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.

How does “gamut” make you feel?

emotions
Somewhere in here

No matter what your screenplay is about, or what genre it is, it really comes down to one thing: telling a story about the characters and what happens to them.

While some may put more emphasis on the latter part with its vast number of variables and possibilities, it’s equally important to put a lot of effort into developing the former.

You want your characters to be relatable. Let us see ourselves, or at least part of ourselves, in them. How they act and interact. What they do. Even if it’s within a completely ridiculous or unbelievable scenario.

A good example: the works of Judd Apatow. “Comedies with heart,” is often used to describe them. By injecting emotion into what might otherwise be just something silly, he adds that extra layer of humanity. Notice you never heard the phrase “wacky hijinks ensue”? Because it’s about the emotion within the comedy, not just going for the cheap laugh.

Nobody only experiences one emotion, and neither should the fictional population within your pages. If a character’s happy, sad, or angry, show us why. Don’t hold back. Put it there for us to see.

Do they act like a real person? Is this how they would act in this kind of situation? Is it a real reaction or a “movie” reaction? Getting your characters to act using their emotions makes them come across as more realistic, which makes for a better story.

“The characters are too one-dimensional,” or “He/She’s just a one-note character.”  Heard those before? If your character only acts one way, or remains static and never changes, or doesn’t even react accordingly, that’s what the response will most likely be. And you don’t want that.

A savvy writer knows how to use emotion without being blatant about it. Maybe it’s a subtle action, or a turn of phrase, or the subtext within a line of dialogue.

Find the way that works best to develop and advance the character both within their own story and the story overall.

Digging towards the emotional core

big-dig
I don’t think you’ll need that much gear

Due to both of our busy schedules, my daughter and I go for some quality father-daughter time when we can. Sometimes that means we’ll watch something together.

It might be a movie or a TV show. We’re not picky. No shame in admitting she’s picked up my enjoyment of superhero- and fantasy-based (LOTR, Hobbit, etc) material.

Despite her occasionally sullen and blase teen exterior, V is, at heart, an empathetic and sensitive soul, so no matter what we’re watching, if there’s any kind of hint of emotional resonance in a particular scene, she will feel the full brunt of whatever emotion the film/program is conveying.

Almost any kind of a joke (the sillier the better), and she laughs her head off. Something scary and she hides under the blanket. Something sad and she immediately tears up. Even after years of me saying, “You do know this is just a movie/TV show, right?”, her emotional receptors remain cranked up to 11 (and the teenager reappears with the immediate response, “Will you stop saying that?”)

Looking at these from the writer’s perspective, I can’t help but examine how the writers were able to do that. How did they get to the emotional core of the scene? Jokes and scares aren’t hard to figure out, even though each is pretty subjective, but a good, solid tug at the heartstrings, when done effectively, can be some pretty intense stuff.

A key part is making it relatable. Love. Joy. Heartbreak. Loss. All are universal. Everyone’s experienced them in some form or another. As the writer, you want to convey that emotion so anybody reading or watching your story will not only immediately identify it, but also connect with it on a personal level.

Like this. One of the most effective emotional sequences ever. And not a single word spoken. If you don’t feel anything as a result of watching it, you have no soul.

Even though we may not have gone through the same things as Carl and Ellie, we can relate to a lot, if not all of it.

This isn’t saying that every scene has to be a major tearjerker, but you want to really let us know how the characters are feeling in that particular moment. They’re human, so they feel the exact same things we do. Make us feel how they’re feeling.

Each scene serves three purposes: to advance the story, the characters, and the theme. Let the emotions come through via the best way you envision them enhancing the scene (making sure not to overdo it). It might take a few tries, but the deeper you venture into the emotional level, the easier it’ll get for you to show it, and it’ll also be easier for us to identify it and relate to it.

A tentpole frame of mind

 

kids-movies
My objective. Every single time.

Here in the US, we are heading into what’s known as Memorial Day weekend, where we honor those who have given their lives in the service of our country. It’s also considered the kickoff of the summer season, even though summer doesn’t officially start for a few weeks.

Once upon a time, Memorial Day weekend was when the summer movie season kicked into high gear, with each weekend seeing the release of a potential blockbuster. It has since crashed through the barrier of time limitation, with some summer-appropriate fare being released as early as late March.

I was fortunate enough to have come of age when each summer saw its fair share of films that could be categorized as prime examples of not only filmmaking, but also of storytelling.

Definitely storytelling.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. GHOSTBUSTERS. BACK TO THE FUTURE. ALIENS. ROBOCOP. DIE HARD.

Each one has made its indelible mark on me, making quite the impact on my psyche and personality, and severely influencing the way I write. I make no secret about loving to write these kinds of stories.

(Author’s note – I’m no fool. Nobody’s going to take a chance on a mega-budget script from an unknown. Hopefully once I establish a foothold with my smaller scripts, I can eventually bring out the bigger ones.)

Some may see a summer release as Big Dumb Fun, which admittedly some of them are, but I make a point of treating the audience as intelligent people and want to give them a story that goes beyond simplistic expectations.

I strive to write material that entertains more than just the eyes and ears; I go for the brain, too. It takes a lot of effort to put together a story that stimulates the viewer on more than just a sensory level, but when it’s done in a smart and efficient way, the satisfaction of seeing it pay off is well worth it.

Will I ever get paid to write these kinds of stories? I like to think so. It doesn’t hurt to at least daydream about it.

Imagining that sometime in the relatively near future, a trailer will come up that features snippets of characters and dialogue, all of my creation, all culminating with those words laden with the excitement of anticipation:

“Coming this summer to a theatre near you”

A big smile and chills up my spine, believe you me.

Ask a Significantly Astute Script Consultant!

Laurie Ashbourne

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 writer-producer-consultant Laurie Ashbourne of 1st10pages.com.

After seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in an old theater in Philly, Laurie knew that she had to be a part of that process.  Within 6 months she was in Disney Feature Animation‘s new studio in Florida working on a Roger Rabbit short and The Little Mermaid, and stayed on through the production of Lilo and Stitch. Leaving that cocoon to create and own her work, she quickly segued to live action and documentaries as a writer, producer and script supervisor. Currently Laurie is ghostwriting 2 features, producing 2 features and 2 pilots (in development through connections made on Stage 32), and a documentary she served as producer on just won a special jury award the New Orleans Film Fest, 2 other feature work for hires are in production right now. As if that wasn’t enough, Laurie has an illustrated middle grade novel in editing and is shopping 2 new scripts, all while running her day-to-day story development and script coverage services. A sought-after script supervisor and longstanding judge and coverage provider for some of the top screenplay competitions. She also provides this service for many independent producers, writers and is consulting story analyst for Amazon Studios Feature Films.

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

I recently read a screenplay for a competition that was amazing. It was so well-paced and had such a perfect economy of words, twists and great characters – I wish I could share it with you, but I have no doubt that sooner than later everyone will have a chance to see it on screen.

For watching, the film LITTLE BOY. About 4 years ago the casting director asked my son to read for the part, so I was sent the script. It was such an emotional story that read really well, even though it broke some traditional pet peeves of mine, I completely overlooked them because I was so engrossed in the story. My son ended up sending in a video read because I was on a job in Virginia AND he had just lost his 2 front teeth so we knew the read wouldn’t go over at its best. Regardless, we went to see it (and I have to say the boy they had for the lead did a great job). I immediately could see where they had to change some things but it mostly stayed true to the script. I enjoyed the film and it was completely emotional, but I could definitely see how it read better than it played.

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

My first job in the industry was with Walt Disney Feature Animation, and as a department head I was in on a project from development through to final reels. But I didn’t start reading them professionally until I left the company to work in independent film, over ten years ago.

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

The tenements of the craft can be taught easily but if a sense of story isn’t there than those ‘guidelines’ become hard and fast rules that can overlook a good story and what it needs to be brought up to industry standards. Learning story is possible, but it’s not for everyone, those that it is for can’t let it go. I’ll use my son as an example again. He will watch a movie until he knows it by heart and then pick apart the structure and characters, all by his own will. He said to me the other day, “When a movie does well, they automatically make a number two, and they do it quickly, and when that doesn’t do well they spend more time working out number three. Number twos always stink.” He’s 10, so I think it’s safe to say that a sense of story is ingrained in his psyche with no teaching other than immersing himself in something he enjoys.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Characters with an emotional want that comes across as genuine – in this case it’s the difference between a homeless person holding up a sign that says “will work for food” and one that holds up a sign that says “hungry, broke please give”. The audience is much more likely to attach themselves to a character who is willing to do what it takes to survive – the character that is willing to work for his food.

Craft contains a lot of things that get a bad name as hard and fast rules, and it’s true that if you are trying to break in you have to look like you are willing to adhere to industry standards, truth if your craft demonstrates mastery of cinematic story SOME formatting issues can be overlooked. So at the top of the mastery of cinematic language is, giving the actors something interesting to do that advances the plot and peels the layers of their character. This does not mean writing verbose prose; that is not cinematic. Cinematic is thinking like a director in your mind, but conveying that action in words that do not include camera direction.

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

-Misuse and abuse of parentheticals and exclamation points

-Typos and poor formatting

-A great idea poorly executed, usually in character and pacing

-A poor balance of dialogue and action (which is usually because of way too much dialogue)

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

It seems to be cyclical; every year there is more of one than another, so I guess that falls into chasing trends. Right now, there seems to be a lot of smaller character pieces, which is good for independent film, but with specs that are trying to break in (rather than going out and producing the indie on your own), it’s really difficult to get behind a moody character wandering the town or country instead of facing an uncomfortable truth. So it goes back to the homeless analogy – why do I care about this person, and please make it interesting without a having a diary in voiceover.

I admit it’s a bit of a catch-22, it’s also very difficult for an unknown to break in with a tentpole, but there is a happy medium where there are just enough elements to give the audience and producers something worth the investment of time and money.

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

-Your material will not resonate with everyone, but if it’s not resonating with anyone, it’s time to analyze those notes you thought were shit.

-Write because you have to get a story out of your system, not because you want to strike it rich or win a contest.

-Let the audience (or reader) get to know your character through the action we see them take on screen, not via a laundry list of their traits.

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

Sure. I’ve had the pleasurable honor to move a lot of scripts forward and nothing makes me happier than to see writers I worked with or read be working in the industry. Frankly, most scripts that come to me don’t have a logline, and I craft one for the coverage – no contest scripts ever come with loglines. Loglines when done well are a craft unto themselves and contests are won on these concepts, but a great logline does not make a great script. This goes back to one of my top three: Most great ideas fall short on execution and again, I really think that comes down to sense of story. I personally write a logline before (during and after) I write a script. Writing it out at the start helps shape your outline. But just as the outline will change as you write, the logline should too, by becoming tighter.

I recently read a logline on LA Screewriter called The Muffin Men – it was really brilliant. But who knows if the script is?

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

Yes, but do your homework. There are more scams than legitimate career changers. It’s worth it to get your script in top-level shape and submit to the top-tier contests (which there are less than 10) the odds are tougher due to the number of submissions but if you seriously want to advance your career, there’s no use in wasting money on the Podunk USA’s screenplay competition.

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

Through my blog 1st10pages.com or via Stage 32 – https://www.stage32.com/LAstory.

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

I’m not much for desserts, but I like apple if it’s fresh and not overly gooey, or key lime. When I was a kid I was all about Tastykake cherry pie.