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

A very hands-on Q&A with Geoffrey Calhoun

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Geoffrey D. Calhoun of wefixyourscript.com is listed as a Top 100 Indie Writer in the World. He has optioned several screenplays and has worked as a writer on two features coming out in 2017: The Little Girl and Studio 5. His multi-award-winning thriller Pink Bunny is scheduled for a 2018 release. Geoffrey has won multiple screenwriting awards and has worked as a producer, an assistant director, and director on indie film productions. He has been sought out by studios as a script consultant and a re-writer for various stages of development and production.

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

The last thing I watched I couldn’t stop thinking about was Arrival. I loved this film. It had depth and really explored her character. I loved how they played around with the structure of the film in creative ways that really built up to a climax. It was fantastic. I could see how Eric Heisserer did over 100 drafts to make that story perfect.

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

I actually began writing on a bet. A friend of mine was an editor for a local kids show. He wanted to push himself to write a script so he challenged me to see who could write better. Personally, I wasn’t interested because I have dyslexia. I agreed to do it, and ended up really enjoying the process. Since then it became more than a passion, almost like a volition. I wanted to be the best screenwriter I could possible be, so I started studying and learning from the greats such as Syd Field, Robert McKee, Viki King and reading screenplays by modern legends as well like David Goyer, Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher McQuarrie.

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

I think it can be learned. It comes with time. The average movie attendee can recognize a bad film. Now, some people prefer bad films, but that’s a whole different form of self- torture (wink). I like this question. It reminds me of the debate about raw talent vs. learned skill. Some teachers out there believe if you don’t have a modicum of innate talent with writing, then you’ll never be a good writer. I completely disagree with this. Their defense is that this is an art, and thus you must have a certain amount of “taste” in order to know the difference between what’s good and bad. I think what we do is more than an art. It’s a craft; a learned skill plain and simple. Something that can be mastered with just two things, time and practice. That’s all you need. We are craftsmen, like the blacksmiths of old. At first creating something small and simple like a horseshoe, then with time we master our skill and create compelling stories and works of art like the ornate armors of old.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It all starts with having something to say in your script. What are we trying to pass off to the audience? What do we want to tell them about life? Something that will open their eyes and help them see things from a new perspective? Or something that will reassure them and speak to the struggles they are going through? When we have a theme like this and we pair it with a sympathetic character, then we create a compelling story that’s unforgettable and emotionally moving. Take Arrival. It’s about a woman’s struggle with loss. That’s something that speaks to everyone, which is why it resonated so well with people.

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

Wow, that’s a tough one. I see mistakes of all kinds from new screenwriters to professionals. One mistake I often see is having underdeveloped characters. They’re superficial and are around just to be a face. Sometimes they’re even described as pretty or handsome, which reinforces this. When I get hired for a rewrite, the first thing I do is take the characters and layer in depth to make them more human and sympathetic; give them reasons to do what they’re doing and why they make the choices they do. I create depth by adding to them traits that we all suffer from but never talk about such as secretly insecure, lonely, or lost, etc.

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

This is more a genre thing for me but I’m sick of the false ending in horror films. Here we spend at least 90 minutes emotionally involved with a character. If it’s a good one – Dawn of the Dead is a good example – then you’ll have me on my seat the entire film. Then at the end, the lucky few characters that have survived finally make it…until there’s a surprise jump scare right before the credits roll and we discover the characters we’d been rooting for this whole time never make it. I’m so frustrated by this. For me it feels like a waste of my time to discover they all die because of a dirty trope in the end.

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

1) STEAL: Steal everything from everyone. Writers are the best thieves in the world. I’m not saying plagiarize, but when you find a technique or scene that really works for you, break it down and make it your own so you can add it to your toolbox.

2) STUDY: This goes with stealing. Learn from the masters. Writers like John August have a blog that you should be following. Don’t stop there. Learn from the masters that taught the master such as Aristotle. If you pay attention, all the great screenwriters will quote Aristotle. There’s a reason for that.

3) IGNORE THE BS: There’s a lot of flack out there towards aspiring screenwriters. I recently read an article where a Hollywood writer was bragging about telling screenwriters they’ll never make it. He tells them they should just give up because they aren’t talented. It’s BS. You can make it, but it takes time. A long time. If a dyslexic from Detroit can make it, then you can too. One of the reasons I founded wefixyourscript.com was exactly for that purpose: to give screenwriters that extra helping hand to not just  improve upon their screenplays, but to help them become better screenwriters. That’s why we include the one-on-one consultation.

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

Definitely. In fact, I just did some coverage on a dramatic short that had a fantastic concept. I helped them tweak it, but only a little. I guarantee it won’t have a dry eye in the audience when it films. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say about it.

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

I think they’re great, and I strongly recommend contests in festivals. That’s where you can really make headway as a writer. You need to network and make connections to build up your reputation. You can meet other writers, producers, and directors that will eventually land you in a spot where you’ll be getting work. When you go to these fests you want to be the life of the party. Have fun. Get yourself out there. And make sure you’re handing out business cards. It will get you work.

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

They can contact us at info@wefixyourscript.com. They can also sign up for a free 15-minute consultation on our website. With our consultation, we offer ways to help your work or answer any questions about us or the industry in general. We’ve had some great feedback on this service.

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

I’ve got to go with mom’s pumpkin pie. There is one caveat though: it must be smothered with a big dollop of whipped cream.

Better than socks and underwear

xmas
“Not the insightful script analysis from a seasoned professional I was hoping for, but a Rolex is nice too.”
With the holidays coming up fast, and you’re just not sure what to get the screenwriter in your life, take a gander below at all the great gift choices available. What better way to show your support in helping them be a better writer in 2017?

And if you opt to splurge on yourself by purchasing any of the services being offered, they should count as tax-deductible (but double-check with your accountant, just to be sure.)

Keep in mind a lot of these offers are time-sensitive, so don’t delay and order today!

-Writer-director-producer Jimmy Day has launched the new Write12BlockScripts script consulting service. Mention Maximum Z when ordering and he’ll take $50 off, and that applies to both full script and 30-page reviews. Contact Jimmy here.

-Consultant Phil Clarke wants you to take advantage of getting his script services at the 2016 rates before the new 2017 rates kick in on January 1st. Visit www.philmscribe.com for details on a script consultant with bonafide, rarely rivaled industry experience, or contact Phil here.

-Story analyst Jim Mercurio is offering a 48-hour flash sale with 50% discount on several services. Get up to 20 pages of notes and save up to $600 on Jim’s Snapshot Evaluation, Comprehensive or Professional Analysis Services. Even if your script’s not ready to send right away, sign up the end of this weekend and submit your script anytime through the end of January. Contact Jim here.

-Author-consultant Michele Wallerstein will be teaching the online course How to Break into the Screenwriting Business via Screenwriters University starting on February 9th, and her book Mind Your Business: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide to your Writing Career is now available in both paperback and Kindle versions.

-Writer-consultant Philip Hardy’s The Script Gymnasium is offering up the 2016 Holiday Special of $99 for full script evaluation and notes. This offer is good through December 31st. Contact Philip here.

-Consultant Andrew Hilton (aka The Screenplay Mechanic) will give a $10 discount on any of his services through January if you mention you were referred via Maximum Z. Better hurry! Spots are filling up fast!

-Consultant Danny Manus has a special holiday deal in place: purchase any Basic or Extensive Notes Service now thru January 1st and receive the 2-hour webinar “Mastering the Short Pitch” FREE! (normally $49) when you reference Maximum Z. Contact Danny here.

-Writer-consultant Mark Sanderson is offering a holiday discount of $25 off all consulting services. The offer runs through December 31st, but can be used throughout 2017.

-Consultant Lee Jessup is offering a 15% discount on her one-on-one career coaching services if you use the code MyPalPaul.

-Consultant Barri Evans is offering 15% off all services purchased between now and January 4th. Check them out here, or contact Barri here to discuss the best option for you. Services range from pro help on crafting powerful loglines, queries, and pitches to script consults offering one-on-one interactive feedback, as well as mentorship to meet your every need. Plus, be sure to check out her free Logline Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down on her consults page!

-Writer Bill Martell is having a sale until December 26th on the mp3’s of his audio classes: half-price for the Classic Class Set and the Naked Screenwriting Class. Bill also has a wide selection of e-books.

-And when you decide to take a break from writing and just want to lose yourself in a good read, Brian Fitzpatrick’s screenplay-turned-novel Mechcraft is slated to be published by Inkshares in 2017. With the visual intensity of The Matrix combined with the wonder of Harry Potter, pre-orders for Mechcraft are being taken now! Check out the site, the reviews, and sample chapters here.

No, I’m making all of this up

And here's another reason why you're wrong!
The louder I yell, the more you’ll agree with me

It’s probably safe to assume you’ve found yourself in this situation before:

A colleague asks you to read their material and give your thoughts on it. “Don’t hold back,” they say. “Be as brutal as you need to be. I can take it.”

So you read it, compile your notes (making sure to be critical, but fair and helpful) and send them off. Most of the time this results in one of two ways.

1. “These are great! Thank you so much!”

Or…

2. “What do you mean ____? How could you miss that? Did you even read the script?”

Urgh. I hate, hate, hate when they say that.

Did you want notes or gushing praise? You asked me for the former, but it sounds more like you secretly meant the latter, and now you’re not happy with the results.

If I think your script is good, I’ll say so and tell you why. On the other hand, I also won’t hesitate to point out what I think needs work, or if there’s something I didn’t understand.

There’s no need to remind me how much you’ve slaved over this for months/years, but I’m not going to say it’s good just to make you feel better. You know every single aspect of the story. I don’t, and only comment about what I can (or can’t) see on the page in front of me.

This doesn’t mean I’m a bad reader. Have you considered the remote possibility that your writing just might not be the perfection you think it is? I’ll fetch the smelling salts while that one sinks in.

Believe me, I’m not saying these things to be mean. You asked me for my opinion, and I gave it to you. There are professional analysts and consultants who do the exact same thing, and you’d pay them for it. Not everybody is going to love your script or pick up on every intricate detail you think is painfully obvious to any moron with half a brain.

If you put your script out there for review, you’d better be prepared for the worst. It’s an unfortunate part of how this works.

And one more important piece of advice: getting defensive or arguing with me because I didn’t like your script or “just don’t get it” isn’t going to change my mind, and will definitely make me not want to do this for you again.