Monday, December 22, 2014

5 Questions with Mallory Westfall, a Post PA-Turned-Writers' Assistant

1. How did you get your first job in Hollywood? 

Most of us have heard that in Hollywood it’s all about who you know.  But in my case, it’s this -- In Fort Edward it’s all about who your mom knows. My mom grew up in a tiny mill town in upstate New York called Fort Edward. In 1973, she moved into a house down the street from a big Irish Catholic family. One of the six children in that family happened to grow up to become a bigwig at Marvel in New York City. Right around the time I was graduating from film school, Disney bought Marvel and my bigwig family friend made a lot of new contacts at ABC Studios. He generously offered to put me in touch with them and I got my very first general meeting out of it. I arrived in LA in June, however, and there weren’t a lot of entry-level positions to go around. A few months and a couple of dismal side jobs later, I got an email from a producer regarding a post-production PA position on a new pilot called PERCEPTION. We met for what I thought was supposed to be an interview, but I later learned I had been a must-hire, which explained why my new boss was talking to me like I had the job already; another stroke of luck thanks to my mom’s childhood friend.

After the PERCEPTION pilot, I went to work on another pilot in post and continued to learn a lot about the production process, a foundation I’m still very grateful for. Soon, PERCEPTION was picked up to series and I instantly got in contact with the showrunner’s assistant, whom I had come to know while working on the pilot, and asked if there was a writers’ PA position available. There was -- and I was lucky enough to get it. From there, I went back and forth between being a writers’ PA and a post PA on the first two seasons, and was promoted to writers’ assistant in the third season. It was one of the most challenging, exciting, exhausting and wonderful experiences in my career thus far. From all the stories I’ve heard about how people got their start in the business, it’s easy to glean there’s no one right path. Mine has been a mixture of networking, hard work and a lot of luck stemming back to the seventies.

2. While working in Post, did you learn anything that's been useful to you as a writer?

As I mentioned earlier, I was able to work in both the writing and post departments on PERCEPTION.  I got to watch each episode go from initial pitch to final cut, which was enormously beneficial to me as a writer. I was able to see which ideas worked really well on screen and which ideas were better on paper. I was also able to observe how direction, design and performance could enhance what was on the page. I think it’s a great idea for aspiring writers to try their hand in other departments if they get a chance. The more you know about the entire process, the better you’ll be able to write a good, producible script later on down the line.

3. What's something you've learned about writing or the industry from your jobs?

One of the most important things I’ve learned about writing is that you have to be good at more than just writing in order to have a career in it. This is a fact I’ve reluctantly come to accept over the four years I’ve been in LA.  Other than being an actually talented writer, you have to be good at networking, strategizing, pitching, collaborating and my favorite, selling yourself. A lot of these practices can seem downright counter-intuitive to someone with a personality of a writer, but it’s important to figure them out. There are tons of people vying for the same position you want, and the people who are hiring have to sift through them all. You have to figure out a way to cut through the noise.

4. How did you get your manager?

During the handful of general meetings I had when I first moved out to LA, an exec at TNT gave me the contact information for a family friend of his who happened to be a manager. He told me it would be good to sit down with him and talk about what managers do, what they look for, etc. So I did, and it went really well. We clicked over the kind of television we watched and the subjects I wanted to write about, so I gave him my sample scripts.  He told me he’d read them and get back to me. I was stoked. Then a month went by. I politely checked in with him via email as one is told to do during these situations. He wrote back, saying that he hadn’t read my stuff yet, but was planning on taking a look soon. So another month went by. And another. In the meantime, I had gotten my first job, and my second first job, and was really starting to get the hang of this whole TV thing. Then I got a phone call, a voicemail actually. It was Aaron Kogan, the manager. He said that he had finally gotten around to reading my pilot and really liked it. He wanted to get together for coffee and talk about it. This was nine months after our initial meeting. Nine. Months. The full gestation period of a human fetus.  To be fair, the manager and his wife had just welcomed their own human fetus baby into the world when I first met him, and suffice it to say, he was a tad busy.  So we met again, and it was one of the most exciting meetings I’ve ever had. He instantly understood what I was going for with the script, gave really smart notes and our instincts seemed to be completely in sync. After a few more meetings, I signed with him and we’ve been creative partners ever since.

5. What's a piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

The advice I would give to my younger self is just to be patient because everything can turn on a dime.  I was working at a Macy’s cosmetics counter in Beverly Hills, shamelessly pretending to know what I was talking about, when I got an email out of the blue offering me my first job in TV. I often think about that when my career is feeling stagnant or I’m worried about the future. Of course you should always be writing and preparing yourself for when an opportunity comes knocking, but a lot of it is about luck and timing. You never know when that conversation you had with that guy nine months ago is going to come back around and change everything, so just be patient.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sundance 2015 Episodic Story Lab Open For Submission

If you want to enter a TV writing program but have written a pilot and not a spec episode of an existing show, check out the Sundance 2015 Episodic Story Lab! The deadline is February 11, 2015.

From the program's website:
Although the opportunities are growing, there are still few training grounds for independent and diverse voices who want to work in this evolving landscape. With our Feature Film Program Labs serving as a model, the Sundance Institute Episodic Story Lab offers writers (“Fellows”) an opportunity to learn how to develop stories and characters that evolve over multiple episodes in a setting where they can hone their writing skills and gain insight into navigating the changing industry. Working with accomplished showrunners (“Creative Advisors”), as well as non-writing creative producers and studio/network executives (“Industry Mentors”), the fellows participate in one-on-one creative story meetings, pitching sessions, simulated Writers’ Rooms, and group conversations focusing on the key creative and tactical elements that are central to any television writer’s success.  
Following the Lab, the writers receive customized, year-round support including: ongoing creative and strategic advice, year-round mentors, targeted introductions to showrunners, networks, agents and other creative and business professionals, as well as opportunities to shadow working television writers, directors and producers, and visits to the Writers’ Rooms of shows currently in production.
Note: you are not eligible if your pilot was in development at a studio or network, or if you have previously sold a pilot or pitch in the past that has been produced. The submitted pilot may be original or adapted from source material.

To apply, you will need the following:

THE FIRST FIVE PAGES OF YOUR SPEC PILOT

CONTACT INFO

A NARRATIVE BIO of yourself and your co-writer, if applicable, no more than 250 words each (not a resume)

PILOT SYNOPSIS (no more than 500 words)

2-3 PAGE SERIES OVERVIEW (between 1000-1500 words) with the following elements:
  • Series title
  • A series logline: 2-4 sentences that give an overview of the premise, genre, and world of the series
  • A brief description of the central character(s)
  • A brief summary of the story and character arcs for first season. This should NOT be an episode by episode outline. Instead, we want to know, in simple and clear language, how the characters and relationships will change this season, as well as the main thrust of each storyline.
SHORT ESSAY (no more than 300 words per question) responding to the following questions:
  • Why are you interested in developing this story as a series and why is this material uniquely told in episodic form?
  • Is there a specific approach in tone, production, narrative or aesthetic that is central to the execution of this series?
$40 NON-REFUNDABLE PROCESSING FEE, payable by credit card.

For more information, go here.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Bitter Script Reader on his new Michael Bay Book

Friend-of-the-Blog The Bitter Script Reader has written a book: Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films. I asked him 5 Questions about his inspiration, his favorite Bay film and what we can all learn from the director that people seem to love to hate.

How did you get the idea for the book?

It was born of a few things. I'd toyed with the idea of an e-book for a while, but for various reasons I really didn't want to make my debut with a "greatest-hits" compilation of material that was on my blog. I knew if I was doing an e-book - as opposed to having a big publisher who'd shoot this out to brick-and-mortor bookstores - I'd be relying on my existing fanbase to generate sales. It didn't seem either right or feasible to just repackage what they'd already gotten for free and expect them to buy it.

The idea of examining Michael Bay's career grew out of my observations of the reaction to the most recent TRANSFORMERS film. Even before it came out, I kept seeing tweets from people expressing a sentiment more or less like, "God, I hate Michael Bay. Man this movie looks bad..... Seeing it at midnight on opening night!" There's just this fascinating thing where this audience exists that despises him and still can't get enough of him. And THEN they walk out of that movie three hours later acting shocked at how much they disliked it!

I wasn't what you'd call a Michael Bay fan or a defender. Truth be told, until soon before I started this book, I probably fit more comfortably among the detractors. Seeing all the pre-hate for TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION actually made me feel a little bad for it. It seemed to have no chance of getting a fair shake, so I decided that I'd go see the film with a completely open mind. It was an experiment to see if at least some of the hatred for Bay's films comes from people see in them what they expect to find. I decided to presume that there was something meaningful buried in the movie and all I had to do was let it talk to me.

I've grown tired of reading reviews written by the same people who've spent months writing stories all about production problems or studio clashes or whatnot on the same films. If someone's spent a year being snarky about the behind-the-scenes of a film, it's hard to imagine their viewing is completely untainted. Heck, maybe you could argue that they need that particular film to be bad in order to justify their pre-hate. So this really began with that one viewing experience and I found that if you're trying to find some sort of deeper meaning or metaphor in TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, you can make a pretty good case for some theories.

The blog post that spawned quickly became one of my most-read posts ever and from there it was a short hop to "Hey, maybe there's a book to be gotten out of re-examining all of Michael Bay's films that way."

Was it hard to write a book when you're used to writing scripts? Or did it feel similar to your blog writing?

Not at all. If anything, I've been doing this style of writing a lot longer because it took me back to writing examinations of The Scarlet Letter in high school, or dissecting the buried themes of Hitchcock's work in college. I wrote a lot of papers in college, many of which were about taking a position on one critical read of an author's work -- so it was largely effortless.  And of course, as you point out, it's similar to the style I use on the blog too.

The only real challenge was the volume. In college, I'd have balked at having to write essentially 11 thesis papers over about two months. The blog was really good at training me to be able to just sit down and write, revise and know that I'd have to come back the next day and start totally fresh.  For the first half of the book, I typically gave myself a week to work on each film, but by the second half, I was turning out two essays in that time.

What's your favorite Michael Bay movie?

This is probably going to be clear to everyone who reads the book, but THE ROCK wins hands down. It's got one of the best premises that Bay's worked with, and probably his strongest cast. Sean Connery is basically doing a riff on James Bond, how do you not love that? Nicolas Cage is also the perfect counterpoint to Connery's character and there's a lot of smart writing in their dynamic. The dumb version of this would have been Connery as an unstoppable badass and Cage as the tag-along comic relief, but they're both fleshed out beyond that. It's also a stroke of genius that while Ed Harris is the antagonist, he's not a terrible person and you kind of feel sorry for the guy. There's a part of you that can really empathize with why he's taken these hostages and what he's after. It makes for a much richer story when characters aren't reduced to two-dimensions just to keep things easy on the audience.

You can definitely make a case for some of Bay's films having deeper, more profound readings, but THE ROCK is the clear favorite.

What do you think new writers can learn from Michael Bay?

Let me qualify that by saying my answer probably would be more accurately "what they can learn from Michael Bay movies." Bay definitely takes a strong hand in the development of his films and the writers are there to serve him. I don't want to minimize their contributions. Having said that, I addressed some of this talking about THE ROCK, but I think having vibrant characters is a big component. The two leads seem to be archetypes, but there's a power dynamic between them that allows the upper hand to change hands a number of times.

Oh! To relate this back to the book, I'd say that if you're trying to tell a "message" in your script, you'll probably have a better movie if you make sure it works as an entertaining story first. In discussing his films, I find that several of them have hidden meanings, such as THE ISLAND being an allegory for the Hollywood development process, or ARMAGEDDON being about man's relationship with God. I'm willing to be that not many people who saw those films would have picked up on that subtext. It's there for people who are hungry for deeper meaning, but the film doesn't beat you over the head with it.

Action movies don't have to be stupid, You can deal with bigger themes, and it's even better when you don't shove those ideas in the audience's faces. I think it leads to more interesting discussions, post-film. I loved NIGHTCRAWLER, but there's really no debate that the film is an indictment of current media culture. Try talking that over with friends after the movie and you don't have much to discuss but to point out all the well-done moments in the film.

Try starting a conversation about how PAIN & GAIN is actually a very personal confession and plea for absolution from Michael Bay and THEN you have a lively debate. It forces you to be more engaged with the film and to parse it carefully. To young writers, I'd say, "don't be afraid to make the audience work to find the meaning of your film."

Do you have any other book ideas percolating? 

We'll have to see if anyone buys this one first!

But seriously, as I was wrapping this book up, there was this little voice in the back of my head saying "And for the second book, maybe you could do Brett Ratner or McG!" Then the next I had lunch with my buddy Scott Towler, and after I told him about this book, he said "For the sequel you could do Brett Ratner!" So I get that it seems like a logical way to go.

However, in doing research I realized that Bay is the second most-successful director of all-time, if you go by domestic box office. In fact, five of the top six directors in that category also have Oscars for Best Director. Bay is the lone exception. So there's at least some correlation between box office success and artistic recognition. At the very least, it draws a distinction between the sorts of movie Bay makes and the films Ratner and McG makes. If big, loud action was an automatic ticket to huge sucecss, those two men would be up there with Bay. But they're not, and Bay's in the company of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Ron Howard.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Bay IS as gifted as those other men... but it does make a case that Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis and such are more accurately Bay's peers than other purveyors of loud, dumb action. So that's a roundabout way of saying I wouldn't really expect to find the sort of depth in Ratner's work as I did in Bays. If I did write another book, it probably wouldn't be about finding depth in another director's action films. Bay's one of a kind.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Writer Roundtable: Gillian Flynn, Jonathan Nolan, Jon Favreau, Chris Rock, Graham Moore & Anthony McCarten

One of the best things about Oscar season is the roundtables with awesome writers, directors and actors. In this Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL), Jonathan Nolan (INTERSTELLAR), Jon Favreau (CHEF), Chris Rock (TOP 5), Graham Moore (THE IMITATION GAME) and Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) discuss inpsiration, writer's block, bad reviews, likability and happy endings.

Monday, October 27, 2014

5 Questions w/ Caitlin Duffy, Writers' Assistant on Chicago P.D.

Caitlin Duffy is the writers' assistant for Chicago P.D., which airs Wednesdays at 10pm on NBC. On Twitter, she's @duffosaurus_rex . She was kind enough to answer five questions about her job:
 
What's your background?

I've been writing since I can remember, whether it was short stories, terrible poetry, or even more terrible fan fiction, but for a while it was nothing more than a hobby. I went to a liberal arts college, completely unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. After taking an Intro to Film class, I liked what I saw and wanted to work in the entertainment industry. So I decided to major in Film Studies, and a month or two after graduation, I bought a one way ticket to LA!

What was your first industry job?

Of course, I moved out to LA in the fall of 2007, right on the verge of the writer's strike. After 6 months of unpaid internships in film production, I landed my first paid gig through a friend of a friend as an office PA on a pilot. Connections on the pilot got me a reality PA job, and for the next two years, I bounced around different, short-lived reality shows, doing everything from PA work to craft service to transpo.

How did you become a writers' assistant?

I got my first writers' assistant job through a combination of dumb luck and determination. While working in reality, I had signed up for email groups that posted industry job openings and had been actively submitting my resume to any job in scripted for over a year. Finally, the TV gods smiled down upon me and I got an interview on the show Bones. They hired me as an office PA, and I worked in that position for a year. A friend I'd made on the show had heard an executive assistant position was opening on a new show called Breakout Kings. She submitted my resume and I got an interview. Later, they called to say the executive assistant position had been filled, but asked if I wanted the writer's assistant job instead. I've been a WA ever since!

What is a normal day at your job like?

The writers' assistant job can vary a bit from show to show, but in my personal experience, a large bulk of the day is spent in the Writers Room, taking notes, and updating story boards and episode breakdowns on the white boards. The writers will often take breaks from the room to work alone on their personal episodes. During that time, I'll be doing episode research, taking notes on network calls and proofing scripts and outlines. I also handle a lot of random odds and ends, like writer contracts, legal forms, submitting loglines and guest casts to the network, and keeping track of script and outline assignments and submission dates.

What's something you've learned from your job? 

The phrase I always hear repeated is "keep writing!" This is true, not only to keep your portfolio nice and full, but to keep your brain fresh. The more you write, the better you'll get at story telling and problem solving. It can be difficult to keep writing (I often fall off the wagon myself), but important you get back on. Write down any idea you have, no matter how small. Sometimes it's the littlest ideas that grow into something big.

Another piece of advice that I've never been explicitly told, but have observed in my years out here, is that personality goes a long way. People want to hire people they can spend 8-10 hours a day in a writers room with. You can practice writing day in and day out, but if you're stand-offish, bossy, won't take notes or criticisms, or are generally not terribly pleasant to be around, you'll be hard pressed to land a job in a writers room. So, in addition to your writing, work on your collaboration skills too!

Also, please remember there's no one "right" way to get into the industry or find success in it. Some people are in the right place at the right time, or know the right person, and nab their dream job in a heartbeat. Other people take years to gradually climb up the ladder. Some will toil for years then suddenly get find success seemingly overnight. Someone else will be on top of the world until their show gets cancelled, then will flounder in unemployment. Everyone is different, so dwelling on how your current success compares to your peers isn't helpful. You, and those around you, will likely fluctuate between rising and falling. If you are mindful of that and don't let it deter your focus, you'll be OK.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Universal Emerging Writers Program now accepting submissions

Attention feature writers! The Universal Emerging Writers Program, now in its second year, is open for submissions.

From the program's website:
The Emerging Writers Fellowship is an exciting program at Universal Pictures that is designed to identify and cultivate new and unique voices with a passion for storytelling. We are looking for talented screenwriters who have the potential to thrive, but don’t have access to or visibility within the industry. 
Emerging writers who are chosen to participate in the program will work exclusively with the studio over the course of a year to hone their skills. During this program, fellows will be given the opportunity to work on current Universal projects as well as pitch original story ideas. In addition to working on writing assignments, the fellows will receive industry exposure by: 
- Participating in filmmaking workshops and studio seminars
- Receiving mentoring from established filmmakers
- Networking with top literary agents and managers
- Meeting with production development executives
- Attending screenings and premieres 
Fellows admitted into the program will be hired under a writing service agreement and must be committed to working full-time for one year. Additionally, Universal Pictures has the option to extend a fellows’ contract for a second year.

To be eligible for the program, you must be 18 years of age or older and a U.S. citizen or permanent resident without professional produced credits or attachmnt to third-party projects in development.

You must submit an original feature screenplay (no adaptations, biopics or scripts based on underlying materials), an application, release form, statement of purpose, resume and two letters of recommendation from industry professionals.

For more information, click here. You can also follow the program on Twitter and check out its FAQ. Good luck!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Is Relatability Important in a Script?


At some point, we've all gotten notes about "relatablity." That is, how well audiences can identify with the characters, settings, and events in our scripts. To hear many talk about it, it's a make-or-break deal for screenplays: unrelatable ones are "unsellable" or, arguably worse, just flat out unsatisfying slogs to read.

But do characters and stories really need to be relatable?

In the last few years, we've begun to see refutations of the notion that relatability is actually an essential part of storytelling. Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker tracks the (surprisingly) brief history of the word itself and how reductive and dismissive its demand on creative works can actually be. According to Mead, not even storytelling hero Ira Glass is excused from thoughtlessly using the word.

Film Crit Hulk's 2013 Screenwriting 101 also posits that screenwriting theory's obsession with relatability is a distraction from creating genuine empathy-- that the primal, emotional connection between characters is the actual essential part, rather than the depiction of specific circumstances relatability implies. You can jump into FCH's enthusiasm for emphatic screenwriting in section 7 of this excerpt.

Less about straight relatability and more about taking risks with your audience, Black List favorite producer and speaker Lindsay Doran has earned attention and plaudits from the screenwriting community for spinning principles of positive psychology into storytelling insight. They're too many to detail here, but her take on defying our reliance on happy movie endings is particularly resonant with writers, creatives, and, if you trust her examples of successful movies, audiences. The New York Times detailed Doran's career and philosophies in 2012 and she continues to produce films and speak about the power of giving audiences the ending they didn't know they wanted.

We can probably all agree the characters need to be interesting, and that we need to care about whether they succeed or fail -- but not necessarily because we personally have experienced what they've gone through, or because we "like" them ("likable" has become even more of a dirty word than "relatable" in the screenwriting world).

Then again, maybe "relatable" doesn't have to be an idea that boxes us in as writers. In a recent interview, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER creator Peter Nowalk said of hatching the show, "I’m always coming up with ideas — maybe it’s because I’m unoriginal — where it’s a normal person caught in an extreme circumstance. There’s so much good TV on right now, I just wanted it to be loud and extreme and relatable. I was like, 'What [would happen] if I murdered someone?' It started there and then I wanted to do something with a procedural element." So perhaps an idea can be high-concept and exciting but also relatable, if you approach it from the place of putting a regular person in an extreme situation. Doesn't BREAKING BAD's Walter White also start out as a regular person before making extreme choices and putting himself in extreme situations?

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY writer Nicole Perlman suggested in an interview that relatability might be especially important for non-human characters or sci-fi worlds. When asked about keeping characters like Rocket and Groot relatable, she said, "I would say that it’s just like any other science fiction movie – the tree and the raccoon are either aliens or they’ve been subjected to experimentation, and there’s no reason why they’re unusual for a science fiction film. But I do think that what makes them relatable is that they’re going through real emotions, and they have real feelings for each other as friends, and that’s extremely universal."

"It’s funny, Rocket ended up being my favorite character of the group. And even though he’s a raccoon, he’s the most human in the group, in a lot of ways," she continued. "He’s been through a lot, he’s distrustful of people and slow to warm up, but he’s really loyal to his friend Groot and there are all these very human elements to him. So I think in some ways he’s the most relatable character in the entire movie."

Perhaps relatability has more to do with the essentials of humanity than any particular situation or plot choice. What does it mean to you?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Interview: Screenwriter Dan Schoffer of Starz's THE CHAIR

Screenwriter Dan Schoffer has an interesting credit on his resume: he wrote a feature script that's been made into two different movies, NOT COOL and HOLLIDAYSBURG, each directed by two separate directors. Then, the whole experience was filmed for the reality show THE CHAIR, which airs Saturday nights on Starz.

The two movies are currently playing in theaters in NYC and LA through next week. They're also available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and other OnDemand platforms.

On Twitter, he's @danschoffer.

I talked with Dan about his experience with the THE CHAIR, finding a manager, "write what you know" and how a blind email query (!!!) led to the career he has now.

What's your background? How'd you get started in screenwriting?

I grew up in Margate, NJ and went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where I double-majored in English and Theatre Arts. While I realize that the practical merits of these two majors are easy to poke fun at, the truth is that my liberal arts education absolutely prepared me for being a screenwriter. Turning in papers on their due dates is pretty much what I'm still doing today.

College was also where I took my first and only class in screenwriting. It was a one semester "Intro to Screenwriting" course, and it was exactly what my 20 year-old self needed. I had always been a film buff throughout my childhood, but I knew nothing of the nuts and bolts of the screenplay form. The internet was a different place in the late 90's/early 00's -- we didn't have access to every script ever written -- all we had was Drew's Script-O-Rama, which was basically just transcripts. And so this intro course was a real eye-opener, introducing me to actual scripts and to the world of sluglines, Final Draft, and Courier 12.

How did you get involved with THE CHAIR?

Like many of the other breaks in my career, this opportunity came through producer Josh Shader. I've been lucky enough to work with Josh for nearly 6 years now, and in many ways, my "first break" was his returning my blind query email in the fall of 2008. Thankfully, Josh saw some potential in my writing (an ENTOURAGE spec, of all things), and we began collaborating on feature ideas from scratch. After a failed crack at a high-concept rom-com, I pitched him my idea for an ensemble movie about college freshmen who return home for Thanksgiving break weekend. I remember Josh (rightfully) saying that the bullseye on an idea like this was miniscule, but I think he sensed my passion for the concept and he encouraged me to stick with it. Characters and ideas started flowing, and I fell in love with the innate timeframe of freshmen returning home on a Wednesday and going back to school on Sunday. This idea ultimately became the screenplay HOW SOON IS NOW, which we sold to MTV in 2011. They ended up not making the movie over at MTV, but were gracious enough to grant us back the rights to shop around. For the next year or so, we came close with independent financing at a few places, but we just couldn't get over the hurdle. This is where Chris Moore comes into the picture...

Josh and Chris had worked together on the AMERICAN PIE franchise, and had begun collaborating on another project when Chris told him about his concept for THE CHAIR. At this point, Chris was still searching for the right screenplay to bring his crazy concept to reality. I've been told that Chris read some 150 scripts by the time Josh slipped him HOW SOON IS NOW. Maybe it was just fatigue on Chris's part, but I feel fortunate that his search stopped there.

What was the notes process like on THE CHAIR? 

The notes process was the most insane three months of my life. I was rewriting both Shane's and Anna's movies at the same time last fall. Sometimes working on one script in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. And per Chris Moore's instructions, all the main characters had to keep their original names, meaning I had to keep straight multiple versions of Scott and Tori and Heather etc. It was a logistical nightmare. But it was also the most exhilarating few months of my life.

My biggest frustration was the realization that neither director wanted to film the movie I saw in my head. They viewed my script as the jumping off point to fulfill their creative desires. And while it's for the TV show's benefit that Chris Moore chose two directors who would deliver wildly different movies, for me, it was really hard at first. I loved my original script. I spent 4 years working on countless drafts and I wanted to see that movie made. But after meeting Shane and Anna, it was clear that wasn't going to happen. Film is a director's medium. And once a director comes on board, the screenwriter (even in the case of an original screenplay) is there to serve the director's wishes. If you don't do that, you get fired.

Would you consider directing your own work in the future?

Absolutely. I'm dying to direct to my own work. Although... I did see someone on Twitter suggest that for season two of THE CHAIR I direct one of Shane's or Anna's scripts. I wouldn't be opposed to something insane like that, either.

How did you get your manager?

Once again, through Josh Shader. After pitching Josh the idea for HOW SOON IS NOW in fall 2009, it took a full nine months before we got the script to a place where he was ready to show it to anyone. And that nine month period was tough for me. I was a 25-year-old wannabe screenwriter with no industry connections of my own. Josh was the first person to take a chance on me, yet he made no promise that he would ever show the script to anyone. He wasn't going to tarnish his reputation by sending a shitty script around town. So I had to prove myself with my writing. Ultimately, around June 2010, Josh sent the script to a few managers he respected. We got lots of positive feedback and interest, but the most passionate group by far was over at Magnet Management. I signed with them that summer and am still with them today. I feel so lucky to have landed with managers who believe in my writing and support me so thoroughly. Young writers get obsessed with finding agents, but I firmly believe that a good manager is the most crucial first step in building a career. In my opinion, a great manager is someone who let's you know they're in it for the long haul, and then backs that up by developing you when they know full-well it's going to be a couple years before they get any return on their investment. That's what I found with Magnet.

What's something you've learned or how have you changed since moving to LA in 2007?

I've learned to have patience. Lots and lots of patience. The film industry moves at a snail's pace. It takes forever to get a read. And even longer to get a response. And usually that response is going to be "no." But this is where patience comes in...because it only takes one person to say "yes." As writers, we dream of bidding wars for our original screenplays. But that almost never happens. Instead, it's usually one person taking a chance on your script and saying "yes." But that's hard to find. And to actually get a movie made, you'll need multiple people to say "yes" at multiple stages of development. As I've said, the idea for what became NOT COOL and HOLLIDAYSBURG came way back in 2009. At this time, I'm currently rewriting an original script for Dimension Films that I first started working on back in 2010. These timelines are par for the course. If you're expecting to write a screenplay, sell it overnight, and have it made right away, you're in the wrong profession.

What's the best or worst writing or industry advice you've ever gotten?

I think the worst writing advice is the old "write what you know." While there is certainly some truth to that adage -- mainly that you should trust that what interests you will interest other people -- I don't think "writing what you know" is something you should actively seek out. Because you're going to do it anyway. We can't help but write what we know. It's called "voice," and it seeps through everything we put on the page. A couple years ago, those Aaron Sorkin supercuts came out on YouTube and everyone started complaining that he re-used the same dialogue/patterns/jokes over and over. He was suddenly being derided, when his only crime was being prolific. We don't complain about a Neil Young guitar lick sounding too much like a Neil Young guitar lick, so why should we complain about a writer sounding like himself. Meanwhile, Sorkin won an Oscar for a screenplay about Facebook, after publicly admitting that he had never even been on Facebook. I love that script so much. And it's a perfect example of a writer using their voice to write about something they originally knew nothing about.

As far as industry advice goes, it's probably the advice my dad gave me when I was playing sports as a kid: "keep your head up." Just like you can't let striking out at the plate get in your head for your next at-bat, you can't let yourself get down on your writing because someone else doesn't like it. It's such simple advice, yet it's so hard to apply. And I struggle with it every day. Whenever someone passes on or criticizes my work, I can't help but take it personally. Because it is personal. It's your work being judged.  And it hurts when people don't like it. But you can't let every pass or criticism feel like an indictment of your talent. As I said before, it only takes one person to say "yes."

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Interview with Dan Schechter, Writer/Director of 'Life of Crime'

Dan Schechter is the writer/director of LIFE OF CRIME, a film starring Jennifer Aniston that's in theaters and on VOD now. On Twitter, he's @danschechter.

What's your background - how did you get started in screenwriting?

My background is horribly cliched for this line of work: A Jew from Long Island. I went to Emerson, where I studied in writing for film specifically... and then I saw people direct my writing and decided I wanted, nay needed to direct.

Did you ever have a job in the industry, like a PA or assistant?  

No. I like to admit in moments like this that I came from money. I'm not RICH rich, but not needing a day job necessarily for a lot of my twenties was a massive advantage I like to acknowledge because I know most people are not so lucky. The only money I made in the "biz" in my 20s was from re-cutting people's films (like a polisher). That and cutting trailers. Both jobs were incredibly fun and introduced me to some lovely filmmakers and friends. (And of course taught me valuable lessons).

What was your first paid writing opportunity? How did that come about?

In 2005 I wrote a feature called The Big Bad Swim (a comedy about an adult swim class), that I didn't direct, but a friend did. Neither of us was paid for this, and since back in 2005 no one was really making micro-budget features (films for under 100k), we made that movie for about 400k because we had to shoot it on film. We raised the money through many friends and family members.

In 2006, I wrote a script called Goodbye Baby (about a girl who wants to be a stand up comic), which became my directorial debut. For that film, we got very lucky: a single investor put up probably more than we should've spent, almost 800k. I got paid on that, but in hindsight, it wasn't particularly deserved because I was still learning on the job and lucky to have my film financed at all really. The movie hardly made any of its money back and I still feel terrible about that.

Is there anything you've learned since you started, or something you wish you'd known or done differently?

Countless things... Even though it wasn't my first feature, I often wish Supporting Characters (a comedy I made in 2012, about two best friends) was. I think I learned on that film to be more personal, write from within. You have to sort of sweat cliches out of your pores when you start, I think. Most first films are just unconsciously copying other movies... but Supporting Characters was the first time I felt I connected with audiences because it was very truthful to who I was and what was happening to me. I think most first time feature filmmakers should follow examples like Mean Streets, Clerks, Swingers, Brothers McMullen, Tiny Furniture, etc... get your feet wet in a world you know inside and out, that you are the best possible person to tell that story.

How did you get your agent and/or manager?

A good bit of luck. My first feature that I directed, Goodbye Baby (mentioned above) got into Slamdance in 2008. I cut a small trailer for that film and a manager I won't name here saw that trailer and liked it and reached out to me.  I think he liked it because the movie looked commercial (which my sensibility mostly is.) I also later learned that being both a writer AND a director made me all the more appealing (doubling my odds, essentially). He then sent that movie to three agencies: Gersh, UTA, and Endeavor. My agent, Phil, saw the movie at Endeavor and called the manager and said, "Stop sending this movie to other agents, I want to rep him." And we just clicked... Then William Morris and Endeavor merged and I lucked into being repped by the second largest agency... Phil still reps me to this day and has been very kind to and patient with me. The manager and I have since parted ways due to what I believed was his "chronic negativity."

Is there something you still struggle with when writing scripts?

Sitting down and writing them. I FUCKING HATE WRITING. I have no discipline, and it's very hard on my ego to believe in it enough to finish. I don't mind writing this, this I'm enjoying. This is free association and I know what to say... but writing a script... creating something from nothing... nothing is harder for me than that. I've found ways to deal with this. 1) LIFE OF CRIME: Adapt a really good book you connect with that already has amazing characters, set pieces, and a story that all makes sense. 2) SUPPORTING CHARACTERS: Or write something semi-auto-biographical because basically you're just writing YOU and your friends or family and that's 1,000 times easier, to do a slice of life movie about your world. I literally sometimes wrote out conversations that happened that day... and they were pretty good.

How do you decide what to write? Is there any particular theme or topic you find yourself coming back to?

I think I'm so hard on myself and my ideas, that if something keeps nagging at me and coming back up in my mind, it must be fairly good. Right now I'm writing something for Jen Aniston. I have no idea if she'll do it, but I felt I saw how much she was capable of that I hadn't seen her do and I wanted to write a new character for her. I also wanted to say some personal things about me and my family, and so I just kept adding to that character's life, like a Christmas tree. Characteristics for her, story-lines she's dealing with, characters in her life...

It's like: you'll be listening to your iPod... all the music comes and goes and suddenly a song comes on and you KNOW it has to be in the movie. Life is like that... you'll be doing weird shit all day and then at some point you'll be golfing at Chelsea Piers (NYC reference) and say to yourself, This should be in the movie. Even if you don't know why, there's usually a good reason and I love to follow those instincts. Movies feel to me like they already exist and its our job to find them. Like the guy who asks the sculptor how do you sculpt an elephant from stone, and the sculptor responds, "you just sculpt away everything that doesn't look like an elephant."

How did your involvement with Life of Crime come about? Did you get the rights and stuff or was it an open assignment that came to you?

LOOOOONNG story short:
I took the book off my shelf in 2008.
No idea who owned it.
In 8 days, I had a draft that I wrote for fun by basically transcribing a very, very good book and making some smart editorial decisions. I bet the script was 95 pages or so.
I mailed it into Leonard's contact info from IMDB.
They liked it, didn't know who owned rights.
It took TWO YEARS to track down the rights. (In this time, I had given up and joined my parents jewelry business.)
Turns out a 30-year option lapsed a YEAR after I wrote spec.
They looked at it like found money and gave me a year to attach talent (handshake deal, no rights) because they liked me and my "vision."
In a year-ish, we got Mos Def, John Hawkes and then Jen Aniston.
A year after that we had financing, which is another long boring story with a  happy ending.

What interested you about the story in Life of Crime?

Everything. It was everything I couldn't write for myself. I wrote a spec called THE KING OF PRUSSIA. A thriller that took place in King of Prussia, PA. I had 40 speaking parts, too many locations, and plot that was very complex and I wasn't entirely sure it even made sense if someone was paying close enough attention. But, it was pretty good so I tried to make that and failed. Then I read LOC and it was like, ahhhhh..... here are 7 amazing parts, in 6 locations basically and I just loved it. I loved Mickey, the lead. Louis and Ordell (who were in Jackie Brown...) All the parts were characters I treasured, and I truly felt I could do it better than anyone. I saw it in my mind and got the tone. I wanted to protect it like a mother bird.

What's something you learned from working with stars like Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins?

Well, one, that people are that big because they're enormous talents...but I think I learned that actors are always still actors. They want approval, they want a director with a vision and an opinion. They want to play. They both struck me as people who didn't have a major ego that interfered with their work. They were ABOUT the work, and the character and were there to serve the story.

Also, Jen said green tea is very good for you so now I drink it a lot.

Are there any recent films or scripts you find inspiring? What have you loved lately?

Calvary. I'm shocked more people aren't talking about it. I think because I'm so judgmental of films, it's very hard for me to "shut off." But sometimes you sit in a movie and you just know you're in the hands of a fucking pro from the first frame, the first line, and I can let go and enjoy the ride. I felt this way about Calvary and also felt it took on MASSIVE themes in such a clean, unpretentious way. I also felt this way about Planet of the Apes. Those two films knocked me on my ass. I hate being preached at, but I love being asked to think.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Screenwriting links: Fri, Aug 29

My Scripts and Scribes Interview: I answered some questions about my writing background, agency assistant job and professional script reading experience.

Being Mara Brock Akil: The Creator Being Mary Jane Gets Some Shine [Written By]

Inventing the End of the World: Interview with Manhattan's Sam Shaw [WGA.org]

How 'Wild' Saved a 'Lost' Reese Witherspoon [Vulture]
"The ideas of what a woman can and can’t do on film have really changed, and I think that’s in great part thanks to wonderful female writers like Lena Dunham, who tell very honest stories and explore female sexuality without shame. Just recently, I saw Jenny Slate in Obvious Child — so great — and I love characters like that who are that unapologetic and realistic. Even Bridesmaids changed the landscape of what we can see a female lead doing in a film. I’m just excited to be a part of it. I’ve never seen a film like Wild where the woman ends up with no man, no money, no family, no opportunity, but she still has a happy ending."

Can Jill Soloway Do Justice to the Trans Movement? [NY Times]

Writers Are Scared: Interview w/Geena Davis [Makers.com]

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What to expect in Black List and Nicholl Fellowship reader comments

Joshua Caldwell over at Hollywood Bound and Down has posted two comments he received from Nicholl readers and one comment from a Black List reader. Definitely check out the post if you're considering submitting your script to either place.

I was shocked by Comment 2, which came from a Nicholl reader. It's more personal than analytical, containing phrases like "Normally I want to run for the hills as soon as I see a script set in the Middle East. I have no patience or interest in them usually," and "This was a solid script, and even though it's not my cup of tea per se, I really did enjoy it...and that should say something."

Nicholl Comment 1 and the Black List comment were more specific and professional, but I find myself wondering: would these notes help you in a rewrite? By design, these comments are more like the ones you'd see in coverage for a studio, production company or agency. They indicate to other industry professionals if the script is worth reading; they're not crafted to be tools for writers trying to imrprove. That's not a bad thing -- but it's something to be aware of.

The Black List aims to find excellent screenplays and connect them to people looking for excellent screenplays. It is most helpful to writers whose scripts achieve a very high score (8-10), and founder Franklin Leonard has been candid about how lower-scoring scripts will probably not be discovered by industry pros on the site, telling writers, "If you're not finding traction for your script on our site, stop giving us your money." Similarly, the Nicholl aims to find the very best screenplays written by non-established writers. In 2013, it received  7,251 entries and will select only five fellows.

So here's where it gets tricky for writers: if you get a low score, especially one accompanied by comments that indicate that the reader read the script very quickly or didn't seem to "get it," should you rewrite the script based on these suggestions? And for the Black List, should you pay another $50 for another read? On one hand, the first reader is just one person with one opinion -- maybe another reader would feel differently. But on the other hand, your sense of hope is encouraging you to shell out more money, and you could get caught in an expensive cycle. "The thing is no two readers are alike. You may pay to have several pro readers provide feedback on your script and each may have a differing take on it," writes Scott Myers at Go Into the Story. "This could end up confusing you, providing no clear path through the rewrite. So there are dangers in getting too many assessments."

I know writers who have gotten evaluations containing typos, incorrect loglines, incorrect story information/key facts, etc. But on the flip side, I know writers who got thoughtful ones. Some have even found reps and launched their careers because of the Black List.

The Black List only pays its readers $25 a script, but does at least encourage writers to contact customer service if they feel their evaluation was too rushed. From their FAQ: If you believe the reader did not thoroughly read your script, reach out to us outlining the reasons you believe so with any specifics from the review. Note that ratings themselves, whether high or low, are not an indicator of a bad review. We want to make sure that all scripts are given a thorough and fair read. Any factual inaccuracies, for instance, will be taken seriously. But we try to separate valid opinions from clear misreadings of the script.

Ultimately, if your script is in great shape, the Nicholl and the Black List might be able to help, especially if you need access more than you need notes at this point in your career. In an industry that's nearly impossible to break into, they offer rare opportunities. Maybe I'm biased because I offer notes to writers too, but if you receive an low score and evaluation you agree with, you'll probably want to rewrite the script -- and I'm not sure these types of brief comments will help you do that.

Monday, August 18, 2014

When to give up on the entertainment industry

JR writes: I've been an appreciative reader of your blog for a couple of years (love it!), throughout which I also worked in NYC television and film development and production as a production assistant. I originally went into the industry because I was in love with the idea of doing something for a living that was grounded but involved creative decision-making. My ultimate pipe dream job: be Jennifer Lee.

I left the industry about a year ago because I didn't even see my bosses making any creative decisions; they were coordinating logistics and playing to the lowest common denominator audience desired by advertisers - basically what I was doing, but for more money and under more pressure. The long hours didn't leave me time to do any of my own creative work, or to have any kind of social life, for that matter. For the last almost-year, I've been doing some teaching and soul-searching (aka the ultimate pastime/disease of our generation). I'm not happy teaching, and can't quite shake my vague TV/film dreams as I watch former coworkers move up and become "accomplished."

Do you know anyone who left the industry with similar frustrations? How did they find creative fulfillment and pay their bills? As a Hollywood insider, have you heard any solid advice on grappling with this? As I see it, I have three options: 

1) Kill the dream, find something else to do with my life and continue to write email stories for my friends.

2) Stay in the industry, keep paying my dues, and hope the right opportunity comes along someday.

3) Find a flexible day job and do as much creative work of my own on the side as I possibly can. 

I completely understand what you're going through. Working at a job you don't like can be soul-crushing, especially when you're not making enough money to build savings. The only reasons for a writer to stay at a low-paying entertainment job are to learn about the industry and to make important connections who can help you get a better job, buy or produce your material, represent you, etc. If none of these things are happening, it's time to quit the job and find a better one. You mention that your former co-workers have moved up, but in what way? If your dream is to be a writer or writer-director, it's not necessarily worth your time to try and get promoted in development or production. If you do want to work in these areas, as you've found, it can be a long and political struggle. I'm afraid I don't have much specific advice for that, except that you have to find a job in a place where there's room for advancement and where your bosses like you and actually want to promote you. I do think, though, that after a year or two in the industry, you need to have a specific goal (writing, directing, producing, etc.). Yes, there are lots of people who do multiple things, but if you're hoping for a kind of amorphous "success in entertainment," that might be a problem. You say "grounded but involved in creative decision making" (is that development?), but then you mention Jennifer Lee, a writer-turned-writer-director.

Yes, I've had some development friends leave the industry for good because it just wasn't working out. I'm not sure about their creative fulfillment; I feel like they were people who liked movies and TV but weren't as creatively obsessed as my writer friends. It's certainly possible that you could find a fulfilling career in another industry...maybe teaching just isn't it? Meanwhile, I know writers who left their industry jobs but still pursued writing careers. They work as babysitters, tutors, Apple Store geniuses, translators, receptionists, baristas and delivery drivers, but they all hope to quit these jobs and Just Write someday.

You've already kind of answered your own question with the answers you've laid out. If you decide that becoming a screenwriter is too challenging, maybe you've reached the end of the road and now you just need to find an outlet for your creative urges -- like the emails to friends you mentioned. You can also blog, take writing classes or make videos, but with no hopes of this hobby resulting in a professional career. Maybe being part of a book club or attending panels and screenings would be fulfilling, too -- or maybe they'd just make you wish you were still in the industry. I don't know. Only you can answer the question of whether creative hobbies will be enough for you.

If you decide you want to continue to pursue a screenwriting career, then you need to choose whether to find a day job in the industry or outside of it. But if you do get another industry job, you can't expect it to magically turn into a writing career. "Hope the right opportunity comes along" sounds a bit passive. Even if you're working in entertainment, you need to be doing creative work of your own on the side. I left my agency day job not because I couldn't write in the off hours, but because I had learned everything I was going to learn, had made valuable connections, and could find a better salary pretty much anywhere else. If your new job is simply too exhausting, you might decide to leave the industry once you've made some connections, because you need to find time to write. Did you really put in the effort with your writing? How many scripts did you write? Did any industry professionals ever give you feedback? Did you ever try to apply to a writing program or fellowship? Have you ever tried directing or producing a short?

Then comes the hard, endless part: monitoring your success and continually deciding to persevere (or give up). I've had to find comfort in small achievements, reminding myself that 2007 me would be impressed with little things like getting a manager, finding a producer to develop with and getting hired for an assignment. These intangible milestones have made me think I'm not totally crazy to believe I can do this. But if a decade goes by and I'm still writing script coverage about hookers and teaching grammar to teenagers, maybe I'll change my mind.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

What's the difference between an average script and a great one?

Ed writes: As you’ve read and evaluated scripts, are there common ingredients missing in a script that is good but not good enough to go anywhere? Are there characteristics you notice between a script that’s OK and one that’s oh-my-God-I-have-to-see-this-made!

This is a great question -- and it's difficult to answer. You're onto something with the idea of the "oh-my-God-I-have-to-see-this-made" script. On a practical level, your script needs to be something that will make the reader take action. A script that will make them write "Consider" or "Recommend" in coverage, forward it on to a boss or other person who has the ability to take the script to a buyer, buy the material themselves, or represent the writer. If your script doesn't make a reader do one of these things, then they didn't love it that much.

A reader friend of mine said that after ten years of reading over 10 scripts a week, he only remembers about 15 scripts. I feel similarly; sometimes I'll be asked about a script I read two days ago and I'll have to re-read my coverage because I can't remember anything about the script. Unfortunately, most scripts are forgettable. Fine. Standard. Mediocre. So that's step one: you need to write something memorable.

I know that might sound intangible and unhelpful, but that's because impressive scripts are memorable for all different reasons. A script might have a really unique main character or point of view, laugh-out-loud dialogue or a high-concept, unusual premise. But the common theme in all of these things is originality. Most of the scripts I read feel a lot like all the other scripts I read (or movies I see). Most scripts have nothing new, fresh or different about them. They present characters who are just like every other character, dealing with the same things you've seen a thousand times before. They go through all the plot points you expect, with no real surprises or turns. Nothing that makes you think, "I've never thought of that" or "I've never seen that before." One of the challenges of screenwriting is working within convention and structure without resorting to the cliche, formulaic and expected.

Another difference between OK and great scripts is polish. Great scripts feature action and description that create mood and atmosphere along with dialogue that sticks in your head. Don't miss any opportunity to show off how well you can write. When people read your script, they should feel like they're experiencing a great movie -- but you don't have the advantage of the actual visuals or performances, so your words on the page need to convey everything: emotion, atmosphere, intensity. Is reading your script an experience?

Keep reading professional scripts and you'll see the difference. Also, if you're working to make your current script better, the problem might be in the concept itself. You can polish characters, dialogue, etc., but if people don't find the premise memorable or original, it may be time to move onto another idea.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

U.S. Writers: Go to Africa With Vocativ's New Short Script Competition

Want to make a film in Africa? Check out Vocativ's new short script competition.
We are launching a nationwide competition to find an original script for a short film that will be produced and shot in Nigeria’s film capital, Nollywood. 
We want to see how the magic is made. To do this, we will take the winning screenplay to a producer in Nollywood and follow the process from casting to postproduction. The completed film will be posted on our website. 
Here’s what we are looking for: a character-driven script that is no more than 10 minutes long, set in the present day, in the English language, utilizing no more than four locations—and regrettably involving no special effects. The deadline for submissions is Aug. 18, and you must be a U.S. resident to enter. 
Our Vocativ panel will judge the entries based on certain criteria (see Contest Rules), and we will announce the winner on our website on Aug. 25.
For more information, click on over to the Vocativ website.

Monday, July 28, 2014

What is a tracking board?

Heather writes: I've heard about tracking boards -- are you on any? Should I pay for a membership? 

Tracking boards are email groups/message boards where assistants and others in the industry share scripts and information (email addresses, job opportunities, info about what specs have hit the market, etc.) I'm on a couple, but they're free; the idea is that you're an assistant (or someone) who has access to some information and scripts, and you're willing trade that access with other people who can give you access to their own information/scripts/etc. You can check out this 2013 Studio System article about some of the tracking boards in Hollywood.

If you're only taking things and not offering anything, then your membership is less useful to people -- but not everyone works in the industry, so in recent years, people have started paid tracking boards like tracking-board.com and trackingb.com. I don't have personal experience with these boards (please comment if you do).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Should a writer join an agent trainee program?

C writes:  I'm contemplating applying to an agent trainee program and wanted to pick your brain about a few things. I want to write for TV and from the jobs I see on the tracking boards, 99% of them require at least a year at an agency. If I advance to the interview stage, do I lie when asked if I want to be an agent? Plus, there's my MFA in Writing & Producing for Television. Do these programs know people apply for other reasons besides the agent track?

Working at an agency is a great idea for an aspiring writer. You'll start working with agents, writers, directors, managers and assistants to managers, producers, studio executives and network executives. Although the pay is dismal and everyone's experience is different (my boss was nicer and had a lower volume desk than most), I'm really glad I worked as an assistant at an agency. Like you, I soon realized that I would have a hard time even getting an inerview to be a development assistant without a year of agency experience. I didn't end up continuing on that development path, but the agency experience was still valuable: it's how I met my manager, the first producer/director I developed a script with, and the first producer who hired me for a paid assignment. I'm not sure where I'd be had I not worked there.

I don't think you have to outright lie in an agency assistant job interview. It's true that some agencies will not want to hear that you're a writer (they worry that you're just trying to get them to represent you, and that you suck as a writer), so I wouldn't specifically say that you're still a writer. Still, you don't have to talk about how much you want to be an agent, either. Just spin it that you're not sure what exactly you want to be -- you want to find out more about agenting and producing, and you want to learn as much as you can, etc. -- and you'll be fine. And yes, agents and HR reps know that lots of people apply to agencies just to get some experience before moving on to other things. Usually, as long as you stay for the amount of time you promised, agents will even make calls to help you get your next job. (For more on interviewing, check out my old post about interview tips.)

The trainee program is a bit different; when it comes to trainees, agencies are looking for people who definitely want to become agents. They'd be putting too much of an investment in you if you're just looking to do a year and get out. This might be a moot point, though; usually, trainees are chosen from people who are already assistants inside the agency. Where I worked, even some seasoned assistants were rejected when they applied to be trainees. I know UTA will advertise for its trainee program on the UTA list, but I'd be surprised to learn that outsiders were chosen. (Please comment if you know otherwise.) Also, be aware that agencies and their trainee programs can be very political. You might be brilliant and hard-working, but if you're not on the right side of the right people, you're doomed. Some of this stuff is totally out of your control.

For both assistant and trainee positions, an MFA can only be an asset. Yes, it might betray your writing aspirations, but it's not like people commonly get MFAs in Talent Representation. Lots of agents went to film school (plenty for writing/producing), and although entertainment professionals hold a variety of degrees, I don't see how an MFA in Writing & Producing could ever be seen as a bad thing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

TV writing podcast Children of Tendu wraps up "Season 1"

Molina (left) & Grillo-Marxauch

To an intimate, live audience of exclusive Twitter invites, the Children of Tendu podcast recorded their 13th and (for the time being) final episode this week. Hosts and TV writers Javier Grillo-Marxauch (CharmedLostMedium) and Jose Molina (FireflyCastleSleepy Hallow) held an open discussion with the crowd, fielding questions about TV writing, reminiscing, and offering up the same generous insights and sharp irreverence that has made their new podcast so popular with aspiring writers.

Topics included how maintain emotional health while being a writer in Hollywood ("Get a psychotherapist."), how keep perspective while getting notes ("You write for free, you get paid to take notes."), and how not to become a clinging neurotic with your reps ("Seriously-- get a psychotherapist."), just to name a few. The full episode is now available for download, along with all other 12 episodes.

The hiatus comes just at the end of staffing season, as both hosts move on to more television work: Grillo-Marxuach will continue is work on Syfy's Helix, and Molina will start on Marvel's new Agent Carter series. Luckily for us, the pair is planning on coming back for a "second season" of podcasting, with more guests and shop talk.

In the meantime, they encourage questions on Twitter. You can find Javier Grillo-Marxauch @OKBJGM, Jose Molina @JoseMolinaTV, and the podcast account at @ChildrenofTendu. They also have a pretty sweet Tumblr full of supplemental material.

Let's hope season 2 comes quickly!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Creative Spark: Tina Gordon Chism & Dustin Lance Black

Academy Originals has launched a YouTube series of interviews with professional screewriters about creativity and the writing process. Take a look!

Friday, May 23, 2014

5 Questions with 'Hit the Floor' Staff Writer Judalina Neira

Judalina Neira is a Staff Writer on VH1's Hit the Floor, which premeries its seecond season this Monday, May 26 @ 9/8c. 

On Twitter, she's @TheJudalina.

1. How did you get your job on Hit the Floor?

​Y'know how they always say that right when you stop looking for something, that's when you find it? (Yeah, I hate that saying, too. I should really stop looking for my lost keys for them to magically appear in my hands?)

Well, I guess "they" are right, because that's exactly what happened. I'd been so excited to be hired as a writer's assistant on Do No Harm in 2012 and to be in NBC's Writers on the Verge program in 2013. But even still, I was getting close but no cigar on the staffing circuit. It was last summer, after the traditional network staffing season had already finished, I was freelancing while working on my tan, when my agents told me I had a meeting for Hit the Floor.

A marathon session of the show, and a few in-person and over-the-phone interviews later, and I got a call saying I had the job. I think I played it pretty cool when my manager called with the news. Immediately after, though, I turned to my roomie and started to cry: "I'm getting into the union. I'm going to get health insurance." (I swear, the WGA did not pay or otherwise endorse this statement!)

2. What was writing your first episode like? 

Like a lot of serial dramas, we break story as a room and the first couple episodes were assigned early on (so I knew within a month that I'd be writing episode 6). We had a loose idea of what big serialized story points we wanted to cover and then, as a room, pitched other more stand-alone stories to fill in any gaps.

One of the best pieces of advice I got on writing TV was while visiting Josh Friedman in The Finder's writers room during the NHMC writing program. Josh said study your showrunner's writing style. Down to the punctuation. Do they use -- or - ? Are they more poetic or prosaic? Are there words they're partial to? I'd keep a copy of my showrunner's outline or script on my desk and consult it to match character tone/voice.

All that said, you are going to be rewritten. Hopefully, though, you're turning in something where your boss feels like the rewriting is minimal and not like, "Oh god. There goes my weekend."

Notes are your scary-looking but actually really awesome friend. A chance to test out if what you're intending to do on the page is coming across. If something's not clicking with the network or producers, it's definitely not going to click for the audience.

3. Some people say that staff writers need to shut up and listen, while others say that you need to speak up enough and contribute enough ideas to earn your keep -- how have you approached that/what is your participation in the room like?
​​​​
​I'm a mouthy, Puerto-Rican​ gal, so my gut is always to speak up. That being said, the only real answer to this question is: It depends on your room.

Being in a writer's room is like striking up a conversation with a girl sitting alone at a bar. You've gotta be sensitive and really read the temperature. We're a small room so there's space to pipe up. But just like chatting with the hot girl at the bar, it's important to remember to listen, take cues, be respectful and most importantly, do your general best not to say stupid stuff.

4. How did you get your agent and/or manager?
 ​
​Most of the reps I've worked with so far I've met at various mixers/social functions. I love to drink and chat to strangers​. That's just me. If that's not you, reader, fear not. Referrals from repped friends or producers/execs, etc are the most common way, I believe. But if you, too, are partial to drinking and schmoozing, the above rules about chatting with the hot girl at the bar also apply to chatting up industry folks at events.

5. What's something you've learned about writing or the industry from your job?

​There is no one single way to tell a story. This lesson makes me so happy, because sometimes when I'm working alone, I think - "Crap. This is terrible. This is WRONG. This is never going to work."

Then I remember every time I've seen a writer pitch a story or write a scene that was an approach I would have never considered that totally works. Then I go home and remind myself in my own writing: "Alright, girl. It's okay. You're not wrong, you just haven't figured out the Tim Gunn of it yet." With the Tim Gunn being only the best creative advice given ever: "Make it work."