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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Sheila Hanahan Taylor Interview, Part 2

Here is Part 2 of my interview with Practical Pictures' Sheila Hanahan Taylor. Enjoy!

Most of my readership is made up of developing screenwriters who have yet to gain representation, and have not sold or optioned any scripts. What advice can you offer them in moving from that stage to eventually becoming working screenwriters?

These are my top 6 rookie errors:

1. Thinking your script is ready to show people, when it isn't.

Remember, most Hollywood execs, agents and producers read a person's script exactly once. So, when you're sure your script is really really ready, I suggest putting it in a drawer for 3 weeks minimum before you take it out to send places. Look it over. You'll have a fresh eye when you revisit the material. After those 3 weeks, I'd rewrite it again. Then I'd have people read it and make more suggestions. Ask yourself if what you've written would stand out at the multiplex. Ask yourself if you'd pay $10 to see it. Ask yourself if you think it is worth a $200,000 spec sale. I'd do that two or three times before giving it to anyone who matters.

2. Not reading enough professional screenplays.

Ideally, an aspiring writer reads an early draft and a later draft, or compares it to the finished film. There's a ton to be learned from the rewriting process, and usually rookies underestimate what constitutes a rewrite. Dialogue fixes aren't rewrites – they're polishes! Sometimes seeing how a project evolved can shed light on the overall craft of storytelling.

3. Treating screenwriting like a hobby instead of a career.

Take this journey seriously. The art of screenwriting is a craft that takes years to master. Dabbling is fine if you just want to dabble but if you want to eventually earn a living, you need to make this pursuit a lifestyle.

4. Writing the script as if you were going to direct the material.

I see this a ton. Professional writers write. Directors direct. If a script can't convey the mood on the page without naming specific music cues or describing camera angles to enhance the story, then the writing isn't strong enough to begin with. Also, as many writers have figured out, you have more room on the page for prose and good dialogue if you omit the camera angles and blocking minutia.

5. Rookies often think they're special, or their script idea is special... when they aren't.

Listen, I'm not talking about ego. I'm just talking about the idea that, in addition to the fact that there really are a finite number of stories out there and there's an even more finite number of reasons people/characters are motivated to "do something," there isn't a story an exec or producer at a certain level hasn't already considered. Seriously. If you weigh the volume of material we receive against the number of half-decent scripts out there, we've seen it all. Only about once a year does an idea or notion come my way that is 100% unique and fresh, so odds are your idea isn't the one.

So then the key to standing out is about how you deliver that familiar idea so that it feels fresh. Most likely we already know how the film will wrap up – that's hinted at in Act One – so the thing that gets most people invested is how you present the events in Act Two. Make that special, and you'll be in much better shape than the guy who imagines they have the once-in-a-lifetime genius idea that they're certain we haven't ever heard. (We have!)

6. Not knowing enough about how Hollywood really works.

There's something to be said for the writers who are true introverts, who don't read the trades, who just hang and write. The reality is most of those people don't actually make a living as screenwriters. Sadly, Hollywood is a very big and lucrative business, and the people who are surviving in it take it as seriously as any other successful person thriving in their chosen career. No, we're not curing cancer here in LA-LA land, but there's big money at stake, and when there's money at stake people bring their A-game. Get to know who matters and who doesn't. Learn how contracts and guilds work. Understand who makes decisions and who can make your life easier. Just being talented, just being a good writer isn't enough to help you achieve your dreams.

So, you know that what originally led me to post your name, and what led to the entire saga of my pseudo-quest to find out about you was that I had begun writing a vampire western script (known as Hell on Wheels), and that you had been quoted in Done Deal as not ever wanting to read another one of those scripts again. (I found that quite humorous, by the way.)

Fair enough, and I knew before I started what a joke that particular combination had become around town. And yet, I decided to go ahead with it anyway. Would you consider that an unwise decision, having known all I knew?

That's a tough call. Just when I think a script in my hands might suck, because the idea is so tired and shopworn, some writer figures out a way to make a very familiar and overdone world/genre just grab me. So, I guess I would say the answer lies within you: if you were really dying to write it and had done your research so you were pretty sure you had cracked a new way "in" or a fresh way to deliver the tale, then you might want to write it and use it as a way to redefine the genre.

From a more practical POV, I'd still press a writer to again evaluate their goals: if you want to accomplish a draft, then write from inspiration. If you want to land an agent, write with a great voice and from a more mainstream sensibility. If you want to sell something, work on your commercial taste and create a unique story with roles for movie stars... but remember that box office success is king and no one but no one can overcome a bomb or a topic that's just plain ole tainted, so chose your "tough love" project wisely. Oh, and do your best to find a strong director or producer who can help you see your vision through.

Shortly after I decided to write Hell on Wheels, I found that Ghost House had purchased Priest, another (you guessed it) vampire western. I think my concept is a lot better than theirs, but that’s irrelevant. My question is, would you think that would improve my chances of selling HoW, or make those slim chances even slimmer?

Personally, I'd say it makes the odds slimmer. Perhaps not to get bought, but certainly to get made. This is where the artist-brained writers need to take 5 and consider the business angle: there are only so many sources of production financing and distribution. There are only so many slots devoted each year to releasing horror films.

In this case, Ghost House – a company with a great team and reputation – has now gotten in line ahead of you in the queue. They beat you with their press release and the sold script and will most likely, now that they're up and running, beat you in the progress to having a production draft. Even if you were to sell yours tomorrow, you're behind... and if someone who finances these kinds of films or a director who helms genre pictures were weighing whom to work with, who would they most likely choose? Most people want to get movies made, so they back the horse with the best shot at seeing the silver screen. Your script might be better but unless you have a big dog in your corner helping you get noticed, your job just got harder by being late to the ball.

That being said, anyone can take their pet project and point to a number of competitive projects out there, so the key to getting anything bought or made is to have the superior product that stands the test of time as the other projects get tripped up and veer off course. But the question remains: what is the definition of a superior product? Some may argue that it isn't the script but the reputation of the people involved with the project. In my book if I were considering two similar horror projects, Ghost House beats most, hands down.

Thanks, Sheila! This has been fun, and maybe even a little ego boost for you too! Hopefully it will lead to good things coming your way as well.

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Anonymous Leif Smart said...

Good interviewing, thanks for taking the time to set it up Joel and Shiela of course for participating!

Nice to hear some of the pitfalls I should try to avoid, and to see that I've already avoided a couple of them 8)

3:36 AM  
Blogger Chris (ukscriptwriter) said...

Rookie mistake #3 is the catch 22 for most wannabe screenwriters.

We can't give 100%, sell our souls, and hunt down meetings 24-7 because of the day job, BUT we can't give up the day job until our writing can support us (and the family if applicable).

Round and round the merry-go-round we go :)

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Sheila Hanahan Taylor said...

Hey Chris -- Sheila here. I hear you loud and clear on the catch 22! What I should have clarified is really that the hobby/career struggle for most isn't about getting meetings, it is about spending time in front of the keyboard. Scott Frank, one of my favorite writers, often talks in interviews about his early days before being a working writer -- he mentiones how, on the days he didn't have a "great spec idea" to work on, he would instead go back and rewrite his existing scripts to make them stronger. He'd rework dialogue; he would find a way to enhance a character's entrance; he would push himself to refine theme. He was sitting at the keyboard as long as he could manage, honing his craft, in-between his bartending gigs and family time. He took the writing part very seriously. With that kind of devotion he was acting like a working writer before getting the job...and those habits earned him the job! And, yes, after a long day at work, spending massive amounts of time in front of the key board can be really taxing, but from most of the people I've met who've made the jump to "professional writer" they will tell you at every turn they approached it as if someone else out there was working harder and smarter than they were, so they had to find the time, find the energy, find the inspiration to dig deep and do their best. And that attitude paid off. Good luck with the journey!

2:34 AM  

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