Q & A with Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal

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Jeff Buitenveld of ScriptArsenal is an independent producer and former development executive with over 15 years of experience on some of Hollywood’s biggest films. He is currently a producer on the upcoming thriller The Kimberlite Process. After graduating with an MFA from UCLA’s Producers Program, Jeff worked in various capacities on numerous productions for Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner including The Last Samurai, Mission Impossible 3, Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Lions for Lambs starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, Ask the Dust starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, Death Race starring Jason Statham, The Eye starring Jessica Alba, Suspect Zero starring Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley and many more.

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

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a blast. HBO’s Barry is a funny and oddly haunting series. I recently re-watched/re-read Hell or High Water, which is a deceptively simple, sad, and suspenseful story with rich, complicated characters. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House delivered the goods on scares and family dysfunction for me. Issa Rae (“Insecure,”) Jill Soloway (“Transparent,”) Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,”) and Andrea Savage (“I’m Sorry,”) all have unique, exciting, and powerful voices.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I didn’t know anyone in LA when I first moved here but developed a sci-fi project that was quickly optioned by an Academy Award-winning producer (and never made). During that time, I was also accepted into UCLA’s Producers Program where I took Meg Le Fauve’s (“Inside Out” “Captain Marvel”) Development class, which was instrumental to my growth and understanding of cinematic storytelling and how to work effectively with screenwriters. I started cold-calling various companies for internships and was lucky enough to land positions at both Artisan Entertainment and Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures. Back then, Artisan had a deal with Marvel and I was immediately thrown into pitch meetings with various notable writers/directors on properties like Thor, Hulk, The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist, etc. I was also taking pitches at Phoenix – it was an incredible learning experience. I eventually became an assistant briefly to a Hong Kong action director and then used those experiences to land a job with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner once I graduated from UCLA.

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

Though having an eye for quality material can be a natural instinct, it needs to be honed. I ultimately feel that recognizing good writing can be learned and taught.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Generally speaking, a good script maintains a captivating concept, and a flawed but likeable hero with a concrete objective attached to grave stakes (whether intimate or epic). The hero’s emotional flaw is often rectified as a result of him/her achieving their practical goal (he/she should also be active, resourceful, and exhibit a range of change). It’s helpful if the hero’s goal is time-sensitive and somehow socially relevant. Lastly, if the script is a feature, it should adhere to a three-act structure.

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

Too much description, on-the-nose dialogue, flimsy structure, and the lack of a flawed hero with a concrete objective, attached to grave stakes.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not at all opposed to writers using things like “one last job,” “a reluctant hero who can save the world,” “a family in peril,” or “a fish out of water,” etc. The familiar can be very accessible and., if used effectively, can lure a reader into the story. The trick, however, is to infuse that story with other unique and complex qualities so that it unfolds in fresh and unexpected ways. What can make your story different or set it apart? I always urge writers to challenge the reader’s expectations or preconceived notions as to what type of story they’re entering!

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

-Use Final Draft.

-Study the most notable screenwriting books and authors.

-Read every script you can get your hands on whether good, bad, or mediocre.

-Have conviction but be open to ideas – ultimately this is a collaborative industry.

-Don’t be afraid of genre and don’t be afraid to push the boundaries on the tenets of said genre (but know what those tenets are).

-Actively seek feedback and don’t be precious.

-Strive to be both clear and complex in your writing and understand the difference between the two.

-Don’t be a hater – watch all kinds of movies and TV shows, and be mindful of those that are both commercially and critically successful as well as those that aren’t.

-Read the trades to better understand the marketplace.

-Don’t chase trends – write from the heart.

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

“Recommends” are a rare breed. Those that do qualify show a master of the craft, are usually somewhat familiar but also somehow unique, tend to maintain complex characters, rich themes, and have an easily identifiable position in the marketplace (you can visualize the poster, trailer, audience, etc.) That being said, most of the scripts I’ve read, even from the most notable A-list writers in the industry, still needed some further development.

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

I think it can be incredibly important and worthwhile, particularly for young writers, to enter screenwriting contests. However, I would also encourage writers to do some homework on which ones are notable and relevant so as to not waste too much money and time.

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

Go to www.scriptarsenal.com and follow us on FaceBook and Twitter to get updates on upcoming sales and weekly helpful screenwriting tips.

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

Given my mid-section I generally try to stay away from sweets, but a few years ago, I had some homemade pecan pie (numerous pieces actually) for Thanksgiving and it was an absolutely transformative experience…a chemical portal to another dimension that somehow transcended the time-space continuum…okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic but damn, it was good!

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A most informative Q & A with Andrew Zinnes

 

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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.

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Ask a Wicked-Smart Script Consultant!

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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 Rebecca Norris of Script Reader Pro.

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

My current obsession is House of Cards. At first, I didn’t care for the show. I found the device of Francis talking directly to camera a bit odd, the plot lines confusing, and I didn’t like any of the characters! However, a friend encouraged me to keep watching, and I’m so glad I pushed through. The genius of the show is in the slow reveals—they don’t hand you anything up front—you earn carefully-placed insights into the characters over time. I ended up binge-watching all of Season Two and am now deprived of new episodes until January! I should have spaced them out more.

2. Howd you get your start reading scripts?

For my first internship, I worked at a state film office that held an annual screenplay competition. They had an entire room stacked with feature-length screenplays, and it was my job to read and recommend scripts to the higher-ups for the contest. When I moved to L.A., I was able to parlay that experience into reading for a production company and then another screenplay competition, and it snowballed from there.

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

I think anyone can be taught to do anything; whether or not they have a natural aptitude for it is another matter. The thing is, we are all storytellers. It’s engrained in our psyche. And reading is a personal, subjective experience for each individual. Some stories that bore the pants of me might be endlessly entertaining to someone else, and vice versa. That’s why a film can be rejected from one contest and then go on to win first place at another.

However, the technical aspects of a script can be judged in a fairly uniform way. Is the writing concise yet descriptive, or is it overly wordy? Are there misspellings and grammatical errors? Is the script formatted to industry standards? Is the page count a reasonable length? A writer can’t control whether or not a particular reader will judge their writing as “good”, but they can control the technical aspects of the script to give it the best possible chance of impressing a reader.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script has a solid premise, interesting characters, a well-conceived plot, tight narration and dialogue, and is technically up to par as far as typos, sentence structure, formatting, etc. It also must be ENTERTAINING. This is something I believe writers forget about sometimes, especially if they’re writing, say, a historical drama. Audiences don’t care about facts and figures and accuracy nearly to the extent that they want to have an emotional journey—a catharsis. It’s the writer’s job to provide that journey and entertain along the way—that’s why we’re in the Entertainment Industry. I think most readers would agree with me on this—the first question I ask myself after reading a script is, “Am I bored?” If I’m bored, then the script will not get a Consider or Recommend, no matter how true to life or historically accurate it is.

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

By far, the most common mistake is spelling errors. Most scripts I read are chock-full of typos and glaring grammatical errors (including sentences with missing punctuation, missing words, or only parts of words.) It’s incredibly frustrating because this is something completely under the writer’s control. What writers may not realize is that every time I come across a typo, I’m taken out of the story. When a script has multiple typos per page, as some of them do, I’m taken out of the story dozens of times by the time I read the last page, which essentially ruins the experience. As writers, the written word is our only instrument. A pianist wouldn’t perform on an out-of-tune piano, and likewise, a writer should fine-tune his or her instrument and become a master of language. Having a typo-free and correctly formatted script says to the world: “I’m a professional, and I care about the quality of my work.” In my opinion, it’s the best way to control your first impression to a reader.

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

There has been a trend over the past several years of incredibly brutal, violent, and bloody dramas. (And I’m not talking about horror movies here.) I think it’s a reflection of the dark times we’ve gone through over the past decade and the current political landscape in the world. I’ve also programmed at some film festivals, and some films I screened were sickening to the point where I had to turn them off. I’m not a prude and I enjoy a good action or horror film just as much as the next person, but it’s gone a bit overboard lately. Some of the films had gratuitous violence toward women and children, which I find disheartening and painful to read. Sometimes I long to read a comedy or something lighter that ends on a positive note, and I hope the trends change in the coming years toward lighter (and less barbaric) fare.

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

1) Don’ t get disheartened if you aren’t getting recommends or considers on your early scripts. Take the notes, learn from them, and keep writing. Your writing will improve greatly if you just keep at it.

2) It’s okay to struggle with writing. Some writers get disheartened and give up if writing isn’t the glorious, self-expressive, free experience they think it should be. Writing can be difficult and tedious. It’s courageous to be vulnerable and put your heart out on the page, and even more courageous to then send your work to total strangers. The best thing a writer can do is show up every day and write, and when the work is ready, keep sending out those ships. One day, a ship will come back in.

3) You are in total control of your very first impression on the reader. You do so through your mastery of language, spelling, formatting, brief yet descriptive narration, etc. You can’t control whether or not a reader loves your script, but you can control your presentation. Hire a professional coverage service to proofread and get feedback before you send your scripts out—it’s the best way to test the waters and see how your script will be received, since many coverage services employ readers who have worked at contests and production companies.

Even if your script doesn’t get a recommend, the writer themselves can. Scripts and writers are tracked by production companies, and if you as a writer make a bad impression, a company is less likely to be willing to read another one of your scripts. If you made a good impression as a writer but they just passed on that particular script, a company will be much more willing to read future work from you.

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

Since most of my work deals with newer writers, I have not yet personally come across a script that was an absolute Recommend with no doubts in my mind. Most scripts I read have a solid concept but need work to get them industry-ready. I have read many scripts that I would recommend if the writer made adjustments and changes, and those scripts might receive a Consider.

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

Absolutely worth it. They’re a great way to build up credibility and provide the ‘pitching points’ writers need to become interesting to agents, managers, production companies, etc. You don’t have to win. Even being a quarter-finalist in larger contests or fellowships can make you attractive and garner interest in your work. And if you do win or place in a major contest, it can open doors for you very quickly if you take advantage of the opportunity.

Submitting to contests also provides built-in deadlines. If you know you have regular submission deadlines you have to meet, it puts a fire under you to write every day. It’s not that expensive–you can take $400 and submit to most every major screenwriting competition and a couple of smaller ones. Think about all the things most people waste $400 on in a year (like coffee!). It’s a small investment that can have a big payoff, if even just to get you motivated to write.

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

Go to ScriptReaderPro.com where you can check out our services or send me an email directly at info@scriptreaderpro.com FAO Rebecca.

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

Pumpkin! I’m thrilled that it’s Fall and we’re just a few weeks away from Halloween, my favorite holiday. I’m going to have to binge on all the pumpkin products over the next couple of months before they’re gone!