Q & A with Peter Russell

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Peter Russell is a screenwriter who sold two television pilots in 2018 – a crime procedural and a biographical mini-series. He is also a long-time story doctor in Hollywood whose clients include Imagine, HBO, Participant, Viacom, CBS Television and many more. Peter is in demand for his legendary seminars and master classes on film and TV story. Peter’s charismatic speaking style won him UCLA Teacher of the Year in 2009.

Peter ghostwrites for both new and established film and television writers and producers. He has consulted on many TV shows, including GENIUS (National Geographic series 2017-present) MR. ROBOT (Emmy for Best New Television Drama 2015), Chronicles Of Narnia (Lion, Witch & Wardrobe), The Da Vinci Code (Imagine Films) and many others.

Peter privately collaborates with producers, writers, and actors on film and TV story from treatments to pilots and full story development. He teaches his own classes online at: http://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/, and live at major universities, including UCLA.

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

SNOWFALL. Fantastic writing. The way both the showrunner and the staff-written eps broke the beats in every ep was insanely good. They used every trick in the book to surprise you. The beat almost NEVER went where you thought it was gonna go. Surprises, reversals, ticking clocks, raising stakes – I admire the craftsmanship of that TV writing wonderfully. SNEAKY PETE – the storylines – my god, the storylines! Sometimes 12 in a single episode! And they were wonderful. THE DEUCE – again, with the beats and the storylines! Such amazing juggling. My hats off to them. My tv eps have five storylines max, and even then it’s hard to get those to mesh.

Also just saw McQueen’s WIDOWS. Mystery thrillers are so hard to do. He probably wanted to take a swing at a commercial story. He really hit a home run. It’s such a relief, in a way, to watch a movie these days when you work in TV. The form feels so much simpler. It’s not any easier, but it is simpler. I adore McQueen. If you want to see how I talk about to do what they do, go to my newest TV lecture on creating a great story beat: https://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/course/creating-the-great-tv-beats/

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Script reading. I read scripts for CBS and then for companies like Imagine. I learned so much from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. I read scripts for seven years – waaaay too long for anybody in their right mind – it’s suppose to be a year and then you become a supersuccessful industry DYNAMO! LOL. I loooved it, though – I learned so, so much about story, sooo much about every genre. Brian and Ron taught me that a zeal and excitement for the WORLD you wanted to write about was everything.

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

You can definitely learn how to recognize good writing for sure – just read tons and tons of great scripts. Watch any great story and read along with the script. You can learn it; it just takes a while. Learning how to write? That’s a LOT harder than learning how to recognize great story. It takes a shit-ton more time to do that. I only feel like I’ve done that in the last few years, since I started selling my own stuff. But it took for-fucking-ever! LOL. That’s what you gotta know. And I’m no smarter than anybody – here’s a tip – just watch the movie or tv show 50 times! I’m not kidding. Watch the same show fifty times! You’ll see EVERY device behind the curtain. Don’t take my class, don’t listen to me, never buy a thing from me – just WATCH ONE TV SHOW or one movie FIFTY TIMES.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Scripts are the most amazingly complex devices on the planet — far more so than an algorithm. It’s a bit like asking me to explain differential equations in a sentence. Okay, I’ll try. In a movie, a hero is a wounded person given a chance to heal (or bleed out.) In TV, it’s a wounded hero with a fascinating objective and fascinating obstacles in his way. You want more? Right here: peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Okay, I lied. I DO want you to look at my stuff.

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

Characters who don’t have great core wounds. A great core wound (whether in film or TV) is the basis for 90 percent of how good a story is, especially in the first act. Bleed him (or her, or it). BLEED THEM! Show their pain! Instantly!

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I can’t watch 90 percent of network television, simply because the grooves of most of the genres are worn out for me. I loathe seeing hero-worshipping stories about superhero cops and superhero lawyers and superhero doctors – all the old, straight from radio shows (Blue Bloods, CSI, stuff like that.)

None of those professions are worthy of such praise – in fact those professions contain a higher than average proportion of assholes – probably far higher than most professions, and it makes me gag to see the hagiography. But audiences looove to see the make-believe that these people are gods on earth. It depresses the hell out of me.

I realize network TV is a factory and I honor how hard these folks work and the high level of professional product they turn out on an incredibly tight schedule – but that doesn’t mean the product interests me at all. The TALENT involved – both in front of and behind the camera – is insanely great! The level of competence and extraordinary grace under pressure is heroic. Everybody who works in TV has to have extraordinary abilities, or they don’t get on staff. I mean that. The writers I know personally who work in TV – both in writer’s rooms and out – my god, they are sooo talented! It’s just that I find the product godawful. Dick Wolf is a genius, but his product makes me despair.

I do think dark heroes are popular because most people have realized the world is a lot more like a Russian novel than a comic book. Speaking of which, fantasy superheroes, played straight, especially in the DC story world (which suffers from execs who don’t know what they’re doing), are also monumentally boring to me now. Twist the genre – DEADPOOL is genius, THOR: RAGNAROK, too, and the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – they are FUNNY. My god, that’s the greatest thing on earth to be.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Know your craft.

-Know you’ll never really know your craft and that you’ll write a lot of crap. Write anyway.

-Know that you’ve picked a profession that requires either – a) genius-level talent, or b) an enormous work ethic and persistence far beyond what you’ve imagined and that will take you far longer than you believed possible.

-None of these rules apply to a true genius. They can do anything.

-If you have neither genius nor an enormous work ethic, you will absolutely fail. Writing in Hollywood is a job for people who are as smart, or smarter, than nuclear physicists or mathematicians. It’s far harder than, say, brain surgery. I’ve never met smarter, or more mercilessly competitive people, than people in Hollywood. By the way, most of them are also massively unhealthy. This isn’t a business for well-balanced people, in the main.

-The best way forward is to LEARN how to write.

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

In my entire scriptreading life, the number of scripts I have fully recommended is a grand total of two. That’s not unusual, by the way. 95 percent of scripts you read are not good (and this is from the very best screenwriters in the biz). But the big secret is – you don’t have to be very good. You just have to be better than most people.

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

If they motivate you to write, great. Most screenwriting contests are run by mercenary assholes who are making their money by taking your contest fees. There are a couple of big ‘screenwriting’ websites who do nothing but that – they’ve turned it into a marketing algorithm. That’s okay – if they honor their pact with you and legitimately judge your work and then publicize it if you win or place. Some do, some don’t. Most just want your money. Not saying that’s dishonorable. But it’s true and they’re very, very smart in how they market.

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

Just e-mail me at: russell310@mac.com, or go to peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Mention  this interview, and I’ll give you a ten percent discount.

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

There is nothing better than true key lime pie. Not the type that is mostly white froth. The kind with a dense, green, wonderful pie stuffing, and under that – a buttery, flaky, heart attack-inducing crust.

key lime pie

Just made it tougher for myself (which is a very good thing)

hipster writer
Coffee – check. Notes – check. Fresh typewriter ribbon (took a real effort to find one) – check. Ready to go!

A most interesting development has presented itself for the horror-comedy outline, and you can accurately label me as “immensely grateful”.

Although I’m still working my way through the story, somehow that certain pizzazz that was part of the appeal when I first came up with it had slowly faded away. That’s a problem that needed some immediate fixing or this thing would never work.

I went through what I already had. It’s taken a while just to get to this point in the story, so I’d forgotten about some of it. This made for a nice reminder that I had a lot more material to work with than I remembered.

The basics were there, but what was it that was missing? Since this is at its heart a horror story, some of the standard elements had already been used, but it needed more. Something to really hammer the concept home. My protagonists were already in a pretty dicey situation, and I wanted to up the stakes.

Hence my dilemma.

Have you ever suddenly have a solution just present itself, right out of the blue? One that feels like the light bulb actually popped into existence right there above your head? One that caused the muse to do backflips and handsprings while screaming for joy at the top of her lungs?

Inspiration didn’t just strike; it walloped me upside the head.

This new idea feels like such a perfect match for the story. It creates a ticking clock that really ramps up the stakes to the nth degree, and what might be the best aspect – it gives the whole thing the original approach it so desperately needs.

So now that I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with this, the next step is to go back and reorganize a majority of the outline in order to incorporate it. Pretty daunting at first, but I’m not too concerned. I know exactly what I want to happen. It’ll just require a little more of an effort.

Exactly! -OR- The perfect fit

robot monster
Not as good as a gorilla suit and a retro space helmet, but mighty darned close

The new story has been in development for a few weeks now, and I can proudly say it’s coming along nicely. Plot points are in place, and the filling-in between them continues, albeit slowly. Still quite a ways to go, but any progress is good progress.

The more I work on it, the more excited I am to take this one on. I love the concept, think it’s got a lot of potential, and it just seems like it’ll be a lot of fun to write.

Full disclosure – it’s a horror-comedy, and that’s all I’m saying for now.

Part of my usual writing m.o. is seeking out feedback from other writers. Since the actual story is still under construction, I opted to start with the basics and asked a handful of savvy colleagues their thoughts on the logline.

Reactions were positive. Plus, some keen insight and suggestions as to what might make the story even more unique and original, and how to avoid “stuff we’ve seen in these kinds of stories before”. Those, in turn, triggered a new round of ideas, which then led to unearthing what may prove to be the most important idea of them all:

The thing that gets it all started.

Not the inciting incident, but a certain something that forms the foundation of the story itself – before the actual events of the story get underway. Without this, the story wouldn’t even be able to exist (or at least be a lot tougher to pull off).

It was perfect.

A feeling most satisfactory, to be sure.

But wait. It gets better.

A little more time (plus some invaluable real-life-based research) caused me to discover that not only does this new idea do a rock-solid job of tying the whole story together, but it creates constant, relevant, and increasing conflict for all the characters,  makes for a great ticking clock, and really lets me have fun with the whole concept.

Goosebumps, I tell ya!

As fun as it was to come up with that, the hard work’s just beginning. Second and third acts need a ton of work. Doing whatever I can to avoid cliches and tropes usually associated with this kind of story. And to address the comedic aspect, really trying to make it funny.

Won’t be easy, but as I’ve discovered with my most recent rewrites, might not be as totally insurmountable as expected.

Actually, I bet it’ll be a blast.