Q & A with Bob Saenz

BobNHS

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Bob Saenz is a screenwriter, actor and author. His produced works include Hallmark’s Help for the Holidays, Rescuing Madison, Sweet Surrender, On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Sound of Christmas, The Right Girl, Christmas in Love,  the theatrical Church People, and the black comedy thriller Extracurricular Activities. He does rewrites and polishes on film and TV projects for Producers and Production Companies. His screenwriting book THAT’S NOT THE WAY IT WORKS was released in 2019.

His acting roles include a 6-year run recurring character run on the TV show Nash Bridges, Hallmark’s Valley of Light, Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, Church People, and The Village Barbershop, among dozens of others. He was a radio DJ on KYCY-FM in San Francisco, played the last 10 years in the 60’s rock band The BSides, and has done voicework on video games, documentaries, and commercials.

Editor’s Note – I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bob personally for a few years. His insight and advice has proven invaluable to helping me become a better writer, both in terms of craft and career.

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

A spec script by a writer named Rene Gutteridge called Where the Wind Comes. Maybe the best spec I’ve ever read. Just spectacular. Was emotionally affected by it. Stunning.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book That’s Not The Way It Works?

Two things. One, I’ve been teaching and speaking at writers’ conferences all over the country the last few years and everyone who was there speaking had a book, except me. I complained to my wife about it and she said, “What’s stopping you from writing one?” So I did.

Two, there’s not a single one I could find out there that spoke plainly about the business of being a screenwriter.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it unique?

The tone. It’s conversational. My experience. It’s filled with what I have learned actually succeeding at it. With more than a dozen films produced, I used all that experience to write about what I know. And, I talk first hand about the business of screenwriting. What the writer needs to know about that part of it, which is just as important as writing a script, and how to approach that.

While the first half of the book is about the actual writing of a script, the second half covers the not-as-discussed “what happens AFTER the script is written (i.e. the business aspects)”. What advice would you give to writers who want to learn more about this?

As I say in the book – find out that it’s not easy, it’s not instant gratification, and you have to work at it. Hard. You can succeed; it just takes time and a business plan. I think the book helps with that. Realizing that writing a script is only the beginning of your journey is a BIG eye-opener for most writers who dream of doing this.

Yes, the script needs to be something people would want to choose to see and has to be good, but that’s not the end of it.

The book has a great chapter about dealing with rejection. What are some key takeaways and advice you’d offer to writers?

The main takeaway is that rejection isn’t personal. Producers and reps don’t care enough about you to make it personal. It’s ALL about the content. Whether they love your script and not or can use it at that time or not. There are hundreds of reasons to reject a script… you have zero control and it’s not personal. Even the most famous screenwriters get rejected on a regular basis. It’s an everyday occurrence. You have to learn to live with it or it’ll destroy you.

Another important issue writers tend to overlook is the need to effectively market themselves in addition to their script. While the chapter about what NOT to do is entertaining (and a bit eye-opening), what are your suggestions about what writers SHOULD DO?

Use the avenues that producers and reps have opened to the writer. Querying. Something that is an art unto itself and something I delve into pretty deeply in the book with a whole section on query letters.

Networking. There’s a huge section in the book about this.  The dos and don’ts. One thing to always remember about networking: It’s about building relationships, not using people. People who can help you absolutely know the difference and will run away from you if you try and use them.

Contests. The Nicholl and Austin are the ones who will pretty much always get you reads in LA if you final or win them. I’ve had friends get their films made doing well in both of these. Neither are easy to do well in because of the sheer number of entries, but they can pay off.

The last way is through referrals, especially to get a rep. If you know a producer or director or star who will refer you… but again, this goes back to networking and having the great scripts to back it up.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The most important thing is a great story. It also has to be lean and mean. Brevity and white space are your friend. You aren’t writing a novel. You want just enough in there to have the reader see the film in their head and to be able to fill in what they want to as they read, engaging them in the story that way. Again, a big section in the book about this.

I will say this: Producers are ONLY looking for STORY. Screenwriters can never forget this. Don’t over-complicate the read. You can write a complex story without making it hard to read. Oh… spelling and grammar are important, too.

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

The main one? Choosing the wrong story to tell. Telling a story no one wants to see. Whether it’s not sustainable, not interesting, ridiculous, something that’s been done a thousand times before, something you can see every day in TV reruns… there are a million reasons NOT to write this kind of story. You need to go through a pretty thorough checklist (in the book) and make sure it’s a viable story before you do the time consuming hard work it takes to write a good script. Why do all that hard work on a story that’ll be Dead On Arrival?

Another big mistake I see all the time is writers not doing their research about the topics they choose to write about. Writing things that would never ever happen. You have to ground your script in the reality of the subject matter before you take liberties with it.

What are some key writing guidelines every writer should know?

-AIS – Putting your Ass In the Seat. You have to be disciplined. Producers expect you to be disciplined. Good to start doing that at the beginning.

-Never give up. This is so hard to do, you’ll get discouraged on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to give up than to stick with it because it takes years to succeed in. Notice I didn’t say it CAN take years, I said it TAKES YEARS, because in every case, it does. You aren’t going to be the exception.

-Don’t cheat on research. Take the time to actually learn about the things you’re writing about. Go out and learn them. A big section in the book about this.

-Again…. for emphasis…. choose a story that is viable for producers and audiences. Don’t just pull something out of the air and write it.

-You’re not writing a novel. Leave everything that isn’t directly hooked to your story or plot points out of your script. One rule of thumb? You know all those people listed in the credits of a film? It’s your job to do everything they don’t. You aren’t a costume designer or a casting agent or set designer…. or… any of them. They don’t ask to write the story, you don’t try and do their job.

You’ve managed to establish and maintain a writing career while living outside of Los Angeles. What are some of the pros and cons about it you’ve experienced?

Pros: I don’t live all that far away (400 miles) and can be at any meeting on a day’s notice, so it’s been fine for me. I am in LA multiple times a year, sometimes for more than a week at a time. It’s expensive… but also my choice. There’s a section is the book about moving to LA and when to pull the trigger and do it if you need to.

Con: I’m not in LA networking all the time. Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing. Not worth moving there for me, though.

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

Peach. Nothing else comes close.

peach pie

Strong start out of the gate

 

weiner dog race

My first project of the year was to keep pushing through on revising the sci-fi adventure outlines, but a few days before New Year’s, a colleague contacted me and asked if I could take a look at his collaborator’s first ten pages.

English isn’t the writer’s first language, so while the intent and context of the words and the overall sense of the story were there, in addition to a lot more telling than showing, the pages just didn’t read smoothly. I asked my friend if they wanted to me to do some cleanup work and polish it.

“Please. And feel free to make any changes you think are necessary.”

Challenge accepted.

My project was put on hold, with all focus redirected to this. It’s been a lot of fun. What the original story had made for a good foundation, and I’ve really enjoyed putting my own spin on it and doing what I can to kick things up a notch. Nothing drastic, but again – fun stuff.

It also helps that my friend gave me a deadline. I know what I need to do, and how much time I have to do it. That really helps you stay focused.

If I can keep up my daily output of productivity, it looks like I’ll beat the deadline by at least one to two days. Which is what I was hoping for.

And then it’s right back into my own material.

Part of my plan for 2020 is to not only get something done every day, but to have it help me move things forward. So far, so good.

And the first week isn’t even over yet.

Dismantle, reassemble

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Sometimes when you’re working on a story, you just have this feeling that the way it’s being told is the way it should be told. It just feels right.

Even though I’d made some good progress with the ongoing revision of the sci-fi adventure outline, something still seemed…off. What I had was good, including several scenes that now felt necessary, but as a whole, not quite there yet.

As I’ve mentioned before, I keep all the previous drafts of the outline and script on file –  you never know when some of that text will come in handy. The recent work on the current revision was accompanied by another tab on the screen containing the previous draft, serving primarily as a sort of roadmap to help guide me through this latest effort.

Despite telling myself that this new draft was supposed to be different from its predecessor, its siren call was a bit stronger than expected. There was just something about it that couldn’t be denied. Not to say that the newer version was no slouch either.

Parts of this one work, and parts of that one work. Why not combine the two?

Sure, this even-newer draft might occasionally take a somewhat unorthdox approach in how the story’s presented, but by gosh, I still like it. “Rules of screenwriting” be damned.

There’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking parts of the new draft and incorporating them into the previous one where applicable. Of course, it would have been nice to have come to this conclustion a few weeks ago, but sometimes that’s just how it works.

What’s really nice is that for the most part, save for a few problem spots, the previous draft is still pretty solid on its own. Nothing serious, and some of these new elements look like they’ll really rectify that.

Based on some extremely helpful notes, another factor that’ll help this time around is putting more of a spotlight on the characters’ emotions. Even in this kind of story, with all of its fantastical and extraordinary elements, it’s important to show how the characters are still people.

Lastly, all the time I’ve been working on this story, I’d forgotten how the initial concept and earliest versions were all written with a certain kind of tone in mind; something to really convey the vibe of what story of story this was supposed to be and how I wanted it to read. Somehow that aspect’s diminished over time, and I plan on re-introducing it for the next draft.

This is gonna be fun.

Same destination, different route

hot fuzz

Even though I got some great notes back on the previous draft of my sci-fi adventure spec, one aspect of the script had always bothered me.

As much as I loved the opening sequence, it still felt out of place.

Its primary goal for existing was to establish and set up several plot elements and story details. It does that, but something just didn’t feel right.

Would the story still work if I took it out? Sure, but finding new ways to present all the relevant info would require some major rewriting and revising. Time-consuming (to a point), but necessary.

But that got the gears turning…

The more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me. Trust me, it killed me to even just consider killing all those darlings, but doing so would definitely force me to find new and original ways to tell this story.

Added bonus – a new opening would also enable me to do a better job of establishing the protagonist AND set the tone of the story.

So out all those pages went, with an ever-expanding list of all sorts of new ideas regarding How To Do It currently in development.

A writer may know what they want to happen in their script, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. The characters might unexpectedly guide you in a different direction, or maybe you realize what the story really needs is to take a sharp turn off to the side, or you decide that this is the perfect opportunity to go in a totally opposite direction.

Nothing is set in stone. You’re the ultimate creator. Everything that happens is under your control, and you can do with it what you will.

Something not working for you? Change it. Give yourself options.

Follow-up to that – go with options that still work within the context of the story and characters. Your characters still want the same thing they did before, but now you’ve drastically altered how they get there.

It’s a savvy writer who eagerly anticipates taking on the task of devising these kinds of changes. And once they’re all implemented, you’ll barely remember how it used to be because EVERYTHING WORKS SO MUCH BETTER NOW.

Suggestion – no matter how or when you come up with a new idea, WRITE IT DOWN. IMMEDIATELY. Even if you’re in the middle of working on the same script. Everybody says “Oh, I’ll remember that later.”

You won’t.

Do whatever you have to in order to preserve it.

*Apologies for a lack of post last week. I had some kind of bug that put me out of commission for a few days; didn’t even have the strength to compose a “sorry, no post this week” post.

 

Q & A with Chris Mancini

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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