Writing the TV Drama Series

200_tv_drama_series

If you frequently say to yourself whilst channel-surfing, “I could write a better series than that,” think again. It´s a lot harder than it looks. Pamela Douglas, author of Writing the TV Drama Series, explains why.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Let´s start out with some background on why you decided to pursue a writing career and why, specifically, it turned out to be in television instead of novels or plays.

Writing of any kind is a means to discover truth and tell it. Our currency is the truths of real lives, human desire ranging from the most deeply held passions and secrets to lusts and foolishness and mistakes, or whatever brings a moment of joy. Writers deal in insights people gain through knowing each other. And in today´s fractured society, it is absolutely necessary to make sense of our experience in the way humans always have, by creating stories that explain why things are as they are. All that is within the mission of any serious writer. As for the method you choose to convey the characters and stories that make up our world, it doesn´t matter. Each form has opportunities and limitations, but good writing (or bad) is up to you.

Power does matter, though. Through television, you reach millions of people. And because of the intimacy of the medium – how close and personal it is to the viewer – the creator wields great influence. Even the lowest rated shows are seen by more people than all but the most successful movies; and compared to TV, plays and novels aren´t even on the radar. That´s not to say writers shouldn´t explore all means of expression, or that artistic fulfillment can´t be found in art films, novels, poems and plays. But I have always been keenly aware of the power of stories to raise consciousness, both individually and in addressing society´s critical challenges. TV, especially the best dramatic series, can have an impact beyond anything else.

How did you get your first break and who were your mentors?

I had no mentors. No relatives or friends in the business, and no one slipping me onto a staff as a favor to anyone. Instead, I had opposition as a woman in a male-dominated field, as a person of color when the guys in charge were more comfortable with someone like themselves, and later as a person who insisted on quality when stereotypes or an easy laugh line at the expense of truthful characters might have been more commercial.

I built my career by continuing to write, by writing well and growing as a writer, by learning how this business works, and working it as well as I could. Ultimately, by some people´s measure, I failed. That is, I did not become extremely rich or own an empire of shows. But I´m proud of some of what I wrote and glad my work was recognized by the Humanitas Prize, the Writers Guild, and Emmy nominations – though winning awards was not my motivation.

My first paid TV writing job was when I was quite young — Trapper John, M.D. in the mid 1980s. I got it by realizing that a member of the continuing cast, Madge Sinclair, was being under-used and guessed the producers might be open to a pitch with a story for her. I admired Madge´s work outside the show, and knew she was a great actress, though I´d never met her. So I went in to that meeting and told the producers an honest tale about something her character might experience. They did indeed have a commitment to give her an episode, and no one on the staff had a clue. So they bought it, I wrote the script, it was produced, and Madge received her first Emmy award for my episode.

What television shows were you hooked on as an adolescent? And what programs do you never want to miss as an adult?

I didn´t watch TV when I was an adolescent. In the late 1960s and early 70s I was involved with the Civil Rights struggles, and my interest was in writing what was happening around me. Even while I was in school, I published in newspapers and magazines, ran a community filmmaking workshop, and free-lanced some news segments for a local TV station. My writing included fiction and I was always involved in visual arts as well. But sitting and watching TV wasn´t on my schedule.

But if you´re asking about historic series that I admire, M*A*S*H remains remarkably current and incisive. It was also before its time as half hour dramatic comedy and political comment. Later Hill Street Blues was the great progenitor of today´s best drama, followed by NYPD Blue.

Current shows I never miss include (in alphabetical order) Boss, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men, and I sometimes catch The Good Wife, Girls, Nurse Jackie and The Big C.

Among shows not currently broadcast, I strongly recommend binge-viewing The Wire (all 60 hours), The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica. Friday Night Lights and certain episodes of House are good viewing too.

Lots of people watch TV series and probably say to themselves, “I could write something better than that!” Would you say that it´s harder or easier for newcomers to break into television writing than it was in the days when creative works were all produced on typewriters instead of computers?

People who believe they could write better than shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones or The Wire are deluded. What are these people viewing? The lowest level of any creative form deserves that sort of derision, and it´s easy enough to point to badly written movies, YouTube posts, lyrics and any other writing. I would tell those people to stop watching garbage and tune in to the brilliant literature that is richly available all over the TV spectrum, especially on basic cable, and try to learn from the best.

Most media stopped using typewriters more than thirty years ago, before I started working in television, so I can´t address that. The news in the 21st century is the multiplicity of outlets. Long ago in the era of three, then four broadcast networks, the number of shows was limited. Then came Premium Cable (HBO and Showtime) with innovative dramas. And now basic cable stations – AMC, Starz, USA, TNT, and many others – are all producing drama series, many of them outstanding. In addition Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu and other Internet entities are going from short gags to full-length scripted shows. This is a great time to write for TV.

What kind of opportunities are open to aspiring television writers and is it mandatory that they live in Los Angeles?

First, aspiring writers should go to a film school that offers a series of classes in writing for television. Be sure the classes are taught by people who have actual industry experience, preferably on quality TV series. Basic courses in screenwriting usually precede the TV classes, so students get essential skills. Then you will be ready to join workshops and find mentors to grow and refine your work. Once you have a professional quality portfolio you can attempt to be represented by an agent (or manager) and find entry-level jobs on shows. Among those beginner jobs, accept anything at all that gets you in the mix, even receptionist or p.a. Higher up the chain are Writers Assistants and Researcher, but those are competitive positions. Joining a staff of a show is the goal, but that usually takes a very strong portfolio, excellent representation and perseverance.

Since most shows are written and created in Los Angeles, even when they shoot elsewhere, it is important to live in Los Angeles. However, once in a while staff jobs may become available in New York, Miami and elsewhere.

Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

The Third Edition of Writing the TV Drama Series is essential to writing current television because it combines three aspects you need: craft, how the industry works, and perspective on the future. Interviews, analyses of script segments, and step-by-step guides to both writing and placing pilots and episodes make this the truly complete book on the subject. It has been adopted by TV networks in their programs for new writers, and is required reading at the major film schools throughout the United States and internationally, where it has been translated into other languages. Anyone who has not read it will find themselves out of the loop.

I was pressured to write it by years of students in my classes, and the first edition was the exact class I teach. Initially I was reluctant to take time away from my creative work to spend on a text. But at the time no source was available that I considered complete and current enough, so I had to write this. Since that earliest version in 2005, I have enhanced the book greatly as the world of television continues to evolve in exciting ways.

What´s your best insider advice for someone who wants to pursue a screenwriting career?

Get into the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the Writing Division, and take the entire television track culminating in creating an original series in the TV Thesis. You will graduate with pilots and episodic spec scripts as well as internships that give you insights into how shows run. If that´s not possible, find another film program that approximates this. In Los Angeles, UCLA extension offers non-degree introductory and intermediate classes open to the public. The Tisch School at NYU is another excellent choice. Search around for offerings at universities near you.

If schools are out of the question, read and watch everything you can find, especially produced scripts, and then join a workshop for feedback as you write.

Which type of writing do you think presents a bigger challenge – TV or movies?

Unquestionably TV is more challenging. A single movie script has an arc that ends, and usually has a single major quest or conflict. Of course there are complications and dimensions of characters, and ideally, a fully developed antagonist. But structurally, it´s relatively simple. That´s not to say movies can´t be entertaining and stimulating. For directors, special effects and stunt people and certain kinds of actors, theatrical films may be more fulfilling. And some kinds of subjects – especially fantasy action – are far better suited to movies.

For writers, TV offers a range of story-telling that is long, complex and multi-layered. Because storylines must be able to continue for 100 hours (in a traditional 5-season run) a larger potential has to be developed in relationships, character depth and story surprises. In “the long narrative” a single story doesn´t end in an hour, but may weave through many episodes, or a full season, as in 12-episode seasons typical of shows like Dexter. Even in procedurals like The Good Wife, House, CSI, and so forth, where plots do conclude in each episode, enough “legs” must be present in the franchise and “juice” in the characters to make viewers want to watch the show again next week and next.

For a working writer, TV is greatly more demanding than movies. If you´re on your own writing a screenplay, you can work your own hours at your own pace and take as long as you need to figure out all the elements and rewrite after getting feedback over and over. But television writers have to be on top of their craft and fast. There´s no time learn on the job; if you´re on the staff of a show you must deliver finished, polished work, on time. The show is on every week, and if you don´t write the script, someone else will, and you´ll be gone.

What are some of the most significant changes you´ve observed in the American television market?

Five great changes have made television better in the 21st century. (1) The proliferation of broadcast outlets, especially the increase in scripted shows on basic cable; (2) The high quality of TV literature that now goes beyond premium cable and extends competitively everywhere; (3) alternates in viewing including DVR and other time-shifting technologies that make shows accessible at any time, and mobile and other devices make shows accessible at any place, thus increasing overall viewership; (4) The rise of the Internet as both a delivery and production powerhouse, adding even more opportunities for original shows including those for niche interests; (5) International production collaborations and international audiences for American shows and American-international hybrids. All five demonstrate that TV is in a growth phases, and where newness and growth prevails so does opportunity.

Given the proliferation of reality TV shows, does this mean that producers don´t have much interest in courting writers that know how to pen original plots?

First, so-called “reality” or “unscripted” shows are neither real nor unscripted. They are written by writers and acted by actors who deserve to be credited and properly compensated for their craft. Those who unfairly exploit writers by defying minimum working conditions and labor laws don´t belong at the bank cashing in; they belong in court, in my opinion. Because stations are now backing away from the legal and economic complications of those shows, the proliferation of them is slowing. I´m not saying the number of new reality shows is being reduced because the producers who profiteer off them have suddenly gained morality. They are dwindling because the profits aren´t what they used to be. And finally viewer fatigue has set in.

Original, professional-quality pilots are very much valued.

In addition to being an accomplished writer, you´re an artist. What has art taught you about writing and vice versa?

Both co-exist as expressions of my insights and visions. Some subjects are better treated with words, especially those that rely on character development and explore relationships and issues over time. Visual arts are immediate and passionate responses, and a chance to have a different kind of visceral impact on individual viewers. Writing is more difficult than painting partly because of sitting long hours at a computer, and partly because writing can´t fall back on physical materials; confronting a blank page is more daunting to me than a blank canvas. But neither specifically teaches the other. They are complementary aspects of a creative life.

Writing the TV Drama Series is available at Amazon as well as Michael Wiese Productions (http://www.mwp.com).

 

What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More

200_WHAT_ARE_YOU_laughing_AT

“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps,” wrote English essayist William Hazlitt, “for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”

While pain and loss are the common denominators that universally produce tears, identifying the elements that trigger giggles, chuckles, and rip-snorting, knee-slapping guffaws is much harder. Humor is not only predicated on whether we´re a victim, participant or observer in the hilarity that ensues but also age, gender, education, ethnicity, social status and even where we live. A penguin that walks into a bowling alley in a New Yorker cartoon is likely to generate adult mirth from an incongruous caption that mixes sophistication with silliness. In a children´s show, the same penguin isn´t funny until he gets hit in the face with a cream pie or tries to evade an oncoming rush of bowling balls. If someone trips over the penguin in America´s Funniest Home Videos and smacks his head on the ball-return mechanism, we laugh at the man´s clumsiness, disregarding the realities of potentially knocking all his teeth out or getting a concussion from which a blot clot forms and subsequently kills him.

Humor sits at a complex intersection between context and audience. And who better to explain what tickles our collective funny bones than Brad Schreiber, author of What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Let’s start with some general background about who you are, what you’ve done, and when did the writing bug first bite you?

I describe my writing background as “psychotically eclectic,” because I have written for film, TV, stage, radio, advertising, fiction, nonfiction and was once hired to write dialogue for a pre-recorded phone line called “Dial-an-Insult” but I´m not so proud of that. I attended Burlingame High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I actually became more interested in acting than writing. Then, I eventually was the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper and Editor of the school literary magazine as well.

My writing career evolved from medium to medium and I now crossover in TV, film, books and theatre. Writers who work in numerous media find that some pay better than others, but those others sometimes provide greater artistic satisfaction so the trade-off is calculated and very worthwhile. I´ve always advised writers to try and develop their skills in one more than one area.

Some people are funny in person while others are funnier in print. Which category best fits you and why?

I think I am funniest wearing my flannel pajamas covered with the character Stewie from the TV series Family Guy. I think the humor writer who is “good in a room” pitching or has performance experience has an advantage over other comedy writers in TV and film. Success in those media is predicated not only on perceptions of your talent but your personality and ability to adapt to new suggestions.

Thus, the comedy writer who has performed onstage may well have this advantage. I don´t think more introspective humor writers need to be standups or in comedy groups, but I strongly advise taking an improvisation class at least once to loosen up, to expand their abilities, to free associate. When I was 18, I was in a comedy troupe in the Bay Area called the Burlingame Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately, an actual orchestra complained when they saw our name on the bill at a club, asking who we were and why they did not get the gig. Still, performing on radio, TV, stage and in recording studios helped me to gain confidence in meeting new people and promoting my work.

Humor covers a broad spectrum of everything from pie-in-the-face pratfalls to sophisticated wit and sarcasm. Tell us a bit about what kind of mirth appeals to different demographics and how writers can use this awareness to pen funny scripts and stories.

This is a tricky question. As I say in my humor writing book What Are You Laughing At?, humor is as personal as the clothing you wear, and sometimes in as bad taste. I´m not sure of the exact demographic for fruit-pie-in-the-face compared to meringue but I can tell you this: the more people you try to appeal to, the broader and less sophisticated the humor becomes. Thus, a comedy screenplay based on wordplay will not be as accepted in other countries as one relying upon physical comedy.

English male comedians like wearing women´s clothes. Perhaps because women get to wear more silk. I don´t know. But the English also have a love of wordplay, so there is room within the culture for sophistication as well. I think it´s dangerous to make universal assumptions about what kind of humor will appeal to Ecuadorians. Here´s an example of the unpredictability of humor to a specific nationality. After one of my books was published, I went to the Book Expo America in New York City. I met a group of German publishing executives at a party. They were dressed in suits, seemed very intelligent, business savvy and knowledgable about American culture and the corporate world. But when one of them mentioned not liking a type of food because it made him fart, they all erupted into laughter like a group of prepubescent boys. Then, they started talking nonstop about flatulence. But it would be a mistake to think all Germans like fart jokes. Or at least, I pray to God they don´t.

In the end, you should write humor from passion and from strength. As always, it is good to learn about all kinds of approaches to comedy. But I have to quote the great Bill Cosby, here: “I don´t know what the key to success is. But the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Who did you think was funny when you were growing up? Who do you think is funny now?

My mother, Mona, was an actor and writer and told great jokes, did voices and had a profound effect on my artistic development. I watched way too much TV as a child. I watched stuff that even bored me. But there were no computers then. I loved certain animated series, including Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had jokes for kids and adults combined. An early TV series I enjoyed was My Favorite Martian with Bill Bixby and the great Ray Walston. I don´t think the show would have worked so well if Walston´s humorous intensity, his commitment to the role, wasn´t so focused. The two antennae protruding from his head also helped.

 

I recall seeing Bob Hope early on TV and loving the quality of his material. Of course, he also had tremendous writers, including the great Larry Gelbart, who I was fortunate enough to get to know a bit. One of the great honors of my life was getting a blurb from Larry on my humor book, saying, “Finally, a how-to by somebody who actually knows how to.” Prior to the great Johnny Carson, Jack Paar exhibited not only a brilliant wit but an exceptional intelligence for a talk show host. I could go on and on. Generally speaking, I want humor writers and performers to have a unique approach to the world as they see it: I don´t want something warmly familiar. I want something that feels like it builds on the history of humor.

Tell us about your book, what topics it covers and what inspired you to write it? What’s the takeaway value you want readers to have when they’re finished?

It´s the only book I know of that looks at all forms of humor writing, both in script and prose form. It´s also the only book to have an out-of-focus, closeup of a laughing pig on the cover. You see, there´s a lesson right on the cover: As you laugh at the pig, it laughs at you too.

The book not only has over 75 excerpts from great humor writers but also writing exercises I have created. I used to teach Humor Writing at UCLA Extension and the book built upon my course materials. I also have insinuated some principles that apply not only to humor but to dramatic writing as well.

What are some of the common mistakes that people make when they’re trying to write humorous dialogue and silly scenarios?

Vulgarity for shock value. Cultural references that will become dated. Sketches that do not have a beginning, middle and end but repeat a situation or character flaw over and over. Using exclamation points and all capital letters to make unfunny dialog somehow funnier. DO YOU THINK THAT´S ALL IT TAKES!!

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about comedy?

I can tell you the worst advice I have ever heard and I have heard it more than once: Analyzing comedy kills it. Wrong. Understanding the flow of words, how juxtaposition creates humor, why shock and surprise work, all these things are important to know. I have a section in “What Are You” called Yiddish Sound Theory, explaining why certain words sound funnier than others that have the same meaning. You require talent to write humor but understanding principles will aid all writers of comedy.

What are some movies and television programs that you think lend themselves well to the study of comedic delivery?

I don´t believe in citing my favorite movies and TV shows and comedians too often because everyone´s taste is different. But I do believe you as a writer and/or performer should be able to tell anyone why you like one person over another. Is it about material or intonation or appearance or facial expressions or topics? If you force me against my will- which you are, damn you, Christina – here are some faves: Verbal dexterity in standup: Robin Williams. Uniqueness as a female standup: Phyllis Diller. TV ensemble acting: The Carol Burnett Show. Uniqueness of sketch writing: MadTV. The last American comedy film that I thought broke new ground was The Hangover. If you disagree with any of this, then I didn´t mean any of it.

What’s the most recent thing you laughed about and why was it funny?

I´m a playwright member of the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. After a recent reading of a darkly comedic play of mine, some folks, including Mark Rydell, who runs things, gathered at a deli. He told me how he knew the meekly humorous actor Wally Cox, who came over Rydell´s mother´s house for dinner once. Mama Rydell kept giving him more food and Cox kept politely saying he was full. Finally, when she ignored him for the fifth time, in his typically timid voice, Cox said, “Shove it up your ass, Mrs. Rydell.” Mark said his father laughed so hard that he cried. Now I ask you, if Cox was anything but mousy, would this line have elicited laughter?

If you could go to lunch with any comedian from the past or the present, who would it be and what question would you most like to ask him or her?

Even though I knew him, I would bring Larry Gelbart back to life and have a nice, long lunch with him, shot on video, to keep for posterity. While he was not a comedian, he was one of the most remarkable comedy writers in history. His career spanned radio, TV, theatre and film. He infused his characters, no matter how flawed, with great humanity. He broke comedic ground with the TV series M*A*S*H, films like Tootsie, his remarkable theatre work, including Mastergate and films like Barbarians at the Gate. His adaptability, his perspective on the changing nature of humor and his brilliance with both comedy and drama in writing made him very special. He was also a mensch and I loved him.

What are you working on now?

I got the rights back to my first book, Weird Wonders and Bizarre Blunders: The Official Book of Ridiculous Records and I published it as a Kindle book on Amazon. My book about Jimi Hendrix is under option with me to write the screenplay. I am also adapting Becoming Jimi Hendrix as a musical and I am attached as screenwriter to a project about Formula One car racing that will be a big, international co-production.

Where can readers learn more about you?

http://www.BradSchreiber.com and also they can enter my name at http://www.RedRoom.com for more video, audio and reviews. THANKS, CHRISTINA! I mean, thanks, Christina.

Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay

Rewrite cover

Once an aspiring writer commits pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – there comes a point when s/he starts to believe that every word, every phrase, every idea that results from such effort is the stuff of perfection and, thus, exempt from editorial criticism. Was there ever a more dreaded word in the English vocabulary than “rewrite”? It can be anything from a simple request for clarification, a suggestion about rearranging chapters for a more cohesive flow, or maybe even changing the heroine’s name from Ethel to Juliet, but to the ears of the author who has tirelessly brought the project to life, it all sounds the same: “Are you an idiot or what? This is terrible. You didn’t get it right the first time. Do it again.”

It’s not that the editor hates you or hates your story, nor is the editor telling you anything with the dark intention of making your project worse. The goal, first and foremost, is to make it the best it can be and, accordingly, make you an even better writer than you might ever have thought possible. Paul Chitlik, author of Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay (Michael Wiese Productions) shares his insights on what you can learn from going back to the drawing board.

 Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: “The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E.B. White. For a lot of aspiring authors, however, any suggestion that their original prose might even remotely contain flaws or inconsistencies causes them to instantly put up defenses and arguments to the contrary. Why, in your opinion, are they so averse to taking their material back to the drawing board?

A:  First, writing is hard.  Writers naturally only want to write as little as they can get away with.  While this works in journalism, and sometimes even fiction, it doesn’t work at all in film or television (and I’ve worked in all of them). 

Sometimes, too, they want to do it “their way.”  They feel restricted by the format, which many call the formula.  While some good films are made outside of the format (very few Hollywood films, to be sure), most fail that don’t follow the traditional format, which developed for 2500 years in playwriting and then 100 years in screenwriting.  We know what works.  Why try to re-invent the wheel.

Speaking of wheels, think of writing within the format as manufacturing an automobile.  You wouldn’t have square tires just because you liked squares or you wanted to be different.  You need round tires, an engine, a transmission, a steering wheel, and brakes.  But even though you are restricted to four wheels (and sometimes, three, but rarely, though one of my favorite roadsters is the three wheel Morgan), you have a wide range of designs in which to show your originality.  A Jetta is very different from a Ferrari, yet they are both automobiles.  And if you want to be original, you certainly can:  You can make a DeLorean or a Honda Fit or a Nissan Cube with a wrap around back window.  But if you decide that you feel restricted by four wheels and want to add a fifth, well, you might find that the old format worked better.  But working off of four, you might go to six and find some success.  Try the four first, though, and have good reason to add the other two, if that’s what you want.

Creating art is a very personal thing, and new writers are not used to the collaborative process that is film and television making.  Unless you’re going to write it, cast it, act in it, shoot it, cut it, and distribute it yourself, you’re going to have to collaborate.  Get used to it.

Q: Which is the more efficient practice (and why): (1) to rewrite after you’re completely done or (2) to rewrite as you’re composing?

A:  I rewrite the previous day’s original pages before I start a new scene.  But I don’t usually go back farther than that unless I need to set up something that I’m paying off in a scene that comes to me outside of the beat sheet.  But it’s best to plough through the first draft to keep your focus and then let it rest for a few days or even weeks before tackling the rewrite with a fresh perspective. 

Q: Okay, let’s be honest, how many rewrites did you do for Rewrite?

A:  Not including the in-process second edition, I did about five rewrites before I submitted it to the publisher and another two after.  Then we both decided it was done.

Q: How did this particular book come about and who do you see as its target demographic?

A:  One of my students in a UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting class in rewriting sent me the outline he had done of the course and suggested I write a book on rewriting.  I thought that was a very good idea since there were no how-to rewrite books.

Its target is new writers who don’t have a support system like a professional writer does.  A professional can go to his manager or agent, his development executive, his director, even his writer friends for feedback.  Someone in Sioux Falls can’t.  Also, some professionals feel they need to do a few drafts on their own before going back to the studio, but don’t want to share their work for whatever reason.  So they refer to my book.  More than one has told me s/he has done this.

Q: Tell us about your academic and professional background that prepared you for the challenges inherent in penning a book.

A:  Academically, I studied comparative literature in college, meaning I read mostly novels and plays in Spanish, English, and Italian.  Hundreds (literally) of them.  I moved to Europe after grad school and worked as a translator and journalist.  Back in the US after five years, I worked as an English as a Second Language instructor and then a college administrator.  One day I said to myself, “This is not the plan.” 

I soon got back into writing, starting with a job as an executive story editor on a syndicated show where I supervised upwards of 140 scripts.  They were mostly crap (even my own), and I supervised the rewriting of every one of them.  Since then, I have written hundreds of television scripts and been commissioned to write over a dozen films (five of which have been made, some under a pseudonym for various reasons).  In classes at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University as well as private workshops over the last twelve years, I have supervised the writing and rewriting of something over 1800 scripts!  I know what works and what doesn’t.  I know the process.  The challenge was boiling down everything into less than 200 pages. 

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

A:  When I started the book or started my career?  If it’s the career, I would have started fresh out of school instead of wasted so many years doing other things. 

If it’s about the book, well, I wish I would have known (but no one did), what the true profit margins are in e-books.  I know now and my publisher and I have come to a new agreement.

Q: Do you ever go back and read some of the things you wrote earlier in your career? If so, in what ways has your style or focus evolved with age?

A:  I sometimes go back and read old stuff when I’m looking for something specific that has nothing to do with writing and I find my old work.  Some stuff is really bad – no form, no story, just clever wording.  Some is just raw emotion.  My focus is more on story than on self now.  I tend to write about people struggling with an issue instead of me struggling with an issue.

Q: If you hadn’t heard the siren call of television in the 1980’s, might you have gravitated to a career as a playwright? (Hey, directing your first play when you were only 11 seems like an auspiciously theatrical start.)

A:  I did write a couple of plays when I decided to go back into writing in the 1980s.  They’re not too bad.  What I should have done then, and what I’m doing with a project now, is to shoot the play as a play and get it circulated.  It would have shortened the time I spent out in the cold.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the importance of structure in a screenplay. So many writers simply jump in and start tossing elements about without any preconceived game plan about how to make them coexist and move the story forward. Why is structure a critical factor and what are some examples of movies where structure was clearly nonexistent?

A:  Structure doesn’t restrict, it frees you to explore.  It’s a road map.  Nobody says you have to follow it, but it will be hard to get to your destination without it.  Still, you can go down dirt roads if you want to, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably not going to get there, wherever there is.  With a structure, you always have the option to take a diversion.  Without structure, all you have is wandering.

Look at Tree of Life or Cloud Atlas or Melancholia.  But only if you have to, because I’m still trying to get back those lost hours.  They make little or no sense.  Yes, they’re beautiful films, from an aesthetic point of view, but there’s a reason millions didn’t flock to see them, and it’s unlikely that you’ve seen all three, but you have my sympathy if you have.

Q: Is too much focus put on crafting the hero and, thus, neglecting the attributes and motivations of the antagonist that opposes him?

A:  A good film has a balance.  The antagonist must be 110% as smart, as strong, as handsome as the protagonist.  The more interesting he or she is, the more challenging, and, yes, the more human, the more we care about the challenges s/he presents to the protagonist.  The better the antagonist, the better the film.  The protagonist must have barriers that are real.  If they’re not, if they’re not difficult, then we lose interest.

Q: What role do you believe the central emotional relationship plays?

A:  The central emotional relationship (the love object, the person with whom the protagonist must either create or mend a relationship) serves to humanize the protagonist, to give the audience someone else to cheer for, and to give the audience an emotional reason to root for the protagonist.  In a romance or romantic comedy, even in a buddy film, this is the only reason to see the film in the first place. 

Q: Screenwriting is both an art and a science in which storytellers strive to deliver a compelling visual while, at the same time, adhering to the rules and protocols of formatting, time constraints and available resources (including budgets). If you want to break the rules – or make brand new ones that others will want to follow – how do you go about accomplishing that?

A:  First you must know and be able to employ the current rules.  Then you can break them for effect, especially in formatting and editing.  But even if you do something different, such as the found footage film I did for UPN in the 90s, Alien Abduction, which was the precursor for Blair Witch and Paranormal and its imitators, you still need to tell a story.  That is, there’s a person, he has a goal (wants something), but there’s a rock between him and the goal so he has to go over, under, around, or through the rock to get to the goal.  That’s the only rule you can’t break.  All the rest are up for grabs, so long as you tell a good story.  Even the order in which you tell it doesn’t matter (See Memento, which has one story going backwards and another going forwards – both following, in their way, traditional structure.).

Q: What are some movies that were either successful or mind-numbing failures insofar as coloring outside the lines?

A:  See above examples of films I wish I hadn’t seen.  Films outside of the usual are Moonlight Kingdom, Amour (though I would argue it does follow traditional structure in some ways), Groundhog Day (though, again, I would argue it’s right on course).  Can’t remember any more off the top of my head, but will probably think of one just after the interview comes out.

Q: Legend has it that – amongst the plethora of diverse jobs you’ve held – you once joined a circus sans skills but just because you wanted to write about it. What did learning how to put up and take down the tent for a three-ring circus teach you about yourself, about life, and about Hollywood?

A:  Whoa!  Big question.  First, it taught me to be bold.  They had to hire the people that the Employment Development Department had sent over, so I wasn’t picked.  But I told the foreman, on the sly, that I’d work for free.  It told me to be bolder when I could.  It had rained the day before and we were literally up to our ankles in mud.  Many quit.  I did not.  I persisted.  When the foreman asked if I would stay on, I said, “Yes, if you pay me.”  He agreed to pay from that moment on.  “No, from the first minute this morning.”  He agreed, and I ended up setting up and striking the tent several times in the course of the next few weeks.  The next summer, when I showed up, this time with leather gloves because I knew how to prepare myself, he took me on.  That time I just did it for fun. 

I learned I could do just about anything I wanted, and if I did it well, people would pay me for it.  I learned that it’s better to do something hard that’s fun than something easy that isn’t.  After all, I worked alongside elephants that helped put up the tent.  I gained some self confidence.  Once I had to climb to the top of the tent from the outside to repair a seam problem.  If I could do that, I certainly could work with a studio executive or a cranky actress.  

Q: What personal or professional accomplishment are you the most proud of and why?

A:  Still most proud of some of the episodes I worked on for The New Twilight Zone.  We had the freedom to do what we wanted with very little interference.  As a result, my writing partner and I were nominated for a WGA Award.  I would dream of something at night, come in the next morning, and we would write it.  What’s better than that?

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A:  I’ve written a three-part, goes-against-traditional-structure, script that I plan to shoot using a four camera set-up on a sound stage, much like a television play from the Golden Age.  Something shot like Marty or Requiem for a Heavyweight.  Script’s done.  Date’s set.  I’m now raising the money and getting the crew and cast together.  I’ll direct this time, so I’ll have no one to blame if it goes wrong.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A:  I’d like them to know how tough it is, that screenwriting is not for the faint of heart nor the thin-skinned.  Not only do you need to be talented, you need to be persistent and patient.  And it helps if you’re independently wealthy and not worried about money.  But if you have talent, practice, drive, and confidence you may be able to make a living at it.  And maybe change the world a little bit.   

To learn more about the author, visit http://www.rewritementor.com.

 

Your Screenplay Sucks

ScreenplySucks_website_medium

For every movie that has ever been made, there are 14,023 writers who think they can pen something better. All right, maybe I’m exaggerating about that number but I’ve done script coverage on more than enough that have made me want to respond with the exact phrase William M. Akers so aptly snagged for his latest book. Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great is clearly one of the best checklists for aspiring screenwriters I’ve ever encountered. With 20 years of studio and network experience behind him, three films produced from his scripts, and 15 years at Vanderbilt as a screenwriting instructor in addition to globe-trekking workshops and story consulting, this consummate professional was enthusiastic to share his insights with aspiring screenwriters on how to hone their craft.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

 ******

Q: When did the movie bug first bite you and what do you know now that might have been helpful to know at the beginning?

A: I went to graduate school at USC. One afternoon, I was sitting in the chairman’s office and he came out, having no idea who I was, and said, “Are you a screenwriter?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Come in here.”  A producer had called and wanted one of his top screenwriting students to write a script. I got paid $1,500 to write a screenplay. It didn’t get made, but I was pleased to get paid. For my second script, I adapted a book that had been read to me in the third grade. That film did get made. It’s called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It did nothing for my career, other than be able to say, “Hey, I got a movie made!” Three days before the film came out, the releasing company went bankrupt.

Basically, all I’ve ever done for money is write movies, teach screenwriting, and do script consulting.

What I wish I’d known then was how to be the writer I am now. There’s a conundrum.

Q: Which movie in your youth left the most indelible memory on you?

A: Sorcerer written by Walon Green from the novel by Georges Arnaud, and directed by William Friedkin. That’s the movie that got me into the movie business. It’s about guys hauling dynamite (that had sweated nitroglycerine) through 200 miles of jungle to blow out an oil well fire. The sequence where he drives the truck across the swinging bridge in the rain is still one of the finest pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. I saw it at the Green Hills theatre in Nashville, which had the largest screen of any theatre in the city. Friedkin has a documentary filmmaking background, and the movie seemed more real to me than anything I’d seen. When it was over, I felt like I had to go home and take a bath. I remember thinking, “I want to do that!”  My screenplay, 105 Degrees and Rising (and which Jon Amiel is attached to direct) is the closest thing I’ve ever written to that kind of material.

Were I to remake Sorcerer, I’d go back to the book’s title, The Wages of Fear and cast Benecio Del Toro for the Spanish hit man. I’d want Amidou, again, for the Arab terrorist. Thierry L’Hermitte would play the French financier and the lead, the American gangster, would be Robert Downey, Jr. We’d shoot in Mexico, end up great friends, and buy villas next to each other in Puerto Vallarta.

Q: Who were your mentors as you developed your craft and what were the takeaway lessons that you learned from them?

A: Wish to God I’d had one. Well, that’s not true. Ken Robinson, my USC filmmaking teacher, is someone I still go to with questions. Far and away the greatest teacher I ever had. I dedicated my book to him. Naturally, USC, in their immense wisdom, fired him.

Q: If you were stranded on an island (with electricity and all other amenities, of course) and could only take three movies with you, what would they be?

A: Hmmm. Do I want to tell the truth or do I want to look fancy-pants brilliant? Well, naturally, it would be My Ain Folk directed by Bill Douglas, Floating Weeds by Yasujiro Ozu, and Trains by Caleb Deschanel. “What an impressive list!” you’re saying, “I’ve never heard of those movies!  That Akers guy must be killer smart!”  And you’re no doubt correct. Okay, now the truth. Let’s assume I’ve got a 70 foot screen and my own projectionist, not just a DVD player and 52″ plasma TV. Ergo, Sorcerer, Lawrence of Arabia and Les Uns Et Les Autres.

I’ve seen Lawrence at least 10 times in theaters, in 70mm, and it always delights. Amazing everything – acting, editing, story, camera, character, scope. It’s my favorite movie and always has been. Les Uns Et Les Autres is the only movie I went to see two days in a row. I saw it on the Champs Elysées in Paris and it blew me away so I went back the next day. The fractured story style, told over generations, really works. I saw it in my twenties and was thrilled by every single frame. It’s not high falutin’, but it works for me.

Q: What are the three biggest mistakes wannabe screenwriters make when they set out to pen their first script?

A: They write something they don’t care desperately about, so when the going gets tough, they don’t have the yearning required to take the time to get it right. They underestimate the appalling competition, so they don’t realize how much honing it takes to get it right. They think this stuff is easy and don’t take the time to get it right.

Q: Somewhere along the wayside, people of all ages have lost sight of the importance of having good manners and/or thinking that rules apply to everyone else except them. Tell us about some of the protocols that absolutely have to be observed by writers if they’re serious about breaking into the business.

A: Everything your mother taught you, basically. Thank-you notes. Be polite. Don’t think you’re special and that the rules don’t apply to your screenplay. Understand that these days, silence means “No.”  Don’t bug people who are doing you a favor. Don’t get irritated at someone if they take six months to read your script. They’re doing you the favor, and you must never forget it.

Q: Where do good ideas come from and how do you really know if you have one that’s commercial?

A: If I could answer that, I’d live in a much bigger house.

Q:  Are certain genres easier for new screenwriters to break into than others? If so, what are they?

A: Beats me. New writers should write in genres they like to see in the theater. If you like to watch heist movies, write three or four of them. Because you understand the genre, you’ll know when you nail it.

Q: Which is worse – describing a character or setting in too much detail or leaving the reader to wonder?

A: What’s  the worst is being confusing. What’s the worst is making people read any words they don’t have to. Using too much detail in scene description is the #1 mistake beginning writers make. Tell us barely enough, and move on.

Q: Define “good clean writing” and what steps or exercises writers can do to achieve it.

A: First, start with poetry, or the Alien screenplay by Walter Hill and move in that direction from whatever style you’re using now. In my writing workshops, I’ve learned that too much detail is the bugaboo of all beginning writers. They see the movie in their head and want to put it on the page, which is admirable but wrong. Good, clean writing is:  If you take out one more word, the reader won’t understand what you’re trying to tell him. To clean up your writing, you have to go through it over and over with a red pen, reading it aloud, having other people read it aloud to you, until you can’t take anything out.

When I first started writing, I’d read a page out loud three times in a row before I’d move to the next page. If I made a single change, even a comma, I’d start over and read it again three more times. If I was on the third read and changed a word in the last line, I’d start over and read it three more times. It was unbelievably tedious, but I certainly tidied up my writing and sold the script, and it got made. So, gosh, it must be a good hint!

Q: Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

A: Because I critique scripts for money, I read a lot of scripts. I found that most people made the same mistakes repeatedly and I began to feel bad telling people repeatedly not to have character names that rhyme, etc. The idea is that the client reads the book,  performs the checklist, and then sends me a script that’s in way better shape. We can then discuss plot, character, and story construction, as opposed to cutting the flab out of their action description.

Q: With so many sequels, prequels and remakes being churned out by Hollywood, it would be easy for writers to think that producers prefer to play things safe and not pursue anything fresh and original. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I can only write what interests me or what someone pays me to. What producers pay other writers to write affects me only when I go to the movies. Some producers (though fewer these days) still want interesting material. It’s never been an easy business. If you want it easy, marry money and divorce before you have children.

Q: Technology is shrinking the globe in terms of access to film production. Do you think it’s inversely expanding the opportunities for new screenwriters or making the playing field that much more competitive?

A: There are only so many slots in theaters. There are only so many movies people will find online.

You can use a flip cam or you can shoot in Super Panavision. Just because everyone can use a pencil to draw, doesn’t mean there are heaps of Michelangelos. No matter what, it all comes down to the screenplay. No matter how low the production cost, it’s still, on some level, expensive. If your script blows and you decide to make a movie, you’re about to waste your investor’s money.

Q: What do you love most about this business?

1.)  Writing is a wonderful way to pass the day. I spent last Saturday hauling creek gravel in a dump truck. While I waited for the truck to be loaded, I sat in the cab and line-edited a script. How great is that!  

2.)  That I can retire and have health insurance for the rest of my life. Yay!

3.)  Working with talented people is the greatest thrill there is.

4.)  That so many stunning women want to have sex with screenwriters.

Ah, well… three out of four’s not bad.

Q: Given the youth-oriented emphasis in Hollywood, does anyone over the age of 30 really have a chance of getting their script sold and produced? Why or why not?

A: I’m over 30. I just finished a rewrite for a producer and that film stands a good chance of getting made. When it goes out to talent, the actress may say, “This is a piece of garbage. I won’t be in this.”  What she will not say is, “This is fantastic material. I never get stuff this good to read. I can’t wait to be in this movie, cause– Oh, look. Wait. Ewwwww. The writer is over 30!  Forget this project. Next.”

At least, that’s what I tell myself. Do keep in mind, they shouldn’t be able to tell how old you are when they read your script.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m finishing up a romantic comedy around the world of ballet during the Cold War. I’m starting a children’s novel about a wicked third grade teacher. I’m finishing a YA novel about a boy who accidentally brings pirates back from the past, and I’m part-way into a screenplay about a young couple who just can’t get ahead and come up with a novel way to earn a living that doesn’t go quite as they had planned. Helps to have different stuff cooking on the griddle.

Q: Any last bit of advice you’d like to offer aspiring screenwriters (besides, of course, buying your book!):

A: Get good at sales and marketing. Make movies, don’t just write them. Writing a great script is half the battle. Nobody tells you that. Final advice: Your first idea may not be your best one. Spend a lot of time coming up with the idea you’re going to take time to write and make sure it’s something someone is going to like and that, in theory, will be easy to sell. Don’t write something if you’re the only person in the world who wants to read it. This sounds like the opposite of the “write your passion” cliché, but if your passion is completely unsellable, maybe you should be a poet.

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great is available at Amazon as well as Michael Wiese Productions (http://www.mwp.com).

Hollywood Game Plan

When I was 10, I had a grand plan to run off and join the circus. Well, it wasn’t so much a plan as it was a deep desire to leave home, do something interesting, and have a brand new assortment of friends. I didn’t know the first thing about circus life other than what I saw in movies and, further, I had no circus-y skills that might have made me a welcome addition to the fold. I share this bit of trivia because it’s not unlike members of today’s younger generation – and quite a few adults as well – who want to run off and make a name for themselves in Hollywood. They have no skills. They have no experience. And yet Hollywood exudes a dreamy coolness that beckons them like a siren’s seductive song. If you have, in fact, heard that song yourself and are thinking about answering it, Carole Kirschner’s new book Hollywood Game Plan should be at the top of your reading list.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Can you recall the moment when you first knew that a Hollywood career was what you wanted to pursue?

A: I was working as the assistant to the Director of a museum and one of the volunteers asked me if I was interested in being the P.A. for a friend of hers who was a television writer. I’d never thought about it before, but once she asked me a light went on and I realized how much I wanted to be in entertainment. I was incredibly fortunate because I got that job and it launched my career.

Q: What was your own “game plan” for breaking in and how long did it take to get to where you are now?

A: After I’d been an assistant at that job for a couple of years, I realized I needed to move on from the protected environment of working for this wonderful boss. He was very supportive, but I knew it was going to be hard to be more than a great assistant if I stayed there. So I decided to launch an intense campaign to get the job that would take me from being an assistant to being a decision maker. It took me about a year and a half to make that transition.

Q: Who were your most important mentors and what did they teach you that can’t be learned from books?

A: My first boss, Jim Hirsch was a terrific mentor.  He taught me how to work with writers in a respective way, he taught me how to be a mensch in dealing with everybody, from executives to people on the crew. He did all this without really talking about it, but by modeling it.

Q: There’s no shortage of aspiring writers across the country who believe that catching the next bus, train or plane to Los Angeles will make their dreams come true. What would you say are the most common realities many of them fail to take into account?

A: That your beloved first script (or second or third) will automatically make you an in-demand writer and everything will be smooth sailing.  The truth is it can take years – and many more scripts — before you get traction.  A lot of aspiring writers don’t have a game plan for getting an entry level job and getting out there and networking like crazy, while they’re honing their writing chops.

Q: To open doors in Hollywood, would you say that it’s more about who you know or what you know? Why?

A:  Actually I think it’s much more about who knows YOU… and wants to help you or be in business with you. And to get to that place requires strong writing, determined networking and creating a profile for yourself in the business.

Q: Given the advances in technology, is it really necessary to relocate to the west coast at all?

A: If you want to work in television you have to be on the West Coast. This is where the jobs are… and the meetings and parties and networking events that help you get those jobs are. It’s not so essential if you want to make indie films or put your work up online.

Q: Hollywood is based on perceptions. Since learning to market your authentic self to the entertainment industry is essential for success, what are some of the “right” ways to accomplish this?

A:  Think deeply about what makes you uniquely you. Use the good experiences from your past and the painful ones, too, to create your personal story.  Learn how to talk about yourself in a way that’s authentic, but also shines a light on your best qualities and accomplishments. Create a profile for yourself that’s consistent and compelling.

Q: How much does luck factor into a Hollywood game plan?

A:  Great question!  I think luck is when preparation meets opportunity.  You have a lot control over both of those things.  The “something amazing happens out of the blue” kind of luck is very rare, but when it happens you want to be prepared to take advantage of it.

Q: If a writer has just moved to Los Angeles and doesn’t know anyone yet, what does s/he need to learn about the art of networking and expanding contacts?

A: That networking isn’t about finding people and getting them to do things for you, it’s about creating a community of like minded folks who mutually support each other. It’s finding a way to help them, before you ask them to help you.

Q: Do you need an agent? And if so, how do you go about finding one?

A:  You need blazingly hot material before you can even think about getting an agent.  Once you have that, (shameless plug) if you read my book there’s a whole chapter on how you find an agent.

Q: Let’s talk about working with a mentor and what the respective expectations are about this relationship.

A: When you are fortunate enough to have a mentor (and very rarely does someone actually ask a person to be their mentor, it just naturally evolves) be respectful of their time and don’t ask for too much.  And if they help you get a meeting or job, make them proud.

Q: What if you have to take a day job to support yourself while you’re struggling to get discovered? Any advice on the subject?

A: Don’t get one that’s so demanding it leaves you too exhausted to work on your writing.

Q: Huzzah! Someone at a studio read your resume and invites you to come in for a chat. What do you say? What do you do? How do you make sure you don’t come across as a total doofus?

A: Be ridiculously over prepared for the meeting.  Know who all the people in the meeting are, what their backgrounds are, what projects they’ve been involved with, etc. Do your homework. Know your personal story so well you can say it in a natural way when they ask the inevitable question,  “So tell me about yourself?”  Do more research and have something interesting to say about the business and be prepared to talk about your material or pitch ideas if they ask.

Q: One of the things you talk about in your book is the importance of having a “Personal A-Story” that reflects some memorable aspect of your personality. But what if (1) you’re terrible at telling anecdotes and (2) you don’t have a story?

A: EVERYONE has a story! It’s just a matter of digging deep into your past and present life and figuring out what experiences and perspectives make you different from all the other aspiring writers. I guarantee it’s there. Very few people are natural story tellers, so you have to do a lot of practicing until you’re comfortable telling your personal stories. Since you’re writers you can always write them up first and then practice them in front of friends and get feedback, until it’s much easier to come up with and tell your anecdotes.

Q: Hollywood Game Plan is a must-have playbook for anyone contemplating a job in the film business. How did the inspiration for this book come about?

A: When I got into the entertainment industry I didn’t know anyone in the business and I didn’t have a clue about how to navigate it.  I made a lot of mistakes and I vowed that when I succeeded I would give people coming up the “unwritten” rules and information that would save them from making the same mistakes I did… and support them along the way.

Q: What do you feel is its strongest takeaway value for readers?

A: That it’s possible to succeed if you have a well thought out plan, you build a supportive community and you do a lot of homework. You do the work and then you go for it!

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Getting to help more writers through workshops, an upcoming teleseminar and my career consulting practice, Park on the Lot.com. Plus a trip to Australia in late February 2013 to do workshops there as part of the Television Studio Event.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A:  Here’s what I say to writers at the end of my seminars:  Be brave. Be bold. And be relentless in your drive to improve.  This business is ALWAYS looking for new writers and new voices. If you’re talented and prepared, it might as well be you.  Good luck!

 ******

 Hollywood Game Plan is available at Amazon.com as well as www.mwp.com.

Something Startling Happens

Shortly after we moved to Pasadena in 2002, some friends came out to visit from Boston. Their daughter – a year shy of becoming a teenager – had brought along a new book to quietly entertain herself while the adults caught up on news at a neighborhood restaurant. Just before the entrees were served, Katie suddenly issued a small gasp, closed the book and leaned back in her chair with a look of astonishment on her face. “What’s going on?” I asked. She turned to me in complete seriousness, tapped the cover and remarked, “Something startling happens.”

I was reminded of that unabashed display of delight when I recently acquired a copy of Todd Klick’s new book, a how-to guide for any raconteur who wants to inject “Aha!” moments that will keep readers and audiences off-balance. Coincidentally titled  Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know , it cleverly delivers the minute-by-minute structural skinny on how to keep a screenplay moving from start to finish with no shortage of snappy surprises in-between. Not only does Klick use lots of humor to effectively dispense advice but he also knows how to keep an interview lively and replete with mirth.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Let’s start with some background on who you are, where you came from, and what you do for a living when you’re not writing fun books like this one.

I’m Todd Klick and I live in Los Angeles, but I’m originally from two formative places for me: Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, which is an old fashioned summer resort community, kind of like in Dirty Dancing. Before that, however, I was raised in the Pennsylvania farmlands, living almost a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn existence: fishing in ponds, climbing out of my bedroom window at night to go on adventures in the woods with my friends, getting into mischief. I started writing for theater in Mount Gretna. Co-wrote a play about Milton Hershey that sold out shows for three years. That led me to screenwriting. When I’m not writing books, I’m working on TV and feature scripts. I was also hired by the guy who put the Cirque Du Soleil/Beatles’ show together. He asked me write two original shows for the London and Broadway stages, both of which sold. I’m also producing a film.

When did you first know you wanted a career in the movie business?    

I knew I wanted to do this when I found Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs script at an Amish flea market in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Some elderly guy was selling a box of screenplays for a couple bucks. I read that script and the heavens opened up for me! I had no idea until the point that people wrote movies.

How did you go about getting your first break?

My first break was in theatre. Then I broke in L.A. when I attracted a bunch of options and sold a TV movie to the Hallmark Channel (still waiting for it to be produced). Then both my books became bestsellers on Amazon in screenwriting.

Who would you say were your mentors on this exciting journey?

My mentors are Ray Bradbury, who recently passed away (June 5), John Dayton, who used to work for CBS, and Dale Olson, who used to be a publicist for a lot of the old school movie stars. They’ve seen it all and offer advice to help me out.

Through adolescence and into adulthood, what movies had the most profound impact on your perspective as a teller of tales?

Schindler’s List rocked me to the core. It wiped me out for a few days. I want to tell powerful stories like that. Tarantino does it for me, too, as does Scorsese, David Fincher, James Cameron and, of course, Steven Spielberg. They know how to entertain you in a movie theatre, and occasionally they’ll teach you something as well.

When was the last time a movie totally surprised you and made you say, “I didn’t see that coming at all”?

Prometheus. Mind blown.

So what was the inspiration to write Something Startling Happens? And how did you come up with 120 as the number of beats every writer needs to know? Assuming that the average movie length is two hours, doesn’t this mean that something is happening every single minute?

Years ago I started studying successful movies scene by scene, scribbling down their dramatic nuances on yellow legal pads. I did this analysis to improve my storytelling. After awhile, I noticed that on one particular legal pad line I had written the words “something startling happens” over and over again. If I would have lined up all my legal pads side by side, that phrase would have appeared shoulder to shoulder across the board. Now, “startling” moments happen sporadically in every movie, but this was a very specific moment that kept reappearing over and over again during a very specific time. So I timed each movie to see what minute this moment occurred. It was Minute 8. This was a tremendous insight for my writing. Knowing that one minute of screen time equals one screenplay page, I now knew something startling had to happen, usually to the hero, on page 8. This led me to studying great movies minute-by-minute. Once I figured out the minute-by-minute story beats that united them all together, I applied what I learned into my scripts. As if by magic, my screenplays immediately soared to the top of screenwriting competitions and attracted options and sales.

And yes, there is a specific dramatic nuance happening each minute. It’s beautiful to see it unfold in movies, and incredible to see how skilled writers and directors hit the beats in fresh ways.

What was the most fun chapter for you to write?

I loved writing the “Story” section at the beginning. It goes into much more detail about where I was at the time in my life, and how I made a big sacrifice to follow my dream of writing. But once I did, that’s when the story insights started to come and my work got attention.

Contrivance is truly one of the worst sins that writers make in their stories (i.e., “Suddenly the unmistakable sound of a Harrier broke through the midnight sky and seconds later appeared right outside the trapped hero’s 27th floor window just as the villain broke down the hotel room door with the intent to kill him.”). While it’s important that something startling and unexpected happens to make an audience say “Wow!”, there also has to be an adequate set-up to make such zero-hour miracles plausible within the context of the story. Tell us about some of the things that writers can do – including skillful foreshadowing – to avoid a lame “save.”

Storytelling is like architecture, you have to work weeks, sometimes months to figure out how to design an original building that won’t collapse over time. You do that by following the universal structure that holds everyone up, but if you want to make it beautiful and original, then you put the extra effort into making that happen. If something sniffs of cliché or contrived, delete it immediately. Lazy writers write contrivances.

What do Spielberg and Shakespeare have in common insofar as finding their story groove?

Both use the exact same story rhythm that Mr. Shakespeare and other playwrights developed for the stage centuries ago, and successful filmmakers borrow for the big screen today.

The Globe Theatre, which hosted Shakespeare’s plays, attracted a tough audience. The Groundlings would crowd the stage and jeer if an actor or play dared to be boring. Shakespeare quickly developed writing tricks to fend off the fickle spectators, and keep their attentions riveted to the story instead.

It was all about rhythm for the English playwrights: rhythm that created a mood or feeling, like the beats of a beautiful balled. In the early 1900s, screenwriters – most of whom were weaned on stage plays – adopted these same rhythms in their early screen stories. In the crucial opening minutes of successful plays and movies, there were specific story beats the playwrights and screenwriters would consciously or subconsciously hit. I’ll give you a couple examples using Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hamlet:

Minute 1: At-tension

During Minute 1 of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his crew head deep into a dangerous jungle. During Minute 1 of Hamlet, Bernado wonders who lurks nearby in the dark. Whether it’s a drama, thriller, comedy, horror, sci-fi, rom-com or western, successful movies and plays start with tension. The best writers choose one of five ways to hook you with tension: Danger, Anxiety, Hostility, Unease, or Sex. Spielberg and Shakespeare chose Unease with a hint of Danger to start their stories.

Minute 2: The Build

Audience anticipation is built by “building upon” already existing tension. Professional writers know that opening a story with tension will grab the audience, but if they don’t escalate the tension, audiences will lose interest fast. A good way to prompt an escalating tension is by using the phrase, “Not only does.” Not only does Indiana Jones head deep into a dangerous jungle {Minute 1}, but now Indy finds a deadly arrow {Minute 2}. Not only does Bernado wonder who lurks in the dark {Minute 1 in Hamlet), but now Marcellus claims to have seen a dreaded apparition {Minute 2}.

Minute 3: The Ratchet

Next is what I call “The Ratchet.” My dad taught me how to use a ratchet wrench when I was a teenager. The ratchet was perfect for tightening bolts inside my old Chevy’s engine block. As the ratchet screwed the bolt closer to the metal plate, I could feel the tension escalate in my wrist. Great writers use this same ratchet principle during Minutes 3 and 4. A phrase to help you build the tension even more from the previous minute is: “Not only that, but now.” Not only that, but now “The Hovitos are near” as Satipo says in Raiders of the Lost Ark – “the poison is still fresh.” Not only that, but now a scary ghost enters the stage in Hamlet!

And on and on.

Hypothetically: If Shakespeare had lived in the 21st century, which of these two men do you think would have written the more compelling stories for the screen?

Shakespeare because, like I mentioned above, he was writing and acting in front of tough live audiences all the time, and he understood the story archetypes that unite all of us for all time. If he applied that today, he would hit the structure beats, but tell them in fresh ways that connect with modern day audiences. Get Spielberg to direct his stories and I think you’ve got a winner.

Any insider tips on what writers can do to improve their screenplays’ chances of getting past the studio gatekeepers (story readers)?

Realize that you’re competing with professional writers who’ve managed to find a way to carve out 3-4 hours a day to write. The more they’re writing, the better they’re getting. You must do the same to keep up. Every successful writer I’ve met sacrificed something to make that writing time happen. What will you have to sacrifice? Television shows? Sleep? A hobby? Whatever it is, make it happen.

Tell us about what you call “The Minute 5 Jaw Dropper”.

You’ve ratcheted the tension the first four minutes, but now you need a twist to keep the audience off guard. The masters make the audience’s jaw drop during minute 5. They do this by showing the characters doing something extraordinary or astonishing – something they’ve never seen before. It’s a subtle nuance that’s distinct from the previous four minutes. For example, in Hamlet Horatio says the ghost looks just like the dead King of Denmark – the dead father of his friend Hamlet! Truly a jaw-dropping experience for him. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, a jaw-dropping number of black poisonous spiders crawl onto Indy and his friend’s backs! Spielberg uses the Minute 5 Jaw Dropper again and again, like in Jaws when the shark yanks the naked female swimmer underneath the water and devours her – a jaw-dropping event in her life, to say the least.

Once you start applying formulaic devices to a craft such as screenwriting, isn’t there a danger of things becoming predictable?

Not for pro writers, who used formulas and structures over and over again since the early days of feature-length filmmaking. Amateur writers, however, are in danger because they use clichés within structure. Structure has been around since the Greeks, it’s set in stone and it’ll work as long as man keeps reproducing. Shakespeare, as mentioned above, used the same “archetypal formula’ as all the great writers and directors today. But they all work(ed) really hard not to be predictable when hitting archetypal moments.

You’re the co-founder of a story fix-it site. Tell us about it and how it works.

Industry friends and I would email each other the best story fix-it links that answered our story trouble spots. I decided to put all the best links on one website for all of us to use. I then expanded it all screenwriters out there. It’s called writerwrench.com

What’s next on your plate?

Producing a film I wrote and writing my next book.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for such great questions. Pleasure answering them!

 ***

Screenwriter and producer Todd Klick is the bestselling author of Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know and The Screenwriter’s Fairy Tale. His stories have earned him recognition with the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and the PAGE International screenwriting competitions. In addition to optioning 5 scripts, he recently sold a full-length screenplay and inked two deals to develop stories for the London and Broadway stages. Todd is a contributor to The Huffington Post and MovieMaker Magazine, and has also appeared on Dateline NBC and NPR. His books are available through Amazon.com.

The Woman in the Story

Throughout the pages of history, women have played important roles. The question is, though, what roles are they playing in the pages of your movie script? In my capacity as a professional consultant for stage and screen, I see no shortage of aspiring writers that continue to embrace time-worn clichés and stereotypes about female characters – the helpless victim, the clueless housewife, the tart with a heart, the spinster, the corporate bitch. Interestingly, it’s not just male authors that resort to the premise of Every Gal Is In Need of Rescue by a Big, Strong Guy. Nor does either gender always grasp the reality that not only do men and women speak in different voices but they also approach their dreams, fears and obstacles from completely different perspectives.

I was, thus, delighted to discover Helen Jacey’s The Woman in the Story, an outstanding resource for anyone looking to create compelling female characters that performers will want to play and that audiences will long remember.  Helen took time from her busy schedule across the pond as a screenwriter, author, story consultant and lecturer to chat about the book and her views on the female presence in modern cinema.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Let’s start out with some background about who you are, what you do, and why you love it.

I’ve been writing screenplays for ten years for many UK and European producers, which is both a job and a passion! Screenwriting – and more recently, fiction – is probably the most painful and the most enjoyable aspect of my working life. Creating a world, a character and a story, the original brain power behind what one hopes will be a great film, is incredibly challenging but never boring! I travel widely giving seminars on screenwriting, particularly my Writing the Heroine’s Story Seminar, being something of a self-professed expert on female characters. Meeting writers from all over the world, learning about their cultural experiences is constantly challenging and stimulating. I get enormous pleasure from supporting the creative process in others, from professional writers, to younger students who are beginning to think about their careers.

What were some of the books and films that influenced your early – or recent – outlook about life?

In my early teens, I was addicted to Hollywood musicals of the 40s – 42nd Street, Brigadoon, and classics such as Gone with the Wind and anything with Lana Turner in it, the Ellery Queen series – all of these had a massive impact on me. The glamour, the romanticism, the style of that era! On the other hand, Star Wars bored me! I must have been born in the wrong time.

It wasn’t until I got to university and I was introduced by a brilliant lecturer to feminist literary criticism that I had a big light bulb moment that women’s writing and films were different for a reason – we have different lives! I fell in love with the work of the women modernist poets – Gertrude Stein, HD, and Mina Loy. I began writing poetry as a stress-relieving hobby (which I still do to this day).  The work and life of Jean Rhys, particularly her novels written in the 30s and the work of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison also had profound effects on me as writers. In terms of film, Antonia’s Line, Three Colours trilogy, The Godfather trilogy – to name a few – were all great inspirations early on and made me want to become a screenwriter.

Now, I’m very eclectic and will watch the latest HBO series with as much passion as a dark and compelling film like the brilliant Iranian A Separation. I definitely get bored more easily these days, and live to be surprised by stories, so I think stories from different cultures give more diversity. In terms of my outlook on life, well let’s say I’m still working on it! Balancing work-life balance is challenging for me as I’m something of a workaholic. My son has grown up, I’m happily married to an amazing man, yet I also feel I am still very much on the journey to finding myself and balance the need to achieve with the need to accept where I’m at.  I’d love to find the right book/guru/role model that really makes sense to where I’m at in my life right now. Suggestions?! Having said that, I have an incredible ‘e-penfriend’ in the US who I have never met but I am sure is a guardian angel for all the emotional support she’s given me!

Was writing your first career choice?

Being a writer was my first ambition, but either lack of confidence, lack of encouragement or just not feeling I had anything of value to say led me on another path for about a decade. Let’s just say the Internal Censor was alive and kicking. When I hit thirty, I was managing aid programs in Eastern Europe, driving down mine infested country tracks in Kosovo, or dealing with endless bureaucracy in Romania trying to close down orphanages and help impoverished Roma women keep their children. All of this was incredibly rewarding but I was feeling a little burnout and empty and something of a guilty single mom. I also felt the Muse was finally usurping the Censor, and with more confidence and a fertile imagination I finally jumped off the cliff to follow the real dream and give up the high adrenalin aid work. I wrote about it, though. It was The Artists Way by the super-inspirational Julia Cameron that helped me on my way in those early days. I embarked on an MA in Screenwriting and never looked back. What did hit me was giving up a well paid senior management position to become a relative nobody was ‘interesting’ but I have never looked back.

What was the inspiration for your new book and how did you go about researching the content?

When I started out as a writer, the big names in screenwriting books – Story, The Writer’s Journey  – were all really inspirational to me. But there was a big But. I was struck how nobody talked gender difference in these books, or the world of screenwriting and film in general. I was also struck by the fact that representation of women characters was evolving almost yearly, reflecting our rapidly changing society and the changes in men and women’s lives. One inspiration was the buzz of being a pioneer – I couldn’t believe that nobody had seen the changes and seen the lack of information for screenwriters about thinking female! So it dawned on me that being a woman, with background in working with so many women from different cultures, and making the transition to being a writer myself, made me the ideal candidate to write the book. Research consisted of watching a lot of films, reading a lot of female psychology books, studying women’s films over the past several decades and talking to writers at my seminars and lectures – learning from their understanding of female characters was truly amazing.

In the screenwriting books, the big implication is that a character is a character, and principles governing story and characterization are universal. Which is true – but when they leave out ways of being which we traditionally relate to women (and what we call ‘feminine’) then half the ‘universal’ is missing. The human condition also includes loving, nurturing, intimacy, affiliation, bonding, being in the moment, thinking with two sets of eyes (when you are caring for a child), passivity, vulnerability, dependency, healing and joy. If drama is supposed to reflect the human condition, then it’s not just about action, conflict, and learning to put the destructive ego aside; i.e., the traditional hero’s journey.  A true hero’s journey involves the processes that are based on the bonds of love and connection. I did basically find the screenwriting books only half the universal story and limiting to both male and female characters.

However, I started off with thinking about women. I’m moving onto how we write men now!

Do you feel it’s easier for a female to write in a masculine “voice” than it is for a male to emulate a female perspective?

A truly conscious writer, of either sex, can create men and women characters with the same level of sensitivity and perception. However, we tend to write what we know, or we write what we want to identify with, or when we are working out our deep issues about our own sex and the opposite in our work. I know women writers who deeply identify with men, and they write in traditionally male genres, and have a problem with women. Father’s daughters, if you like. Aspects of traditional femininity repel them, and they explore ‘being a woman’ issues in their work. They don’t like the limiting roles of women, or they’ve had issues in their mother/daughter relationships, and their female characters seem to be projections of that difficulty.

On the other hand, some male writers deeply identify with women on an unconscious level, and are really in touch with aspects of female identity and ways in which women deal with these. They can create very female-authentic work, if that is what a ‘feminine voice’ is. The big issue is placing your work in a male-dominated industry where people in power might not have the same attitudes and values to gender representation. The stereotype can be alive and kicking in the development process and it’s a writer’s job not to be complicit with some really backward assumptions or conservative agendas. Complicating all this is – what does the audience want? Does it want to see familiarity and reinforcement of mainstream values? That is a tough call when you are trying to get your work made and make a living.

What are some of the inherent differences in crafting plots wherein the core conflict is experienced by a female character as opposed to a male?

I’m not sure I believe there are inherent differences, but rather conventional storytelling differences which are a choice of the writer or filmmaking team. Unless you are writing sci-fi creating a utopian world, or indeed writing The Killing or The Bridge, it is still a temptation to give plot time to your female character dealing with internal conflicts about her identity as a woman. These can be as far ranging as maternal guilt, competing with men, needing love and approval, or idealization of men or mother/daughter issues. This is what I term ‘gender baggage’. Male characters have more narrative territory to roam and take far less gender baggage with them in terms of identity.

By your own definition, what makes a female character “memorable?”

A female character that is her own person, follows her own path, has a big personality and plenty of positive and negative traits – and charisma of course. A character that isn’t limited by predictable genre conventions, isn’t a victim for long, and if she is, she finally realizes that she has to take some responsibility for it. Unless, of course, she’s living under a repressive regime in which any rebellion will end up killing her, literally or psychologically. But the memorable heroine will take a chance.

Examples: Sarah Lund from The Killing, Kalinda from The Good Wife (I really like Diane, too), Sarah Connor from Terminator, Dora from Central Station, Marge from Fargo, Julia from Hideous Kinky, Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You, Heylia from Weeds, Samantha from Sex and the City, Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada (and Emily, her assistant) and Mattie from True Grit.  All of these are women/girls who are hard to forget.

In Martha Lauzen’s recent study, “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind the Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2011,” she cites that women comprise only 18 percent of directors, executive producers, writers, editors and cinematographers. What do you feel accounts for this gender disparity and what can be done to put more women at the helm of major productions?

I’d really like to see a breakdown of the caring responsibilities of that 18 percent. This is probably not going to make me very popular, but I truly believe that until women are not expected to be, or choose to be, the ones who put career second after children, an industry like film is going to see these kinds of statistics. Directing takes you away from home for long periods, and long days. Writing requires enormous amount of focus. Producing is probably easier to juggle, with a supportive family. Are women prepared to pay the price? Can they find the right support from their partners? Do they have the money to pay for the right childcare? Alternatively, they have to put careers on hold until things are easier to balance – at which point of course it might be harder to break in. What I really think needs to be done at the level of society is more support for working parents, more quality and affordable childcare, making it more acceptable for men to choose to be the stay at home parent, and making it easier for women to stay on the career path. Boys need positive role models of men caring for young children so it’s seen as a valid choice for their future families.

You’ve worked in the UK film industry for 10 years. How do you feel it differs from the U.S. in terms of opportunities and support for new screenwriters and filmmakers?

We have a small film industry, so to make a living here, radio, TV and advertising are probably more sensible options for writers to follow. There is virtually no spec market here for scripts, so we culturally have a bias towards adaptations or other proven source materials. Unless you are going to produce it yourself, a spec script remains a calling card. What I like about the U.S. is the sense that the story seems to be paramount, and if it’s brilliant, then who the writer is isn’t such an issue. A successful first time writer breaking through here in film tends to be when the writer has penned something very low budget that found a big audience, or has taken the indie writer/director path.

There has been a growing trend in movies to depict females acting as badly/raunchily/arrogantly as males. Do you feel that this is advancing the cause of women or actually setting us back?

I can’t see how it could set us back, as it’s clearly trying to rebalance the perennial problem of the sexual double standard. Unless we disapprove of this behavior in men – and we don’t , we actively celebrate it – keeping women as the sex which is virtuous is not only a myth, it’s a form of social control (as in the last few millennia and evident in some parts of the world today. No thanks…). In The Hangover being raunchy is actually celebrated by a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality – in other words, we endorse and love this behavior in men on a cultural level. Jack in Sideways is a bad boy but we love him. Why the same antics in a girl or woman receive widespread disapproval really fascinates me. Are we still so scared of female sexuality and freedom? I find it strange and scary that the concept of the ‘slut’ is still so prevalent.

Personally, I enjoy watching the ‘bad’ girl and I’m relieved that finally the audience is getting onscreen representations of ‘bad’ behavior.  In Bridesmaids the women were completely tame compared to the guys in The Hangover, and the heroine was still saved by a man!  Where was the nightmare of a husband that one of the bridesmaids ditched after a one-night with a toy-boy? Where was the sex and drugs so lauded in The Hangover?  But at least the film tried to give women a comedy where female friends bonded to have some fun on their terms. There is, I sense, a deeply pervasive fear of being a slut or the ‘bad girl’ or the Bad Mom, in American culture, which inhibits women and unfortunately is a factor in the ongoing sexual double standard in films and TV. This isn’t as strong in the UK – we have other issues to do with the female victim cliché or silly idiotic female characters or stereotypes.

If you were invited to remake any classic film and change the male lead to a female, what would it be and who would you cast in it?</b?

Some Like It Hot. Imagine two women musicians – let’s say a jazz singer and the saxophonist from a girls’ band in the form of Penelope Cruz and Charlize Theron, both capable of immense comedy and charisma, like Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.

What are you working on now?

Creatively, I’m working with Emmy winning director Dearbhla Walsh on one of my original screenplays, a female led thriller.  I’ve been writing a contemporary Western set in Wyoming for an indie film company Duchy Parade. I’m also researching a new book for screenwriters, something – in this now oversaturated market –  that I really don’t think has been done before! And I have a novel – my first – on the slow back burner…

In conclusion, what’s your best advice to the next generation of screenwriters?

It’s a tough time so you have to stand out and keep the faith – both of which take hard work and positive energy! Develop a portfolio of different types of work – for web, for radio, for TV not just film. Platforms are changing and evolving. Remember your spec screenplay might be the thing that gets you noticed, an agent or a commission, not the thing that gets produced. Most importantly, enjoy the process, feed the well and don’t just be a screenwriter.

***

The Woman in the Story is available at Amazon.com as well as through http://www.mwp.com.