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 Million-Dollar* Script Consultant!

chris soth

*this number represents the estimated value of Mr. Soth’s advice, rather than the actual cost.

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 writer-producer-script advisor Chris Soth of ScreenplayMentor.com.

Writer/Director-Producer Chris Soth has authored over 40 screenplays and is a frequent speaker on the topics of story structure and independent filmmaking, teaching screenwriters around the world how to write great screenplays AND pitch them for success. Chris is the writer of Firestorm, released by 20th Century Fox, and the independent hit Outrage: Born in Terror. He is currently developing a slate of independent films, the first of which, Don’t Fall Asleep, has just received distribution. His directorial debut SafeWord is presently in post-production. Chris has taught at USC and UCLA, and currently guides screenwriters from concept to FADE OUT using the “Mini-Movie Method” in his mentorship program at ScreenplayMentor.com. His ebook “Million-Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini-Movie Method” and DVD “SOLD! How I Set Up Three Pitches in Hollywood,” among other great screenwriting resources, are available at ScreenplayMentor.com.

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

Sustaining a story for an hour or more with brilliant writing at every turn is so difficult I find myself attracted to the short form, even w/my own writing these days. That, said, we ARE in a Golden Age of Television now, with some creators getting to not only decide a story that will take five or more years to tell and lay it out beforehand — occasionally with guarantees that all the episodes will air — and not only control a very complex and novelistic story, BUT also control the rate at which it’s consumed. No artist has ever had that before, even novelists…Tolstoy could be sure reading War and Peace would take you while, but not throttle your reading speed to piecemeal over 5-8 years, the way Weiner or Gilligan have. I really appreciated how all the Mad Men were…going mad. How all of them were continually pitching a product, themselves, and none more than Dick Whitman, whose greatest pitch was Don Draper…and living in that gap between the presentation of your self and the reality, or worse, what you FEAR you are…is the madness. I think if you’re in show business, you get that. So, as I said above, hard to sustain for an hour, let alone all those years, but some amazing brilliance every single episode.

Here’s one favorite in the episode from the penultimate (full) season, where all of Sterling Cooper’s taken acid and a Hippie Flower Child puts a stethoscope to Don’s chest to listen to his heart.

HIPPIE FLOWER CHILD
Let me listen to your heart…(re: stethoscope)…it’s broken.

DON
(re: his heart) You can HEAR that…?

How long has that double entendre been staring us in the face, and how GOOD are these writers to keep giving us insight into their brilliant central character even that late in the game? He’s broken-hearted. He hides it. He always will be. A tiny thing, but the last time I remember really thinking “Wow, good writing!”.

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

My first idea was to teach a seminar in my own screenwriting structure technique, “The-Mini-Movie Method”. I did that, and also offer the resulting videos and audio course. I found a real thirst after that for hands-on expert consulting developing screenplays with expert advice on this method. I don’t really do a classic “reading”, or that’s rare anyway. I consult and help writers build scripts, usually from FADE IN. I will work with clients thru my website ScreenplayMentor.com with works-in-progress. My usual procedure, whether starting fresh, or jumping in partway, is to outline a vision for the next draft and mentor and guide it, page by page (Mini-Movie by Mini-Movie) until Fade Out…then I’ll read the resulting, and much stronger, screenplay thereafter. I started my side business after some success as a writer myself, because I really like to work everyday, but like different work and different stories and continually changing ideas. Also, the steady work and income that my consulting provides lets a guy with a daughter in college sleep at night even between studio writing assignments.

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

I absolutely think so. There are certainly rules, best practices, etc. Some so oft-repeated they become cliches: “Show, don’t tell”, etc. But developing an aesthetic for what good writing and what good storytelling is, should be vital to each and every writer. We all want to make THE BEST MOVIE EVER, right? Well, if we have no yardstick for measuring quality, how will we do that?

4. What are the components of a good script?

The list goes on and on. Most important and first: TENSION. A hope and fear for a viewer/read to root for and root against. So I’ll use this as another opportunity to say it: TENSION, specifically TENSION REDUCTION is the source of ALL pleasure we take in drama and in story. A good story will continually build tension, every beat, every scene, every sequence and release that tension in an explosive and gratifying climax…make sure YOURS does. I’ll leave it there.

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

The lack of tension, of course. Unnecessary scenes, which I define above as scenes that don’t build or add to tension. It seems common to the point of epidemic that first acts run 45 pages in early drafts, and writers are often still setting up dominos as they break into the third act…dominoes that should have been set up WELL before, often in act one and should be falling with dramatic cataclysm and knocking over BIGGER dominoes now… A lacking “narrative drive” that makes each story event seem, in retrospect, inevitable, not arbitrary. It seems like many early drafts are written just to fill pages, but there IS a perfect twist for the end, the midpoint, the first act, that is dictated by the concept or idea…

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

References to other movies or TV shows. You have to be very clever and original to do this well, and it fails most of the time, Quentin Tarantino aside, and even HE blows it a lot of the time.

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

-TENSION = Hope versus Fear  (T = H v. F is the E = MC squared of story) After that, I’ve never thought what might come second, let alone third, but I’ll put a few down here.

-Don’t get it write, get it written. The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t.

-Craft character to story and story to character by asking, over and over: Who’s THE WORST person for these events to happen to, and What’s THE WORST thing that could happen to THIS person?

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 do a classic read, nor grade on that studio scale, nor should I probably divulge the scripts of my clients here, but MANY come to mind. I read a screenplay every day my first year at USC and the ones that really stood out are THE PRINCESS BRIDE and FIELD OF DREAMS. Both made me cry more than the movies made from them had, the first because it does actually exceed the movie in the sheer beauty of the writing, I like the movie fine, tho’ I’m not in the cult, but the SCRIPT…oh, that script…the second perhaps more for memories of seeing the movie itself.

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

I never had any luck with them. But I think they’re a real tool for getting your work read and getting exposure these days.

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

Everyone’s welcome to contact me at chrissoth@aol.com, chrissoth@gmail.com or look at ScreenplayMentor.com

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

Easiest question. My mom’s chocolate chess pie. I grew up eating this at Thanksgiving instead of pumpkin pie and had to learn to make it myself when I struck out on my own. I’ll have it all through the holidays and Mom still makes it for us when we come home. I’ve only found one restaurant that serves it, but just developed a lead on another in Los Angeles, so stay tuned…