Your Screenplay Sucks

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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

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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).

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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

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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!

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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

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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.

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

How to Ride an Alligator and Not Get Eaten

One of my screenwriting clients recently expressed the concern that although he’s wildly enthusiastic about creating movies, he’s worried that his work will never be taken seriously because he wasn’t able to go to college and get a formal degree. As can be said of almost any field of endeavor, having a piece of parchment is no more a guarantee of overnight success than lacking one is automatically a fast-track to failure. What gets anyone from Point A to Point B – regardless of the real or perceived obstacles – is the passion, the discipline and the confidence to know that your dream is something you want to do more than anything in the world. To that end, I instructed him to run, not walk, to his nearest bookstore and buy a copy of Pen Densham’s new book, Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (and not getting eaten).

If there’s anything this iconic writer, director, producer, USC adjunct professor, and genuinely nice guy hasn’t done to bring his visions of cinema magic to the rest of us, we’d be hard-pressed to know what it is. A school dropout at age 15, Densham was sent by his father to an interview at an electric blanket factory that he might learn a useful trade to support himself. “Luckily, the owner saw through my feigned interest in thermal bedding,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “and told me he was doing me a favor by passing on me (and probably saving a few people from electrocution).” It’s this crackling wit that not only prevails throughout the chapters but also comes through in an insightful interview that attests to his generosity in helping new screenwriters find their way through sometimes treacherous waters.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: When did you first know that writing and producing movies was in your blood and something that you absolutely had to pursue?

A: As a small child, my folks made 35mm theatrical short films and used me riding a live alligator in one of them –

Q: Excuse me, but did you just say a live alligator?

A: Uh-huh. I tell people it was “my first job in show business” and came to be the title of my book.

Q: Okay, this begs an obvious question about what your mother and father must have been thinking to endanger a toddler.

A: My parents both worked in the British film industry, making short 35mm movies for the British theaters, documentaries on strange sports or, in this case, on people who owned weird pets.  The alligator was owned by a woman in Chelsea who kept crocodiles and alligators in her apartment.  I was filmed at the age of four riding one of these creatures, a seven-foot female alligator named “Peter”, strangely.  I jokingly say that my mother could not have been present that day!

Q: When and where did you get your first big break?

A: My partner John Watson and I ran an independent TV specials and short films company in Canada which won many awards including Oscar nominations.  But my real big break was when I wrote and directed my first drama called If Wishes Were Horses, which caused Norman Jewison and the Canadian government to fund him mentoring me in Hollywood.  This high-level introduction led to us carving a great career in the years that followed creating features and TV series. 

Q: Tell us about the first film you ever wrote or produced. Looking back on it, what do you know now that you didn’t know then and how might this knowledge have changed your approach to the project?

Having never written a drama script – and only working on documentaries when I created If Wishes Were Horses – I used the team that I was familiar with which was all my documentary crew, etc.  I was literally trying to invent how to shoot a drama, how to work with actors, how to edit drama…and I barely survived the experience.  I can assure you that there are reasons why the people in our industry have the jobs they have! 

Q: For you, what defines a film’s success – its box office return, its legacy or the appreciation of its audience?

A: At the end of “Riding the Alligator”, I have a small commentary called “Was it Worth It?”.  My belief is that the best material I write comes from the heart and these scripts get made more frequently.  I have found that my passion for them pushes me to take more risks and face more rejections etc.  But no matter what, you cannot please everybody and even my most treasured movies received one or two scathing reviews.  This is inevitable, but the real question is, did you make the best effort you could to translate your words to the screen, can you live with the result, and would you do it all over again?

Q: There’s no question that technology has improved the “look” of films but has an excess of CGI and special effects diminished the quality or strength of the stories themselves?

A: I think the new technologies are liberating the imagination.  A film like Inception would be unthinkable 10 years ago.  At the other end of the scale, it’s possible to shoot a feature-quality movie on a consumer Canon still camera, edit it for free, and possibly see it released theatrically.  No matter what – there will be no audience for either end of this cost spectrum if the stories themselves do not communicate with the human beings in their audience. 

Q: Where do you see today’s writers having the greatest creative freedom?

A: Ed Burns recently released a movie he made for $25,000 and is working on his next feature at this level.  Once you are able to find a business model that actually returns the cost of your production, you have true freedom to express yourself.  And as film vanishes and digital technology lowers the production costs, we are probably going to see some truly liberated and amazing creations.

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

A: In the way Norman Jewison helped me at the beginning, I feel it is important to follow his example and give back.  A few years ago one of my ex-staff made an effort to convince me to write a book and more recently I was asked to teach an MFA class at USC. I decided to share essays with my students on topics I could not find in other books and asked them literally to grade my work.  I assembled these chapters along with essays by 12 other major Hollywood writers into the kind of heart-felt, supportive, encouraging delivery that I would have wanted when I was starting out.

Q: What do you want readers to take away from its content?

A: The thesis of my book is that the most powerful thing you can do is write from an inner conviction and not try and guess what others want.  I have seen more scripts made of mine that I was impassioned to write – by far – than projects that the studios paid me to write.  It seems something special happens when you pursue your voice.  If my book helps others create movies that would have not existed then I will consider my efforts well worthwhile.

Q: Technology is shrinking the globe. Do you believe it is inversely expanding the opportunities for new screenwriters or making it even more competitive to break in?

A: The unique thing about screenplay writing – like painting and composing – is that these art forms are free to practice.  Unlike plumbing or being a doctor, there are no criteria that one must pass in order to be accepted.  As the world grows and changes as Joseph Campbell said “so do the myths that mankind needs”.  Those new, exciting myths will not come out of studios trying to clone the third remake of a comic book character – as entertaining as those might be – but as new technology frees the distribution up so that anyone can access it. Like YouTube, it will open a giant, human landscape for storytelling. 

Q: In recent years, a proliferation of indie studios has emerged. In your view, is the dog (major studios) still wagging the tail or is the tail now wagging the dog?

A: We are hopeful that there will be more independent distribution systems coming online soon.  At this present time the studios are still the key business channels and their distribution is eagerly sought by private financiers in order to justify their risk.  But this process is changing and within 5 years there could be a giant revolution, whether it’s iTunes, VOD, or screens the size of your wallet. 

Q: With so many filmmakers turning to 3D, what’s your prediction for where moviemaking will go next?

A:The concept of 3D needs some technical innovations to truly capture the market.  Wearing glasses that cut down the amount of light and interfere with your freedom of viewing is an inhibition to 3D.  I have seen demonstration models of televisions that require no glasses and technology is quite remarkable, and I believe we are highly likely to see that widely used on our computers and TVs in the near future.  The true use of 3D, however, is not to shove things into the audience’s faces but to create a deeper sense and involvement in the story.  When done with creativity and subtlety – and with no eye-strain –  3D will not seem anymore unusual than stereo sound or the move from black and white to color. 

Q: Given the volume of sequels, prequels, remakes and adaptations, do you think there’s a lack of fresh ideas in Hollywood?

A: It’s very hard for corporate employees to justify the vast expenditures of the very large tent-pole movies.  In the old days, film companies were owned by eccentric individuals who charismatically gambled on their gut about which stories to tell the audience.  With the bean-counters always looking for justification for expenditure, the need for pre-existing elements like books, graphic novels, TV series made into features and remakes of features becomes a way of justifying the investment.  But our discussions with the studios’ marketing analysis department is that the audience is always seeking the novel and the fresh as the most stimulating way to be entertained. 

Q: Which classic film would you most like to remake and who would you cast in the lead roles?

A: I actually had the privilege of making the movie that, as a child, truly excited me. It was Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, and I was lucky to work with my partner John Watson to make our revisionist version starring Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman,  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Morgan Freeman,  and see it succeed. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two of my current favorite projects are quite diametrically opposed – one is an Oscar caliber drama called Land of Enchantment about a cop with a tragedy in his past investigating the murder of a Navajo artist.  The other is a 1700’s steam-punk historical swashbuckler called Rogue, with all the fun and energy of Robin Hood. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Send money. 😉   And thank you for your interest in ‘Riding the Alligator’!

 

Dark Light

Hollywood routinely delivers no shortage of scary imagery – malevolent aliens, mutant monsters, brain chomping zombies. Of all the worst nightmares that can be unleashed in the imagination of a parent, however, is the heart-stopping fear that s/he might one day be unable to do anything for a beloved child with a life-threatening illness. For families such as these, there is perhaps no better godsend on the planet than a place like Ronald McDonald House.

From its Philadelphia origins in 1974, the collaborative efforts of RMH’s medical staff, social workers and volunteers have enabled this iconic charity to evolve into a multifaceted international platform that serves the needs of over 2,000 families per year. Passionate collaboration is also at the heart of Dark Light, a new anthology that not only made its debut this summer but will also be donating proceeds to ensure that the work of this organization can continue to deliver miracles.

Author/editor Carl Hose took time from his busy schedule to share some background on how this particular story collection came about and why RMH is a cause that’s close to his heart.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let’s start out with some background about you, your career path, and what your inspiration was to pursue the writing life.

I started writing when I was about thirteen. When I reached high school, I’d actually skip out of school not to run around, but to sit at home with my typewriter and create stories. A lot of what I wrote back then were my own stories based on a cop show character called Baretta. When I tired of that, I started writing original stuff, none of which was very good. I started submitting to magazines and basement press publications way before my work was ready for print, so there were plenty of rejections. I hung on to those rejections for inspiration. I figured rejection slips were a sign I was at least trying! The more I submitted, the more acceptances I got, and the more acceptances I got, the more my work was purchased and published. Eventually, the rejections became less than the acceptances. Writing is something that needs to be pursued with vigor if you want to succeed, and believe me, I have been vigorous!

Do you recall some of the books and authors that influenced your perspectives about the world and your place in it?

Some of my early writing was shaped by the Execution paperbacks by Don Pendleton and all the pulp Doc Savage books that Bantam published way back when I was a kid. I was also inspired by the TV police dramas like Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, Kojak—that sort of thing. Earlier, though, my dad and stepmom took me to see movies like The Exorcist, Last House on the Left, and the classic Don’t Look in the Basement. Seeing those on a big screen at the drive-in really had a huge impact on my writing. Mark Twain is always an inspiration, and as I got older, I discovered Stephen King, Graham Masterton, and Robert McCammon. Nowadays, with the explosion in indie publishing, I am discovering many writers who inspire me.

Tell us a little about your anthology and what inspired you to make it your priority project.

It all began when my wife and I had a baby girl named Ireland on January 27th. She was premature and had to spend time in NICU. The hospital was quite far from our house and we wanted to spend every minute with her. We were going to sleep in her room, but the hospital set us up with the Ronald McDonald House.

At the time I was marginally familiar with what they do, but had never really paid a lot of attention to the organization. It’s amazing! They gave us a place to stay that basically amounted to a pretty nice hotel room. They cooked three meals a day and we had access to the kitchen at all hours of the night. The organization is run primarily on volunteers. We were in there on Valentine’s Day and they even provided cards so none of the guests had to worry about it. It was all about making it convenient, leaving nothing for guests to do except concentrate on their children in the hospital. They do this around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year.

All my wife and I did was walk back and forth between the Ronald McDonald House and the hospital for three weeks, feeding our baby, holding her, giving her the love and attention we were sure she needed to develop and survive. One night as we were taking a breather in our room, I told my wife I wanted to find a way to repay RMH. I came up with the idea for the anthology. The title came pretty quickly. Dark Light signifies horror writers writing for a good cause. My wife Marcee loved the idea, so I literally contacted writers through Facebook and asked if they would participate. Almost none of the writers I contacted said no. Dark Markets jumped in and listed the call for submissions and I got a couple of stories that way, too. In total, there are 42 writers and 44 stories in the book. A couple of the writers contributed double. Nearly 600 pages and 168,130 words. That’s a lot of heart!

Not to mention a lot of work!

I wanted to keep it simple. I basically asked writers to submit a horror story, any length, any theme, new or reprinted. On my walks to and from the hospital, I would check my Facebook and feel so excited and touched each time one of these amazing authors responded that he or she would participate. I can literally remember where I was and what I was doing when I received messages from these authors saying they’d be happy to participate. I actually pitched this idea to the staff at RMH before I even left. I was afraid they might not like the idea of taking money from a book by a bunch of horror writers, but they thought the idea was a good one and were excited about the project.

I started contacting writers in early February. For a June release date, that’s an extremely fast time span to have pulled together this many authors, edit the stories, get contracts signed, bios gathered—they didn’t play around. They all responded quickly and did what they could do to help me move the project along. My wife did the cover, three of us read and edited the book, and the final touches are being put on right now.

Where will readers be able to get a copy?

The book will be available digitally at Amazon for Kindle, Barnes and Noble for the Nook, the Apple store for iPad, and also for the Sony Reader. It will be available in print at Amazon and in as many brick and mortar stores and online bookstores as I can get it in. I’ve got a pretty wide distribution set up in place. I’m publishing it through my MARLvision Publishing imprint.

Here’s what some of the writers had to say about contributing to the anthology:

“When Carl asked me to contribute a story for Dark Light, I felt that ‘When Shadows Come Back’ was a perfect fit for both the title and the idea.  It’s an honor to have my story reprinted in an anthology that is for a good cause, and also one that is close to the heart of the editor”—Nancy Kilpatrick (When Shadows Come Back)

* * *

“When someone you love has a serious medical condition, it can literally feel like the world is crumbling around you. It’s like this personal apocalypse where fear and uncertainty hold sway. But the Ronald McDonald House provides in the real world what the characters in my stories need so badly: a ray of hope in the face of adversity and safe harbor in trying times”—William Todd Rose (Hunters)

* * *

“I decided to get involved with Dark Light for two reasons. On a general level, I wanted to help the Ronald McDonald House. Growing up, my family was poor, the kind of poor where you’re wearing coats that don’t quite fit in the winter and each new school term comes with a new place to live, sometimes yours, sometimes a friend’s or a relative’s, and sometimes neither. Any organization that helps people who need it and especially one that helps families stay together is, I think, necessary and deserving of whatever any of us can give or do. On a more specific level, I wanted to help because one of my best friends stayed at a Ronald McDonald House as a young teen. Without them, she would have been separated from her family when she needed them most. This is my way of thanking her for all she’s done for me. Dark Light is a great anthology, and I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to contribute to such a deserving cause”—Chris Shearer (The Long Wait)

* * *

Ronald McDonald House provides much needed services to families of critically ill children, allowing them to be close in times of need. This organization has helped families all over the world and giving a story to help benefit them is the least I can do to help give back to this wonderful charity—Joseph Mulak (Cognitive)

* * *

“I was touched by Carl’s personal experience at the Ronald McDonald House, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance of having my work appear in the company of some of the best and brightest in the horror biz. And the darkest”—Randy Chandler (3:33 and Death Comes Calling)

* * *

“As a parent of a child with special needs, I understand the necessity of a support system such as the national network of Ronald McDonald houses. As a writer, submitting to Dark Light was a way for me to provide not only an entertaining story for an awesome anthology, but a heartfelt contribution to a charity that gives so much to families when they feel as if they have so little. In Dark Light, MARLvision Publishing pulls from the crème de la crème of the horror industry, joining together to shine light into the darkness of childhood illnesses through the donation of the anthology proceeds”—Angeline Hawkes (Shattered Mirrors and Smokeless Flames)

* * *

How do you think this book will resonate with readers?

Well, I certainly want readers to be entertained, and I believe they will. There are so many fans of each of these writers, and to have all of these fans mingling together and discovering other writers they might enjoy as well, that’s a really cool thing. What I’d like readers to take away from the reading experience, besides having been entertained, is that while the world may be a dark place, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. That sort of goes along with the title. I’d also like them to keep in mind the project was accomplished by the sheer generosity of people who didn’t need to get involved but did so because they cared to pause a moment and help me give back. And these are horror writers. We don’t always have the best reputations.

What’s next on your plate?

I’m working on my novel Evil Resurrection, a novel with William Todd Rose called Black Rain, and an as-yet-untitled novella with Walt Hicks. William Todd Rose and Walt Hicks have stories in the Dark Light anthology as well.

Anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about the book?

I’m just a writer who adores my family and appreciates what life brings me. Anyone who is interested can find me on Facebook, along with more info on Dark Light, or at http://www.carlhose.net.

The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals

So many festivals, so little time!

If you’re an aspiring indie filmmaker looking to shop your production ideas to industry movers and shakers, participation in a film festival may be just the ticket. The question is, though, how do you find them, which ones should you attend and what do you do once you get there? Co-authors Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis not only address these issues and more in their latest release, The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals, but also took the time to share their mutual passion for movies in the following feature interview.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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CH: Let’s start out with your respective backgrounds, when/how you decided you were attracted to a career in film, and how the two of you met.

MS: I’ve always wanted to work in entertainment and started out as an assistant in the Paramount Pictures Story Department and worked my up through the studio system. After Paramount I went to 20th Century Fox where I was promoted to a Story Editor and then Universal Pictures as an Executive Story Editor promoted to Vice President of Creative. While working at Universal, a mutual friend suggested Rona and I meet.  We ended up doing a guest speaking gig together for a screenwriting conference in Colorado that lead to us teaching and working together.  

RE: I started as an actor/singer – I can’t remember when I wasn’t acting or singing. I graduated from California Institute of the Arts with a degree in theatre.  After graduating, I did some acting gigs when a friend of mine asked if I would help do some location scouting for this Saturday children’s special – in actuality they had the locations, they just wanted me to get releases signed by the neighborhood. I had ulterior motives – thinking I would hang around the set and the producers would cast me. Instead, they liked what I had to say and asked me to come on board as a development exec at their company.  I told them I was an actor and they said, “You can still act!” Well those were the famous last words as everyone knows, a development exec has no life except reading scripts.  From there I wrote a script that was optioned and not produced before working for John Larroquette’s company at Warner Bros. We made a film together, One Special Victory.  When I left John, I wrote another script that was optioned and not produced before landing at Oscar winner Michael Phillips’ company where I straddled the fence developing both feature and television projects for him.  After that I say I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of independent producing and have produced 10 films mostly for TV while having countless others in development for both feature and television.

CH: Who were your mentors in the early years and what do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?

MS: I started as a “temporary” employee at various entertainment-related companies until I landed at Paramount Pictures where I met Lora Lee who ran the story department and she became a fantastic mentor.  When I moved to Universal Pictures, Cari-Esta Albert helped guide me along my career path. In retrospect, I would be less shy about meeting people and really stay connected to everyone I met. You never know where your friends will end up and hire you for a project.

RE:  I would say my mentor was Fern Field, the first development job I had was with her company, Brookfield Productions. I blame her! Haha! She is still my mentor today and is very well respected for her good taste, the fact that she’s a helluva producer and also very kind and considerate.  However, I think if there was one thing I didn’t know then and what I certainly know now is that it takes forever to get something made in this town!  As Laura Ziskin once said, “Movies aren’t made, they’re forced into existence.”  And to be a good producer, you can never take “no” as an answer – I always say, if something is good, it’s just “no” for now.

CH: What were your favorite movies before you started making movies yourselves?

MS: I am fond of classic films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca. However, I was a big fan of John Hughes films and romantic comedies.

RE:  So many!  I love Gone with the Wind – the big epic love story but I was also deeply affected (should I admit this) by Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz!  I think I wanted Julie Andrews to be MY nanny!  A Streetcar Named Desire, Susan Hayward films, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Julie Christie – I was very affected by strong women characters – I think I wanted to be Susan Hayward when I grew up – sexy, strong – what a great walk she had. I was also a big fan of the original, The Women, Wuthering Heights, and I love musicals and David Lean films like Doctor Zhivago  and Ryan’s Daughter. Almost any Billy Wilder film.  Of course there are the prerequisite classics, which I have a great appreciation for, so it’s hard to just nail down a few movies – I love all genres and love to be taken on a journey! 

CH: What’s the latest movie you’ve seen that made you say “Wow!”

MS: So far this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild.  From last year, Midnight in Paris, The Help and Hugo.

RE:  To be honest, not much has made me go “wow.” There were some good movies but none that have bowled me over much. I liked The Hunger Games very much as I did The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel so far.  Last year, The Artist was a big risk that paid off – beautifully done, unique and innovative considering it was a silent film.  And, I laughed like crazy at Bridesmaids. I think television is offering more “wow” moments lately than feature films.

CH: For Rona, what did being an actor teach you about being a producer?

RE: Everything!  I approach everything from the sensibility of an actor.  When I teach my students screenwriting, I always ask them who they think the writer has the most affinity with on the set, and inevitably they answer, “the director.” Wrong!  It’s the writer.  The writer approaches writing the material much like the actor approaches the material.  A scene is set up in which the character has an objective (a goal) and will do anything they can to achieve it.  So the writer and the actor will ask, what does my character want? What does he or she do to get it? And what’s in the way of getting it?  That’s the basic questions of conflict and drama – and both artists ask those same questions – therefore, in my humble opinion, the writer and the actor have the closest relationship. The director will bring the writer’s vision to life (and hopefully make the actor look good) but they are concerned with the camera and what the audience sees not just the minutiae of each scene and overall objectives of each character.  That’s not to say some directors will work as closely with the script as a writer or actor does but suffice it to say they may not approach it the same way. So when I look at a script as a producer, I look for characters who have strong objectives, have great obstacles in their way (a formidable villain or opponent) and make choices that may dig them deeper into the hole before they can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and become true heroes.  I look at characters that are flawed and have to overcome or use those flaws to help them get where they need to go.  Good writing is all about the character driving the action rather than the premise driving the character. And as an actor, you always approach it from character (again this doesn’t mean you don’t look at the overall picture but in order to create a fully developed character, you need to dig deep into the choices, the background and baggage of the character and use it throughout the story).

CH: For Monika, tell us about ESE Film Workshops Online and why the distance learning concept is appealing to aspiring filmmakers.

MS: ESE Film Workshops Online provide an opportunity for emerging and seasoned filmmakers and students to learn what they may not have been taught in college. Colleges teach nuts and bolts but don’t necessarily prepare students for the real world. We fill that gap by teaching about the Hollywood development process. Students learn how to write development notes and coverage and have a deeper understanding of why and how the players fit together in what is commonly called “development hell.”  That’s the basis of our first book, I Liked It, Didn’t Love It (Screenplay Development From the Inside Out).  We offer several courses “Screenplay Development from the Inside Out”; “Creating a Production Company” which highlights the necessary tools needed to kickstart a production company; “Finding & Developing New Ideas” helps writers develop stories, with different exercises for them to think outside the box and “Maneuvering Film Festivals” takes the filmmakers through a step-by-step process on how to prepare for the film festival circuit. In this day and age, we live in a global highly digital environment – distance learning offers everyone, worldwide, an opportunity to learn from wherever they are – they only need to “click, type, download and read.”  Plus our workshops are offered in 4-6 week increments making it affordable time-wise and our students get us as their mentors during that period, where they can ask us anything and we hand hold them through the process – we’ve had great success stories from our students applying what they’ve learned from ESE Film Workshops Online in the real world of filmmaking, film festivals and screenwriting. 

CH: What was the inspiration behind your new book?

MS: We’ve been teaching “Maneuvering Film Festivals” online for the past five years as well as providing film consultations for filmmakers on how to prep and target the right festivals for their films, so the natural progression was to write a textbook to help filmmakers understand that there are more festivals out there besides Cannes and Sundance.

RE: In addition, we felt it was important that filmmakers realized they may think the hard work is done when the film is in the can but such is not the case. The real work begins after it’s in the can.  You need a strategy, goals, and you need to understand it’s not just about the film you have in the festival, it’s about your future as a filmmaker.  You need to be part filmmaker, part marketing guru, part advertising director and promoter.  With both our books, we found there was a lack of understanding and in both cases felt that if only we had had these books when we were starting out, life would have been so much easier – and we’re now hearing that from the students and filmmakers who have bought the books and those that have taken our courses.  It’s very gratifying.

CH: As co-authors, what was your writing process for putting it all together?

MS: We would target what we wanted to say in each chapter and then write chapters and edit each other.  I’ve spent many years on the festival circuit attending film festivals and programming films so I would impart first-hand experience that we would work into the chapters.

RE: We outlined each chapter – in the case of this book, I was in Singapore most of the time –so we had to work via email and Skype. Basically there would be what I call a throw up draft – which we would then hone and hone till we were satisfied.  This book took a lot of research – and we kept having to research until the publishing date to make sure all the information was up-to-date and accurate.  We did interviews in person together with sales reps, distributors and filmmakers. Monika is a great researcher and very organized. I would oftentimes write the chapters, instilling a throughline; trying to bring in a conversational and sometimes a humorous voice to what could be “dry” material rather than just a laundry list of criteria.  Being a journalist helped in asking questions, the kind of questions we thought filmmakers would want to know the answers to, and ultimately, we would then go back and forth via email for each other’s comments.  Also, like our first book, we wanted a cartoon to start every chapter that would set a fun tone.  We were lucky to have Steve Tatham (who works at Disney) sketch out our ideas.  We had the quotations and subtitles already, told him the kind of cartoon we envisioned and he did a great job translating it into the graphics that are in the book.

CH: In terms of advantages and disadvantages, how does participation at a film festival compare to marketing a new film through non-festival venues?

MS: Advantages of Festival participation is the networking involved, exposure for the film and filmmaker and possibly catching the eye of an agent, manager, producer or talent who may want to collaborate on a project.

RE: Well an indie film won’t have the advantage over a studio film in non-festival venues without a festival to help create the buzz.  It’s harder and harder these days for indie films to get exhibitors to showcase their films, and distributors to sell their films.  Studios can afford a P&A budget, most indie films don’t have that – so a festival offers free publicity – and helps the distributors save advertising/marketing bucks if the film is lucky enough to get great reviews and buzz.  A new filmmaker can also capitalize on the buzz their film gets at a festival.  Sometimes they come out with representation as Monika stated above, but sometimes they can come out of it with a studio deal or money for their next indie film.  That’s why we can’t articulate this enough, and we state it over and over in the book, that the filmmaker has to take advantage of all the publicity opportunities a festival may have to offer.  The disadvantage however is that if the film isn’t well-received, well, it can kill it before it gets out of the starting gate.  You have to be a realist.  But hopefully the film is good and it will find its audience and accolades.

CH: How does a prospective participant decide which film festivals are going to be the right matches and provide the best or most exposure for their work and their talents?

MS: First they need to understand what their film has to offer – does it fall into a niche theme – LGBT, Native American, Environmental, Jewish, Asian, African American, Latino, mountain activities, etc. There are many festivals that screen a specific theme or a sidebar theme that a film might be right for. If they have a short film, then they would want to target the Academy Qualifying Film Festivals first because if they win that festival, they will be in the pool of potential Oscar nominees and that will help elevate the filmmaker and their work. The list is updated yearly and can be found at oscars.org or in our book. There are five top film festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto), but 4,000+ festivals worldwide.

RE:  But it’s not just the top tier festivals – filmmakers should look at smaller festivals and who is behind that festival – who attends it?  You can check this out easily enough on their respective websites.  You want to make sure there’s an “industry” presence. Who are the jurors?  Who are on the panels (most festivals have an educational component with workshops and panels)? Will your work be seen by people who can make a difference in your career, in your film?  So, sometimes the smaller festivals can be more intimate but still have a strong industry presence – don’t discount those.  All you need is one person who sees your work, wants to represent you, or buy it!   Again, it comes down to your strategy and your goals.  Sometimes you may just want to go to a festival because it’s what we call a “destination” festival – you just want to go to that place so you use the acceptance into that festival as an excuse to visit someplace you haven’t been before. 

CH: Where does one find out where film festivals are being held?

MS: The back of our book has an intensive listing of film festivals by region and country. Also, if you go to our website www.maneuveringfilmfestivals.com you can request an updated listing of film festivals.

RE: Yes we plan to keep the list updated via our website as a freebie for anyone who wants it – it changes all the time.  Pretty much every big city has a few film festivals (some more genre specific), and more and more are cropping up every day.  But we offer a list of a thousand plus film festivals with their websites which should give filmmakers a good start!

CH: What does it typically cost to attend a festival?

MS: We have a great expense estimate form in our book that helps filmmakers break down the cost to attend a film festival.  A three day trip to Sundance Film Festival could cost the filmmaker close to $2,000 with entry fees, lodging, transportation, additional tickets, food, drinks, advertising, etc. A day trip could cost the price of gasoline, cost for drinks or snacks.

RE:  Most filmmakers make the mistake of not including film festivals/promotion in their budgets – big mistake.  As Monika stated a 3 day Sundance trip is upwards of $2,000.  So you have to be smart how you strategize, which festivals you will attend, which you will just show your film at without your presence, and also include the promotion of that film (posters, postcards, giveaways, etc).  It can really add up.  Six festivals could cost 10 grand depending on where and what you plan to do at them (as well as who you bring with you).

CH: What does the first-time visitor to a film festival need to know in order to best prepare himself/herself for the experience?

MS: Evaluate the website fully so you get an idea of the box office location, schedule of films, panels, seminars, location of where events are taking place and local lodging and restaurants. Some festivals have an app that is useful. If you are spending the night, secure your accommodations in advance. Once you arrive, pick up a film program then hit the theaters. For filmmakers with films in the festival, you will want to locate the filmmaker lounge or filmmaker hospitality suite so you can display any posters or postcards.

RE: It’s a good idea to also try and contact the local press and send them an EPK (electronic press kit) – we help you with that in the book as well as in our online course.  Try and get interviews with the local newspapers, radio and television stations a week before the festival to help promote the film.  It helps to come up earlier than your screening so you can scope out the best places to promote the film and yourself, know where things are and make sure everything runs smoothly.

CH: Economics and accessibility have made it easier than ever before to break into filmmaking. Given the amount of competition this has created, however, is it actually harder than it was, say 20 years ago?

MS: We feel it is easier today since for less than $5,000 a filmmaker can have a digital camera, editing software, etc. and make a film. However, because of this, the quality of films can be challenging to watch and festivals receive lesser quality films.

RE:  If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage!  Yes it’s easier and cheaper to make films for the younger gorilla filmmaker – but you still have to be grounded in structure and have a solid understanding of how to make a film (film schools are more prevalent now then, say, 20 years ago – so hopefully there is a solid ground for this kind of education). You still have to know how to tell a story.  There will always be good films and there will always be bad films.  Though no one starts out to make a turkey.  The competition for an audience is more difficult and costly, and the same old people are making films for the studios because they are taking less chances with new people – as they want you to prove yourself first.  This opens the door for indie film but in the end it all comes down to a good story and characters you want to root for.  There is no magic bullet.  It takes a lot of hard work.  It’s always been a difficult business – however, conversely, because the equipment is easily attainable, it gives way for the real talent and cream to rise to the top.  I think it’s an advantage to cultivate talent and I am always in awe of my students’ films made on inexpensive cameras and edited in Final Cut or Avid.  They surprise me with the quality and their storytelling abilities. It’s very rewarding to see.  That doesn’t mean I don’t’ see bad films too but the majority are darn good and having less expensive equipment gives them the opportunity to experiment and try things they might not have been able to do if it cost a lot more money to do so or if someone else (i.e., a studio) was footing the bill.

CH: If a high school student came to you and said, “I don’t want to go to college because I only want to make movies,” what would your advice be?

MS: Go to college and get your degree!  You can make short films while in college and submit them to festivals. The films are a calling cards, so it is great to be able to meet industry professionals at festivals and by the time you leave college you will have networking skills and have a better understanding of how films are acquired. If your film career doesn’t take off, at least you have your degree to seek out other employment.

RE:  I would go one step further – go to graduate school, too.  Just in case!  Do it while you’re young.  Also, you get to use your college or university’s facilities. I remember my last year at CalArts, I walked the halls realizing I would no longer have these rooms to rehearse in, or film in, and it would always cost me after that – there’s a support in college – plus so many of your cohorts will end up climbing the ladder of success with you.  That’s where real relationships are forged – lasting ones.  Production Designers, Editors, DPs, meet Directors and Producers who they continue to work with long after school. You don’t realize when you’re in school all the relationships and equipment that are at your fingertips let alone the support from your fellow students (who work on your films) and faculty (who help advise and guide you) – most times you work without that kind of a net.

CH: What’s something that most people would be surprised to know about you?

MS: I am first generation American and there is no other Monika Skerbelis in the United States and possibly beyond. I love to travel and have backpacked throughout Europe, hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, went horseback riding in Patagonia, biked the Canadian Rockies Icefieds Parkway from Banff to Jasper and drove my car by myself from Los Angeles to Alaska up the Alcan Highway. I also enjoy visiting lighthouses and the serenity they evoke.

RE:  I have a great singing voice (even if I say so myself – haha). Most people in the industry when they come hear me sing usually say, “I know you said you sang…but I didn’t know you <u>sang</u>!” I play a few instruments – self taught, have done musicals to great reviews and love photography. I’m also a great cook! My colleagues here in Singapore love coming to my place for a meal – they say I view food like I do art – with a strong aesthetic in both taste and visual.  There’s probably a lot that would surprise people to know about me – that’s probably a good thing – I even surprise myself sometimes!

CH: What’s next on your plate?

MS:  ESE Film Workshops will be gearing up for more classes to teach online and we have other books in the works in the near future. At the moment, I’m finalizing the films for the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival where I’ve been programming films for 13 years, then I’ll be gearing up programming films for the American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival for my 5th year. I also have a short documentary and a script I’m developing.

RE: I’ve got a few movies that are slowly making it to the launch pad in both feature and television plus I’m looking to produce movies as co-productions in the Southeast Asia/Australian regions.  I’ve been developing a few ideas of my own along with a fictional novel.  It’s just finding time to write with everything else going on.  There’s always so much to keep me busy and make life interesting.  In actuality, I’d just love to find time to read a book for pleasure!

CH: Anything else you’d like to share?

MS: We will be doing a book signing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on January 10, 2013 and a lecture for the Scriptwriters Network in Los Angeles on June 15, 2013.  We are also working on getting more book signings in the near future.

RE: We had a book launch at Kinokinuya Bookstore in Singapore in April, followed by signings at Book Soup and Bookstar Barnes & Noble in the states.  We always give a short presentation and Q&A at these events which gives our audience something more than just buying the book.  We’re also looking to lecture at film festivals and filmmaking/screenwriting events worldwide.  It combines our love of travel and film!  Plus we love giving back, sharing our knowledge as well as helping and nurturing filmmakers and screenwriters – so it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Hi, Readers!

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a voracious reader. I memorized the route of the neighborhood bookmobile, I always checked out the maximum number of titles at the school library, and I suspect that if a Beast had given me access to a ginormous collection of books in his castle, I’d have had no reason to ever leave. My allowance was regularly spent on the latest Nancy Drew mysteries (which I read with zeal and via penlight under the covers long after it was past my bedtime). Even as an adult, I probably have enough books to open a lovely bookstore, although I’m sure I’d develop a modicum of angst about parting with some of my favorites and sending them out the door with a total stranger.

In the 30+ years of my own career as a professional writer, I’ve always been intrigued by what inspires my fellow authors, who their mentors were, how they organize their work day, what they’re passionate about, and what they’re currently reading. Thus was born the idea of launching “You Read It Here First” – a gathering place for those who love to write and those who love to read.

If you’re an author who’d like to chat about your latest title as well as share insider tips for those who are just beginning their own journeys in fiction (any genre), nonfiction, playwriting, or screenwriting, drop me an email (authorhamlett@cs.com) and let’s get the conversation started.