Q & A with Chris Mancini

Headshot Chris Mancini T-Rex
Chris Mancini (l) and friend (r)

Chris Mancini is a Writer, Director, Comedian, Author, Producer, Podcaster, and Parent, which also makes him very tired. He has also written, directed and produced on everything from soap operas to parenting books to horror films, which are all more closely related than you think.

His feature films include Asylum from Lionsgate Films and Ear Buds: The Podcasting Documentary from Comedy Dynamics. His award-winning short films include SKINSHitclown, and Rainbow’s End. Chris has screened films and spoken at various prestigious festivals and conventions including Slamdance and Comic-Con in San Diego.

His published works include Pacify Me: A Handbook for the Freaked Out New DadThe Comedy Film Nerds Guide to Movies, and the graphic novel Long Ago and Far Away.

A strong advocate of podcasting, Chris is also the co-founder of Comedyfilmnerds.com with Graham Elwood. The site features a podcast with over 6 million downloads and features comedians and filmmakers talking about movies. His scripted horror anthology podcast Conversations From The Abyss is now in its second season. Chris was also one of the founders of the Los Angeles Podcast Festival.

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

The two extremes would be Avengers: Endgame, because it was the culmination of years of storytelling, and Paddleton because it was a small two actor character piece that just sucked you in. The relationship and the drama of the two leads and their interaction was incredibly engaging. Mark Duplass and Ray Romano did an amazing job.

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

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 16. I submitted short stories to magazines. Yes, that was a thing. Ironically, I got published first with non-fiction. I was a journalist for a local newspaper for a while (also a thing), starting at age 18.

What are some of your favorite comics and/or webcomics?

I really enjoy Hellboy. I also like anything by Neil Gaiman, and grew up on a healthy dose of Spider-Man and Daredevil. I actually remember when Spider-Man first got his black costume. It was an alien symbiote that came out of some weird machine during Secret Wars. I remember not being happy because I always liked the red and blue one. But you get over these things. I am also reading a lot of kids’ comics with my son, like Cardboard and Amulet which I am really enjoying.

How’d you get your start writing comics?

I kind of made it happen on my own. I’ve always wanted to write comics, and I had a story I thought would be perfect for the medium. I met Mark Waid through a mutual friend and podcast fan and he championed it. So I found an artist I loved and kickstarted it. I was able to fund it thanks to the generosity of the fans and then Starburns Press picked it up. I am very happy to be over there, and I think it’s a great fit for the book. I just got my first offer for a short piece in their next comics anthology. My first comics writing assignment! I’m hoping for many, many more. I would love to write more comics.

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

Interestingly, since I have a background in indie film what you’re really doing as a comic book writer is writing and directing. You’re writing the script but also describing the action, pacing, and what goes in each panel. Basically you’re storyboarding like you would for a film. In indie film you have to wear a lot of hats, but with comic book writing you’re not just writing some abstract script. You’re describing each panel and basically directing the book. That’s why it’s so important to have a great artist to be paired with like I was with Fernando Pinto. Eventually you develop a shorthand and it gets quicker.

What inspired you to write your graphic novel Long Ago And Far Away? What was your process for writing it?

I’ve always loved fantasy stories, and growing up was a sucker for the stories about kids from our world who go into a fantasy world to save the day, like The Chronicles of Narnia. But I always thought about what would happen when those kids come back to our world and become adults. How would it have affected them? And then what if they had to go back into that world as an adult? The process was very, very long. I had the story a few years ago and it was in and out of development at various companies as an animated show, etc. But it never moved forward. But it was the kind of story that stays with you, and insists on being told. We all have stories like that; ones that won’t let you go. So I thought that a comic book would be a great way to tell the story. And I wouldn’t have to worry about there not being enough money for computer effects.

LAAFA was funded via crowdfunding. With a lot of comics creators taking that route to self-publish, is it something you’d recommend, and what are some tips you’d offer?

I recommend anyone who wants to create to just get out there and make it happen, any way you can. If someone buys your idea or hires you, great. But more often than not we have to greenlight ourselves. So if you’re a filmmaker, make a short film. If you’re a novelist, self-publish. If you want to make a comic, you need to raise enough money to pay the artist and make the book. But it can be done. Just know that crowdfunding is a full time job for that window of raising money. Don’t just think you can put a project up and money will magically appear. You have to promote, get endorsements from other artists, and also promote. Did I mention promoting?

You’ve also had experience writing for film, both narrative and documentary. How do you compare writing for the screen to the comics page?

I really, really, love it. It’s like filmmaking with an unlimited budget. No one comes back and says “we don’t have the budget to blow up Manhattan” in a comic book. If it can be drawn, it can be in the story. As far as story goes, film story progression and storyboarding can be really instrumental in writing for comics and guiding your panels.

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?

Characters we create often have traits of ourselves or people we know in them. That grounds them and keeps them believable. Even when it’s a supervillain, there’s a relatable trait you can give him or her. I always try to figure out what kind of character they are by how they would react in certain situations. Character reactions can convey lots of information about a character. As far as the story goes, keep the story progression organic. It should only have crazy twists in it if you were slowly leading up to them all along. The best narrative twists are the ones the audience didn’t see coming, but in hindsight were justified from the very beginning.

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

Write what you know.

Make the story personal, regardless of the genre or scope of the story.

Get help from other writers, and help them in return.

Don’t write for free for millionaires. If someone is serious about your work, they’ll make a deal with you.

Don’t neglect your body. Take time to exercise and unplug. It will help your mind focus and clear your head, which will improve your writing.

Filmmaker. Comics writer. Podcaster. Stand-up comedian. What’s next?

I really want to focus on writing right now, so I’m taking a break from stand-up, but may return to it at some point.. While I do the Comedy Film Nerds Podcast with Graham Elwood every week, I also have a scripted horror anthology podcast called Conversations From the Abyss that just finished its second season. I’m also hoping to get my next comic project going called Rise of the Kung Fu Dragon Master with the same team. It’s a martial arts/fantasy/comedy about a small time crook in Los Angeles who gets mixed up in a perennial battle between good and evil from ancient China. I also have various TV and film projects I’m developing and hoping to get into production.

How can people find out more about you and your wide body of work?

My website has links to my books and movies, including Ear Buds: The Podcasting Documentary. There are also links to the podcasts and my demo reel.

http://www.chrisjmancinionline.com/

http://www.comedyfilmnerds.com/

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

Peach. ‘nuff said.

Bonus feature!

Here’s an episode of the Comedy Film Nerds podcast where Chris goes into an extensive recounting of his experience with his film Asylum. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for aspiring filmmakers, plus it’s just an extremely entertaining tale. Well worth the listen.

http://comedyfilmnerds.libsyn.com/ep-219-dean-haglund

peach pie

A few slight adjustments

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The latest draft of the sci-fi adventure is moving along at a pleasantly brisk pace. Still averaging about 4-5 pages a day. The whole process this time around feels a lot more organized. Much more so than in the past.

The previous draft was 118 pages, and one of my many objectives for this one is to get it down to somewhere in the 105-110 range. I’m just about at the end of Act One, and it’s already 9 pages shorter than where it was at this point last time. Seems like the odds are in my favor to hit that page count goal.

But it’s taken a good deal of work to get here, including some shifts in my approaches.

Among the highlights:

-being more diligent in applying the “get in late, get out fast” approach to each scene. Although somewhat unavoidable for action sequences, doing what I can to use this as often as possible.

-cutting unnecessary dialogue. Never realized how much more I used to put in before. It’s been a real effort (and steep learning curve) to get the characters to only say what needs to be said, but it definitely helps get to the point of the scene quickly as well as moves things along.

-not being so detailed with action descriptions – by which I mean “what the characters are doing”, and not the fast-paced, high-octane thrilling moments. Focus on the important stuff. Don’t clutter up the page. Is it absolutely necessary to be so step-by-step about it? Nope.

-In a very “why didn’t I think of this before?” kind of way, having a hard copy of the outline and the previous draft have proven to be exceptionally helpful. The outline tells me what needs to happen in each scene, and the previous draft shows me not only what I did before, but gives me a starting point for potential changes.

-Taking that last item one step further, seeing how a scene played out before, combined with the applying the question of “how does this scene advance the plot, theme and character?” has enabled me to totally rewrite some scenes which before had felt kind of flat, but now read as stronger and help reinforce those three important components.

I managed to crank out the previous draft in about a month, and hoping to accomplish that this time around as well. Of course, a few ideas for more changes have popped up.  Nothing too severe, and I’m going back and forth about implementing them right away, or waiting for the cleanup-polish phase.

Every writer puts their material together in the way that works best for them. It took me a while to find mine, and it continues to be a work in progress. But if the latest results are any indicator, it’s working out quite nicely.

Plodding to the next finish line

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Well, one tough part’s out of the way. Got the latest draft of the sci-fi adventure done, clocking in at a respectable 118 pages. (And accomplished in just under a month, so – yay.)

Now it’s time to move on to the next tough part – the initial wave of cleaning it up, which will include cutting at least 7-10 pages.

It’s been a while since the last time I did this sort of editing, and it always seemed to be more problematic than expected. The best way I can describe it is “I couldn’t really see the forest for the trees”. The problems and their prospective fixes were there, but it would be difficult for me to identify them.

This time around, I’m taking a different approach.

I printed out a hard copy of the script, and went through it, scene by scene, and wrote down a very brief summary – a snippet or two of what was happening in each one. No frills. No dialogue. Just “here’s what happens here”.

Along the way, questions would constantly insert themselves into the discussion. Was there a way to still have this happen, but in a fraction as many words? Is this scene really necessary, or could it be combined with another? How can I describe what’s happening so it’s easier for a reader to “see” what’s happening? Everything geared towards telling a story in the most effective ways possible.

Additionally, new ideas and approaches would spring up when they were least expected. A scene or sequence I thought was just fine would suddenly feel totally out of place, or seem like it needed a drastic overhaul. With this still being a work in progress, any and all new ideas are welcome.

Another new development is how I’d initially type something like “MAYBE X DOES THIS” as a potential new part/development of a scene. Then while working on a later scene, see how that suggestion could be incorporated into it. This would then result in me going back and deleting “MAYBE” from the original. Sometimes your gut reaction really is the best one.

Didja also notice how those last-minute inserts are written in ALL CAPS? Just my little way of having a note stand out a little more so it’s easier to spot when I come back to it later on. Simple, but effective.

Even as this draft steadily grew, there were always sections of the story I knew would need some extra attention in the next draft. Rather than spend time going back and trying to fix things, it was just easier to leave it as it and keep pushing on.

Current focus is all about going through the pages and being as analytical as possible. A few minor story problems have been dealt with. Some unanswered questions are no longer unanswered. Opportunities to throw in a small dash of character and story development are opening up.

The strongest takeaway from this latest effort is that the overall process of putting a decent script together, while still quite challenging, is becoming slightly more manageable and somewhat less insurmountable.

An overabundance of words

word pile
First on the agenda – get them in order. Second – get rid of the ones that don’t belong.

April has been a most productive month for working on the new draft of the pulpy sci-fi adventure spec. This week saw me reaching the midpoint – page 73, which is about 18 pages more than it should be. (Not to mention that a spec script of approximately 150 pages is just ludicrous to begin with.)

Part of me wants to put the writing on hold and go back to page 1 to start editing and clearing away the excess, but I sort of like the idea of just pushing forward, finishing it. and THEN going back armed with the Red Pen of Doom.

When it comes to a first draft, I always tend to put in too much. More “kitchen sink draft” than “vomit draft”. Even taking a look at some previous pages, it’s easy to see where I’ve written more than what’s needed – of practically everything.

The silver lining here is that when it comes to rewriting and editing, there’s a lot to work with. Stuff thought necessary during that initial phase might prove otherwise, and out it goes.

My storylines can be a bit complicated – too many moving parts, so to speak. A combination of “I really want to wow you with this” and “there needs to be more here”. While the first definitely rings true, the second runs the risk of overdoing it and bogging things down – something I don’t want.

It used to be a lot tougher for me to kill my darlings, but time and experience have shown me it’s all about doing what you need to to achieve the end result. As much as I might like a particular something, if it can be cut (or at least drastically shortened) without any significant impact to the rest of the story, that’s fine by me.

If I can maintain my current pace of page output, there’s no reason to think I couldn’t be done with this draft by the end of the month, or maybe the first week of May. While I usually take a little break after completing a latest draft, the always-developing ideas for potential fixes and such may cause me to forego that and just jump right back in.

In the meantime, I’m just having a good time spinning what I can only hope will be an entertainingly ripping yarn.

Q & A with Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal

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Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal is an independent producer and former development executive with over 15 years of experience on some of Hollywood’s biggest films. He is currently a producer on the upcoming thriller The Kimberlite Process. After graduating with an MFA from UCLA’s Producers Program, Jeff worked in various capacities on numerous productions for Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner including The Last Samurai, Mission Impossible 3, Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Lions for Lambs starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, Ask the Dust starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, Death Race starring Jason Statham, The Eye starring Jessica Alba, Suspect Zero starring Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley and many more.

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a blast. HBO’s Barry is a funny and oddly haunting series. I recently re-watched/re-read Hell or High Water, which is a deceptively simple, sad, and suspenseful story with rich, complicated characters. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House delivered the goods on scares and family dysfunction for me. Issa Rae (“Insecure,”) Jill Soloway (“Transparent,”) Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,”) and Andrea Savage (“I’m Sorry,”) all have unique, exciting, and powerful voices.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I didn’t know anyone in LA when I first moved here but developed a sci-fi project that was quickly optioned by an Academy Award-winning producer (and never made). During that time, I was also accepted into UCLA’s Producers Program where I took Meg Le Fauve’s (“Inside Out” “Captain Marvel”) Development class, which was instrumental to my growth and understanding of cinematic storytelling and how to work effectively with screenwriters. I started cold-calling various companies for internships and was lucky enough to land positions at both Artisan Entertainment and Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures. Back then, Artisan had a deal with Marvel and I was immediately thrown into pitch meetings with various notable writers/directors on properties like Thor, Hulk, The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist, etc. I was also taking pitches at Phoenix – it was an incredible learning experience. I eventually became an assistant briefly to a Hong Kong action director and then used those experiences to land a job with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner once I graduated from UCLA.

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

Though having an eye for quality material can be a natural instinct, it needs to be honed. I ultimately feel that recognizing good writing can be learned and taught.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Generally speaking, a good script maintains a captivating concept, and a flawed but likeable hero with a concrete objective attached to grave stakes (whether intimate or epic). The hero’s emotional flaw is often rectified as a result of him/her achieving their practical goal (he/she should also be active, resourceful, and exhibit a range of change). It’s helpful if the hero’s goal is time-sensitive and somehow socially relevant. Lastly, if the script is a feature, it should adhere to a three-act structure.

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

Too much description, on-the-nose dialogue, flimsy structure, and the lack of a flawed hero with a concrete objective, attached to grave stakes.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not at all opposed to writers using things like “one last job,” “a reluctant hero who can save the world,” “a family in peril,” or “a fish out of water,” etc. The familiar can be very accessible and., if used effectively, can lure a reader into the story. The trick, however, is to infuse that story with other unique and complex qualities so that it unfolds in fresh and unexpected ways. What can make your story different or set it apart? I always urge writers to challenge the reader’s expectations or preconceived notions as to what type of story they’re entering!

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

-Use Final Draft.

-Study the most notable screenwriting books and authors.

-Read every script you can get your hands on whether good, bad, or mediocre.

-Have conviction but be open to ideas – ultimately this is a collaborative industry.

-Don’t be afraid of genre and don’t be afraid to push the boundaries on the tenets of said genre (but know what those tenets are).

-Actively seek feedback and don’t be precious.

-Strive to be both clear and complex in your writing and understand the difference between the two.

-Don’t be a hater – watch all kinds of movies and TV shows, and be mindful of those that are both commercially and critically successful as well as those that aren’t.

-Read the trades to better understand the marketplace.

-Don’t chase trends – write from the heart.

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

“Recommends” are a rare breed. Those that do qualify show a master of the craft, are usually somewhat familiar but also somehow unique, tend to maintain complex characters, rich themes, and have an easily identifiable position in the marketplace (you can visualize the poster, trailer, audience, etc.) That being said, most of the scripts I’ve read, even from the most notable A-list writers in the industry, still needed some further development.

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

I think it can be incredibly important and worthwhile, particularly for young writers, to enter screenwriting contests. However, I would also encourage writers to do some homework on which ones are notable and relevant so as to not waste too much money and time.

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

Go to www.scriptarsenal.com and follow us on FaceBook and Twitter to get updates on upcoming sales and weekly helpful screenwriting tips.

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

Given my mid-section I generally try to stay away from sweets, but a few years ago, I had some homemade pecan pie (numerous pieces actually) for Thanksgiving and it was an absolutely transformative experience…a chemical portal to another dimension that somehow transcended the time-space continuum…okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic but damn, it was good!

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