Q & A with Jim Mercurio

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Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed and produced five feature films, and helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners.

Editor’s note 1 – a q&a with Jim was featured in a series of interviews with script consultants that ran on this blog between 2014 and 2015.

Editor’s note 2 – full disclosure: Jim played the role of adviser/sounding board for the rewrite of my dramedy spec.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

I was prepping my webinar on February 7th for The Writers Store on Personal Voice, (FYI – Feb 1 is the last day to save $20 on registering) and I stumbled upon the idea that a writer must figure out what is special about what he does and then focus on that. I feel like it is the same way with me and the book.

I have always focused on the nitty-gritty of craft. Probably because I worked so hard trying to figure it out for myself as a writer. When I directed the 40ish DVDs in the Expo Series, I did my own class concentrating only on theme.

Years ago, I happened to be prepping for a feature I was directing. In a week, I saw the same scene performed more than 200 times by a hundred different actresses. I was trying to figure out what I could do that hadn’t been done before as far as a screenwriting book. My experience as a filmmaker has always informed my approach to understanding and teaching screenwriting. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to me sooner. I had an “A-ha!” or better yet a “Duh!” moment — SCENE WRITING!

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

The obvious distinction is that it focuses solely on scene writing… the first screenwriting book to do so.

I was fortunate enough to have story gurus Richard Walter and Michael Hauge review the book. Something Michael said really touched me. He said that there were a lot of ideas in the book he hadn’t even thought of. I wanted to cover new ideas or at least some seldom taught concepts in a novel way.

Having been in the screenwriting education niche writing for Creative Screenwriting, directing, creating 50 hours of educational DVDs and working as a consultant, I know what’s out there. I believe this book will carry the torch and be among the next go-to books for all screenwriters entering the field.

As I mentioned, my filmmaking experience and the fact that I am actively writing screenplays and making projects impacts my perspective. I try to be very specific in my examples. For a given topic, I may start with theory but I always try to end with concrete principles and tools that you can apply to your writing on the spot.

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

I feel very strongly that this book will appeal to writers across a wide spectrum of skill levels. A friend of mine said I teach the last hundred pages of “the screenwriting book” more than I do the first hundred. So, if anything, I would be more concerned about whether this would serve beginners.

I even asked my editor if it did and she gave me a great response. But then out of the blue, the universe gave me a better answer. My 23-year-old stepson who is a computer engineer texted me. He said he was halfway through the book and said “It’s very accessible… nothing’s confusing.”

The only research I did while writing this book was to watch movies and think about them. Each chapter is like a stand-alone piece on topics such as exposition, concept, theme, and rewriting. I tried to begin with my, at least somewhat, original and basic take on a topic to ease the reader in and to orient them. A new writer can jump right in.

More advanced writers might recognize my approach as somewhat novel. I then try to go as deep as I can with the material, so that even professional writers might benefit. A writer who read the book said that 70-80% of it was stuff he had never heard before. He might be overstating it, but I’m proud that the book feels that way. I wanted to offer new insight into the nitty-gritty challenge of craft.

Even though the book’s title is THE CRAFT OF SCENE WRITING, what else does it cover besides writing scenes?

At its essence, scene writing is storytelling and the same principles apply. You are poring over characters, characterization, idiosyncrasies of the world, setups – to create reversals. You’ve heard of turning points, right? Writers have to turn a story. They also have to learn how to turn a scene. Or a line of dialogue.

However, I wanted this to complement all of the other screenwriting books that cover story structure. I am looking at screenplays at the molecular level. In the final section of the book, I cover rewriting in a parallel way to how I discuss scene structure. And then I explore how to discover and use your personal voice in your screenplays.

One of the phrases you really emphasized during the process with my script was “write to concept.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Whew, no softballs here. Making me earn my pie.

There are 7500 words in my chapter on concept, which have been through the wringer with my 18 copyeditors, but I will try to summarize with insightful pithiness.

Like I mentioned, as a writer you should use what’s special about yourself and your writing. Writing to concept means that you are using what’s special about your story as the main inspiration for its surprises. For fun, consider a 3-D horror movie where an axe flies across the screen left to right. Do you see how on some level that’s just wrong? It should be flying toward the camera. Otherwise, it’s ignoring the most prominent element of its medium.

Of course, I’m not that rigid, but writers have to narrow down the handful of elements that are essential to their concept because not only do their surprises spin out of them, but, for the most part, they spin out only from them. I don’t know if I can teach that here. Hopefully, I can intrigue you to go to the source.

Writing to concept allows you to find a unique way to express what otherwise might be a familiar story beat. Based on their concept, the moments will look very different. In Memento, Natalie hurts Leonard by hiding pencils. In Her, Samantha, an operating system, hurts her lover by telling him she’s in love with 641 other people.

Another of your favorite phrases during the writing process was “go deeper.” What should that mean to a writer?

It refers to a missed opportunity to get at more emotion with a character or to complicate a relationship, which would hopefully do the same. While we were working on your script, there’s a scene I pointed out featuring a moment where you were on the verge of discovering a powerful and transcendent moment, but then it was all over too soon. Sometimes writers hit a beat (in the broader sense), and maybe they are worried about a looming expansive page count or don’t appreciate what they have stumbled upon, so they move on too quickly. They might be better off — pick your metaphor — milking or massaging a moment for a bit longer and letting it play out.

Take a look at the long and emotional monologue in Good Will Hunting where Will’s best friend Chuckie tells him that he should “cash the winning lottery ticket” and get out of town to find a better life. He even tells him that the best part of the day is in the morning when he comes to pick him up, he has a moment of hope that Will has left — without even leaving a note. Imagine, if we cut that down to a sentence: “I will miss you but you gotta get the hell out of here.” We lose Chuckie’s voice, the suspense of it, the emotional heft and importance. It goes from a set-piece scene to a bland, merely functional one.

In addition to the book, Jim also provides a script consulting service. How can people get in touch to find out more?

Easy. Go to my site at www.jamespmercurio.com. I discuss why coaching is my preferred mode of working with writers. You can check out my DVD set and sign up for my free e-newsletter Craft & Career, which will also let you stay informed about classes and workshops I’m offering later in the year.

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was the metaphoric “gross points from my last film”. Still the same today, or something different?

A pie in the hand is worth two gross points in a bush. Or 20 for that matter. So, hand me some Dutch Apple, please.

dutchapplepie

Little time. Lots of results.

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So many options. Where to start?

Bit of a shorty today, and the subject itself is the reason why.

Let’s talk time management.

As much as I’d like to devote a big portion of my day to writing, that just isn’t the case. I’ve got other responsibilities, so I do what I can to make that limited timeframe as productive as possible.

A key part of this – planning ahead. Making a list. Designating time specifically for certain activities.

Think “achievable objectives”. Things you know you can get done.

Research.

Reading scripts (both professional and writers within your circle)

Providing notes.

Queries (including verifying recipient’s info)

Networking.

And of course, writing (includes outlining, editing and polishing).

(Imagine how much more is involved with the actual production of a film. For today, it’s all about the script and the things connected to it.)

You could do all of these each day, but that would be exhausting. I find three to be a safe and productive number. Results will vary.

The important part to remember is how a steady repetition of all these little things can eventually add up to big results.

If you can only manage one or two, that’s okay. Do what works best for you. You’re the one in control, and this is definitely not the sort of thing you want to rush through.

Another helpful tip – avoid social media/wandering around the internet. Or at least severely limit your participation. Allow yourself a few minutes, then redirect that focus back to your project.

A writer wears a lot of hats, always having to switch them out because there’s always something that has to get done. But if you stay calm and try to be organized about it, the switching out of hats will get a little easier as you go along.

Wiping the slate clean

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There’s something appealing about clearing all that clutter away

One of my biggest and constant issues when I engage in a rewrite is HOW MUCH ACTUALLY GETS REWRITTEN?

As much as I love the previous draft, my ability to simply discard that which has come before always gets a solid and thorough workout. I usually start out thinking “I only need to change these few items”, which naturally quickly changes to “Keep this, this, and this, and get rid of everything else.”.

The more I work on the overhaul of the pulpy sci-fi spec, that latter thought is becoming more and more prevalent. Just a handful of parts are being kept, while others fall somewhere in the range between “totally discarded” to “hold onto that for later”.

I went into this knowing it wouldn’t be a light project, which it most definitely hasn’t. It’s very safe to say it’s rapidly become a major operation, both in the medical and organizational senses of the word.

And as far as I can tell, significantly for the better all around.

The more I work on this, the more it becomes noticeably different from its predecessor. This is probably an appropriate place to say that even with all of the changes, the key story elements and plot points have remained the same. As was my intention.

Quality notes from my circle of trusted colleagues have played a major factor throughout the whole process. Many enjoyed the story, and each person had valid comments that raised some important questions and comments: could the hero’s backstory be more original and less cliched? What if the antagonist’s motivation also involved _____? And the always popular “You do realize that’s not scientifically accurate, right?”.

(Full disclosure on that last one – yep. I did. But it works within the context of the story, and this definitely isn’t the kind of story to be nitpicky about.)

With so much of the previous draft being torn down and tossed away, the rebuilding process has been slow, but steadily productive. It’ll most likely take longer than expected, but I’d rather spend the time now figuring things out than find out later that they don’t work and have to go back and do it all over again.

One of the most encouraging comments from the notes was “Words to sum up the script – Big. Fun. Action.”

That’s been my mantra for this whole process; just amped up a bit.

Bigger. Funner. Actioner.

Even though “actioner” is technically a noun, in this scenario, I’ll assume you get the gist of what it’s implying.

A sensation most euphoric

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Just a few more jumps, then back to work

The early months of this year, or at least the first one – for now, are all about taking some of the scripts I worked on last year and doing what I can to make them better.

Based on some notes, a quick polish was completed on the dramedy. I like how it turned out.

Next up was the pulpy sci-fi. It was a total blast to write, so a new draft felt in order, and inevitable. This seems to fall square in the category of “genre stuff I’m good at writing”. You can imagine what a shock/surprise it was to discover the last time I’d worked on this script was late summer of 2017, so it’s had plenty of time to simmer.

I don’t know how it is for other writers, but after I complete a draft or two, the story as it reads on the page seems a bit more…maybe “cemented” is the proper word? It’s tough for me to change things up. Tough, but not impossible. If I can come up with something that does the job better and in a more creative and original way, that’s fine by me.

I wanted to really change things up for the better with this story – especially regarding the protagonist. The most prevalent comment from my readers was “more depth”. The way the hero is written now just isn’t enough.

The gears began to turn, and my self-imposed resistance against changes, especially drastic ones, began to fade. As much as I like the current draft, why shouldn’t I challenge myself to make it better – no matter what that required?

I’ve written before that you can’t force creativity, but sometimes you can at least give it a little nudge in the right direction. Start the ball rolling, so to speak. I find the best way to do this is simply by asking myself questions, such as…

-The protagonist is LIKE THIS. What would be the total opposite of that? Or something unexpected?

-Here’s an important STORY POINT,  but its current form just isn’t as effective as it could be, or have the impact it should. What’s another way to present that? What would be another way from that one?

-Several readers commented how they felt the protagonist’s backstory seemed incomplete, and could really use some reinforcing. Rather than clinging to what’s there now, what if a 180 approach was taken, and THIS happened instead?

The number of possibilities continued to grow – for the better. Previously unobtainable solutions were becoming easier to find, and would then be shaped and molded to fit within the contest of the story.

A stronger, more relatable and most importantly – original – way to achieve the desired results for the protagonist’s development was forming, and the added bonus of some  great opportunities to show the hero’s emotional arc!

The fuse had been lit.

More and more questions were posed, pondered, and answered, including an alarming number that could be summed up with “that’s good, but not good enough”. Combined with my willingness to jettison parts of the current draft, a totally new approach began to take form.

As expected, this will require an openness and willingness to totally jettison and replace big chunks of the current draft. Rest in peace, my darlings. (There’s a good chance a few instances of reincarnation may take place somewhere down the line)

Suffice to say, I’m absolutely thrilled about all of this.

When something really clicks for a writer – and I mean REALLY clicks – it’s as if a tidal wave of adrenaline and endorphins are flooding through your system.

That being said, my process of plotting, rewriting and revising is well underway. It’s a big job, but I’m feeling quite confident about how this rewrite is developing.

Consider me definitely ready and eager to take it all on.

My game. Upped.

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Behind that innocent smile, the gears are turning. Always.

So how was 2018 for you?

Maybe you established some goals for yourself, and were hopefully able to accomplish at least some of them. If you managed to check off all of them, then all hats off to you.

Among the events of note from my little corner of the universe…

-Completed a major rewrite of one script, the first draft of another, a thorough polish of yet another, and a much-needed updating of an older one.

-My scripts did okay in some contests. Nothing major, but still encouraging.

-A few “almosts” regarding representation.

Would I have liked more from all categories? Without a doubt. Especially the ones regarding getting a career going. While I’m happy with the results, all of this does make me want to really step up my efforts for next year.

Along with more writing, a big part also involves simply planning and strategizing. I already have an idea of which scripts could use more attention; a mix of rewrites and first drafts (with outlining involved all around).

It’s taken time to develop and hone my writing skills to where they are now, and I sincerely believe that working my way through all of these projects will contribute to further improvement for both my writing and my material.

In other words, I’m good, or so I’ve been told, but I’m going to work even harder to get better.

On the contest front, that’ll involve a lot of cutting back. Apart from the big three, I’ll be limiting myself to a handful of smaller ones – most likely those involving a specific genre – mostly to see how my scripts fare. That and those registration fees really add up.

And regarding the ongoing quest for representation, the researching and updating of contact info for reps and prodcos continues. Over the course of this year, I’ve accumulated a somewhat sizable collection of names and email addresses, and am doing what I can to compile and organize a list of potential recipients.

The word that most accurately sums up my approach to 2019 would be “relentless”. I’ve no plan to stop trying. One might even go so far as to say my efforts will see a dramatic increase. Without a doubt, there will be a lot of days where I feel down and defeated, but even then, the fire deep inside me will continue to burn bright and strong.

I know success is not guaranteed, but I’ve made some good progress over the past few years in terms of career and skills, and sincerely believe that my current efforts regarding both could make quite the positive impact on my chances of good things happening in 2019.

Here’s hoping, anyway.

And I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t wish you all the best with every single one of your projects, current and future, in the coming year.

p.s. Over the past twelve months, I’ve also had the good fortune to engage in face-to-face meetings with many writers here in the Bay Area. Some were new, and some were reconnections. No matter what, it’s always a great thing to meet up and chat about our respective writer stuff.

Which is why I’ll once again highly recommend you add networking and connecting with writers, filmmakers, and all sorts of creative peeople to your “to-do” list for 2019.