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?

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“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!

Ask a Multi-Award-Winning Script Consultant!

Erik Bork

 

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Erik Bork, who also runs the website Flying Wrestler.

Erik Bork is best known for his work as a writer-producer on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon – for which he won two Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards. He’s also worked on the writing staff of two primetime dramas, sold multiple original series pitches, and written pilots and features for such companies as Universal, Sony, NBC, Fox, Imagine, Original Film and The Playtone Company. He teaches screenwriting for UCLA Extension and National University’s MFA Program, and has been called one of the Top 10 Most Influential Screenwriting Bloggers.

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

I’m continually impressed with how DOWNTON ABBEY tells interesting, emotional, heartfelt stories that are grounded in the realities of its setting, for the various kinds of people who populate it. I’ve been re-watching the first three seasons lately – and think it’s great model for what makes characters and stories compelling, and easy to invest in.

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

I’d been a professional screenwriter for about a decade and was being asked to speak to writers groups, teach classes, and give feedback on scripts.

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

Absolutely!

4. What are the components of a good script?

An intriguing and original concept about a compelling and high stakes problem for a character most people can relate to (either the character, and/or the problem) – which focuses on that character as they actively try to solve it, which is complicated and difficult for them, and entertaining for us to watch. I think working with the ten genres in the SAVE THE CAT books are a great tool for working on achieving this.

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

Writers jump to script too quickly, without really developing a concept that has the ingredients necessary to have a chance at success. Stories often don’t have a main character that readers understand and have reason to care enough about, and sometimes it’s not told subjectively through that one person’s point-of-view. The main story problem is often not high stakes enough to the main character’s external life situation (as opposed to their internal life of thoughts, emotions and attitudes). It might not be an active enough challenge where they are pushing the story forward, or a problem that is big enough and hard enough, with enough twists and turns to it. Ultimately, it comes down to achieving the audience’s strong caring, and holding onto that – which is not easy to do.

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

I get tired of violent adventure stories with life-and-death stakes and a simplistic good vs. evil approach. It’s easiest to grab an audience with that, but it tends to leave me cold – especially when it’s just about visual spectacle, as opposed to realistic characters going through something relatable.

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

-Basic story concept is the most important thing, and hardest to get right.

-The audience must emotionally become one with your main character, which isn’t easy to achieve.

-It’s hard and rare to write something that REALLY works, even for professionals – so stay open to feedback, lots of rewriting, and a long-term process that requires a lot of persistence and ongoing belief.

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

I don’t really provide coverage-style “recommend”/”consider”/”pass” ratings, and don’t exactly think in those terms. I’m more about helping the writer better their craft and project(s), and never look for or expect a script that comes to me to be something they could instantly do something with in the marketplace.

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

They’re in no way a panacea or golden ticket, and most of them probably won’t do much to advance one’s career – unless you finish really highly in one of the top contests. But it can be a good way to see how you’re doing, and get quality feedback, if you find the price reasonable.

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

You’ll find my script consulting and rates pages on my “Flying Wrestler” blog. You can also e-mail me directly at erik@flyingwrestler.com.

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

Cherry, hands down.