Q & A with Buzz McLaughlin

Buzz McLaughin photo

Buzz McLaughlin is a playwright and screenwriter, theatre and film producer, script consultant, and teacher. His plays have been produced throughout the U.S. and Canada and have won numerous awards including the National Repertory Theatre Foundation’s National Play Award for Sister Calling My Name, the most recent staging of which was at the Sheen Center, NYC in early 2020. With his wife Kris he has written several screenplays and teleplays.

He is co-founder/producing partner of the independent film company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight), the Founding Director and former Artistic Director of Writers Theatre of New Jersey, and for many years was professor of Theatre Arts at Drew University. The author of The Playwright’s Process: Learning the Craft from Today’s Leading Dramatists, he holds a doctorate in theatre and dramatic literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Writers Guild of America. Currently he teaches playwriting and screenwriting in New England College’s Creative Writing MFA program.

His website is www.buzzmclaughlin.com and he can be reached at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com.

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

THE TWO POPES, written by Anthony McCarten, based on his play. The film was directed by Fernando Meirelles and stars Jonathan Price and Anthony Hopkins. Nominated for best screenplay by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes as well as for best actor and best supporting actor. A wonderful example of excellent writing scene after scene with a script so real that you forget you’re watching a make-believe story as the actors really sink their teeth into the material.

Another film I must mention here is the indie PIECES OF APRIL, written and directed by Peter Hedges and co-starring Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay by the Independent Spirit Awards. It was one of the first films shot on all digital and has become somewhat of a classic, especially in regard to its impeccable dramatic structure. I have used it for years as a teaching tool on how to construct a successful story for the screen. Well worth a close look.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

As a stage actor and director, then later I moved to writing because I started having my own ideas for scripts and felt I could do this, too (if not better than most).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A well-constructed story with relatable characters that draws you in and keeps you engaged from start to finish. There are many ways to accomplish this, obviously, but that in a nutshell is what makes a good script. The main components are having one central character who wants something badly but who runs into road blocks preventing him or her achieving it. In the best stories, this central figure discovers along the way that what they think they wanted isn’t what they really need and as a result the character comes out a very different person at the end of the journey. And this gives the story its ultimate emotional power. My book The Playwright’s Process goes into the details of how you build or construct this kind of story one step at a time.

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

By far the biggest screenwriting mistake I encounter is faulty dramatic construction, scripts that wander too far away from some configuration of the three-act paradigm and as a result stall out and are unable to deliver the goods as all successful storytelling must do. Writing snappy and engaging dialogue is important, obviously, but if the story’s foundational structural underpinnings are faulty, the whole script comes tumbling down.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Formula and predictable action films and stories that are obviously agenda driven. In other words, stories that are primarily designed to thrill with violence and manufactured suspense or those that promote – sometimes quite heavy-handedly – a particular political or cultural persuasion.

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

-Determine who is your central character and what his or her primary external want and true internal need are going to be.

-Your central character should be a changed person by the end of the story.

-Take the time and effort to get to know your characters’ backstories well before plunging into your first draft. Burn into your brain that nine-tenths of the iceberg is under the surface. Remember that you are already writing your script when you engage in this pre-draft exploratory work.

-Make an initial attempt to define your dramatic premise up front – what the overall point of your story is going to be – and believe it fully yourself.

-Allow yourself to become the structural engineer and work out a three-act outline of your story with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end before starting your first draft. In other words, create a road map that will take you through your story’s journey so if and when you find yourself lost (which you most likely will) you still have that roadmap on the seat next to you and you have a way to get back on track.

-If at all possible, set your story in a world you know well.  Otherwise, research it to death.

-Train yourself to never listen to the negative voice as you develop your project.

-Never share a work in progress with anyone until you have a completed draft you think is ready to release to others. The creative process is precious and intimate and it should be shared between only you and your characters. This should be your private creative world. The time will come soon enough to get outside input, but it shouldn’t happen until you have something substantially complete to share. Otherwise your own personal vision for the script is contaminated and you risk having your whole project derailed prematurely. The only exception to this rule is when you’re working with a collaborator or a script consultant – folks whom you have invited into a creative partnership with you.

What would you consider are some key similarities and differences between writing for the stage and the screen?

The biggest similarity between a play and a screenplay is the structural design of the story itself. Both have a version of the three-act configuration: the set up, the struggle, and the solution.

The biggest difference is that plays are primarily verbal and films are primarily visual, meaning the stage play’s story is largely communicated through dialogue coupled with physical action and the film story is largely communicated through what the camera sees action-wise, coupled with dialogue as needed.

Another way to compare the two mediums is to look at the opportunity for theatricality in writing for the stage – inviting the audience to engage imaginatively with passages of time and shifts in settings and so forth – as opposed to the numerous cinematic devices available in writing for the screen such as using the dissolve, narrative voice-overs, etc. In a real sense, the two mediums are attempting to accomplish the same thing – inviting the audience to creatively enter into the unfolding story. And this is one reason why writers are often able to shift back and forth between writing for the theatre and writing for film or television.

A common recommendation to screenwriters is to take an acting or improv class. As someone who works with both writers and actors, do you agree or disagree?

I strongly agree. My experience has shown me that writers who are also actors (or have had some acting experience) are generally ahead in the game in terms of motivations and getting under the skin of a character.

As a producer, is it difficult for you to read a script without using your “reader’s eye”?

This is definitely difficult for me regardless if I’m experiencing a screenplay or play. And it starts on page one. Call it the curse of the producer. I’m so conditioned to look and wait for the inciting incident to grab me that if it doesn’t happen within the first ten pages the read often becomes an exercise in frustration.

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

Check out my website at www.buzzmclaughlin.com. Or email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com. As a script consultant I can work with you on a finished draft or help you structure an idea into workable pre-draft shape. In other words, I can meet you where you’re at with your project.

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

Warm apple, with a slice of cheddar cheese.

apple pie w:cheese

Arrivederci, contests! For now.

waving goodbye
Normally, one would say “Don’t forget to write!”, but that seems a bit off in this scenario

Starting a few weeks ago, and continuing into the coming months, the results of numerous screenwriting contests will be made public.

For the most part, my scripts won’t be part of them. I’ve opted to skip the 2020-2021 season to focus on creating some new scripts and fine-tune some pre-existing ones.

Contests and I have had a rocky relationship. The primary reason I enter is for industry access (or at least the potential for it). As nice as a cash prize is, I’d much rather my award be my scripts shown to a manager or production company.

Naturally, even that’s not a guarantee of success. Somebody could read a script that’s done exceptionally well in a contest – even win it – and decide “I like it/It’s good, but not what I’m looking for.” This has happened to me, and even a few writers I know who’ve claimed a finalist spot in some prestigious contests still couldn’t make anything happen with it.

Them’s the breaks, and usually means it’s back to square one. But not this time.

I don’t have anything against contests. They can help motivate you to work towards beating a deadline. Some of them might lead to something, but many just mean you get a nice set of laurels. And no slight to smaller contests, but I’ve seen lots of comments from reps and prodcos that contests don’t really matter that much to them. What’s important is if they like the script and want to do something with it.

Additionally, those contests fees can get pretty steep. I try to keep things on the lower end (early bird deadlines, discount codes, etc) because the fees can really add up. And this isn’t even taking into account paying an additional cost for “notes” – something I don’t usually do anyway.

Added bonus for me – I also shell out some shekels for 6-8 half-marathons each year. You think screenwriting contests are expensive? Ha! Many of the races I’d signed up for for later this year have been cancelled or postponed until next year. So not having to pay for races or contests definitely works in my favor.

So that’s it for me and a temporary “so long”. At least until around this time next year. Until then, it’s all about the writing. My scripts are good, but I know they can be better.

Since deciding to step back, it’s kind of nice to be able to consistently delete the barrage of emails announcing “LAST CHANCE TO ENTER!” or “CLICK HERE FOR SPECIAL DISCOUNT CODE!”, and then get right back to work. I won’t say it’s still tempting to want to enter, but it is getting easier to read an email from a contest, and then kill it without hesitating.

Interesting side note – it would seem I entered 2 of my scripts in a pair of contests several months ago. In fact, one was in October of 2019. Turns out each advanced through the contests’ respective first rounds.

Since I adhere to the “send it & forget it” rule with my scripts, guess my putting more emphasis on the latter half of that phrase really came into play. As one friend put it – “you seem to do better in contests you forgot you entered.” Can’t argue that.

So now that I don’t have contest deadlines or announcements to deal with, I can focus on these two new scripts. Both have been percolating for quite some time, and I figured lockdown and shelter-in-place were the ideal times to jump into both.

Would I have been able to dedicate so much time and effort if the world hadn’t changed? Possibly, but having the opportunity to do so has definitely worked in my favor.

The latest draft of one script is out with a batch of savvy readers, and the other is still in the outline phase. Feeling pretty confident about both.

I’m more than content to let the 2020-2021 contest season pass me by as I write and write, then rewrite, and then write some more.

For all you writers looking to enter contests in the coming year, you now have one less competitor to worry about.

Catch you on the flip side.

From out of the archives

speedreading

The latest draft of the horror-comedy is complete – clocking in at a respectable 102 pages. It’s out to my savvy readers, so now the focus shifts to some semi-overdue reads for a couple of colleagues.

So while I dive into those, here are a few classic posts from days gone by…

Enjoy.

May I be of some assistance?

More work now, better results later

I know the rules, and do not hesitate to break them

Same destination, different route

Send it. Forget it.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re here to help

daffy typing

Currently working my way through the latest draft of the horror-comedy. It’s coming along nicely, primarily due to the incredibly helpful notes I’ve received from my readers.

It’s been a mixed bag of comments – loved this, this kind of fell flat for me, didn’t understand this, maybe try a different approach on this. While I may not agree with all of them, each one has merit and is worth taking into consideration. A lot of them involve ideas and suggestions I hadn’t considered, let alone thought of.

It’s tough to evaluate your own script. You know the story you’re trying to tell, so how you interpret what’s on the page is going to be completely different from how everybody else does. You “hear” a line of dialogue being spoken in that character’s voice in the way you imagined them saying it, whereas a reader will see…words on a page.

This is really what it comes down to: NOTES HELP YOU SEE WHAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE SEEING.

Remember – You might not like what the reader has to say, but the whole point is to help you make your script as solid a piece of work as you can. It’s tough, but don’t take it personally. They’re critiquing the work, not you.

A few years back, I gave a writer some extensive notes on a script that had a great premise but the execution of the story needed a lot of work – especially in terms of really showcasing what the premise was all about.

About a week after I’d sent my notes, they responded by telling me they were initially angry and upset about what I had to say, but then they went back and read my notes again. Upon that second review, they couldn’t argue with what I said, and were grateful that my notes helped them realize that.

Notes should be about helping you shape your script into what you want it to be. Be wary of readers whose notes are about changing your script so it matches the story they think it should be.

There are also going to be notes that completely miss the point. Maybe the reader was having an off day. Maybe they’re not a fan of this genre. Maybe they lost interest and just skimmed. All of these are possibilities, and have been known to happen.  There’s not much you can do besides say “thanks” and move on.

Which brings up another point – no matter how you feel about the notes, especially if they don’t seem to be very helpful – is to BE POLITE AND THANK THE READER FOR DOING THIS. They took time out of their schedule to help you out, so the least you can do is thank them.

DO NOT berate them with a rant of “How dare you doubt my genius?!” It’s not a good look.

And if a swap is involved, make sure to hold up your end of the bargain. I speak from experience as one who’s been burned.

In the end, this is your script to do with what you will. Find a reader whose opinion you trust and let them know what it is you’re looking for. Help with the story? Characters? Dialogue? Grammar and punctuation? They and their notes are here to help you.

Let them do that so you can reap the benefits.

(please note that paying for notes was not discussed because it’s an entirely different topic for another time)

The return of a classic

angry writer

Hi writers!

Hope you’re staying safe and healthy during these turbulent times, but also hope you’ve been able to be productive and get some writing done.

Which means it’s time to dust the cobwebs off the long-absent and fan-favorite topic:

PROJECT STATUS UPDATE TIME! (lockdown edition)

How’s it going with your current WIP?

Here at Maximum Z HQ, notes for the horror-comedy spec continue to roll in, many of which should prove very helpful for the inevitable next draft.

And a lot of time has been spent on developing the outline for the fantasy-comedy spec. LOTS of pieces to this puzzle, but it’s slowly coming together. Really looking forward to when it’s completed, as well as fine-tuning it.

Also been enjoying reading several scripts from fellow scribes. I’m fortunate to know so many talented folks.

How about you?