A most informative Q & A with Andrew Zinnes

 

andrew zinnes

Andrew Zinnes is a UK-based screenwriter, screenwriting consultant and producer who’s worked for production companies, read for contests, and co-author of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking and The Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Film Making. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Screenwriting at The Bournemouth Film School at Arts University Bournemouth, the London Film Academy, and the University of Portsmouth.

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

I have small children so I don’t get to the theater as much as I’d like, but I recently saw I, TONYA and thought it was fantastic – a real pleasant surprise! I remember the Nancy Kerrigan incident vividly and, at the time, there wasn’t a bigger villain than Tonya. Yet Steve Rogers managed to make her sympathetic by focusing on her relationship with her mother and other aspects of her home life. Then you add breaking the fourth wall and other stylistic choices, and the characters became self-aware in a manner that added to their depth and relatability. BABY DRIVER was great, too. Loved the way they used music to tell the story. Very Edgar Wright.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I became a script reader for a small production company based at Sony. I read for free as I wanted anyway into the machine. I would go in on off days or they would messenger me scripts, back when that was a thing, and I would write up coverage and fax it back to them, when that was a thing. I became friends with the assistants in the office and when I said I wanted to do development, they put me up for other assistant gigs.

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

From my experience, recognizing good writing is innate. Many years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving and took my weekend read with me. My sister got curious and started reading some of them. She read one that was a spec from an unknown writer and she was surprised at its mediocrity. She stopped reading after 40 pages and picked up another. This time she started laughing straight away and continued through the whole 100 pages. That script turned out to be AMERICAN PIE. She knew the difference between the two scripts quality-wise with no training, but what she wasn’t able to do was tell me what was wrong with them via screenplay/story theory or how she would have fixed any issues. That part needs to be learned and practiced as one would with any craft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The biggest component revolves around making the story or premise personal to you, the writer. If it’s not something you’re passionate about then how are you going to put 100% effort into it? If you can’t connect to the premise, then how can the reader or the viewer? John Truby says this issue leads to generic, unoriginal work and I have seen this first hand with my college/university students. Just recently, one wanted to do a crime thriller that had an okay hook, but was otherwise unremarkable. I asked why he wanted to do this project and he said it was because he loved those kind of movies and this sounded cool. I told him my doubts and he got frustrated. He said that he has trouble making decisions about writing because he doesn’t want to make mistakes that can’t be undone easily. When I pressed, he said he felt that way about many things in life, not just writing. I told him he should write about that concept. His eyes lit up!

The other key component are the forces of antagonism. I don’t just mean the villain. I mean everything that holds back the protagonist(s) from their goals. The better they are, the better the tension, drama and comedy become.

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

Because I work with many writers in the development of stories from early in their conception, impatience reigns the king of mistakes. Often times writers want to rush into the actual writing before they’ve explored a premise fully. The don’t want to do enough research to make the story richer or come up with alternative character motivations and story points that might make their project surprising and original. They don’t want to take hard looks at their structure because they have something in their head and want to get it out.  I get it. I’ve felt the rush of getting something down in Final Draft, too. However, whenever I’ve let a client or student get on with it despite my objections, it always goes wrong. They create a story and/or characters that are generic or derivative. They come to the point where the structure doesn’t work and either get stuck or plow forward anyway and there’s structure or story flaws. Now for some writers, this is the process they need to go through. This is how their brains process information. That’s fine, but whether that is the case or they are just steadfast, we end up going back to the drawing board to pull everything apart as we should have done originally.

Aside from that, overwriting tends to be an issue, especially with newer writers. Screenplays are meant to be quick reads and having a lot of black on the page slows that down. Learning economy of writing is essential. I realize that many people, myself included, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’s style, which creates these dense, epic screenplays and, that further, feel they should follow suit. However, one, that’s being derivative; two, they’re directing the work so they probably doing it partially because they don’t want to forget anything; and three, they’ve earned it as they had to fund their first films in this style mostly themselves and became successful with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes don’t bother me. It’s what is done with the tropes that matters. Whenever a superhero movie comes out social media garners a a lot of eye rolls and hate from various creative or general public communities and then WONDER WOMAN, DEADPOOL or BLACK PANTHER comes out and shakes things up. Teen horror films is another one that gets a lot of grief, and then HAPPY DEATH DAY hits the screens and all of a sudden cyberspace is hit with short memory syndrome. Take tropes and tell them in unique ways.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Observe people, places, things and ideas.
-Observe by asking questions and listening to what people say and don’ t cut them off to speak about yourself.
-Travel and observe what’s around you.
-Write down what you observe and think about what universal truths of the human condition emerge that matter to you.
-Read good scripts and watch good movies so you know what works.
-Read bad scripts and watch bad movies so you can recognize problems to avoid.
-Notes are opinions. They aren’t personal.

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

I haven’t read many. TRAINING DAY may have been one. THE SIXTH SENSE may have been one, too. The reasons are for the usual hallmarks: great voice, original take on a premise, explored some kind or large idea, writing that moved my emotions (tense, scary, etc) and structured well. Then the other side of the equation, the business side, saw great roles for movie stars to play, was something my company might do and had general commercial appeal.

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

That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you can win one or at least become a finalist, it can get you noticed. The bigger the competition the better your chances, obviously. If you live outside of Los Angeles or don’t have a friend that works in the industry, it may be one of the only ways that you can garner attention. On the other hand, if you enter many of them, it can get expensive. Also there is a fundamental truth about screenplay competitions: there has to be a winner. It’s the best of what a competition gets that year, not necessarily the best written thing that would attract an agent or manager and that sometimes makes Hollywood impatient with competitions. But all in all, I say they are worth it. Especially if there’s some sort of networking attached to winning or placing.

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

I’m very easy to find: andrewzinnes.co.uk. You can message me from there. I live in the UK, but work with writers all over the world. Thank you FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp!

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

Blueberry! I make a mean one, too.

blueberry pie

Q & A with Christopher Lockhart of WME

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Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.

How’d you get your start?

I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.

Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?

In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does.  I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.

Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?

A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company.  Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.

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

I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

I take a holistic approach to judging material.  I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves.  The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they  are not dramatized.

What are some very important rules every writer should know?

I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.

Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”

Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.

Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.

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

I’m not much of a pie eater.  I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.

apple pie

Could it get made today?

psycho-house
“Another “boy and his mother” story? Pass.”

Originally, this post was going to be about the multiple changing of protagonists in PSYCHO (which is another great potential future topic), but the more I read about the film and thought about the impact it’s had since being released way back in 1960, it triggered a totally different train of thought.

Every once in a while, when a classic film is brought up in some context or another, the phrase “That could never get made today” will get thrown in. After the recent death of Gene Wilder, his talent was lauded via the mention of several of his most well-known roles. Willy Wonka. The Waco Kid. Victor Frankenstein (“That’s Fronken-steen.”). His performances were vital parts of each film, which no doubt contributed to making them “classics”.

But, as always, it starts with the script. (Incidentally, I don’t think Wilder gets enough credit for co-writing YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.)

Examining the stories being told, each one has something truly unique about it, and then some. The writer (and subsequently the filmmaker) wasn’t afraid to take a chance and try something completely new and different. Sadly, the studios today aren’t as open to it. Better to play it safe then take too big a chance, which is why we’re seeing so many remakes and re-imaginings. Of course, that doesn’t always work out either (e.g. 2015’s PAN, the recent BEN-HUR remake).

While there are always original and innovative scripts floating around, it’s a lot of time, effort and money to make a film. The only recent original film I can think of is SWISS ARMY MAN, which I admit I haven’t seen yet.

Who hasn’t read a “truly original” script or about one getting a lot of attention, but a lot of the time the writer will go on to work on other projects while the script that started the whole thing gathers dust?

The best exception to this that I know of is Travis Beacham’s spec A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, which drew a lot of heat when it sold in 2005, then continued to garner praise while it languished in development for years before ultimately becoming an upcoming series on Amazon – at last check, anyway.

Budgets are getting higher, and the gap continues to grow between microbudget features and mega-budget tentpoles. It’s getting harder for original material to get noticed, let alone something that screams out “NEW!” It also doesn’t help that the chances decrease if the script isn’t based on pre-existing material. This could be why today you’re more likely to see an original film that’s a low-budget independent, probably written by the filmmaker themselves.

Before that, your best bet of seeing something groundbreaking would have been at the hands of established filmmakers, only because they had that kind of leverage (and the budget) to get their projects made. An unknown writer doesn’t have that kind of luxury. All we can hope for is to connect with somebody who likes the script (and our writing) so much that they’re actually excited to help us take things beyond the “Sure, I’ll read it” stage.

That’s our objective as writers: to write something that’s not only compelling and involving, but so eye-openingly original that the reader is compelled to the point that they need to see this as a movie. Doable, but definitely not easy.

Homework time! Part one – find a script you really consider a game-changer for the same genre as yours and give it a read. Can you identify what made it so unique? What really stands out for you? Plot? Story? Characters? A little of everything? Another option is if that script has been produced, then watch the film and follow along with the script. Are they the same? Totally different? Do you think the changes add or take away from the script?

Part two – without blatantly copying the style of that script, work on applying a similar originality to yours. Did reading that script inspire ways for you to make yours really stand out?

Don’t be afraid to take chances. Strive to offer up something we’ve never seen before. The results might surprise you, too.

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Leaving an indelible impression

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Not expecting it to last millions of years, but wouldn’t complain about it either

As an avid fan of summer movies, this year has been one big disappointment after another. Granted, I haven’t seen a few of the latest releases yet (STAR TREK BEYOND, SUICIDE SQUAD), but barely remember anything since CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and that came out in early May.

Remember all the hoopla preceding the GHOSTBUSTERS reboot? Kind of died off quickly, didn’t it? We saw it opening weekend, mostly because V wanted to, and it was…okay. I don’t attribute it’s lack of success to angry fans of the original, but because it just wasn’t that great a movie.

Was anything from this summer truly memorable? So far, not really (although I’m still holding out hope for the exquisite-looking KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS).

It honestly seemed like everything simply wasn’t up to standard. Despite what the various marketing assaults might indicate, the end products felt too slapdash and that too many projects were focused on being ready for the release date rather than making sure the script was rock-solid.

Based on this and almost-daily reports of forthcoming reboots, remakes, and overall more of the same-ness, breaking in as a writer of original material suddenly seems significantly harder. Not only does your script have to really wow ’em, but it better pack a significant wallop on several levels.

A great, new story with phenomenal characters, all told in the most captivating way possible. Simple, no? I realize that a lot of films start with great scripts, but the process that leads up to the film being unleashed on the public can drastically affect it – too many times not for the better.

I’ve always seen my objective as to not only tell you a story that hasn’t been told before (or at least tell an old one in a totally new way), but to tell it in the most entertaining way possible. I want you to not be able to get those images out of your head (in a good way, as opposed to a dear-God-please-make-the-nightmares-stop kind of way).

I’ll be the first to admit that I’d love for one of my scripts to be one of the surprise hits of a summer season, but if recent releases are typical of what kind of material I’m up against, my work is more than cut out for me, if not potentially impossible.

It wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere down the line, my script got turned down because it was deemed “too original”.

A scary, sobering, and all-too-possible thought.

 

Nothing a little maturity wouldn’t cure

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You’re so mean!

Okay, I admit it. I daydream about being a successful screenwriter. Who doesn’t?

“That mega-hit blockbuster? Yeah. I wrote that.”

It’s nice to think about, but again, it’s still just a daydream. I’m not counting on it. I’d be happy just to make a decent living at it, and that’s what I’m working towards.

I try to be realistic about this, learning from my mistakes and missteps. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to ask advice of writers with more experience than me, and I have heeded that advice to the best of my ability.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of activity online involving writers (usually in the early (read: uninformed) phase of their careers) asking questions regarding a wide variety of topics.

A majority of the time, they get quality answers from seasoned (read: informed) writers. In theory, the original askers respond with “Thanks! That really helps!”, or “So glad you told me!”, or even “Great to know!”. These do happen. On occasion.

And then there’s the other response.

“You’re just trying to kill my/their dreams!”

“What do you know? You only have X credits on IMDB!”

“You just don’t want the competition!”

“I’ve never heard of you, so your advice is worthless!”

“What makes you so important?”

Sigh.

People are going to believe what they want to believe, or are more likely to believe advice that works in their favor, rather than the cold, hard truth. And if that cold, hard truth runs counter to the answers they want (despite them claiming to “seek” them), the harder they’ll reject it.

You may not like the fact that there’s not a snowcone’s chance in hell a major studio/agency/prodco will look at your script, let alone greenlight it for production, even with your without-a-doubt absolutely certain belief they’d grab it in a second if they’d only read it to see how totally awesome it is, but getting angry (and even berating) at somebody who tells you “that’s how it is” makes you look foolish and amateurish. And you’re also setting yourself up for continuous disappointment.

One of the things a screenwriter needs to accept early on is that there are certain truths about the industry and how things work within it. Unless people are completely blown away by the sheer genius of the writing in your first or second draft, (which they will not be. Trust me on this one.), you and your script are not going to be the ones that “change all of that”.

Learn the way things work. Ask questions of those who know better (and more) than you. Accept the answers and adapt. You need to. The industry has no interest in and will not be adapting to you.

No matter how many tantrums you throw.

**Shameless self-promotion! I had the good fortune to be interviewed by my pal Justin Sloan, who hosts The Creative Writing Career podcast, which covers a wide variety of fields and types of writing careers. We had a great time discussing trying to make it as a screenwriter. You can listen to it here, or subscribe to it on iTunes. Thanks for listening!