Q & A with Jim Mercurio

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Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed and produced five feature films, and helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners.

Editor’s note 1 – a q&a with Jim was featured in a series of interviews with script consultants that ran on this blog between 2014 and 2015.

Editor’s note 2 – full disclosure: Jim played the role of adviser/sounding board for the rewrite of my dramedy spec.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

I was prepping my webinar on February 7th for The Writers Store on Personal Voice, (FYI – Feb 1 is the last day to save $20 on registering) and I stumbled upon the idea that a writer must figure out what is special about what he does and then focus on that. I feel like it is the same way with me and the book.

I have always focused on the nitty-gritty of craft. Probably because I worked so hard trying to figure it out for myself as a writer. When I directed the 40ish DVDs in the Expo Series, I did my own class concentrating only on theme.

Years ago, I happened to be prepping for a feature I was directing. In a week, I saw the same scene performed more than 200 times by a hundred different actresses. I was trying to figure out what I could do that hadn’t been done before as far as a screenwriting book. My experience as a filmmaker has always informed my approach to understanding and teaching screenwriting. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to me sooner. I had an “A-ha!” or better yet a “Duh!” moment — SCENE WRITING!

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What makes this one unique?

The obvious distinction is that it focuses solely on scene writing… the first screenwriting book to do so.

I was fortunate enough to have story gurus Richard Walter and Michael Hauge review the book. Something Michael said really touched me. He said that there were a lot of ideas in the book he hadn’t even thought of. I wanted to cover new ideas or at least some seldom taught concepts in a novel way.

Having been in the screenwriting education niche writing for Creative Screenwriting, directing, creating 50 hours of educational DVDs and working as a consultant, I know what’s out there. I believe this book will carry the torch and be among the next go-to books for all screenwriters entering the field.

As I mentioned, my filmmaking experience and the fact that I am actively writing screenplays and making projects impacts my perspective. I try to be very specific in my examples. For a given topic, I may start with theory but I always try to end with concrete principles and tools that you can apply to your writing on the spot.

Some books are geared more towards covering the screenwriting basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. Is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I feel very strongly that this book will appeal to writers across a wide spectrum of skill levels. A friend of mine said I teach the last hundred pages of “the screenwriting book” more than I do the first hundred. So, if anything, I would be more concerned about whether this would serve beginners.

I even asked my editor if it did and she gave me a great response. But then out of the blue, the universe gave me a better answer. My 23-year-old stepson who is a computer engineer texted me. He said he was halfway through the book and said “It’s very accessible… nothing’s confusing.”

The only research I did while writing this book was to watch movies and think about them. Each chapter is like a stand-alone piece on topics such as exposition, concept, theme, and rewriting. I tried to begin with my, at least somewhat, original and basic take on a topic to ease the reader in and to orient them. A new writer can jump right in.

More advanced writers might recognize my approach as somewhat novel. I then try to go as deep as I can with the material, so that even professional writers might benefit. A writer who read the book said that 70-80% of it was stuff he had never heard before. He might be overstating it, but I’m proud that the book feels that way. I wanted to offer new insight into the nitty-gritty challenge of craft.

Even though the book’s title is THE CRAFT OF SCENE WRITING, what else does it cover besides writing scenes?

At its essence, scene writing is storytelling and the same principles apply. You are poring over characters, characterization, idiosyncrasies of the world, setups – to create reversals. You’ve heard of turning points, right? Writers have to turn a story. They also have to learn how to turn a scene. Or a line of dialogue.

However, I wanted this to complement all of the other screenwriting books that cover story structure. I am looking at screenplays at the molecular level. In the final section of the book, I cover rewriting in a parallel way to how I discuss scene structure. And then I explore how to discover and use your personal voice in your screenplays.

One of the phrases you really emphasized during the process with my script was “write to concept.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Whew, no softballs here. Making me earn my pie.

There are 7500 words in my chapter on concept, which have been through the wringer with my 18 copyeditors, but I will try to summarize with insightful pithiness.

Like I mentioned, as a writer you should use what’s special about yourself and your writing. Writing to concept means that you are using what’s special about your story as the main inspiration for its surprises. For fun, consider a 3-D horror movie where an axe flies across the screen left to right. Do you see how on some level that’s just wrong? It should be flying toward the camera. Otherwise, it’s ignoring the most prominent element of its medium.

Of course, I’m not that rigid, but writers have to narrow down the handful of elements that are essential to their concept because not only do their surprises spin out of them, but, for the most part, they spin out only from them. I don’t know if I can teach that here. Hopefully, I can intrigue you to go to the source.

Writing to concept allows you to find a unique way to express what otherwise might be a familiar story beat. Based on their concept, the moments will look very different. In Memento, Natalie hurts Leonard by hiding pencils. In Her, Samantha, an operating system, hurts her lover by telling him she’s in love with 641 other people.

Another of your favorite phrases during the writing process was “go deeper.” What should that mean to a writer?

It refers to a missed opportunity to get at more emotion with a character or to complicate a relationship, which would hopefully do the same. While we were working on your script, there’s a scene I pointed out featuring a moment where you were on the verge of discovering a powerful and transcendent moment, but then it was all over too soon. Sometimes writers hit a beat (in the broader sense), and maybe they are worried about a looming expansive page count or don’t appreciate what they have stumbled upon, so they move on too quickly. They might be better off — pick your metaphor — milking or massaging a moment for a bit longer and letting it play out.

Take a look at the long and emotional monologue in Good Will Hunting where Will’s best friend Chuckie tells him that he should “cash the winning lottery ticket” and get out of town to find a better life. He even tells him that the best part of the day is in the morning when he comes to pick him up, he has a moment of hope that Will has left — without even leaving a note. Imagine, if we cut that down to a sentence: “I will miss you but you gotta get the hell out of here.” We lose Chuckie’s voice, the suspense of it, the emotional heft and importance. It goes from a set-piece scene to a bland, merely functional one.

In addition to the book, Jim also provides a script consulting service. How can people get in touch to find out more?

Easy. Go to my site at www.jamespmercurio.com. I discuss why coaching is my preferred mode of working with writers. You can check out my DVD set and sign up for my free e-newsletter Craft & Career, which will also let you stay informed about classes and workshops I’m offering later in the year.

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was the metaphoric “gross points from my last film”. Still the same today, or something different?

A pie in the hand is worth two gross points in a bush. Or 20 for that matter. So, hand me some Dutch Apple, please.

dutchapplepie

The 2018 Maximum Z Screenwriter’s Gift Guide

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“Have you been a good writer this year, Johnny?”

Not sure what to get that special screenwriter in your life, or are you a writer and want to splurge and get yourself a little something? Well, worry no more because here’s an extensive list of gift ideas any writer would absolutely love! 

SCRIPT CONSULTANTS

Some offers include a code for the discount, so if you contact one NOT listing a code, make sure to tell them you found them via Maximum Z – or you run the risk of not getting any discount at all.

ScriptArsenal – 20% off script coverage services through 14 Dec with the code MAXIMUM20

Anna Koukouli of Lilifornia Diaries Productions – 15% off coverage services through 31 Dec with the code BLACKFRIDAY15

Andrew Hilton, The Screenplay Mechanic – 10% discount through 1 Jan on consulting services

Jim Mercurio – 10% discount on coaching, professional or comprehensive analysis, or on DVDs

Mark Sanderson – $25 off through 31 Dec on script consulting services

EJ Runyon – Bridge to Story  – 6 writing coaching sessions for the price of 5

We Fix Your Script – 10% discount on coverage and submissions to Script Summit competition on Coverfly

Phil Clarke – 20% off until 30 Nov for analysis, annotation, or A&A service in 2019

Danny Manus – 10% off through 1 Dec for Basic Written Notes Service and TV Notes Service with code MAXZ18

Barri Evins – Spine-tingling sale through 14 Dec on all services, but good anytime

David Silverman – 10% off script consulting services

Andrew Zinnes – 15% discount on all services

Gregory Blair – 10% off through 31 Dec for consulting services

Angela Bourassa of LA Screenwriter – new rate for logline help – $29, and a new item – Make A Movie Magnets – complete set for $9

Gerald Hanks of Story Into Screenplay – 10% discount through 31 Dec on feature coverage services and the one-hour phone consultation

Scotty Cornfield – no matter the genre, if your script involves police or law enforcement, and you want to make sure those parts are accurate, former police detective Scotty is offering a 10% discount on services to help accomplish exactly that

Howard Casner – 10% off script consultation services, and here’s a link to his book MORE RANTINGS & RAVINGS

Script Reader Pro – Script Hackr online screenwriting course for $59 (normally $299) through 1 Dec using code SCR1PT

BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS!

Even writers know they should take a little break, and what better way to relax than with a good book? Here are some about screenwriitng, along with a few that cover all sorts of other topics and genres.

Tracee Beebe‘s book – No Excuses. Write Anyway!: A Tough-Love Workbook for Screenwriters

Travis Seppala – 365: A Year of Screenwriting Tips

Don Holley – Half Loaded

Chip Street21 Things You Need to Know About Screenplay Options: The Indie Screenwriter’s Guide To Protecting Yourself And Getting The Best Deal

Brian GallagherDoing Time In Hollywood

Cali GilbertIt’s Simply Filmmaking

Lucy V Hay – link to free book How NOT To Write Female Characters, plus links to her other books

Brian Drake – his latest thriller Skills to Kill

James Syring – Zen and the Art of Fly Fishing and The Founding Fathers Farewell Tour of the U.S. of A. – both available on Amazon and Lulu Press

Karen M. Bryson‘s noir crime novel Suicide Blonde, which is part of Death and Damages, a 25-book mystery and thriller box set.

Martyn Armstrong – free pdf about running a crowdfunding campaign

Filmmaker Ronald Owen has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help produce his short Outwit. Donate if you can!

A HELPING HAND

With this being the season of giving, a few writing chums going through a bit of a rough time could use a little help, so donate if you can.

Jerron Spencer

Jason Killpack

Garison Piatt

Start putting those wishlists together!

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The crowds are already forming, eager to get their mitts on some of the quality merchandise to be offered.

Busy times around Maximum Z HQ (including some details listed below), so another shorty today, but first:

Big announcement time!

Two weeks from today, the 2018 Maximum Z Screenwriter’s Gift Guide will go up. It’ll feature holiday deals on script consulting services (from many of the consultants profiled on these very pages), books about screenwriting written by screenwriters, along with books written by screenwriters, but aren’t about screenwriting, as well as all kinds of other fun stuff that any screenwriter would enjoy receiving.

If you have a product or service like these that you’d like to be included, or if you’re a filmmaker with a crowdfunding effort for your latest project, and you’d like more people to know about it, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. (Email’s on the About Me page)

Cutoff date is Tuesday 20 November, so don’t wait until the last minute!

Now about those aforementioned busy times…

-Slow but steady progress on the horror-comedy spec. So far, my outline-to-page ratio is a bit off – page count exceeding outline expectations – which means I’ll some major editing (i.e. cutting) to do once it’s complete. But I’m having fun writing it, which is really what it comes down to anyway.

-Also have a little touch-up work to do on the sci-fi spec, with the help of some recently-received great notes.

-Been busy with the occasional reading and giving-of-notes. Have I mentioned how great it is to know so many talented writers? Yes indeed.

-Speaking of crowdfunding, filmmaker Ben Eckstein is looking for more backers for his current project WINNING. They’re a portion of the way there, but every little bit helps. Donate if you can!

The Thoroughly Unofficial 2017 Maximum Z Screenwriters Gift Guide

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Added bonus – no crowds or lack of parking spots!

With the holiday shopping season now fully underway, you might be stumped as to what get that special screenwriter in your life, or maybe you’re a screenwriter with a desire to treat yourself.

Worry no more! Here’s a list of some holiday deals being offered by some well-known and exceptionally talented script consultants, along with a few books penned by some very savvy and creative scribes.

Keep in mind that a lot of these deals are time-sensitive, with more than a few expiring on November 30th, so act fast!

CONSULTANTS

-Need notes on your sci-fi script? Sci-fi screenwriter, Sci-Fi Circuit columnist for ScriptMag, and Called to Write Founder Jenna Avery’s sci-fi (and fantasy) script notes on sale through November 30th for $100 off. Find out more here: https://calledtowrite.com/product/script-notes

Need help showing up to write? Feeling blocked? Lost your writing mojo? Join the Called to Write Coaching Circle, Jenna Avery’s signature online program designed to help writers write every day. Save $50 on your first 28-day writing session with coupon code MAXIMUMZ. Find more and register here: http://justdothewriting.com. Next session starts on December 3rd, last day to register is November 30th.

ScriptArsenal. 20% off Regular coverage, Comments-only coverage and Studio Notes – thru Thursday the 30th. Promo code “THANKS20”

-The fine folks at The Be Epic Experience are offering big discounts on all their services, starting at $100 off, through January 1st.

Geoffrey Calhoun and We Fix Your Script. $20 discount on all script services, which includes a 15-minute phone consultation, if you use the code MAXIMUMZ.

Friend of the blog Howard Casner5 pages of coverage for $40, and coverage, notes & a 1-hour one-on-one discussion for $125.

Phil Clarke of Philmscribe. Use promo code BLACKNEWS via www.philmscribe.com/contact to get 20% off the Annotation, Analysis or A&A services for a 2018 consult through the end of November. Phil is based in the UK, so exchange rates and fees do apply.

Steve Cleary. 30% off all screenwriting services. Make sure to mention this blog when contacting him.

Barri Evans of Big Big Ideas. A special deal on her logline service just for readers of this blog. Using the code Maximum Z Pie in the subject line, send her an email that includes your script’s title, genre, and logline, and she’ll provide you with free feedback.

-Highstreet Script Consultation and Finish Line Script Competition6 pages of notes and a follow-up email for a rate of $125. Contact them here.

Phil Hardy of The Script Gymnasium. A reduced rate of $129 on his full script consulting package.

Andrew Hilton of The Screenplay Mechanic. 10% discount on Notes Only Plus and Full Development Notes services through the end of December.

Namita Kabilas of the NK Network. For a limited time only, join the Screenwriters Training Hub – your very own flexible online mobile screenwriting resource with access to regular monthly training videos, worksheets, expert tips, e-books, audiobooks, hosted webcasts on good writing AND one-to-one mentoring with Namita all for just $79 a month. Namita is based in the UK, so exchange rates and fees will apply.

Jim Mercurio of A-List Screenwriting. Half-price on his 6-disc instructional DVD set and his Snapshot Evaluation script read service through November 30th. Plus, every order includes a complimentary copy of Jim’s Killer Endings DVD lecture.

-Phil Parker of Stories by Phil. 20% off script services, which includes a 30-minute Skype session. Phil is based in Australia, so exchange rates and fees will apply.

Scott Parisien of Pro Screenplays. Development notes marked down to $59 (a savings of $20) until December 1st.

BOOKS

-For the screenwriter seeking some career guidance (part 1). A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success: Tips, tricks and tactics to survive as a working writer in Hollywood by Mark Sanderson.

-For the screenwriter seeking some career guidance (part 2). Mind Your Business: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide to Your Writing Career by Michele Wallerstein.

– Looking for a laugh? Half-Loaded by Don Holley. Don wrote the cult comedy National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1, and this memoir chronicles his “wildly unlikely odyssey from obscurity to success and back again.”

-Have a young reader, aspiring comic artist, and/or comics aficianado on your list? Can’t go wrong with The Chapel Chronicles by Emma T Capps.

-Into a little sci-fi adventure? Only 99 cents for the Kindle 3-book boxset of Syndicate Wars by the very prolific Justin Sloan.

Educate thyself

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Quiet, please. Writers at work.

Chances are you came to this blog/post via a link from an online screenwriting group or forum. (If you’re a first-timer – welcome! Feel free to subscribe.)

When time permits, I’ll browse through some of the groups to check out what kinds of subjects and topics are being discussed. There are also questions. A LOT of questions. Those can range from “How do I get an agent?” to “What’s the proper format for this?” to “How do these pages look?”, all of which will yield a wide variety of answers.

I don’t usually comment because most of the time I come into it late and somebody with just as much if not more experience than me has already said what I was going to say.

There was a recent post where somebody asked what the best screenwriting book was. Answers ranged from several well-known titles to “read scripts instead”.

To a certain extent, I think those are both good answers. The books that helped me the most were Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriting Bible, primarily in terms of getting a good handle on formatting and the basics of structure, and Paul Lucey’s Story Sense, which expanded on both (and appears to be out of print, but still worth tracking down a copy.)

While some books might help you get a grasp of the basics, the real learning comes from immersing yourself in reading scripts and working on your own. Another helpful practice is to watch a film with the script in hand, following along with the action onscreen while seeing how it’s written on the page.

Reading a script can really help show you what should and shouldn’t be there, which you can then apply to yours.

This doesn’t just apply if you’re just starting out. I still get a kick out of reading scripts, whether it’s from the Black List, or one somebody recommended, or even when someone asks me for notes. Bonus points if it’s somebody within my network of writing colleagues; I know they can deliver the goods, and that’ll be reflected in their script.

I’ve also seen my fair share of terrible scripts, usually identified as such by the content of the first page. If that’s not good, there’s little hope of improvement for the rest of it. The silver lining here is you will quickly see how NOT to do it, thereby ensuring you won’t duplicate it.

So while you should definitely devote time to writing your script, make sure you set some time aside to read scripts. You’ll be entertained AND learn at the same time.

-Filmmaker/script consultant/friend of the blog Jimmy George is offering a special limited-time discount for first-time clients – 50% off all script services. No matter what you’re working on, whether it’s a feature, a short, or TV, Jimmy’s ready to help you out. But better hurry – the offer’s only good until October 11th.