Getting a feel for the tactile experience

November 28, 2014
That's not ink. It's writer's blood (or at least it sure feels that way).

That’s not ink. It’s writer’s blood (or at least it sure feels that way).

The early drafts of my western spec all clocked in at 132 pages. “Way too long!” I was told.

Tips and suggestions on how to tighten things up were provided and implemented. 126 pages. “Still too long! Cut more!” they demanded.

Sleeves were rolled up. Knuckles were cracked. The pounding of computer keys continued. 122. “Keep going!” was the response.

I slaved, toiled and labored until I couldn’t take it any more. 117. “Almost there!”

Feeling rather drained, I took the most effective step of all: I printed out those 117 pages, armed myself with the almighty red pen and got to work.

For some inexplicable reason, when I edit a script on paper, it’s much more effective than working with a digital copy. Lines of text I’d always ignored would suddenly pop as something to cut, modify or move around.

I’ll scribble out an alternative line of dialogue. Try out an impromptu reorganizing of the scene. Cross something out, then change my mind and write ‘keep’ over it. Use my finger to literally block out a line to figure out if the scene still works without it.

Just the other day I cut out half the dialogue in a scene with no significant impact. Would I have been able to do that if I wasn’t working with actual pages? Hard to say, but I’m inclined to believe “probably not.”

As I worked my way through the script, I found more and more opportunities to cut or edit. Of these 117 pages, there’s at least one red mark on just about every page, which includes the plentiful use of red lines through words and/or sentences, and lots of circles and arrows (as in “move THIS to HERE”).

Exhausting as it was, the red pen portion of the process is now complete.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to digitally apply these edits for a couple of days. The US is currently in the middle of a big holiday weekend, which means extra work shifts for me. Love the holiday overtime, but it’s also less writing time.

I’m not concerned. It’ll happen soon, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the new page total will end up being, as well as the subsequent responses.

It goes without saying that “Yes!” would be ideal.


Ask a Thoroughly Meticulous Script Consultant!

November 25, 2014

Jim Mercurio

 

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Jim Mercurio of A-List Screenwriting.

Jim Mercurio is a filmmaker, writer and teacher. The high-concept horror-thriller he directed, Last Girl, won best feature in the 2012 DOA Bloodbath Film Festival (as #12). The Washington Post called his Making Hard Scrambled Movies (production tutorials) “a must for would-be filmmakers.” His workshops and instructional DVDs, including his recent 10-hour set Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List, have inspired tens of thousands of screenwriters. One of the country’s top story analysts, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers. He is finishing up the first screenwriting book that focuses solely on scene writing, The Craft of Scene Writing, for Linden Publishing. To find out about working with Jim, visit his website at http://www.jamespmercurio.com.

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

I used to try to see almost every film that was released in a year. Lately, for better or worse, I have had less time to be a viewer. Although I only watch 3-4 TV series at any given time, I really liked True Detective. I like Girls. Lena has a great voice and the show, as well as You’re the Worst, for me, fills in for the quirky little indies that seem to be on the decline. I thought Her was exciting because it was high-concept but indie in spirit. And it could have been made for almost any price. It was one of those films where I can say, “I wish I had made it,” or “I could have or should have written that.” I also look for gems of craft in surprising places. Who can’t love – capital L-O-V-E — the moment in The Avengers when Bruce Banner reveals the secret to the Hulk: “I’m always angry”?

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

After grad school, I wanted to figure out screenwriting inside-and-out because I loved screenwriting but I also thought it would be a means to be able to direct. I read probably every screenwriting book and resource available in the 90s. I worked as a development exec for an indie company owned by one of the producers of Gas-Food-Lodging. And then I attended 120 hours of classes from the so-called “gurus” including, McKee, Hauge, Truby, etc. for a review article in Creative Screenwriting. That experience expanded my perspective and spurred my ability to be able to identify and clearly articulate issues in a script. I would do notes for friends and, by word of mouth, I eventually got more people who wanted feedback, so that’s how I started working as a story analyst. With my development background, my private story analysis and contests I have run, I have read more than 5,000 feature screenplays.

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

For the most part, yes, assuming that a reader has some affinity for screenwriting and storytelling. Recognizing a good or very good script that is a good read is a common developable skill. A rarer skill is when a reader can accurately determine whether a script will play as a film. Some scripts deliver a smooth and emotionally satisfying read but would not translate as well to film as would some scripts that may be a less satisfying read.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I like to see solid execution: great dialogue, exploiting concept, unity of theme… all the craft elements that I preach. No longer in the acquisition side of development, I have a more solipsistic approach to material. I want to find scripts I can direct or produce: High-concept scripts with modest budget a la Her or Buried. Or a script with such awesome characters and dialogue that it is imminently castable or packageable. In general, with shrinking or nonexistent development budgets, I encourage all writers to nail the execution, so their scripts are as ready as possible to being shot.

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

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

My development for outside companies consists of intensive feedback on a few scripts or rough cuts per year. I no longer read 20 scripts per week, so that’s why I combined these two questions. And I will deal with craft issues below.

Impatience. Writers want to rush material to market that isn’t ready. In general, scripts usually aren’t done. The execution isn’t there. It’s several drafts away from being ready to be a movie. For my clients who aren’t already successful writers, the best thing they can do for their career is to go from good to great and write an amazing script.

Clarity. Writers often don’t have a clear picture of how their material relates to the marketplace. I have made several low-concept feature films, so you can learn from my, ah, pain and experience. If you are writing low-concept dramas, unless the script is a masterpiece or can be cast with name actors, you have to accept that the script will only be valuable as a writing sample. If your goal is to sell your next script, you are going to have to say “no” to a lot of your story ideas based solely on their concepts.

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

There are no rules and break them at your peril.

I spent a few years and tens of thousands of dollars creating a 10-hour DVD set where I tried to cover the dozens of craft elements writers need to know including story structure, theme, character orchestration, dialogue, writing cinematically, concept, handling exposition and scene writing. I am not sure I can narrow it down to just three from a craft perspective.

I work with Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning talent whose material is always good, yet they aren’t satisfied. If successful professionals are still fighting to make their scripts better and improve their craft, so should beginners. Regardless of your genre, aim to transcend it. Rewrite it until it sings. Along with concept, one of the most important factors in giving your script a chance is nailing the execution.

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

If you are giving a recommend that means you are reading for someone else and evaluating the material relative to their tastes. There have been scripts that I have loved that weren’t right for the company I was reading for. I get more excited about writers who are a recommend. I want to know what else they have or what they are considering working on next.

There were writers I championed while running the Screenwriting Expo Competition whose scripts would be almost impossible to produce – a $200-million biopic of Michelangelo; a magical realist masterpiece for which there is literally not a young actress in the world whose box office value could carry the movie; a chamber-play western; a devastatingly bleak low-concept drama. But more than a decade later, I keep in touch with those writers: Bill, Nathan, Naida and Lorelei.

I have even helped a few of them to get some non-guild writing work. Not life-changing money but the chance for valuable experience. A reminder that a great writing sample, even if it doesn’t sell, has tremendous value.

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

See above.

Of course, they are worth it. But be practical about what you hope to achieve from them. Only a miniscule percentage of writers should look at contests as a money-making endeavor.

But contests can pay off in other ways. They can inspire you creatively, encourage you to make your deadlines and help to promote your work. There is also a social aspect. They can lead to you meeting other people.

They can also be a tool to evaluate your writing. There is always subjectivity in reading scripts, but if your script hasn’t advanced in 9 out of 10 (appropriate) contests, then I would suggest not spending more money on contests. Work on making the script better and maybe even consider spending your contest budget on feedback.

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

They can look in to working with me at my story analysis site, www.jamespmercurio.com, or check out my new DVD set Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List at www.a-listscreenwriting.com. My coaching and mentoring approach creates a relationship with clients where I can push and challenge them throughout several drafts of a script until it’s where we want it to be.

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

I have gross points in my last film, so if it ever makes money, that will be my favorite piece of the pie.


Another chapter comes to an end

November 21, 2014
Thus my ongoing journey goes on...

Thus my ongoing journey goes on…

It all started with a website designed specifically for getting feedback on your logline.  In concept, a great idea. You post your logline, other writers let you know what they think of it and how it could possibly be improved.

On this site, there are a handful of commenters who offer their thoughts on pretty much every single entry (a lot of which, I have to admit, are very poorly written. Hence the seeking out of feedback).

Earlier this week, on a total whim, I posted the logline for my Chinese restaurant script. No intention of changing it. Just wanted to see what people thought.

To refresh your memory, here it is again: A Caucasian chef in a struggling family-run Chinese restaurant takes on a sleazy powerhouse competitor determined to shut it down.

Perfect? Of course not. Does it need work? Sure. But the rewrite of this script is an extremely low-priority item, so I’m not that worried about it.

And the reaction?

Lo and behold, a grand total of two comments from two of the usual suspects.

The first substituted “humble” for “Caucasian”, then suggested I describe what it is they do to save the restaurant.

Pass.

The second said that the stakes should be “hire” (sic). How does the main character change over the course of the story? (this one I can understand) Could I add a ticking time bomb element (a particular favorite of this commenter’s)? Was it a comedy (“Sounds like Dodgeball, but with restaurants.”)?

And the one that really sealed the deal for me – “Success or failure of a restaurant is not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.” Besides the fact that any family who owns a struggling restaurant would probably want to bash your head in for such a statement, you’re saying the story’s not important enough?

Words fail me. It’s almost as if they’re working off a checklist. And misspelling a common word like “higher” severely damages your credibility.

Pass to the Nth degree.

So that’s it. I’m done. While I may occasionally pop in to look around, I definitely will not be seeking opinions from this site ever again and instead rely on my network of friends and trusted colleagues to tell me what I’m doing wrong.


Ask an Extraordinarily Insightful Script Consultant!

November 18, 2014

Andrew Hilton

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Andrew Hilton, aka the Screenplay Mechanic.

Andrew Hilton grew up in the U.K. and studied film in England and New York, before working in motion picture development at almost every major studio. Having read more than 7000 scripts, he is one of the most highly-regarded independent screenplay analysts in the film industry.

Andrew’s first produced credit as a screenwriter was the psychological thriller FATAL TRUST.  More recently, he rewrote and Co-Produced the indie thriller BRAKE, and served as a Co-Executive Producer on the feature documentary WHY WE RIDE.  Andrew also has several feature projects in active development, including the big-budget action picture BULLET RUN.  His latest screenplay, the Dickens-inspired action thriller THE GUNS OF CHRISTMAS PAST, is being financed and produced by Voltage Pictures and is expected to go into production early 2015.

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

While I’m more of a feature guy, I love that NEWSROOM is back on TV. At least in terms of dialogue, there are very few screenwriters on Aaron Sorkin’s level. He has the ability to craft dialogue exchanges that are as mesmerizing as any action sequence. Some criticize the heightened reality of his rapid-fire, snappy dialogue, arguing that it’s contrived and inauthentic. Personally, I’m going to savor every episode of this final season.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I attended film school in the UK and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. My first gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. I then moved to Warner Bros. and worked in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc.). After six months there, I landed my first paying job at Paramount, as a Story Editor for Mario Kassar (First Blood, Terminator, etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills.

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

The ability to recognize good writing can be learned, but recognizing a good movie is a skill far fewer people possess because it’s partly instinctual. Consequently, there are many agents, producers and actors in the industry who struggle to recognize a good script. That’s one of multiple reasons why so many sub-par projects get off the ground. Often, producers and studio execs are throwing stories against the wall (or into theaters) to see what sticks. On the flipside, there are people in the industry – from readers to top producers – who consistently find that diamond in the rough. For example, Scott Rudin has an amazing eye for material.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It really all comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well-written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced.

So what specific components in a script will ensure the audience is entertained? An interesting protagonist is essential. We don’t necessarily have to like the hero, but it’s crucial we find them interesting. Ideally, the screenplay will also feature compelling conflict, engrossing dialogue, and a brisk pace which holds our attention. The end game is to ensure the audience leaves the cinema feeling completely satisfied. Nobody likes leaving a restaurant hungry, and nobody enjoys leaving the multiplex feeling as if they just wasted $15 on a crappy film.

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

Overwriting the narrative to the point where clarity suffers is very common. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use twenty words to describe something when ten will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words.

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

Anything post-apocalyptic is becoming tiresome. Mad Max was released in 1979 and the spec marketplace is still saturated with clones.

Ditto for “man on the run” stories. Whether the hero is in possession of a flash-drive, witnessed a crime, or underwent some kind of experiment, these screenplays always follow the same structure and climax. There’s often a foot chase in a subway and the protagonist almost always ends up sleeping with the love interest in a hotel. I read one or two of these most weeks.

I’m happy to read big expensive sci-fi epics, but 99.99% of the time the author needs to realize they’re writing it for themselves because it’s not going anywhere. If nobody in this town knows you and the story isn’t based on an existing IP, where’s the $200m budget going to come from?

Another common formula is the comedy about the dishonest hero. Often, these are romantic comedies which feature the protagonist misleading or lying to the love interest. The charade has to be maintained throughout Act II, at which point the love interest learns the truth and shuns the hero, leading to a climatic reconciliation (often a race to an airport).

All that said, if you have a unique conceptual twist, or craft one of these stories in a genuinely fresh and commercial way, there are still plenty of potential buyers out there. Clichés often become clichés because they work repeatedly. It’s also worth pointing out that this is where an experienced story analyst can be most useful. Some people rail against spending money on coverage, but I’ve read well over 7000 screenplays so I might be able to tell you how often I’ve seen a specific idea before and can give you suggestions on how to make your work differ from past fare.

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

Not “rules” per se, but…

-Know your audience.

-Don’t bore anyone.

-Always remember a complete stranger will eventually have to write a huge check to make your story come to life. They’ll want that money back.

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

I used to read approximately 70% of major theatrical releases when they were still at the script stage, either for production companies or foreign distributors. Hence, I’ve done coverage on everything from The Sixth Sense to The Lord Of The Rings. I’ve also helped a couple of scripts get set up or made, most notably Tim Mannion’s Brake. A script I absolutely loved which has languished in development hell for almost 20 years: Icarus by Patrick Sheane Duncan. It tells the story of a fighter pilot who’s about to be put out to pasture, so he steals a fighter jet with the intention of crashing it into the ocean. His lifelong best friend, who married the woman he always loved, takes to the skies to try and talk him down. When I read it at Paramount in the late 90s, Bruce Willis was attached but the project ground to a halt when the director’s latest movie tanked.

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

Some are worthwhile, e.g. the Nicholl, but most are akin to entering the lottery. If you’ve written a genuinely brilliant piece of work, it may still go unnoticed because most contest judges are inexperienced and all of them are underpaid. However, there are enough lightning strikes to keep the contest industry alive, and if a writer can afford it I see no harm in rolling the dice. More often than not, it’s akin to a farm program where a small-time manager or agent may discover you. If you’re considering the contest world, target the established ones which have a good reputation.

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

My website www.screenplaymechanic.com, my Mechanic Facebook page, or simply email me at screenplaymechanic@gmail.com.

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

I’m going savory on this one. Steak and Ale (with a pint, of course).


Isn’t this tuff enough already?

November 14, 2014
Proudly serving the public trust

Proudly serving the public trust

As a screenwriter, there’s a very long list of things to cover to make sure your script really works.

Story. Characters and their arcs. Theme. Plot. Dialogue. Action.

With awl of that going on, who has thyme to pay attention too such trivial things like weather or knot a word in you’re script is spelled correctly?

See what I mean? Misspelled words are distracting and unprofessional. And these are just homonyms. Getting into stuff like “loose-lose” is part of another issue altogether.

“No problem,” you say. “I’ll just use spellcheck to fix it.”

For the love of Ernest Lehman, don’t. Spellcheck is not a cure-all. It knows spelling, not context. As far as spellcheck is concerned, every word in that sentence above is as it should be.

One or two typos in a 110-page script are understandable, but you don’t want more than that. There are many out there more than willing to pass on your script if the number of misspelled words keeps increasing.

Not sure if your spelling is up to snuff? Ask a fellow writer. Nobody’s going to think any less of you for it. Chances are their editing/proofreading skills are what you need, and they’re probably more than happy to help. Just make sure to offer to help them with their material as well.

Not everybody is a good speller, but it’s something easily fixable. Truth be told, even some of my scripts, despite my vigilance, have contained (gasp!) the occasional typo.

Emphasis on “occasional”.


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