A scary good Q&A with Jimmy George

JImmy George

Jimmy George, aka Script Butcher, has been writing and producing films for over a decade. Along with optioning several screenplays, Jimmy has lent his name as co-writer/co-producer to six award winning feature-length films, garnering rave reviews, and boasting international distribution.

He has a talent for engineering fun and innovative productions on shoe-string budgets with few of the modern technological marvels used in major Hollywood blockbusters. Each of his films have been praised for circumventing their meager budgets, standing out through memorable storytelling.

Jimmy co-wrote and co-produced WNUF Halloween Special (2013), which won numerous festival awards, alongside national press from The New York Times, VICE, MTV, Birth.Movies.DeathFandango, and Red Letter Media, and is currently available on the AMC Networks’ streaming service, Shudder.

After tearing up the festival circuit, his most recent film, Call Girl of Cthulhu generated enormous buzz in the horror industry. Harry Knowles of Aintiticoolnews declared it “fun, better than it should be and quite splattacular.”.

Jimmy’s current project (and his seventh feature), What Happens Next Will Scare You, will be released next year.

In addition to writing and producing, Jimmy has a passion for helping creators succeed. As the Script Butcher, he consults with screenwriters, empowering them with the necessary tools to sharpen their scripts into dynamic stories that slice through the competition.

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

The pilot episode for GLOW. The world-building is excellent. It takes you into a sub-culture that’s mysterious and relatively unknown. The characters are memorable and entertaining. We meet the lead character at her lowest point. It leaves us with so much promise for what could take place during the series. Does everything a pilot should do and more.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

There are many screenwriting gurus out there. I am not one of them. I’m just a guy who’s written a ton of screenplays, produced a half-dozen movies of my own, and learned a lot along the way.

Over the last ten years of making movies, I’ve become the go-to script doctor for a lot of friends and colleagues. I’ve been doing this for free for a decade and it became clear a few years ago that this was my purpose. So I decided to start this service and try to make a living doing what I love.

Telling stories is what I was put on this Earth to do. Helping others fine tune their stories is a close second. I’ve been in your shoes. I know the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to complete a screenplay. This isn’t a job for me. It’s my passion. It’s what I live for.

Where does the moniker “Script Butcher” come from?

Whenever someone would ask for notes, I always delivered their script covered with red ink. The pages looked bloody. I once joked with a friend that I was their “script butcher” and it just stuck. To this day, every time I finish a set of notes my hands are covered with red ink splatters. I have a background in horror so a lot of people assume those are the only scripts I work with, but I provide the same exhaustive notes for all genres. I’d say 75% of my clients don’t write horror.

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

Writing well and recognizing good writing are skills that go hand in hand. Both can be taught and learned. For me, recognizing good writing as compared to bad has come from reading thousands of scripts at all levels of the talent spectrum. Having my own scripts brought to life on a frequent basis, sitting in theaters watching what works and doesn’t has also taught me invaluable lessons most script doctors haven’t had the opportunity to learn or pass along.

Studying the work of pros is a must too, but a lot of scripts available to the public are shooting drafts which are different from spec scripts and teach new writers bad lessons. So much can be learned from script consultants as well. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentoring advice and guidance I received from my own trusted script doctors.

I didn’t go to film school. The notes I received from these professionals over the course of a decade and a half, became my film school. By failing time and again, by continuing to experiment with the form and seeking constant feedback, I learned the craft. I never stopped trying to get better. Growing thick skin and learning how to use feedback to improve your stories is an important skill set for a writer.

Sending my scripts for notes became a crucial part of the writing process and continues to be.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script should have an original, marketable concept.

With flawed relatable characters who are actively seeking something they care deeply about, that we can emotionally connect with and root for, and that deals with the most important events of these character’s lives.

It should present a visual goal for the character or characters to achieve which form the central story question, and present primal, relatable stakes for what will happen if they fail to achieve those visual goals with formidable forces of antagonism that cause never-ending complications, standing in the way of the character’s achieving their goals.

It’s properly formatted on the page, relies on visuals instead of dialogue to tell the story, with plausible surprises and reversals of expectation at every turn.

And it builds to an emotionally satisfying climax that answers the central story question of whether our characters will achieve their visual goal in a positive or negative manner.

Other elements such as a quick pace, character arcs, thematic resonance, and memorable dialogue are a bonus, but not absolutely necessary for a script to do its job.

(Some of this is inspired by Terry Rossio’s 60 Question Checklist, which every screenwriter should read here.)

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

1) FAILURE TO DELIVER ON THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE

A story is a promise. Imagine Mrs. Doubtfire if the story followed Robin Williams working as an accountant instead of following the trials and tribulations of trying to reconnect with his wife and kids while dressed as an old woman.

The audience is waiting for you to deliver on the promise of your concept. If your script is about killer beer, you better have a beer pong massacre scene.

2) TONAL IMBALANCE

If you’re writing Schindler’s List, there’s no room for campy comedy. Vice versa.

Even if you’re mixing genres, keep your characters’ reactions to the events around them and the events themselves consistent in tone.

3) LACK OF CLARITY EMOTIONAL OR OTHERWISE

Clarity of what a character is feeling in reaction to a situation or what is being conveyed in general is a common issue I encounter with client scripts. Because the story is alive in your head, it’s difficult to tell what is and isn’t conveyed on the page. It’s all crystal clear for the writer, but often muddled on the page.

There are many more common mistakes, but these are the big ones.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

UNDESERVED CELEBRITY STATUS – I see so many scripts that give their characters a level of celebrity status that’s unbelievable simply for the sake of telling the media-frenzied story they’re trying to tell. The paparazzi and press are very specific about the types of people they will follow. Make sure your characters are worthy of the celebrity status you’re giving them in your story.

USING NEWSPAPER HEADLINES AS EXPOSITION – Many of my clients rely on one newspaper headline after another to show the passage of time and relay important exposition. Media has changed. This is an antiquated story device that no longer holds weight with the audience.

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

1) REVERSE EXPECTATION at every turn in a way that feels organic to the story and not calculated or contrived.

2) FIND THE CLICHE AND THROW IT AWAY. If we’ve seen it or heard it before, find another way to show it or say it. This will ensure your story always feels fresh and unique.

3) MAKE IT VISUAL. If dialogue comes last instead of first when you’re crafting scenes, it will ensure your story is cinematic and not better suited for the stage.

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

I have once, it’s called BaSatai by my longtime client Suzan Battah. She’s in the process of turning it into a graphic novel. You can find out more here. https://www.patreon.com/suzanbattah

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

Not worth it. Writers put so much time, emphasis, and worst of all, money into contests. In my opinion they’d be better off spending that time improving their craft and spending their money on attending networking events and writing workshops.

While I understand the allure of getting a festival or contest win to stand out from the crowd of writers trying to break in, a contest win can be detrimental to a writer’s sense of skill level and give them a false sense of completion with their scripts.

I’ve worked with dozens of screenplays that were “award-winning” with multiple festival monikers to their name, that I don’t feel would get a RECOMMEND from a single studio reader.

Writers are paying money to contests, being assured their scripts are good enough, when they aren’t ready yet. There’s nothing more detrimental to your career than trying to shop around a script that isn’t ready.

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

My website has all the details you’ll need at www.scriptbutcher.com/services

You can also find me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/scriptbutcher

Instagram at www.instagram.com/_jimmygeorge

And Facebook at www.facebook.com/scriptbutcher

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

Offbeat answer here. My wife and I were passing through Intercourse, Pennsylvania, otherwise known as Amish country. There was a gift shop that sold Shoofly Pie with cartoonish construction paper flies advertising how fresh it was. We bought a slice. Needless to say, it was so delicious we left with two whole pies.

Pacing & page numbers

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Looks like there’s a lot going on up ahead

When you start reading a script, you tend to recognize pretty quickly whether or not the writer knows what they’re doing. Their mastery of the craft (or lack thereof) will become soon apparent.

Bad formatting. Misspelled words. Unfilmables. On-the-nose dialogue. Cliches as far as the eye can see. Quite a checklist.

Find one or more of these early on, let alone just on the first page (which does happen), and there’s not much hope of improvement. You’re left with no choice but to force yourself to push forward. Maybe once in a while, you glance up at the upper right corner of the page/screen.

Your shoulders sag. “I’m only up to page ____? This is taking forever!” you exclaim. Making it to the end has suddenly become a question of “if”, rather than “when”.

Now let’s examine the other side, where the writer is in total control.

You encounter writing so sharp and descriptive, you can easily “see” what’s happening. Dialogue that’s not just crisp, it practically crackles. Characters who feel and talk like real people. All of it taking place in original and entertaining situations.

You become so wrapped up that you can’t wait to get to the bottom of the page so you can move on to the next one. And maybe once in a while, you sneak a glance at the upper right corner.

Your eyebrows shoot up. “I’m already at page ____? Wow, this is just zooming by!” you exclaim. You eagerly dive back in, more than ready to continue because you simply can’t wait to see what happens next.

Now here’s the big question for you, the writer:

Of the two experiences listed above, which do you want the reader to have when they read your script?

Do you want them to be bored and see reading your script as a chore that ranks up there with cleaning out the cat’s litterbox or listening to a timeshare presentation?

Or do you want them to be so involved, their attention so riveted to the tale being told in your script, that nothing short of a major crisis or natural disaster could tear them away? (Not to diminish the intensity or significance of major crises or natural disasters, but you get the idea)

It’s tough to be that objective when it comes to reading your own material. You think it’s good (“How could anyone not like it?”), but every reader has their own criteria for what works and what doesn’t. The challenge is crafting together a script so rock-solid that not liking it is not an option. Not sure if yours is? Seek outside opinions. Rewrite with the mindset of “how can I make this better?”.

As screenwriters, our primary goal is to tell an entertaining story. The last thing we want is for someone to be easily distracted by something/anything else when they’re supposed to be reading (and in theory, enjoying) our scripts.

Q & A with Ashley Scott Meyers of Selling Your Screenplay

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Ashley Scott Meyers is a screenwriter and blogger/podcaster at SellingYourScreenplay.com. He has optioned and sold dozens of spec feature film screenplays, with many making it into production. All of Meyers’ screenwriting success has come through his own marketing efforts which he teaches on his blog and podcast.

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

The screenplay for SOURCE CODE is excellent; one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a screenwriter.

I have two young daughters, ages six and three, so I’m watching a lot of children’s movies these days. I just watched THE IRON GIANT for the first time, and thought it was very well-written.

In fact, I’d call MEGAMIND one of my favorite films. In terms of screenwriting, it’s excellent. There are very few films I watch that I think are perfect, but as a screenwriter, I’d consider it one of the few that could be called practically flawless.

My daughters and I recently watched the 80’s classic CLOAK & DAGGER, another very well-written movie. It keeps the action going and all comes together at the end. A very smart script. I saw it when I was a kid and didn’t think much of it at the time, but seeing it again, it’s a pretty solid piece of writing.

Tell us about your writing background, including your “big break”.

I’m not sure I’ve really had a “big break.” Every script I sell or option feels like a monumental effort and it hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, I’d say it’s gotten harder as the DVD market has shrunk over the last decade or so.

But to answer your question… I really never had a background in writing. I just liked movies, and for some reason writing scripts appealed to me. So I decide to pursue screenwriting. I was a terrible student when it came to English, writing, spelling, and grammar. Pretty much every skill you need to be a writer, except one (maybe two)… persistence and determination. So I’ve just plugged away and sold a few scripts.

How did the Selling Your Screenplay blog and podcast come to be?

Believe it or not, I once saw Gary Vaynerchuck speak at a conference where he was talking about not putting your personality into your brands. At the time, I was running a whole bunch of websites, but nothing around screenwriting. So I decided then and there that I needed to do something that combined two of my skills and interests: screenwriting and web development. So I did.

As far as the podcast goes, I just started to listening to podcasts and I thought they were really powerful. So I launched my own.

You’ve had experience with short films. What do you consider the benefits of working on a short, both as a writer and filmmaker?

The biggest thing is that you get to see your work get completed, which is rare as a screenwriter. But if you write a halfway-decent short, it’s fairly easy (nothing is every easy in this business, but it is possible) to find someone who wants to shoot it. You also might get an IMDb credit, win an award at a film festival, and meet other filmmakers. Shorts are a great way to hone your craft. You’re not going to make any money doing them, but they can be a great learning experience.

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

Yes. The more screenplays you read, and the more you write, the more you’ll be able to recognize good writing.

One of the things that makes movies so vibrant is the fact that you can watch a movie or read a script and notice different things every time, depending on where you are in your own life and skill level.

But yes, everyone can get better at writing and recognizing good writing.

What are the components of a good script?

That’s a pretty broad question. If I had to boil it down, I’d say good writing evokes genuine emotion in the reader or watcher. If someone reads your screenplay, and it evokes emotion in them, you’re on the right track. Everything else, like structure, characterization, dialogue, the hook, theme, etc., is really secondary to being able to evoke emotions in people with your words.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The biggest mistake is underestimating the amount of work it takes to be a professional writer. I hear from so many people who’ve written one script, entered it into a handful of contests, and then wonder why they haven’t made it as a professional writer. Nobody gets to pitch for the Yankees after spending one summer practicing. Being a professional screenwriter is probably as hard as, or at least harder than, being a professional athlete. It takes an enormous amount of luck, talent, and lots and lots and lots of hard work.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s often inevitable that you’ll write scenes that feel familiar. I often find myself doing it, so I step back and just mix things up a bit. Try anything that’ll give the tired tropes a new interesting spin, which often boils down to adding a quirky or interesting character to the scene who can mix things up.

I recently watched a short film where a little girl dropped an ice cream cone that fell to the ground in slow motion. It was so clichéd that I really wondered why the filmmaker didn’t try to do something more original.

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

There are really only two mandatory things to do to be a successful screenwriter: write a lot, and read a lot of screenplays. That’s it.

If you do those two things and really spend time analyzing your writing and the writing of others, you’ll get better and maximize whatever talent you have.

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

Contests are great. Screenwriters should be doing everything within their power to get their work out into the world, and contests can be a part of that plan. But understand that even winning the best contest still means you’re quite a ways away from being a professional screenwriter. And I certainly wouldn’t use contests as my only way to market my material.

How can people find out more about you and Selling Your Screenplay?

I blog and podcast over at SellingYourScreenplay.com. I release a new screenwriting podcast episode every week. In nearly every episode, I interview an experienced screenwriter. I also run a script consulting service.

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

Apple. Not very original, I know. But every once in a while someone will bring an apple pie to Thanksgiving dinner, and as I eat it I think, “Damn, that’s good pie.”

Shakin’ things up so much it registers on the Richter Scale

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Brace yourself

I recently took part in a group conversation with some other writers, and naturally, the topic came around to “So what else are you working on?” I always enjoy this sort of thing. So many great ideas out there.

When it was my turn, I mentioned some of what’s been occupying my time, which included the Christmas-themed mystery-comedy.

“A Christmas mystery-comedy? What’s that about?”

I launched into my 30-second elevator pitch. “LA Confidential with an all-elf cast.” The seedy underbelly of the world of Santa’s workshop. Guns. Sassy dames. Tough-talking gangsters. Intrigue. Double-crossings. The whole gin-soaked ball of wax.

While most thought it sounded like a lot of fun, one person looked absolutely horrified.

“Oh no!” they exclaimed. “My kids and I love Christmas. It’s supposed to be sweet and wonderful! I can’t believe you’d want to write something like that.” (All that was missing was them sprawled on a fainting couch, claiming to have the vapors while frantically fanning themselves.)

How could I not want to write this? Sweet and wonderful doesn’t make for good storytelling. I love this kind of story, and think it would make a great script.

This person makes it sound like trying something new is a bad idea because it messes with the comfort of the familiar. Yet one of the most common tenets is “Familiar, but different.” A story you’ve seen before, but told in an entirely new way. It’s what we should all work towards.

Everybody’s looking for something truly original and unique. Why in the world would you want to write something that doesn’t offer up anything new?

Every script you write is a golden opportunity to push your creativity to the limit so you really catch ’em off-guard. You know the story you want to tell, but it’s on you to truly surprise your reader/audience. Take things in an entirely different direction. They may think they know what’s coming, but you know better and look forward to how they’re going to react.

No matter what genre your story falls into, there will be certain expectations that come with it. The challenge of every writer is to not just meet those expectations, but toss them out the window and offer up a totally new and unexpected way of telling that story. Some people may not like it, but it’s most likely they’re in the minority, and therefore not your target audience.

Think about it. What kind of script are you more likely to take notice of and remember? One that goes for new and original, or one that plays it safe with the tried, true and predictable?

I know which one I’d pick, and will be waiting over by the window for your answer.

Go for the hard turn

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I just finished reading a friend’s comedy script. It was okay. It needs work, but the one thing I couldn’t shake was how the story played out pretty close to how I expected it to. There weren’t any real surprises.

However, one of the things that really stood out about this story was that deep within it was the idea for the same kind of story, but from a totally different angle. Not only would this open up new and original ideas, but it also made me think that this new story would be one I don’t think I’d ever seen/heard of before.

How many times have you read a script and known what was coming? Don’t you love that feeling when you read something and get what you were totally not expecting? A story that keeps you eagerly wondering “what comes next?” is one to be thoroughly enjoyed. The more surprised we are, the better.

Cliches. Tropes. Clams. Old reliables. Whatever you want to call them, writers with less experience use them because they’ve worked before. It takes a lot of effort to NOT use them.

The challenge is to come up with a new way to present these old ideas. “Familiar yet different,” as the saying goes.

It can be a little intimidating to take those first steps into unfamiliar territory, but you want the journey the reader takes through the story to be memorable, right? So why not take that chance and head in a new direction?

Go through your latest draft. Are there elements to it that feel tired or overused? You’ll know them when you see them. Is there a different way to do or say the same thing?

You can even go so far as to imagine “What’s the least likely thing that could happen/be said here, but still takes the story in the right direction?”

Try it. You might be surprised. And if you’re surprised, chances are the reader will be too.