Q & A with the Thornton Brothers

Thornton Brothers

Chris and Jason Thornton are professional storytellers who seek to entertain audiences via thematically charged films, TV shows, books and comics across various genres while specializing in darker, provocative, character-driven narratives ranging from “micro” to tentpole in budget. They are members of the WGAw and repped by UTA and Rosa Entertainment.

Cactus Jack is their feature directorial debut. It’s the story of a reclusive hate-monger who starts a venomous, vitriolic podcast from his mother’s basement and makes enemies far and wide—until one comes to silence him. Think a cross between Taxi Driver and Talk Radio for the podcasting generation. You can help the guys out with their crowdfund campaign (and see their totally NSFW red band proof-of-concept teaser)

What’s the last thing you read/watched you thought was incredibly well-written (Book, TV or film)

Fuck, that’s hard. Not because we look down on stuff, but because we’re so busy trying to make our own shit that we barely have time to consume like we used to. Hmmmm. Just rewatched Network lately, so that definitely should be mentioned. Paddy Chayefsky was an absolute beast. Sure. Network. Can’t go wrong with that.

What’s your writing background? What was the project that got things started?

We’ve kind of always been innate storytellers. We come from a strong line of liars and bullshitters, and as largely unsupervised kids in the projects outside DC we’d play out really elaborate, raw extended throughlines with our action figures and made our own comic books and honed our sensibilities between bouts of watching R-rated 80’s shit on free promotional HBO and Showtime and role playing. We started screenwriting together maybe fifteen years ago, but after writing three scripts that shall never see the light of day we stopped for a few years before coming back to it in ‘07. That project was a script called Heart, about a dying, psychotic Vietnam vet who gets an early release from prison and—since he can’t get on a donor’s list—tracks down the man whose life he saved forty years ago in ‘Nam: he wants the dude’s heart. It’s a very dark, fucked up, pulpy who-do-I-root-for story, which finished in the Top 30 out of like 5,000 entries for the 2009 Nicholl Fellowship (since dismantled and currently turning it into a truly dastardly novel). From there we started talking to managers but it was our next script Mechanicsville that really hooked our manager (shoutout to Sidney Sherman of Rosa Entertainment, who still reps us) and first agent (started at WME but since jumped to UTA). M-ville’s kind of a Kentucky-fried heist flick about how shit hits the fan when two gangs of bank robbers try to rob the same small town bank on the same day (Hell Or High Water stomps all over it now, unfortunately). That one started getting us legit meetings, led to our first assignment and opened the door to pitch shit, etc.

Your current big project is crowdfunding to produce your original independent film CACTUS JACK. What’s the story behind that?

Part of this is definitely about us tiring of being stuck on that movie/TV development hamster wheel, and all of these unproduced projects forcing us to look at our shoes and mumble “no” when people hear what we do and of course follow up with “Oh yeah? Anything I can see or read?” Part of it is about trying to make a feature film for relatively very little money, because screenwriters will never “move the needle” on a project like in-demand directors will… but for the most part it’s a sick little story we just have to get out there as quickly as possible. It’s very zeitgeisty, very of-the-moment as it holds up a twisted, frothing-mouthed funhouse mirror to this already “big top” election cycle. Once we started talking to our actor (Michael Gull, a very talented dude whose skills we tailored the very conception of the film to), we knew we had some dynamite shit on our hands, and as far as we were chomping to push the envelope into radioactive territory, we knew none of our contacts or fans in Hollywood would take a risk on this thing until it was made and we proved our point.

So we found a micro-investor to help us make a teaser for the film and launched a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo. We need all the help we can get, time is running out, and though we have recent some offline help from friends and family who couldn’t back us through the campaign, it’s pretty dire! We’re going to make the movie come hell or high water, but every penny helps push production value (plus pay and feed cast and crew) and you can preorder a copy of the flick for $25. So—please, lend us a hand in making this batshit, gonzo little monster of a movie!

Your writing style is very vivid and descriptive. Did that come naturally or was it something that took time to develop?

Both. It takes a long, long time for some people to hone their voice and honestly, it should be an ongoing process and evolution for your entire writing life. But you have to have a voice to be honed in the first place. A lot of writers are sadly like those poor souls on American Idol who have no business auditioning in the first place—but hey, who are we to deny the delusional their dreams? Whatever keeps them from shooting up a shopping mall. ;)

Have you always worked together? Is one of you the specialist in a certain area, like one does more writing and the other handles directing, or do you split it evenly?

We’ve sort of always worked together, for the most part. Though we each have our own skills we complement the other with, we do tend to each spearhead a project nowadays while the other acts as more editor and muse. So yeah, we each have our own pet solo projects, but they all fall under the Thornton Brothers umbrella eventually.

Do you only work on your own scripts, or have you done some assignment work as well? Do you have a preference?

We’ve done both, for sure. Hard to sustain a career, or even kickstart one, without doing assignment work. The nice thing about it is people actually give you money to commence writing something! It’s crazy. Not at all easy to do, trying to feed yourself or help provide for others in the arts. Some might even call it foolhardy, but yeah…we’ve done both. Selling something you wrote yourself, from your own mind and heart, is infinitely more satisfying. And while we’ve had some very fun, interesting experiences collaborating in a development sense with assignment work or on successful pitches that became scripts (if not movies), no matter how smooth or inspired a collaboration with an outside party it’s never quite as liberating or just straight up fun as going out into the creative wild on our own and coming back with a kill.

You’re also filmmakers as well as writers. What do you consider the benefits of working on a film, from both the writer and filmmaker perspective?

Making or even merely being witness to the construction of an actual film is pretty invaluable for screenwriters, in our collective opinion. You really start to see how to separate the meat from the fat, and how what works on the page might not be as impactful in the moment or on the screen. Editing film/video also really helps hone your sense of timing, pacing, and flow as a storyteller… and how effective and economical you can be with visuals, allowing characters to shut the fuck up sometimes, how to convey info without big, clunky dialogue exposition bombs, etc.

Also, if you can we say go for the hyphenate… again, no screenwriter is ever going to have the kind of clout a successful director has. That said, many don’t have the temperament or skillset required (not that there’s one narrow band of disposition that allows one to direct), but writers often have murkier personalities. It’s worth making a film or two to find out if you’re a writer-director or filmmaker versus just a writer is not a bad idea. But if you know off the bat you don’t get along with others, have trouble verbally conveying what you mean to say, then save yourself the grief. Take our word for it: directing even modest, “micro” films ain’t for the faint of heart. Also, keep in mind that some stories demand to be told in this medium. Others don’t. Some work better in prose, or even in poem of song. Marrying the right medium to the story is also part of the trick.

When working on a script, do you have a reliable source for notes?

We are our own most reliable source of notes. It helps that there’s two of us but honestly we’ve both tried to become total fucking samurais when it comes to self-editing. You have to be. It’s not only a matter of putting your best foot forward when you go to show your work to reps or the public, but even if you were going to Emily Dickinson that shit away in a kitchen drawer until it’s discovered posthumously years later—your story deserves to be the closest to “perfection” it can be (which is objectively unattainable, but approximated through the filter that is you. It is YOUR story, after all). Oh, and our manager is usually good for one killer note.

What are the 3 most important rules a writer should know?

Ew! “Rules!” Haha, in all seriousness though maybe Rule #1 should be: There Are No Rules. There’s no one way to get noticed, to have a career — and anyone who tells you there is is probably trying to sell you something. But if you want some real nuts and bolts:

1. Always approach storytelling with Character at the forefront.

Even if you outline a predetermined plot to get started with a map, veer off of it when you find it incongruent with a character you’re rendering. If there is falsity or fallacy baked into the behavior of your characters, no matter how tightly constructed your narrative, it will start to crumble.

2. Be careful with twists and “reveals.”

We see it all the time, from the stuff we watch and read (and have written in the past) to many of the scripts we’ve consulted on. It’s a natural storytelling tendency, to want to surprise an audience, but only do it with REAL PURPOSE. Be careful with the big climactic “backstory reveal that made the character tick all this time.” Very rarely works.

So much more satisfying is a simple story told well. If you do work with twists, make it work like The Sixth Sense. The film works with or without it until the point it hits, and it is truly revelatory. It’s not that M. Night held something back to show how clever he was. Don’t do that shit. It’s awful. Put your cards on the table and tell your damn story.

3. Don’t be a slave to the idea that a story needs a transformational character arc.

This is something that a Blake Snydered Hollywood succumbs to far too often, in our opinions. First: in film arcs very, very often feel shoehorned or forced in. Especially if not much time passes, or it comes near the end (must overcome his fear to succeed, or must learn to be a team player—blah, these themes have become true platitudes). If you open with a loving mother and wife whose husband and kids are murdered and she becomes a vengeful, murderous black widow from there—sure. Inciting Incident forcing a catastrophic arc that sets a character on a trajectory works. That feels authentic. And in TV, longform character change feels authentic. Some of the most potent stories of all time are great specifically because a character does not arc. Think Shakespearean tragedies, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, etc. Sometimes it’s “the right man for the right job,” and the transformation is supposed to occur in the viewer. That’s where real catharsis lives: in the viewer. Give it to them.

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

Well, there are two of us. Chris likes pumpkin, and Jay will eat anything. Literally, anything. There’s a reason we don’t include headshots.

Leaving an indelible impression

footprint
Not expecting it to last millions of years, but wouldn’t complain about it either

As an avid fan of summer movies, this year has been one big disappointment after another. Granted, I haven’t seen a few of the latest releases yet (STAR TREK BEYOND, SUICIDE SQUAD), but barely remember anything since CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, and that came out in early May.

Remember all the hoopla preceding the GHOSTBUSTERS reboot? Kind of died off quickly, didn’t it? We saw it opening weekend, mostly because V wanted to, and it was…okay. I don’t attribute it’s lack of success to angry fans of the original, but because it just wasn’t that great a movie.

Was anything from this summer truly memorable? So far, not really (although I’m still holding out hope for the exquisite-looking KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS).

It honestly seemed like everything simply wasn’t up to standard. Despite what the various marketing assaults might indicate, the end products felt too slapdash and that too many projects were focused on being ready for the release date rather than making sure the script was rock-solid.

Based on this and almost-daily reports of forthcoming reboots, remakes, and overall more of the same-ness, breaking in as a writer of original material suddenly seems significantly harder. Not only does your script have to really wow ’em, but it better pack a significant wallop on several levels.

A great, new story with phenomenal characters, all told in the most captivating way possible. Simple, no? I realize that a lot of films start with great scripts, but the process that leads up to the film being unleashed on the public can drastically affect it – too many times not for the better.

I’ve always seen my objective as to not only tell you a story that hasn’t been told before (or at least tell an old one in a totally new way), but to tell it in the most entertaining way possible. I want you to not be able to get those images out of your head (in a good way, as opposed to a dear-God-please-make-the-nightmares-stop kind of way).

I’ll be the first to admit that I’d love for one of my scripts to be one of the surprise hits of a summer season, but if recent releases are typical of what kind of material I’m up against, my work is more than cut out for me, if not potentially impossible.

It wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere down the line, my script got turned down because it was deemed “too original”.

A scary, sobering, and all-too-possible thought.

 

Ask a True Renaissance Script Consultant!*

Julie Gray

*Renaissance as in “those possessing many talents or areas of knowledge”, not the cultural and intellectual movement between the 14th and 17th centuries.

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Julie Gray. I had the good fortune to interview Julie a few years ago just before she relocated to the other side of the planet.

Bonus question: So much has changed for you since I saw you last – you moved abroad and now live in Tel Aviv, Israel. What’s that been like, and what are you up to?

After ten years in Hollywood, it was time for a change. Tel Aviv is an incredibly vibrant city and there is SO much going on in the art scene here, it’s really exciting.

I work with screenwriters and novelists from New York, LA, the UK and Australia and increasingly, filmmakers here. I just interviewed the writer/directors of the Israeli film Big Bad Wolves, which Quentin Tarantino called the best film of 2013. The interview will be in Script Magazine this fall. I go to London every year and teach at the London Screenwriter’s Festival, which is really fun, and I have been volunteering with Amnesty International in Tel Aviv, working with Sudanese refugees on story telling. I founded the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon in 2013, a group that meets weekly and writes flash fiction. During the war this past summer, I was asked to do a writing workshop for US embassy employees, to write about the trauma of what we all went through and will be doing writing workshops for victims of terror and war here in Israel for an Israeli non-profit later this fall. So I keep pretty busy!

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

I read an hour-long drama pilot by a client of mine and I just went insane, it was SO clever and unique. I can’t talk about the premise because it’s so unique and because I got so excited about it that I sent it to several producer friends of mine in Hollywood and the writer has a bunch of meetings coming up! I was so glad to help him and so impressed by his talent!

This summer, I watched a lot of movies but two really stood out – The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I also watched McConaughey in True Detective; he’s really hitting his stride at this point in his life; it’s a joy to watch him. I’ve been a Wes Anderson fan since day one and so GBH just had me floored. Every single shot, every single moment is so stylized. It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite books, The Hotel New Hampshire.

I went on a real reading bender in the past few months and read A Confederacy of Dunces, All Quiet on the Western Front, Things Fall Apart and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I’d seen the film but the book was better (as is so often said – Wow.) I am also an inveterate reader of The New Yorker and The Atlantic – a real addict of both.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I was writing scripts, of course, and attending the Writer’s Boot Camp in Santa Monica – I’d won the 2 year professional program through a screenwriting competition and there, at that program I heard about these “readers” and that you could become one. So I did. I was, as it turned out, really good at it and it wasn’t long before I was reading for some really big deal production companies in LA – Bedford Falls, Red Wagon at Sony, Walden Media – it was a great experience! I met a lot of great producers and agents and read scripts all day every day for a long time. It helped sharpen my own sense of what is original – or not – and what really good writing looks like. That kind of repetition ingrains a lot in you about which scripts have a chance in Hollywood and which do not. Lessons I will never forget.

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

I don’t believe I’ve heard that question before! Well, the answer is complex. In order to recognize good writing, you have to READ good writing a lot. I was a freakishly good reader because I am a freakishly well-read person in the first place – and also a movie nut – so my frame of reference is pretty refined. But the question, for a Hollywood reader, is not whether YOU think it’s good writing, the question is whether the producer or agent will think so. And primarily, whether the script is unique and marketable. You learn what is expected in a rather mathematical way, and you rate those things, one by one. Being a good reader is about knowing what the particular company you are working for is looking for, specifically, what the general rules are in coverage, and then how to write up a great summary about what is good or bad in a script. And doing that very, very quickly, over and over again.

Being a good reader happens through experience. Much more of the skill lies in the ability of the reader to communicate as thoroughly and as objectively as possible what is and is not working. You might read a script of a genre you hate – it doesn’t matter what you like, it matters whether this script is written well for that genre. So – you have to know that genre. That’s why, to be a reader, you really have to know your movies, otherwise you’ll say something is unique and original when it was already done in 1947, and then another take on that premise was done again in 1976. If you don’t know that you will get fired very, very quickly. It’s a bit merciless. Readers really have their feet to the fire. It’s the belly of the beast.

But to answer your question, which is really, “what is good writing” – a good screenwriter is one who takes you on such a ride that you forget you are turning the pages. Every character seems real, every action line is cinematic, every plot twist is totally organic – it’s having a way with words that seems effortless. Can this be taught? I think that writers can be taught how to write but that GREAT writers are born that way, to be honest with you.

4. What are the components of a good script?

GREAT CHARACTERS, GREAT CHARACTERS, GREAT CHARACTERS. Oh – and a unique premise. If you have great characters and a unique premise, your structure will fall into place. You have to understand structure, but it won’t work unless the character arc really flows with the structure – informs it. Structure should not be obvious, it should just feel right.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Unoriginal ideas. Writers who don’t test their ideas and look and compare and see who else has done this idea – if anyone. In my book, Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, I go into great detail about idea testing. It’s crucial. It’s everything. Other common mistakes are things like typos, poor format, clunky action and sluglines. But if I had to point out THE worst mistake you could make and the most common one – being unoriginal wins by a landslide.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

1) Any deus ex machina – something that just magically happens and changes the direction of the story. This is very easy for new writers to do but as you get more experienced, you’ll see why this is a big no-no, not only from a Hollywood perspective, but from a creative perspective as well. Creatively, it’s cheating, It’s taking the easy way out instead of letting the possibilities of the story play themselves out.

2) The person who’s had a big accident or someone they love died and now they are this tragic figure that nobody can reach. Oh man. I’m so tired of that one. It’s not that grief doesn’t have a huge impact – I know – I’ve experienced it – but writers often broach grief like it’s a kind of slam dunk, simple emotion – and it’s really not. Watch Ordinary People if you want to explore grief.

3) In a horror script, the character that goes to the door or UP INTO the attic when they hear a strange sound. They go TO the danger – it’s laughable. Scream really sent that up well – what a seminal film. But writers have to remember that we readers have seen and read every script, so surprise us. Not easy, you say? No. It’s not. If it were easy…

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. Don’t write for the money – you’ll never write from the heart.

2. Watch movies – all kinds – all the time. Know your Hollywood history, understand genres and which movies were seminal and why.

3. Don’t be afraid to write badly! Writing is writing, but real writing is REWRITING.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

A very few times. Most recently, the client I referred to at the beginning of this interview. Unfortunately I cannot divulge the logline, but it was a mixture of a VERY popular cable show and a Bradley Cooper drama. I’m sorry I can’t share it. I read an unproduced film by the amazing writer Ben Queen, called Slanted and Enchanted and I lost it – I flipped out, it was so good. Ben and I became friends. American Beauty made me cry really hard – but it was already in production. Lucky for me, my best friend was the property master of the film so I got to visit the set and later on, Alan Ball and I had offices near each other while he was doing True Blood and I got to hang out with him and it was amazing.

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

I ran a screenwriting competition for six years so naturally I think there is worth in them. But the biggest worth is not so much the cash prizes, etc. but the validation you receive. Sometimes just quarter-finaling in a competition is enough of a good feeling to keep you going, and that can be so important in this pursuit! That said, look, be realistic and know that there are millions of competitions mushrooming all over the place and that you have a budget as a writer. So enter only a few every year – the biggies only – and then spend your money seeing movies, buying a how-to book or two, maybe go to a seminar to meet other writers. The ONLY thing that really matters is your writing, so make sure not to get sucked into lottery-like thinking, that if you buy SIX books on screenwriting or go to EVERY screenwriting event, or enter EVERY competition, that somehow this will magically do something for you. Ass in chair. That’s it. But entering a select handful each year can be fun, it can force you to meet deadlines, and it might get you the validation that you need in order to keep writing. The competitions that I consider really worth entering are: Final Draft Big Break, Blue Cat, Page International, the Nicholl (although it is VERY competitive, so know that…), Slamdance and Scriptapalooza. I may have overlooked some, but those are competitions I am very familiar with and know the people who organize them, so I can recommend them heartily.

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

They can go to my website at juliegray.info or email me at storieswb@gmail.com.

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

Coconut Cream – preferably at the House of Pies on Vermont in Silverlake. So many memories there.

Ask Two Savvy Script Consultants For the Price of One!*

ScriptChix_Logo copy

(L-R) Miranda, Sandra & budgeter/scheduler extraordinaire, Hosam, who is not part of this interview
(L-R) Miranda, Sandra & budgeter/scheduler extraordinaire Hosam, who is not part of this interview

*And considering this doesn’t cost you anything to begin with, that’s the best deal you’ll get today.

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Miranda Sajdak and Sandra Leviton of Script Chix.

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

WINTER’S BONE

BUTCHER HOLLER by Daniel Shea

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

M – Started off as an intern in Hollywood doing the typical script-reading duties. Moved on to being an assistant and continued to do coverage there. Eventually found myself reading for friends and family on the side, and realized (around the same time as Sandra did) that it was a good idea to monetize some of this so as not to just be doing it in my free time. Ended up simultaneously being asked to read for various studios/companies, and turned all that experience around into Script Chix!

S – I believe I read my first script in college, though as a kid, I liked to watch movies and transcribe them. It took hours, but I loved it. The internet wasn’t really a thing yet, so there was no easy access to them. However, professionally, I started reading as an intern doing short coverages for executives during staffing season. My subsequent jobs at an agency and a cable network had me reading all of the time – for potential clients, development, and show staffing. Giving notes to clients, friends, and others who needed feedback was part of my daily life. When I decided to leave my network gig and go out on my own, doing it professionally seemed like a natural transition. As soon as friends at another cable network heard my news, they offered me a spot as one of their book readers. Around the same time, Miranda and I teamed up, and the rest is Script Chix history.

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

M – Somewhat. The biggest thing here is to read as much as possible. We see scripts from writers who clearly don’t read screenplays regularly. The more you read, the more you’re able to recognize. Some of it is likely innate – and it should start early, before you get to Hollywood and decide you want to make movies – but, sure, recognizing what works just comes from reading more.

S – Reading is both objective and subjective. When we give notes, we try to focus on the objective. Even if we personally don’t like a character, a plotline, or concept, we can recognize that it written well, and it’s just not our personal taste. So yes, being able to recognize good writing can be taught; some things are obvious like formatting. However, it takes years of learning and practice to be able to both identify what is good and to be able to separate your own opinions/ taste from it.

4. What are the components of a good script?

S & M – There’s a number of things, but most importantly, a compelling story with multi-dimensional characters. Believable moments that still feel fresh. Strong narrative voice. Imagination and marketability. We would also include formatting in this list. It’s not a sexy component, but it is an important one. The story can be amazing, but if the formatting is off, it’s distracting, and most readers won’t be able to pay attention to greatness of the script.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

S & M – The biggest one we see, by far, is lack of formatting and proofreading. Bad character introductions. Lazy concept. Writing from experience, but instead of dramatizing the “true story that really happened” to the writer, it’s a regurgitation. Not understanding the difference between edgy and outright offensive or mean. One-dimensional or non-existent women and minorities. Some of these are not necessarily mistakes, but they’re all definitely problems we encounter often.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

M – Refrigerator women. Lack of women and minorities. One-dimensional women.

S – Stories about Hollywood, writers, and nights out with the boys. Every writer at some point writes a script about being a struggling writer in Hollywood or their lead male protagonist is a sensitive writer that gets their heart broken. Also behind the scenes of reality TV – this is starting to become a thing. People tend to write what they know and unfortunately, all they know is trying to make it in Hollywood. Unfortunately for them, no executive wants to read this and no audience wants to see it. So if a writer must write this story, do it, get it out of your system, and move on to something more original. Draw from life experience – get out there and enjoy the world, feel heartbreak, and get into trouble (but not too much). The “night out/ retail job with the boys picking up women” is also the most common one we see in fledgling comedy writers. It’s another case of writing what you know. These stories don’t work because they are usually re-tellings of actual experiences that are not particularly dramatic or funny to anyone outside of the people who experienced it. Additionally, the humor only comes from insulting women. Just because making fun of a woman was hysterical to you and your boys in the moment doesn’t make it funny or appealing to anyone else.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

M – Write. Read. Revise.

S – Persistence, practice, and patience.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

M – Yes! And it just finished shooting! “A teenage con artist tricks a desperate mother into hiring her as a live-in companion for her autistic daughter.”

S – I agree with M. That script is amazing. Honestly, it’s tough to give a blanket “recommend” because each company and client we work with has their own specific mandates of what they are looking for, so it needs to be tailored to their needs. A script that I loved recently, like goosebump-inducing loved is “With the help of a crotchety old neighbor and his garden, a young woman’s world comes alive.” It sounds a bit generic, but it was beautifully written and full of magic with a hint of surrealism.

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

S & M – Absolutely worth it, but not all of them. Do your research. See which contests have a track record of success for the writers who’ve won. Look at what the prizes are. If the only prize is that you won the contest, it’s probably not that worthwhile (unless it’s a big name like Nicholl or Page). And look at things like fellowships, as well. If they want you to pay but aren’t giving you anything WORTHWHILE in return, it’s not worth it.

That said… if you’re starting out and still sending out queries and you haven’t won anything or been published or produced – enter contests. Get some prestige next to your name, even if it is just “winner of miscellaneous contest.” It helps in general, but it mostly helps if the contest is considered reputable.

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

www.scriptchix.com/services or drop us a line at info@scriptchix.com

We also blog about writing, life in Hollywood, and host networking events, so be sure to poke around a little: www.ScriptChix.com.

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

A man after our own hearts!

M – Boston cream

S – Apple or chocolate cream

Ask a Script Consultant who’s also a Working Writer!

mark sanderson

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape.

Mark Sanderson (aka @scriptcat) is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, script consultant, and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with a spec sale and a dozen screenplay assignments that have produced seven films. Mark’s long association with award winning Hollywood filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay and has since worked with Academy Award® winning producers, veteran directors, and Academy Award®, Emmy®, and Golden Globe® acting nominees. He offers script consultation services on his website at www.fiveoclockblue.net and also offers advice on his screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE. Look for his upcoming book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success coming out later this year on Amazon.

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

I don’t have much time to spend watching a lot of TV or movies, but the best writing these days is on television in my opinion. I manage to catch an episode here and there of shows, but don’t really spend a lot of time watching many series. When I watch movies, I tend to be really picky and very few films out there today don’t really draw me in—so I go for the classics. On television, I really thought the limited series Sherlock was excellent writing, Mr. Selfridge too, and I got hooked into the The Following for a while and that was good serialized writing. I’m just getting into the old pulpy Doc Savage novels from the 1930s and the writing is great and so visually ahead of its time. I read that Hollywood is planning on making a Doc Savage movie and if done right, could spawn a series of new films.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Well, I’ve had a professional screenwriting career for the past fifteen years and during the last few years I decided to open my consulting business on the side.  I’m always reading scripts even if I’m not consulting on them. I have a small group of writer friends and we trade our scripts back and forth for feedback.

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

I believe it comes from years of learning and studying the craft of screenwriting. When writers build a strong foundation of experience reading scripts, studying structure, character, writing scripts, executing notes and mastering their craft—this is when they can finally give experienced and critical feedback if a script is good writing or not. It also is vital to know the language of cinema. I’m aware that some consulting sites farm out the reads to “readers” and one never knows who is actually reading the script or their experience level when giving notes.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It starts with a compelling story and something that you can clearly see grew from the writer’s passion for the material. Too many times I read scripts that are trying to chase after Hollywood’s big budget blockbusters and they fall short because the writing is boring, clichéd and trying to emulate something that has already been created. The scripts read like a rehash and not something original. A good script showcases the writer’s unique voice and the best of their talents. It has interesting characters that we care about and written in a fluid, efficient way that includes only what is necessary to keep the story moving forward. A good script also has a rock solid structure and a series of reveals, surprises, setups and pay offs that keep us captivated to read until the end or sit through the film until the lights come up in the theater.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

I’m shocked that many screenwriters still have no respect for the professional format of a screenplay. They believe the reader will look past the format and typos issues to see their genius idea and buy it for that alone. A script lives or dies by a thousand small details and considering the volume of scripts that bounce around Hollywood every year, the industry has no patience for unprofessionalism. Other common mistakes I see happen when screenwriters do not work from a solid outline or treatment before they jump into pages. Approximately three quarters of your work usually goes into the story even before you type FADE IN. Other mistakes come from overwriting and micromanaging the scenes. Aspirants need to learn what to put in a script—and equally as important what to leave out. I tell writers: “Stay the hell out of the way of the story.” Many are so eager to put their fingerprints all over the pages and that’s just ego. The best writing is when the screenwriter is almost is invisible on the page and the script reads as if you’re watching the film. I also find too many mistakes with structure and the story happening too late or not enough story to facilitate 100 pages. The set up in the first act many times is way too long. Hopefully these writers learn from their mistakes and focus on becoming better screenwriters by creating stories they are passionate about rather than chasing fame and fortune.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

One big one that I can’t stand is the use of “Deus ex Machinaor using a contrived way at the end where a character or action saves the day. It shows lazy writing and ends the story on a weak beat leaving the reader unfulfilled. Another one is the “fall” or “twisted ankle” of a character escaping that is usually followed by the line, “Go on without me!” Another one I’m tired of seeing is the “I hate my job, my boss and do nothing but complain” routine.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. Disrespect the craft at your own peril. You will never be bigger than your craft because screenwriting is an ongoing learning experience.

2. You must become a collaborator and ultimate team player because if you grimace at their notes, they will brand you as “difficult” and not work with you again.

3. You may have to write five, six or seven specs over a period of years to even get one optioned or maybe sold if you’re lucky. But if you’re impatient and looking for fame and fortune, you’re in the wrong business.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Well, I don’t give “recommends” because I’m not reading for a producer, but I do tell writers if they were successful in the execution of their idea. Screenwriting is all about the execution. Good ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood—they’re everywhere and it’s the execution of a script that’s vital to its final success. Yes, I did read a few scripts during the last year that were superb and written by experienced filmmakers—so that helped. I can’t give out the loglines as I have a non-disclose agreement with my clients, so I’m not allowed to discuss the elements of their projects with anyone.

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

Yes, many of the top contests are worth entering as a chance to “make some noise” and get noticed. Back in the day, I entered a spec in the Nicholl Fellowship and it ended up in the top twenty scripts out of thousands worldwide. They picked the top eight that year for the fellowship, but since I had placed in the next dozen, agents and mangers were willing to give it a read. Eventually it found a producer who championed the script and it was produced, played in film festivals worldwide, premiered on TV and distributed globally. But, be careful and read the fine print of the contest you are entering as some stake claim to your script if you win. Do your homework on the various contests and make sure you are putting out your best material that will properly represent your talent and ability. If it’s not ready, go ahead and miss the deadline because there is always next year.

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

Screenwriters can find more information about my consulting services on my website at: www.fiveoclockblue.net. I’m also on Twitter: @scriptcat

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

Oh that’s an easy one…definitely a tie between boysenberry and cherry. I could eat both with ice cream as a “last meal” and die a happy man. Apple pie comes in a close third, but all pie should be heated.