A most informative Q & A with Andrew Zinnes

 

andrew zinnes

Andrew Zinnes is a UK-based screenwriter, screenwriting consultant and producer who’s worked for production companies, read for contests, and co-author of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking and The Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Film Making. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Screenwriting at The Bournemouth Film School at Arts University Bournemouth, the London Film Academy, and the University of Portsmouth.

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

I have small children so I don’t get to the theater as much as I’d like, but I recently saw I, TONYA and thought it was fantastic – a real pleasant surprise! I remember the Nancy Kerrigan incident vividly and, at the time, there wasn’t a bigger villain than Tonya. Yet Steve Rogers managed to make her sympathetic by focusing on her relationship with her mother and other aspects of her home life. Then you add breaking the fourth wall and other stylistic choices, and the characters became self-aware in a manner that added to their depth and relatability. BABY DRIVER was great, too. Loved the way they used music to tell the story. Very Edgar Wright.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I became a script reader for a small production company based at Sony. I read for free as I wanted anyway into the machine. I would go in on off days or they would messenger me scripts, back when that was a thing, and I would write up coverage and fax it back to them, when that was a thing. I became friends with the assistants in the office and when I said I wanted to do development, they put me up for other assistant gigs.

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

From my experience, recognizing good writing is innate. Many years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving and took my weekend read with me. My sister got curious and started reading some of them. She read one that was a spec from an unknown writer and she was surprised at its mediocrity. She stopped reading after 40 pages and picked up another. This time she started laughing straight away and continued through the whole 100 pages. That script turned out to be AMERICAN PIE. She knew the difference between the two scripts quality-wise with no training, but what she wasn’t able to do was tell me what was wrong with them via screenplay/story theory or how she would have fixed any issues. That part needs to be learned and practiced as one would with any craft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The biggest component revolves around making the story or premise personal to you, the writer. If it’s not something you’re passionate about then how are you going to put 100% effort into it? If you can’t connect to the premise, then how can the reader or the viewer? John Truby says this issue leads to generic, unoriginal work and I have seen this first hand with my college/university students. Just recently, one wanted to do a crime thriller that had an okay hook, but was otherwise unremarkable. I asked why he wanted to do this project and he said it was because he loved those kind of movies and this sounded cool. I told him my doubts and he got frustrated. He said that he has trouble making decisions about writing because he doesn’t want to make mistakes that can’t be undone easily. When I pressed, he said he felt that way about many things in life, not just writing. I told him he should write about that concept. His eyes lit up!

The other key component are the forces of antagonism. I don’t just mean the villain. I mean everything that holds back the protagonist(s) from their goals. The better they are, the better the tension, drama and comedy become.

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

Because I work with many writers in the development of stories from early in their conception, impatience reigns the king of mistakes. Often times writers want to rush into the actual writing before they’ve explored a premise fully. The don’t want to do enough research to make the story richer or come up with alternative character motivations and story points that might make their project surprising and original. They don’t want to take hard looks at their structure because they have something in their head and want to get it out.  I get it. I’ve felt the rush of getting something down in Final Draft, too. However, whenever I’ve let a client or student get on with it despite my objections, it always goes wrong. They create a story and/or characters that are generic or derivative. They come to the point where the structure doesn’t work and either get stuck or plow forward anyway and there’s structure or story flaws. Now for some writers, this is the process they need to go through. This is how their brains process information. That’s fine, but whether that is the case or they are just steadfast, we end up going back to the drawing board to pull everything apart as we should have done originally.

Aside from that, overwriting tends to be an issue, especially with newer writers. Screenplays are meant to be quick reads and having a lot of black on the page slows that down. Learning economy of writing is essential. I realize that many people, myself included, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’s style, which creates these dense, epic screenplays and, that further, feel they should follow suit. However, one, that’s being derivative; two, they’re directing the work so they probably doing it partially because they don’t want to forget anything; and three, they’ve earned it as they had to fund their first films in this style mostly themselves and became successful with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes don’t bother me. It’s what is done with the tropes that matters. Whenever a superhero movie comes out social media garners a a lot of eye rolls and hate from various creative or general public communities and then WONDER WOMAN, DEADPOOL or BLACK PANTHER comes out and shakes things up. Teen horror films is another one that gets a lot of grief, and then HAPPY DEATH DAY hits the screens and all of a sudden cyberspace is hit with short memory syndrome. Take tropes and tell them in unique ways.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Observe people, places, things and ideas.
-Observe by asking questions and listening to what people say and don’ t cut them off to speak about yourself.
-Travel and observe what’s around you.
-Write down what you observe and think about what universal truths of the human condition emerge that matter to you.
-Read good scripts and watch good movies so you know what works.
-Read bad scripts and watch bad movies so you can recognize problems to avoid.
-Notes are opinions. They aren’t personal.

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

I haven’t read many. TRAINING DAY may have been one. THE SIXTH SENSE may have been one, too. The reasons are for the usual hallmarks: great voice, original take on a premise, explored some kind or large idea, writing that moved my emotions (tense, scary, etc) and structured well. Then the other side of the equation, the business side, saw great roles for movie stars to play, was something my company might do and had general commercial appeal.

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

That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you can win one or at least become a finalist, it can get you noticed. The bigger the competition the better your chances, obviously. If you live outside of Los Angeles or don’t have a friend that works in the industry, it may be one of the only ways that you can garner attention. On the other hand, if you enter many of them, it can get expensive. Also there is a fundamental truth about screenplay competitions: there has to be a winner. It’s the best of what a competition gets that year, not necessarily the best written thing that would attract an agent or manager and that sometimes makes Hollywood impatient with competitions. But all in all, I say they are worth it. Especially if there’s some sort of networking attached to winning or placing.

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

I’m very easy to find: andrewzinnes.co.uk. You can message me from there. I live in the UK, but work with writers all over the world. Thank you FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp!

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

Blueberry! I make a mean one, too.

blueberry pie

Equal time for B, C, D, and the rest

support beams
Each one doing its job as part of something solid and sturdy

Got a key set of notes back on the dramedy spec, so from this point forward, it’s all about working with those and making the appropriate fixes. (Fortunately, not as many as I expected, but still lots of tweaking in store.) A future post will cover the gist of the advice I was given.

Up until those notes came in, I’d been dividing my time developing the stories of the two new scripts. One of them was revamping an old story, whereas the other was entirely new, so it was really building from the ground up.

Quick sidenote – I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I’d plotted out a brand spankin’ new story. Quite a while. It felt thrilling and a bit intimidating to take it on, but both sensations were heartily welcomed.

While I knew what the main storyline was, the more I worked on filling in the blanks between plot points, the more it became obvious I’d need to start developing the subplots, especially the ones among the core group of characters.

This new story is unlike anything I’d written before, so as part of putting it together, I watched a couple of films of a very similar nature to get a better idea of how things could go. I soon had a stronger sense of what worked and what didn’t from an overall perspective, but also paid close attention to each character’s story – especially the main protagonist, how it connected to the supporting roles, and how all of them factored into the main storyline.

Doing this really helped in several ways:

-the films made it easier to see how each subplot was a part of the main story, as well as being its own separate (and unique) entity.

-each subplot provided lots of opportunities to show character growth and development, again contributing to the main story, as well as emphasizing the theme as it applied to each of the characters.

-because these stories are set in a specific kind of genre, there are certain elements that are more or less required (or “expected” might be a better term). As a result, the subplots provide an almost limitless number of chances to really let the imagination run wild and go for something totally unexpected, as it applies to those elements, but still have it fall within the realm of “this is the type of thing that would happen in this type of film.”

It’s a lot to take into account, but I suspect the more I plan things out, the easier it’ll be to arrange things so all the pieces fall into their proper places.

So for now it’s all about the dramedy, but I know that when I eventually return to working on these two stories (which I definitely will), I’ll have a stronger sense of not only what should happen for the main storyline, but also all the scenes, sequences, and developments of the subplots that go along with it.

Pushing my way forward (x2)

push
Really putting my back into this

This has been a most interesting week. Based on some quality notes, I wrapped up a polish of the dramedy spec (which is now in the process of getting notes). Feedback so far has been encouraging, which is nice.

So now the focus can shift back to developing the two new stories. With most of my recently-completed projects having been worked on for extended periods of time, it’s been a while since I was really starting out from the very beginning.

I’d totally forgotten how much I enjoyed the process of putting a story together. I know what the core concept for each one is, and now it’s all about finding the best and most entertaining way to tell them.

At times it feels like my mind is going in a thousand directions at once, so I’m constantly writing stuff down. A scene or sequence idea here, a line of dialogue there, plot twists, character development, turning the scene on its head; pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle.

Main storylines have been established, with the expected constant fine-tuning and adjusting, and as I work my way forward, the subplots are making themselves known.

Entirely new worlds (or maybe “settings” might be appropriate, since each story is on the smaller side) are being created, populated with unique and hopefully somewhat original characters.

While one of the stories is based on an old script, there’s a constant discarding of a lot of the original content and trying new approaches. Not necessarily “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks”, but kinda/sorta along those lines.

For the other, this is dipping my toes into a genre I enjoy, but wouldn’t call myself a major fan, so doing what I can to avoid tropes and cliches (of which there are apparently many). If that proves more challenging than anticipated, will do what I can to least go for the unexpected.

Added bonus – watching movies of that genre and style to get a better feel for both.

Sometimes I’ll read a writer’s account about what a chore it is for them to develop a story, or how much they loathe this part of the process. I don’t see it that way. Organizing the story and putting it all together is a key part of screenwriting. Too many times when reading a spec, you can tell when the writer didn’t put in the effort to get all the details of the story right before they started on pages.

I recently asked my online screenwriting newwork their thoughts on outlining versus a “seat of your pants” approach. The responses were overwhelmingly in favor of outlining. Granted, there are some writers who prefer the latter, but I’m not one of them. I’m a firm believer in having a rock-solid outline before starting to write the actual script.

But that’s what works for me. Others may feel differently regarding their own process. No matter how you achieve the end result, as long as you’re happy with it, then more power to you.

The whole creative process in developing a story is a beast unto itself, but I think all the long-term work I’ve done for other scripts is really paying off for these two. For now, it’s still a big and unwieldy mess, occasionally feeling very unorganized and all-over-the-place, but a little bit of work every day will gradually pay off. When all is said and done, I’ll have two new scripts.

Like I said – I’m enjoying it.

The gears, they’re a-turnin’ again

chaplin 2
Sometimes you have to really throw yourself into your work

During a break from working on the comedy spec rewrite, I was digging through some files on some of my other scripts and found a friend’s notes on the pulp sci-fi spec.

I hadn’t read them in months, and vaguely remembered there were some quality comments, so since this is one of the scripts I’m considering working on next, I gave them a quick skimming.

(This is also a good time to remind you that unless you honestly and truly feel that a script is finished, never throw away any of the documents associated with it. You’d be surprised how invaluable those can end up being.)

Yep, definitely some good stuff in here, along with some very valid points about the story and the characters. One of the comments that really struck home for me was that while they liked the story and the ideas behind it, a lot of it still felt too familiar. There were a few moments of uniqueness, but they wanted more. Something slightly different from what they’d read.

“Familiar, but different.” I’ve heard that before.

And it really got me thinking. Even more so this time around.

As it reads now, it’s a good, fun story, but I know it can be better. And different. All while still maintaining the qualities and elements you’d expect for this kind of story, which is what made the idea of developing it so appealing to me in the first place.

Working in my favor is that this was an early draft, so some significant changes were already inevitable, and I at least have a pretty solid foundation from which to start the rebuilding process.

Another bonus is that this is the kind of story where the more new and original ideas I can come up with will only help make the end result stand out that much more.

As I mentioned, this script is a potential “next up”, but not a priority. If an idea or concept for it suddenly pops up, I can easily open up the script’s notes file and jot it down. That way I’ll have it right there and ready to go when that rewrite gets underway.

But for now, back to the comedy.

-A few items for the bulletin board:

-Filmmaker friend of the blog Hudson Phillips is running a crowdfunding project for his post-apocalyptic tale of female empowerment This World Alone. As of this writing, they’re just over 2/3 of the way there, so donate if you can!

-If you’re a screenwriter looking for something a little different in terms of a writing retreat, take a gander at what the Aegean Film Lab has to offer: an international screenwriting workshop in July on the Greek island of Patmos. It’s part of the Aegean Film Festival and a partner of the Sundance Film Festival. I won’t be able to make it, but maybe you will.

A population of your creation

deadpool
Part of the appeal was how blatantly non-traditional the characters were

Totally unintentionally, I’ve watched a handful of independent films lately. It’s just the way my Netflix queue was set up.

Apart from each one being a solid example of good writing and demonstrating how to craft a small and contained story with a limited number of characters, they also had the distinction of featuring well-known and established actors in a wide variety of roles.

My first thought was “How did they end up in this?”, but as the film played out and the story progressed, it became pretty apparent that the actors were attracted to the characters and that they were actually part of the story.

Ranging from those in a handful of scenes to the protagonist, each one felt fleshed out and three-dimensional. They had depth. Nobody came across as if they had no business being there to begin with.

This was also apparent in the trailers that preceded the films; many, if not all, I’d never heard of or had a very, very limited release. There must have been something to that script or the roles that would attract actors of that caliber.

As a screenwriter, you want to make sure that not only are you presenting a solid and entertaining story, but it has to be populated with original and unique characters we’re interested in, who are also developed enough that we become invested in wanting to see what happens to them.

Not as easy as you think.

How often have you seen a film or read a script where a character is simply a tired cliché? Notice how fast you lose interest?

Now if that character were something totally different than what you expected, wouldn’t you be more likely to want to go along on their journey?

Just as an example, I read a script last year with a protagonist who was introduced as a “total slacker dude, mid 20s”.

Snore.

And if that wasn’t tropey enough, he was playing a video game in his cluttered studio apartment.

Double snore. Seen it countless times before.

I’d suggested to the writer they consider really changing things up with a totally different approach. Rather than a slacker, what if the protagonist was some kind of genius? Or had been successful, but now fallen on hard times? Something, anything to not go down Cliché Avenue.

See where I’m going with this?

You’re not only telling a story, you’re providing the raw, base material for an actor to work with. They like delving into new territory just as much a reader or audience. By taking a different approach and providing the foundational details, you can create a new and original take on old and f amiliar characters.

Like with the story overall, give us somebody we’re not expecting. The more unique and interesting they are, the more likely an actor will be interested in portraying them, just as much as we’ll be interested in wanting to see what happens to them.