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.

I refuse to be complacent

runner
The road gets tougher, you run harder

First-round results for two of the biggest, high-profile screenwriting contests have been released within the past week, and the pattern for my western’s performance in both has once again repeated itself.

Total whiff for PAGE, and top 20 percent for the Nicholl. (I’m not doing Austin this year)

I didn’t get notes from the former, and based on the ones I got last year for the latter, am not that curious as to why it placed where it did.

My initial reaction was, naturally, disappointment, but this year is markedly different in what came immediately after.

There’ve been days where the agony, frustration and just plain shittiness of things not working out was so strong I’d seriously contemplate just walking away. After all, that would be one less member of the competition, right?

But that’s simply not an option – for any of us. Our desire to succeed as writers burns too bright.

I may not have done as well as I’d hoped with these contests, so instead of shrugging my shoulders and saying “Oh well. Better luck next year,” I plan on doing whatever I can to increase my chances. With a vengeance.

Gone is the wallowing in a blessedly brief mindset of “poor, poor pitiful me”.

In its place – a reinvigorated drive to buckle down, work even harder and write scripts so fucking amazing those readers won’t know what hit them.

I don’t think I can. I KNOW I CAN.

Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, chums.

-A new addition and a return appearance on the bulletin board this week:

-Filmmakers Caitlin Stedman and Kayla Ditlefsen have launched a crowdfunding project for their short film Unattainable. They’re around the 60 percent mark, so donate if you can!

-The crowdfunding for filmmaker Steve Davis’s No Glory continues, with about a month to go. Steve’s a talented guy, and this sounds like a fantastic project. Donate if you can!

181 days in, and…?

beach gals
First we write, then we hit the beach. Who’s in?

My goodness, where does the time go?

Here it is the last day of June, signifying the halfway point of 2017, which means it’s time once again for that most lauded of blogpost topics:

The Project Status Update!

This is your opportunity to give as much or little info as you desire regarding what you’re currently working on, finished so far this year, or plan to jump into in the coming months.

Mine’s pretty simple and straightforward.

-Currently revising two scripts – a comedy and the pulp sci-fi spec. Already have a spec rewrite project lined up for when both of those are done – target start date is end of the summer.

-On the non-writing front, I’m signed up to do 4 half-marathons between now and the end of the year. A slight chance that number might potentially increase by one or two, but it remains tentative. As long as I can keep my time under the 2-hour mark, I’m good.

So how’s 2017 been for you, writing-wise?

A few items from the bulletin board:

-Filmmaker Steve Davis has launched a crowdfunding campaign for his World War 2-era short No Glory on Indiegogo. Looks pretty cool. Donate if you can!

-Even though the focus around here is mostly on screenwriting, a lot of writers are also interested in writing for television. The National Hispanic Media Coalition TV Writers Program is accepting applications from Latino writers between now and August 7. If you qualify, give it a look-see!

-If you’re a screenwriter in the San Francisco Bay Area (or the general northern California area, or just happen to be in town that weekend), the NorCal Screenwriters Networking Shindig will be taking place from 2-4pm on Sunday, July 30th, at Kawika’s Ocean Beach Deli at 734 La Playa (between Balboa & Cabrillo, just a block from the Pacific). Let me know if you’re interested in attending. Hope you can make it!

A whopping 180 degrees

Turn-around
Which way?

The process of overhauling the low-budget comedy has proven to be quite the challenge. Notes from reliable sources had pointed out a few problems in need of fixing, and that’s what I’ve been laboring to rectify the past couple of weeks.

It hasn’t been easy.

One challenge was to let go of “what came before” in the previous draft. Sometimes it’s tough to wipe the slate clean and start anew, and this time was no exception. Once I set up how things play out, it’s not easy to push it aside and do something different.

Which isn’t to sat I haven’t been trying.

Even though you can’t force inspiration, I knew I could think my way through this. So, as has happened many times before, I stepped back and took a look at the full picture.

What was it about the previous draft that wasn’t working? Start with that and figure out ways it could be done differently. Let the imagination run wild and the creativeness flow.

First, I broke it down on a scene-by-scene basis. What’s the purpose of each one? Does it advance story, character and theme? And since it’s a comedy, is it funny? (That last one has been particularly challenging).

It’s been tough, but not insurmountable.

I’d managed to work my way into the first part of Act 2, but then hit a wall. Nothing was working.

I won’t say I was feeling desperate, but it was quite an effort to not pick up my laptop and fling it across the room.

But rather than engage in aggravated assault of electronic devices, I opted to give it one last try.

I went back to the notes. Many of the comments said more or less the same thing, especially regarding one in particular. I’d seen it before, but this time, something really resonated.

One of the most powerful tools in the writer’s bag o’ tricks is the Great What If? Use it wisely.

So I applied it to my problem. If THIS wasn’t working, WHAT IF I tried something different? And what better way to do something different than the total opposite?

And as it has many times before, there it was.

The more I applied this to the rest of the story, the more of it came together. It’ll require a little more rewriting for now, but gosh is this a lot better than it was before.

Forward momentum has resumed. Updates to be released accordingly.

-Bulletin board update! Filmmaker Diane Harder has a crowdfunding project underway for her short Penny Foster. Donate if you can!

A small gesture with big results

cheer squad
Yay you!

Something a little different today.  A humble request from me to you, which will hopefully become a regular thing for you (provided it isn’t already).

I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have been on the receiving end of compliments and encouragment from my network of fellow writers (thanks, chums!), but have also gotten an immense amount of satisfaction in being the one doing the giving.

Nothing too gushing or overly effusive; simply words along the lines of “Way to go!” or “You can do it!” Maybe a little more if I know the writer and/or the project.

It may not seem like a lot, but that sort of thing can be much more effective than you’d imagine. Any writer appreciates knowing there’s someone out there rooting for them.

So what does this have to do with you? Easy. Take it upon yourself to do that for other writers you know; probably would take you all of ten seconds. And I bet you can think of least a dozen people for whom you could do this.

I’m not necessarily a big believer in “good deeds build good karma”, but there’s nothing wrong with just being a nice person, right?

And speaking of being nice to people, a couple of items added to the bulletin board this week:

-Author Cali Gilbert is happy to announce the release of her 8th book, the historical fiction Timing the Tides. The book is available for pre-order in both hard copy and Kindle versions.

-Writer/webcomic creator Gordon McAlpin has launched a crowdfunding campaign to create an animated short based on his webcomic Multiplex, which recently wrapped up a very entertaining 12-year run. Donate if you can!