Q & A with Michael Lipoma

Michael Lipoma is a WGA writer and a producer whose scripts have placed in the semifinals or higher in every major screenwriting competition, including winning Best Feature and Grand Prize at SLAMDANCE last year. With experience writing on assignment for features and television since 2010, Michael enjoys backing his characters into corners, forcing them to fight their way out or die trying.

He has developed multiple producers’ original ideas into commercially viable screenplays and pilots. He is co-creator and co-writer of a new television series currently in development in New Zealand. He is the lead producer on a feature film project currently in partnership with an A-List actor’s production company. Before writing and producing full time, Michael was Vice President of a $150M company. He also finds writing in the third person a little weird.

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

I have been binge watching The West Wing, and am dazzled by the dialogue–but it’s more than that. Sorkin doesn’t just write great dialogue–it’s the situations he places the characters in that give great dialogue even greater depth. And the dialogue wouldn’t be as meaningful if he hadn’t made these characters people we care about.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I wrote spec scripts. Bad ones. Then I went to school and learned the craft. Then I just kept writing. While working on a script with a partner, we met a producer at AFM, and within 24 hours, we had a handshake deal to write a feature based on her original idea. That script was The Fall, and last October, it won Slamdance Grand Prize and Best Feature. But that makes it sound too easy. That journey started seven years ago. We attached another producer, have been through more page-one rewrites I can imagine, and have gotten–and incorporated–notes from many, many people.

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

I believe recognizing good writing can be taught and learned–and you don’t need a teacher. The way to recognize good writing is to read ALL writing. I’ve learned more from giving really deep notes to scripts that were in terrible shape, than reading great scripts. Read every script you can, and when you read something good, you’ll feel it. It’ll sing to you from the center of your chest. But read all of it. After a while, you’ll internalize what’s good and what to stay away from. You’ll feel when a story turn is necessary. And you’ll realize that when watching a movie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit pause on a movie, checked the timer, and said, “Yep. That’s midpoint.”

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The obvious, of course: structure, dialogue, making every syllable mean something. A story that turns, and delivers on the promise the writer made in the premise or opening. Also, a great opening. A killer first page. I’ve been working as a producer for the past five years, and I know within a page whether the script I’m reading has a chance at getting me interested. I do read all the way through, but I’ve always been able to tell within a page or two how it’s going to go. Haven’t been wrong about that yet.

There’s one more component, and it’s just as important to me as any of the other factors that make a good script, and that’s what people are calling today, “voice.” I read a lot of scripts, and many deliver what a script should deliver: Compelling characters, solid structure, serviceable dialogue. All good stuff. But when I read a script with an original voice, that delights me, and makes me want more, more, more!

I’ve also found that writers with a unique voice are fun people to hang with. And when you option a script, you’re going to be hanging with the writer for a few years, and hopefully you’ll end up friends for life. Also, I recognize I’ve strayed a bit from the original question about components of a good script. I do that. I stray.

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

Big blocks of action with no white space. My job as a producer is to read a script all the way through–but when I see solid pages of text, I take a breath, because I know it’s going to be a slog to get through. That’s not to say the script might not be great, but if I can offer advice to writers, make hitting the return key one of your best friends. Your reader will love it.

Another mistake is having dialogue move the story forward. In these cases characters usually tell each other what’s happening or how they’re feeling. That means everything’s on the surface.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Movies starting at funerals–ugh. Seen it too many times. Watching a big, surprising reversal or twist and discovering it was a dream (that happens more in TV, but still). Also, movie shorthand: a woman throwing up = she’s pregnant. You see a woman SPRINT to the bathroom and barf. Next scene: she’s pregnant.

Another trope that’s actually harmful in my view is when you see scars on someone that indicates they’ve been “cutting” (non-suicidal self-injury), and it’s just “movie shorthand” for a “troubled” teen, or a violent character about to shoot up a crowd. That easy-way-out character development is not only lazy, it stigmatizes people with mental health issues. It needs to stop.

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

1. If you want to write what speaks to your heart, you should absolutely do so. You get to write whatever you want. But…if you want to sell, or make writing your career, you should understand what the marketplace wants. And I’m not talking about chasing trends. I’m talking about a script with a recognizable structure (I believe humans are hard-wired to respond to structure), a story that makes us want to know what happens next, and a satisfying ending. Oh, crap. I strayed again.

2. Spend as much time on your concept as you possibly can before putting a single word to the script. You’re going to spend the next few months writing this script–make sure the concept is firing on all cylinders before you commit to it. If you do this, you will discover a lovely surprise: people will probably love your script.

3. Sort of a continuation of 2: before I dig into a new spec script (whether TV or feature), I test the concept. I tell it to people and watch them react. Then, I refine it. What’s nice is at this stage, I’m not invested in any great scenes–it’s just a few sentences, so nothing’s precious. Once I get a concept, and I’m satisfied it’s working and marketable, I write the pitch. Straight from concept to pitch–before writing one word of the script. This does a couple things: it helps me discover cool, hooky moments (that only seem to show up when I’m writing a pitch) and it helps me know where I’m going when I start outlining. I think this solves the problem I faced for so many years: writing loglines and pitches after the script is written.

4. This may not work for everybody, but most successful writers I know do this: outline. Outline, outline, outline! You can start at the end, middle, or wherever, but do yourself the favor of writing a solid outline for your script. This is one of the most freeing things a screenwriter can do. It also keeps you from getting blocked or stuck because you always know where you’re going. My analogy for outlining is this: it’s like an actor getting off-book with their dialogue. Once they’ve memorized the dialogue, and it flows through them, only then can they bring the real bits of themselves to their performance. Same with outlining. Once you do the hard story work and get that outline done, your story is there, and it’s working–then, you put in all the cool stuff that delights readers.

5. Make me want to care about your characters. Many scripts I read from emerging writers use their characters as tools to move their story along. People go to the movies and watch TV and immediately try to relate to the character on the screen. There’s a moment when people ask themselves (sometimes unconsciously–but they feel it) “Would I ever do that?” or “Oh, no, what would I do if that happened to me?” The writer needs to make their characters human, relatable, and empathetic. Not necessarily likeable, but relatable. It’s a thing of beauty when an antagonist makes a reader/viewer see a dark side of themselves reflected in the antagonist. So do the character work up front, know who they are and how they’d respond in any situation.

There’s an exercise I’ve asked people to do: take a line of dialogue, and rewrite it as if the character were at gunpoint. Now rewrite it if they were trying to seduce someone. Now try it if they’re terrified. Exact same meaning, but different situations. This exercise can seem absurd, but if you lean into it, it’s actually a lot of fun, and it will reinforce the need to really understand how your character would react in any situation. Once you really understand this about your characters, the audience will respond to them, readers will lean forward when reading them.

6. Make sure your lead is the most interesting.

This has happened to me. My supporting character was way more interesting than my lead. It took a bit of rewriting and really killing some darlings, but once I did that, my lead really sparked off the page. No actor is going to attach themselves to a project if the supporting character has a better part.

Have you ever read a spec script that you immediately thought “this writer gets it?” If so, what were the reasons why?

Absolutely. And I’ve only read two that did that. It started with character. These characters were not only real and full of life, their dialogue was crisp, clear, and every character had a unique voice. Most of the actual meaning was delivered through subtext–and that’s not just for dialogue, it was for the action too. Characters took action that delivered on who they are, or what they needed, or what their wound was that’s been holding them back. Also: there was a lot of white space on the page, which made it a fast read, and allowed me to forget I was reading a screenplay.

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

I know there’s a lot of debate about this right now. For me: they’re worth it–but you have to realize the goal, and I think there are two: 1) you want feedback, and 2) you want wins/credibility. For feedback: You’re sending your material out to sets of eyes who have no stake in your success. If you can afford it, get the notes/coverage, too. Look, we all have people who love us, read our stuff, and tell us it’s great. And that feels wonderful, but not really helpful if your goal is to improve your writing and yourself as a writer. There’s nothing more sobering than not placing in a contest, and looking at the 375 names who did, and think: “Damn, every one of those scripts is better than mine–what do I need to change in my script or my writing to get me in that group next time.”

If you can afford the coverage, it’s great to see what a neutral set of eyes thinks about your material. And sure, sometimes the notes are spotty, but there’s ALWAYS something in there that can help if you’re open to it. And being in lots of contests can help you open up to that. For credibility, contest placements/wins in the major competitions can truly open doors. All of that said, be wary. There are some contests that just feel like money mills. Do a little research, and maybe don’t submit to “Jimmy Joe’s Upstairs Screenwriting Bonanza.” Look into competitions. Who are the sponsors, how many years have they been running, what kind of press do they get?

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

The best way to learn more about what I do is to contact me directly through my gmail account and not through the production company email or website because those get filtered before I see them. Email: mlipoma@gmail.com.

Right now, I write on assignment for television and features, and provide TV and feature script development, consultation, and rewrite services for projects that have been optioned or have a significant element attached. Since I’m a WGA writer, any writing I do must be with a signatory, but for non-signatories I can provide script consultation and development services, and work with the writer and producer to help the production reach its goals. I tailor my services based on the needs of the project: from a dialogue punch-up to extensive restructuring and rewriting. One of my recent efforts was a page-one rewrite of an action script. 

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

You and I are kindred spirits! Pie is one of my favorite things on the planet! Picking one is kinda like deciding which of my kids I love most, but if forced, I’d have to say cherry. Or a really deep apple. Or pumpkin. Ok, sorry…

Cherry.

There. I said it.

Don’t let it get you down

introspection
A little introspection can do wonders

Results are slowly trickling out for some of the big writing contests, and while hopes were high for my revised western, it once again failed to make the quarterfinals for PAGE.

My immediate reaction – that’s it. I’m done. No longer will I subject myself to that kind of humiliation!

And of course, later the same day, I was figuring out whether or not I should look into  any further tweaking so as to get it ready for next year.

More than a few writing colleagues and connections voiced similar comments, ranging from the frustration of their lack of advancing in this contest, to the murkiness regarding the quality of contest readers overall, to the subjectiveness of it all, and whether contests are even worth it.

As you’d imagine, there’s a wide spectrum of opinions about all of these.

I dug up this post from last year which I believe sums things up quite nicely.

Contests aren’t the only way to break in, but a win or very high placement can help, or at least potentially open a door or two. It’s just one of the many routes a writer can take. Some writers are even fortunate enough to not even have to do them. I am not one of them.

A key component of all of this is persistence. There’ll be lots of disappointments, which can be…disappointing. And frustrating. Oh so frustrating. But learning to overcome those is just as important as learning how to tell a good story.

All you can do is send your script out there, hope for the best, and move on to whatever’s next. If things work out, great. If not, yeah, it sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. It might feel like it, but it’s not.

Try to look at it as a learning experience – “How can I make this better?” Also a question with no easy answer, but how willing are you to put in the time and effort necessary to accomplish that?

That’s what I’m doing. On several fronts.

See you next year, PAGE.

Q & A with Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger of Write/LA

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Screenwriters enter contests for a variety of reasons: industry connections, cash, software, notes on their script. And there are a lot of contests to choose from. How your script places can make a significant impact on helping you establish a screenwriting career.

And now there’s a new contest that wants to help you do just that.

Write/LA launches today (with early bird pricing in effect until April 30th), and is the brainchild of Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger. I had the opportunity to speak to them about it.

But first, a little background info…

Angela Bourassa is the founder and editor in chief of LA Screenwriter, a leading online resource for working and aspiring screenwriters around the world. Angela graduated from UCLA back in 2008 and has been writing feature screenplays — mostly comedy — ever since. In addition to writing, she spends much of her time wrangling her 18-month-old son, watching Survivor (#DropYourBuffs), and trying to keep track of which jail her public defender husband is visiting today.

Tim Schildberger is the founder of LiveRead/LA as well as a script consultant, writer with thirty years’ experience, an expat Australian, creator/writer of a Travel Channel comedy/reality series no one saw, and the man who led the team who found all the people for the feature film Borat. He’s a big fan of Aussie rules football (which isn’t anything like football or soccer or any other known sport) and baking treats with his twin girls for LiveRead/LA’s events.

Both of you have extensive experience providing information & resources to screenwriters. Tell us about your respective paths to get there.

Tim: I started writing for an Australian soap opera called Neighbours when I was 21. For the last twenty years I’ve been in the USA, and I’ve been a member of a writing group that holds weekly live reads. Not only has working with actors helped me enormously as a writer, but so has hearing all the feedback from my peers. That experience helped me overcome my hatred of re-writes (does anyone like re-writing?) and showed me the only path to becoming a better writer is writing more, sharing your stories, and being open to feedback. It also showed me I have an aptitude for identifying strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, offering suggestions while maintaining the writer’s self respect.

In 2016, I decided that rather than continue assisting others with their scripts as a favor – which was becoming a little time consuming – I would put my own spin on the live read concept and build a new collaborative community, so I launched LiveRead/LA – and it’s already helped many writers. But I wanted to do more – to help more writers, to reach more people. I couldn’t make it happen alone, though, so it wasn’t until I met Angela and we discovered we had a similar sensibility about helping and giving back that Write/LA was born.

Angela: I started LA Screenwriter in 2011, and at first it was just a small blog where I would bring together produced scripts that I wanted to read and screenwriting articles that I found helpful as I worked toward my own dream of becoming a working screenwriter. But over the years, it’s really taken off, and now thousands of people a day come to the site for advice and resources, and that’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

I’ve thought about launching an annual competition before, but I honestly think that a lot of the screenwriting competitions out there – maybe even most of them – are ripoffs that don’t have the writer’s best interests at heart, and I didn’t want to be part of that cycle. I only wanted to start a competition if I had the ability to offer great prizes and great judging that could actually help writers in their careers, and that ability showed up in the form of Tim.

What prompted you to create Write/LA?

Tim: I was prompted to create Write/LA because I wanted to share what I’ve learned about writing, about the power of hearing your work read by actors, and about giving and receiving feedback. And the importance of interacting with working industry folk. Los Angeles is the global epicenter of writing for TV and film, so it seemed obvious to try to find a way to bring people to LA to learn, connect, and be celebrated for what they’ve achieved so far.

Angela: And I really wanted to be a part of Tim’s vision, because his idea for this competition and the prizes got me excited. Both of us are writers, so we know what it feels like to do well in a competition and then end up with no real benefit. We’re trying to change that by creating a competition that we both would want to enter.

What makes Write/LA different from other screenwriting competitions?

Tim: Write/LA is a competition aimed at the process of writing at a professional level. Most other competitions offer prizes in the hopes of discovering a script that can sell or a writer who can get representation. We’re focused on building command of the craft. Let’s be clear – our three grand prize winners will be writing while they’re in town. They’ll also be mingling with working writers and Industry people and gathering knowledge and experience that’s vital for lasting success. We aim to help our writers become professionals, not just one-hit wonders. It’s that combination of experience, education, and celebration that sets us apart.

What sort of criteria are you looking for in scripts that are entered?

Tim: We’re looking for evidence of command of the craft. That means we want original stories, compelling characters, an understanding of format and genre, and way above all else – an emotional connection with the material. There has been so much written about the structure of writing for TV and film: act breaks, inciting incidents, midpoint turns, and the rest. As a result, many writers are good at moving characters from point A to B to C.  But very, very few are good at letting us know what this particular story is doing to the emotional well being of the characters. An audience needs to feel something, or the script is flat.

As I like to say, no teenage girl saw Titanic ten times because it was a cool special effects movie about a boat sinking. They felt for Jack and Rose. We want to find scripts that make us feel, show us the writer knows how to tell a story, and will really benefit from the grand prize we’re offering.

Angela: That’s why we’re not judging film and television scripts separately. We’re accepting both, and we might end up with completely different genres and formats for the three grand prize winners, which I’m personally really excited about. We’re interested in emotional, engaging storytelling above all else.

Seeing as how this is Write/LA’s inaugural year, what are you hoping to establish with it in terms of opportunities for screenwriters?

Angela: We want to establish ourselves as a different kind of screenwriting competition. Our prizes stand out from the crowd, and we’re hoping a lot of writers out there understand the undeniable value of a private, intensive writing lab, an inside look at the industry, and the value of having their words read in front of an invite-only LA crowd.

Tim: Our winners will have a rare gift for any writer – a moment to be celebrated. Obviously, we hope their time with us will be a springboard to a writing career, or perhaps the final step toward breaking through, but what we’ll be focused on is helping them make connections and bring their writing up to a professional level so that – when they’re ready – they can begin long and successful writing careers.

We will also give everyone who makes the quarterfinals and above something of value. Being named a quarterfinalist feels good, but usually means little else. We want to change that.

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

Tim: Gosh. I love pie. But if you’re forcing me to choose, I think I lean toward the more pudding/custard pies. In Australia we have custard pies, which are my absolute favorite. But here in the US, I love a good banana cream pie. No disrespect to the fruit pies – as I said, I wouldn’t say no to any of them!

Angela: For me it has to be blackberry. Blackberry pies remind me of my childhood. But I’m a sucker for basically any sweets that don’t have nuts. (Apologies to the pecan pie fans out there.)

banana cream pieblackberry pie

Guilty as charged

lardner mugshot
I did it. I’m glad I did it. And I’ll do it again. As many times as necessary.

The clock’s ticking down to the final deadline for an upcoming contest, so almost all of my energies are being directed at getting the pulp sci-fi in as tip-top shape as possible. Overall, I’d say it’s coming along nicely.

As you’d expect, there have already been some big changes made, with more than a few more on the way.

A major part of some of these changes has involved cutting material that I previously considered untouchable, or at least to do so would have constituted a crime against all that is good and wholesome.

Otherwise known as “killing one’s darlings”.

As you edit/polish/rewrite your scripts, changes will (and should) occur within the context of the story, so you have to deal with the consequences and ramifications of making those changes. And that means gettin’ rid of the stuff you love.

Did I really, really like this line of dialogue or that scene? Most definitely.

Did I cut it without a moment’s hesitation because it just didn’t work anymore? Yep.

Any regrets? Not really. Why should I? It’s all about making the script better, right?

A lot of writers won’t cut something because they hold it too close. To them, their ego takes precedence over the material. If a producer or director says something doesn’t work, and says it’ll have to be cut, what are they going to do? Say no?

It’s very rare that the final draft of a screenplay is exactly like the first draft. Changes will always be necessary, whether you want to make them or not. Much as you might hate it at the moment, make those changes. Chances are you’ll barely remember what was there before anyway.

A screenplay-in-progress is the raw material, and your job as the writer is to continuously work with it and shape it in order to get it to the final version – the one that tells your story in the best way possible.

If that means discarding something for something new, so be it. Even more so if the new something is even more effective.

Gosh, what a full plate!

primanti bros
It’ll take time, but feeling confident I’ll accomplish that which I set out to do. (In the meantime, anybody up for Primanti Brothers? (Pittsburgh shout-out!))

My projects over the next couple of months are shaping up nicely.

-Finish overhauling the outline for the comedy spec and convert it into pages

-Some more fine-tuning on the pulp sci-fi (courtesy of a steady influx of good notes)

-Maybe one more pass on the western. Yeah, I know. But I recently got some keen insight on a few parts which could do with a little improvement.

The potential is still strong for all three, both in terms of contests and queries.

I have to say that this time around, my analytical and editing/proofreading abilities feel a bit stronger. Not that they’re the pinnacle of perfection, but at least slightly more developed than, say, a few years ago. That’s a definite plus. Nor would I hesitate to take full advantage of the sage advice of my squadron of savvy readers.

I feel a bit more prepared now, as well as a little more confident about ending up with a triad of really solid scripts.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Another part of my enthusiasm comes from seeing the results of some of the major screenwriting contests, some of which I entered and didn’t fare as well as I’d hoped. I’ll work on these scripts, send ’em out and hope for the best.

On a brief side note, I recently read the comment on an online forum – “Waiting for notes. What should I do to occupy my time?”

I suggested “Start working on your next project.” It’s what I would do. Can’t think of a better way to get your mind off a finished script than starting a new one or digging into the archives and touching up an older one. Gets the creativeness pumped up and really does help pass the time.

Anything that lets you flex your writing muscles while adding to your arsenal of material can only be seen as a good thing.