Q & A with Brooks Elms

Brooks W Stripes

Brooks Elms creates and consults on films big and small. He’s a proud WGA screenwriter who’s written over 20 scripts and directed a few indie features. He started at NYU and now has a blast teaching a class at UCLA Extension in addition to privately mentoring writers and filmmakers at all levels. He also runs the script consulting service FinishMyDamnScript.com.

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

JOKER. Because it’s difficult to build empathy for protagonists with flaws that lead to violence against innocent people, especially with all the mass shootings these days. I have ethical questions about whether this was a worthy screenplay to produce because the film can’t help but celebrate what it’s also trying to condemn. And I suspect it will inspire as much (if not more) negative consequences as positive ones – but that makes the screenwriting all the more impressive and skillful. Because this was a very popular film and the bar was VERY high for that level of success.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Making movies with my friends in high school, which led to NYU film school, then making indie features. In the last decade I’ve mostly focused on screenwriting. I also teach a screenwriting class at UCLA Extention and I mentor writers when I have time. I love every aspect of making content and mentoring.

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

What’s the alternative theory – that people come out of the womb knowing how to write well? It’s a matter of defining what you love about other stories and getting familiar with the craft choices that lead to those results. I teach this to everybody from beginners to veteran writers so…. yup.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

It’s about the harmony between components. The craft is taking elements (premise, hero, goal, conflict, structure, relationships, setting, theme, tone, etc..) and adjusting aspects of them (size, shape, style, amount, etc..) until we find the right collective balance which allows something bigger to speak through the parts.

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

Losing touch with the delight of the process. And stopping because of that.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Every trope has the potential to be powerful if created with authenticity. It only feels cliche when there’s too much emotional distance from the truth of the intention.

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

I stay away from language choices like what “every writer should know X”. Those types of words can be a distraction from listening to the subtle impulses of your voice. Instead, I invite people to follow their passion. What excites us about our current story? How can we play with elements to unleash more of that excitement? When we share material for feedback, what’s blocking other people from deeper levels of excitement? “Confusion” is the most common blockage followed by “tepid goals and conflicts.”

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

The Duffer Brothers’ HIDDEN, which they wrote before STRANGER THINGS. It was a masterful display of milking tension using minimal assets in a scene. I used that script to teach myself how to make a huge impact on the way I write tension.

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

ALL the paths toward advancing your career have you pitted against the odds. So just pick the paths that speak to you and your budget. Contests can certainly be helpful so have fun playing that game, and detach from the outcomes. It’s about enjoying the journey and welcoming those that come along that happen to love your work as much as you do.

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

Check out my website – FinishMyDamnScript.com

And if writers want professional support at a great price I invite them to check out my new tight-knit online community: THE FINISH MY DAMN SCRIPT WRITERS GROUP. It’s a collective of my favorite clients and UCLA students banding together for accountability and awesomeness. There are live group calls, a Facebook group and more! A link can be found on the homepage of my site.

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

Now we’re getting to the essential question. The answer is pecan. It’s rich, heavenly and it shines beneath a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Shout out to banana cream for a close second place. It can be spectacular when it’s baked well, but breaks my heart when it’s often messed up.

My, what a pleasant scent

jimmy stewart flower

It’s a been good week around Maximum Z HQ. A very good week, you might even say.

Got a couple of read requests, including one several months after the initial pitch, and my western advanced in the first round of a reputable contest.

On the actual writing front, made some good progress in the latest overhaul of the sci-fi adventure outline, plus got a last-minute invite to come up with a story idea for a friend meeting with a filmmaker looking for potential projects.

All in all, not too shabby.

Do I wish every week could be this fulfilling and rewarding? Most definitely.

Will they? Heavens no. But that’s expected. It’s the just way it is, and I accept that.

Everything that happened was the result of me putting in the time and effort. Writing, rewriting, researching who’d be most receptive to queries, figuring out which contest was most worth entering, and so forth.

I just happened to be fortunate that a lot of them are paying off very close to one another.

I also realize that each read request could results in “thanks, but no thanks”, my script doesn’t advance any further in the contest, and the filmmaker doesn’t like my idea.

Disappointing, sure, but it won’t slow me down, let alone stop me. I’ve got too much else going on to worry about it.

While the road to screenwriting success may be dotted with potholes, sharp objects and people who shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel to begin with, every once in a while you get a long empty stretch of green lights and smooth pavement. It may not last long, but it’ll might make you appreciate it even more.

So when you have a brief window of time where it seems like everything is actually going your way, savor it knowing that YOU EARNED IT. And definitely spread the word to your support network – they’ll be thrilled (just like you’d be if it were them).

Use the emotions and sensations you’re experiencing during this happiest of times to keep you going when every response you get is “NO” and the dark clouds return.

But also keep in mind that it won’t always be like that. This path is full of highs and lows, mountains and valleys. The important thing is to enjoy the journey and keep pushing forward.

As we head into the weekend, I’ll take a moment to review the past few days and think “This was nice.”

And then get right back to the grind, once again hoping for the best.

Q & A with Dominic Carver

Dom Carver

Dominic Carver is a screenwriter, script consultant, and script editor.

In 2008 his first short film, AGN, was produced by Split Edit in Norway and broadcast on Norwegian TV. His second short film written in 2010, the mystery thriller THE TRAVELLER, was a collaboration with Dubai-based director Musaab Ag. In June 2011, Dominic won the Prequel To Cannes Feature Screenwriting Prize for FAITH, a bleak unflinching look at the life of a London street prostitute.

Dominic has since been commissioned for six feature screenplays and has also worked as a script editor on other projects, including the feature THE DYING EYE (2013).

Dominic continues to place highly in many competitions most notably the FINAL TEN of FINAL DRAFT’S BIG BREAK 2016 FEATURE COMPETITION – FAMILY/ANIMATED, the FINAL TEN of STAGE 32 TV WRITING CONTEST 2017 and the FINAL TEN of Idris Elba’s GREEN DOOR, GREEN LIGHT INITIATIVE 2017.

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

DUBLIN MURDERS by Sarah Phelps. Utterly spellbinding, a haunting examination of loss set in and around the search for the murderer of a young girl. Sarah’s work is wonderfully paced and her dialogue frighteningly good. She writes beautifully dark, complex characters, and with THE ABC MURDERS she breathed new life into the well visited character of Poirot.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I have always loved stories, often reading a novel a day during my teens. On one particularly slow and boring day at work, I decided I’d had enough and needed to do something other than rot away in a dead-end job, so I signed up to do the Scriptwriting for Film & TV degree at Bournemouth University. Skip forward a few years and I won the Prequel To Cannes Screenwriting Competition, and one of the judges recommended me to a producer, who offered me my first feature commission.

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

A very interesting question. I believe that to be a truly great writer you have to have a certain amount of natural storytelling talent. You can be taught how to create characters, develop ideas, write characters and dialogue to a reasonable level and to recognise what works and what doesn’t, but if that natural storytelling ability isn’t there. you’re going to struggle and will only ever be average.

Good storytelling is instinct; getting to the emotional core of your characters and their journeys and being able to put that on a page to move and manipulate your audience in ways they weren’t expecting. It’s easy to spot a good screenwriter – they stand out from the crowd. From the hundreds of scripts I’ve read over the years, only four really made me sit up and pay attention and go, ‘This writer has real talent!’

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The characters and the journey they’re on. If your audience doesn’t feel for your characters or their journey, then you’ve lost them before you’ve even begun.

The film JOKER is the perfect example. He’s the most despicable character, a psychopath you would go out of your way to avoid in real life, but on the screen we understand and can empathise with the circumstances that made him. Even when he goes on a killing spree at the end of the movie, regardless of how horrifying and distasteful it is, we understand why and empathise with him. If, as a writer, you can make even the most despicable character sympathetic, that’s masterful writing.

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

Where do I start? Poorly developed characters. If you don’t know who your characters are, how can you expect your audience to? Generic storylines. A popular one at the moment seems to be the ‘mid-life crisis’ and the search for meaning in characters’ lives.

If you don’t approach it from a unique angle, give the audience something they haven’t seen before, then why bother as your screenplay will be lost amongst a sea of similar scripts. Static scenes where characters share their secret feelings around a table and a cup of tea. It’s a visual medium, people sitting around chatting about their feelings is boring to watch. Busy those static scenes up. And when have you ever opened up to a stranger and told them your inner most feelings? Never! People just don’t do that, unless verbal diarrhea is a character trait.

If new writers took more care in developing their characters and their stories, rather than copying what has come before and populating those tired stories with generic characters, there would be a lot more interesting stories out there.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The mid-life crisis. The hero whose family is murdered and they go on the hunt for revenge. And that’s just two. There are so many more, I’d be here all day listing them. Dig deeper, people!

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

-Spend time on developing your characters and ideas.

-Don’t write great chunks of dialogue or scene description. Less is more. You’re writing a screenplay, not a novel.

-Study people. Find out how people tick.

-Don’t try and write a Tarantino (or another writing hero) movie. Write your own, what appeals to you. Find and develop your own voice.

-Always, always, always have your work read by a professional screenwriter before you send it out into the wider world. Yes, it will cost you money, but you need to know if your story and characters work as it will save you a lot of time and effort. Far too many writers send work out before it’s ready and they wonder why they experience so much rejection.

-Write the first draft quickly without over thinking it too much. The following draft will be a lot better. Just get those ideas on the page and then worry about reworking them. A page of crap is easier to rewrite than a blank one.

-Don’t make a tit of yourself on social media. Be kind, be polite, be inquisitive but never ever pester others to read your work. If you are friendly, polite, respectful and get to know them as friends, people will start to ask to read your work or even recommend you to others.

-Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite!

-Network like your life depends on it… because it does.

-Never take rejection personally. It’s never about you, it’s just that your script isn’t a fit with that person at that time. If you get rejected, rework your screenplay and then send it out to two more people. Developing a thick skin is an absolute must for being a writer.

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

Yes, and it still puzzles me why it hasn’t been made. I don’t usually mention clients I read for, or their work, as it’s confidential, but in this case I’m going to name the script and the writer. It’s MINOTAUR by ADEWOLE ADEYOYIN.

I hate horror movies, I don’t see the point of watching something that you know is going to scare the poop out of you, but Ade’s script stood out because of its characters, story, themes and its depth. It took a well-explored genre and turned it into something original and compelling, a thrill ride from start to finish.

If any producer out there reads this and is looking for a cracking monster movie, get in touch and I’ll pass it on. It needs to be made!

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

Yes! Not only do they test your work, but if you do well they can help propel your career forward. A friend and I wrote a feature from conception to finished second draft in twelve days back in 2016. She wrote the first draft in seven days and I spent the next five rewriting. We entered it into Final Draft’s Big Break and made it through to the final ten in the family category. If it had been entered in the historical category, I think it would have gone even further. Every competition we entered this script into it made at least the quarterfinals, so we knew we had something special.

But which competitions to enter? Pick the well-known ones, the ones with an impressive lineup of judges or that offer access to industry players. Paying for feedback is a great idea, but how well your screenplay does in the competition will also be a great indicator of how good your writing is.

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

From my website at www.thescriptwriter.co.uk. It needs updating, but as usual I’ve been busy. I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Maybe next year.

I’m also on Twitter – @DomCarver

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

Steak and kidney… nothing beats it!

steak-and-kidney-pie

Q & A with Jon Kohan

JK.JPG

Jon Kohan is a script consultant and award-winning screenwriter from Johnstown, PA, who’s worked in both film and television. His recent horror/comedy short Family Game Night earned him a Best Screenwriter nomination from the Shock Stock film festival (along with winning for Best Actor), and his holiday comedy Deer Grandma recently won Best Comedy at the Show Low Film Festival.

His comedy/crime short Spilled Paint is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, picking up several Best Short and Best Cast awards.

His first feature/backdoor pilot Ernie and Cerbie is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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

Mindhunter, season two, on Netflix. The first season was great, and the second was just as good. I love the show for all the tension-filled scenes that can last ten-plus minutes, and usually just between two or three characters. The writers of that show are super-talented, and I look forward to being able to read and study the scripts to see how to improve my own writing.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

The lead-up is a pretty long story- working different writing jobs as I gained more experience and building a resume of work – but I’ll talk about how I landed my first real gig.

I was doing freelance writing work on a site called Fiverr.com. I still use the site from time-to-time. On my page, at the time, I offered joke writing and screenwriting, but only for shorts.

I had a customer hire me for a short story idea they had. I work on it for about a week and sent it back to them. A couple weeks go by and that customer comes back and says they have an idea for a family film that could even be a television show but needs someone they feel has the talent and skill to write a pilot; maybe even possibly a whole first season.

I jumped at the chance to work on that script, and in fact did write the pilot and the entire first season (10 episodes). About a year after I wrote the pilot, the customer reached out to me again to let me know that the project was going into production. That customer’s name was Alvin Williams. Since working on that pilot, titled Ernie and Cerbie (currently streaming on Amazon Prime), we’ve teamed up on multiple projects and he’s become one of my main collaborators in the industry.

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

Anyone can probably be taught or learn how to recognize good writing, but something you can’t teach is how to tell a good story. Not everyone can do that. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story in the film or television format.

The rules/guidelines of writing a script is what I think makes screenwriting harder
than with other forms of writing. And not everyone can tell an entertaining story. Knowing and understanding what good writing is and looks like makes the viewer smarter, which allows for smarter movies. With a smarter audience, there’ll be a need for more originality – fresh perspectives, which will hopefully open the door to a more diverse and new pool of writers.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

This could be a very long list, but it all trickles down to one major core component: characters.

Not enough big Hollywood movies take the time to craft a film around strong characters, and instead try to build a film around a plot, or worse, action sequences, tone, look, etc.

What do The Dark Knight and Joker have in common other than the obvious that both are Batman films? They’re two of DC’s best films, and both focus more on character than all the craziness around them.

If you have characters we care about, can relate to, or at least understand where they’re coming from, and put them into conflicts that help our characters grow and become something more, you have a winner on your hands.

Even if your film is more about the concept (Independence Day, Godzilla), if you take the time to do the proper character work, you can throw a great one-two punch, something most Hollywood films seem to be lacking nowadays.

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

Formatting issues. No question. Not everyone uses screenwriting software, which is weird to me. If you’re not just writing a script as a hobby, you should invest in the proper industry tools.

I see formatting issues all the time, and those can easily be fixed, and quickly learned.

One of the most common things to see is a script not written like one. So many writers write action lines like they’re writing a novel. Telling us what the character is thinking, why they’re doing something a certain way, what’s going to happen later without us ever seeing it later.

I urge to my clients how “Show, Don’t Tell” is a huge rule they should always be repeating to themselves. How do you present information in a film or TV show? Either through images or dialogue. If we don’t see it or hear it, we don’t know it. When I have a writer I’m working with go back and look at their script again – with that guideline in mind – they’ll see just how much information is in their script that they are telling the reader, but not showing them.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I don’t know which I hate more:  “You lied to me?” or “There is a prophecy….”

The first is something you hear more in comedies. The second you always hear in
fantasy, adventure, action, etc. If I’m watching a romcom, I KNOW the end of the second act will have “You lied to me?” as dialogue – usually from the female lead.

For most summer blockbusters, fantasy films, the trailer is probably going to have some version of the “There is a prophecy…” line, and the entire setup will be this typical paint-by-numbers hero’s journey story.

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

Show, Don’t Tell. (see my response a few questions back)

Formatting – I know just looking at the first page if the read is going to be enjoyable or if it’s going to feel like I’m doing homework. That all stems from the format of the script. If I can glance and see issues, then I know there’s going to be issues with the characters, story, arcs, and so on. Even if you can can’t tell a story, or write good characters, and have something actually happen in your script, at least make the script look like a script. This sets the tone for your reader and lets them know you know what you’re doing.

As a writer, your goal is to get someone to read your script. A horribly-formatted script is an easy excuse for someone not to take the time to read your script. Don’t give them that choice.

DON’T WRITE CAMERA DIRECTIONS! – This is something a lot of first-time writers do in their scripts. I was no different. Learning how to write your action lines properly and how to influence the director in shooting a scene a certain way by the way it’s written not only makes your script stand out amongst the others but it’ll make you a better writer as a whole. I know it has for me, or at least think it has.

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

I’ve read scripts from screenwriting friends of mine that have really impressed me. Some of them are super talented, award-winning writers who are going to be names we recognize one day.

As far as reading a spec script that was sent to me to review and give detailed notes on, I haven’t read a script yet I’d stamp “recommend”. Some have come close, but unless you’re lucky and extremely talented, it’s not going to be your first script that you do something with.

The more scripts you write, the better you’ll be. My first script is god-awful compared to my tenth script, and my tenth script is amateurish compared to the latest draft of a script I recently finished.

What would a script need to get a “recommend” from me? As I keep saying, strong characters. Throw in a joke once in a while. Make me want to keep turning the pages. One of the worst things to see is a massive block of action or dialogue, and know the whole script is going to be that way. The more white on the page, the better.

A script could be for the greatest movie ever made, but if’s it’s a difficult chore to read and takes hours – or even days – to complete, I probably won’t see it as a recommended script.

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

Worth it – for sure. Screenwriting contests are great to try and win some awards, network with other screenwriters and filmmakers, and get yourself exposure.

With all that being said, if you place in or even win one of the top contests, that’s going to open a lot more doors for you than winning a much smaller contest.

I don’t agree that you must enter contests to be able to get a film produced. I’ve only recently started entering contests and already have several produced projects under my belt, with and more in development.

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

The two best to get all the information you need and links to other sites are my Patreon page and my personal website.

On my Patreon, I offer screenwriting and script feedback services through two different subscription tiers. I’ve already had two filmmakers subscribe to have me write their feature films, so that’s been really exciting.

My IMDB page lists the projects I’ve worked on. There’s also a ton of stuff I’ve already done, but hasn’t been officially announced yet.

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

I bet you haven’t heard this one before – Oreo*. Store bought or homemade. Either works for me. I have a huge sweet tooth. This may sound like a little kid answer, but it’s the truth.

*editor’s note – there is no official site for Oreo pie, along with a ton of other blogs with recipes, so you’ll have to find one that works best for you.

No-Bake-Oreo-Cream-Pie-3

Two shoulders, no waiting

shoulder
Plus two sympathetic ears at no additional cost

Trying to make it as a screenwriter is a tough choice to begin with. It’s a long, drawn-out process that takes a long time before any significant results can be achieved. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, it remains a marathon, not a sprint.

And that also means there’s going to be A LOT of heartache and disappointment along the way, and that can really take its toll on you. Not to sound too New Age-y, but all that negative energy can do significant damage to your confidence and self-esteem.

“This is never going to work.”

“I can’t do this.”

“Why do I even bother?”

If you’ve never said or thought any of these things, I’d love to know how in the world you managed to accomplish that and still call yourself a screenwriter.

Many’s the time I’ve seen comments on a public forum from another writer that echo these sentiments, or had them send me a private note saying something similar.

And I feel for them – whole-heartedly. I’ve been that writer thinking those thoughts a lot, too.

Do I wish I could help them out in any capacity? Without a doubt.

Even though it may not be much, I’ll offer up whatever support or encouragement I can. Don’t underestimate the power or effectiveness of telling somebody you’re in their corner. It makes quite the difference knowing you’re not alone during this tumultuous journey.

I once got a note from a writer I barely knew. They knew a writer I knew, and had seen some of my postings online. We were both semi-finalists in a prestigious contest, and it was the day the finalists were being announced.

For reasons totally unknown to me, they contacted me, asking if I’d received any kind of update. I hadn’t.

“Having a total shit writing year so far so I’m clinging to anything positive ha,” was their response.

I told them I was sorry to hear that, and offered up my own frustratingly good-but-not-great batting average, along with a few words of encouragement in the vein of “much as it hurts to get thrown off, you just gotta keep getting back on the horse”.

They were in total agreement.

An hour or so later, the finalists were announced. I wasn’t one of them. But they were. Naturally, I was disappointed, but also happy for them because they had something good happen.

The takeaway here is that you’re not alone in this. Every other writer goes through it. We’re all going to have a lot of bad days, probably a lot more than the number of good days, and it can be tough to get through it, let alone come out stronger.

This is one of those added benefits to networking and connecting with other writers. You’re not just helping to develop your writing and analytical skills, you’re creating your own emotional support network.

Chances are you’ll have a stronger relationship with a small number of people; the ones you’ve interacted with, or shared scripts, exchanged notes, etc., on a more regular basis.

Don’t be afraid to reach out and tell one of them “Hey, I’m not feeling too good about this right now. Mind if I talk about it?” They’ll understand, and be supportive about it (in theory). Just being able to talk about it could help you feel a little better.

Screenwriting is complicated enough, and gets even more so when you throw all your hopes and ambition into it. Sometimes you’ll feel strong, powerful, ready to take on the world. And sometimes you’ll feel like the world’s beaten you to a bloody pulp with no hope for recovery. (Again, I’ve experienced both.)

You can’t force yourself to feel better and restore your confidence, but you can take little steps to help yourself out – at your own pace. And any help you might need is always there and easily accessible.

-Speaking of helping somebody out, friend-of-the-blog Leo Maselli is running a crowdfunding campaign for his anthology feature project CA SHORTS. Donate if you can!