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

Ask a True Renaissance Script Consultant!*

Julie Gray

*Renaissance as in “those possessing many talents or areas of knowledge”, not the cultural and intellectual movement between the 14th and 17th centuries.

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 Julie Gray. I had the good fortune to interview Julie a few years ago just before she relocated to the other side of the planet.

Bonus question: So much has changed for you since I saw you last – you moved abroad and now live in Tel Aviv, Israel. What’s that been like, and what are you up to?

After ten years in Hollywood, it was time for a change. Tel Aviv is an incredibly vibrant city and there is SO much going on in the art scene here, it’s really exciting.

I work with screenwriters and novelists from New York, LA, the UK and Australia and increasingly, filmmakers here. I just interviewed the writer/directors of the Israeli film Big Bad Wolves, which Quentin Tarantino called the best film of 2013. The interview will be in Script Magazine this fall. I go to London every year and teach at the London Screenwriter’s Festival, which is really fun, and I have been volunteering with Amnesty International in Tel Aviv, working with Sudanese refugees on story telling. I founded the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon in 2013, a group that meets weekly and writes flash fiction. During the war this past summer, I was asked to do a writing workshop for US embassy employees, to write about the trauma of what we all went through and will be doing writing workshops for victims of terror and war here in Israel for an Israeli non-profit later this fall. So I keep pretty busy!

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

I read an hour-long drama pilot by a client of mine and I just went insane, it was SO clever and unique. I can’t talk about the premise because it’s so unique and because I got so excited about it that I sent it to several producer friends of mine in Hollywood and the writer has a bunch of meetings coming up! I was so glad to help him and so impressed by his talent!

This summer, I watched a lot of movies but two really stood out – The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I also watched McConaughey in True Detective; he’s really hitting his stride at this point in his life; it’s a joy to watch him. I’ve been a Wes Anderson fan since day one and so GBH just had me floored. Every single shot, every single moment is so stylized. It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite books, The Hotel New Hampshire.

I went on a real reading bender in the past few months and read A Confederacy of Dunces, All Quiet on the Western Front, Things Fall Apart and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I’d seen the film but the book was better (as is so often said – Wow.) I am also an inveterate reader of The New Yorker and The Atlantic – a real addict of both.

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

I was writing scripts, of course, and attending the Writer’s Boot Camp in Santa Monica – I’d won the 2 year professional program through a screenwriting competition and there, at that program I heard about these “readers” and that you could become one. So I did. I was, as it turned out, really good at it and it wasn’t long before I was reading for some really big deal production companies in LA – Bedford Falls, Red Wagon at Sony, Walden Media – it was a great experience! I met a lot of great producers and agents and read scripts all day every day for a long time. It helped sharpen my own sense of what is original – or not – and what really good writing looks like. That kind of repetition ingrains a lot in you about which scripts have a chance in Hollywood and which do not. Lessons I will never forget.

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

I don’t believe I’ve heard that question before! Well, the answer is complex. In order to recognize good writing, you have to READ good writing a lot. I was a freakishly good reader because I am a freakishly well-read person in the first place – and also a movie nut – so my frame of reference is pretty refined. But the question, for a Hollywood reader, is not whether YOU think it’s good writing, the question is whether the producer or agent will think so. And primarily, whether the script is unique and marketable. You learn what is expected in a rather mathematical way, and you rate those things, one by one. Being a good reader is about knowing what the particular company you are working for is looking for, specifically, what the general rules are in coverage, and then how to write up a great summary about what is good or bad in a script. And doing that very, very quickly, over and over again.

Being a good reader happens through experience. Much more of the skill lies in the ability of the reader to communicate as thoroughly and as objectively as possible what is and is not working. You might read a script of a genre you hate – it doesn’t matter what you like, it matters whether this script is written well for that genre. So – you have to know that genre. That’s why, to be a reader, you really have to know your movies, otherwise you’ll say something is unique and original when it was already done in 1947, and then another take on that premise was done again in 1976. If you don’t know that you will get fired very, very quickly. It’s a bit merciless. Readers really have their feet to the fire. It’s the belly of the beast.

But to answer your question, which is really, “what is good writing” – a good screenwriter is one who takes you on such a ride that you forget you are turning the pages. Every character seems real, every action line is cinematic, every plot twist is totally organic – it’s having a way with words that seems effortless. Can this be taught? I think that writers can be taught how to write but that GREAT writers are born that way, to be honest with you.

4. What are the components of a good script?

GREAT CHARACTERS, GREAT CHARACTERS, GREAT CHARACTERS. Oh – and a unique premise. If you have great characters and a unique premise, your structure will fall into place. You have to understand structure, but it won’t work unless the character arc really flows with the structure – informs it. Structure should not be obvious, it should just feel right.

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

Unoriginal ideas. Writers who don’t test their ideas and look and compare and see who else has done this idea – if anyone. In my book, Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, I go into great detail about idea testing. It’s crucial. It’s everything. Other common mistakes are things like typos, poor format, clunky action and sluglines. But if I had to point out THE worst mistake you could make and the most common one – being unoriginal wins by a landslide.

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

1) Any deus ex machina – something that just magically happens and changes the direction of the story. This is very easy for new writers to do but as you get more experienced, you’ll see why this is a big no-no, not only from a Hollywood perspective, but from a creative perspective as well. Creatively, it’s cheating, It’s taking the easy way out instead of letting the possibilities of the story play themselves out.

2) The person who’s had a big accident or someone they love died and now they are this tragic figure that nobody can reach. Oh man. I’m so tired of that one. It’s not that grief doesn’t have a huge impact – I know – I’ve experienced it – but writers often broach grief like it’s a kind of slam dunk, simple emotion – and it’s really not. Watch Ordinary People if you want to explore grief.

3) In a horror script, the character that goes to the door or UP INTO the attic when they hear a strange sound. They go TO the danger – it’s laughable. Scream really sent that up well – what a seminal film. But writers have to remember that we readers have seen and read every script, so surprise us. Not easy, you say? No. It’s not. If it were easy…

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. Don’t write for the money – you’ll never write from the heart.

2. Watch movies – all kinds – all the time. Know your Hollywood history, understand genres and which movies were seminal and why.

3. Don’t be afraid to write badly! Writing is writing, but real writing is REWRITING.

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

A very few times. Most recently, the client I referred to at the beginning of this interview. Unfortunately I cannot divulge the logline, but it was a mixture of a VERY popular cable show and a Bradley Cooper drama. I’m sorry I can’t share it. I read an unproduced film by the amazing writer Ben Queen, called Slanted and Enchanted and I lost it – I flipped out, it was so good. Ben and I became friends. American Beauty made me cry really hard – but it was already in production. Lucky for me, my best friend was the property master of the film so I got to visit the set and later on, Alan Ball and I had offices near each other while he was doing True Blood and I got to hang out with him and it was amazing.

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

I ran a screenwriting competition for six years so naturally I think there is worth in them. But the biggest worth is not so much the cash prizes, etc. but the validation you receive. Sometimes just quarter-finaling in a competition is enough of a good feeling to keep you going, and that can be so important in this pursuit! That said, look, be realistic and know that there are millions of competitions mushrooming all over the place and that you have a budget as a writer. So enter only a few every year – the biggies only – and then spend your money seeing movies, buying a how-to book or two, maybe go to a seminar to meet other writers. The ONLY thing that really matters is your writing, so make sure not to get sucked into lottery-like thinking, that if you buy SIX books on screenwriting or go to EVERY screenwriting event, or enter EVERY competition, that somehow this will magically do something for you. Ass in chair. That’s it. But entering a select handful each year can be fun, it can force you to meet deadlines, and it might get you the validation that you need in order to keep writing. The competitions that I consider really worth entering are: Final Draft Big Break, Blue Cat, Page International, the Nicholl (although it is VERY competitive, so know that…), Slamdance and Scriptapalooza. I may have overlooked some, but those are competitions I am very familiar with and know the people who organize them, so I can recommend them heartily.

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

They can go to my website at juliegray.info or email me at storieswb@gmail.com.

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

Coconut Cream – preferably at the House of Pies on Vermont in Silverlake. So many memories there.

Damn you, Seth MacFarlane

Let us sincerely hope the sun has not set just yet
Let us sincerely hope the sun has not set just yet

If ever there was a need for a man in a white hat to ride in and save the day, now would be a good time.

First THE LONE RANGER is the mega-bomb of 2013, followed by the much-heralded crash and burn this weekend of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST.

Mea culpa – I’ve not seen MILLION, and based on what I’ve read, have no real desire to do so. It doesn’t bode well when a lot of the reviews generate more laughs than the trailer.

The western just can’t catch a break. Every once in a while you get something incredible like TRUE GRIT, 3:10 TO YUMA or DJANGO UNCHAINED. Jeez, even RANGO had a little redeeming value. Films like these come along and hope grows in our hearts, but then we get dreck like JONAH HEX or COWBOYS & ALIENS, and back to movie jail goes the western.

I had no real hopes for Mr. MacFarlane’s latest, but at least he was attempting to do some kind of western. Granted, it was trying to be this generation’s BLAZING SADDLES, but apparently failing miserably.

This goes beyond another nail in the coffin. At this point the coffin’s already in the ground with a few shovelfuls of dirt on it.

As a writer offering up a totally kickass western spec, my hopes for success seem to diminish just a little bit more with this kind of news.

I can imagine every potential recipient recoiling in fear. “A western? Eek!” followed by the frantic pressing of the ‘delete’ key.

Contacting a friend repped at a high-profile agency, I asked if anybody there might be open to reading it.

“I wrote a western, and they won’t sell it,” was the reply. “They don’t believe there’s a market for them after THE LONE RANGER.”

Well, sure. Because every western is going to be an overpriced, convoluted bloated crapfest.  It doesn’t help that a lot of them actually have been exactly that.

Why have so many recent westerns been bombs? Wish I knew.

Skimming the credits of some of the great westerns of the past shows that the people who made them had a real understanding and appreciation of the genre – John Ford, Howard Hawks, Clint Eastwood, just to name a few. And it shows in the finished product.

Hopefully somebody else will give it another go in the near future, sooner rather than later, and know how to do it right.

Did I mention I’ve got a totally kickass spec?

What’s wrong with PG-13?

One of the two movies which resulted in the creation of this rating
One of the two movies which resulted in the creation of this rating

In recent discussions with other writers, I’d be asked what I was currently working on. I’d mention the western and mystery specs, and give a thumbnail description for each.

Among the responses I’ve come to expect is usually the follow-up question:  “Who’s your target audience for that?”

Everybody.

While what I write would probably be too much for very small children, there’s no reason it couldn’t be enjoyed by anyone between 8 and 108, as the saying goes.

In addition to all the usual criteria, I want to make sure the story is interesting enough so it would appeal to a wide spectrum of viewers, as well as keeping the content dead-center on that fine line between “not enough” and “too much.”

One writer sent back his notes on the western. He had some very good comments, but some of them seemed to be through a DJANGO UNCHAINED filter (which he also admitted being influenced by). It was suggested I go for a more intense level of violence in some scenes.

Which would be fine if I were writing something that was a hard ‘R’, but this isn’t.

I’m just more of the family-friendly sort, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that kind of material. (FROZEN has earned $350.7 million so far. Not too shabby, with the sing-along version ready to be unleashed.)

Although I want my stories to be fun and exciting, it’s also important to me they respect the audience’s intelligence, no matter what age they are, while also being fairly easy to follow.

I appreciate it when a movie does that, and hope to keep the practice going.

Deliberately avoiding a QT comparison

Mine is nothing like this
Something to admire, but not duplicate

When I was working on that student short a few years ago, the director was concerned the way a scene was playing out was too similar to how things worked in INCEPTION, and that people would think he was ripping it off.

I assured him it wasn’t on both fronts. It may share some similar aspects, but it was totally different.

Jump ahead to now, or at least last week. I finally got around to watching DJANGO UNCHAINED. It was great and a lot of fun. I loved it, especially the writing.

(Side note: Christoph Waltz fully deserved Best Supporting Actor, and I found King Schultz to be a much more interesting character than Django.)

So as I continue work on my western spec, I can’t help but think “But this isn’t how Tarantino did it.  Would somebody hold that against me?”

I’m inclined to think “probably not”, which is actually a good thing, and may even work in my favor.

He writes in a certain way, which is totally different from mine.  Nobody’s going to read my script and say “not grindhouse enough”.

Our two stories may share some similar elements, and that’s where the comparison ends.  It’s a western, so there are going to be the unavoidable elements (horses, shootouts, etc.), but that comes with the territory.  My challenge is to put my own spin on them.

Same rules apply to UNFORGIVEN, the vastly-underrated OPEN RANGE and the forthcoming LONE RANGER (which in theory may be the closest to my story in terms of rip-roaring, dime novel-type adventure).

This script is my opportunity to work in a genre I love, tell a story I’m excited about and create its world the way I want to.  The whole time, I’m striving to be as original as I can, and present stuff that hopefully hasn’t been seen before.

There are countless ways to tell a story, and there’s no reason mine can’t be one of them.