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

Writing in your own voice

Marilyn script
“Hmm. Billy’s new script. Men dressing up as women to hide from gangsters? Sounds funny.”

When I’ve done script notes for writing colleagues, no matter what the genre is, I can usually tell who wrote it – because of the way it reads. Each writer has their own particular style, so each of their scripts has its own corresponding “sound”. Or I’ll get notes back on my material which often includes a comment along the lines of “this sounds like something you’d write”.

This isn’t just about dialogue. It’s about a writer’s overall style, or how they tell the story of their script. You don’t just want the reader to read your story; you want them to experience it. Which can be accomplished by adding that extra layer.

Everybody develops their own individual style, and it takes time to find it. The more you write, the more you’ll be able to hone your writing to reflect your own individuality.

Just a few things to think about:

-How does your script read? Is the writing crisp and efficient, or are you wasting valuable page real estate with too many lines of  your loquacious verbosity? Taking it one step further, do you use the same words over and over, or do you relish any opportunity to give your thesaurus a solid workout?

-How is your story set up and how does it play out? Is it simple and straightforward, or complex and full of deliciously tantalizing twists and turns? Are you working that creativeness to show us things we haven’t seen before, or is just page after page of the same ol’, same ol’?

-Is it a story somebody besides you would want to see? Just because you find the subject matter interesting doesn’t mean it has universal appeal. However, there is the counter-argument to that in which you could attempt to have your story include elements that would satisfy fans of the genre while also appealing to newcomers.

-Can’t ignore the population within the pages. Are your characters well-developed and complex, or do they come up lacking? Do we care about them, or what happens to them? Can we relate to them?

-What are your characters saying, or not saying (subtext!)? How are they saying it? Do they sound interesting or dull as dishwater? Very important – do they sound like actual people, or like “characters in a movie”?

Remember – the script is a reflection of you. A solid piece of writing shows you know what you’re doing. Offering up something sloppy is simply just sabotaging yourself.

Who hasn’t heard a variation on the line about a script being a cheap knockoff of a more established writer? While I can understand admiring a pro writer’s style, why would you attempt to copy it? It probably took them a long time to find their own voice, and by trying to write like they do, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to do the same thing for yourself.

Or to put it another way: they didn’t take any shortcuts to become the writer they are today, so why should you?

The “sound” of your writing

eavesdropping
No! Find your own style of writing. Don’t copy someone else’s.

When somebody reads your script,is there something about the writing that they can tell you’re the one who wrote it? Do you have a certain style or “voice” regarding how your material reads?

Each writer develops their own particular way of not only how they write, but how that material comes across on the page.

When you’re just starting out, maybe you play it safe and keep things simple and straightforward. Or you might try from the get-go to emulate a script or writer you really, really like, because if it worked for them, then it stands to reason that it will undoubtedly work for you in the exact same way. This is occasionally referred to as the Tarantino Syndrome.

There’s nothing wrong with appreciating a pro’s style, but for crying out loud, DO NOT try to duplicate it. That’s how they do it, which is not the same as how you do it. It also smacks of laziness. You want to make a name for yourself, right? So how are you going to do that by writing like somebody else?

Find a way that works for you and stick with it. Hone your writing skills with each draft until every script you offer up is undeniably identifiable as yours.

The more you produce, the more comfortable you’ll get with how you write, along with becoming more confident in your abilities. You’ve put in the work learning the rules, so now you feel ready to see how far you can bend them (but not too much! They can be very fragile at times.).

Soon you’ll have no hesitation to start putting your own spin on things; little touches here and there. Although the usual challenges and obstacles will still be there, you might discover that your overall process of writing has gotten just a little bit easier.

Q & A with the Thornton Brothers

Thornton Brothers

Chris and Jason Thornton are professional storytellers who seek to entertain audiences via thematically charged films, TV shows, books and comics across various genres while specializing in darker, provocative, character-driven narratives ranging from “micro” to tentpole in budget. They are members of the WGAw and repped by UTA and Rosa Entertainment.

Cactus Jack is their feature directorial debut. It’s the story of a reclusive hate-monger who starts a venomous, vitriolic podcast from his mother’s basement and makes enemies far and wide—until one comes to silence him. Think a cross between Taxi Driver and Talk Radio for the podcasting generation. You can help the guys out with their crowdfund campaign (and see their totally NSFW red band proof-of-concept teaser)

What’s the last thing you read/watched you thought was incredibly well-written (Book, TV or film)

Fuck, that’s hard. Not because we look down on stuff, but because we’re so busy trying to make our own shit that we barely have time to consume like we used to. Hmmmm. Just rewatched Network lately, so that definitely should be mentioned. Paddy Chayefsky was an absolute beast. Sure. Network. Can’t go wrong with that.

What’s your writing background? What was the project that got things started?

We’ve kind of always been innate storytellers. We come from a strong line of liars and bullshitters, and as largely unsupervised kids in the projects outside DC we’d play out really elaborate, raw extended throughlines with our action figures and made our own comic books and honed our sensibilities between bouts of watching R-rated 80’s shit on free promotional HBO and Showtime and role playing. We started screenwriting together maybe fifteen years ago, but after writing three scripts that shall never see the light of day we stopped for a few years before coming back to it in ‘07. That project was a script called Heart, about a dying, psychotic Vietnam vet who gets an early release from prison and—since he can’t get on a donor’s list—tracks down the man whose life he saved forty years ago in ‘Nam: he wants the dude’s heart. It’s a very dark, fucked up, pulpy who-do-I-root-for story, which finished in the Top 30 out of like 5,000 entries for the 2009 Nicholl Fellowship (since dismantled and currently turning it into a truly dastardly novel). From there we started talking to managers but it was our next script Mechanicsville that really hooked our manager (shoutout to Sidney Sherman of Rosa Entertainment, who still reps us) and first agent (started at WME but since jumped to UTA). M-ville’s kind of a Kentucky-fried heist flick about how shit hits the fan when two gangs of bank robbers try to rob the same small town bank on the same day (Hell Or High Water stomps all over it now, unfortunately). That one started getting us legit meetings, led to our first assignment and opened the door to pitch shit, etc.

Your current big project is crowdfunding to produce your original independent film CACTUS JACK. What’s the story behind that?

Part of this is definitely about us tiring of being stuck on that movie/TV development hamster wheel, and all of these unproduced projects forcing us to look at our shoes and mumble “no” when people hear what we do and of course follow up with “Oh yeah? Anything I can see or read?” Part of it is about trying to make a feature film for relatively very little money, because screenwriters will never “move the needle” on a project like in-demand directors will… but for the most part it’s a sick little story we just have to get out there as quickly as possible. It’s very zeitgeisty, very of-the-moment as it holds up a twisted, frothing-mouthed funhouse mirror to this already “big top” election cycle. Once we started talking to our actor (Michael Gull, a very talented dude whose skills we tailored the very conception of the film to), we knew we had some dynamite shit on our hands, and as far as we were chomping to push the envelope into radioactive territory, we knew none of our contacts or fans in Hollywood would take a risk on this thing until it was made and we proved our point.

So we found a micro-investor to help us make a teaser for the film and launched a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo. We need all the help we can get, time is running out, and though we have recent some offline help from friends and family who couldn’t back us through the campaign, it’s pretty dire! We’re going to make the movie come hell or high water, but every penny helps push production value (plus pay and feed cast and crew) and you can preorder a copy of the flick for $25. So—please, lend us a hand in making this batshit, gonzo little monster of a movie!

Your writing style is very vivid and descriptive. Did that come naturally or was it something that took time to develop?

Both. It takes a long, long time for some people to hone their voice and honestly, it should be an ongoing process and evolution for your entire writing life. But you have to have a voice to be honed in the first place. A lot of writers are sadly like those poor souls on American Idol who have no business auditioning in the first place—but hey, who are we to deny the delusional their dreams? Whatever keeps them from shooting up a shopping mall. ;)

Have you always worked together? Is one of you the specialist in a certain area, like one does more writing and the other handles directing, or do you split it evenly?

We’ve sort of always worked together, for the most part. Though we each have our own skills we complement the other with, we do tend to each spearhead a project nowadays while the other acts as more editor and muse. So yeah, we each have our own pet solo projects, but they all fall under the Thornton Brothers umbrella eventually.

Do you only work on your own scripts, or have you done some assignment work as well? Do you have a preference?

We’ve done both, for sure. Hard to sustain a career, or even kickstart one, without doing assignment work. The nice thing about it is people actually give you money to commence writing something! It’s crazy. Not at all easy to do, trying to feed yourself or help provide for others in the arts. Some might even call it foolhardy, but yeah…we’ve done both. Selling something you wrote yourself, from your own mind and heart, is infinitely more satisfying. And while we’ve had some very fun, interesting experiences collaborating in a development sense with assignment work or on successful pitches that became scripts (if not movies), no matter how smooth or inspired a collaboration with an outside party it’s never quite as liberating or just straight up fun as going out into the creative wild on our own and coming back with a kill.

You’re also filmmakers as well as writers. What do you consider the benefits of working on a film, from both the writer and filmmaker perspective?

Making or even merely being witness to the construction of an actual film is pretty invaluable for screenwriters, in our collective opinion. You really start to see how to separate the meat from the fat, and how what works on the page might not be as impactful in the moment or on the screen. Editing film/video also really helps hone your sense of timing, pacing, and flow as a storyteller… and how effective and economical you can be with visuals, allowing characters to shut the fuck up sometimes, how to convey info without big, clunky dialogue exposition bombs, etc.

Also, if you can we say go for the hyphenate… again, no screenwriter is ever going to have the kind of clout a successful director has. That said, many don’t have the temperament or skillset required (not that there’s one narrow band of disposition that allows one to direct), but writers often have murkier personalities. It’s worth making a film or two to find out if you’re a writer-director or filmmaker versus just a writer is not a bad idea. But if you know off the bat you don’t get along with others, have trouble verbally conveying what you mean to say, then save yourself the grief. Take our word for it: directing even modest, “micro” films ain’t for the faint of heart. Also, keep in mind that some stories demand to be told in this medium. Others don’t. Some work better in prose, or even in poem of song. Marrying the right medium to the story is also part of the trick.

When working on a script, do you have a reliable source for notes?

We are our own most reliable source of notes. It helps that there’s two of us but honestly we’ve both tried to become total fucking samurais when it comes to self-editing. You have to be. It’s not only a matter of putting your best foot forward when you go to show your work to reps or the public, but even if you were going to Emily Dickinson that shit away in a kitchen drawer until it’s discovered posthumously years later—your story deserves to be the closest to “perfection” it can be (which is objectively unattainable, but approximated through the filter that is you. It is YOUR story, after all). Oh, and our manager is usually good for one killer note.

What are the 3 most important rules a writer should know?

Ew! “Rules!” Haha, in all seriousness though maybe Rule #1 should be: There Are No Rules. There’s no one way to get noticed, to have a career — and anyone who tells you there is is probably trying to sell you something. But if you want some real nuts and bolts:

1. Always approach storytelling with Character at the forefront.

Even if you outline a predetermined plot to get started with a map, veer off of it when you find it incongruent with a character you’re rendering. If there is falsity or fallacy baked into the behavior of your characters, no matter how tightly constructed your narrative, it will start to crumble.

2. Be careful with twists and “reveals.”

We see it all the time, from the stuff we watch and read (and have written in the past) to many of the scripts we’ve consulted on. It’s a natural storytelling tendency, to want to surprise an audience, but only do it with REAL PURPOSE. Be careful with the big climactic “backstory reveal that made the character tick all this time.” Very rarely works.

So much more satisfying is a simple story told well. If you do work with twists, make it work like The Sixth Sense. The film works with or without it until the point it hits, and it is truly revelatory. It’s not that M. Night held something back to show how clever he was. Don’t do that shit. It’s awful. Put your cards on the table and tell your damn story.

3. Don’t be a slave to the idea that a story needs a transformational character arc.

This is something that a Blake Snydered Hollywood succumbs to far too often, in our opinions. First: in film arcs very, very often feel shoehorned or forced in. Especially if not much time passes, or it comes near the end (must overcome his fear to succeed, or must learn to be a team player—blah, these themes have become true platitudes). If you open with a loving mother and wife whose husband and kids are murdered and she becomes a vengeful, murderous black widow from there—sure. Inciting Incident forcing a catastrophic arc that sets a character on a trajectory works. That feels authentic. And in TV, longform character change feels authentic. Some of the most potent stories of all time are great specifically because a character does not arc. Think Shakespearean tragedies, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, etc. Sometimes it’s “the right man for the right job,” and the transformation is supposed to occur in the viewer. That’s where real catharsis lives: in the viewer. Give it to them.

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

Well, there are two of us. Chris likes pumpkin, and Jay will eat anything. Literally, anything. There’s a reason we don’t include headshots.

Thank you for being better than me

fancy pie
Mine don’t look like theirs yet, but give me time…

Via a writing colleague, I recently found myself in the possession of a pair of scripts written by a pair of pros.

“Open one and read a few words and you’ll be in for the rest of the script,” I was told.

And you know what? They weren’t far off.

I only got a few pages in, but found the writing to be extremely vivid and descriptive. No problem at all in painting those mental pictures with a powerful brush.

My only complaint – all that dazzling wordsmithing got a little too distracting, making it slightly tougher to focus on the story. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to reading both scripts.

But I totally got my friend’s point: the writing was exceptionally engaging. It really grabbed you and made you want to keep going.

Compared to it, my writing comes across as kind of dry and might even be considered sort of dull and lackluster. Not to totally disparage my own work, but these writers are professionals. I, as it has already been established, am not.

But reading these scripts and others like them are good reminders of what I and every other writer should be trying to do. You don’t want a stick drawing. You want a finely-crafted elaborate work of art.

Speaking from experience, this isn’t easy. It’s almost like learning a new way of writing. It requires a lot of work, nor will it happen overnight.

But don’t despair. The good news is you can start working on these improvements practically immediately.

Take the last scene you wrote. How does it read to you? Does it compel you to want to know what happens next? Feel free to tinker with it until it gets to that point. Then do the same with the scene after it. And the one after that. And so on, and so on.

Think of it this way – you want the reader to “see” the scene in the same way you imagined it. Therefore, your challenge is to write it so the actions, images and dialogue in it come as close as possible to matching your version AND that no other description would do it justice.

Reading these professional scripts was at first intimidating in a “I’ll never be able to write like that!” kind of way. But with a continuous effort and a lot of work, there’s no reason to think I couldn’t come mighty close.