Q & A with Peter Russell

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Peter Russell is a screenwriter who sold two television pilots in 2018 – a crime procedural and a biographical mini-series. He is also a long-time story doctor in Hollywood whose clients include Imagine, HBO, Participant, Viacom, CBS Television and many more. Peter is in demand for his legendary seminars and master classes on film and TV story. Peter’s charismatic speaking style won him UCLA Teacher of the Year in 2009.

Peter ghostwrites for both new and established film and television writers and producers. He has consulted on many TV shows, including GENIUS (National Geographic series 2017-present) MR. ROBOT (Emmy for Best New Television Drama 2015), Chronicles Of Narnia (Lion, Witch & Wardrobe), The Da Vinci Code (Imagine Films) and many others.

Peter privately collaborates with producers, writers, and actors on film and TV story from treatments to pilots and full story development. He teaches his own classes online at: http://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/, and live at major universities, including UCLA.

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

SNOWFALL. Fantastic writing. The way both the showrunner and the staff-written eps broke the beats in every ep was insanely good. They used every trick in the book to surprise you. The beat almost NEVER went where you thought it was gonna go. Surprises, reversals, ticking clocks, raising stakes – I admire the craftsmanship of that TV writing wonderfully. SNEAKY PETE – the storylines – my god, the storylines! Sometimes 12 in a single episode! And they were wonderful. THE DEUCE – again, with the beats and the storylines! Such amazing juggling. My hats off to them. My tv eps have five storylines max, and even then it’s hard to get those to mesh.

Also just saw McQueen’s WIDOWS. Mystery thrillers are so hard to do. He probably wanted to take a swing at a commercial story. He really hit a home run. It’s such a relief, in a way, to watch a movie these days when you work in TV. The form feels so much simpler. It’s not any easier, but it is simpler. I adore McQueen. If you want to see how I talk about to do what they do, go to my newest TV lecture on creating a great story beat: https://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/course/creating-the-great-tv-beats/

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Script reading. I read scripts for CBS and then for companies like Imagine. I learned so much from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. I read scripts for seven years – waaaay too long for anybody in their right mind – it’s suppose to be a year and then you become a supersuccessful industry DYNAMO! LOL. I loooved it, though – I learned so, so much about story, sooo much about every genre. Brian and Ron taught me that a zeal and excitement for the WORLD you wanted to write about was everything.

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

You can definitely learn how to recognize good writing for sure – just read tons and tons of great scripts. Watch any great story and read along with the script. You can learn it; it just takes a while. Learning how to write? That’s a LOT harder than learning how to recognize great story. It takes a shit-ton more time to do that. I only feel like I’ve done that in the last few years, since I started selling my own stuff. But it took for-fucking-ever! LOL. That’s what you gotta know. And I’m no smarter than anybody – here’s a tip – just watch the movie or tv show 50 times! I’m not kidding. Watch the same show fifty times! You’ll see EVERY device behind the curtain. Don’t take my class, don’t listen to me, never buy a thing from me – just WATCH ONE TV SHOW or one movie FIFTY TIMES.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Scripts are the most amazingly complex devices on the planet — far more so than an algorithm. It’s a bit like asking me to explain differential equations in a sentence. Okay, I’ll try. In a movie, a hero is a wounded person given a chance to heal (or bleed out.) In TV, it’s a wounded hero with a fascinating objective and fascinating obstacles in his way. You want more? Right here: peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Okay, I lied. I DO want you to look at my stuff.

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

Characters who don’t have great core wounds. A great core wound (whether in film or TV) is the basis for 90 percent of how good a story is, especially in the first act. Bleed him (or her, or it). BLEED THEM! Show their pain! Instantly!

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I can’t watch 90 percent of network television, simply because the grooves of most of the genres are worn out for me. I loathe seeing hero-worshipping stories about superhero cops and superhero lawyers and superhero doctors – all the old, straight from radio shows (Blue Bloods, CSI, stuff like that.)

None of those professions are worthy of such praise – in fact those professions contain a higher than average proportion of assholes – probably far higher than most professions, and it makes me gag to see the hagiography. But audiences looove to see the make-believe that these people are gods on earth. It depresses the hell out of me.

I realize network TV is a factory and I honor how hard these folks work and the high level of professional product they turn out on an incredibly tight schedule – but that doesn’t mean the product interests me at all. The TALENT involved – both in front of and behind the camera – is insanely great! The level of competence and extraordinary grace under pressure is heroic. Everybody who works in TV has to have extraordinary abilities, or they don’t get on staff. I mean that. The writers I know personally who work in TV – both in writer’s rooms and out – my god, they are sooo talented! It’s just that I find the product godawful. Dick Wolf is a genius, but his product makes me despair.

I do think dark heroes are popular because most people have realized the world is a lot more like a Russian novel than a comic book. Speaking of which, fantasy superheroes, played straight, especially in the DC story world (which suffers from execs who don’t know what they’re doing), are also monumentally boring to me now. Twist the genre – DEADPOOL is genius, THOR: RAGNAROK, too, and the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – they are FUNNY. My god, that’s the greatest thing on earth to be.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Know your craft.

-Know you’ll never really know your craft and that you’ll write a lot of crap. Write anyway.

-Know that you’ve picked a profession that requires either – a) genius-level talent, or b) an enormous work ethic and persistence far beyond what you’ve imagined and that will take you far longer than you believed possible.

-None of these rules apply to a true genius. They can do anything.

-If you have neither genius nor an enormous work ethic, you will absolutely fail. Writing in Hollywood is a job for people who are as smart, or smarter, than nuclear physicists or mathematicians. It’s far harder than, say, brain surgery. I’ve never met smarter, or more mercilessly competitive people, than people in Hollywood. By the way, most of them are also massively unhealthy. This isn’t a business for well-balanced people, in the main.

-The best way forward is to LEARN how to write.

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

In my entire scriptreading life, the number of scripts I have fully recommended is a grand total of two. That’s not unusual, by the way. 95 percent of scripts you read are not good (and this is from the very best screenwriters in the biz). But the big secret is – you don’t have to be very good. You just have to be better than most people.

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

If they motivate you to write, great. Most screenwriting contests are run by mercenary assholes who are making their money by taking your contest fees. There are a couple of big ‘screenwriting’ websites who do nothing but that – they’ve turned it into a marketing algorithm. That’s okay – if they honor their pact with you and legitimately judge your work and then publicize it if you win or place. Some do, some don’t. Most just want your money. Not saying that’s dishonorable. But it’s true and they’re very, very smart in how they market.

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

Just e-mail me at: russell310@mac.com, or go to peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Mention  this interview, and I’ll give you a ten percent discount.

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

There is nothing better than true key lime pie. Not the type that is mostly white froth. The kind with a dense, green, wonderful pie stuffing, and under that – a buttery, flaky, heart attack-inducing crust.

key lime pie

Q&A with Landry Q. Walker

 

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Landry Q. Walker is a writer who likes pop-tarts and has been in jail twice and on the New York Times bestsellers list once. He spends his days punching the keyboard until words appear on the magic screen. Books include: The Last Siege, Danger Club, Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade, Project: Terra, and more.

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

The last thing I watched that I felt was incredibly well written… I’m going to go with movies on this one. The film Get Out is the first thing that comes to mind. I came to that one a bit late, and a lot of plot points had been spoiled. But it didn’t matter because the execution was so solid.

How’d you get into writing comics?

I got into writing comics after noticing that a lot of my friends who could draw weren’t doing much with their talents. I was about 18-19 at this time. My friends had talked about making comics for years, and I had always thought there wasn’t a place for me in the process. Then I decided to write – though writing had been at the back of my head since I was a young child (I had written Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings fanfic).

A lot of people hear the term “comic book writer”, but don’t really know what the job entails. How would you describe it?

Writing comics requires thinking visually – much more so than other types of writing. You need to be able to see the action on the page with your minds eye, and work from their. that means understanding how much dialogue can fit in a word balloon, when to let the art tell the story, how the eye scans across a page of art. You can also write with a method where you plot the story, and the storytelling exclusively. But I’m not a huge fan of working that way.

You’ve written for established characters and created your own. Do you have a preference of working with either, or are they two totally different worlds?

Totally different worlds. With established characters you have an easier path as the world building has been done for you, but you also have to stay within certain parameters. As example, a proper Batman story leaves Batman in the same place at the end of the book, so that the next writer can pick up the story and run with it. You’re really just taking turns writing chapters.

Follow-up: is there an established character you haven’t written for, but would jump at the chance to?

Probably? To be honest, it all depends on the restrictions. Some jobs look like dream jobs because of the character you’re working with, but then you get the job and the restrictions are so fierce, you don’t really get to explore what drives you at all.

A key component of writing (and not just for comics) is to make the stories and characters relatable. What sort of approaches do you take to accomplish that?

I honestly don’t think much about whether my stories are relatable to other people. I think that if you stop to consider the “rules” of writing, you’re generally not writing. I tend to work off of gut instinct on whether a story feels right to me.

What are your thoughts on writers who want to self-publish their own comics?

Do it. Everyone who wants to make comics should start by making their own. Experience every aspect of making a comic. Deal with distribution, promotion, balancing schedules. Do all of it. And don’t wait for your work to be good enough. If you do that, it will never happen. Just start now.

What are some of your favorite comics and webcomics?

Favorite comics: Lately, I mostly have been digging into old stuff. Charlton comics mainly. Old Blue Beetle and Captain Atom. A lot of the horror stuff from the 60’s and 70’s too. For webcomics, not many. I follow Dumbing of Age and Questionable Content. I’m behind on it, but I really like YAFGC (Yet Another Fantasy Gaming Comic).

What’s some writing advice you would give your just-starting-out younger self?

Play less Mario Kart.

How can people find out more about your work?

I’m terrible at self-promotion. But you can usually find my latest work by checking out my Twitter feed. I’m currently wrapping up my medieval war epic, The Last Siege, and will soon be announcing a graphic novel series with my long time collaborator Eric Jones (one of those friends I mentioned in the question about getting into writing). I’ve previously written a series called Danger Club about a group of teen heroes fighting against their own reboots, and an all ages Supergirl series called Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade. Lots of of other stuff too. Check out my Amazon author page.

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

Apple. From Hostess.

hostess apple pie

The 2018 Maximum Z Screenwriter’s Gift Guide

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“Have you been a good writer this year, Johnny?”

Not sure what to get that special screenwriter in your life, or are you a writer and want to splurge and get yourself a little something? Well, worry no more because here’s an extensive list of gift ideas any writer would absolutely love! 

SCRIPT CONSULTANTS

Some offers include a code for the discount, so if you contact one NOT listing a code, make sure to tell them you found them via Maximum Z – or you run the risk of not getting any discount at all.

ScriptArsenal – 20% off script coverage services through 14 Dec with the code MAXIMUM20

Anna Koukouli of Lilifornia Diaries Productions – 15% off coverage services through 31 Dec with the code BLACKFRIDAY15

Andrew Hilton, The Screenplay Mechanic – 10% discount through 1 Jan on consulting services

Jim Mercurio – 10% discount on coaching, professional or comprehensive analysis, or on DVDs

Mark Sanderson – $25 off through 31 Dec on script consulting services

EJ Runyon – Bridge to Story  – 6 writing coaching sessions for the price of 5

We Fix Your Script – 10% discount on coverage and submissions to Script Summit competition on Coverfly

Phil Clarke – 20% off until 30 Nov for analysis, annotation, or A&A service in 2019

Danny Manus – 10% off through 1 Dec for Basic Written Notes Service and TV Notes Service with code MAXZ18

Barri Evins – Spine-tingling sale through 14 Dec on all services, but good anytime

David Silverman – 10% off script consulting services

Andrew Zinnes – 15% discount on all services

Gregory Blair – 10% off through 31 Dec for consulting services

Angela Bourassa of LA Screenwriter – new rate for logline help – $29, and a new item – Make A Movie Magnets – complete set for $9

Gerald Hanks of Story Into Screenplay – 10% discount through 31 Dec on feature coverage services and the one-hour phone consultation

Scotty Cornfield – no matter the genre, if your script involves police or law enforcement, and you want to make sure those parts are accurate, former police detective Scotty is offering a 10% discount on services to help accomplish exactly that

Howard Casner – 10% off script consultation services, and here’s a link to his book MORE RANTINGS & RAVINGS

Script Reader Pro – Script Hackr online screenwriting course for $59 (normally $299) through 1 Dec using code SCR1PT

BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS!

Even writers know they should take a little break, and what better way to relax than with a good book? Here are some about screenwriitng, along with a few that cover all sorts of other topics and genres.

Tracee Beebe‘s book – No Excuses. Write Anyway!: A Tough-Love Workbook for Screenwriters

Travis Seppala – 365: A Year of Screenwriting Tips

Don Holley – Half Loaded

Chip Street21 Things You Need to Know About Screenplay Options: The Indie Screenwriter’s Guide To Protecting Yourself And Getting The Best Deal

Brian GallagherDoing Time In Hollywood

Cali GilbertIt’s Simply Filmmaking

Lucy V Hay – link to free book How NOT To Write Female Characters, plus links to her other books

Brian Drake – his latest thriller Skills to Kill

James Syring – Zen and the Art of Fly Fishing and The Founding Fathers Farewell Tour of the U.S. of A. – both available on Amazon and Lulu Press

Karen M. Bryson‘s noir crime novel Suicide Blonde, which is part of Death and Damages, a 25-book mystery and thriller box set.

Martyn Armstrong – free pdf about running a crowdfunding campaign

Filmmaker Ronald Owen has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help produce his short Outwit. Donate if you can!

A HELPING HAND

With this being the season of giving, a few writing chums going through a bit of a rough time could use a little help, so donate if you can.

Jerron Spencer

Jason Killpack

Garison Piatt

Outlines. Yes! No! Maybe?

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Every writer has their own way of doing things, and each way is probably different – maybe a little or a lot – from somebody else’s. If it works for you, then by all means, have at it.

Just because your way isn’t how I’d do it doesn’t mean either of us is wrong; it just means we each have our individual approaches. I’m content with how I get a script written, and you can do yours however you want.

Some recent conversations with other writers, along with reading some interviews with professionals, really reinforced this mindset for me. Especially when it came to outlining your story.

Count me in the camp of those that prefer doing it, while others opt not to.

I’ve written before about how I put a story together, and I find it extremely helpful to make sure the outline is rock-solid (to me) before starting on pages. And as is often the case, there’s a strong possibility some elements of the story will change while those pages are being written. But for the most part, a good portion of my outline remains more or less intact.

Again, this is what works FOR ME.

Not really knowing how those who don’t like outlines operate, I admit to being curious/intrigued/impressed with how they do it.

Do they at least have some kind of basic structure in place? Do they just sit down and start writing? Do they know where things are going? Is it all about feeling spontaneous and just jumping right into it?

All I’m asking is – How do they do it?

One pro said something along the lines of “outlining removes the element of surprise”. Honestly, I’m not really sure what to make of that. I’m fairly certain they don’t mean “didn’t see that coming” – or do they?

Others have commented that “outlining a script takes away from its organic nature”. (Again – paraphrasing.) Not sure how that would work either. If the story’s put together in the most effective way the writer can make it, with a solid structure that flows along nice and smoothly, and with three-dimensional characters, wouldn’t that fall under “organic”?

Like I said at the beginning, if you don’t like to outline your story, don’t outline your story. If that’s how you do it, great. All I’m saying is it’s not something I could do, nor would I expect either of us to suddenly change our methods.

Would I ever give it a try? Probably not. I’d be more concerned the end result would be a big mess. I enjoy taking the time to put things where I think they should be, from both the storytelling and screenwriting aspects.

How about you? Pro- or anti-outline? Or somewhere in the middle?

105ish pages down to 1

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Not that kind of reduction process

With the page-producing phase of the horror-comedy spec now underway, I’m also finding the occasional need to do a little side work on it. In this case, it’s the 1-page synopsis for said script.

Summarizing your entire story on one solitary page (or one and a half, according to some of my associates) is, as many writers already know, not as easy as it sounds. Yours truly being no exception.

Past 1-pagers for past scripts were the usual challenge, but I managed. Somehow. Part of that challenge has always been inadvertently including too much of the story. As much as I’d like to put all of it in there, that just won’t work.

The key is to focus on the main character and what they go through to achieve their goal, with a strong emphasis on conflict. I’ve also found it very helpful to break each act down into its core components – especially key events and plot points.

Trying to include subplots and supporting characters was just clogging the whole thing up, so those quickly fell by the wayside, which really helped streamline the whole thing.

This time is a little different, probably due to having multiple protagonists. Well, at least it starts that way. This is a horror story, so as you’d expect, people are gonna die.

Not being as familiar with the horror genre, I wasn’t sure of the most effective way to put together a 1-pager for this kind of story. Is there more emphasis on the horror part? Or the story with some horror elements thrown in? “The learning never stops” indeed.

Feeling a bit stumped, I did like all smart writers do, and asked my network of savvy creatives for whatever assistance and guidance they could provide.

Glad I did.

(Hearty shoutout to everybody who reposnded and got in touch – I really appreciate it)

More than one said to focus on the one character the reader/audience would consider the heart of the story, and follow what happens to them. That I can do.

Others, who’ve also written stories starting with several protagonists and see their numbers reduced along the way, suggested listing them all at the outset, so as they’re gradually eliminated, there’s no sense of “Who’s that again?” I might give that a try.

There was the smart reminder to “keep things simple”. Don’t fall into the trap of making it too cluttered or complicated. Just tell the story in a clear and straightforward manner.That might take a little editing and revising, but I think I can also do that.

Based on all of these comments, plus my own experience, having a solid 1-pager in my possession seems definitely achievable.