Q & A with Brian Smith of Monument Scripts

Headshot_1_Brian

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 Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger of Write/LA

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hs-e1521810938693.jpgTim S

Screenwriters enter contests for a variety of reasons: industry connections, cash, software, notes on their script. And there are a lot of contests to choose from. How your script places can make a significant impact on helping you establish a screenwriting career.

And now there’s a new contest that wants to help you do just that.

Write/LA launches today (with early bird pricing in effect until April 30th), and is the brainchild of Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger. I had the opportunity to speak to them about it.

But first, a little background info…

Angela Bourassa is the founder and editor in chief of LA Screenwriter, a leading online resource for working and aspiring screenwriters around the world. Angela graduated from UCLA back in 2008 and has been writing feature screenplays — mostly comedy — ever since. In addition to writing, she spends much of her time wrangling her 18-month-old son, watching Survivor (#DropYourBuffs), and trying to keep track of which jail her public defender husband is visiting today.

Tim Schildberger is the founder of LiveRead/LA as well as a script consultant, writer with thirty years’ experience, an expat Australian, creator/writer of a Travel Channel comedy/reality series no one saw, and the man who led the team who found all the people for the feature film Borat. He’s a big fan of Aussie rules football (which isn’t anything like football or soccer or any other known sport) and baking treats with his twin girls for LiveRead/LA’s events.

Both of you have extensive experience providing information & resources to screenwriters. Tell us about your respective paths to get there.

Tim: I started writing for an Australian soap opera called Neighbours when I was 21. For the last twenty years I’ve been in the USA, and I’ve been a member of a writing group that holds weekly live reads. Not only has working with actors helped me enormously as a writer, but so has hearing all the feedback from my peers. That experience helped me overcome my hatred of re-writes (does anyone like re-writing?) and showed me the only path to becoming a better writer is writing more, sharing your stories, and being open to feedback. It also showed me I have an aptitude for identifying strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, offering suggestions while maintaining the writer’s self respect.

In 2016, I decided that rather than continue assisting others with their scripts as a favor – which was becoming a little time consuming – I would put my own spin on the live read concept and build a new collaborative community, so I launched LiveRead/LA – and it’s already helped many writers. But I wanted to do more – to help more writers, to reach more people. I couldn’t make it happen alone, though, so it wasn’t until I met Angela and we discovered we had a similar sensibility about helping and giving back that Write/LA was born.

Angela: I started LA Screenwriter in 2011, and at first it was just a small blog where I would bring together produced scripts that I wanted to read and screenwriting articles that I found helpful as I worked toward my own dream of becoming a working screenwriter. But over the years, it’s really taken off, and now thousands of people a day come to the site for advice and resources, and that’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

I’ve thought about launching an annual competition before, but I honestly think that a lot of the screenwriting competitions out there – maybe even most of them – are ripoffs that don’t have the writer’s best interests at heart, and I didn’t want to be part of that cycle. I only wanted to start a competition if I had the ability to offer great prizes and great judging that could actually help writers in their careers, and that ability showed up in the form of Tim.

What prompted you to create Write/LA?

Tim: I was prompted to create Write/LA because I wanted to share what I’ve learned about writing, about the power of hearing your work read by actors, and about giving and receiving feedback. And the importance of interacting with working industry folk. Los Angeles is the global epicenter of writing for TV and film, so it seemed obvious to try to find a way to bring people to LA to learn, connect, and be celebrated for what they’ve achieved so far.

Angela: And I really wanted to be a part of Tim’s vision, because his idea for this competition and the prizes got me excited. Both of us are writers, so we know what it feels like to do well in a competition and then end up with no real benefit. We’re trying to change that by creating a competition that we both would want to enter.

What makes Write/LA different from other screenwriting competitions?

Tim: Write/LA is a competition aimed at the process of writing at a professional level. Most other competitions offer prizes in the hopes of discovering a script that can sell or a writer who can get representation. We’re focused on building command of the craft. Let’s be clear – our three grand prize winners will be writing while they’re in town. They’ll also be mingling with working writers and Industry people and gathering knowledge and experience that’s vital for lasting success. We aim to help our writers become professionals, not just one-hit wonders. It’s that combination of experience, education, and celebration that sets us apart.

What sort of criteria are you looking for in scripts that are entered?

Tim: We’re looking for evidence of command of the craft. That means we want original stories, compelling characters, an understanding of format and genre, and way above all else – an emotional connection with the material. There has been so much written about the structure of writing for TV and film: act breaks, inciting incidents, midpoint turns, and the rest. As a result, many writers are good at moving characters from point A to B to C.  But very, very few are good at letting us know what this particular story is doing to the emotional well being of the characters. An audience needs to feel something, or the script is flat.

As I like to say, no teenage girl saw Titanic ten times because it was a cool special effects movie about a boat sinking. They felt for Jack and Rose. We want to find scripts that make us feel, show us the writer knows how to tell a story, and will really benefit from the grand prize we’re offering.

Angela: That’s why we’re not judging film and television scripts separately. We’re accepting both, and we might end up with completely different genres and formats for the three grand prize winners, which I’m personally really excited about. We’re interested in emotional, engaging storytelling above all else.

Seeing as how this is Write/LA’s inaugural year, what are you hoping to establish with it in terms of opportunities for screenwriters?

Angela: We want to establish ourselves as a different kind of screenwriting competition. Our prizes stand out from the crowd, and we’re hoping a lot of writers out there understand the undeniable value of a private, intensive writing lab, an inside look at the industry, and the value of having their words read in front of an invite-only LA crowd.

Tim: Our winners will have a rare gift for any writer – a moment to be celebrated. Obviously, we hope their time with us will be a springboard to a writing career, or perhaps the final step toward breaking through, but what we’ll be focused on is helping them make connections and bring their writing up to a professional level so that – when they’re ready – they can begin long and successful writing careers.

We will also give everyone who makes the quarterfinals and above something of value. Being named a quarterfinalist feels good, but usually means little else. We want to change that.

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

Tim: Gosh. I love pie. But if you’re forcing me to choose, I think I lean toward the more pudding/custard pies. In Australia we have custard pies, which are my absolute favorite. But here in the US, I love a good banana cream pie. No disrespect to the fruit pies – as I said, I wouldn’t say no to any of them!

Angela: For me it has to be blackberry. Blackberry pies remind me of my childhood. But I’m a sucker for basically any sweets that don’t have nuts. (Apologies to the pecan pie fans out there.)

banana cream pieblackberry pie

Looking back, glimpsing ahead, and a minor adjustment

new year's eve
Just one more glass of champagne, then it’s back to work. Promise.

As 2017 wraps up, it’s only natural to engage in a little self-evaluation.

How many of your writing goals were you able to check off this year? Most of them? Some? A small-but-decent fraction? Hopefully you don’t need to mark the box labeled “None”.

One of mine was to complete at least three scripts. I managed two drafts, a revised outline, and one and a half rewrite/polishes (one still a WIP). Pretty solid results. A very hearty thanks to everybody who devoted the time and effort to give me notes. I hope my notes for yours were just as helpful.

Using those notes and the results of a few conversations, I think I’ve been able to up the quality of my writing a few notches. It still has a few levels to go, but it definitely seems better than it was. The next round of drafts should be really interesting,  both in terms of working on them and how the end results turn out.

I wanted to read more scripts, which actually happened, but not entirely in the way I expected. I didn’t do as much reading of scripts for the purpose of entertainment or gleaning some helpful guidance because I ended up reading over 100 scripts for several contests. Don’t know if I’ll do it again, but still glad I did it.

On the gaining representation front, lots of query emails were sent. Maybe one response out of ten expressed interest in reading the script, with each ending with a “thanks but no thanks” or “just not what I’m looking for”. A bit disappointing, but not totally unexpected. Along the way, I also worked on being more strategic about the process, researching potential recipients and re-drafting the query to (in theory) really sell the concept of the script.

And what would an ambitious screenwriter’s year be without contests? My western made it to the seminfinals of a few smaller contests and the top 20 percent for the Nicholl (not too shabby), but once again whiffed it for PAGE. I’ve become somewhat disillusioned regarding contests, so will most likely really cut back on them. Maybe just stick to the big three.

There was the most pleasant experience of going to Los Angeles to attend a table read for one of my scripts. I like the idea of doing one or two of them locally, so looking into that for 2018.

I hosted two screenwriting networking events, which connected me with some very talented writers from right here in the Bay Area. Definitely plan on doing that again at least once this year. Highly recommended, especially if you’re not in Los Angeles and want to expand your own personal network.

On the half-marathon front, I ran five races this year – the most ever in one year for me. Still averaging about two hours, which isn’t bad – for me, but the quest for 1:55 continues. Already signed up for three next year, with maybe one or two more expected to be added into the mix. Like with screenwriting, improvement takes time, effort and dedication. A good pair of socks and strong knees also come in handy, and that applies to both.

Finally, this blog. As always, a great experience doing what I can to offer advice to help other writers, recounting my experiences and the lessons I got out of it, and presenting some interviews with some truly interesting and amazing creative folks. I am truly grateful to everybody who’s stopped by to take a look, like a post and make a comment.

But it’s also been exhausting. Producing posts twice a week on top of dedicating time to write and make a career out of it has simply gotten to be too much. I still enjoy doing the blog, but want to refocus my energies. So as of January 1st, I’ll be reducing my weekly output to Fridays only, and sometimes even that might be iffy. It’ll most likely be on a week-by-week basis.

I hope you had a most productive 2017 and wish you all the best for an even better 2018.

See you in seven.

One last ride

cowboys
Saddle up

Last week, work on the comedy outline wrapped up a bit earlier than expected, so while I wait for the notes on that, I’ve decided to venture back into some territory I’d considered over and done with.

My western.

Although it’s done alright in some contests (and I suppose top 15 percent in the Nicholl isn’t too shabby), I really think it can be better. Plus, more than a few opinions and comments from totally non-biased outside parties confirm this.

As one set of notes so succinctly put it, “Don’t get me wrong. The story’s a lot of fun and the structure is solid. It’s the characters that could use more development. Nothing too drastic, but just enough to flesh them out a little more.”

Makes sense to me.

On top of that, a recent conversation with another writer, who is starting on their new western script, included mention of how I should read the script for UNFORGIVEN – even though that and my script are worlds apart.

I downloaded it and started reading it. Just a few pages in, and it absolutely confirms I need to step up my game. There’s no reason I shouldn’t strive to present that kind of quality, even in a script that would most likely be labeled a “popcorn-tentpole” kind of story.

Luckily for me, I’ve always enjoyed working on this story and am actually kind of psyched about jumping back into it. I thought it was pretty good before, and now hope to make it even better.

Safe to say this should be pretty interesting.

You make it sound like a bad thing

good deed
That’s the gist of it

In a few conversations with writers and industry-connected folk, I’ve mentioned how I occasionally do script notes for friends and read for contests.

Sometimes I’d get a “That’s really nice of you.”

And once in a while, the person would look puzzled, and ask, with what I presume was in all sincerity, “Why?”

The way they utter that monosyllable carries a strong tone of “Well, that sounds like a genuine waste of time.”

To which I say, “Why not?” I consider myself a nice person, and try to help other writers out when I can.

Too simplistic? Let me elaborate.

I like reading other people’s stuff. In the case of doing notes, I’m either asked, or it’s reciprocal for them having given me notes on my scripts. That’s the least I can do.

(It should also be pointed out that a few cookies-for-notes transactions have taken place, with both parties being quite satisfied with the results.)

With a lot of the material I read being from experienced writers who know what they’re doing, the scripts are often quite solid from both craft and storytelling perspectives. This in turn helps me hone my analytical skills, which I can then apply to my scripts. Or at least attempt to.

Plus, screenwriters should always be reading scripts.

Regarding the contests, I’ve entered enough of them over the years with the hope I get a quality reader or readers, so I see this as a kind of giving back. It’s very time and labor-intensive, and I’ve had to endure more than my fair share of poor-to-horribly-written scripts. On the other hand, every once in a while you find a true rose among thorns.

I’m just trying to offer up the kind of help I could have benefitted from when I was still learning the basics. And even today, having made some progress on all fronts, I still seek out, as well as offer up when asked, advice and guidance. So far, no complaints.

I’ve never claimed to be an expert, but I do what I can. If that means setting aside some time to read something and offer up my two cents, so be it.

And I don’t see anything wrong with that.