Q & A with Christine Conradt

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With more than 70 produced credits, screenwriter/producer/director/author Christine Conradt received her Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting from the esteemed University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and then worked briefly in development and as a reader before launching herself as a successful writer. Christine naturally gravitated to crime dramas and thrillers, and eventually went back to grad school to receive a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University.

Christine’s films have aired on Lifetime, LMN, Fox, Showtime, UPtv, Hallmark, and USA.  She is the writer behind some of Lifetime’s most successful franchises including the “at 17” series, which she turned into a three-book series, published by HarperCollins. She has directed four TV movies and is attached to direct two more this year.

Christine also acts as a script consultant. More information about her services, books, and bio can be found at ChristineConradt.com. She frequently posts tips for writers on her Facebook page.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two rescued cats, and in her spare time, loves to travel.

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

Does a documentary count? Probably not, but I’ll mention it anyway because I found it to be very thought-provoking — Three Identical Strangers. It’s about triplets who were separated at birth and later found each other. I haven’t seen a lot of movies this past year because I’ve been so busy but I did think Bird Box was well done for an adaptation. Sometimes adaptations feel stilted, especially those that take place over a long period of time, but Bird Box didn’t feel that way to me. I found myself getting lost in the story which means it was well-written. One of my favorite movies was Vince Gallo’s first film– Buffalo ’66. The story is simple and the characters are really well-drawn. I can watch that movie over and over.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I can honestly say it was what I was born to do. I love writing and telling stories. As soon as I could hold a pen, I was writing short stories. I won my first writing award– the Young Author’s Award– when I was in the third grade. I grew up in the Midwest in the late 80s/early 90s and at that time, there was no film industry there at all. No film schools, nothing. I didn’t know screenwriting existed as a career until I received a brochure from the University of Southern California my junior year of high school and it listed it as a major. If I’ve ever had an epiphany, it was in that moment. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I abandoned my plans to go to law school and applied to USC.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

After graduating with a BFA in Screenwriting from USC, I worked briefly in development but didn’t like it. I was constantly reading and giving notes on other people’s scripts and had to constantly sit with a jealousy that they were doing what I wanted to be doing. I did a rewrite on a USA movie, got fired off that, and didn’t get any more writing work for about four years. During that time, I was working at a YMCA as a lifeguard and fitness instructor and they promoted me to Director. Soon after, they promoted me to Senior Director. I was managing million dollars in budgets and supervising about 45 employees. The hours were long and I stopped writing for the most part.

One day, my Executive Director brought me into her office and told me they wanted to promote me to Executive Director of a branch in the neighboring city. The money they were offering was enticing but because of all the training I’d be sent to, they wanted me to give them a five-year commitment. I went home that night and realized I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living – I was supposed to be a writer. So the next day, I went back and told her that I couldn’t accept the job and I was giving my 30-day notice. I took out a loan to live on for six months and decided to spend every day of that period writing. If I couldn’t make it happen in six months, I’d go back and get another job at the YMCA, but at least I had given it a shot. Fortunately, during that time, I wrote two screenplays. Neither sold but both got me rewrite work, which turned into more rewrite work, and so on and so on.

At the end of the six months, I was on my way, but I wasn’t there yet. So I took a job as an editor for an international publishing company while I continued to intermittently do these rewrites. It was hard to go to script meetings because I had this day job. One day the producer asked me what it would take for me to give up my day job. He was annoyed that I could never come to meetings until 5pm. I told him I needed to make the same amount that the publishing company was paying me and he agreed to give me enough work to cover my lost income. That was the day I started to ‘make a living’ as writer. 

A large percentage of your credits are for TV movies. How much of a difference is there writing for TV (and TV movies) compared to features?

There’s a big difference between TV movies and feature films. First, the content can’t be as edgy as in a feature and it’s much more formulaic. Every network has a brand and when you write for that network, whatever you deliver has to fit within that scope, so in that way, it’s more difficult. You have to be creative and original despite all the limitations. The structure is also different. In TV movies, we use an eight or nine act structure (which basically fits into the traditional three act structure) but has three times as many cliffhangers. You have to end on a tension point before a commercial break to keep the audience from flipping the channel. In a theatrical feature, you have a captive audience so the story can unravel more slowly. Theatrical features also tend to be more high concept than TV movies. A lot of people think that a TV movie is just a movie that airs on television. There’s a lot more to it than that.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Probably the same things that most people do. For me, characters are what define a story. Not plot. The best scripts are emotional, not cerebral. They make us think but more importantly, make us feel. The way to accomplish that is with well-defined characters who have plot goals and thematic goals and who choose to struggle for what they want rather than let life simply happen to them. Those are the characters, and consequently, the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theater or turn off the TV

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

Passive characters. The most annoying thing to hear when I ask a writer what her character wants is “He just wants to keep his life the way it is.” That’s not a goal. A character adverse to change isn’t fascinating. I also see a lot of redundancy in scripts. In a screenplay, real estate is precious. You have to write clearly, economically, and infuse that writing with style without being verbose. Over-explaining in both dialogue and action pulls the reader out of the story.

In addition to your TV work, you’ve also branched out into print with your “at 17” book series. How’d that come about, and how does it compare to writing for a visual medium?

The “at 17” series is a successful franchise on Lifetime Network. It was the brainchild of one of the producers I work with and I’ve been the primary writer behind those movies for about a decade now. In 2014, I pitched him the idea that we should turn those movies into a YA book series and he championed the idea. Neither of us knew much about the publishing industry so he handed it off to me to figure out. I took the script from ‘Missing at 17’ which had already aired and wrote it as a manuscript. I went to the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference and pitched it to an agent there. He read the manuscript and loved it. He ended up partnering with another agent in NYC and they secured a three-book deal with HarperCollins. Harper wanted each book to come out one month apart in the summer and for the last book to align with the premiere of the Lifetime movie with the same title. So in May, June, and July of 2018, ‘Missing at 17,’ ‘Pregnant at 17,’ and ‘Murdered at 17’ were released.

For me, writing prose is much harder than writing a screenplay. Even though I started out writing prose, I hadn’t done it in years. When you’re writing a screenplay, you have to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ That means you can’t write what the characters are thinking or feeling or pondering. In a novel, that’s mostly what you do. So I had to retrain myself to move in and out of the characters’ thoughts instead of just giving them actions and I had to switch from the omniscient perspective of a screenplay to first person. The books follow multiple characters in first person so that was fun to write. Picking up where one character leaves off and continuing the story with a different character. But it was definitely a challenge.

Follow-up – when can we expect to see the publication of Zombie at 17?

Ha! The movie Zombie at 17 premiered on Halloween weekend in 2018 and was a fun take on the “at 17” series. It’s about a girl who, after getting bit by a cat, contracts the zombie virus. As she teams up with an alienated guy in her high school who has an obsession with zombies to figure out how to stop the progression of the disease, she witnesses a semi-confession to a murder by one of her boyfriend’s friends. When her boyfriend refuses to rat out his friend, she involves herself in the investigation while trying to hide her zombie symptoms from the rest of the world. I don’t know if it will ever become a book because it’s a bit off-genre, but I think it would make a great one.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

1. Give your characters goals

2. Create obstacles for your characters. Achieving their goals shouldn’t be easy.

3. Don’t obsess on formatting. Focus on writing a good story. 

4. Read scripts. Lots of scripts. Not just books on how to write screenplays.

5. Subplots (or B-stories) need to have some effect on the A-story. If you can cut out the subplot and nothing changes in the A story, you failed.

6. Don’t judge your characters. Every person feels justified in their actions. Your characters are the same way. To write them, you must believe they’re justified as well, even when they do really bad things.

7. Write every day. Even if it’s only for a half hour. And even if you have writer’s block. Professional writers write every day. Train yourself to do the same and pretty soon, you’ll stop having writer’s block and you’ll be surprised at how easily the writing comes.

What kind of impact or influence has your experience as a writer had on your work as a director or producer?

Some directors come up as cinematographers, some as actors. Coming up as a former writer, I think I pay more attention to how the visuals support the content of the story. I hate stylistic shots for the sake of being stylistic. The best shots are the ones that you don’t even realize are shots– because you’re so wrapped up in the visual storytelling. I think as a writer, I’m good at letting the moments that need to breathe, breathe. Story is always first. There are lots of visual ways to tell a story. As a director, it’s your job to choose the best one.

You’ve also spoken at a lot of conference and workshops about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

One thing I mention at every conference is not to compare your journey as a writer to anyone else’s. Everyone always wants to know how professional writers broke into the industry, yet they can’t emulate it even if they know. It’s not like becoming a doctor where you go to med school and do your residency and become a doctor. There are infinite ways to become successful as a writer. And it depends on your goal. If your goal is to simply make a living writing, you’ll make different choices than if your goal is to sell a TV pilot and become a showrunner. Be laser-focused on your goal, but also be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities even if you aren’t sure how they’re going to get you there. Sometimes those opportunities turn out to be much better than anything you had planned.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

People can contact me directly through the contact page at christineconradt.com. I’m available to speak and give workshops, and I offer screenplay consulting services as well which are outlined on my website. They can also follow me on Twitter at @CConradt or like my page on Facebook.  I post a lot of contests and other opportunities and tips for screenwriters on my FB page.

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

It’s a dead heat between blueberry and sour cream raisin.

blueberry pie

sour cream raisin pie

Ask an Up-through-the-ranks Script Consultant!

Bill Pace

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 William Pace of scripteach.com.

*Editor’s note – April 2016: Bill is currently teaching at Seton Hall University, so has temporarily put his consulting services on hold. He plans to resume consulting in the summer. Contact him at his website for details.

William Pace received a Masters of Fine Arts in Film Production from New York University’s acclaimed Graduate Film & TV program where he wrote and directed “Echo Canyon,” an award-winning short film that was televised nationally on the USA Network.

His script CHARMING BILLY was a finalist for the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Screenwriting Lab. William also directed the award-winning feature film of the script, which premiered at the AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival, whereupon a lead VARIETY review proclaimed his “notable cinematic and storytelling craft.” CHARMING BILLY was then distributed by a division of Miramax and broadcast on the Independent Film Channel.

William teaches filmmaking and screenwriting at The New School in New York City, where he serves as its Screenwriting Certificate Director. He is also a screenplay consultant who’s worked with such authors as Douglas Blackmon in adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, and many others whose scripts have gone on to success, from making the influential Black List, winning competitions at Slamdance, obtaining mangers & agents and being produced & distributed.

Currently he’s Creative Consultant & Associate Producer for the independent feature film HARROW, which is now in post-production.

And — believe it or not — he’s actually listed in Warren Allen Smith‘s book CELEBRITIES IN HELL.

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

There are a lot of good movies that are out right now, but I’m going to go to left field and say THE GOOD WIFE.

It’s TV, and not even one of the “hot” shows that’s popular to tout, but this is a damn well-written show with rich characters who the writers aren’t afraid to have do the wrong thing, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. The journey Julianna Margulies’s character has gone on is almost as transformative as Walter White’s in BREAKING BAD. Different arena, different stakes, but almost every bit as cynical and sometimes almost as dark.

That’s what leaps out at me first thing, but to include a film…

BIRDMAN. But it’s really hard to separate the filming of that movie from its script, as they are seamlessly enmeshed and were designed that way from the start – even though it’s supposed to look like there are no cuts in the film, the editors were actually brought in before shooting begin to help design where the cuts could most effectively be digitally “erased”. That kind of “writing” and planning, along with the audaciousness of the film’s story & thematic concepts, really spoke to me as something on a higher level.

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

When I was a film student at NYU’s Grad program (during the — cough-cough — Paleolithic period), the only scripts around to read were hardcopies, and you had to either know someone in the business to get a hold of one or buy one of the badly Xeroxed copies from the guy in Union Square selling them from his folding card table. It wasn’t until I started teaching and the internet came into wide existence that I began to really read a lot of scripts. Once I could download them, I started devouring them. I especially loved reading early drafts of produced scripts because you could see more of the process that went into crafting the final film by noticing what had changed from its initial drafts. I mean, how else would you know that the scene in INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (ugh) where Indy seals himself in a refrigerator to escape a nuclear blast was originally the concept for how Marty McFly traveled in time!?

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

Absolutely it can be taught. And teaching how to recognize good writing is a hell of a lot easier than teaching how to write “good”.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Oh man… how many pages can I go on here? Okay, I’ll try to be a good screenwriter and shorten it into a condensed version: As much as we teachers and analysts can go on about strong characters, good technique, use of genre, theme, etc. – and they are really, really important — I think that if you have a bad story idea, the rest doesn’t matter.

Not one… little… bit.

Now, what makes a good story? For that I would need lots of writing room to expound upon, but for now let me say that I’ve become a big believer in the logline, the one sentence “pitch” for your script – if you can’t create a compelling logline about your script’s story idea, then nothing else is really going to matter. If you can’t, people might read the script and you say, “Oh, I really like the protagonist,” or its imagery or nuance or its tone/mood/feel, blah-blah-blah…” But they won’t spend money and buy it if the story isn’t there.

I’m not saying you have to write what used to be call high-concept scripts – even if you’re writing a kitchen sink kind of realistic drama, the story should still have sufficient and clear conflict and stakes and that can create an interesting logline.

Once you have the story, then everything has to be in the right balance and proportion and wrap up with a resonating theme to be a really good script. But start with a compelling good story and we can work on all of the rest.

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

• The “I’ve seen other movies get away with this kind of crap so I can too” kind of approach. To stand out in a highly competitive field, your script needs to be better than what you see in the movies. It needs to be fresh and cliché-free.

• Protagonists who are not active, whose goals and actions do not make the story happen. Instead, the story happens to them, not because of them, which significantly lowers our interest in both them and what happens to them.

• “It’s just a script, so the writing don’t have to be good.” Just because it’s going to be a movie does not free you from the work of knowing your writing craft and presenting a grammatically correct and enticing read.

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

Hmmm… can I put superhero stories here? Growing up I loved comic books and I still enjoy a great superhero movie now and then, but really, do we need the entire Marvel universe brought to life and each one getting its own movie? And zombies. Getting tired of them. Love THE WALKING DEAD to death (although it constantly breaks my heart) and I thought that both ZOMBIELAND and WARM BODIES were fun takes on the genre, but enough now. Let TWD ride it for as long as that show works, but that should be it. But those are genres more than tropes. When I think of tropes, I think of clichés, and any screenwriter using a tired old cliché is just shooting themself in the foot. If you feel you simply can’t avoid one, then you have to put a fresh, unique spin on it. SCREAM still stands as one of the best scripts ever to take clichés and use them while at the same time standing them on their head. Great, smart writing.

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

Instead of rules, I’ll state qualities: Passion, Dedication & Persistence.

You need all three or you can forget it. If you’re in screenwriting just so you can “cash in on all that big money,” you’re doomed for the start. Most writers never see anything happen with their first half-dozen — and often even more — screenplays. If you can’t look at that fact and honestly say, “I can deal with that,” then you will fail. It takes time to get better at your craft, develop your writing voice and find avenues to get your work seen and appreciated.

“What about talent?,” you ask. Yes, that is required, but too many writers value talent above the three qualities I stated because they want to believe that if they have true talent they’ll write something so great they can skip all the hard work it takes to succeed. If you think that, then you might as well play the PowerBall — your odds might even be better.

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

I’ve read a couple, but the one I’m happiest about was JUG FACE, written by Chad Kinkle, an alumnus of The New School (where I teach). Before JUG FACE, Chad had written several very good, interesting and highly intriguing scripts, but with this one everything just came together in that special way that makes the story, characters and words leap off the page. And it wasn’t just me that that thought so, as he not only won the Grand Prize at Slamdance’s Screenwriting Contest, he was able to parlay that into getting the film produced with him directing it. It came out in 2013 and was named by many critics as one of the best indie horror films of the year.

Now, the logline – but first, you have to understand that it is a horror film and a particularly disturbing one at that… which should be quickly evident: “A young woman, pregnant with her brother’s child, fights to not be sacrificed by her clan to the entity they worship lurking within in a backwoods pit.” Yeah… I warned you. But despite such a potentially off-putting premise, the writing was so strong that it won several awards and got made.

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

Absolutely worth it, as Chad’s story directly above should make abundantly clear. And even if you don’t win the grand prize and get to make your film, if you place well in a contest you get to use that as a calling card to help bring attention to your work. Another student of mine made the Black List and had her script sold, moved to LA, now has an agent and a manager, and is working in the industry.

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

Either directly via email at bill@scripteach.com or at my website: www.scripteach.com

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

My lifetime favorite is pumpkin pie. I don’t care what time of year it is – it can be stifling hot in the dead of summer, and I will still want a slice of pumpkin pie. The vanilla bean ice cream melting on top will help deal with the heat. And to be even more specific, I have to admit that both my wife and I have developed an incredible love for Whole Foods’ pumpkin pies. There’s something about the combo of spices and the “heft” of their pie’s consistency that I have not found anywhere else. I know it is probably heretical to proclaim a love for a store-made pie, but forbidden loves are often the strongest.

Put ’em through the wringer

Work on your script AND a load of laundry at the same time!
Work on your script AND a load of laundry at the same time!

As work on the pulpy adventure spec plods forward, one of the key components of a solid script is constantly reminding me to use it to its fullest potential.

Conflict.  Without it, you won’t have much of a story.

While each scene should be advancing the plot, theme and character development, there also needs to be some kind of conflict.

You know that analogy about structure that involves your character getting stuck up a tree and having rocks hurled at them? Being stuck and the rocks would be the conflict.

(I can just imagine the studio note – “I love it! But does it have to be rocks? And how about a bush instead of a tree?” But I digress.)

Characters need to keep encountering obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goal.  Your job is to make those obstacles tough for them.

Here’s where things get interesting and how to make your script stand out from the rest – those obstacles can be in the form of just about anything.

Conflict doesn’t mean there should be a major argument or a slam-bang, knockdown punch-fest; more like the confluence of two opposing ideals with some degree of intensity.

Say you’ve got a character who absolutely needs to be somewhere at a certain time. It’s up to you to think of different ways to make their journey anything but easy. Lost keys, flat tire, car won’t start, traffic jam, and so on.

As the story progresses, so should the levels of conflict. Start off on a small scale, and then build so things just keeping getting worse. This can also be combined with raising the stakes so the reader/audience can’t help but wonder “How are they going to get out of this one?”

Something else to consider: try to make the conflict organic. Don’t have something happen because the story needs it to; make it feel like it belongs. Going back to the earlier example of the character trying to get somewhere – it makes more sense they would get pulled over for speeding, rather than, say, abducted by aliens or attacked by zombies (unless that’s part of the story).

Simply put, you have to put your characters through hell before they can get what they’ve been trying to get the whole time. If you’ve done a good job in making us want to root for them, the more we’re going to want to see them succeed.

Leaps and bounds!

Up, up and away…

Honestly, I didn’t expect to be the rewrite to be this far along, but that’s how it’s working out.

Utilizing elements of the previous draft, the revamped outline and the occasional sudden inspiration, I’ve been copying, pasting and making fixes left and right.

Pretty significant – changes in Act One extended it another 6-7 pages, which turned out not to be the problem I thought it might. This combined with changes in the first half of Act Two have kept things on track, so now I’m around 4 pages ahead. Still not a problem.

Even more significant – I’ve been able to insert important story elements in appropriate places, except for one. Still working on that, but not worried about it.

Basically, the whole process has been extremely energizing. And I’m loving it.

-Had a nice chat with the guy whose script I provided notes for a few weeks ago. He’s already made two films on his own, and this is his third. Despite his eagerness to start filming, I did my best to emphasize the importance of making sure the script is rock-solid and bulletproof first, including recommending a 2-week break from the script, followed by a page one cold rewrite.

After I gave my two cents about other topics like incorporating theme, conflict, character development and so on, the poor guy seemed stunned. Almost as if I’d scared him into submission. But he said he’d take everything I said into consideration – but he had to get going because he was headed out to scout locations.

Can’t say I didn’t try.

-Movie of the Moment – THE WALKING DEAD, Season Two. I’d watched Season One on DVD about a year ago, and thought it was fantastic.  I never got around to catching Season Two when it actually aired on TV.  Now Season Three has started up, but we’re phasing out Comcast (Roku or Apple TV? Your thoughts please) and I’m using Hulu and Netflix Streaming when I can.

Hence Season Two.

One of the many things I really appreciate about the show in general is the suspense factor. Sometimes it’s low, and sometimes it’s through the roof, but it’s always gripping and definitely leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next.  And the occasional plot twist out of nowhere doesn’t hurt either.

Throw in 3-dimensional characters, believable situations (despite the whole zombie apocalypse aspect), and just plain great writing, and it’s easy to see why this has been so successful. Very eager to keep going.

-Totally forgot to mention – took V to APE this past weekend. Met a lot of great self-published comic creators. Hoping to write about it  later this week, including links to some extremely talented folks.

That’s almost that

Except for a few tweaks and added-in details, I think the latest outline is done. Still not entirely sure the last few scenes are a little rushed, but for the most part, I like what I’ve got.

Looking at all that text makes me wonder if I tightened this thing up that much, if at all.  But my initial overall feeling is it’s better than it was before.

I’ve also been wondering about some of the set-up scenes; are they good enough?  Do they explain enough? Will the reader be able to follow along?  I’ve been guilty of writing with information the reader may not have, so I’ll have to be careful about that.

Because I think it may be time to move on to the next level:

Pages. Which I’m pretty excited about.

My s.o.p. in the past has been at least 3 pages a day. Seems doable.

Ideal situation – done by the end of August/Labor Day. Again, seems doable.

Into the abyss.

Movie of the Moment  – K and I watched FIDO, a much better-than-expected zombie flick from about 5 years ago. Imagine WWII was against zombies, and they lost. Now the living dead are outfitted with collars inhibiting their flesh-eating tendencies, so now they function in society as a kind of subservient, manual labor.

This particular story is about a loser kid who at first treats the family’s new zombie as a pet (hence the title), but soon kind of sees him as a sort of surrogate father.

Set in a well-presented 50’s setting, the film takes the subject seriously but adds equal amounts of camp.  Not as gory as you would think, but an interesting take on a subject near and dear to K’s heart.

Added bonus – comedian Billy Connolly in the title role.  He never says a word, apart from the standard grunts and growls, so his acting is all expression. Very impressive.

-I started watching EATING RAOUL, which I remember Siskel & Ebert reviewing way back when on Sneak Previews, which aired on WHYY in Philadelphia.

I knew Paul Bartel co-wrote and directed, but had only seen clips, and even those were a long time ago.

Even though I’m about halfway through, everything so far has been freakin’ hilarious. Extremely dated, especially with the whole swingers lifestyle subplot, but just a smart little comedy that still generates laughs.  Can’t wait to finish it.

-Still don’t know if I’ll get to X-MEN or SUPER 8 in theatres. I’ll try, but looks like they may be sentenced to Netflix while HARRY POTTER and CAPTAIN AMERICA get closer.

Benefit of working ridiculously early hours – catching the first show of the day at the local AMC theatres. ticket price – $6! Makes my bought-at-Walgreens-and-smuggled-in M&Ms taste that much better.