Q & A with Rick Ramage of The Screenplay Show

Rick Ramage

Rick Ramage is a writer, director and producer with numerous credits on major motion pictures and television shows. During his 25-year career as a screenwriter, he has set up or sold over 40 scripts in Hollywood.

Rick’s latest project is The Screenplay Show, a new 10-part online series to educate about the art, craft and business of screenwriting and storytelling.

What is The Screenplay Show, and what inspired you to do it?

The Screenplay Show is an actual show about writing, presented in a fun, narrative style. It’s a ten-part webseries that will focus on the trade secrets I’ve developed (and learned) from Hollywood’s most talented writers, directors and producers during my 25-year career.

As to what inspired it, a few years ago, a buddy of mine started a writer/actor group called, “Write to Act” and he asked me to put on a seminar for his people in Denver. I was reluctant to say the least. For the last 25 years, my only job has been writing and producing film and television. Speaking in public? Not so much. He kept twisting my arm and after about a year of hounding me, I finally gave in and promised him I would do a one-day seminar. Then reality hit me: What could I possibly say for six hours that would interest other writers and actors? In an effort to alleviate the poor souls who would be stuck looking at my ugly mug all day, I pulled in my editor and we put together a long list of writing samples and clips covering every element of screenwriting so they could actually SEE what I was talking about – instead of listening to me pontificate as I clumsily tried to explain it.

For instance, using stills from The Shining, I put every moment of Jack’s character arc into a still photo sequence. You can actually visually track his descent into madness. I then put the page number from the script beside each expression. The audience literally gasped, because it was the first time they had actually seen a character arc moment by moment. I did the same thing for all the other elements of storytelling. As screenwriters, we have to write visually – so I figured it would work for seminars, too. But one thing really surprised me: the audience had as many questions about the writing experience as they did about the nuts and bolts. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the methods of actors, athletes, and other writers, so I guess it’s fair that they wanted to know about my method – and how a life and career in the film business actually works.

What sets The Screenplay Show apart from other online seminars?

One look at the teasers we’re putting out there will let people know this isn’t your father’s seminar. I can’t honestly say I had an epiphany and The Screenplay Show was suddenly born. But doing the seminars over the next year or two, it definitely evolved into a rolling narrative; my personal Hollywood experience merged into describing actual methods that have worked for me and many of my colleagues. So far, I’ve set up or sold over 40 scripts. But I have to give credit where credit is due: I didn’t learn how to survive the biz, or sell scripts from books. I learned from working closely with tremendously gracious agents, managers, producers, directors, executives and actors who were generous enough to share their knowledge with me for one purpose – to get the story right.

My goal with The Screenplay Show is to share what they’ve taught me with other writers and storytellers. And when I say storytellers, I mean anybody involved in the film and television business. Directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, and even executives. They are storytellers because they impact the script and help bring it to life.

Tell us a little about your writing background. How did you get started?

I didn’t finish my degree. Instead I went into business with my dad, selling tractors. But I wanted to be well-read and well-spoken, so I sat down with 100 of the great novels and voraciously read them back-to-back. In the process, I began to see how the authors worked the elements. The storytelling process fascinated me. So when I was out covering my sales territory, I began to daydream about becoming a writer. Eventually, I tried to write a novel. Long story short – it sucked. But the person who told me it wasn’t very good also told me I was a good writer. That seemed like a contradiction, but it wasn’t. He told me I had a very visual style, and suggested I write a screenplay. So I turned my bad novel into a bad screenplay! (But that process lit a fuse in me, and I’ve never looked back.)

What have you recently read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

When I’m deep into writing one of my own scripts, I don’t usually watch or read much. By the end of the day, more words and plot lines are the last thing I need to relax. But two shows I try not to miss are Game of Thrones and House of Cards. From their production values, to the great characters, to the tight, well structured scripts, I admire them both a great deal. In fact that’s how I can tell when I’m in the hands of great storytellers – they make me forget I’m a writer. I become a fan.

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

Definitely. Recognizing good writing can and certainly should be taught and learned. I’ve known some executives who were by no means writers, yet they learned to identify good writing and write smart notes. Their jobs depend on it. I’ve learned to recognize good writing by the way it makes me disappear into it.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

For me, the single most important component of a good script is simply this: It must have soul. I need to feel what the writer is trying to say through his or her characters. If that happens, I know the other elements are working.

What are the three most important rules a writer should know?

-Dialogue:  When to shut up and let the subtext play.

-Action:  When not to overwrite. (more often than not, you’ll lose your reader.)

-Characters:  We write in search of ourselves. (makes them real.)

How can people find out more about The Screenplay Show?

We’re really encouraging people to go to their most comfortable social media site and follow us. Also, we’re really hoping they go to www.thescreenplayshow.com and sign our landing page. We won’t bombard you with trivial junk, but we do want to build a steady audience so we can let people know about events and new material.

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

My grandmother made the best pie I’ve ever had. Golden, flaky crust made from scratch, crisp green apples sliced thin, and lots of cinnamon! I do miss that woman.

The learning never stops

classroom
Class is in session

I had the good fortune this past weekend to attend a writing retreat in the serene hills of Malibu, the core of which was a seminar given by noted screenwriting consultant Bill Boyle (who was featured here in my recent Ask a Script Consultant series).

This was by no means “Intro to Screenwriting”, but more along the lines of taking your writing beyond the basics and making it richer and more layered so it reads more like a script written by a professional. Each idea and concept was explained using examples both written and visual.

The way you describe a scene so the words really pop off the page. Writing a character’s introduction to create a solid image of what kind of person they are. Creating dialogue composed of exactly-right words and with a rhythm so it sounds exactly as it should.

And this is just a small part of what was covered. There was a lot of information to process – in fact, I’m still processing it now.

Added bonus for me – a one-on-one with Bill to talk about steps to take to help get my career going.

The big question at the wrap-up session was “Did you get anything out of this?” This isn’t something I could answer right away. I really had to mull it over. In the end, my response, which still applies, was this:

There was a lot to take in, so I don’t think the results will be immediate. It’s not a superficial fix. All of it is something you really need to think about before and while you’re writing.

I have a strong suspicion that in the coming weeks and months, the more I write, the information that was presented will work its way onto my pages. I’ll probably develop my own method of doing it, which will then most likely become an automatic part of my writing process.

Am I glad I went? Very much so. It also gave me the chance to meet and talk with other writers, which is always great. Would I recommend this sort of thing to writers seeking to improve their skills? Definitely. (Here’s a link to Mia Terra Tours, the company that runs them)

No matter how much you think you know about screenwriting, there’s always more of what you don’t know. So when you get an opportunity like this to increase your knowledge and improve your skills, take advantage of it and do it.

From asking to being asked

Nothing like a receptive ear (and the person connected to it)
Nothing like a receptive ear (and the person connected to it)

Compare the most recent thing you wrote to the very first thing you wrote. How much of a difference is there?

One thing’s for certain: it no doubt took a lot of hard work and learning to get you from your skill level then to what it is now.

But you didn’t do it alone, or in a vacuum. You had help along the way from countless resources. It might have come from a book, a class, a writing group, or the occasional someone with more experience willing to help out.

When I started out, that was me. I got my hands on as many books as I could (the one I still recommend – Story Sense by Paul Lucey). Classes weren’t really an option, so I read a lot of scripts and attended a few seminars and expos when I could. I also had the good fortune to be involved with a few writing groups. A lot of this was also in the early days of the internet, so online resources and networking were nowhere near the levels they are now.

But what definitely helped the most was getting notes and feedback. The more fresh eyes you can get to take a look at your work, the better the end result will be. One stipulation: it depends on who you ask. Specifically, someone who really knows what they’re talking about, and whose knowledge and opinion you trust.

This has made a significant difference for me, such to the point that I now have a core group of trusted colleagues I can rely on for quality notes, and I’ve done my best to return the favor to many of them when possible.

And in recent months, as my network has grown and I connect with more writers, I’ll occasionally get an email asking along the lines of “If it’s not too much trouble, would you take a look at this and let me know what you think?” A script. Some pages. A logline. What have you.

I honestly never expected to be on the receiving end of that question, but, schedule permitting, am always happy to help out when I can. It’s the least I can do. Hopefully my notes will give them the help they need.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it’s kind of nice to think that I might be able to help somebody in the same way others did for me in the past.

Ask an Agent-turned-Script Consultant!

Michele Wallerstein

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 Michele Wallerstein.

Screenplay, Novel and Career Consultant, Michele works with writers to help get their work into shape so that it is marketable for the Hollywood community and/or the publishing world. Michele’s career consulting consists of critiquing your projects and/or having personal career conferences to answer questions that writers have about their creative work as well as questions about the business side of their creative life. Michele is the author of: “MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide To Your Writing Career”.

Prior to becoming a Consultant, Michele was a Hollywood literary agent where she represented Writers, Directors and Producers in Motion Pictures, Movies for Television and Television Series and has sold $1 Million spec scripts. Michele served as Executive Vice-President of Women In Film and was on the Board of Directors for many years. She owned The Wallerstein Company and guided the careers of writers such as Larry Hertzog (Tin Man, La Femme Nikita, 24), Christopher Lofton (Robinson Crusoe, Call of the Wild, Scarlett, True Women), Peter Bellwood (Highlander, La Femme Nikita), Bootsie Parker (Booty Call, Married, With Children, The Hughley’s), and many others.

Michele has been a Guest Speaker at numerous Film Festivals, Pitch Fests and Writer’s Groups all across the country. She teaches the ins and outs of the business of your writing career as well as how to get the most out of your material.

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

I adore the writing on “Downton Abbey” on PBS. Their character delineations are superb. The dialogue makes the stories come alive. Unfortunately, I rarely go to theaters for movies because most of them don’t seem to be made for grown-ups.

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

I began reading scripts about 100 years ago when I was an assistant to a literary agent. After becoming an agent, I continued to read everything I could get my hands on. These experiences gave me a world of knowledge and have been a great help to me as a screenplay consultant.

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

I’m not so sure it can be taught or learned. Anyone can learn the basics of screenwriting by taking classes and reading some of the many books available. However, understanding human nature and the psychology behind people’s actions and reactions comes with life experiences. If one doesn’t understand these things they will never get the importance of great dialogue.

4. What are the components of a good script?

In my experiences as an agent and as a consultant I find that adhering to the basic 3-act structure is invaluable. Along with that a writer must be able to write characters with heart, feelings, emotions and individual personalities. Grammar, spelling and syntax are also keys to good writing.

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

I often find that the characters are uninteresting and I don’t care about any of them. It’s also common to find people who try very hard to write something unusual and it comes across as too complicated, far-fetched or dull. If written well, a thriller, mystery, love story or romantic comedy can be a standout showpiece for a good writer.

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

I’m quite tired of action films and films with an abundance of blood and guts. Too many people have become dulled to violence and those scripts are written without decent stories or characters.

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

-Follow the accepted 3-act structure.

-When writing spec scripts it is a good idea to do at least 3 in the same genre.

-Have your scripts read by vetted professionals prior to trying to land an agent.

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

When I was an agent I read a spec by a new, young writer that knocked me out. It was a love story with lots of fantastical action about the discovery of the Garden of Eden. It was gloriously written and I sold it for close to $1 million within 2 weeks of reading it.

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

Contests, pitch fests, seminars etc., can all be very worthwhile if one knows how to make contacts and to follow up with those people. It is a great place to meet executives who can help move your writing career forward. I explain this in detail in my book “MIND YOUR BUSINESS”.

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

I am always happy to help writers and they can email me at: writerconsultant67@gmail.com. I have a monthly blog for writers: www.wwwconsulting.blogspot.com. Writers can also check out my online course Moving Your Writing Career Forward via Screenwriters University.

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

I do love warm peach pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Ask a One-person Multimedia Empire Script Consultant!

Pilar Simpsonized
This is what happens when you offer me a choice of photos

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 Pilar Alessandra of On The Page.

Pilar Alessandra is the director of the writing program On the Page®, host of the popular On the Page Podcast and author of “The Coffee Break Screenwriter.” She started her career as Senior Story Analyst at DreamWorks SKG and, in 2001, opened the On the Page Writers’ Studio in Los Angeles. Her students and clients have written for The Walking Dead, Lost, House of Lies, Nip/Tuck and Family Guy.  They’ve sold features and pitches to Warner Bros, DreamWorks, Disney and Sony and have won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and Austin Screenwriting Competition.  As a teacher, Pilar has traveled the world teaching in the UK, Vietnam, Poland and across the United States.  In Los Angeles, she’s trained writers at ABC/Disney, CBS, Nickelodeon, UCLA and The Los Angeles Film School.  Pilar was named “The Script Whisperer” by Script Magazine and was one of LA Weekly’s top 100 people. For more on Pilar go to www.onthepage.tv

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

Keep an eye out for a script called “Bullies,” written by Mike Grebb, one of the writers in my writing groups. It’s dark, honest and incredibly well written.   I also just read a student’s script inspired by the classic “Shane,” that takes place in the world of Mexican drug cartels. I loved how it captured the tone of an old western, while also updating the story. That one is called “Rip Current.”

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

I was one of those oddballs who actually loved writing term papers in college. A friend of mine knew that and asked me to read a few scripts for an independent company she was working for. When I found out this was a real job, rather than just nerdy fun, I sent in my coverage samples to Amblin Entertainment and they hired me.

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

Good analysts have a strong story sense to begin with, but I they also need to keep learning about how genres and writing styles change. They need to be observers of human nature to truly empathize with and understand characters.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A fresh idea. A compelling story. Descriptive but concise scene direction. Authentic dialogue.

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

Writing “movie” characters. Many writers actually do this well, but they’re borrowing behavior and voices from characters they’ve seen onscreen, rather than inventing new ones from their own imagination.

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

A man’s family is kidnapped or missing and he wracks up a high body count getting them back.   Though to be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing this with a female lead. Could be a fresh take.

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

-There are less “rules” in screenwriting than you think.

-Learn what those are anyway.

-Then break one of them purposefully and artfully.

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

“Adding insult to his already tragic life, a man is terrorized by a small bird.” The script is called “The Starling.” I know it sounds weird, but it’s beautiful. It was written by Matt Harris, a student of mine. It’s received lots of attention over the years, but has yet to be made. Cross your fingers.

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

Worth it because some agents and managers use the big ones to vet material. Worth it too because they’re writing contests, not selling contests, so you have a chance with a script that isn’t conventionally commercial.

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

Check out www.onthepage.tv to find out about classes, consultations, online offerings, book, DVD and the “On the Page Podcast.” You can also e-mail me directly at: pilar@onthepage.tv

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

Pumpkin, of course! It’s sweet and spicy. What’s not to love? (This is the best question ever.)