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.

An amiable assortment o’ items

study group
Everybody’s keeping busy, so there’s lots to talk about!

First three months of the year wrapping up today, which makes it the perfect opportunity to offer up your Project Status Update! Feel free to step up to that virtual microphone (aka the comments section) and announce the latest developments for whatever is currently occupying your attention.

My list is pretty short:

-Work on the pulp spec continues. Currently around page 83, with a projected final count of 120ish. Strongly suspect FADE OUT will be typed sometime in mid-April, give or take a couple of days.

-Dipped my toe into the waters of rewriting the low-budget comedy courtesy of some helpful notes. Not a total page-one rewrite, but definitely taking my time with this one.

-My western was named a finalist at the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival screenwriting contest. (Editor’s note – yay) Further details (i.e. how it placed) won’t be announced until the awards ceremony at the end of April, but still quite proud to have made it this far.

And a couple of items tacked on to the bulletin board, which spotlights creative-type folks and their even more creative projects well worth your time and attention:

-Filmmaker/screenwriter Eric Claremont Player has launched a crowdfunding campaign for his courtroom drama film project. Make sure to check out the colorfully captivating and absolutely true backstory that led up to it.

-Writer-director Dianna Ippolito is running a crowdfunding campaign for her new project Robb’s Problem: A Horror Short. As Dianna puts it, “Our goal is to bring you a really smart, beautiful and thought-provoking horror film, produced, written and directed by women.”

As with all crowdfunding projects listed here, donate if you can!

If you’d like to get the word out about a project of your own, feel free to drop me a line. Operators are always standing by.

-Ran the San Francisco Rock & Roll Half-marathon this past weekend. Made it just under the 2-hour mark with 1:59:11. Next race is in July, so hoping to shave a few minutes off of that.

Fine-tuning in progress

lady-scientists
Aha! Almost missed that extra “the” in that sentence!

As of this writing, the early bird deadline for the Nicholl is about a week away. After some back-and-forth, I decided that, yes, I’ll take the plunge and once again submit my western.

Last year it made it to the top 15 percent, which isn’t bad, but I know it can do better.

And that’s what the next couple of days are all about: taking what I consider to be a pretty solid script and doing a little more editing/tweaking/polishing to make it even stronger.

For a long time I was convinced there was nothing else to be done on this script. Now I’m thrilled to have been so completely wrong. It doesn’t need a lot, but probably just enough to make a significant difference.

Earlier this year, I got some really good professional notes on it that raised some questions I hadn’t considered before. Implementing the suggested fixes really would make a difference.

So that’s what I’m currently in the process of doing. Nothing major, but some little tweaks, modifications, and minor rewriting here and there. And as is usually the case for me, these aren’t as insurmountable as I’d expected.

Part of this also involves going through the entire thing line by line, red pen in hand, just in case anything catches my eye as if to say “CHANGE ME!” Surprisingly, there have been quite a few of those.

I couldn’t say the last time I actually read through the script, but it’s definitely been a while. And it’s probably safe to say that this long stretch of not looking at it has definitely helped in enabling me to identify what needs editing/fixing.

And not to toot my own horn, but gosh this is a fun read.

In retrospect, I probably should have done this before submitting the script to PAGE, but if all this helps it do better with the Nicholl, who am I to complain?

In it for the long haul

ahab
A somewhat extreme example, but you get the idea

Some days this is quite the struggle. You slave away on a script, send it out (contest, query, what have you) and hope for the best.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the best isn’t what happens. There will be rejection. A lot of it.

But every defeat is temporary, and a chance to regroup and try again.

In the beginning, when somebody tells you “no”, you take it personally. But you eventually grasp the concept that they’re addressing the writing, not the writer. You hunker down and keep going, continuously striving to improve.

The “no”s will still come, but eventually you get to the point where you simply shrug it off.

“Why even bother?” some might say. “Why keep doing this to yourself?”

Because the longer and harder you work at it, the closer you get to reaching that goal.

Because we feel this is a goal worth pursuing.

Because we’re compelled to.

Because we believe in our abilities.

Because we love doing it.

Success, especially when it applies to screenwriting, does not come easy. Or quickly. You will need an unlimited amount of patience and perseverance. This is going to be a long, perilous journey.

I’ve started walking. Who wants to come with me?

And I think this is a pretty good way to get things started.

If only you could eat a bad script

pineapple upside down cake
Let the metaphors commence!

Before we get to the gist of today’s post, let’s address the elephant in the room: my western did not advance to the quarterfinals of the PAGE contest.

Honestly, I was a little surprised; I thought it would have done better. After a brief wallow in disappointment, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. It’s just another one of those things over which I have no control. I still have a ton of confidence in this script and might submit again next year. Also waiting to see how it fares in Austin and the Nicholl.

True, it was a rather lousy way to start the weekend, but over the next couple of days, I managed to redirect my focus, which included a nice long run that involved traversing the Golden Gate Bridge, and attempting something I’ve always wanted to try:

Making a pineapple upside-down cake (from scratch, naturally).

Guests were coming over for dinner, and I’d made pies for them before. But this time,  I wanted to try something entirely new and preferably a little challenging. I’d say this falls into both categories.

I scoured the internet for an ideal recipe, found one to my satisfaction, and followed the directions to the letter. The result? It looked like it was supposed to, and that’s where the similarities end. A little too sweet and the center was still kind of goopy. Nevertheless, my guests still liked it, and K & I split the last piece after they left. Not bad for a first attempt.

Why did it not turn out the way I expected? A lot of reasons. The oven’s a piece of junk. It didn’t bake long enough. The ingredients and the amount of them probably need to be tweaked. No matter what, I know now that I can adjust all of these next time and get closer to the results I seek.

Except for the oven. It will forever remain a piece of junk until it dies. Which can’t happen soon enough. But I digress.

Notice all of the comparisons you could make between baking and writing a script? Trying something new and long-sought-after. Seeking advice and guidance. Following the guidelines. Doing what I was supposed to. An okay-but-was-hoping-for-better initial result. Planning ahead on what to fix/adjust for next time.

If a less-than-determined baker ended up with the cake I made, they’d probably denounce the whole process, give up entirely and probably buy pre-made stuff at the supermarket. But we’re made of sterner stuff. We hit a snag or some kind of unforeseen development, and we compensate as best we can. We learn what not to do next time. Sometimes you end up with something jaw-droppingly amazing, and sometimes you end up with something totally inedible.

With this whole experience behind me, I can now focus on projects of the immediate future, which includes another round of editing and revising a script, and making a pie or two for a dinner party this coming weekend.

It’s my intention to have the results of both of these undertakings be totally and utterly irresistible when they’re done and ready to serve.