My two cents on giving my two cents

nickel
Plus an extra cent to cover expenses

After a brief hiatus, I’ve started giving notes again. It’s always helpful to step away from your own material and dive into somebody else’s. More often than not, it’s a win-win situation.

Sometimes there are exceptions to that rule, but more on that in a minute.

The quality of the writing has ranged from just-starting-out to seasoned professional, so my notes and comments are provided with the level of feedback most suitable to the writer’s level of expertise. One writer might still be learning about proper formatting, while another might want to consider strengthening up that second subplot.

One of my cardinal rules of giving notes is to not be mean about it. I never talk down to the writer, because I’ve been in their shoes. I do what I can to be supportive and offer some possible solutions, or at least hopefully guide them towards coming up with a new approach to what they’ve already got.

One writer responded by saying they were really upset about what I’d said, but then they went and re-read my notes, and couldn’t argue or disagree with any of them.

I’ve always been fascinated by the expression “This is a reflection on the script, not you (the writer).” In some ways, the script IS a reflection of the writer; it’s their skill, their storytelling, their grasp of what should and shouldn’t be on the page, that are all being analyzed. After spending so much time and effort on a script, of course a writer wants to hear “it’s great!”, but as we all know, that doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes I worry my comments are too harsh, but just about every writer has responded with “These are SO helpful!”

About a year ago, a writer I was connected to via social media asked to do a script swap. Some quick research showed they seemed to be experienced with writing and filmmaking, so it seemed like a good idea.

I read their script, and didn’t like it. I said so in my notes, and offered up what I considered valid reasons why, along with questions raised over the course of the story, along with some suggestions for potential fixes.

What I was most surprised about was that this person presented themselves as a professional, and maybe I was naive in taking all of that at face value and believing the quality of their writing would reflect that and meet my expectations.

It didn’t.

It also didn’t help that they opted to not give me any notes on my script. At all. Just some snarky retorts. Guess my lack of effusive gushing hurt their feelings, and this was their method of retribution.

Oh well.

Interesting follow-up to that: I later saw them refer to my notes in a quite negative way, along with “this script has even gotten a few RECOMMENDS”, which is always a great defense.

Follow-up #2: we’re no longer connected on social media.

Could I have phrased my comments in a more supportive way? I suppose, but I figured this person wanted honesty, not praise. And like I said, I assumed they had a thick skin from having done this for a while.

Guess I was mistaken.

And I’ve been on the receiving end of it as well. A filmmaker friend read one of my scripts and started with “Sorry, but I just didn’t like it,” and explained why. Did I pound my fists in rage and curse them for all eternity? Of course not. Their reasons were perfectly valid.

Or the time a writing colleague could barely muster some tepid words of support for one of my comedies. I was a little disappointed, but after having read some of their scripts,  realized that our senses of humor (sense of humors?) were very different, so something I considered funny they probably wouldn’t, and vice versa.

I’ve no intention of changing how I give notes. If I like something, I’ll say so. If I don’t, I’ll say so. You may not like what I have to say, but please understand that it’s all done with the best of intentions. My notes are there for the sole purpose of helping you make your script better.

Isn’t that why we seek out notes in the first place?

Q & A with Craig Kellem & Judy Hammett of Hollywoodscript.com

Hollywoodscript.com LLC was founded over a decade ago by former Universal and Fox development executive Craig Kellem, who was soon joined by business partner, Judy Hammett (M.A. English/Creative Writing). This family-based, boutique script consultation service is internationally known, serving writers from every corner of the world.

I had the pleasure of talking with Judy about their new book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How.

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

Without a doubt, HBO’s most recent season (#3) of TRUE DETECTIVE. It is truly impressive every week. The writer has an incredible command of dialogue and the structure employed is beautiful. The writer has interwoven various timelines in a very clever and elegant way, wherein the plotline is consistently advanced, yet at the same time, the existential themes being explored are made exceptionally dramatic and emotionally charged as a result.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

We are father and daughter and come from a family that made their living in TV and music, so we both got our first breaks through family/friends. Craig started out as an assistant at a talent agency and worked hard up the ranks to become a talent agent himself. He eventually became a development executive at Fox and Universal, and in time a TV Producer as well. I started as a researcher on a TV series, then did freelance work providing studio coverage on scripts & books while in graduate school for English/Creative Writing. Eventually, Craig founded our company, Hollywoodscript.com LLC and I joined him soon thereafter. We’ve worked together for more than fifteen years.

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

We’ve always tended to “think” like writers, and have loved writing just for the sheer pleasure it provides! But neither of us chose to “become” professional writers, or pursue careers as such. We both love working with writers, supporting their craft and analyzing content. This has been our true vocation. We wrote our book together from the standpoint of wanting to reach out to writers everywhere and share what we have learned after almost two decades of consulting with writers the world over. I provide writing services/ghostwriting on occasion, but consulting is my main work.

What inspired you to write your book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How?

Over the years we had clients comment that we should write a book, stating that our general feedback and approach was constructive, inspired and very helpful. So a few years ago, we decided it was time to give the book idea a green light and started putting the chapters together – with the sole purpose of sharing observations and approaches to writing, which have proven the most helpful to writers we’ve worked with to date.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it especially unique?

We hope to offer something which is more intuitive, less “left brain” – a book that invites the writer to stay close to their own experiences, their own strong feelings and their own instincts so that the storyteller inside of them can more easily come to the fore.

Follow-up: having read a lot of screenwriting books, I found this one to be very different in that it’s not so much about “how to”, but more of a “here’s something to consider as you work on your story/script”. Was that your initial intent, or did it gradually develop that way?

Many thanks for your feedback! Yes, that is a wonderful way to describe it. We didn’t set out to compete with the screenwriting greats who’ve written comprehensive “how-tos” beautifully and exhaustively. Instead, we wanted to contribute to the conversation from the hands-on perspective of our day-to-day work with a very diverse range of writers – some of whom have studied the gamut of how-to books, yet continue to struggle with actually realizing their own visions on the page. We wanted to offer a book that helps writers get closer to  “hearing” their “own voice” so to speak – to accessing the vivid, original stories and characters that live inside of them.

One of the chapters that really resonated with me was the one about the practice you call “sandboxing”. Could you explain what you mean by that, and how it could benefit a writer?

Inspiration, ideas and the desire to write often come out of writers having creative shards and glimmers that have emerged from their minds. They get an idea for a scene late at night and jot it down on scrap paper. They encounter some person they think would make a great character type and make a note of it on a napkin. They hear an anecdote that suggests a story and scribble it on an envelope. All these pieces of creative inspiration are wonderful fuel for writing a screenplay, but a few glimmers and shards aren’t enough to justify starting at page one of a one-hundred-plus-page three-act film. Yet zealous writers will often do just that. They plow forward on the faint fumes of too few ideas and assure themselves the rest will come as they write. This approach rarely makes the cut, for the writer hasn’t given enough time and thought to what it is they are actually writing.

Rather than starting a screenplay prematurely, we therefore recommend “sandboxing,” which is a simple method wherein the writer slows down in order to create a much bigger arsenal of ideas from which to choose. Each day they jot down additional possibilities for scenes, character angles, key plot lines etc. – adding to their original seeds of inspiration. It thoroughly preps the writer to eventually sit down to page one of their new script armed with a truckload of ideas from which to write.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

A clear, strong story is key. Characters who are relatable and believable. A hero with whom the audience can empathize and who breaks into a serious sweat as much as possible. Dialogue that rings true. Lots of suspense, urgency, and conflict that keep the audience riveted and the pacing clipped.

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

-Writing IS rewriting, even when you’re a pro, so best to embrace this notion and learn to enjoy the process of writing, revising and polishing your script before declaring it “done”.

-Getting a script sold, or made, doesn’t happen on any predictable timeline. Just keep writing and derive your pleasure from the creative process, rather than focusing on it as a means to an end.

-If you are cloudy about any part of your script, stop and take the time to fully explore that cloudiness, addressing it head-on. Don’t try to finesse it, or gloss over it, or avoid it in order to deal with the parts of the script that are clearer to you. Otherwise, your audience may get stuck in those foggy sequences and then start detaching from your content as a whole.

-Never lose sight of the fact that a film is a visual art form. As you write, always ask yourself if there’s a way to dramatize the story development through images, cinematic sequences and visual cues first and foremost.

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

-Writers who tend to overwrite and hence interfere with needed momentum. Setting a strong, galloping pace is essential.

-Scripts that are confusing because the writer hasn’t maintained consistent continuity in the plot line or in terms of the character trajectories.  

-Scenes that don’t build the story or move narratives in the film forward.

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

We can be found at hollywoodscript.com and are on Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In – Craig and Judy. And of course, check out our book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How.

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

HA! I’ll take pie over cake any day – especially coconut, chocolate, vanilla or banana cream. Craig likes ice cream too much to think about any other type of dessert.

banana cream piesoda jerk

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.