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

Bursting at the seams – part 2

Image result for MARK RUFFALO HULK GIF

On one hand, progress for the pulpy adventure spec is moving along nicely. Still maintaining a daily output of about 3 pages.

But on the other hand, this thing feels like it’s growing exponentially, continuously getting bigger than I originally anticipated.

A lot bigger.

Like “rise out of the bay, tower over the skyline, ready to wreak havoc and terrorize the populace. Call the military!” big.

That’s pretty big.

Part of this stems from me having a one-sentence description of a scene in the outline, not really taking into consideration I’ll need at least a page, maybe two, to execute it. Hence the feeling of overstuffedness.

There have been times where I’d be in the middle of a scene, but then think “Too much!”. This would be followed by the immediate deleting of what I’d written so far and starting anew, but with a mindset of “Same, but a lot less this time.” It happens; just not all the time.

No problem whatsoever if you start with a scene that’s initially three pages long, because you know the next pass will involve whittling down to one (or a little more). Getting it written in the first place is the hard part; everything after that – much easier (for some, anyway).

I freely admit I tend to overwrite, but that’s usually limited to the first draft. Once that’s out of the way, the red pens are produced and much killing of darlings commences.

Sometimes it’s very frustrating that my initial effort isn’t what I want it to be, but isn’t that the point of a first draft? There’s a reason it’s also known as “the vomit draft”. You just throw everything on the page, and then go back for ongoing cleanup work. The guiding principle here – you do what’s necessary to get it to that desired end result.

Will there most likely be some drastic changes somewhere down the line? Undoubtedly. If that means starting with a first draft that’s way too big, so be it. It’s not like this is what the final finished project is going to look like. Better to have an oversized script ripe for editing than a scrawny one that needs to be bulked up.

So for now, the slog continues. Scenes may go on too long, but it’s cool. This is a fun story and I’m enjoying writing it. I know it’ll take a while to get it to where I want to be, and that’s fine by me. All part of the process.

But better have the military on standby, just in case.

Bursting at the seams

homer-donuts
Have to be careful not to overdo it

Overwriting has always been an issue for me, at least when it comes to first drafts. I tend to put a lot more on the page than is probably necessary, which of course, increases the number of pages.

Case in point – while progress is moving along nicely for the pulpy adventure spec, and I’m faithfully adhering to the outline, scenes throughout the first act are running longer than expected, so the inciting incident will be occurring somewhere around 10 pages later than anticipated.

If things continue at this rate, I may end up with a script that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 pages, which is way too long.

Keep in mind that I don’t make a point of strictly adhering to certain feline-influenced rules/guidelines of a “THIS MOMENT IN THE SCRIPT MUST HAPPEN ON THIS PAGE” nature; it’s really more of a suggestion.

The good thing is that I can just keep pushing forward, knowing there will be some major editing and rewriting in store when this draft is finished. It’s a lot easier to go in and cut, as opposed to scrambling and struggling to add in material. And as evidenced by past behavior, I’ll probably continue to occasionally go back and tweak something I don’t see as sitting right.

For now, the very-helpful process of plotting out the beats of a scene and writing them as such will, but it wouldn’t be surprising if a subconscious effort to tighten things up a little begins to develop.

One brief sidenote – I’ve been making a real effort to reduce the amount of time spent with casual netsurfing and replacing it with actual writing. It’s made quite a difference, and the results have been most productive. I heartily recommend it.