Fixing Those Broken Scripts: A Conversation With Screenplay Mechanic Andrew Hilton


By Sean Tuohy

One of the most difficult parts of writing is sharing your work with someone. Screenwriter Andrew Hilton has made a career of reading other people’s scripts while also creating his own. A former story editor and screenplay reader, Hilton runs The Screenplay Mechanic, a fantastic service where he provides his clients with great feedback to better their screenplays. I’ve consulted with Andrew twice and his feedback is always pitch perfect.

In between writing his own screenplays and saving someone else’s, Andrew sat down to talk to me about how he got into the business.

Sean Tuohy: How did you get into screenwriting?

Andrew Hilton: I attended film school in the U.K. and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. I have a photography background so my goal was always to become a camera operator and work my way up to cinematographer, but my first studio gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. From there out, my path kept me in the development world and one of the execs I worked for encouraged me to start writing myself. My first script landed me an agent, almost sold for big bucks in the late ‘90s, and I was hooked. 

In the meantime, I began working in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (“Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.). After six months with Joel, I jumped to Paramount to become a story editor for Mario Kassar (“First Blood,” “Terminator,” etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills. Throughout this time, I was writing on the side and every script I wrote was optioned. I was getting just enough success (and came close to huge success) to keep that carrot dangling in front of me.   

ST: Which screenwriters did you admire?

AH: When I was starting out, like many other action writers, I was inspired primarily by Shane Black.  Today, some of my favorite writers include Martin McDonagh, Scott Rosenberg, Charlie Kaufman, and, of course, the greats like Aaron Sorkin. He can write a dialogue exchange as exciting as any car chase and I’m in awe of that ability.

ST: What are the most common mistakes you see in first time screenwriters?

AH: Overwriting is a common pitfall. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use 20 words to describe something when 10 will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words. 

A poorly kept secret in Hollywood is that few execs and producers like to actually read. That’s work for them. So when they sit down to read a script, they crave a fast-paced, page-turning experience. If the first few pages of a spec are dense and verbose, they’ll skim-read or toss the script and move onto the next one.

Another common mistake is failing to create a character we can become emotionally invested in. We don’t always have to like the protagonist, but it’s essential they evoke our interest. If we feel nothing but apathy for the characters, that screenplay is DOA.

ST: What makes a stand out spec script?

AH: A spec’s potential really comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box-office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced. 

Obviously, a script that offers something I’ve never seen or read before is going to stand out, e.g. look at something like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” However, that level of originality isn’t essential. One of my favorite films of 2017 was “Logan,” yet I would hardly say it reinvented the conceptual wheel. I also loved “Wind River,” but that script worked because of the execution and character work, not because the murder-mystery setup was mind-blowingly fresh and inventive. 

ST: What are agents/managers looking for in a script and in a screenwriter?

AH: This may sound cynical but that’s an easy question. Reps want a script they can sell, and a client who will crank out promising material consistently and have a long career ahead of them. Most reps live for the deals more than the end product. Hell, some agents don’t even read the scripts they send out but I bet they read the checks that come in.         

ST: How has market changed since you started?

AH: Globalization, flat-screen televisions, and Streaming or Subscription Video on demand have changed the market completely. 

The domestic box office used to be king. Now, the international box office is worth two to three times domestic, so America is really just another distribution territory to be sold off. Consequently, producers and financiers want projects that will work worldwide, not only in America. So, for instance, no more baseball movies and rom-coms because they won’t translate well in, say, China or Germany. It’s for this reason action and horror are perennial favorites.  

Theatrical is dying because most folks have a 42”+ widescreen TV at home now, so the appeal of the multiplex has declined. Add to that the sheer glut of original product now available at home thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. I wish those entities would support more theatrical releases of their projects or else I fear the cinema will go the way of the dinosaurs. Big spectacle projects, i.e. all those comic book pictures and IP tent-poles, are currently keeping the domestic theatrical market on life-support. But we’re in a weird evolutionary stage that is tough to predict. My only hope is that we can still go see original features on the big screen in 10-20 years.

ST: As a screenwriter, what is your writing process like? Do you outline or write a vomit draft?

AH: I write in my head for months, and then transfer that story onto the page. I once read about a famous screenwriter, it might have been Billy Wilder, who was caught sleeping in their office. Their boss angrily asked, “Why aren’t you writing? You’re supposed to be writing!” The screenwriter replied, “I was writing. And later I’ll type it on paper.” (If I butchered that quote and anyone has the accurate anecdote, please get in touch.)

That said, sometimes I’ll simply sit down with a glass of wine, a legal pad and a pen, then see where that takes me. 

ST: What is new projects do you have in the future?

AH: I have a sci-fi thriller and another action picture I’m writing. Right now, however, I’m focused on my project “The Guns Of Christmas Past.” I’m a producer on the project too, we’re fully financed, we have a director, and we’re currently making offers to lead actors.      

ST: What is one random fact about yourself?

AH: I’m a pathological chocoholic and won’t hesitate to steal it from children. 

To learn more about Andrew Hilton, visit his official website or like his Facebook page.

L.A. Devotee and Author David Kukoff Examines 1970s Los Angeles in New Anthology

David Kukoff (Photo credit: Natalie Crane)

David Kukoff (Photo credit: Natalie Crane)

By Lindsey Wojcik

When Hassel Velasco launched his essay series "To Live And Write in L.A." on Writer’s Bone earlier this year, he was inspired because he thought, “documenting the craziness of [the] city and its inhabitants might make for a good read.” Turns out, Velasco wasn’t the only writer that thought scribing about life Los Angeles would captivate an audience.

Author and screenwriter David Kukoff—a lifelong Angeleno—had a similar thought after completing his first novel Children of the Canyon, a story about a boy growing up during the Laurel Canyon counterculture in the 1970s. A brainstorming session with Kukoff’s publisher birthed the idea for a collection of essays that examine life in Los Angeles during the ’70s, a formative decade in the city’s history.

Los Angeles in the 1970s, edited by Kukoff and out in stores Nov. 15, offers an insider’s glimpse into a time when Hollywood was being revolutionized, the music business was booming, and authors like Joan Didion wrote novels about the realities of living in the land of eternal sunshine. The collection of 29 essays features pieces from literary figures in Los Angeles, including Dana Johnson, Deanne Stillman, and Lynell George, to poets, including Luis Rodriguez, Susan Hayden, and Jim Natal. Journalists, award-winning film and television luminaries, academics, art scenesters, musicians, and other Los Angeles insiders also contributed to the anthology. 

Kukoff recently talked to me about what life was like growing up in La La Land, what he aimed to achieve with the collection, and how he rallied a diverse group of writers to contribute to Los Angeles in the 1970s.

Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?

David Kukoff: It’s often said with writing that “you don’t choose it, it chooses you.” I remember being young and compulsively writing stories. Somehow, the endings would come to me before I was finished, and I’d set up the narrative pieces along the way so they’d pay off in the end. Somehow, the process of writing and everything about it just always felt right to me.

LW: You've worked in film, television, and have published a novel. How is your writing process different for each medium? 

DK: At this point, not much. When I wrote Children of the Canyon, I used a lot of television structure to help me. I envisioned the book as a limited series, and each of the chapters as episodes, which was immensely helpful. I do believe that every writer should learn some of the principles of film and television writing, as it’s immensely helpful where economy and structure are concerned.

LW: What was the drive behind creating the Los Angeles in the 1970s anthology? What were you looking for with it? 

DK: My publisher, Tyson Cornell, and I were discussing a companion piece for Children of the Canyon, and he told me that their anthologies tended to do well. We were talking about the time period in which Children took place—namely the singer/songwriter haven of Laurel Canyon of the ’70s—and I mentioned that, to the best of my knowledge, no one had done a collection of essays about this time period in the city’s history.   

I think what I was looking to do was explore the last period in the city’s history when it still felt like the Wild West. When Los Angeles still felt like a wide-open frontier, before it became as world-class a metropolis as it is today, which most Angelenos trace back to the Olympics. And I think the essays in this collection reflect that.

LW: What was your experience in Los Angeles like during the 1970s?

DK: I was actually pretty young; I turned 14 years old in 1980. My experience wasn’t all that different from the experiences a lot of my peers had elsewhere: I rode my bike around, we took the bus to the beach, we went to the movies or friends’ homes, and generally made our own adventures throughout the city. The thing was, that kind of freedom simply doesn’t seem to be experienced by kids that young in Los Angeles today. And that’s a shame.

LW: How do you think the decade shaped Los Angeles into what it is today? 

DK: One of the things I loved exploring in Children of the Canyon was the idea that the 1970s were something of a “bridge” decade, in which the country went from the “We’re all in this together” ethos of the ’60s to the “I’m getting mine” of the Reagan ’80s. Somewhere in that time span, something palpably changed. And Los Angeles seemed to be very much at the forefront of all that, supplying everything from counterculture icons to even the key politician: Ronald Reagan.

LW: The anthology features writers with expansive backgrounds including musicians, journalists, and television writers and producers. How did you assemble the group of writers for Los Angeles in the 1970s?

DK: I was fortunate enough to be friends with a lot of great writers, and I started putting the word out. Fortunately, Los Angeles, in addition to being chock-full of amazing writers, is also home to one of the most inclusive literary communities on earth. Once word got around, I started hearing from people who had wonderful stories to tell. There were a few subjects I solicited that I felt were a must, but by and large, I’m fond of saying that this collection came together as though it were almost guided by a divine hand.

And that divine hand gave us a fantastic, diverse array of stories. I like to say that this collection, even the pieces that aren’t from a firsthand perspective, truly feel lived-in rather than merely observed or reported-on.

LW: What were you surprised to learn as you wrote and edited the anthology? 

DK: How much you truly function the same way a producer does for a movie: generating the project, putting together the creative pieces, wrangling and working with the talent at every turn, overseeing the finishing touches, and then hitting the promotional trail.

LW: How was the process of putting this anthology different from writing your first novel Children of the Canyon?

DK: The latter was solitary, the former was far more collaborative. Even my contribution to this collection involved collecting over a dozen interviews and culling them into an oral history.

LW: What's next for you?

DK: I’m two-thirds of the way done with another novel. I have a script that was optioned by Film Nation and is being packaged right now, plus a couple of television pitches.  

LW: What's your advice for up-and-coming screenwriters and authors? 

DK: More than just writing what you know, write what you love. Write what you yourself would want to see, or read.  

To learn more about David Kukoff, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @DavidKukoff.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Championing Storytellers: How the Writers Guild Foundation Encourages Aspiring Screenwriters

By Sean Tuohy

There are now a lot of great resources for inspiring screenwriters, but one of the most useful can be found at the Writers Guild Foundation. The WGF is a nonprofit institution designed to help screenwriters learn and better their craft. Managing director Joanne Lammers was kind of nice to sit down and discuss the WGF’s resources and how to help the institution.

Sean Tuohy: What is the history of the Writers Guild Foundation?

Joanne Lammers: The WGF was founded in 1966 as a nonprofit philanthropic institution separate from the Writer’s Guild of America. The WGF Library opened in 1984 as a non-circulating public resource for aspiring writers and scholars. The WGF Archive was created in 2011 to care for the rich history of writers and the WGA. The WGF's mission is to preserve and promote the art, craft, and history of screen storytelling and storytellers. In addition to the library and archive, we also have writing programs for veterans and high school students.

ST: For an inspiring screenwriter what some resources they can find at the Writers Guild Foundation?

JL: We are only the library on the planet devoted solely to screenwriting. We have scripts that range from the dawn of early cinema dating as early as 1908 to classical Hollywood and the golden age of television to the most current web series and video games. We're known for having rare show bibles and development materials such as Shonda Rhimes' pitch outline for “Grey's Anatomy” and scripts for hot new shows such as “Empire” and “Transparent.” The crown jewel of the library is Billy Wilder's personal desk set of every script he ever wrote from “The Apartment” to “Sunset Boulevard.” The members of our enthusiastic reference team all have backgrounds and degrees in film and television history and writing, as well as advanced degrees in archival studies.

ST: What are some upcoming WGF programs that writers could use?

JL: We're currently planning our programs for the fiscal year, but typical events include TV Craft Day, Film Craft Day, and Serial Dramas. Past events have featured panels with the writers of “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Mad Men.” We have also held several Write-a-Thons where we kept the library open until 11:00 p.m. during contest and fellowship deadlines. You can check out past events highlighted in our podcasts at iTunes, our WGF Blog and on our YouTube channel.

ST: How can writers give back to the WGF?

JL: We are a non-profit without an endowment and rely on donations to stay open. Even $5 can help us provide more events. Information about how to donate is at our official website. Writers can also volunteer to assist during programs. Additionally, when a writer becomes a showrunner or writes a feature that is produced, she or he can donate their papers to the library and archive to inspire future writers.

To learn more about the Writers Guide Foundation, visit the organization’s official website, like its Facebook page, or follow the WGF on Twitter @WritersGuildF.