Q & A with Geoffrey Calhoun

Screenwriter/script consultant Geoffrey Calhoun of WeFixYourScript.com has been previously featured on this site. This time around, he’s answering some questions about his new book The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

It was inspired from a class I designed when I was asked to teach screenwriting to film students in Ghana, Africa. Unfortunately that class fell through so I took the materials and broke them into seminars, then hit the road teaching at Film Festivals. Eventually, people attending the classes asked if I’d put this in book form. That’s when I realized I needed to create The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Books on screenwriting tend to be one of two things: overly wordy textbooks or focus on a specific area of screenwriting. What I wanted to do was create a book that’s easy to read and comprises all aspects of screenwriting. Thus, The Guide For Every Screenwriter was born. It covers everything from concepts, character design, formatting, branding yourself as a writer, and beyond. All of it done in an easy to access reference guide which gets straight to the point. I wanted to break down the mysteries of our craft into something that anyone can pick up and understand. This is the book you keep on the shelf next to your desk as you’re writing. After reading this book you’ll be able to confidently write a screenplay, even if you’ve never done it before.

Some screenwriting books are geared more towards covering the basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. How is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I wanted to write a book that even veteran screenwriters could read and walk away with something new or feel refreshed. The Guide covers some really interesting aspects about screenwriting which isn’t really covered in other books. Such as subplots, loglines, how to collaborate with other writers/producers, or even busting myths about queries.

Continuing on that theme – part of the book discusses the basics of formatting. Is this more of an issue than we’d normally expect?

Yes! As a professional screenwriter and consultant, I’m brought in to fix a lot of scripts through my website WeFixYourScript.com. One of the biggest problems I see is a lack of properly using format. Some writers believe it’s optional. Unfortunately, it’s not. So, adding format to the book was a must. I also wanted to delineate between a few of the finer aspects of format, such as montage vs. series of shots. Many writers think they’re interchangeable. The Guide explains exactly how and why they’re used and what makes them different, all with fun examples.

Early on in the book you mention how time, talent and tenacity all play a key role for both the writer and the act of writing. Could you elaborate on that?

The three T’s are my own personal mantra. The funny thing is, I never strung them together until I wrote the book. When it felt like I’d never get a script made I would tell myself I needed more time. Screenwriting is about the long game. Talent was a given. I knew I needed to be the best I could be, which is why I became a lifelong student of this craft. Tenacity is who I am as a person. I don’t quit. I don’t give up. I’m not built that way. I have to see things through. When I sat down to write the Guide, I wanted to create a section that was my own personal truth but also filled with hope and the three T’s were born.

A lot of writing guidelines say “write what you know”, but you’re of a somewhat differing opinion. How so, and how come?

That’s a great question and observation! I break the myth of “write what you know” in The Guide For Every Screenwriter. My hope was to introduce a different perspective to my peers. I believe we as writers need to be two things: experts on what we write about, and chameleons. In order to write about a particular topic or genre we need to master what it is first. Writing is one of the only fields in the world which encourages you to explore all facets of life in order to grow at your craft. The Guide provides a fun way to do that.

We also need to be chameleons. I know many writers scared to work outside of their comfort zones. That’s stifling creatively and also can make it difficult to find work as an indie screenwriter. I love working outside of my comfort zone. It makes me be better at what I do. It pushes me in directions I never expected and thus my skills improve.

I really liked your concept of what you call the “mind map”. Could you explain what that is, and how a writer would use it?

The mind map is a great little trick to get your brain thinking outside of the box. You can do it anywhere. I’ve seen a screenwriter do it at breakfast on a napkin and create their entire concept in ten minutes and it was good! You simply place what you want to develop in the middle of a paper and then branch off wild ideas around it. This isn’t just limited to concept; you can use it on anything including a character or even a story beat. I believe mind mapping in a busy public space can help as well because you’ll find inspiration from the surrounding environment.

There’s a section of the book that deals with a seldom-discussed part of a script: subplots. Why is the subplot important, and how can a writer get the most out of them?

When properly developed, a subplot can add a surprising amount of depth to your story. Subplots also fill out your script. Many writers tend to get lost in the main character’s struggle and end up underutilizing the supporting characters and underdeveloping the antagonist. This can lead to scripts struggling with anything from page count to a meandering script which can’t find its footing. A well developed subplot’s job is to reinforce and prop up the main plot. That’s one of the great keys to creating a killer script. In The Guide For Every Screenwriter, I explain what subplots to use and where they land in the script.

The final section of the book is appropriately called “What Comes Next”, in which you discuss what do after the script’s written – everything from getting feedback to queries. What prompted you to include these topics?

Screenwriting is about more than just writing scripts. If you really want to get out there and start landing writing gigs, then you need a road map of how to do that. I wanted to make sure the Guide can you lead you in the right direction. That’s why it covers topics such as properly protecting your script, a synopsis template, branding, networking, etc…

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was pumpkin with a big dollop of whipped cream. Still the same, or something new?

I don’t know why, but pecan pie has been calling to me.

pecan 3

Q & A with Chris Mancini

Headshot Chris Mancini T-Rex
Chris Mancini (l) and friend (r)

Chris Mancini is a Writer, Director, Comedian, Author, Producer, Podcaster, and Parent, which also makes him very tired. He has also written, directed and produced on everything from soap operas to parenting books to horror films, which are all more closely related than you think.

His feature films include Asylum from Lionsgate Films and Ear Buds: The Podcasting Documentary from Comedy Dynamics. His award-winning short films include SKINSHitclown, and Rainbow’s End. Chris has screened films and spoken at various prestigious festivals and conventions including Slamdance and Comic-Con in San Diego.

His published works include Pacify Me: A Handbook for the Freaked Out New DadThe Comedy Film Nerds Guide to Movies, and the graphic novel Long Ago and Far Away.

A strong advocate of podcasting, Chris is also the co-founder of Comedyfilmnerds.com with Graham Elwood. The site features a podcast with over 6 million downloads and features comedians and filmmakers talking about movies. His scripted horror anthology podcast Conversations From The Abyss is now in its second season. Chris was also one of the founders of the Los Angeles Podcast Festival.

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

The two extremes would be Avengers: Endgame, because it was the culmination of years of storytelling, and Paddleton because it was a small two actor character piece that just sucked you in. The relationship and the drama of the two leads and their interaction was incredibly engaging. Mark Duplass and Ray Romano did an amazing job.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 16. I submitted short stories to magazines. Yes, that was a thing. Ironically, I got published first with non-fiction. I was a journalist for a local newspaper for a while (also a thing), starting at age 18.

What are some of your favorite comics and/or webcomics?

I really enjoy Hellboy. I also like anything by Neil Gaiman, and grew up on a healthy dose of Spider-Man and Daredevil. I actually remember when Spider-Man first got his black costume. It was an alien symbiote that came out of some weird machine during Secret Wars. I remember not being happy because I always liked the red and blue one. But you get over these things. I am also reading a lot of kids’ comics with my son, like Cardboard and Amulet which I am really enjoying.

How’d you get your start writing comics?

I kind of made it happen on my own. I’ve always wanted to write comics, and I had a story I thought would be perfect for the medium. I met Mark Waid through a mutual friend and podcast fan and he championed it. So I found an artist I loved and kickstarted it. I was able to fund it thanks to the generosity of the fans and then Starburns Press picked it up. I am very happy to be over there, and I think it’s a great fit for the book. I just got my first offer for a short piece in their next comics anthology. My first comics writing assignment! I’m hoping for many, many more. I would love to write more comics.

A lot of people hear the term “comic book writer”, but don’t really know what the job entails. How would you describe it?

Interestingly, since I have a background in indie film what you’re really doing as a comic book writer is writing and directing. You’re writing the script but also describing the action, pacing, and what goes in each panel. Basically you’re storyboarding like you would for a film. In indie film you have to wear a lot of hats, but with comic book writing you’re not just writing some abstract script. You’re describing each panel and basically directing the book. That’s why it’s so important to have a great artist to be paired with like I was with Fernando Pinto. Eventually you develop a shorthand and it gets quicker.

What inspired you to write your graphic novel Long Ago And Far Away? What was your process for writing it?

I’ve always loved fantasy stories, and growing up was a sucker for the stories about kids from our world who go into a fantasy world to save the day, like The Chronicles of Narnia. But I always thought about what would happen when those kids come back to our world and become adults. How would it have affected them? And then what if they had to go back into that world as an adult? The process was very, very long. I had the story a few years ago and it was in and out of development at various companies as an animated show, etc. But it never moved forward. But it was the kind of story that stays with you, and insists on being told. We all have stories like that; ones that won’t let you go. So I thought that a comic book would be a great way to tell the story. And I wouldn’t have to worry about there not being enough money for computer effects.

LAAFA was funded via crowdfunding. With a lot of comics creators taking that route to self-publish, is it something you’d recommend, and what are some tips you’d offer?

I recommend anyone who wants to create to just get out there and make it happen, any way you can. If someone buys your idea or hires you, great. But more often than not we have to greenlight ourselves. So if you’re a filmmaker, make a short film. If you’re a novelist, self-publish. If you want to make a comic, you need to raise enough money to pay the artist and make the book. But it can be done. Just know that crowdfunding is a full time job for that window of raising money. Don’t just think you can put a project up and money will magically appear. You have to promote, get endorsements from other artists, and also promote. Did I mention promoting?

You’ve also had experience writing for film, both narrative and documentary. How do you compare writing for the screen to the comics page?

I really, really, love it. It’s like filmmaking with an unlimited budget. No one comes back and says “we don’t have the budget to blow up Manhattan” in a comic book. If it can be drawn, it can be in the story. As far as story goes, film story progression and storyboarding can be really instrumental in writing for comics and guiding your panels.

A key component of writing (and not just for comics) is to make the stories and characters relatable. What sort of approaches do you take to accomplish that?

Characters we create often have traits of ourselves or people we know in them. That grounds them and keeps them believable. Even when it’s a supervillain, there’s a relatable trait you can give him or her. I always try to figure out what kind of character they are by how they would react in certain situations. Character reactions can convey lots of information about a character. As far as the story goes, keep the story progression organic. It should only have crazy twists in it if you were slowly leading up to them all along. The best narrative twists are the ones the audience didn’t see coming, but in hindsight were justified from the very beginning.

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

Write what you know.

Make the story personal, regardless of the genre or scope of the story.

Get help from other writers, and help them in return.

Don’t write for free for millionaires. If someone is serious about your work, they’ll make a deal with you.

Don’t neglect your body. Take time to exercise and unplug. It will help your mind focus and clear your head, which will improve your writing.

Filmmaker. Comics writer. Podcaster. Stand-up comedian. What’s next?

I really want to focus on writing right now, so I’m taking a break from stand-up, but may return to it at some point.. While I do the Comedy Film Nerds Podcast with Graham Elwood every week, I also have a scripted horror anthology podcast called Conversations From the Abyss that just finished its second season. I’m also hoping to get my next comic project going called Rise of the Kung Fu Dragon Master with the same team. It’s a martial arts/fantasy/comedy about a small time crook in Los Angeles who gets mixed up in a perennial battle between good and evil from ancient China. I also have various TV and film projects I’m developing and hoping to get into production.

How can people find out more about you and your wide body of work?

My website has links to my books and movies, including Ear Buds: The Podcasting Documentary. There are also links to the podcasts and my demo reel.

http://www.chrisjmancinionline.com/

http://www.comedyfilmnerds.com/

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

Peach. ‘nuff said.

Bonus feature!

Here’s an episode of the Comedy Film Nerds podcast where Chris goes into an extensive recounting of his experience with his film Asylum. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for aspiring filmmakers, plus it’s just an extremely entertaining tale. Well worth the listen.

http://comedyfilmnerds.libsyn.com/ep-219-dean-haglund

peach pie

Working my way forward

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The process of writing actual pages for my pulpy sci-fi adventure is fully underway, averaging about 3-4 pages a day, which is just a smidge above average for me. I’m making a real effort to stick to this kind of output, and am hoping to keep it up for the duration.

There’s a lot of setup in the first act, and I was really concerned things would somehow get drastically out of hand and go on for too long , resulting in a script running something like 150 pages, but so far I’ve managed to keep it all in check. It’s all going according to plan. Still feeling confident to be able to keep it in that ideal target range of 110-120 pages.

And this is before any of the real editing begins. That comes after FADE OUT.

Speaking of editing, even though I was trying not to fall back into my habit of “write, edit, write some more”, there’ve been a few times when a few impulse decisions had to be made regarding whether or not something should be included. Since I was already concerned about too much material, many of them were cut.

In retrospect, they weren’t as necessary as I initially thought, so after they were cut, their absence had barely an impact on the story – if at all. Turns out they were in there more for my own benefit. I saw them as building up the key scene to which they were connected. I tend to overwrite during the outlining process anyway, so no big loss.

Working on both the outline and the pages has also made me realize that my talents seem to be a lot more suitable for this kind of thing. As much as I’d love to be a solid comedy writer, I feel much more at ease producing thrilling tales of adventure with some comedic moments thrown in.

They say you can tell a writer enjoyed writing the script because of how it reads. Like with all of mine that came before, that’s exactly what I’m hoping for with this one as well.

Perplexing puzzle pieces properly placed

puzzle

Hope you enjoyed the recent interviews (this one and this one). While I truly enjoy being able to promote another writer’s work, I admit to having somewhat selfish motives – progress on this outline overhaul had slowed, and I was feeling frustrated about it. Anything to get my mind off it was welcome, and those interviews fit the bill.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely happy to have done them and am glad the interviews got the responses they did, but now it was time to turn my focus back onto myself.

When I took on this project just after the beginning of the calendar year, I figured this part of the process would be smooth sailing, and there was no reason I wouldn’t have been able to crank out a new draft by about this time.

Ha, ha! Silly writer.

When one sets out to completely redo a project, there’s a teensy-weensy chance it could take SIGNIFICANTLY LONGER than expected?

Shocking, but true. Exhibit A – yours truly.

The past few weeks involved deconstructing the story and attempting to put a new one together. Some similar elements, but many new ones. Every time I’d come up with an idea, I’d go about trying to incorporate it into what I had. End result – a lot more misses than hits.

This is where things started to get interesting.

I realized I was still clinging to too many components of the previous draft; the screenwriting equivalent of a new coat of paint on a house in need of major repairs. So I brought in the wrecking ball and tore that thing right down to the foundation. I knew which details I wanted to keep, but now just about EVERYTHING needed to be drastically changed. Somehow.

To avoid falling into the trap of lingering previous draft details, I’d constantly ask myself that magical question of “How can this be totally different from what it was before?”.

I interpret the idea of “totally different” as “total opposite”. Any time things seemed too familiar, my internal editor would shout out “NO! Turn it around!”, and I’d go back and do a 180.

The story was THIS before? Well, now it’s more like THAT. That initial portrayal of the protagonist? You wouldn’t recognize them now.

The building blocks were being formed. Slowly, but steadily.

With the story gaining and building muscle, the same couldn’t be said for the characters. They didn’t feel developed enough. Why do they do the things they do, and how does it impact the story? Doesn’t matter who. From the protagonist and the antagonist to somebody who’s only in one scene, everybody’s a cog in this machine.

Just as an example, I already knew how the antagonist’s story ended, but still saw their “why they do this” and “how did they get to this point” as somewhat lacking, which created more obstacles.

Using those questions and this “total opposite” approach, I decided to do just that and work my way backwards. Start at the end and figure out what would have gotten us there, and what would have gotten to that, and so on and so on. For never having tried reverse-engineering a story before, the results were pleasantly surprising.

Then there was the protagonist. I knew what their external goal was, but the internal goal was a tougher nut to crack. I took a closer look at the emotional aspects of the story. How would this character react to what’s going on? Is it what I would do? Is it what somebody like them would do? Do their reactions and responses seem realistic (in the context of the story)?

I went through what I had of the story so far, and slowly began to see that I’d already set up important moments along their emotional journey, and what could potentially be part of it. A little fine-tuning and things really began to gel.

Tinkering. Rearranging of scenes. Gaps getting filled in. Long-discarded material finding reborn relevance. Unanswered questions (for both myself and the story) being answered. Ooh, I could spin this around, and the new version works even better than before!

A totally new draft of this script is taking shape right before my eyes, and on so many levels. I couldn’t be more psyched about it.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt that electric excitement of putting a story together. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

Sure, it took me a lot longer than I wanted to get to this point (emphasis on A LOT), and I won’t even speculate as to how long until the outline’s done, but I’ve definitely made some solid progress over the past few weeks, and the momentum continues to build.

Full speed ahead, chums.

Q & A with Craig Kellem & Judy Hammett of Hollywoodscript.com

Hollywoodscript.com LLC was founded over a decade ago by former Universal and Fox development executive Craig Kellem, who was soon joined by business partner, Judy Hammett (M.A. English/Creative Writing). This family-based, boutique script consultation service is internationally known, serving writers from every corner of the world.

I had the pleasure of talking with Judy about their new book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How.

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

Without a doubt, HBO’s most recent season (#3) of TRUE DETECTIVE. It is truly impressive every week. The writer has an incredible command of dialogue and the structure employed is beautiful. The writer has interwoven various timelines in a very clever and elegant way, wherein the plotline is consistently advanced, yet at the same time, the existential themes being explored are made exceptionally dramatic and emotionally charged as a result.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

We are father and daughter and come from a family that made their living in TV and music, so we both got our first breaks through family/friends. Craig started out as an assistant at a talent agency and worked hard up the ranks to become a talent agent himself. He eventually became a development executive at Fox and Universal, and in time a TV Producer as well. I started as a researcher on a TV series, then did freelance work providing studio coverage on scripts & books while in graduate school for English/Creative Writing. Eventually, Craig founded our company, Hollywoodscript.com LLC and I joined him soon thereafter. We’ve worked together for more than fifteen years.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

We’ve always tended to “think” like writers, and have loved writing just for the sheer pleasure it provides! But neither of us chose to “become” professional writers, or pursue careers as such. We both love working with writers, supporting their craft and analyzing content. This has been our true vocation. We wrote our book together from the standpoint of wanting to reach out to writers everywhere and share what we have learned after almost two decades of consulting with writers the world over. I provide writing services/ghostwriting on occasion, but consulting is my main work.

What inspired you to write your book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How?

Over the years we had clients comment that we should write a book, stating that our general feedback and approach was constructive, inspired and very helpful. So a few years ago, we decided it was time to give the book idea a green light and started putting the chapters together – with the sole purpose of sharing observations and approaches to writing, which have proven the most helpful to writers we’ve worked with to date.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it especially unique?

We hope to offer something which is more intuitive, less “left brain” – a book that invites the writer to stay close to their own experiences, their own strong feelings and their own instincts so that the storyteller inside of them can more easily come to the fore.

Follow-up: having read a lot of screenwriting books, I found this one to be very different in that it’s not so much about “how to”, but more of a “here’s something to consider as you work on your story/script”. Was that your initial intent, or did it gradually develop that way?

Many thanks for your feedback! Yes, that is a wonderful way to describe it. We didn’t set out to compete with the screenwriting greats who’ve written comprehensive “how-tos” beautifully and exhaustively. Instead, we wanted to contribute to the conversation from the hands-on perspective of our day-to-day work with a very diverse range of writers – some of whom have studied the gamut of how-to books, yet continue to struggle with actually realizing their own visions on the page. We wanted to offer a book that helps writers get closer to  “hearing” their “own voice” so to speak – to accessing the vivid, original stories and characters that live inside of them.

One of the chapters that really resonated with me was the one about the practice you call “sandboxing”. Could you explain what you mean by that, and how it could benefit a writer?

Inspiration, ideas and the desire to write often come out of writers having creative shards and glimmers that have emerged from their minds. They get an idea for a scene late at night and jot it down on scrap paper. They encounter some person they think would make a great character type and make a note of it on a napkin. They hear an anecdote that suggests a story and scribble it on an envelope. All these pieces of creative inspiration are wonderful fuel for writing a screenplay, but a few glimmers and shards aren’t enough to justify starting at page one of a one-hundred-plus-page three-act film. Yet zealous writers will often do just that. They plow forward on the faint fumes of too few ideas and assure themselves the rest will come as they write. This approach rarely makes the cut, for the writer hasn’t given enough time and thought to what it is they are actually writing.

Rather than starting a screenplay prematurely, we therefore recommend “sandboxing,” which is a simple method wherein the writer slows down in order to create a much bigger arsenal of ideas from which to choose. Each day they jot down additional possibilities for scenes, character angles, key plot lines etc. – adding to their original seeds of inspiration. It thoroughly preps the writer to eventually sit down to page one of their new script armed with a truckload of ideas from which to write.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

A clear, strong story is key. Characters who are relatable and believable. A hero with whom the audience can empathize and who breaks into a serious sweat as much as possible. Dialogue that rings true. Lots of suspense, urgency, and conflict that keep the audience riveted and the pacing clipped.

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

-Writing IS rewriting, even when you’re a pro, so best to embrace this notion and learn to enjoy the process of writing, revising and polishing your script before declaring it “done”.

-Getting a script sold, or made, doesn’t happen on any predictable timeline. Just keep writing and derive your pleasure from the creative process, rather than focusing on it as a means to an end.

-If you are cloudy about any part of your script, stop and take the time to fully explore that cloudiness, addressing it head-on. Don’t try to finesse it, or gloss over it, or avoid it in order to deal with the parts of the script that are clearer to you. Otherwise, your audience may get stuck in those foggy sequences and then start detaching from your content as a whole.

-Never lose sight of the fact that a film is a visual art form. As you write, always ask yourself if there’s a way to dramatize the story development through images, cinematic sequences and visual cues first and foremost.

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

-Writers who tend to overwrite and hence interfere with needed momentum. Setting a strong, galloping pace is essential.

-Scripts that are confusing because the writer hasn’t maintained consistent continuity in the plot line or in terms of the character trajectories.  

-Scenes that don’t build the story or move narratives in the film forward.

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

We can be found at hollywoodscript.com and are on Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In – Craig and Judy. And of course, check out our book Get It On The Page: Top Script Consultants Show You How.

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

HA! I’ll take pie over cake any day – especially coconut, chocolate, vanilla or banana cream. Craig likes ice cream too much to think about any other type of dessert.

banana cream piesoda jerk