I’ve been a Wes Anderson fan since day one and so GBH just had me floored. Every single shot, every single moment is so stylized. It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite books, The Hotel New Hampshire.

I went on a real reading bender in the past few months and read A Confederacy of Dunces, All Quiet on the Western Front, Things Fall Apart and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I’d seen the film but the book was better (as is so often said – Wow.) I am also an inveterate reader of The New Yorker and The Atlantic – a real addict of both.

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

I was writing scripts, of course, and attending the Writer’s Boot Camp in Santa Monica – I’d won the 2 year professional program through a screenwriting competition and there, at that program I heard about these “readers” and that you could become one. So I did. I was, as it turned out, really good at it and it wasn’t long before I was reading for some really big deal production companies in LA – Bedford Falls, Red Wagon at Sony, Walden Media – it was a great experience! I met a lot of great producers and agents and read scripts all day every day for a long time. It helped sharpen my own sense of what is original – or not – and what really good writing looks like. That kind of repetition ingrains a lot in you about which scripts have a chance in Hollywood and which do not. Lessons I will never forget.

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

I don’t believe I’ve heard that question before! Well, the answer is complex. In order to recognize good writing, you have to READ good writing a lot. I was a freakishly good reader because I am a freakishly well-read person in the first place – and also a movie nut – so my frame of reference is pretty refined. But the question, for a Hollywood reader, is not whether YOU think it’s good writing, the question is whether the producer or agent will think so. And primarily, whether the script is unique and marketable. You learn what is expected in a rather mathematical way, and you rate those things, one by one. Being a good reader is about knowing what the particular company you are working for is looking for, specifically, what the general rules are in coverage, and then how to write up a great summary about what is good or bad in a script. And doing that very, very quickly, over and over again.

Being a good reader happens through experience. Much more of the skill lies in the ability of the reader to communicate as thoroughly and as objectively as possible what is and is not working. You might read a script of a genre you hate – it doesn’t matter what you like, it matters whether this script is written well for that genre. So – you have to know that genre. That’s why, to be a reader, you really have to know your movies, otherwise you’ll say something is unique and original when it was already done in 1947, and then another take on that premise was done again in 1976. If you don’t know that you will get fired very, very quickly. It’s a bit merciless. Readers really have their feet to the fire. It’s the belly of the beast.

But to answer your question, which is really, “what is good writing” – a good screenwriter is one who takes you on such a ride that you forget you are turning the pages. Every character seems real, every action line is cinematic, every plot twist is totally organic – it’s having a way with words that seems effortless. Can this be taught? I think that writers can be taught how to write but that GREAT writers are born that way, to be honest with you.

4. What are the components of a good script?

GREAT CHARACTERS, GREAT CHARACTERS, GREAT CHARACTERS. Oh – and a unique premise. If you have great characters and a unique premise, your structure will fall into place. You have to understand structure, but it won’t work unless the character arc really flows with the structure – informs it. Structure should not be obvious, it should just feel right.

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

Unoriginal ideas. Writers who don’t test their ideas and look and compare and see who else has done this idea – if anyone. In my book, Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, I go into great detail about idea testing. It’s crucial. It’s everything. Other common mistakes are things like typos, poor format, clunky action and sluglines. But if I had to point out THE worst mistake you could make and the most common one – being unoriginal wins by a landslide.

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

1) Any deus ex machina – something that just magically happens and changes the direction of the story. This is very easy for new writers to do but as you get more experienced, you’ll see why this is a big no-no, not only from a Hollywood perspective, but from a creative perspective as well. Creatively, it’s cheating, It’s taking the easy way out instead of letting the possibilities of the story play themselves out.

2) The person who’s had a big accident or someone they love died and now they are this tragic figure that nobody can reach. Oh man. I’m so tired of that one. It’s not that grief doesn’t have a huge impact – I know – I’ve experienced it – but writers often broach grief like it’s a kind of slam dunk, simple emotion – and it’s really not. Watch Ordinary People if you want to explore grief.

3) In a horror script, the character that goes to the door or UP INTO the attic when they hear a strange sound. They go TO the danger – it’s laughable. Scream really sent that up well – what a seminal film. But writers have to remember that we readers have seen and read every script, so surprise us. Not easy, you say? No. It’s not. If it were easy…

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

1. Don’t write for the money – you’ll never write from the heart.

2. Watch movies – all kinds – all the time. Know your Hollywood history, understand genres and which movies were seminal and why.

3. Don’t be afraid to write badly! Writing is writing, but real writing is REWRITING.

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

A very few times. Most recently, the client I referred to at the beginning of this interview. Unfortunately I cannot divulge the logline, but it was a mixture of a VERY popular cable show and a Bradley Cooper drama. I’m sorry I can’t share it. I read an unproduced film by the amazing writer Ben Queen, called Slanted and Enchanted and I lost it – I flipped out, it was so good. Ben and I became friends. American Beauty made me cry really hard – but it was already in production. Lucky for me, my best friend was the property master of the film so I got to visit the set and later on, Alan Ball and I had offices near each other while he was doing True Blood and I got to hang out with him and it was amazing.

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

I ran a screenwriting competition for six years so naturally I think there is worth in them. But the biggest worth is not so much the cash prizes, etc. but the validation you receive. Sometimes just quarter-finaling in a competition is enough of a good feeling to keep you going, and that can be so important in this pursuit! That said, look, be realistic and know that there are millions of competitions mushrooming all over the place and that you have a budget as a writer. So enter only a few every year – the biggies only – and then spend your money seeing movies, buying a how-to book or two, maybe go to a seminar to meet other writers. The ONLY thing that really matters is your writing, so make sure not to get sucked into lottery-like thinking, that if you buy SIX books on screenwriting or go to EVERY screenwriting event, or enter EVERY competition, that somehow this will magically do something for you. Ass in chair. That’s it. But entering a select handful each year can be fun, it can force you to meet deadlines, and it might get you the validation that you need in order to keep writing. The competitions that I consider really worth entering are: Final Draft Big Break, Blue Cat, Page International, the Nicholl (although it is VERY competitive, so know that…), Slamdance and Scriptapalooza. I may have overlooked some, but those are competitions I am very familiar with and know the people who organize them, so I can recommend them heartily.

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

They can go to my website at juliegray.info or email me at storieswb@gmail.com.

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

Coconut Cream – preferably at the House of Pies on Vermont in Silverlake. So many memories there.

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!