‘Casual’ creator Zander Lehmann talks to Adam Vitcavage about the show’s four-season run on Hulu.
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.
By Daniel Ford
Author David Trueba’s novel Blitz starts with every Millennial’s nightmare: The main character (the lovably damaged Beto) receives a text message from his girlfriend that was meant for someone else and makes clear she’s about to break up with him.
Trueba, who is also an accomplished screenwriter and director, talked to me recently about his early influences, his writing process, and what inspired Blitz.
Daniel Ford: Did you find writing or did writing find you?
David Trueba: In my case, the writing came to me and found me.
DF: Who were some of your earlier influences?
DT: Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Salinger. And Bohumil Hrabal and Pio Baroja.
DF: How did you get into screenwriting and film directing?
DT: By accident, my literature teacher accepted short films as class material, so I started to write short films to shoot with my friends at school.
DF: Does your writing process change drastically when you’re writing fiction as opposed to scripts?
DT: Completely. The writing in the literary process is the end of the game. In the film process, the writing is just the beginning.
DF: What inspired your recent novel Blitz?
DT: The inspiration was something that happened to me when I was 22. But I didn't understand the meaning of it until 20 years later. That's a very typical process of inspiration.
DF: I love reading fiction from screenwriters because I think they do such a good job of setting up scenes and putting characters into intriguing situations. How did you go about developing your characters and did you have their actions before or after you really knew who these people were?
DT: In a film, the character is the action. In a novel, you have to construct the character from an inner perspective, so you start to understand your character and to complete his personality, and then you design his actions.
DF: Your novel deals with something all of us have been through: A messy breakup. A breakup aided by an errant text no less! But your novel really is about human connections and what happens when they get severed or crossed up unexpectedly. What were some of the other themes you wanted to explore in the novel?
DT: I was attracted to the idea of how accidents, even minor accidents, are decisive in our lives. If you are not open to these accidents, you close your life, your possibilities of happiness and growth. Apart from that, the idea of the novel was the reconciliation with nature, with time, with our humanity. We despise ourselves under the dictatorship of plastic, superficiality, and the advertisement idea of beauty.
DF: In real life, you’re older than your main character. Despite that, how much of yourself and your experiences ended up in Blitz.
DT: A lot. I used to put myself in every character, some of them by similarity and other by projection, but I need to understand them, to accept and even to respect them.
DF: Instead of breaking out the dialogue into a traditional structure, you just weave it into your narrative without punctuation. Was that a conscious choice when you were writing or something that came out of the editing process?
DT: That is something that I did in my prior novel Learning to Lose and worked it great. For me, the idea of not breaking the flow of narration is very important. Literature is observation, and I want my readers to be close to the words, to the emotions.
DF: What’s next for you?
DT: I am writing a new novel now. Something that I started even before Blitz. But Blitz came to me with an incredible force, and I had to stop all my projects to write it.
DF: What’s your advice for aspiring authors and screenwriters?
DT: Be faithful to your instincts as a reader and writer. Don't manipulate yourself for the market, other people’s opinions, or the waves of fashion. It has to always be personal, even if it hurts.
DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?
DT: I am the youngest of eight children, which helped me to survive as an independent person and allowed me to try to understand others. It was the best gift of my life.
To learn more about David Trueba, visit his official website.
By Sean Tuohy
Writing a novel or screenplay is an extremely difficult task, but the next step in the process is even harder: selling your work.
Pulling from her years of experience as both a filmmaker and a producer, Lane Shefter Bishop delivered a best-selling book, Sell Your Story In A Single Sentence, that is a must-have for all writers. Bishop writes from the trenches of Hollywood, informing her readers how to write the best loglines that will actually get read. She mixes together much needed know-how with humor that will make you chuckle throughout the book.
Bishop took some time to sit and talk for me about her target audience, the biggest mistakes that writers make, and how writers can sell their work with one sentence.
Sean Tuohy: What was the biggest drive to write, Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence?
Lane Shefter Bishop: I’d been speaking about logline creation for years at numerous conferences and there was just so much need for this information. Whenever I asked writers, “What are you working on?” I got told such sagas. In my business, most people don’t have more than a few minutes to spare for a content creator, so I knew those long answers would never work if these writers wanted to actually be able to sell their material. Also, after every seminar, I’d always have a line of folks asking me if I had a book...
ST: When you sat down to write Sell Your Story in A Single Sentence, what did you want the reader to take away from it?
LSB: I wanted readers to know that you can have the best material in the world but if you can’t sell it, it doesn’t do you any good—and in this crazy busy world we live in, the quicker you can sell it, the better.
ST: Sell Your Story in A Single Sentence is written in a very clear and funny tone. When you approached this project what was your mindset: a writer trying to help other writers or as an entertainment executive helping writers?
LSB: I’m sort of an out-of-the-box producer because I was a working director prior and was also a senior executive at an entertainment company for a few years, so I’ve been on both sides, the selling side and the buying side. As such, I have a unique perspective to offer writers and wanted to use that to assist them in their marketing efforts. I love writers and am continuously impressed by their creativity, so I really wanted to help them expand their opportunities.
ST: What are the biggest mistakes writers make when trying to sell their work?
LSB: The biggest mistake I see is that they are being too general, using big broad concepts to talk about their work. This just serves to make it sound generic, like hundreds of other stories. I am forever hounding writers to be more specific because it is those specifics that make a story unique and different and thus infinitely more sellable.
ST: The logline can make or break a story. Why is the logline so important?
LSB: The logline is so important because it can literally be the difference between someone wanting to read your work or turning you away empty-handed. It is the magic potion that can lead to a “yes,” which is always the goal.
ST: What makes a great logline versus a bad logline?
LSB: A great logline is one where who the protagonist is, what they want and what is at stake (if they don’t achieve their goal) are all clearly defined while using the most unique elements possible to do so. A bad logline is one where the content creator is either much too general or has tried to cram their entire plot into one veeeeery long run-on sentence.
ST: What do you wish you saw more writers do when they try to sell their work?
LSB: Read my book first! Seriously, I know a great logline would help them sell because I’ve used them successfully myself for many years now.
ST: What is next for Lane Shefter Bishop?
LSB: I’m going back to my roots and directing a feature film. I’ve also been asked to write a proposal for a book on the book-to-screen adaptation process. And of course I have numerous projects that I am currently producing through my company, Vast Entertainment. So, kind of a lot, I guess!
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
LSB: I truly believe that I am the biggest dog lover on the entire planet.
By Daniel Ford
Theresa Rebeck has written everything from award-winning Broadway plays to hit television shows (Admit it, you had “Smash” on your DVR).
Rebeck’s recently published novel, I’m Glad About You, features star-crossed lovers, Midwestern sensibilities, New York City Millennial drama, quippy dialogue, and plenty of dark, twisted angst.
The author/screenwriter/playwright (when does the woman sleep!) graciously took some time away from her production schedule to answer my questions about her writing career, what inspired I’m Glad About You, and what aspiring authors need to do to succeed.
DF: Did you grow up knowing you were going to be a writer, or is it a passion that grew over time?
Theresa Rebeck: I thought I was going to be a writer when I was about 3 years old. That’s not to say that I fully believed it. Even when I was young and a dreamer, it felt like a very bold choice. And certainly everyone I knew in Cincinnati thought I was somewhat insane to think that someday I might be a writer.
There were a lot of other dreams in there. I dreamed of being a chemist, or a mathematician, or a doctor. I’m good at math and chemistry, improbably, so my pragmatic Midwestern roots argued in that direction. Eventually reality caught up with me, at which point that first dream looked more like what it was—determination.
DF: You’ve written critically acclaimed Broadway plays and hit television shows. Were there any disciplines you learned that you were able to transfer to writing I’m Glad About You?
TR: The novel remains a mystery and a challenge to me. One of the things you learn in the theatre and in TV is that you just have to keep working until you finish it, and then you have to finish it again. There’s a lot of forward motion, always. And that turned out to be a very useful tool to have in my toolkit when facing the complexities that arise in the writing of a novel.
DF: When you sit down at your computer to write, what’s your process like? Do you listen to music? Outline? Was your writing process for I’m Glad About You any different than your screenwriting process?
TR: I think in screenwriting and in television writing, there’s generally too much outlining. So when I’m working in fiction, I try to keep things looser. I have a general idea of where I’m going, but I don’t want to have too much settled on before I’m actually writing. I feel like the writing reveals a lot of surprises and deeper secrets when you haven’t made too many decisions ahead of time. That’s not to say you should just go blindly into something, I don’t believe that. I try to hold some tension between what I know is going to happen and what I don’t know.
DF: What inspired I’m Glad About You?
TR: I’m from Cincinnati and I live in New York. I used to think that at some point, those two aspects of my personal story were going to make more sense to each other. But, they didn’t. And I became aware over time that this is a real problem in our country—I feel like no one knows how to talk to each other anymore, and I wondered what that would look like if I had a pair of lovers who ended up in that situation.
DF: Kyle and Alison could have easily been caricatures we’ve seen in past novels, movies, and television shows, but you ground them in reality and give them honest-to-god issues to wrestle with. How did you go about developing these two, and how much of yourself landed in each one?
TR: Developing characters is something that comes to me over time. I did know when I started working on the novel that I was going to have Kyle stay in one place, and that Alison, by contrast, was someone who would rise, in visibility, in the wider world. Kyle’s journey was always going to be more and more interior, more and more isolated, more and more centered on this lonely quest for a spirituality that would often elude him. His innate decency is not enough, finally, for Kyle: He truly wants to be a good man. But what does that mean, to the soul?
Alison’s journey is more like Sister Carrie’s, in a way: as she rises as an actress, she becomes more and more of an object. But Alison surprised me. She refused to accept that destiny. She never saw herself as an object, so she never fell prey internally to what was happening to her externally.
DF: As a playwright/screenwriter by trade, did you start with the dialogue and fill in the prose or did you have the story in mind and craft the dialogue organically?
TR: I don’t do anything like that—start with the dialogue and then fill in the prose. I start at the beginning, and when I get to the end, I stop. And when I rewrite, sometimes I add things in, sometimes I take things out. Only one time in my life did I write a story in pieces, different scenes that weren’t connected, that were connected only later. If there’s anyone out there who writes the dialogue first and then fills in the prose, I’d like to talk to them. That sounds kind of interesting to me.
DF: How long did it take you to write I’m Glad About You? Did you settle on the novel’s structure during the writing or editing process?
TR: It took me a really long time—it felt like a really long time. It took me about six years. I came up with the structure during the editing process. Because there are two sides in the story, I did have a lot of material I ended up cutting. It wasn’t clear to me from the onset how the two strands of the story would sit next to each other. So that was something that emerged with greater clarity as I worked on later drafts.
DF: I’m Glad About You has garnered rave reviews from critics and readers alike. What’s next for you?
TR: Right now I’m in pre-production for a movie I wrote starring Anjelica Huston, Bill Pullman, and David Morse. I’m directing it as well. And then I have some other ideas that are starting to emerge. I’m so compelled by fiction right now but it’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of space and silence and I haven’t had that lately.
DF: What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
TR: Learn how to finish drafts. So many people get caught up in the process and don’t ever see the point where it says, “The End.” So even if you have to push through sections that aren’t working—I’m not saying force it, though sometimes you do have to force it—finish a draft. Also, I think writing a lot is a good thing. Like practicing scales on a piano. The more you write, the better you get...hopefully. Don’t be precious: learn how to cut. Learn how to edit.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
TR: I have the best collection on Earth of tiny stone bears. I also collect Peruvian retablos. I guess that’s two facts but seriously the little bears are great and so are the retablos.
By Daniel Ford
Author Michael Compton's debut novel Gumshoe hits all our favorite beats: hardboiled private eyes, a fast-paced plot, and a 1940s Hollywood setting.
Compton talked to me recently about how science fiction ignited his passion for reading, his screenwriting career, and the inspiration behind Gumshoe.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?
Michael Compton: As a kid, I was mostly interested in outdoor stuff—sports, camping, fishing, etc. I actually got a big lecture once from my fifth grade teacher because I told her I didn’t like to read. But in high school I read my first science fiction novel (Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End) and I was hooked. As soon as I got into reading, I started thinking about writing my own stories.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
MC: In science fiction, it was Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and especially Larry Niven. Later on, I broadened my interests to “literary” writers like Kafka, Camus, and Dostoevsky, and I got into the hardboiled detective genre with writers like Hammett and Chandler.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
MC: When I was young and single I had a very set routine of writing every evening while listening to music, but my home and teaching schedules are so variable now that I write more in bursts or when I can. I do outline a lot, especially when it comes to writing screenplays, because I do a lot of collaborative writing, and in collaboration everyone involved needs to know where the story is going.
DF: Does your writing style change when you are writing a screenplay like the one for “Carjacked?” Do you focus more on dialogue when writing a screenplay?
MC: In writing a screenplay, you’re trying to use as few words as possible and convey everything in visual terms. There can’t be any long descriptive passages, and you can’t describe what is going on in the characters’ heads. Plus, there are aspects of style and format that are industry standard, and unless you are Quentin Tarantino, you need to stick to them. I do focus a lot on dialogue, because that’s where you get to have a little fun and maybe show off your wit.
DF: Do you have any screenplays currently in development?
MC: I have several, but my big project right now is a novelization called Inferno 2033 that I am writing in collaboration with my wife Sherry and my friend Allan Walsh. We already have a script, a website, a live-action trailer, and a lot of graphic art. Our target date for publication is July 2016, and we plan to use the novel as a launch pad for a film or TV series, graphic novels, maybe even video games.
DF: What inspired your debut novel Gumshoe?
MC: I’ve been a fan of crime movies, and especially film noir, for years. I’ve also read everything by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. So Gumshoe is kind of a tribute to the whole hardboiled genre, but with my own spin. I think I’ve written the novel so that anyone can enjoy it, but readers with a knowledge of classic movies and detective fiction will relate to the material on a whole other level.
DF: What draws you to crime fiction? Is it the mystery, the characters, the problem solving?
MC: Whether it’s a book, a movie, or a television series, there is nothing that draws me into a story like mystery and suspense. It’s that sense of wonder, and the desire to find out what happens next, that drives me forward. A story is always a kind of puzzle, I think, and the best fiction bears re-reading, so that you can go back and pick up on all the little details that had greater significance than you realized the first time through. As far as crime fiction, I am drawn to the worldview it represents, in which there is this dark, alternative reality that lurks beneath the surface of everyday life.
DF: The crime genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How did you ensure that your tale was original?
MC: All I can say is that I play with the genre, that the “built-in tropes” are very much part of the story. To say more would be to give too much away.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the book? How do you develop your characters in general?
MC: I tend to create a lot of smart-alecky characters, and that is certainly a reflection on me and the kind of people I hang around with. But the most gifted writers are the ones who can create characters outside of themselves—different sex, age, race, belief system, etc. I can’t write anything unless I find a voice in which to tell it, and that’s how I approach character. If I can find a character’s voice it gives me at least a starting point from which I can render a fleshed-out person on the page—hopefully one that can surprise me.
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
MC: If I’m not convinced it’s good before I finish the first draft, I will put it aside and move on to something else. If inspiration strikes, I’ll come back to it, but if not I’ll let it go. There are too many stories to write to get bogged down on something that isn’t working. But feedback is important. What I think is brilliant almost always needs more work, and what I am most unsure of is sometimes the work that most resonates with readers.
DF: Now that you have your first book under your belt, what’s next?
MC: Gumshoe was originally a film script, and so was Inferno, and I have several other scripts that I think will work as novels, so that is where I am right now. Several of my scripts—as well as a couple of other novel ideas—focus on teenagers, so I’m thinking of jumping into the Young Adult market. I feel like I need to do more reading in that genre, though, before I’ll be truly comfortable with it.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
MC: Lose the ego, or at least learn how to suppress it. If you can’t take criticism, and you aren’t always looking to improve, you should do the world a favor and stop writing.
DF: What is one random fact about yourself?
MC: My dogs and cats are all strays my wife and I have taken in. A portion of all our book sales goes to animal rescue and spay/neuter programs.
Authors, poets, and screenwriters, oh my!
Our interviews this year ranged from new literary voices to journalists and from comedians to woodworkers (who are also comedians).
Here are our five most popular interviews from 2015. Look for many, many more in 2016!
Author Joe Hill talks to Sean Tuohy about his writing style, his next book, and what books are currently cluttering his nightstand table.
Offerman Woodshop, located in Los Angeles and helmed by comedian and “Parks and Recreation” star Nick Offerman, has been described as “kick-ass” and is filled with extremely talented and skilled artists. With the help of RH Lee, Sean Tuohy learned more about what it takes to design an original piece of art from a slab of wood.
Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, talks to Daniel Ford about her love of creativity, her early influences, and how the idea for her popular thriller originated.
Literary agent Christopher Rhodes talks to Daniel Ford about how aspiring authors can sensibly chase their publishing dreams.
Best-selling author talks to Stephanie Schaefer about writing, royalty, and those rumors about a “Princess Diaries 3” movie.
By Sean Tuohy
Shane Weisfeld is the screenwriter responsible for trapping Dylan McDermott in a freezer and sending Russian mobsters in to torture him.
I sat down with Weisfeld to talk about how he got into screenwriting, how he came up with the concept for “Freezer,” and what screenwriters need to do to be successful in Hollywood.
Sean Tuohy: How did you get into screenwriting?
Shane Weisfeld: I come from a planet called hip-hop, and from an early age I was exposed to that raw, visceral, pure art form of storytelling and poetry in motion. So much of hip-hop is about proving yourself, having your own voice, and making something out of nothing, and it’s all about lyrically paying your dues—with receipts. Coupled with my love of film, and that medium’s power of storytelling, it was just a natural progression to get into screenwriting. Once I went to film school as a screenwriting major, it solidified my intentions.
ST: Was there a special movie that caused you to get into film?
SW: “The Exorcist” was the first movie that had a lasting impression on me, where I was thinking about it for days afterwards. I’ve probably seen it 50 times since! While I was in film school, I was exposed to so many of the classics—both Hollywood and foreign—and many of those had a huge influence on me. However, in my last year of high school, I did a report on “The Karate Kid,” written by the great Robert Mark Kamen. I had first seen it when it came out in 1984, but when I did this school report on it, I learned for the first time the script-to-screen process and what’s involved in getting a movie made. That’s when I realized that I wanted to go to film school and get serious about pursuing this in a creative capacity.
ST: How did you come up with the concept for “Freezer?”
SW: I definitely wanted to write, for the first time, a one-location crime-thriller. That’s a sub-genre I’ve always enjoyed, and certainly it’s less risky for financiers to take on something like that as opposed to a big budget script. Not that I was only thinking about budget—my main concern was coming up with a compelling story with mounting conflict inside one location—but I was definitely thinking about all the elements that could be attracted to something like this and what could not only finally land me representation, but get produced as well.
ST: How long did you take to write “Freezer?”
SW: The first draft was pumped out in only three weeks. No outline, but a general idea of what was going to happen. It was a slim, bare-bones draft, not much to it. However, the rewrite and polish process was a good two and half years after that, as more story and character was injected into it. Rewrites were done with development notes from my manager in Los Angeles at the time, and also from the producers during pre-production and up to the point it started shooting.
ST: How did you break into the industry?
SW: Years of writing, re-writing, mistakes, rejection, struggle, hard work, sacrifice, patience, tenacity, insomnia, determination, persistence, perseverance and timing. No luck. That doesn’t exist. All these things still play a factor though, and always will. The basic timeline goes like this: I didn’t find representation until the 12-year mark, and I didn’t become a produced screenwriter until the 15-year mark. I’m 41 years old and it has currently been more than a 17-and-a-half-year journey in terms of actively pursuing this crazy industry, and I’ve still got a long way to go; but any success so far is that much more worthwhile knowing what went into getting this far, and those things are opening more and bigger doors.
ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline?
SW: I try and outline as much as I can, whether it’s a formal outline or just basic point form scene and character ideas. Outlining is really having a blueprint for your script, and you can’t go into it blind—you need to have some kind of structure for knowing what your beginning, middle and end will be. Once I have an outline, I prefer to write my script every day, even just for a little bit. Staying consistent is key. Sometimes I’ll be writing a new script and at the same time rewriting or polishing an older one, but I do prefer to concentrate on one script at a time.
ST: What is next for Shane Weisfeld?
SW: Continuing with the WHGTA [writing, hustling, grinding, and taking action]. I’m writing both original features and television, but I’m also going back and rewriting previous scripts, because things can always improve, and constructive criticism and feedback just makes me want to get better. Also, continuing to make connections and building relationships the blue-collar way.
ST: What advice do you give to fellow screenwriters?
SW: Once you’ve been at this for a while and the rejection starts mounting, you need to ask yourself if this is what you truly want, need and can’t live without. The reason is, it could take years and years of no progression and a ton of rejection, so you absolutely have to be in it for the long haul, ready to develop a backbone and very thick skin. Also, don’t try and guess what the marketplace wants. You should really write what’s in your heart, what you know, and the type of film (or television show) you would want to see. Watch as many films (both commercial and independent) as you can, but also read just as many scripts. Lastly, follow the business. This is so important. Read the trades, learn who the players behind the scenes are, get to know what’s in development and why. The craft will always be the most important thing, but this is a business; you need to stay on top of it because it changes constantly and can eat you up and spit you out if you don’t know it.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
SW: I know the capital city of every single country in the world, and every U.S. state as well.
To learn more about Shane Weisfeld, follow him on Twitter @ShaneWeisfeld.
By Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy
Author Liana Maeby’s novel South on Highland starts like this:
The pills spilled to the ground like debris from a tornado, landing in various wet spots around the toilet. No, they tumbled out like a wintry mix: Klonopin hail OxyContin rain, Vicodin snow. No, like that moment on the 101, somewhere around Barham, when accident traffic suddenly unclogs and the cars shoot forward at once.
Loosely based on Maeby’s life, South on Highland follows a young screenwriter who toggles between crafting inspired screenplays and ingesting more drugs than a Tim Dorsey character. The novel rumbles like a freight train powered by addiction and Hollywood. You’ll need a stiff drink while you binge read, but the prose will make you question whether or not you want to keep refilling your glass (or powdering your nose with a blast of cocaine).
Maeby took a timeout from promoting her novel to answer some of our questions about how LifeCall influenced her early writing, how the idea for South on Highland originated, and her ketchup phobia.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Liana Maeby: I’m sure I’ve retrospectively self-mythologized a little bit, but I really don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. In kindergarten, I was penning—or, more likely, Crayoning—stories about mermaids and self-aware unicorns instead of playing tag like a normal, fun kid. There was a satirical kid’s book at eight [I’m still tremendously proud of Earl Can Hurl (You Can Hurl Too)], and then some god-awful early novel and screenplay attempts as a teenager.
Both of my parents are writers, so I grew up surrounded by it. I basically just took up the family trade. We’re like dentists, but poorer!
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
LM: Okay, so honestly? That infamous “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” medical alert commercial came out when I was four, and I remember finding it to be the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. Like, I would just laugh and laugh and laugh, a little toddler sociopath. So that absolutely had an effect on my comedic development. God bless you, LifeCall!
On the lowbrow side, I also grew up really loving dudes like Faulkner and Nabokov and Baldwin. And I can’t undervalue how important it was for me to have been lucky enough to come of age in the era of Tina and Amy.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
LM: I do like to outline, but I’m also not a linear writer at all. If I have an idea for an out-of-order section, I’ll just write it. And sometimes I’ll write, like, the second and the sixth paragraphs of said chunk, and then go through and fill in the rest.
At the same time, I’m super precise and can’t move on from a section unless I’m happy with every word. Which is great in that I don’t have to do a ton of line editing at the end of the process, but also not exactly ideal when I’m cutting stuff out.
Music? Never. It’s too distracting. I need my brain to pure, like Wonder Bread, ready to sop up the world and expel it back onto the page (I wrote that last sentence while listening to music).
Sean Tuohy: Does your writing style change when you are writing a screenplay? Do you focus more on dialogue when writing a screenplay?
LM: Definitely. I love writing dialogue and structuring jokes, but there’s really nothing more satisfying to me than crafting a good prose sentence. So much so that in South on Highland, I actually had to go back in and add more dialogue.
ST: Be honest: Do you think my screenplay about commando puppies that break dance on weekends will sell?
LM: I mean, this isn’t a deal-breaker, but I’ve already identified a logic flaw…to a puppy, every day is the weekend.
DF: How did the idea for South on Highland originate?
LM: It started out as a story about breakdancing commando puppies, but then I identified a logic flaw and decided to look at our culture’s fascination with the addiction memoir instead. The book was initially conceived as straight satire, but became more of a novel as I went along—mostly because that felt more interesting and easier to sustain.
DF: Your novel is based on your life, but after all the writing, re-writing, and editing, how much of yourself—and your interactions with friends, family, and others—ended up in the final draft?
LM: Really, the book is only loosely based on my life. I wanted to take a kernel of truth and see that through to its logical extreme. So part of that process involved challenging myself to come up with fictional ideas, which has always been much more appealing to me than just writing fact-based stuff. I kind of figured out a way to live vicariously through myself, which basically makes me Elon Musk or Willy Wonka.
DF: Sean and I talk all the time about how writers can be self-destructive when they’re not working on their craft, or things aren’t going very well with their work. How did you go about putting those themes on the page and how did you tie it into our culture’s view of addition and sensationalism?
LM: This is, in fact, one of the main themes of my book. Our culture is set up to reward wild, sensational behavior as long as we come out on the other end to write (a book, a song, a movie) about it. And as writers, we can justify this kind of behavior with the pretense that we’re gaining necessary life experience. It’s a very dangerous cycle to enter, especially if things aren’t going well, because you’ve set yourself up with the perfect toolkit for utter self-destruction.
DF: B.J. Novak, whose short story collection we loved, said your book is “the kind of book that kids will steal from each other.” How does it feel receiving warm praise for a story so near to your own life?
LM: I mean, I’d rather people buy the book… stealing it won’t exactly put my dog through college. But really, it feels indescribably amazing to hear these nice things, especially from folks I admire. Every single kind word I hear about the book makes me feel so insanely lucky, like all those late nights spent in front of my computer have been worth it ten times over. Compliments: I recommend them!
DF: You also landed on a few “best of” lists for your Twitter account! How do you balance promoting yourself and your work on social media and actually sitting down and writing?
LM: I’d say a good self-promotion-to-actually-writing ratio is 80:20. But I’m not even on Snapchat, so this could feasibly go up to 85:15.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
LM: I wish I had something better than “sit down and write,” but I really don’t. Write, and rewrite, and don’t be too hard on yourself if something isn’t working. There’s a huge learning curve, and the only way to get through it is to keep your head down and work for longer than seems sane or reasonable.
The good news is that if you have a writer’s heart, the above will seem like a fun challenge rather than a chore!
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
LM: I have a ketchup phobia. Not as in, I don’t much care for it on a burger, but more that I can’t look at it or smell it without getting nauseous, and if some happens to accidentally end up in my mouth or on my body, I will have a full-blown panic attack. It’s really weird and inconvenient! Like, even using the stupid word in this answer means that I will have to lie down on the couch for 15 minutes to recuperate. You’re welcome, you monsters!
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.
By Sean Tuohy
Later this month, former New York City detective Matt Scudder will slam his way into theaters across the nation in the new thriller “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” The film is based on the novel of the same name by legendary crime writer Lawrence Block, and was adapted to the big screen by award-winning writer/director Scott Frank (“Get Shorty,” “Minority Report,” “Out of Sight,” “The Lookout”). In the film, our drunken hero finds himself in the middle of a blood-soaked case when a drug kingpin's wife is kidnapped. Tough guy Liam Neeson plays Scudder and brings an edgy feel to the character.
I recently talked with Scudder’s creator Lawrence Block about the upcoming film.
Sean Tuohy: This is the second time Matthew Scudder has made it to the big screen. Are you excited to see him in the movies again?
Lawrence Block: Yes, very much so. “8 Million Ways to Die” didn't really work—artistically or commercially—although both Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia did some very fine work in the film. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a much better film in every way, and very much reflects the book I wrote.
ST: What was process of turning your novel in to a movie?
LB: It took a long time. The film was just weeks away from commencement of principal photography when Harrison Ford changed his mind and pulled out. Then the project was dead in the water for over 10 years, and I never thought anything would come of it. But Scott never lost faith. He knew he wanted to make the film, and now he's done so...brilliantly.
ST Scott Frank has adapted novels before to wide acclaim. Were you excited to have him writing/directing the project?
LB: I was indeed. His adaptations of two Elmore Leonard novels, “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” managed not merely to tell Leonard's stories but to capture his tone and attitude. I was particularly pleased when he elected to direct the film himself; I'd seen “The Lookout” (which he wrote and directed) and knew how good he was at this.
ST: “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a pretty dark story. Why do you think this story was chosen to be turned in to a movie?
LB: Scott originally got Jersey Films to option the book just a couple of years after its 1992 publication. I don't know that darkness had anything to do with it; he read the book, liked it, and wanted to make it into a film.
ST: Liam Neeson plays Scudder this time around. How do you feel about that casting decision?
LB: I couldn't be happier. For years, Liam Neeson was up at the top of my own mental shortlist to play Scudder, ever since I saw him in “Michael Collins” (In my novel Everybody Dies, Michael Collins comes up in a long conversation between Scudder and Mick Ballou).
ST: How does it feel to see your work on the big screen?
LB: It's very gratifying. I've written well over a hundred books, and this is only the fourth to be filmed—and the first to be filmed at all well. So I'm obviously capable of being happy with a book whether or not it makes it to the screen. But that this book has been filmed, and filmed so brilliantly, feels better than I can describe.
ST: Final question. How do you take your popcorn?
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” comes out September 19, 2014.
Also check out:our first interview with the author, Mystery Novelist Lawrence Block On Why Writers Must Go On,
By Sean Tuohy
A working screenwriter is as versatile as a well-trained Green Beret. They have to jump in to the middle of hazardous production, fight elements like bratty actors and loud producers, and punch up new pages on the fly while the whole production team waits for them.
William C. Martell is one of those screenwriters and has been producing scripts for more than 20 years. He's earned a solid Hollywood career by penning action thrillers, horror flicks, and noir films. Martell also give newbies plenty of screenwriting tips and advice on his blog "Script Secrets" and in his book Secrets of Action Screenwriting.
I recently talked with Martell about his career, how screenwriting has changed since he has entered the business, and what is next for the script guru.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Did you always know you wanted to be a screenwriter?
William C. Martell: When I was a kid and I told all kinds of crazy stories and got punished for lying...so I had to find some way to get paid instead of punished. As a kid, I did everything from little plays in my backyard to making my own comic books and giving them to friends. I loved movies, but had no idea that someone wrote them, and for sure I couldn’t do something like that in my home town. My grandfather’s business was water wells and farm irrigation, so I figured I’d end up digging ditches for a living (literally). My father painted and installed signs, so during summers I’d often have to help carry heavy signs up ladders so they could be bolted onto the fronts of buildings. That was the other job I might have ended up doing, while making short stories, comic books, and little plays my hobby.
I loved movies, so I got a job at the local movie theater at 15 and a half years old and got to see movies for free (including R-rated movies). Around this time, I was also making short films with an 8mm camera and later a Super 8mm camera. Somewhere in there I discovered this business that sold actual screenplays from movies and television shows and ordered some and thought “I could do this!” Of course, I was hundreds of miles from Hollywood, so I just continued making short films (and a Super 8mm feature, which was a bad idea at the time). My first script sale was to a local production company that was making low budget kung fu movies. A decade of working in a warehouse later, I sold a script to a company on the Paramount lot.
ST: You have written everything from techo-thrillers to noir. Do you find it challenging to switch from genre to genre?
WCM: I write testosterone. My home genre would probably be Hitchcock-style thrillers (which is why I have the first of three books on screenplays and Hitchcock out on Amazon), but my Super 8mm feature was a private eye movie. I then did that kung fu movie (and wrote a kung fu sci fi script that was supposed to be shot next, but that didn’t happen). The script I sold to Paramount was a noir script called "Courting Death." That got me to Hollywood, where a second noir script, "Treacherous," sold and was made, followed by "Implicated" (more noir!) and then a sci fi kung fu movie! Cable networks like USA, HBO, and Showtime began making their own films and that sci fi kung fu script was an HBO World Premiere Movie. The techno- thrillers came from trying to sell another script to that HBO producer. I’d read an article in Variety about U.S. Navy cooperation on films—where the Navy allows you to shoot on Aircraft Carriers and film SEAL Teams doing exercises for free—so I wrote a script targeting cooperation. The producer realized he could basically do "Hunt for Red October" on an HBO budget, and I made a sale. I continued writing techno- thrillers for a while. I also wrote action films, which led to all kinds of studio meetings on scripts that never managed to get made (on the average, for every 10 scripts they buy, they only make one). That led to writing my book Secrets of Action Screenwriting. I have a spy script that almost got made *ages* ago, kind of a kid Indiana Jones script that was optioned by a Hollywood company when I was still living in my home town, and all kinds of other “testosterone” scripts.
ST: What films influenced you early on?
WCM: I write the kind of movies I’ve paid to see, so everything from Bogart films to Hitchcock films (especially "Rear Window," North by Northwest," "Psycho," and "Notorious") to "Chinatown" to "Point Blank" to James Bond movies to "Dirty Harry" to "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" to "Mysterious Island." As a kid, I’d watch horror movies and science fiction films and Sherlock Holmes movies that played on Saturday afternoons on television. And I read a ton of books (still do) and sometimes read the book before the movie or the movie pointed me to the book (for example, "Point Blank" sent me to Richard Stark, "Double Indemnity" sent me to James M. Cain, "Rear Window" sent me to Cornell Woolrich).
ST: Do you have any scripts that are stuck in "development hell?"
WCM: A stack of them! As I said, usually for every 10 you sell (or are hired to write) only one gets made. In 2007, I had two films come out the same day—one with Steven Segal, one without—and since then everything has either stalled or died along the way. A couple of years ago, I wrote the remake of a hit 1980s horror flick for a big name producer, but it hasn't been made. I wrote a big action script that takes place in Finland, a funny creature feature about giant killer frogs, a horror script about an elevator that craves blood, and a whole bunch of other scripts for producers where I got paid but the film never got made. Some of these went as far as to have posters designed before something happened and they ended up on the shelf. You get used to this after a while. "Courting Death" would pop up in Variety and Hollywood Reporter every few years when they hired another director or star and then it would fall apart again. David Fincher was the director on that one for a couple of months. The problem becomes scheduling, getting all of the people you need to get the movie off the ground in the right combination at the right time. On a recent project, we needed a star and a director that wanted to work with that star and we would either have one or the other. Star on board, but no director. Director on board, but no star. It went back and forth like that for almost two years before they just moved on to another project. It’s a miracle if any script gets made in Hollywood.
The “development hell” part comes when some star drops out of a project and the producer thinks that they need to completely change the script before they send it to the next star so that it’s “fresh.” They decide maybe your western should take place on Mars and you have to do the Martian rewrite, which, of course, doesn’t work. So the producer thinks, "Maybe if the Martians were really Nazis who fled to the angry red planet after World War II?" And you write that version and it doesn’t work. And then they “replace you” aka they fire you) and bring in some other writer to try the Nazi Martian western version, and when that doesn’t work the producer thinks maybe it can take place in Iceland, because he just vacationed there and it was really cool. So that new writer does an Iceland Martian Nazi western script...and on and on into the night. The strange part is that sometimes they make one of these crapfests and your name is still on it, but it doesn’t resemble anything you wrote. Oh, and it sucks (obviously).
One of the reasons I started writing articles and books on writing is that I was in control of those things. My column for Script Magazine (which ran for 20 years) was never going to sit on a shelf because the magazine was going to hit newsstands and be mailed to subscribers. If I wrote it, it went to print. My website, www.scriptsecrets.net, has a free screenwriting article every day and my blog, which are things that I can write and instantly people can read them. None of the frustration of writing a bunch of scripts that sell or assignments for pay, and having the projects get shelved when a star backs out to take a job with Clint Eastwood (that happened).
The Blue Book expansion thing is folding those 20 years of columns for Script Magazine into some old booklets I wrote in 2002 and turning them into full-sized books, which are instantly published on Amazon Kindle and people are reading them the next day. After a big project I’d been working on got put on hold by the producer at the beginning of this year, I wrote a couple of short stories and they were on sale at Amazon in 12 hours! The frustration of being a screenwriter is depending on a bunch of other people in order to get your story to the audience. For every movie you see listed on IMDB there are nine other scripts that you do a lot of work on, but no one will ever see them.
ST: What is your writing processing? Do you have any pre- or post-writing rituals?
WCM: My main writing ritual is to sacrifice a movie producer with a special scimitar and then...oh, wait...you mean the stuff that’s not crazy psycho stuff?
Because I was writing scripts with a 40 hour a week day job, I tried to find the best method to get things done writing a limited time every day. That ended up being outlining the script and breaking it into manageable pieces that I could work on every day before work. I would basically do a bullet point outline listing the scenes of my script, and work that outline until it made sense and there was no fat. Then I’d write two or three scenes a week, at least one good page a day, and that added up to finished scripts.
I still do that now, just with more pages per day because I don’t have that pesky day job. By the way, this helps when I have an assignment with a deadline, because I know if I write "X" number of pages a day I’ll end up with a completed script by the deadline. I like to finish two or more days earlier to do a quick rewrite to fix things before sending it to the producer. I have a home office that almost never gets used because I bicycle from coffee shop to coffee shop in Los Angeles (and often parks), and try to write five pages a day. The cycling gets my blood flowing and gives me time to think. My job is sitting on my butt, so I before bicycling I was looking like Jabba the Hutt. Coffee shops are less distractions than working at home for me because there’s nothing else I can do there. I have headphones and listen to movie music from whatever kind of script I’m working on, and when I look up from the laptop screen I have a window on the world, people around me who might spark some idea. Plus, coffee is close by at all times. I switch up my locations often, so that when I look up at my window on the world it’s interesting.
ST: How has the screenwriting world changed since you first entered?
WCM: Many different ways. Those HBO movies I used to write? Don’t exist anymore. I had a friend who made horror films "for" Blockbuster. They paid him to make six films a year as Blockbuster Exclusives because horror has loyal fans and exclusive movies would bring them into the stores. Blockbuster isn’t around anymore. If Hollywood stopped making some kind of film to focus on superhero movies or whatever, there were other places that would make those movies. Now many of those places are gone. So we have great television shows now on cable networks, but no movies. So it’s more difficult to get things made.
Because studios are focusing more on “branded” entertainment (stuff that is already insanely popular in some other medium) the market for original scripts is tough. Original scripts are basically job applications for some writing assignment working on those scripts in development hell, trying to break it out into production.
Screenplays themselves have gone through an evolution. About 15 years ago these people began popping up on message boards who thought screenwriting should be more than a document designed to make a film. It should be "literature." Now that some of those people are in the biz, screenplays have become “great reads” that sometimes may not make very good films. Though you want a script that is a “good read” you also want it to work as that blueprint for the film. This is a weird trend, and part of it is due to “the business of development” that sprang up. If most scripts are never going to be movies, let’s just not focus on that movie thing! We’ve ended up with these little factories that develop scripts that are separate from the business of making films. Producers just want you to work for free on some script that’s probably never going to be made instead of changing their methods because studios are cutting back. The problem as a writer is we don’t know what projects will happen and which will not. So far, I’ve managed to get paid on every project, but that’s because I turn down unpaid gigs. Because the business continues to evolve, I suspect the “unpaid work” will shift back to the old model where there was less pointless “busywork” and scripts are focused on becoming films.
The great thing happening in screenwriting? When I turned from making my own films to writing scripts because I could no longer afford film and processing, I basically became Hollywood’s bitch. I work for "The Man." But now there are people making films on their iPhones! Now you can make your own film, and that’s a big shift in how the business works. Instead of working for free for some producer who is never going to make our film, we can make a film ourselves. We can still work for "The Man and" sell screenplays or land assignments, but if we get frustrated with the system we can just go out and do it ourselves. That gives us power and that power can help when we are selling scripts and getting paid gigs. Hollywood is not the only game in town, and we can go make "Paranormal Activity" and make them pay a lot more later. And that may be one of the things that has lead to an increase in spec sales. Add to that, as Hollywood focuses on big tentpoles, there are foreign companies like Europa who have moved in to make genre films like "Three Days to Kill," "Brick Mansions," and "Lucy." New script buyers!
ST: What advice would you give to an up and coming screenwriter?
WCM: Write! Read screenplays to get a feel what they are supposed to read like, then just keep writing screenplays. I’m always amazed when someone on a message board says they are going to quit because they have written four scripts and Steven Spielberg hasn’t phoned yet. WTF? A survey by the WGA a while back showed that the average writer wrote (and rewrote until they were great) nine full length screenplays before they ever made a cent! You either love writing, or you’re in the wrong business! Writers write.
Other things: grab a crew position on a film set. Since people are making films all over the place now with Kickstarter campaigns and doing credit card movies, find some low budget folks in your area making a movie and work on it. Once you see how films are really made, it changes the way you write screenplays. You see what works and what doesn’t and understand the practical needs of production. Also, don’t limit yourself to screenplays. Writers write! So write short stories and novels and articles and whatever else you can. It’s like working out, you use different muscle combinations and that helps you overall. Someone who wants to be an Olympic 400 meter hurdle runner, you don’t only practice by running the 400 meter hurdles, you do all kinds of stuff. Oh, and find some film related job you can do. Learn editing or sound or some other set job. Those are great ways to earn a living and make contacts.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
WCM: I was born in the same hospital as Tom Hanks.
By Sean Tuohy and Daniel Ford
Showrunners Kevin Biegel (also known for “Cougar Town” and “Scrubs”) and Mike Royce (also known for “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Men of a Certain Age”—a personal favorite of mine) eagerly agreed to answer some of our questions even as they continued to fight hard to keep their show on the air.
The world needs as many well-written comedies as it can get, so do them a favor and tune in to “Enlisted” on Sundays at 7 p.m. on FOX. Biegel is also offering a steak dinner to any Nielsen family that tunes in. So there's that.
Daniel Ford: When did you two decide to become television writers?
Kevin Biegel: I'd always wanted to be a writer. I grew up making and loving movies, but never thought of it as a real profession. Early on after I moved to Los Angeles I got a chance to do roundtable punch up on some movies, and off of that experience I realized that I really enjoyed writing with a group of people like that. Television is pretty much that nonstop, so I decided to pursue it from there.
Mike Royce: I was a television-watching fool growing up and used to make Super 8 films with my friends during my tween/teen years. Then went to film school and started writing there but took a detour to be a standup comic during my twenties and much of my thirties. That led me back to TV writing when "Everybody Loves Raymond" offered me a job.
Sean Tuohy: Where did the idea for “Enlisted” come form? Was it from somewhere personal?
KB: It was very personal. I'm pulling stories and relationships from my life, my relationships with my two younger brothers, and also our feelings/my feelings toward the military because I grew up with it as a reality in my life. My father, grandfather, and uncle all served. I had written on “Scrubs,” and liked being able to write about specific character relationships that I was familiar with in a very specific workplace world.
ST: How did you pitch “Enlisted” to the network?
KB: It was basically as a workplace comedy, albeit a workplace you hadn't seen in a comedy for years. I was really specific about the characters, and also about the tone and feel of the show. I just wanted to ensure that they knew it was something big and inviting and joyous while also being serious at times—that it would shift from comedy to some more dramatic elements at times and then back to comedy. I really tried to show that they could co-exist like they had on shows I had always loved and that I hoped this show could be like in success.
ST: Sergeant Hill has PSTD, which is not a very funny topic, but “Enlisted” approaches in a real way. What research did you do in regards to PTSD? Do you think the show will help shed some more light on this issue? Have you had any feedback from members of the armed services regarding the show?
KB: We did a lot of research, talked to a lot of veterans and men and women currently serving. It was of utmost importance that we didn't fall into the harmful stereotype of "person back from war who is a ticking time bomb." That's not a fair view to take of men and women coming back from deployment, but it's one that a lot of shows unfortunately do because...well, maybe because it's easy, or maybe because they don't want to take the time to show a better, more honest portrayal for the majority of veterans. It's not funny, you're right, but we never intend it to be funny. We want it to be honest to the character, we want to be respectful of it, and we want to be able to address it in the middle of a comedy both because of the challenge and because it's the kind of show we want to make.
I like comedy that challenges me with more emotional stuff, that doesn't always just go "joke joke joke" and then you're done. We want to be funny first and foremost, but if we're going to do a show set in this world we have to address the tougher aspects of it. If we don't, I don't think we're doing a very good job. We've heard from a number of people in the military community, and we are absolutely humbled when they say that the show has helped them go get help, has helped them have a dialogue with their kids about their experience. That's amazing to us. Someone wrote the other day that “Enlisted” has started coming up in their group therapy, just as shorthand to talk about experiences that sometimes aren't so easy to talk about. That blows me away, and it makes me proud to be a part of the show.
ST: Did you receive any support from the Army?
KB: Initially we didn't, because they feared we were just going to mock them; that we were just another piece of pop culture that was going to make fun of them and their way of life. I think now that they see the comedy is coming from a group of people who have very personal connections with the military, they are more open to us in an "official" capacity. We had to prove ourselves, which is totally expected and cool. We should have to prove ourselves!
ST: “Enlisted” is part workplace comedy, part family comedy. Is it difficult to balance these two types of humor?
MR: You know it's funny because workplace comedies are about family in some sense...that group of people becomes a family. That's especially true in the Army—see the phrase "Band of Brothers." In this case we have the added dynamic of the Hill brothers working out their family issues but it just adds to the depth in my opinion. It gives us more places to draw from. I think given the chance to do future episodes we would delve into more family members of both the Hills and the other characters.
ST: Unlike other comedies that take time to establish their humor, “Enlisted” establishes it very well in the pilot. How long did it take the writing staff to discover the show's voice?
MR: Kevin established very specific voices for the characters right from the start. He is drawing from his own trio of brothers for Pete/Derrick/Randy so the back and forth and punching came right out of him. Command Sergeant Major Cody's voice also flowed right out of him, I don't know how but there was a specificity there that was hilarious and really clicked. Sergeant Perez’s badass quality too. Then our amazing cast took those words and their immense talent and took everything to another level. The other platoon members only had one or two lines in the pilot but they immediately showed off their many comedic talents (including some choice ad-libs) and we wrote to all that as quickly as we could.
DF: Workplace comedies used to be staples of the television landscape, but seem to be harder to develop audiences today. Do you think that trend will ever come back, or will these shows find a home on cable or online channels?
MR: There is a great flattening going on where most comedies draw similar numbers. Networks are trying to adjust their expectations. Comedies need nurturing and I think there's a slow recognition that it's okay to keep something that's doing "so-so" because today's "so-so" is tomorrow's hit in this day and age. That works better than constantly chasing “Big Bang Theory” numbers and ending up with even worse ratings than you had. And if you look at history pretty much every single mega-billion dollar comedy hit started out struggling.
DF: You've both been involved in great television shows with long runs, and television shows that were critically acclaimed, but struggled to find an audience. Has there been any point in your careers when you thought, "I need to do something else, I can't keep going through this."
MR: Everyday! But then I remember I have no other skills. I barely have these skills.
KB: Sure, then I see all the free food in the kitchen at work and I'm like, okay, this is pretty sweet. I should keep trying to do this. Work is all about free food, basically.
DF: What's the best part of working in a writer's room on a television show? What's one of the most memorable moments you had while writing "Enlisted" or any of your other shows?
MR: In a good group, you get to bitch and moan and celebrate and laugh your ass off. There's all these funny people around you making you laugh and then they pay you. It's honestly absurd (don't tell the studio).
KB: It's what Mike said. You get to hang out with funny people all day long, and thankfully they're all really kind and cool as well. We didn't hire one dick! I think as far as a memorable moment, I am kind of partial to that time we sat a table going, "Are we really gonna have a gun that makes people poo their pants? Really?" and then going all in.
ST: Is there any chance that “Enlisted” can live on while on another network?
MR: Yes! And that's all I can say right now. Well that and please watch our last four episodes, Sundays at 7 p.m. EST/6 p.m. CST.
KB: Tell every one of your friends to watch if they can, tell them to tell their friends, and if you can find a Nielsen family we'll buy them a steak dinner if they tune in.
DF: If this is truly the end for "Enlisted," at what point do you start developing a new idea for your next show?
MR: Pretty much now. I'm writing a pilot, but still focused on doing whatever we can for “Enlisted” first.
KB: Kinda always for me, actually. I love “Enlisted” with all my heart, but I'm a writer and I'm always working on something. I beat myself up a lot. I have to do it or I hate myself for not doing it.
DF: Name one random fact about yourselves.
MR: I have a full head of hair that I have hidden since age 25 under a bald cap.
KB: I know the name of every shark that swims in every ocean.
By Sean Tuohy
As we’ve mentioned on this website numerous times, a great editor can make a world of difference for an emerging author. The same rules apply to screenwriters.
Linda Segar, author of several how-to books for budding film scribes, has been in the screenwriting consultation business since 1981. According to her bio on her official website, she has consulted on more than 2,000 scripts, including more than 40 produced feature films and approximately 35 produced television projects.
Segar’s mission statement is to “identify, analyze, and help solve elusive script problems while nurturing your creative process.”
What more can an up-and-coming screenwriter ask for?
I was lucky enough to ask Seger a few questions about navigating the screenwriting process and she gave scriptwriters plenty of helpful advice.
Sean Tuohy: How did you become a screenwriting coach and consultant? What is the backstory?
Linda Seger: Out of desperation! I was so well educated that nobody wanted to hire me, and I wasn't a corporate "type." I could see that there were so many scripts that didn't work, and I had developed a method as part of my doctoral dissertation about what the elements are that make a good script. I tried this method on some scripts that didn't work, and found that it pinpointed the problems very well. So, I placed an ad in the Hollywood Reporter and started getting clients. Then I went to a career consultant, Judith Claire, to figure out how to make this a full-time business. The plan worked, and I've been doing this now for more than 30 years.
ST: What is the most common error that you see among first time screenwriters?
LS: It used to be an inability to structure the script, but now it seems to be a lack of focus, which is related to structural problems.
ST: As far as style goes, who is the most original screenwriter, in your opinion?
LS: I think the Coen Brothers have a marvelous sense of style, and I'm particularly fond of “Fargo.”
ST What is the best way to learn the art of screenwriting?
LS: Write. Read books. Go to seminars.
ST: Do you believe it comes to some naturally or is it learned over many years?
LS: It is learned over many years, although some people have more natural talent than others. However, if they don't work at it and keep learning, they're still not going to become a great screenwriter.
ST: Has there been any screenwriters or scripts in the past ten years that have really wowed you?
LS: Absolutely! One of the best screenplays I've ever worked on that left me breathless is stuck in "development hell" in a studio. I have just completed working on a screenplay from a first-time writer from Austria. She amazes me and I love this script and hope she sells it. I recently worked with a Canadian on a first-time script that began as a muddle and has really found its way. I'm so impressed about where she's come through a process of about five drafts. I worked on a script years ago that left me breathless. I think the writer became ill, and I haven't heard from him in many years.
I have worked on many, many scripts that I think are really terrific, and I wish they'd make those into films instead of some of the others that are made.
I can't disclose the names of any of these, but I worked on several scripts that were made into films that I think are quite wonderful. One, called "Courting Chaos," has been winning a number of awards recently in film festivals, and two others were made in Italy that I'm very eager to see. They are titled, "Last Summer" and "Anita B."
ST: What is the most difficult part about writing a full length screenplay?
LS: Having a writing discipline and being willing to continually learn about the art and craft of writing.
ST: What do you believe is the most difficult part about making a good story into a great screenplay?
LS: Knowing the craft of writing so you know what you are doing.
ST: What are some of the first things you notice about a script when you are analyzing it?
LS: I can tell if it's great writing on the first page, but it might take me many pages to realize that what doesn't look like good writing actually has tremendous potential. My job is to bring out that potential in the writer and make that the best script it can be.
ST: What advice would you give to a first time screenwriter?
LS: Write and write some more, and write some more! And if you find great joy in writing, then continue writing. If you don't find joy, then stop.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
LS: I live in my dream house, a 1921 log home, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
By Sean Tuohy
For the better part of a decade screenwriter/novelist Derek Haas has entertained and thrilled audiences across the globe with his adrenaline-pumping writing skills. Haas helped pen “3:10 To Yuma,” arguably one of the best westerns of the last 10 years, and is the co-creator of NBC’s “Chicago Fire.”
When Haas isn’t lighting up the silver and small screen, he is busy exciting readers with his Assassin Trilogy, which follows international hit man Columbus. His latest novel The Right Hand chronicles C.I.A. Austin Clay’s investigation into a deadly mystery and is one of best spy thrillers of recent memory.
Haas graciously answered some of my questions regarding his life as a writer.
Sean Tuohy: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get your start as a professional writer?
Derek Haas: I always wanted to be a writer. I went to school at Baylor University and stayed for graduate school in English Literature.
My now partner Michael Brandt was doing the same thing, only getting his MA in Film. We teamed up soon after college and started writing together.
A screenplay we wrote fell into Brad Pitt’s hands and he wanted to make the movie. He never did end up making it.
However, that got us our start.
ST: Was there a time as a writer that you felt hopeless about the craft?
DH: There have been times when I felt like the machine that is Hollywood would chew us up and not let us get any of our scripts produced, but to be honest, I haven’t had self-doubt about our writing.
Don’t get me wrong, we may not have always turned in the greatest draft, but I have confidence we’re strong writers.
ST: Who were some of your early influences?
DH: My earliest influence was Stephen King. I just think he’s a master storyteller. He knows how to manipulate pace and make his readers keep turning pages. He’s the greatest campfire storyteller of all time. On the movie side of things, I’m a big admirer of Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola.
ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?
DH: I think the first time I wrote something that got the reaction I wanted—laughter, emotion, or a lump in the throat. I started writing stories when I was still in elementary school, and it seemed that I could always surprise people with my words. I still try to do that.
ST: Your Assassin Trilogy follows world-traveling hit man Columbus. Where did this character come from?
DH: I’m always attracted to characters that are gray; just when you want to like him, he does something to turn you away from him, and just when you want to condemn him, he brings you back. How could I make readers cheer for a contract killer? It was a great challenge. I do love writing him.
ST: You write about the unseen underworld—assassins, gangsters, and spies. Where does this interest stem from?
DH: Brandt and I spent a little time with FBI agents in Quantico and I remember one of them talking about a hit man—a contract killer—and it piqued my interest. I started to wonder about what twists and turns a life might have taken to put him in that position to where he kills people for a living. I just love crime stories. Elmore Leonard was also a big influence.
ST: All writers have a great work that is unproduced and sadly may never see the light of day. For example, Doug Richardson’s “Hell Bent,” Quentin Tarantino's “40 Lashes Less One,” and Lem Dobbs “Edward Ford.” Do you have a screenplay or novel that has yet to be produced or published?
DH: Michael and I wrote a movie called “MIAMILAND” that we’ve been trying to get produced for a dozen years. We love it. It’s a crime story where two overeducated con men have to go to Miami and separate a mobster from his money. Some day!
ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?
DH: While other kids were drawing pictures, I was writing stories. I asked for a typewriter for my 10th birthday. It was innate. I just had to do it. I pinch myself every day that I’ve made a living from doing it.
ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline your work before hand or just jump in to it?
DH: With screenplays, Brandt and I outline pretty extensively.
It’s the nature of the business. The producers or studio or network want to see what they’re going to get ahead of time. With novels, I just have a vague idea of what I’m going to do. I generally know my beginning, middle, and end in broad strokes. Other than that, I just plow ahead and let the story take me wherever it wants to go. That sounds like hippy-dippy writer-speak, but it’s true. I don’t want to get bogged down with an outline to which I have to adhere. No thanks.
ST: You are both a novelist and a screenwriter, which do you prefer to write?
DH: I love them both. I get to flex different muscles. Prose makes me happy, but when an actor or a director makes a scene even better than you imagined there’s no feeling like it.
ST: What is your best moment as a writer?
DH: Brandt and I were on a rooftop in Miami and it was hot as hell out and 300 people were standing around a set and then the director yelled action and two actors said the words that were in our heads. And it was three-dimensional and real and not just words on a page sitting on someone’s shelf. I almost started crying. (The scene never made the movie.)
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
DH: I piloted the bullet train between Paris and Marseille once. True story.
For more interviews, check out our full archive.