A Conversation with Rodney Vance

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Author and film producer/director Rodney Vance connects with readers and film viewers at the heart. He taps into those places that touch us deeply and weaves stories that resonate with our core values. Rodney has worked hard to build a career that includes being a head writer on two multi-award winning television series, Lifestyle Magazine and The Evidence, a screen and playwright, children’s book author, and has produced more than thirty stage plays and events. Rodney’s list of impressive accomplishments doesn’t end there though. He’s also the Writer/Director of Singular Entertainment, a film production company based out of Riverside, California, and the Chair of the Department of Film and Television at La Sierra University in California. What a pleasure it’s been getting to know this talented man and his remarkable work. Welcome Rodney.

Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure

******

Q         Although not currently in print, I have to ask you what it was about De’Monte Love’s story that lead you to write the book?

A         I wanted to do something to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The original idea was to create a small, cheaply printed paperback that could be placed on grocery store counters. People who made a donation could have a copy of the book. When a friend of mine pointed out the story of De’Monte Love in the LA Times it was just the perfect story. I tried to find him and couldn’t. I ended up hiring a detective to find his family so I could call them and get permission to tell his story. My neighbour at the time, Martino Dorce, agreed to do the pictures. He’s one of the top Haitian artists and he did an amazing job.

VanceThen we started looking for someone to publish our little book and distribute it to the grocery stores and wherever else people might see it. Visikid Books picked it up and they had the idea to do a beautiful hard copy edition of the book as part of their series ‘Heroes All Around’. They would donate a specific amount of money for each book sold. It seemed like this might give a longer ‘shelf life’ as it were to De’Monte’s wonderful story and raise more money for specific charities actively involved in Katrina-related work. So that’s what we decided to do.

Q         What is the message you hoped to convey with this story?

A         De’Monte Love is the real name of a boy who was six years old at the time of Hurricane Katrina. De’Monte and six younger kids and their parents had to wait on the roof of their apartment building after the storm because the streets were flooded. A helicopter came and took the kids and promised to come back for the parents but in the confusion they didn’t come back and the kids were on their own until, ultimately, the authorities managed to connect the kids to their parents, who had been transported to Houston by then. Can you imagine the anguish of those parents? De’Monte kept the little band together until they were rescued. Already at that young age he understood the need to take care of those less capable than himself. Even though he was only six years old he did what he could to Love the other kids. And by doing what he could, he did enough.

Q         In many of your works I note an underlying theme of human connectivity, our responsibilities to each other, and this planet we call home. Has this been a pre-planned vision for your work thus far, and if so, why?

A         I can’t honestly say that my work is as thought through as the word pre-planned implies. However, whenever I sit down to write I always take the time to really think through why ‘I’ want to write this particular story. How do I connect to it? When I know the answer I write it down on a piece of paper and put it in a drawer. Later, when I’m really stuck or feel like I’ve lost my way somehow with the story, I pull out that piece of paper and read what I wrote. Usually I discover that the writing problem I’m having is really just a problem of getting off track somehow and losing my own connection to the story. The human connectivity and connection to our planet results from the personal connection, rather than from a deliberate attempt to connect more broadly.

Q         Clearly, entertainment is in your blood. What excites, draws, and holds you to this eclectic, creative pursuit?

A         I wrote my first play when I was in third grade. I published my first story in a national magazine when I was in seventh grade. I won my first national playwriting competition when I was a Junior in High School. Storytelling has always been the primary way I deal with the vexing issues of the reality I perceive. It’s a socially acceptable way to explore all the light and darkness in my own psyche in a manner that is more than casual. Let’s make that simpler. Stories make us human. Not only are they a way for us to define ourselves, but they define all of the communities around us. We are part of a family because of the stories of how mom and dad met or what we did when we were little or that time we swallowed a nickel. These stories bind us together as a family even more than blood. Ask any child adopted at a young age. It’s not fundamentally blood that makes you family, its stories. The same is true for our town or city. Los Angeles is the City of Angels, the City of Dreams, and some of those Angels are dark and some of those Dreams are Nightmares. We are Hollywood and Aerospace and Watts and Pasadena and a concrete River also called Los Angeles. New York has different stories and is a different place. Every place has its own stories. It amazes me sometimes when people show a little or no interest in the stories of their own home town. Our nation is also built on stories: the Civil War, George Washington, a City on a Hill, Vietnam… And our religions too, it’s all stories. Stories tell us who we are. Stories make us human. What possible work could there be that’s more interesting than being a Storyteller?

Q         What would you say has been the most difficult lesson of life for you to learn, and why?

A         Life is short. Only so many stories can be told. I need to focus on telling the stories that I tell instead of taking time to tell stories that other people want told. Although Storytellers must make money – and should be well paid considering the value of their service to their society – the core reason to tell a story is the connection I spoke of earlier. Money can’t be the primary reason to tell a story.

Q         Who has been your greatest mentor in life or business, and why?

A         So many mentors have been supportive at crucial times. My parents were there first. I had a High School English teacher named Miss French who introduced me to the world of plays by taking me to see The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. In college I studied theology under brilliant minds of professors like Fritz Guy and Richard Rice who taught me how to think. Davey Marlin Jones, a theatre critic for the CBS affiliate in Washington DC, introduced me more fully than anyone to the craft of storytelling. He taught me the language and gave me a voice. Sometimes the necessary mentor appears as an obstacle and a source of pain. They can teach you a lot.

Q         When writing, do you maintain a daily writing schedule? If so, what does that look like for you?

A         I have repeatedly tried to maintain a daily writing schedule because I believe in the concept. I’ve never been able to make it work. The thing that must be done ‘right now’ always intrudes. For me the trick is not the specific schedule but the commitment to write or create. Like eating or connecting to another person, you may not always do it at the same time every day. But you don’t live long unless you do it regularly.

Q         In addition to being a children’s book author, you are also a screenwriter and playwright, the President and Director/Writer for Singular Entertainment Production Company, and a Professor at La Sierra University’s Film and Television Department. How do you manage to find a balance in life, or do you?

A         Every day of life is a gift. You can let that gift dominate you or you can receive it and choose what you will do and what you won’t do. Watching sunrises and sunsets are important. The daily display the universe puts on is truly astonishing and all you have to do is look up and watch it. They are reminders that we are not important because of what we do. We can scurry around all the time and, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Yes, we have to earn money for food and shelter. Yes, we need human companionship. These are necessary things. But it’s easy to spend a lot of time doing things that we think are important, but really aren’t. Is what I’m doing at this moment in time more important than watching the sunset?

Q         You’ve achieved and touched on so many exciting, interesting things in your life so far. What haven’t you done that you’d like to?

A         I want to do what probably most everybody wants to do. I want to travel the world with someone I love and meet interesting people, write stories, and direct films that other people want to watch. I also want to lie in a hammock beneath a palm tree on the beach and doze the day away.

Q         What advice would you give to those just starting out in the world of writing and/or entertainment?

A         If you don’t like it, it’s not good.

Q         When you write, do you work from a complete outline, or do you allow creativity to take the wheel and lead you where it may?

A         Both.

Q         As we approach the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina that devastated so much of the southern United States in August 2005, what lessons, if any, do you think the world took away from that experience, and why?

A         I don’t think we learned anything at all.

Q         What’s next for you, Rodney?

A         ‘The Butterfly, The Harp and The Timepiece’, a ten-minute film starring Academy Award winner Melissa Leo, gets its World Premiere on Opening Night at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival on September 3rd. I’m very excited about this little film that intertwines three stories around a magic shop where, no matter who you are, you get what you need (like the Rolling Stones song says!). The writer envisioned a film with very little dialogue – but that didn’t feel like a silent film. We have less than a hundred words spoken in the film, but we do use a brilliant new song composed specifically for the film by Grammy winner Alex Geringas and Australian Pop Star Toby Rand. The song becomes more than a platform for the emotions. It becomes a narrative device, an essential component to the telling of the story. Pictures, words, and music – like Opera! ‘Napa Valley Dreams’, a giant screen film that includes the final on-camera interview and keyboard performance of Ray Manzarek of The Doors, looks like it will find a long-term home as a destination film at The Empress Theatre in downtown Vallejo, the Gateway to the Napa Valley, on or around April 1. I’ve signed on to direct a new short film about Erwin Cossentine, a college president who fights very hard to keep his Japanese-American students out of the concentration camps during World War II. It also looks like I’m going to get to direct a feature I wrote the screenplay for about a Conscientious Objector who served as a Medic in Vietnam until the local North Vietnamese Colonel killed the love of his life and he decided to train as a sniper instead. Now there’s a story with complications!

Acuity Press has expressed an interest in publishing my children’s book ‘Pale Male and Wendy’, the story of a six-year-old girl whose great love for long words is exceeded only by her love for Pale Male and Lola, the red-tailed hawks of Central Park. It will come out in Fall 2016. In addition, I’ve just finished a new children’s book, a folktale about the origins of Jazz called ‘Jazz Boy’. I also love my job teaching film and television production at La Sierra University, but right now it’s time to step outside and watch the sun set.

You can find more information and connect with Rodney here:

Twitter: @RodVance

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Singular-Entertainment/506571409479086

Web:  www.SingularEntertainment.com

Advertisements

Shakespeare for Screenwriters

IMG_0001

I’ve been a fan of William Shakespeare ever since freshman high school English class and, coincidentally, our study of Hamlet. That this prolific playwright could not only stitch together so seamlessly a multitude of complex characters – and swiftly move them about in a minimalist set – but also explore timeless themes that would still resonate hundreds of years later was astonishing to me. Had he lived and worked in this century instead of his own, The Bard might have dabbled in screenwriting, a whimsical “what if” I encouraged students to explore in my writing and drama workshops back in the 70s. Shortly thereafter, these speculations gave way to new conversations with actors in my theater company (coincidentally named The Hamlett Players), a touring troupe that echoed Will’s own creative approach to “less is more.”

It was, therefore, exciting to recently meet a kindred spirit in J.M. Evenson whose new release, Shakespeare for Screenwriters, will continue to fuel the discussions about enduring plots and archetypes as well as that longstanding debate of whether he really, truly authored all those plays and sonnets himself.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Let’s start with some brief background on who you are and what you do.

A: I am both a writer and a scholar. I received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from UCLA’s famed School of Theater, Film and Television. I’ve been a writer in LA for the last 5 years. As a screenwriter, I’ve worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. In addition, I’ve kept up my scholarly work by teaching Shakespeare, composition, and film part-time at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. This book is, in fact, a perfect meeting of both my most passionate interests.

Q: How and when did you have the epiphany that a playwright who lived so long ago could impart creative wisdom to aspiring screenwriters in the 21st century?

A: I remember it clearly. One day, after finishing up with my teaching at Pepperdine, I was trying to come up with ideas for a new story. I thought to myself: if only I could write like Shakespeare! And it dawned on me: if I spent some time analyzing his works to see how he did it, or what they might call “reverse engineering” his writing, perhaps I could learn a thing or two. The idea for this book was born that day — I knew I could not be the only person who could learn a thing or two from the greatest writer who ever lived!

Q: Controversy continues to simmer among scholars regarding the true authorship of The Bard’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets.  What’s your own position on the debate?

A: I believe the debate is motivated by class politics. Edward de Vere, the man most often identified as the secret writer of Shakespeare, was a cultured aristocrat. Shakespeare was, by contrast, relatively low-born. In fact, the class difference is a main part of the argument: how could such a low-born person possess such unrivalled genius? In their minds, genius is the purview of those with money. This is an argument I simply do not buy.

Q: In your book you make the point that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of all time. What do you believe is the secret to Will’s sustainability and modern-day popularity?

A: I think Shakespeare’s unique creative genius transcends barriers of language, culture, time, and place. He never goes for the small story. Love, family, power, war — these are the issues Shakespeare addresses. His plays touch a nerve because they are raw, human, and utterly timeless.

Q: What’s your favorite Shakespearean play?

A: I love them all, but my personal favorite is “Hamlet.” I wish I could explain why this is in terms that made sense. I can’t. It just grips me tight and holds me from the first words until the end. It’s love!

Q: What is your favorite Shakespearean speech or catch-phrase?

A: I think probably the famed “to be, or not to be” speech from “Hamlet.” I’ve read the speech a thousand times — maybe more — but I find something new every time.

Q: Numerous film adaptations have been made of Shakespeare’s work. Which one resonates the most with you?

A: I actually love many of the adaptations. Some of them are excellent all around, such as Branagh’s “Much Ado,” which literally made me fall out of my chair laughing in the theatre; some are landmark films, such as Olivier’s “Hamlet”; some are of sentimental value, such as the Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which was the first Shakespeare play I’d ever seen; some are of special interest, such as the ultra dark version of “Macbeth” directed by Polanski right after his pregnant wife’s murder by Manson. Each one offers new insight on these amazing stories.

Q: Which do you think lend themselves better to screen adaptation – Shakespeare’s comedies or tragedies?

A: There have been dozens of remarkable adaptations of both his comedies and tragedies. I think directors like Joss Whedon, with his fabulous recent version of “Much Ado,” prove that Shakespeare’s comedies are as timely today as they were 500 years ago. Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” shows that Shakespeare’s tragedies are powerful no matter which language they are filmed in. The history plays are also marvelous — Branagh’s “Henry V” is absolutely riveting, one of my top favorites. No matter what the genre, Shakespeare’s plays continue to speak to each new generation. It’s truly amazing.

Q: Give us an example of a modern movie that demonstrates the writing principles you see in The Bard’s scripts?

A: Let’s take an example from the most famous of all Shakespeare’s heroes: Hamlet. Far from a typical hero, Hamlet is actually best known for questions and doubt. He is a psychologically complex character — smart, introspective, angry, despondent, euphoric, and possibly insane. The key to building psychological complexity into your heroes is giving them an inner conflict. Watching a hero struggle with inner conflict generates sympathy and creates psychological depth that audiences recognize as uniquely human.

For Hamlet, the struggle begins in the very first pages. He is visited by the Ghost of his father, who tells him that he was murdered by Claudius, the reigning king. His father’s Ghost demands that Hamlet kill Claudius in revenge.

If Hamlet were a typical avenger, he would go do it. But Hamlet is a thinker. In a moment of pure anguish, Hamlet asks his famous question: “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” In this passage, we discover the true nature of Hamlet’s dilemma. Why do bad things happen to us? Is it better to die than to suffer? What happens to us after death? These are real questions — ones that humanity has struggled with since the dawn of time. The directive from the Ghost thrusts Hamlet into a moral quandary, and from that moment on, Hamlet is ripped apart by an agonizing internal conflict. Should he, or shouldn’t he, kill Claudius?

Audiences love watching characters be torn apart by inner conflict. Take Jim Stark (James Dean) in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955), for instance. We watch Jim battle both his inner demons and the treacherous world around him. As he tries to cope with Buzz and his gang of bullies, Jim looks to his father for help. Over and over again, Jim asks his father: “What can you do when you have to be a man?” The question becomes central in the most famous scene, when Buzz forces Jim to play a game of chicken. Jim knows it’s a dangerous game, but if he doesn’t play, how can he be a man? When Buzz’s jacket gets caught on the door handle, accidentally dragging him over the cliff to an explosive death, Jim goes into an emotional tailspin. His anguished guilt erupts when he screams out the celebrated lines: “You’re tearing me apart.”

Many screenwriting manuals will tell you to find a single motivation and make sure your hero stays on point. But what we learn from Shakespeare is that sometimes it’s better to not to limit your characters to one motivation. Let your characters struggle with their inner conflicts. Let them have flaws, and let them overcome. Above all, let them be human.

Q: How does Shakespeare’s five-act structure correlate to what we’ve been hit over the head with in three-act structure?

A: Here’s an interesting but little-known fact: there’s no such thing as a five-act structure for Shakespeare. The five-act structure is purely a construction of modern editing practices. If you look at the original works printed in the Renaissance, you will see that there aren’t divisions into acts or scenes.

I do think there is something to be said about Shakespeare and structure, however. Shakespeare wasn’t beholden to formulas. Some of his plays obeyed the set-up, rising action, falling action model; some do not. “Othello,” for instance, rises in action to (what we call) Act 3, Scene 3, when Iago convinces him that Desdemona is cheating on him. This is the turning point of the play — not unlike, say, the turning point in “The Godfather,” when Michael embraces his family (and The Family) and kills Sollozzo. Other plays, like “King Lear,” are structured like an avalanche: the play begins at a high point, with Lear happily dividing his empire, but then immediately begins an inexorable march into shocking tragedy. It ends with Learn naked and insane, holding his beloved dead child, with his empire ruined and everything lost, before he dies. It’s an unusual structure now, and it was unusual in Shakespeare’s time. But Shakespeare was a maverick — he was then, and will always be, unique.

Q: If you could take any of his plays that have never been adapted to the medium of film, which one would it be, how would you define the new context in order to appeal to mainstream audiences, and who’s your dream cast for it?

A: Amazingly, there are no plays from Shakespeare that haven’t been committed to film. Some of the less well-known plays have not gotten the big release treatment from Hollywood, but all of them have been filmed at some point. The BBC has been diligent!

Q: What’s the most important thing modern writers can learn from Will?

A: I think a lot of writers these days are worried about making their ideas fit into standardized formulas. They give up on their voice and everything that makes them unique in the hopes of making it.

I’d just remind them that Shakespeare was a maverick. Instead of adhering to formulas, Shakespeare made every single play exactly what it needed to be without worrying about whether or not it broke the rules. What Shakespeare ultimately teaches us is to do whatever it takes to make your story right. If you need to, break the rules of today — just as Shakespeare broke the rules of the sixteenth century.

Q: Shakespearean plays were typically light on the number of female roles in the cast (primarily, of course, because those roles were played by males). In your view, which of his works could best be adapted to a film – regardless of setting or circa – in which the cast was comprised of a majority of females?

A: I don’t necessarily believe that his works are light on female roles — or at least no more so than Hollywood today. In almost every play, there is a strong female character. In “Macbeth,” it’s Lady Macbeth; in “Lear,” it’s Cordelia; in “Antony and Cleopatra,” it’s Cleopatra. The list goes on. In some of the plays, the female characters steal the show, as is certainly the case with Lady Macbeth. Almost all of Shakespeare’s major female characters are fascinating in their own right, regardless of whether or not they are or were played by men or women!

Q: Let’s say, hypothetically, you could sit down for lunch with the world’s most prolific playwright. Where would you go and what three questions would you most like to have answers to before that meal is over?

A: This is a difficult question. I am not sure what I’d ask him. Probably the first question would be if he’d read my screenplay! (I’m kidding. Sort of.)

My first inclination is to say that I would ask him detailed questions that have been bothering us for 500 years: Why does Hamlet delay? Why does Iago do it? What drives Macbeth? But the truth is that I like the fact that we don’t have solid answers to these questions. I like the fact that there are ambiguities in the way these characters were written. Every time I read Hamlet or Lear or Othello, I see something new. The characters seem to change and grow as I change and grow as a person. It’s like the Mona Lisa: if we could change her smile, would we? She’d lose part of her charm.

Q: What’s your best advice to new writers who dream of making it big in Hollywood?

A: I had a wonderful teacher at UCLA, Professor Howard Suber, who told me that the most important determining factor in how well a writer will do in Hollywood is not their talent or their networking skills; it’s how they handle despair. It sounds depressing at first, but the hard truth is that you will encounter setbacks in this town. Everyone does! You just have to learn how to handle it. The most important skill you can have in Hollywood is persistence — never, never, never give up!

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have several projects in the hopper. First, I’m gearing up to teach an online class through ScreenwritingU on specific lessons that writers can learn from Shakespeare. Second, I’m finishing up a children’s book that I just wrote. Third, I’m almost done with the proposal for my next book on writing, about which I am very excited — stay tuned for that one!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I just want to say how delighted I am to be doing this interview here with you! Many thanks!

 

 

 

 

Writing the Science Fiction Film

IMG
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA! IT CAME FROM THE PRIMEVAL WORLD! IT CAME FROM THE LABORATORY OF A MAD SCIENTIST!

Whatever its origins, there’s nothing quite like a good Sci-Fi flick to get us wondering, “Could this really happen?” In his new book, Writing the Science Fiction Film, Robert Grant not only dissects what makes this genre so popular with audiences of all ages but also provides aspiring screenwriters with the tools, insights and allegorical viewpoints they need to create their own plots that are out-of-this-world.

In addition to his accomplished background as a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic and script consultant, Grant is Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON and serves on the jury for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, the UK’s most prestigious award. If you’re going to be warding off alien invasions, disabling evil robots, battling mutant crab monsters or tweaking around with time-travel, this is the go-to guy you’re going to want in your corner.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Were you a fan of science fiction flicks when you were growing up? If so, what are some of the movies that have stuck with you to this day?

A: Absolutely, I watched lots of Sci-Fi, some early favourites being Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Time Machine, Day of the Triffids, Sleeper, Dark Star, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run… I could go on forever! And it wasn’t just films because, of course, there was lots of Sci-Fi on TV – Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, Space 1999, Thunderbirds, Star Trek and even The Jetsons!

I do think that I started to take it more seriously as I reached my mid-teens. Films like Fahrenheit 451, It Happened Here and A Clockwork Orange started to resonate more as I understood the subtext and what the stories were actually trying to tell me.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the influence that the Cold War had on Sci-Fi movies during the 1950s; specifically, using aliens from other planets as a metaphor for Communist invasion.

A: Well the influence of the Cold War on science fiction is undeniably huge. It was the time when the military-industrial complex came of age. Rockets and rocket power became more and more important on the battlefield and at the same time the proliferation of nuclear weapons brought the possibility of horrors like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to everyone’s doorstep along with the dangers of exposure to nuclear fallout. Science fiction used all kinds of horrors from shape-shifting aliens to giant ants to represent foreign invaders taking over the US and destroying everything that Americans hold dear and audiences were happy to take it all in.

Q: Flash forward to the 21st century. Who’s the enemy that the themes of current Sci-Fi films want to keep us paranoid about?

A: I think right now we are our own worst enemy. If you look at the current crop of science fiction films there’s a huge tendency to depict apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, usually triggered by our own wanton hubris. Films like Children of Men, Splice, Contagion, 28 Days Later, The Road, I Am Legend and so on explore what happens when technological advance goes on unchecked and unmonitored, and how much of a knife edge we’re on when it comes to the difference between success and disaster.

Q: Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres in which plots unfold in alternative universes/realms and with characters that possess non-mortal looks/abilities. What elements and distinctions should a writer consider in deciding which category his plot best fits?

A: Well science fiction and fantasy are two entirely different and separate genres and the clue is in the name. A good science fiction story will rely on the ‘science’ part of that moniker in order to work, and the closer to present day your Sci-Fi is set, the more your science has to make sense. Ultimately if the science isn’t coherent, cohesive, and at the very least feasible then your story will very quickly fall apart. Very crudely – and there are exceptions to the rule on both sides – fantasy doesn’t need an explanation for why something is the way it is or how something happens, it’s just ‘magic’, but science fiction demands explanation.

Q: What do you feel Sci-Fi offers to both writers and audiences that other genres do not?

A: Science fiction is known as “the genre of ideas” and that really does sum it up. Sci-Fi lets us examine big issues and pose difficult questions, putting a spotlight on them and saying “Look at this! Look what’s going on!” in order to get people to start talking about it, but importantly, it can do this without pointing fingers directly at any individual or group.

Think about what currently keeps people up at night. Global warming? Environmental damage? Terrorist threat? Erosion of civil liberties? CCTV and the lack of privacy? Rampant corporatisation? The poverty gap? GM crops? More than any other genre, science fiction deals directly with these kinds of changes and the effects they have on society. It flips us out of our own cosy existence and forces us to think about society in different ways, showing us that the usual way of doing things might not be the only way, that there may be a better way, but – and it’s a very important but – science fiction rarely gives us the answers or preaches any kind of solution, it just gets the conversation started. Solutions are up to all of us to work out.

In the end it comes down to this; if you want to write about the nature of humanity and its relationship to the world around it, you pretty much have to write science fiction.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that beginning Sci-Fi writers make (and how can they fix them)?

A: Unlike any other, science fiction is both a genre and a setting and unlike other genres it comes in all shapes and sizes. Romantic Comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, dramas are dramatic and thrillers are thrilling. But science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. For example:

Star Man (1984) is a romance and a science fiction film
Alien (1979) is a horror movie and a science fiction film
ET (1982) is a family movie and a science fiction film
The Terminator (1984) is an action movie and a science fiction film
Never Let Me Go (2010) is a drama and a science fiction film
Logan’s Run (1976) is a thriller and a science fiction film
Sleeper (1973) is a comedy and a science fiction film

You can see the dilemma straight away. What exactly are you writing? Are you writing a western set in space (Firefly) or a noir detective story set in the far future (Blade Runner) and, as you might suspect, the truth actually lies somewhere between the two.

All genres have their particular story beats, a romantic comedy has to have the “cute meet”, action movies have their “hamlet moment”, thrillers generally have a compressed time frame and those things must be observed. When figuring out your story, you will save yourself a whole lot of time and trouble if you figure out your primary genre and then write to the beats of that genre to start with. If you’re writing a science fiction revenge thriller then I would suggest that you actually plot a decent revenge thriller first and then as you re-write – and assuming the science is crucial to the story – build up the science fiction elements slowly, revealing your world through action and character rather than trying to build a Sci-Fi world and shoehorning a revenge thriller plot into it. You’ll be rewarded with a far better screenplay if you do it that way, believe me.

Q: Give us some examples of Sci-Fi movies that embrace similar themes but are totally different from each other.

A: Good question! The easiest examples of this are how we typically represent ‘the alien’ in Sci-Fi and the two polar opposite approaches here. One way is the simple alien people, living their lives in peace and of no threat to anyone until we show up – usually to colonise their lands and exploit their resources – in films like Avatar (2009), Planet 51 (2009) or Terra (2007). The flip side of that are the films where we are attacked or invaded by aliens that are bent on wiping out humankind, which we see in everything from The Blob (1958) to Independence Day (1996) to Mars Attacks (1996). The themes are the same in both versions, the taking away of liberty and of freedom, loss of identity, the destruction of a way of life in pursuit of advancement, the loss of control to a dominant power, the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. These kinds of films rose to prominence during the paranoia of the Cold War but they crop up time again, regardless of whether we are being invaded or doing the invading, with the same warnings. They point to suspect foreign policies, global corporatisation, erosion of civil liberties and just basic greed whether the method is stealthy and insidious (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or brash and uncaring (War of the Worlds).

Q: There’s no question that technology (and especially 3D) has given Sci-Fi movies a completely different look and sense of realism that didn’t exist decades ago. Has all of this high-tech eye-candy, though, come at the expense of weaker stories, poor dialogue, and characters that aren’t fully developed?

A: That’s a complex question and a difficult one to answer, in some ways yes and in some ways no. Around the world a lot of smart, challenging well-written, engaging, science fiction films come out every year but don’t make it to the local multiplex and that’s where festivals like SCI-FI-LONDON do a lot to showcase Sci-Fi you won’t see anywhere else on the big screen. In a number of cases the money to make those smaller films has come from studio funds raised on the success of some blockbuster hit – the one paying for the other – and so we need those big films to help prop-up the industry at all levels. A director of photography, gaffer or post house will often look more favourably at working for basic fees on small projects coming off the back of a big project that was a success.

I think people forget that this is the film ‘business’ – with ‘business’ being the operative word. Box office earnings are up – mostly due to the escalating cost of seeing a film, especially one in 3D – but audience numbers aren’t growing as much so the big studios have to find different ways to maximise the revenue streams they can get from a property in order to make the most profit they can. This is why adaptations these days come from everywhere, not just novels but toys, comic books, video games and even theme park rides, because any way of leveraging profit from a film has to be explored. The downside of this is that if the decision makers don’t understand the audience properly, their ‘films for teenage boys’ get dumbed-down by sacrificing character, plot, dialogue and so on in favour of pretty girls and explosions, films that are expensive to make but are filled with eye-candy. Great if they’re a hit, very costly if they are not. But it doesn’t have to be that way, love him or loathe him Christopher Nolan has shown that if you treat the property with respect and credit the audience with some intelligence then science fiction films can be well written, complex, nuanced and challenging while still being filled with eye-candy and turning a big profit.

Q: A common cliché in movies of this genre is that as soon as the supreme bad guy is killed off, his minions always scatter. A wounded – or even dead – good guy, however, has loyal followers who will continue to fight. Is it that evil minions aren’t all that vested in the cause/outcome or that they just can’t function without a leader?

A: I’m not sure that it’s a common cliché of Sci-Fi movies or just a common cliché of movies in general, you could equally be talking about a James Bond film or Lord of the Rings. The practicality of writing is that minions don’t get any more screen time than they need and films are generally about the good guy vs. the bad guy so they stop once that story has been told. There are probably exceptions to the rule but….

Q: How much do you have to know about science, math and physics to write a plausible Sci-Fi plot?

A: In reality, nothing, but if you want your film to stand up to scrutiny then it at least has to be plausible and that’s where research comes in. Start online and Google the relevant science that relates to your story, then find a scientist and ask them if they’ll answer questions for you. Use Twitter or Facebook to track them down – they’re out there, they’re usually nice as pie and love to chat about their work. The trick for the writer is to figure out how much of the science the audience needs to know or understand for the story to work. If the answer is ‘absolutely nothing’ then great, don’t get bogged down in it, but if the story depends on the science to work – which is true for a lot of things that centre around contagion, genetics, environmental change, space flight and so on, things close to home – then you owe it to your audience to make sure you understand the basic mechanics and get it right. The mantra though is “only as much as is necessary”, you don’t want to be boring, but it’s worth pointing out that quite often you’ll find that the research conveniently helps with plotting, turning up things you might not otherwise have thought about.

Q: Aren’t Sci-Fi movies awfully expensive to make these days? What if someone is passionate about making an indie Sci-Fi film but has a really small budget?

A: Go ahead and make it! The world has changed and it’s never been easier or cheaper to get the technology at your fingertips to make any film, not just a science fiction film. But the best Sci-Fi is not always the big budget extravaganza. Primer famously cost just $7000 to make but other notable low-budget Sci-Fi films include Mad Max, Cypher, Pi and more recently, Moon, Attack the Block and Monsters. If you have a great story and a great script, then good costumes, interesting locations and great acting will take you a long way before you have to think about special effects, and these days there are a plethora of crowd-funding/crowd-sourcing sites to showcase your project and get help or raise extra funds. Be brave, be bold and go for it.

Q: In a Sci-Fi tableau, which villain would you personally rather do battle with – a mortal without any conscience or a computer that is sentient?

A: I think that a mortal villain would be easier and more predictable. We are creatures of habit and if your villain has no conscience they can always be relied on to do the wrong thing. This makes them emotional, vulnerable to manipulation and thus defeat. Additionally physical strength and mental agility would play a part and I would take my chances on both counts. An AI on the other hand would not be susceptible to tricks or manipulation and physical strength doesn’t apply. An AI would only ever examine the data and take the most advantageous course of action regardless, making it almost impossible to beat in terms of mental agility. All in all I think I’d rather take on the mortal.

Q: How do you find ideas for out-of-this-world Sci-Fi plots? Hasn’t everything already been done?

A: We will never be all done with telling stories! Whatever idea you can think of can always be told in more than one way with more than one outcome. As most writers will tell you, ideas are all around us; you just have to start looking for them and you’ll be amazed at how often you’re turning them away rather than struggling to find them. I use news channels online or RSS feeds to track the types of stories that I’m interested in and then file them away with a clipping tool to re-use later. I also read a lot, watch documentaries and find new people to chat with – all of these are fuel for story ideas. Once I have my basic ideas I use several of the techniques that I outline in the book to flesh those out into outlines and eventually complete stories. I’m never short of ideas!

Q: In your view, would it be harder for a Sci-Fi time-traveler to go back in time or to go forward?

A: I think forward. Projecting yourself back in time means you are placing yourself into a physical space that did exist so you know the size, shape, conditions etc. and your biggest issue would be not displacing any of that and changing anything. Going forward in time means trying to predict the shape, size, condition and location of the physical space and hoping you get it right. Like trying to fire a bullet at a moving target while blindfolded and with no idea what direction the target is, how far away it is or how big.

Q: What’s the best Sci-Fi film you’ve ever seen?

A: Couldn’t possibly say, I like so many. There are perennial favourites, films I’ll watch whenever they’re on but even then it depends on my mood and whether or not I want action, adventure and derring-do or quiet, introspective contemplation. I’m probably far more likely to reach for something new to watch though than go back to something I’ve seen.

Q: And the absolute worst?

A: There are many, many candidates, and I’m not that cruel…

Q: What films do you recommend aspiring Sci-Fi filmmakers watch in order to understand the craft?

A: I would start by watching the AFI’s top 50 science-fiction films, first to see what you’re up against and to learn the themes and tropes that crop up time and again. But I’d also watch the top films of the type you want to write be it thriller, action, drama, comedy, romance etc. because as I said before, if you start by writing a terrific thriller and then work on the SF aspects, you’ll get a better thriller than if you build a Sci-Fi world and then try to shoehorn a thriller into it.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have two feature scripts I’m working on currently and I’m just about to start on a very exciting web series with a Director/Producer team here in the UK.

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

A: I’m a big fan of cake.

Alfred Hitchcock’s MovieMaking Master Class

Hitchcock

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock may have left the building over 30 years ago but author Tony Lee Moral puts the legendary director/producer’s expertise at every reader’s fingertips in his new book, Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class. Moral’s admiration for his subject matter is no secret; this is, after all, the third book he has penned about the iconic Master of Suspense.

The amount of detailed research he has done is well evidenced and covers a career that spanned an enviable six decades. (Even though the book doesn’t come with a soundtrack, I’ve been unable to shake the TV show’s theme music out of my head ever since I finished reading it; during the late 50’s, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was one of the few shows I was allowed to stay up late and watch.)

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

******

Q: When did the writing bug first bite you?

A: From a very early age, I’ve been writing ever since I started reading. I loved adventure stories as a child, particularly the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, such as The Three Investigators, and the Willard Price books. As a teenager, I wrote many short stories, and by the age of 16, had written my first novel (unpublished). Since then, I’ve written three non-fiction books and four novels. 

Q: How about the desire to become a producer/director?

A: Along with my interest in writing, I’ve always been interested in film, and first discovered Alfred Hitchcock at the age of 10 when I saw I Confess. I loved the moral dilemma faced by Montgomery Clift in the lead role and even at that age could recognize Hitchcock’s craftsmanship in storytelling. At college, I really immersed myself in Hitchcock’s Films. My first job after college was working for the BBC where I spent many years working myself up to being a Producer/Director. I’ve now been working in television for half my life and all my professional life.

Q: In addition to Hitchcock (obviously), who were some of the filmmakers that you would say had the most influence on the development of your own vision and style?

A: I would say Ingmar Bergman, Anthony Minghella, Yasujuri Ozu and Quentin Tarantino have been inspirational to me after Hitchcock. Some of my favourite films are Persona, The English Patient, Tokyo Story and Pulp Fiction.

Q: Inquiring minds want to know: What inspired you to write not just one but three books about Alfred Hitchcock?

A: Hitchcock’s films span the history of cinema, so for me, Hitchcock is cinema. After I wrote my first book on the making of Marnie, it seemed natural to follow it up with a book on the making of The Birds for the 50th anniversary this year. The Masterclass book came as an idea from MWP to encompass all of Hitchcock’s films and it’s very timely because the last year really has been the year of Hitchcock with all the biopics and Vertigo being voted number 1.

Q: What do you feel distinguishes Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class from other books on the market that have been written about him?

A: It’s like a manual or text book on how to make a movie in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, using his principles of suspense, mystery, counterpoint, contrast and putting the audience through it. It’s not a biography – though you learn a lot about Hitchcock the director along the way – and it’s not an academic book – but I think it’s insightful because it’s told through the voice of Hitchcock and his many collaborators, with some great anecdotes.

Q: What was your favorite chapter to write?

A: Interviewing the actors who worked with Hitchcock for Chapter 4, as I was able to interview screen legendaries such as Kim Novak, Doris Day, Eva Marie Saint and Norman Lloyd. All wonderful and gracious human beings.

Q: Conversely, what was the most challenging section for you to pen?

A: I would say the first two chapters because it’s essential to hook and engage the reader so they want to keep on reading. I spent more time and effort on the opening chapters and rewrote them continually.

Q: Who were your favorite people to interview in the course of doing research?

A: I went to interview Norman Lloyd twice at his home in LA. He’s 98 years old, but very sharp and quick witted with an amazing memory. He truly is a classic and classy gentleman and as well as being an actor in Saboteur and Spellbound, he was a producer on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series for 10 years.

Q: Hollywood has a propensity for cranking out prequels, sequels and remakes of successful films, and Hitchcock’s impressive body of work is no exception, In your opinion, what were the best and worst remakes of his most popular films? Which one has yet to be remade and who would comprise the dream cast to make it a success?

A: The worst remake was Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, because it’s foolhardy to replicate a classic even in the form of a homage, and the original cast is irreplaceable. I don’t think there is a best remake, but I’ll say Rear Window because of Christopher Reeves’ bravery to continue in film after his accident. I’d remake Strangers on a Train with Zachary Quinto and Henry Cavill in the lead roles.

Q: You’ve indicated that your appreciation of Hitchcock’s talent deepens every time you watch one of his films. What’s the latest thing you’ve discovered?

A: I recently interviewed the Assistant Director on Torn Curtain, one of Hitchcock’s lesser movies, who said that Hitchcock took great care to get realism in the reflection in the ship’s dining room window. I’ve never noticed that before which shows that even when working under less than full steam, Hitchcock paid attention to the smallest details.

Q: What’s your favorite Hitchcock movie?

A: I would say the definitive Hitchcock movie is North by Northwest because it has everything that you expect from his films, wit, polish, humour, panache, the wrongfully accused man, and Cary Grant’s star charisma and athleticism. My personal favourites are Vertigo and Marnie because of the psychology of the characters and what those films meant to Hitchcock.

Q: What’s your take on the way he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins?

A: I enjoyed Hitchcock the movie, I thought it was a humorous and affectionate portrayal and I didn’t feel that the movie was mean spirited. Obviously there were dramatic licenses taken by the film, and Hitchcock is an enormously complicated character to define, but Hopkins brought sympathy and comedy to the role.

Q: If you could sit down for lunch with the late Master of Suspense, what question would you most like to ask him that could not have be answered by anyone who ever knew him?

A: I’m curious to why he was never able to repeat the success after Psycho. It seems that with that film’s monstrous success with the public and also financially, Hitchcock reached his creative peak and I’d like to know why he wasn’t able to top that.

Q: What’s your best advice to the next generation of screenwriters and filmmakers?

A: Know what the studios are looking for, watch a lot of films, develop your own voice, listen to people, work on distinctive dialogue. Nurture relationships as well as your talent. The best stories are out there and it’s all about finding them.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: My fourth (and probably final) Hitchcock book on his reputation and how he is perceived over 30 years since his death. This is going to be very interesting and revealing and I’ve already gathered many interviews from people who haven’t spoken out before.

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

A: My steps to a Hitchcock education are watch The 39 Steps, Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

 ***

Tony Lee Moral is a writer and award winning documentary film maker who has written three books on Alfred Hitchcock: Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie. He has produced and directed over a 100 hours of television for major broadcasters in the US and the UK, including behind the scenes documentaries on films and television.

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).

 

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).

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.