Q & A with Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal

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Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal is an independent producer and former development executive with over 15 years of experience on some of Hollywood’s biggest films. He is currently a producer on the upcoming thriller The Kimberlite Process. After graduating with an MFA from UCLA’s Producers Program, Jeff worked in various capacities on numerous productions for Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner including The Last Samurai, Mission Impossible 3, Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Lions for Lambs starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, Ask the Dust starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, Death Race starring Jason Statham, The Eye starring Jessica Alba, Suspect Zero starring Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley and many more.

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a blast. HBO’s Barry is a funny and oddly haunting series. I recently re-watched/re-read Hell or High Water, which is a deceptively simple, sad, and suspenseful story with rich, complicated characters. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House delivered the goods on scares and family dysfunction for me. Issa Rae (“Insecure,”) Jill Soloway (“Transparent,”) Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,”) and Andrea Savage (“I’m Sorry,”) all have unique, exciting, and powerful voices.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I didn’t know anyone in LA when I first moved here but developed a sci-fi project that was quickly optioned by an Academy Award-winning producer (and never made). During that time, I was also accepted into UCLA’s Producers Program where I took Meg Le Fauve’s (“Inside Out” “Captain Marvel”) Development class, which was instrumental to my growth and understanding of cinematic storytelling and how to work effectively with screenwriters. I started cold-calling various companies for internships and was lucky enough to land positions at both Artisan Entertainment and Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures. Back then, Artisan had a deal with Marvel and I was immediately thrown into pitch meetings with various notable writers/directors on properties like Thor, Hulk, The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist, etc. I was also taking pitches at Phoenix – it was an incredible learning experience. I eventually became an assistant briefly to a Hong Kong action director and then used those experiences to land a job with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner once I graduated from UCLA.

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

Though having an eye for quality material can be a natural instinct, it needs to be honed. I ultimately feel that recognizing good writing can be learned and taught.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Generally speaking, a good script maintains a captivating concept, and a flawed but likeable hero with a concrete objective attached to grave stakes (whether intimate or epic). The hero’s emotional flaw is often rectified as a result of him/her achieving their practical goal (he/she should also be active, resourceful, and exhibit a range of change). It’s helpful if the hero’s goal is time-sensitive and somehow socially relevant. Lastly, if the script is a feature, it should adhere to a three-act structure.

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

Too much description, on-the-nose dialogue, flimsy structure, and the lack of a flawed hero with a concrete objective, attached to grave stakes.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not at all opposed to writers using things like “one last job,” “a reluctant hero who can save the world,” “a family in peril,” or “a fish out of water,” etc. The familiar can be very accessible and., if used effectively, can lure a reader into the story. The trick, however, is to infuse that story with other unique and complex qualities so that it unfolds in fresh and unexpected ways. What can make your story different or set it apart? I always urge writers to challenge the reader’s expectations or preconceived notions as to what type of story they’re entering!

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

-Use Final Draft.

-Study the most notable screenwriting books and authors.

-Read every script you can get your hands on whether good, bad, or mediocre.

-Have conviction but be open to ideas – ultimately this is a collaborative industry.

-Don’t be afraid of genre and don’t be afraid to push the boundaries on the tenets of said genre (but know what those tenets are).

-Actively seek feedback and don’t be precious.

-Strive to be both clear and complex in your writing and understand the difference between the two.

-Don’t be a hater – watch all kinds of movies and TV shows, and be mindful of those that are both commercially and critically successful as well as those that aren’t.

-Read the trades to better understand the marketplace.

-Don’t chase trends – write from the heart.

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

“Recommends” are a rare breed. Those that do qualify show a master of the craft, are usually somewhat familiar but also somehow unique, tend to maintain complex characters, rich themes, and have an easily identifiable position in the marketplace (you can visualize the poster, trailer, audience, etc.) That being said, most of the scripts I’ve read, even from the most notable A-list writers in the industry, still needed some further development.

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

I think it can be incredibly important and worthwhile, particularly for young writers, to enter screenwriting contests. However, I would also encourage writers to do some homework on which ones are notable and relevant so as to not waste too much money and time.

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

Go to www.scriptarsenal.com and follow us on FaceBook and Twitter to get updates on upcoming sales and weekly helpful screenwriting tips.

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

Given my mid-section I generally try to stay away from sweets, but a few years ago, I had some homemade pecan pie (numerous pieces actually) for Thanksgiving and it was an absolutely transformative experience…a chemical portal to another dimension that somehow transcended the time-space continuum…okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic but damn, it was good!

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Working my way forward

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The process of writing actual pages for my pulpy sci-fi adventure is fully underway, averaging about 3-4 pages a day, which is just a smidge above average for me. I’m making a real effort to stick to this kind of output, and am hoping to keep it up for the duration.

There’s a lot of setup in the first act, and I was really concerned things would somehow get drastically out of hand and go on for too long , resulting in a script running something like 150 pages, but so far I’ve managed to keep it all in check. It’s all going according to plan. Still feeling confident to be able to keep it in that ideal target range of 110-120 pages.

And this is before any of the real editing begins. That comes after FADE OUT.

Speaking of editing, even though I was trying not to fall back into my habit of “write, edit, write some more”, there’ve been a few times when a few impulse decisions had to be made regarding whether or not something should be included. Since I was already concerned about too much material, many of them were cut.

In retrospect, they weren’t as necessary as I initially thought, so after they were cut, their absence had barely an impact on the story – if at all. Turns out they were in there more for my own benefit. I saw them as building up the key scene to which they were connected. I tend to overwrite during the outlining process anyway, so no big loss.

Working on both the outline and the pages has also made me realize that my talents seem to be a lot more suitable for this kind of thing. As much as I’d love to be a solid comedy writer, I feel much more at ease producing thrilling tales of adventure with some comedic moments thrown in.

They say you can tell a writer enjoyed writing the script because of how it reads. Like with all of mine that came before, that’s exactly what I’m hoping for with this one as well.

More work now, better results later

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It can be safely said the extensive overhaul of the outline for my pulpy sci-fi adventure story is just about wrapped up. Still have a lingering handful of small details in need of fleshing out, but I’m eagerly anticipating jumping into cranking out pages in the very near future.

Figuring all of this out – including several attempts on the beginning, and then working out the development of events over the course of the first act and the first half of the second act- took a lot longer than I expected, and definitely longer than I wanted. There were many times all I could think was “am I EVER going to figure this out?”.

A lot of writers feel that way while working on a project. We’re an impatient lot, and the ongoing struggle to find solutions doesn’t help. We want it already written. But learning how to do so effectively is necessary. How else will we improve?

It’s probably a safe bet to say that my development skills are stronger than they were – even compared to a couple of years ago, or else this overhaul wouldn’t be where it is now. Every story problem would require a lot of thought and mulling-over, and maybe I’d come up with a slapdash, roughshod placeholder of a solution – just to be able to move on.

A bad and counterproductive idea.

I like to put together stories with a lot of moving parts, and each one requires the same amount of attention in order to make the whole thing a smooth-running machine. If that means taking a little more time to do so, then so be it. I’d much rather make sure as I go along that everything works and connects the way it’s supposed to than have it come to a screeching halt because of something I overlooked or forgot about, or even worse, felt was “good enough for now”.

An added bonus to all the work on developing this story in the outlining phase is that since I’ve already written down what’s supposed to transpire in each scene, including the purpose and the conflict, it’ll make it easier (and in theory, a faster process) to transfer all of that to the actual pages.

Once I do start on pages, I can only hope to see a slight increase in my daily output. After having gone through the outline a few times, editing and tweaking as I go, I’m getting a stronger feel of flow for the story, seeing ways to incorporate more development for the characters, and just an overall sense of “I like the previous draft, but this one feels so much closer to what I set out to do”.

And I most definitely would not have gotten to this point if I hadn’t put in the time and effort to make sure every single part of it did exactly what I needed it to.

Resources at your fingertips

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Becoming a professional screenwriter is an incredibly difficult goal that takes a very, very long time to achieve.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.

One goal, lots of strategies

The me business – a 24/7 operation

Apart from writing, what are you doing to help yourself get there? There’s only one person who can be the most effective in helping you move forward. And you already know who it is.

A support staff of one

Are you networking? Trying to meet other writers? Offering to give notes or swap scripts?

When a writer meets a writer…

Are you entering contests to see how your script holds up under scrutiny?

The hazardous journey down Contest Road

Are you sending queries? Researching reps and producers?

Quit them or queue them up?

Part of every writer’s journey is the inevitable frustration and disappointment. Some days it will be very powerful, and learning how to survive and endure it is all part of the process.

How low can you go? Quite, apparently.

Expiration date: NEVER!

Perplexing puzzle pieces properly placed

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Hope you enjoyed the recent interviews (this one and this one). While I truly enjoy being able to promote another writer’s work, I admit to having somewhat selfish motives – progress on this outline overhaul had slowed, and I was feeling frustrated about it. Anything to get my mind off it was welcome, and those interviews fit the bill.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely happy to have done them and am glad the interviews got the responses they did, but now it was time to turn my focus back onto myself.

When I took on this project just after the beginning of the calendar year, I figured this part of the process would be smooth sailing, and there was no reason I wouldn’t have been able to crank out a new draft by about this time.

Ha, ha! Silly writer.

When one sets out to completely redo a project, there’s a teensy-weensy chance it could take SIGNIFICANTLY LONGER than expected?

Shocking, but true. Exhibit A – yours truly.

The past few weeks involved deconstructing the story and attempting to put a new one together. Some similar elements, but many new ones. Every time I’d come up with an idea, I’d go about trying to incorporate it into what I had. End result – a lot more misses than hits.

This is where things started to get interesting.

I realized I was still clinging to too many components of the previous draft; the screenwriting equivalent of a new coat of paint on a house in need of major repairs. So I brought in the wrecking ball and tore that thing right down to the foundation. I knew which details I wanted to keep, but now just about EVERYTHING needed to be drastically changed. Somehow.

To avoid falling into the trap of lingering previous draft details, I’d constantly ask myself that magical question of “How can this be totally different from what it was before?”.

I interpret the idea of “totally different” as “total opposite”. Any time things seemed too familiar, my internal editor would shout out “NO! Turn it around!”, and I’d go back and do a 180.

The story was THIS before? Well, now it’s more like THAT. That initial portrayal of the protagonist? You wouldn’t recognize them now.

The building blocks were being formed. Slowly, but steadily.

With the story gaining and building muscle, the same couldn’t be said for the characters. They didn’t feel developed enough. Why do they do the things they do, and how does it impact the story? Doesn’t matter who. From the protagonist and the antagonist to somebody who’s only in one scene, everybody’s a cog in this machine.

Just as an example, I already knew how the antagonist’s story ended, but still saw their “why they do this” and “how did they get to this point” as somewhat lacking, which created more obstacles.

Using those questions and this “total opposite” approach, I decided to do just that and work my way backwards. Start at the end and figure out what would have gotten us there, and what would have gotten to that, and so on and so on. For never having tried reverse-engineering a story before, the results were pleasantly surprising.

Then there was the protagonist. I knew what their external goal was, but the internal goal was a tougher nut to crack. I took a closer look at the emotional aspects of the story. How would this character react to what’s going on? Is it what I would do? Is it what somebody like them would do? Do their reactions and responses seem realistic (in the context of the story)?

I went through what I had of the story so far, and slowly began to see that I’d already set up important moments along their emotional journey, and what could potentially be part of it. A little fine-tuning and things really began to gel.

Tinkering. Rearranging of scenes. Gaps getting filled in. Long-discarded material finding reborn relevance. Unanswered questions (for both myself and the story) being answered. Ooh, I could spin this around, and the new version works even better than before!

A totally new draft of this script is taking shape right before my eyes, and on so many levels. I couldn’t be more psyched about it.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt that electric excitement of putting a story together. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

Sure, it took me a lot longer than I wanted to get to this point (emphasis on A LOT), and I won’t even speculate as to how long until the outline’s done, but I’ve definitely made some solid progress over the past few weeks, and the momentum continues to build.

Full speed ahead, chums.