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!

pecan 2

Q & A with Brian Smith of Monument Scripts

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Brian Smith of Monument Scripts grew up on Cape Cod, long a favorite haunt of writers and artists, surrounded by and loving well-told stories. When he left the Cape, it was to study the techniques and principles of good story telling at the University of Southern California. There he earned an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

He began his career in the industry working for Disney, and then Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation, and he has credits on 24 films and television series. Brian’s been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for such companies as Walden Media and Scott Free Films.

Brian currently lives in Los Angeles, with his wife, three daughters and two dogs.

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

If we’re talking incredibly well-written, I would say the last thing was Coco. Full disclosure here, my background is in animation. I’ve worked in animation my whole career, but I’ve been kind of down on PIXAR for about the last 10 years or so. I felt like it had been at least that long since they put out a complete film. I thought Wall-E and Up were both half-great films in that the first half of each of them was great, but the other half was mediocre to just bad. Other films that they put out during that stretch, like any of the Cars movies, Finding Nemo/Dory, or even Toy Story 3, were really lacking in strong stories. They always had wonderful characters that the audience fell in love with. That allowed for hyper-emotional endings, which was ultimately why those films were so successful. I thought with Coco, they put everything together in a way that they hadn’t since The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and they finally made a complete film. The story was thematically very strong, the stakes were very high, and they gave us a twist at the end I did not see coming. I don’t cry during movies, but I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat at the end. The quality of the writing in the script had everything to do with that.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I fell into it, really. I was working on the Curious George feature years ago, and we were all about to get laid off as the show was wrapping. One of my co-workers suggested script coverage as a way to make some money while being unemployed, and he put me in contact with a creative executive he knew at Walden Media. I contacted him. He had me do a test, which they liked, and they started sending me work. I fell in love with evaluating stories and writing, and have been doing it ever since.

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

Absolutely, and it can be both taught and learned. Writing is one of those unique disciplines that’s equal parts creativity and technique. You have to use your imagination in order to be a good writer, but you also have to use dramatic structure. Determining the merit or quality of a premise or an idea can be a subjective thing, but evaluating a writer’s technique and skill level is absolutely something that can be taught. What a lot of writers don’t understand is that good dramatic structure makes you a better writer. Just as anyone can be taught to implement that structure in their writing, others can be taught to evaluate how successful the writer was in implementing it and how that implementation strengthened or weakened the story.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script is a story well-told; that takes the reader on a journey to a world that the reader can envision and become a part of. In order to do that, a good script needs to have been spawned from a strong premise. A strong premise usually gives way to strong thematic elements, which are also necessary for a good script. A script is almost always better when it has something that it’s trying to say. A strong thematic component is also a way to make us care about the characters, which is probably the most important component. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them. I need to feel some emotional attachment. Without that, you’ve got nothing.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Not adhering to proper story structure is a big one. The transition from Act II to Act III is one that tends to trip people up the most. Poorly written dialogue is another one. Writing good dialogue is hard, and most writers from whom I get scripts haven’t yet mastered the art of subtext, which is crucial to writing good dialogue. It also seems as though a lot of writers think that big words mean good dialogue, which isn’t necessarily the case. Finally, flat characters are a common problem in scripts I get. It’s especially problematic and common in protagonists. Many writers are reticent to give their hero a flaw or some other issue that gives him or her depth, and it’s so important to do so.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The post-apocalyptic sci-fi thing. I love science fiction and there have been some great post-apocalyptic stories. There’s a reason The Hunger Games was huge. It was a terrific story with real pathos and drama. Unfortunately, it made way for a lot of other stories that tried to do the same thing, but just didn’t do it as well. Even The Hunger Games went out on a whimper for me as the last movie wasn’t nearly as good or as compelling as the first. I had the same opinion of the books as well. But that’s a trope I kinda wish would just go away.

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

Story structure, story structure, and story structure.

Have you ever read a script where you could immediately tell “This writer gets it.”? What was it about the writing that did that?

Yeah, and it was actually a bit annoying. I was reading for a contest, and got a script written by a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer, and the script was about a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer. I know this is super-petty of me, but I really wanted to hate it because it’s really annoying when someone is good and successful at everything they try. But I have to admit it was an exceptional script, with an interesting protagonist, a compelling storyline and meaningful thematic elements, all written in a cinematic style. It was easy to envision this as a courtroom drama worthy of the genre. The writer really understood what it took from a technical standpoint to write a story well, and her personal experiences allowed her to tap into material that was interesting and dramatic.

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

I believe it is worth it, especially nowadays. With studios less likely to option or buy spec scripts, doing well in a screenwriting contest might be the best way for some writers to break in to the business. And the beautiful thing is, you don’t even have to win. You could be just be a finalist, a semi-finalist, or even a quarter-finalist, and there’s a good chance someone from a studio is reading your script and could possibly be impressed with your work. Even people who aren’t winning these contests are getting meetings that could lead to work. You might not sell your script this way, but your talent could be recognized by someone who has the power to hire you to write something else, and that could break you in to the industry. I personally have a friend that experienced that. She got her script into a couple of contests. She didn’t win any of them, but her script caught the eyes of people that could do something with it, and she’s been taking meetings and getting offers for representation. So if you have a quality script you can’t get past the studios’ Threshold Guardians, enter it into a contest, and there’s a chance that the studios could be calling you.

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

People can check out my website: http://monumentscripts.com/ or follow me on Twitter @monumentscripts.

You can also email me directly at briansmi71@gmail.com

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

We must be kindred spirits, because I am definitely a pie guy. I’d rather have pie for my birthday than cake, and will never turn down a slice of pie for anything. That said, I prefer fruit pies to crème pies, and my favorite of all the fruit pies is blueberry. My favorite way to have it is warmed up with vanilla ice cream on top. That is, unless I’m eating it for breakfast. Then it’s just plain.

blueberry pie a la mode

Q & A with Melody Jackson of Smart Girls Productions

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Melody Jackson, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Smart Girls Productions and Hollywood Business School, is a self-described “Marketing Person” and Entrepreneur.  After working as a Marketing Person selling to the film industry for several years, she started Smart Girls Productions in 1992.

To learn more about Melody and the services provided by Smart Girls Productions, check out their screenwriting blog.

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

That question is a little bit funky for me to answer and I’ll tell you why.  Years ago I took the famous/infamous Robert McKee screenwriting course, and there was one thing that really stuck with me. In that legendary, deep gruff voice with his big scary face belting from the stage, McKee shouted out:  “I’m not doing this class to try to make you guys win Academy Awards…. I’m teaching this class to try to raise the overall quality of films that are out there.” Something to that effect.

He talked about how, when he was a young boy, he would go watch every single film that came out in the theaters near him — even as a young kid, he went to see everything.  All types of films. He just loved the medium of film.

The thing I learned from him is not to be so hung up on what is great writing, but to learn to enjoy film as a whole.  Most scripts are not going to be great or really well-written. It’s easy to critique and criticize most of them. But in that class, I learned to have a different perspective, and that makes a difference for me as a script analyst and for my clients.  

Sure I can go deep into “analyzing” structure and character arcs and all kinds of stuff. But ultimately, it’s a question first and foremost of “did this script cause me to have some kind of emotional experience? Regardless of anything else.”  Then, and only then, do I engage my left brain and start seeing how it could be made better. With better writing, you tend to appeal across a broader group of people.  

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Prior to starting my company Smart Girls Productions, I worked for a company that was involved with film distribution — both domestic and international — and I learned a fair amount about that.  At one point, I just had to quit — no really good reason; they were great. But I just wanted to do a business on my own. That’s when I started Smart Girls.

I was actually working on an acting career at that point and need to figure out how I was going to make money.  Since I read scripts as an actress, I thought, “Hey, I could make money typing scripts.” Yes, typing! I ran an ad in the Writer’s Guild magazine and got a call right away.  The truth is, I didn’t even know how to type a script. I called an aspiring producer friend of mine who was also my mentor. And I asked him desperately, “How do I type a script?”  He told me to get some book from Samuel French bookstore and I did. It took me forever to type those first two scripts. But after that, I typed a LOT of scripts…. we still do!

Then once I learned to type a script, I took lots of classes on screenwriting. Then I began writing my own scripts. Got hired to write a couple. I got a WGA agent. I went on to get my Ph.D. in mythological studies.  And along the way, I added script analysis to my list of services and it turns out, I apparently have a knack for it. I ended up being rated one of the top 5 Script Consultants on three different occasions by Creative Screenwriting Magazine.  

Your company’s called Smart Girls Productions. What’s the story behind the name, and what kind of work does the company do?

This one is short.  When I started my company, I brainstormed a list of about 30 company names. I read it to my Mom, and she said, “Definitely Smart Girls.”  And so it was. Told you it was short.

You have a PhD in Mythological Studies. Has that helped you in analyzing scripts?

For sure. Joseph Campbell, the father of bringing mythology into an understandable form, is the one who identified The Hero’s Journey.  That’s the foundation of almost every great Western story. My studies in mythology looked at story from innumerable angles…. not just Campbell’s but many others.  So yes. It is in my DNA that it informs my analysis.

What are the components of a good script?

For me this is where the Hero’s Journey meets Aristotle’s Poetics.  The Hero’s Journey focuses more on the experience of the character and the inner transformation.  The Poetics has more of an emphasis on plot. But if you work both angles, then you’re going to have things that appeal to more audience members.  That’s the big picture.

If I had to say what those elements are, it would be something like… You need to have a character that has something he or she NEEDS to learn, some kind of lesson, some area of their life where they are misguided.

They then get pulled into some external plot in which they will be forced to confront that thing they have not learned. They will come face-to-face with it in the external plot.

Their choice and how they handle it is the big lesson for them and for the audience.  The biggest component for a good script for me is that the the main character has some kind of transformation. That they are somehow a bigger, better or wiser character by the time the story ends.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The most common big mistake I see is no solid theme developed in the story. You have to have some point to telling the story, otherwise it’s a boring story about going to the store.

Gotta have some point about human nature that is revealed in your story, or what’s the point? That is the biggest mistake new writers make. I would also venture to say it’s also why more sophisticated movie-goers don’t like straight-up action films. Too many times, the focus is not on any kind of transformation, but on other fun stuff like chase scenes and explosions and cool special effects. Nothing wrong with that, but it does nothing for the soul. The soul longs for transformation, and personal development. The theme is the highest articulation of that. The most common mistake I see — actually I don’t see it as a mistake, but more like the most underdeveloped aspect of scripts I read is theme. And I say it that way, because I find that most writers have some place of meaning they are writing from; they just haven’t consciously identified what it is.

One of the non-writing necessities of screenwriting is the writer’s ability to market themselves. Seeing as how that’s one of your specialties, what are some key pieces of advice that writers should keep in mind?

You’re not going to be successful overnight or next week. You’re not going to sell your first script for a million dollars. Or even $250,000. The first person who reads your script is not going to fall in love with it and suddenly introduce you as this newly discovered gem that Hollywood has been waiting for.

Many screenwriters really have no idea how hard it is to get a deal and then get your movie made. It’s a long shot. I’m not saying you should give up, but I am saying that my best advice is to learn more about the BUSINESS side of the business. It’s far more likely that a writer will get hired to re-write a script if they’re a great writer than it is that they will actually sell their film and have it be produced. Trying to convey this idea and educate writers on this is why I launched my Hollywood Business School at HollywoodBschool.com.  My mission there is to help actors and writers better understand the business so they can have a much better chance at reaching their goals.

To boil it down to a few simple bits of advice:  Keep learning as much as you can about the business. Get great at your craft. Market market market. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.  Enjoy the pursuit. Be positive and be persistent. And don’t quit your day job. — BUT… do everything you can to help your career while you still have that job.

Part of your bio lists being the former emcee at the Hollywood Networking Breakfast. Could you provide a little more detail about the event and is it something screenwriters should consider attending?

My dear friend Sandra Lord is the Networking Guru of Hollywood. She was my manager for a period of time when I was acting. She started The Breakfast at that time, and she excelled at finding top level producers and agents to speak.  For the nine years I emceed that and heard the speakers, I got a deep education in how Hollywood works and what execs want.

Sandra still hosts the breakfast several times a year.  She also runs an event called “Let’s Do Lunch” and the L.A. Film and Television Meetup.  She is the first person that I recommend for every aspiring filmmaker, actor, set designer — anyone who wants to get into the business — go to her events as much as you can.  You will definitely start making connections. And it’s also not just for newbies. You’ll find a lot of working industry people there as well.

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

“Most” important?  I tend to stay away from hyperbole because how can I really boil it down to MOST important?  It’s a great question that writers need to know, so it’s not the question that’s an issue — it’s just my picky resistance to saying what is my most anything…Let me slightly modify and simply tell you what I think are some generally important rules.  Here are the three I pick for now:

  1. Learn story structure.  Study screenwriting. If you haven’t studied screenwriting, I guarantee you don’t know how to do it well. 100% guaranteed.
  2. Tap into your authenticity and write from there. In a very positive way, I think everyone has a great story to tell — of their own life even — if you find the right bits and pieces. Whatever it is that moves a screenwriter to spend weeks, months, and years on their screenplay, that tells me they have something important to say.  This goes back to the theme I mentioned above. They may not have completely identified what their theme is — and why their story is important to them. But I will also guarantee this …. if they tap into their authenticity and why they are so moved by that story, that story will have a hundred times more impact — on them and their audience.  If they get to their authenticity about it, there is deep fulfillment and satisfaction in writing a story like that. Then your passion makes it much easier for others to see its greatness.
  3. Don’t take anything you hear from a producer or agent at face value. You have to know how to read between the lines.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s less a story trope that I’m tired of because they can be told in different ways.  What I find hard to watch or read is when the writer or filmmakers have not tapped into their unique vision — again I would call it lacking authenticity — but then … I don’t want THAT to come across as a TROPE!  If I had to say it another way, it’s when people are not digging deep enough into their soul to get to their authentic, unique perspective.

You could see the same story ten different times and if the filmmakers or screenwriter truly tapped into their own unique take deep within, it could still be interesting. It’s like when a great song is recorded by many different artists.  Whether it’s “Over the Rainbow,” “Amazing Grace,” “Yesterday,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love” or “To Love Somebody,” when a great singer does their unique rendition, we can hear it over and over and still be moved by it. The same with a story or a story beat.  The problem lies in the lack of tapping into the truth of the individual writer.

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

Gotta be pumpkin!  I need to find a good source for pumpkin pie here in Los Angeles. Got one?

pumpkin pie

One scene, three points

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Careful not to get stuck on any of them

After some thorough self-imposed analysis, the revising of the comedy spec is underway. It’s getting easier to spot trouble spots.

There’s one scene in particular that’s giving me some trouble. It’s a pivotal scene involving the main character and offers a revealing glimpse into his backstory. The problem was in figuring out how to best do that.

After much drumming of fingers, rubbing of chin, and a whole lot of attempts, a potential solution may have presented itself. It’s still in the development phase, but for now, quite workable.

One of the first things I learned about screenwriting was what each scene needs to accomplish:  advance the plot, the character, and the theme.

Regarding plot, does the scene move things forward? Does it fall neatly into place in terms of how the overall sequence of events plays out? If you took it out, would it totally mess things up?

I’ve read a lot of scripts where something happens and I don’t know why. Maybe it’ll pay off later? Sometimes it does. Other times, well…

Another handy tip when it comes to advancing the plot in a scene: do it quickly. Get to the point of the scene as fast as you can, then get out. Don’t wait around. Just get out now. Too many times I’ve seen a scene drag on much, much longer than it needs to.

Regarding character, does each scene show them changing a little bit more from when they were first introduced? This doesn’t just apply to the main character. Every character needs to grow/develop. Wouldn’t it be kind of boring to read a story where nobody changes?

And tying it into the advancement of plot, every situation the character experiences should help move their own development along.

Which brings us to theme. The message of your story. This can be a little tricky.

Each scene should tie into the theme, or have it on display in some manner. I recently worked with a writer having trouble tying everything together. We discussed the story and the main character’s internal and external goals. What was the message they wanted to convey? Based on those discussions, we were able to come up with a theme that worked for both the story and as it applied to all of the characters.

One of my favorite examples of a theme in use is BACK TO THE FUTURE. Early on, Marty says “History’s going to change.” And boy, does it. We get a ton of set-up in the first act, and then everything does indeed change in the second act as all of those setups are paid off. Amazing.

Take a look at your latest draft. Does each scene advance the topics in question? If not, do you have a way to fix that so it does? The more you get in the habit of doing this, the easier it’ll get and the faster it’ll become second nature to do it all the time.