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

It’s now second nature

grace-kelly-reading
Even Grace Kelly wouldn’t hesitate to take a look at a new script

This past weekend we attended a social event, and one of the other attendees knows that I write scripts, so I was asked the list of usual questions.

“Have I seen anything you’ve written?” “What sort of stuff do you write?” “How many drafts do you go through?” “Do you read a lot of scripts?”

The follow-up to that was “How do you know if a script is good or bad?”

I explained that you can usually tell by the end of the first page. The way the writing reads. The characters. The dialogue. Good or bad, chances are pretty high that’s how the rest of it is.

I’ve been reading scripts for a long time, which has had a major impact on my ability to effectively recognize the level of quality in a script.

When I occasionally go through some of the online forums, there’s always somebody asking how they can improve their craft, as if there’s some kind of trick or secret to it.

Well, there isn’t. The answer is extremely simple and straightforward, and a lot of experienced writers say it and repeat it on a regular basis.

Read more scripts.

There really is no better way to learn.

It’s astonishing that some writers don’t see it as helpful. Or necessary.

Too many newer writers might feel their work is either “just fine the way it is”, or aren’t sure if it’s up to snuff. The more scripts you read, the more it’ll help your analytical skills, which you can then turn around and direct at your own work. Many’s the time I’ve been able to either come up with a solution on the spot, or taken the time to really think my way through to it.

Would I be able to do either if I hadn’t been reading scripts and see how other writers put their story together? Probably not. Nor is this saying I’m copying what other writers are doing. Far from it. Their work is influencing how I do that; putting my own spin on it, if you will.

One of the definite benefits of living in the digital age is that there is an abundance of scripts available online, just waiting for you to come along and read to your heart’s content.

Websites that feature scripts for already-produced films. Members of online groups. Other writers with whom you connect (via networking and good manners).

While I try to devote at least part of my day to working on my own material, if time permits I’ll also spend some time reading a script. It’s usually that of another writer. Sometimes they’ll come to me, asking for notes, or I’ll read something about their script that really grabs me and makes me want to read it, so I’ll politely ask, provided I already know them.

If I don’t, I’ll introduce myself and explain how I found them and mention what intrigues me about their script, then ask if they’re open to me taking a look. Most of the time, they’re totally cool with it, and might even offer to read one of mine. Win-win.

I read a lot about writers who spend so much time writing and so little time reading, no matter how much it’s advised doing so will help further develop their screenwriting education and skills.

Their writing will get better – gradually. Maybe. Not being willing to learn more will only hinder their own development.

Don’t be that writer. Be the one who’s always writing, reading and learning.

That’s the one who gets better.

Happy reading.

Good. Better. Getting there.

Billy Wilder
Never hurts to have a good role model*

Notes continue to come in for the pulp sci-fi spec, some contrary, many encouraging, and all chock-full of notable suggestions. With some coming from my trusted core of reliably savvy readers, there’s been one statement more than a few have included.

The gist of it is:

“This is the third script of yours I’ve read, and each one has shown a definite improvement over the previous one.”

It warms this writer’s soul to hear that sort of thing. And these are writers who pull no punches. They won’t hesitate to say something doesn’t work.

I’ve been working at this for a while, but it really feels like just the past few years have seen the most significant progress. Just goes to show what constant hard work can do, right?

Nor do I have any intention of slowing down. Doing my best to maintain a dedicated block of time and/or pages on a daily basis. The more you do it, the easier it gets (but is still tough).

The three scripts in question were all adventure-based, which enabled me to exercise a certain set of writing skills. With work now commencing on overhauling a comedy, an entirely new set will get the workout they deserve.

Crafting a sequence involving a train heist in the Old West, or a team of adventurers taking on a mad scientist? Piece of cake.

Writing a story involving everyday people in relatively normal (but funny) situations, peppered with smart (and funny) dialogue, all without the benefit of using special effects to enhance the story?

That is truly the next challenge to yours truly. It initially feels very daunting, but I’ve made it this far, and there’s no reason to think I can’t continue to push my way forward.

Should be a very interesting journey.

*Billy Wilder’s 10 Rules for Good Filmmaking (also applicable to screenwriting)
1: The audience is fickle.
2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4: Know where you’re going.
5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Proofreading Q&A panel – part 2

Tammy Gross
Tammy Gross
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Bill Donovan and friend (friend occupying Bill’s lap)

Here is the second of a two-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net about proofreading and its connection with screenwriting, along with some info about the proofreaders themselves.

Part one can be found here.

When you proofread a screenplay, do you also take on the role of story analyst?

Tammy Gross (TG): Not as a primary service, but yes. Since I’m reading it anyway, I do offer inexpensive add-ons if a writer wants some basic “coverage.” And even with proofreading, there are some story issues which may be addressed during the edit if there’s a problem with consistency and/or continuity.

Before I started my proofreading service, I took a course on story analysis and offered a coverage service. I soon learned how bad formatting and text were too distracting for my left brain. It’s agony for me to look past multiple errors/issues.

Bill Donovan (BD): To a limited degree, yes. However, I put these and other words at the top of every set of notes I give back with the proofread copy:

“These are not the words of an expert script analyst … I strongly hope not to hurt your feelings … To the extent that you find my comments on your story to be wrong-headed, pointless, or insensitive, you are hereby counseled and, with regret for any hurt feelings, encouraged to ignore them.”

What’s your writing background?

TG: The agony of trying to look past typos sent me down an editing path in my 20s. I read a book published through a major publishing house that had multiple errors in the soft-cover version. I sent my corrections to the publisher, and the author contacted me personally to thank me. Ever since, I’ve honed my editing skills.

My life plan was “sing while I’m young and write when I’m old.” I did write a couple of novels in my 20s and managed to have some sort of writing or editing responsibility in every “real” job I ever worked, whether at a church, a bank or Fortune 500 company.

In 2008, while taking a break from singing, I learned about a couple of female pirates. These historical swashbuckling stories fascinated me. I traveled the world researching pirates (including falling victim to real ones in the Bahamas) and learning about writing screenplays. I haven’t looked back.

So far, every script I’ve entered in contests has placed or won. In fact, my first script won the first contest I ever entered. Since then, I’ve realized that my ability to write in “the language of screenplay” was getting me further than better storytellers due to their weaker technical skills.

I’m currently writing an adventure story for a producer who found me because of one of my scripts (which I also turned into a YA book).

BD: -Screenplay contest judge (three contests)
-Screenplay contest executive (11 screenplay contests, 5 scene-writing contests, two logline contests)
-Two of my own screenplays won three first prizes equaling $30,104 in prize money in today’s dollars.
-Former Editor of Creative Screenwriting Magazine
-Author of three e-books for screenwriters to date; a fourth is upcoming
-USC Master of Fine Arts, Screenwriting and Filmmaking
-Copy desk chief at a daily newspaper, the Morristown, N.J., Daily Record
-Copy editor at the Associated Press
-Copy editor at another daily newspaper, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
-Copy editor for several business-to-business trade publications
-11,200+ published pages and screenplays edited/proofread over the years
-News stories I wrote and/or edited won five national journalism awards.

How’d you get into proofreading?

TG: Totally by accident. I started a screenwriting group where we would table-read 10 pages of each writer’s script. I found myself making lots of corrections on everybody’s pages, and many of them asked me to proofread their entire scripts. It was a little overwhelming, due to also running a thriving music-arranging business at the time, so I put up a website to help me prioritize and charged a low but fair fee.

And it’s good that I did, because after the 2007 writers’ strike, followed by the recession, the spec-writing business boomed while music arranging fizzled.

BD: For an upcoming book, I surveyed and interviewed producers, agents, screenplay readers, directors, contest judges, and contest executives, asking them for their comments on the most common and the worst mistakes they see. Within the screenplay, proofreading and editing mistakes were named both the most common and most disliked by people in the industry.

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

TG: The order page functions as a quote calculator, or send an email anytime: Proofreader@ProofMySpec.com

BD: Email me at Bill@screenwritingcommunity.net or use this form at my website.

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

TG: Humble. I should eat more of that and less Key lime.

BD: 1. Great pizza. 2. Pumpkin, my own homemade recipe. 3. Blueberry, Comstock filling, augmented.

Doesn’t get any cheaper than this

cashier
Our helpful staff is ready to assist you!

As my network of fellow screenwriters has expanded over the past few years, I’ve become more active with exchanging script notes with some of them. It’s a pretty even split between me approaching them first, and vice versa.

From my perspective, the whole thing has been quite helpful and I think my scripts are definitely better for it. And as far as I know, none of the other writers have any complaints about my notes. If they do, they’re not saying anything.

It’s gotten to the point where every once in a while, an email will pop up from one of these folks asking if I could look over their latest draft and offer up my two cents. I’m fairly certain I’ve never said no.

Full confession: it usually takes me a little longer than I expect to get it done, but I do make a point of getting it done. I try to extend the same courtesy to them that they would to me.

I bring all of this up because I had a great catching-up coffee chat with a writer yesterday; somebody I haven’t seen since last summer. We shared what’s been going on with our respective projects, and I mentioned finishing/sending off some notes.

“Do you charge for that?” they asked.

No. It’s just an exchange, and I like helping out when I can.

“That’s really generous of you to give up your time like that. Have you thought of charging for notes?”

Of course, but I don’t consider myself qualified to. If I was a working writer and had a couple of produced features under my belt? Maybe.

I’ve always found the bios of professional consultants and readers to be pleasantly diverse and equally fascinating. Almost all of them have spent time working in the industry, many having read or given coverage on thousands of scripts.

Me? I can’t make the same claims. I’ve read a lot of scripts, but nowhere near those numbers, and a large percentage of my time has been (and continues to be) focused on honing my writing skills.

They have a fairly solid grasp of what works and what doesn’t, and provide much more insightful comments than I believe I could.

All things being equal, I’d say my analytical skills have definitely improved over time. I don’t know what kind of pro reader/consultant I’d be, but for the time being, I’ll stick to the friendly no-cost, between-writers exchange.

As mentioned earlier, I like helping when I can, and will continue to appreciate any opportunity to read an associate’s script in order to give them notes that will in theory help them make it better.

*personal note – this is my 800th post. Thanks for being part of the journey, and hope you’ve enjoyed it. I certainly have.