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Exclusive Interviews

Howard Jordan Jr. (Part 2)

By | Exclusive Interviews

It’s been two short years, and you went from runner-up in the Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition to staff writer on a CBS comedy. What pieces had to fall into place to get there? What was the process like? 

I’m not sure if this is a good thing, along the lines of hopeful or inspirational, or a sad thing, a little more disappointing to hear. But all the clichés are true. Keep writing. Keep networking. Keep improving.

There is no singular route to a room, or a sell. What continues to prove effective for me is making time to write and being receptive to notes. If you do that, you’ll get better. If you get better, your odds of taking a leap forward will also.

Certainly, participating in the 2016-2017 CBS Writers Diversity Program was a critical piece in your career puzzle. How much did it change your perceptions and knowledge of the industry? 

It was everything.

When I moved to LA in the summer of 2013, I knew I wanted to transition from my career in advertising as a creative director. But I didn’t know how. Worse than that, I didn’t know anyone. Oh, and did I mention, I also didn’t have any material, yet?

Through family connections and friends of friends, I began to meet working television writers at various levels. The one suggestion that continued to pop up; “Apply to the diversity programs.” But that is rarified air. Eight spots per program and applicant fields ranging between 1,300 to 2,500.

That pursuit is where my education really began. So, I have to mention it. It’s not as simple as 1-2-3. I used a further-developed version of the script named runner-up at Script Pipeline with a brand new Brooklyn Nine-Nine spec to get into the CBS program.

The program reinforced things I already knew from a long career as a creative professional. But the true discovery came in the importance of telling personal stories in conversation and on the page that only you can tell. It educated us about what the industry is looking for, what is expected of a staff writer, and it made it clear that “I can do this.”

The experience on Superior Donuts: what has met your expectations, and what hasn’t? We’re sure there was some degree of hesitation early on, but did you get comfortable with this new environment right away, or did it take some easing into? What’s been the biggest hurdle? 

My expectations were surpassed the moment I got the opportunity to step inside the room. The best thing about being a staff writer is that the success of the show has almost nothing to do with you. You are there to learn and contribute to the direction of the showrunner. It’s that simple.

As far as comfort, you have to feel out the room. In sports terms, play your position. I’m still finding my footing after 30 weeks. It takes time. But I happen to be in a very welcoming, encouraging space with seasoned, proven pros. The only hurdle is learning to be on for 10 hours a day with the same people at the same table, for 9 ½ straight months. I wasn’t ready for such a never-ending dinner party.

No secret that writers are flocking to TV. We started reviewing TV material in 2008, and it’s incredible to see the number of pilots now compared to then. What are key points a writer should keep in mind when developing an original pilot? Do they really have as much creative flexibility as they think they have, or should they take a more rigid approach to what types of concepts they pursue?

I’m no development expert just yet. But I’d suggest making damn sure you love the premise and the characters, write it with purpose, and be ready to write it as many times as it takes to get it just right. Then, take notes and rewrite it. Then, scrap it and start over again, if needed.

I do believe the field is wide open. Write what you love. There are so many outlets looking for content. If you write something that can sell, someone will buy it. Or at least I hope that’s the case. I’m kind of depending on it.

In 2015, we asked where you saw yourself in 10 years—you said having three sitcoms on-air simultaneously. Has that changed? Have you been able to balance writing your own scripts with the demands of writing for the show? 

It hasn’t changed one bit. That’s still my end game. Why not.

The commitment to the room comes first. It’s hard to do, for sure. It takes time management and a very patient spouse. But if you want it, there’s always time to push something forward or explore something new. You make it. You find it.

Keep writing. Keep networking.

Superior Donuts airs on CBS Mondays at 9pm.

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Ashley Locher

By | Exclusive Interviews

– Ashley Locher, runner-up of the 2017 Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition with End of Life

End of Life deals with some heavy topics, but what struck us is that you very wisely–and very carefully–avoided drawing too fine a point on the message behind the story. Was it difficult to keep things grounded while avoiding the risk of melodrama and “taking sides,” so to speak, on the issue of medically assisted suicide?

I believe the only way to construct a substantial argument is by exploring the counterarguments. Consequently, I was insistent upon creating characters to represent both sides of the debate. Because of this, End of Life never sought to take sides–it sought to pit the inherent value of human life against the right of a terminally ill patient to die. Hopefully, this does as you said and avoids “drawing too fine a point on the message,” therefore expanding the target demographic and engaging more people in the conversation.

Switching gears a bit, comedy was key in keeping End of Life grounded. That sounds counterintuitive, but had I leaned merely on dramatic tension to drive the story, the script would have been nothing more than a low-budget mumblecore. Besides, I don’t know many people excited to grab a bucket of popcorn and cozy up to watch a dying woman try to expedite the process unless you throw in a little comedy. Moreover, death remains a taboo subject. How better to approach a taboo subject than with humor?

One of the big draws in the script is the straightforward and charismatic lead. For us, it was refreshing to see things from a different perspective—through the eyes of someone older as opposed to, say, a teenager dealing with death. Both are heartbreaking, both get the point across on controlling one’s own mortality. But what influenced your decision to feature an elderly woman as the protagonist? Or does POV matter in this case? What would change, if anything, in the story’s roots had the protagonist been a different character entirely?

Well, the obvious reason I chose an elderly woman as the protagonist is because there are too few roles in Hollywood for women over 40. But, as mentioned above, I recognize death remains a taboo subject. And it becomes even more taboo when discussed in reference to someone without age spots. Since I already planned to address a controversial issue, I felt it best to approach the story from a more digestible angle.

So yes, I think the POV would absolutely change since an elderly woman with a terminal illness has very different considerations than a teenager with a terminal illness. Plus, I also wanted to explore the way death affects a strained mother/daughter relationship, which looks very different when written from the mother’s perspective (like I did) than the daughter’s perspective. One imitates the natural progression of life while the other is reminiscent of tragedy.

Oh, and also: a crass old woman is so much funnier than a crass teenager.

Are you sticking to certain genres or themes? How important do you think it is for writers to develop a niche?

While I believe writers should have the freedom to explore whatever material they connect with, I also believe creatives are frequently drawn time and again to certain genres and themes–often without recognizing it. For example, a new writer might have samples ranging from dark comedy to action/adventure. But if they all deal with dysfunctional families, you have a niche. Being self-aware in this way allows you to quickly assess any given situation and find a way to assert your value.

You received a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting, which is no simple accomplishment. How important do you feel post-graduate education is in improving one’s skills as a writer? Whether it’s in a formal university setting or otherwise? What advice would you give to screenwriters starting out?

First and foremost, an MFA in Screenwriting is absolutely not necessary to become a successful screenwriter. But for a young girl from the Midwest with a Bachelors in Psychology and no connections in LA (such as myself), an MFA in Screenwriting is definitely worth considering. Not only has it allowed me time to build a polished portfolio, it has provided me with valuable opportunities and a built-in network. Moreover, attending an MFA program has fostered my creativity by providing an environment where I can be surrounded by talented classmates and experienced professors who constantly push me to better myself.

Of course my writing has improved, but much of that comes from something you can do with or without a post-graduate education: practice–write as much as you can, as often as you can. And read! Every script you can find. Whether you’ve been writing for years or are just starting out. Even before moving to Los Angeles, I spent most of my time studying the industry from afar.

Writers are always asked what their ultimate plans are for the future. But it’s so difficult to look that far down the line, especially in an industry where opportunities can change in a second. What are you aiming for in the near-term? What do you feel is the best route for you personally, and how might that be the same (or different) for other writers in your position?

Since I’ll be graduating soon, my immediate goals consist of polishing samples and networking as much as possible. Because there are so many people vying for jobs, vacancies are filled almost immediately, which means not only do you have to be in the right place at the right time, you also need to know the right people. Furthermore, there is no one way to break into the industry. Therefore, the best advice I can give is to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.

On a grander scale, I hope to find work in a writers’ room (either as a writer’s assistant or staff writer). Although film is my first love, television is a close second. Especially with the quality of content currently generated by streaming services and the like. Moreover, television is a writer’s medium and provides the opportunity for (somewhat) stable work.

On the business side of things, writers should possess an awareness of market trends, on all levels. From experimental indies to, naturally, big tentpole films. If not only on a general level. Did that come into play when developing End of Life? Was there ever a hesitation to write a story revolving around this subject matter?

While writing End of Life, I knew (if anything) it was bound to be a sample–something for creative execs to read to get an idea of my voice. That being said, I quickly realized that my voice is synonymous with mid-budget, character driven indies. However, with streaming services generating a desire for content, there seems to be more and more room for niche material.

So to answer your question: No, I never hesitated to write End of Life. Because at the heart of it, I love what I do, and I hope to continue doing it until I can no longer tell stories I love. Besides, if I wanted to make money, I would’ve become a psychologist.

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Joshua Paul Johnson and Jamie Napoli

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– Joshua Paul Johnson and Jamie Napoli, winner of the 2017 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with Getaway

Co-writing relationships can be tricky. It’s always impressive when a script turns out so tonally consistent when there’s more than one writer involved. How do you iron out who plays what role? What’s sort of your general dynamic? It’s a safe assumption that your instincts and styles fall in line, but what are some of the challenges in writing a feature with a partner?

Jamie: I think we’re very lucky that we have similar, and perhaps similarly immature senses of humor. We’re often just trying to make each other laugh with each pass of the script. We can’t really have any ego or preciousness with our writing, because the only way this works is if we’re completely honest and brutal when things aren’t working. And I think often the biggest hurdle for us is staying confident that each new draft will be better than the last one. Writing can be a bit of rollercoaster, and the fact that there are two of us can be really helpful for keeping up our passion and momentum. One of us is always moving the ball forward.

Josh: But as far as delegation goes, we don’t have strict roles. Both of us eventually do everything. We always outline the entire story together—which can run upwards of 50 pages. Our outlining process is similar to doing “notecards.” This is the most collaborative part of our process. When that’s ready, one of us opens Final Draft and begins “draft zero.” We call it “draft zero” to remove any expectation of it being remotely good. After that is completed, we re-outline the entire story re-evaluating character arcs, plants/playoffs, and suspense. With that new outline, the other person does the real first draft. We repeat the process over and over until we have a “girlfriend draft”—the one we send out to get torn apart by our significant others.

In general, the challenges involved with any creative relationship necessitate being respectful of each other’s ideas and being able to navigate disagreements. You have to feel OK blurting out an idea even if you’re not completely comfortable with it. When diagnosing a problem we often say “we need a solution, the bad version of which is…” And so we can work through problems together without judgement.

Like co-writing partnerships, comedies, too, can be difficult to execute. But Getaway seems like it could easily hit a global audience, given the setup and attention to detail when it comes to establishing the characters. Comedies sometimes go awry when the humor doesn’t translate, or feels too specific. Was this ever a concern? What advice would you give writers who are attempting to write something similar in this vein, as far as tone and approach?

Josh: To be honest, we never had a conversation about Getaway as it related to global audiences. We just set out to write something that we wanted to see. Our aim was to ensure it was a quick read, had an unconventional tone, and contained themes we believed would make for an interesting debate. It’s been fascinating to see the differences in how men and women react to the story. Issues of masculinity and femininity was something we felt was in the zeitgeist. I’d say that’s the most culturally universal part of it.

Jamie: We’re big believers in writing what you know. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing your life story, because every script can’t be about some under-appreciated artist with writer’s block, but rather taking the fears, neuroses, settings, and characters that you’re familiar with and blending them in unique and surprising ways. We love really desperate characters because they let us laugh at the things we find most embarrassing about ourselves. Josh and I have written a number of comedies about deeply insecure men who desperately want a woman’s respect. I’ll let you come to your own conclusion about what that says about us.

Do you typically write together, or you have your own separate projects? Is it important for writers who team up on scripts to branch out and do their own material? It seems obvious writers can have it both ways, but we see examples where that’s not always the case—in other words, where the partnership itself is the brand. What’s your stance on that?

Josh: Writing partnerships are just like any other type of relationship. What works for one team might not work for another. What we know is our collaborative process and that it works for us. Whenever one of us has an idea, the other person is always the first to hear it. Though we occasionally have differences in terms of taste, interest, and personal experience, we have not yet encountered a need to branch out.

Jamie: We really just enjoy writing together, and I think we complement each other’s skills and shortcomings. We have similar aspirations to write and direct features where we have a large amount of creative control, and most importantly, I feel like we can be a lot more productive when we’re working together. We’re currently wrapping up our first draft on our next feature, and we have a number of feature and pilot scripts on the horizon that we’re really excited about.

What are your backgrounds when it comes to writing? How did each of you get started?

Jamie: I’ve been running around with a camera and screaming, “Quiet on the set!” to my family for pretty much my whole life. By high school, I was reading and writing feature scripts and shooting everything from short horror parodies to a feature adaptation of The Death of Ivan Ilych. Seriously. There is a full length movie on a hard drive in my parents’ attic that reimagines Tolstoy’s 19th century novella about a dying Russian bureaucrat with a bunch of teenagers in suburban New Jersey.

Josh: Similarly to Jamie, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker at a very young age, but I was far from Hollywood. I was in the sleepy suburbs of Iowa, and I would stay up all night re-watching behind-the-scenes DVD extras of The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t have the money to make what I was seeing on TV and in theaters, but you know what—writing is free. So I teamed up with my friend, and we spent years writing these fantasy and zombie novels which have since become kindling for my fireplace. But because we spent so much time together writing, outlining, and discussing ideas, I learned that my strengths are in talking out ideas with a partner. So ever since I’ve been writing, I’ve been co-writing.

Jamie and I didn’t set out initially to be co-writers. We met at USC’s graduate directing program and would often discuss and critique each other’s projects. Those note sessions would start as a few hours, but eventually turned into days and even months. By that point, we realized we had accidentally become co-writers.

Regarding your contest-winning screenplay Getaway, one of the comments during judging: “shades of the Coen Brothers. . . a no-brainer for a fun, darkly comical genre hybrid.” Whether or not you’d agree with that particular assessment, you managed to pull off a true (and rare) page-turner. When it comes to this genre, what trends do you see emerging? It’s certainly subjective, but where are films getting it “right” and where are they getting it “wrong?”

Josh: Neither of us are stand up comedians or joke writers. We didn’t set out to write a comedy. We set out to write a thriller that made us laugh. It’s a bit of an odd goal, but we’re attracted to those kinds of movies. Audiences today are extremely cinema-literate. Because of that, we don’t tend to do straight-genre pieces. We’re always looking for ways to pull the rug out from under the audience. We call those “Oh shit!” moments. For us and our work, it’s important that the audience walk out of the theater not just entertained but also itching for a rich conversation.

Jamie: We’re fans of movies like In Bruges, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Visit, and Get Out that are able to move deftly between really tense moments and scenes that are absolutely hysterical. Making a film that can do that and also be about something of substance is a tall order, but that’s always what we’re aiming for. The success of Get Out was really exciting to us because it means there’s an incredible appetite for that kind of smart, impactful genre film.

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Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini

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penelopematteo

– Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini, winner of the 2016 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with Cinderella Must Die

Regardless of the fact 2016 turned out to be our best year for screenwriting, with so many fantastic finalist screenplays, Cinderella Must Die was a unanimous pick for the grand prize. Personally, when I read during the quarterfinalist round, 30 pages in I stopped immediately to text Chad (Script Pipeline’s Executive Director) and our development assistant to tell them they have to read this immediately. Part of this was due to the unique spin on the fairy tale, but mostly because of your writing style.

Is style and crafting a unique voice—which is something we constantly emphasize for emerging writers—an area you feel can be refined through “deliberate practice,” meaning an element you can specifically work on, or is it something that simply comes from years of experience? What has helped each of you the most when it comes to basic writing ability?

Matteo: My first job in the industry in Italy was as a reader for a production company. And almost nothing can prepare you for how bad Italian amateur screenwriting can be (it’s a country in its infancy, craft-wise). And almost at the same time, I started reading masters–scripts by Goldman, Coppola, Gilroy. . . . I think what helped was studying the classics, to learn how high this art can fly, and (almost as important) reading a ton of garbage scripts to learn what not to do.

Penelope: I started out writing short stories and found that to be a good way to experiment with voice. There’s a flow to prose writing that helps me ‘drop’ into a character or story. Sometimes I still revert to prose to help me untangle a specific idea or character in a script. I agree with Matteo (and many other writers) that reading screenplays helps identify and develop voice, particularly scripts that are well known for being vibrant and distinctive, like Lethal Weapon. I’ve also started listening to the Blacklist Ear Movies podcast. It’s really great, and a good way to combine script ‘reading’ with grocery shopping or exercising!

Cinderella Must Die contains some universal underlying themes that helps elevate the screenplay beyond the typical adventure/fantasy. What was it about the source material that compelled you to develop the script? Did the ingrained commentaries—the sometimes conflicting relationships between sisters, the ease of abandoning ethics and family for the promise of higher social status—come about naturally, or was it something you kept at the forefront while plotting the story?

The original idea was about propaganda and how storytelling can be used as a form of power and coercion. As we began to explore this idea through the prism of Cinderella, other themes very naturally came to the surface, like social envy, sisterhood, and representations of gender. Then it was a question of what to draw out and foreground and what to leave in the background: how much of this, how much of that? Our first draft pushed the propaganda angle a lot more–there was a whole underground network of fairy tale characters who’d been written out of their stories, Stalin-style. It was fun to write, but, according to our first readers, a hot mess to read! So we focused subsequent drafts on the personal story between the sisters, which is its heart and soul.

The process of writing the actual script: it reads so smooth and effortless, structurally sound, vividly drawn. . . but how long did it take for you to finalize a draft you were 100% comfortable with?

It took 18 months from our first conversations to submitting to Script Pipeline, but that wasn’t anywhere near full-time. We were both working on other projects so squeezed in CMD whenever we could. And we go through phases of being 100% comfortable with it! Right now, we have a whole bunch of revisions we’d like to do to make it better.

How long were you sending out Cinderella before winning Script Pipeline? Was it a newer project you were testing the waters with, or had you been searching for a production company or representation for a while?

Script Pipeline was the first place we sent it–the ink was still wet. It’s now also our favourite place!

What are some of the keys to maintaining an efficient and productive writing relationship?

  1. Hit your deadlines – don’t be an asshole.
  2. Don’t be precious – you’re not Marcel Proust. Every syllable you write can be improved.
  3. Let it go – when your co-writer says what you’ve written is unclear or confusing or not working or not on the page, trust them. They have the benefit of objectivity.
  4. Be patient and compassionate with each other – “No matter, try again, fail again, fail better.”
  5. Laugh a lot – it helps if you share a sense of humour.

The landscape has changed so much over the last 5-10 years, we’re seeing more and more non-US writers rising to the top in terms of the quality of writing (for whatever reason, Australian writers especially). But writers outside of the US with their sights set on the US market typically ask if they’re at a disadvantage because of their location. Do you feel there’s some truth to that? As you both live in Australia, did you have any reservations about submitting to this or other competitions? 

From what we’ve heard and been told–in meetings, from friends and contacts, on podcasts like Scriptnotes–there is an advantage to being based in LA. We’ve also heard that, if you have your sights set on Hollywood, and have the talent and good fortune to get you there, there will probably come a time when you need to be based in LA. We’re certainly hoping to join that posse of screenwriters, and are both keen to make the move at some stage, but right now we’re managing to get things done with Skype, FaceTime, emails, etc. We also have Australian projects underway so, right at this minute, we need to be here to see those through to fruition.

We had no reservations about submitting to Script Pipeline because it’s a US comp. Firstly, we never expected to win; secondly, LA is only a plane-ride away–17 hours may seem like a long flight, but compared to flying from Australia to Europe, it’s a walk in the park!

Script Pipeline was a gift from the gods: it allowed us, two unknowns from Australia, to come to LA, meet people in the industry, and begin relationships that can now be fostered with the aid of technology and some well-timed return visits!

In addition to the industry interest Cinderella has drawn thus far, you two have projects you’re working on independently of one another, both of which are (I think) based on or inspired by true stories. Is utilizing source material easier, in a sense? Or does it present a host of other challenges?

Penelope: I’m working on a couple of adaptations, but they’re based on fictional source material (a short story and a novel), not real life events. For one, the strength is the premise and the author was happy for us to play fast and loose with the other elements. For the other, I want to preserve as much as the source material as possible. That said, I am needing to dial up the protagonist’s drive just a little–characters in novels can meander aimlessly in a way that characters in films can’t. Even characters who seem to be meandering, like in Badlands or the recent American Honey, have very clear driving forces.

Matteo: Writing stories based on real people and events creates two equally compelling but conflicting impulses. On the one hand, you want to write a story that engages, thrills and surprises, with a beginning, a middle, and a climax. On the other hand, life doesn’t follow the three act structure, so you need to massage the real life events to make the story worthwhile and satisfying. Striking the right balance between respect for the actual facts and people, and making their story worth telling, is the hard part. Everything else is a joy.

Submit to a Script Pipeline competition

Submit for notes and potential industry exposure

Nir Paniry

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Nir

– Nir Paniry, runner-up in the 2015 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with The Coyote. 

What pushed you more into writing than any other field within the film industry?

Besides the love of writing itself, I think it’s the autonomy of it all. Every other job in the film business relies on moving parts. If you’re a director you need a script. If you’re an editor you need a film, etc, etc. . . . You’re reliant on others in order to start creating. When you’re a writer (unless you’re on assignment) you are completely dependent on your own mind and gumption to put pen to paper. It’s insular, like painting a picture. I can think of a story tonight and start writing it tonight. There are not many  jobs in this business that function that way.

And yes, ultimately if it moves up the pipeline, your story will change and morph and become a much more team-oriented endeavor, but there’s something so interesting about it all starting with you and a computer, and that’s it.

Part of the reason The Coyote fared well in the Script Pipeline competition is because it took a fairly basic action premise and a put a unique, character-centric label on the story as a whole. What was the basis for the plot? What made you feel this would be a good setup for a script in the genre?

Being a foreigner myself, I’ve always had a fascination with coyotes and how assisting people across the border was a job in and of itself. I hadn’t seen too many movies where they were front and center and thought exploring the mentality of someone who does this for a living would be fun new territory. It wasn’t until I read a story about Rene ‘Boxer’ Enriquez (a high-level and extremely dangerous member of the Mexican mafia) that the inspiration started to take shape and a two-hander started to form. What if you had to escort a guy like that over the border?

I’ve always been a fan of films that explore unconventional jobs. And bonus points if that job is dangerous! I feel those type of films have the drama and conflict baked in so your concept does your work for you. Look at films like The Transporter, The Hurt Locker, every Hitman film, Nightcrawler. . . . All different types of films centered around dangerous, unconventional jobs. I felt like an action movie centered around a coyote that has to perform his toughest assignment would live comfortably in that genre as well. Then once the characters started coming to life, the story begins to write itself, and you know you have something.

Reading produced screenplays, as well as “hot” unproduced scripts, is huge for any writer at any level. What types of scripts appeal to you the most, from a writing standpoint? How much does reading other scripts influence your own writing, if at all?

I try to read anything and everything that’s out there. Watching lots of movies is great, but reading screenplays gets you familiarized with the inner workings of it all. If you’re a writer, you should be reading or writing. Always.

In terms of what type of scripts I love, I’m all over the place, but high-concept genre always gets me excited. Sci-fi, hard action, fantasy, twist on an old tale or IP, good horror (GOOD horror). Something that makes me go, “Shit! Why didn’t I think of that?!” I love when a script makes you feel like the writer loved their material and characters. In terms of influence, good scripts (like good movies) always influence writers. Art propels art. Not in a ‘I gotta steal that idea’ kinda way, but more in a ‘they raised the bar so now I want to raise it’ kinda way. Reading a great script is inspiring, but what I think separates the writers from the WRITERS is that desire to say, “That film was great and all, but now I gotta throw MY hat into the ring.”

You’ve been writing for some time now, working in development, in production. . . . What are some of the takeaways you’ve gained? The “insider” advice you can pass along to those who haven’t been on the ground floor of the industry?

Concept, concept, concept. I used to believe that if I wrote a script, the industry owed me a read. Not so much. Unless your last name is Nolan, getting busy people to read is difficult. Getting them to plunk down money, even harder. So how do you get yourself on top of the pile? A great concept. A great hook. In fact, I’d wager to say that a so-so written script with a great concept will get WAY more attention than a so-so concept that is written immaculately. When you become a seasoned writer, you can afford to go conventional and write yet another ‘hitman with a heart of gold’ story, but if you’re the new guy, you better come up with something new.

The other thing I’d say is to make yourself aware of what’s selling out there. Think like a producer. The market is tough and spec sales are hard, but there’s room for it if you have the right idea. Think of ideas that FEEL like movies. Originality is great, but it needs to be coupled with familiarity, or people won’t get the kind of story you’re telling. It’s a fine line, and if you can show people that you can walk it and entertain them while doing it, you’ll become a force to be reckoned with. You’ll get reads. Always keep in mind that as a writer, the industry ultimately needs you.

Every writer has similar long-term aspirations, but what are your short-term goals? What’s the most logical next step for your writing career?

Right now, I’m working on two super secret, I’d-tell-you-but-I’d-have-to-kill-you projects that I can’t wait to put out there. They’ll most likely be ready at year’s end. One is a big-budget tentpole and the other is a horror indie, so it’s been fun to handle both sides of the spectrum.

I always try to give myself a script benchmark. The last few years it’s been to write at least two to three scripts a year. I think that’s important. In terms of next steps, I’m just going to keep writing. If you love it, you’ll just do it. In fact, sometimes I feel like l have more stories to tell than time to tell them! Other than that, I’ve met a lot of great people this year as a result of Script Pipeline and The Coyote and hope to work with them all in the coming years.

Submit to a Script Pipeline competition

Submit for notes and potential industry exposure

Howard Jordan Jr.

By | Exclusive Interviews


Howard Jordan

– Howard Jordan Jr., runner-up in the 2015 Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition with the comedy Family Be Like. An advertising industry veteran, Howard is pursuing a career in writing television comedy.

You worked for many years in advertising. Tell us a little about your background and how you transitioned into TV writing.

Technically speaking, my career started at 12. I ripped ads out of magazines, rewrote, and my mother mailed them in. But it officially began when I attended masters program “slash” boot camp for wannabe advertising creatives.

My first job was at a small agency in Manhattan. I worked on anything and everything. I didn’t have time, or money, to do much else. But I managed to take sitcom writing classes at night. I’ve always loved sitcoms. And I’m kind of an unofficial pop culture encyclopedia, so I figured, why not do both? However, as I advanced from junior copywriter to creative director with famous campaigns for State Farm, Bud Light, and Beats by Dr. Dre, to name a few, sitcom writing had to take a backseat.

Then I wrote my book, 101 Reasons to Leave New York. Not long after, I dusted off my sitcom notes, bought a few reference books, and deconstructed all my favorite shows.

My first attempt at a pilot was actually an adaptation of my book. I entered some shows, did well, and I was hooked all over again. I met a few people and began to workshop ideas with some very talented and very patient pros.

Then my wife and I moved to LA.

Good advertising, to me, basically tells a story. On a miniature scale, of course. Was the transition difficult? In other words, creatively speaking, how much did you have to tweak your mindset when it comes to character development, dialogue, building a plot, and so forth, even for something as short as a pilot script?

The transition, as you describe it, was easy for me. I had to tweak my mindset to write ads. I’m able to be more of myself writing sitcoms. It’s more natural to my way of thinking, writing, and creating a world.

I’ve always leaned toward developing more depth of story and character. Having 30 minutes rather than 30 seconds to do that is a dream come true.

The concept for Family Be Like: how did it come about?

I wanted to write a show about a black family that offended every notion of political correctness. No lessons to be taught, no preaching to be done, just, “hey watch this family and listen to how they talk to each other.”

And I wanted to make it funny as hell. Everything else came after.

Were there other TV series or films you modeled the characters after?

I have to assume the characters have been influenced by some of my favorites. As they’re permanently seared into my subconscious, I’m sure. Hopefully people will detect traces of the family dynamics found in Good TimesAll in the FamilyFrasier, and Modern Family, if I’ve done my job well.

Did the current state of television influence your choice of subject matter and approach, with this recent push toward (thankfully) introducing more diverse casts, a la Fresh Off the Boat, Orange is the New Black, etc.?

Yes and no.

Yes, because there is currently a willingness to recognize stories with diverse representation. Larger audiences seem curious to delve into stories of people who look and live differently.

No. I could’ve written this color blind, as I have so many television commercials through the years. But their race is another layer of the characters. So I had to go there. Ultimately, the content of Family Be Like is drawn from the conversations and opinions we, regardless of color, share at the dinner table that don’t get shared broadly, but are held deeply and motivate our behavior.

At what point did you realize, “Hey, maybe I have a legitimate shot at becoming a writer?”

As far as sitcom writing, I know I have a shot because I made it in advertising. I’ve succeeded as the longshot before.

Why can’t I do it again? I’ve had to learn on the fly. I’ve been in rough meetings. I’ve had to collaborate. I’ve had to cook half-baked client notes and come back with the goods in short order. I’m battle tested.

Was there a mentor, or some voice of encouragement, pushing you in that direction?

All of my family, friends, and teachers made it clear to me at a very early age that I expressed myself differently than most. And with just a few exceptions, they instructed me to keep doing so. That alone was all the encouragement I needed. Honestly, there are too many to name.

10 years from now. Your career has inevitably progressed. What’s sort of the dream scenario?

I’ve got three original sitcoms on air at the same time. Joss Whedon style, son.

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Henry Dunham

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– Henry Dunham, winner of the 2015 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with the contained crime/thriller Militia, which is currently in production with Dunham directing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead) to star alongside Jack Huston (American Hustle) and Ralph Ineson (The Witch). A Detroit native and Michigan State alum, Henry has written, directed, and produced his own short films prior to Militia.

Prior to entering the Script Pipeline competition, how had you tested the waters—submitting to production companies, other contests, querying managers and agents. . . ?

To be honest, I never submitted to production companies/agencies blindly before because I used to intern for them and spent a lot of the time having to actually read those blind submissions, seeing firsthand how futile a process it is. You’re not getting the attention you think you are, and some kid (like me) who’s probably very tired and probably over-worked is reading your story, and it’s just. . . we’ll just say the cards are stacked against you. So my only real “noticed” thing I’ve done was my short film, The Awareness, which did really well and got me in some doors.

Then as I was writing it, I pitched Militia to some of the people Awareness got me in with. A friend very high up in the industry told me about Script Pipeline and how respected it was and a way to get it in more hands, so I just gave it a shot. I am now, understandably, very happy about that.

When (and why) did you begin screenwriting? 

Well, this may not answer your question, but weirdly I realized after I saw Ace Ventura in theaters for the 90th time in 3rd grade, I was talking to my mom about how Jim Carey was so funny, and she was like, “yeah he’s got great writers.” And I clearly remember thinking, “you mean he’s not just making all that stuff up?” So when I realized what a writer does, I was pretty shocked and wanted to learn more.

I started trying it when I was in, maybe, 7th grade? But I had no idea what I was doing. I was obsessed with Tarantino after I read my brother’s copy of the Pulp Fiction script in 6th grade and couldn’t believe how cool it was. I kept writing without any real idea what I was doing, honestly, until I started my internships out here in LA. Learning from people who actually went to film school on what works and what doesn’t, and then wrote a number of horrible screenplays.

The “why” is probably tougher to answer. Maybe because somewhere deep down there’s a need to tell stories, but maybe it’s also because there’s this dumb thing I feel like everybody’s guilty of. Which is “it would be so cool to sell a script for a bunch of money!” My “why” was probably a bit of both in the beginning, and then you do it and very quickly realize it’s one of the hardest, most lonesome things a person can do and demands an insane amount of dedication and effort. You will spend Friday nights at home. You will miss out on things. And some people, it burns them out, which is understandable. But once you get that feeling of actually telling a story that surprises the audience and do good work that you’re proud of, the feeling of fulfillment from that, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get it anywhere else. And it’s invaluable. And highly addictive.

Militia almost hearkens back to a 12 Angry Men scenario, the idea that a tense thriller or heavy drama needn’t take place beyond the confines of a single location, nor do you need an elaborate backdrop. What other films, stories, or current real-life events influenced the plot, and where did the concept originate?

First off, that’s an awesome comparison, and I’m very flattered, so thank you. Secondly, there are some movies like Death of a Maiden or The Ox-bow Incident, or classic Hitchcock movies like Lifeboat or Rope, that never give that feeling of “okay, when are we leaving this room?” And I think that’s in direct connection with how interesting the situation is and how interesting the characters can be. To me that’s always been a cool challenge, same with The Awareness: to feel that kind of irony of enjoying the claustrophobia. To make the audience feel stuck with the characters, but interested enough in them and the story and the stakes of what they’re experiencing, is a cool feeling to balance between.

As far as the origin or the inception of the idea, it was dumb, unfortunate luck that these public shootings started to happen with more frequency right around the time I finished up this script, and then the whole Ferguson situation and people starting to question police and their use of power. I wish I could say I had some incredible gift of foresight with that, but no, it’s just a coincidence. To me, the story itself is about a man struggling to know whether or not he’s strong enough to be alone, or whether he needs to be a part of something to be happy, even if it’s what’s hurting him. That’s always going to be a relevant question in society whether or not it’s in the news.

Often, we get asked: “Do I need to live in Los Angeles if I want to be a screenwriter?” At what point in your career did you decide to move to LA? Was it the right timing, in retrospect?

I moved out here about 8 years ago, and to be honest I’m not sure. I don’t have an answer to this because I’m absolutely sure it can be done, and I’m sure a lot of working writers actually leave town for a few months at a time to go into a hole and push out a draft. But I can say, without a doubt, I made progress in my ability only because of people I met here. Without them, I’d be useless. I’m an enormous believer in having a trusted community of people you genuinely believe are smarter than you and whose opinion you trust. And it’s tough to find those people for this type of work in Detroit.

When we announced you as the winner of the competition—the $20,000 grand prize, top spot out of 3,500 entries—you seemed stunned. Perhaps rightfully so. Were you confident you had a shot, or did it kind of come out of nowhere? 

Let’s not forget the part where I asked if Militia was even close, and you told me not to be the “angry guy” when I don’t win.

Classic misdirection. . . .

So yeah, I was pretty shocked. In all seriousness, I did feel thrilled just to be a finalist with Script Pipeline because of their reputation of taking finalists and introducing them around town, so I was excited to be a part of that group alone. It was a genuine honor. To win on top of that, yeah–it still kind of shocks me.

Though there is no formula a writer can follow to crack into the industry, what do you think are some key components every writer should possess so they at least have a shot at getting noticed? Is it mostly about writing ability, or does personality, the ability to communicate with potential managers and reps, equally as important for long-term success?

Wow, well, I feel like I could give this advice if I was more of a force in the industry. But first, I don’t know if there’s one single thing that makes someone break through. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say two things. One being story over everything. Story comes first. Ahead of every single element, the audience wants to be engaged with a character in a story that surprises them and keeps them constantly asking “oh my god, what happens next?” That’s everything to me.

The other part is just a dose of tenacity. You have to stick it out. Having that drive is essential.

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Josh Chesler

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– Josh Chesler, writer of Chasing Ghosts starring Tim Meadows (SNL) and co-writer of Underground (Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition finalist), currently in pre-production with LAConfab Entertainment. His latest projects include the surreal adventure screenplay David P. Boorman and the Quest for Good News and the TV series Extractors, co-written with Paul Connor. Chasing Ghosts will be available for digital download and on VOD and DVD April 21.

Have your career goals always leaned toward film and writing?

From as early as I can remember, I was interested in writing and telling stories. I started reading at a very young age and began voraciously devouring books as well as movies. In junior high, I wrote a lot of short stories just for fun–most of which are thankfully stored on obsolete media that can never be recovered.

Then in high school, I had the good fortune of being able to take some film classes, which really changed my life and opened my eyes to what movies can be capable of–watching Kubrick, Godard, Hitchcock, and Lynch films at 14 was eye-opening, to say the least. That led me to apply to USC film school, where I majored in Film Production and really began to focus on writing in a whole new way. I came out of school determined to write and direct the kinds of films I wanted to see.

The first script you wrote: what were some of the most crucial things you learned early on?

Well, that first script wasn’t unlike those first short stories–a great learning experience, and a chance to fail in private. I had an amazing writing teacher at USC who guided me through that first feature, and I learned a ton with regards to structure, tone, and style. But what I hadn’t learned yet was how to really connect to my work, and tell stories that mattered to me.

It wasn’t until my fourth script (which was actually an early version of what became Chasing Ghosts) that I started to feel confident in my writing process and truly able to stand behind my work. Coming out of film school, my friends and I were convinced we’d sell that first or second script and be working screenwriters within a year. But the truth is, you have to earn it, and you have to develop your craft to the point where you’re ready for that career.

From initial concept until it went into production, what was the evolution of Chasing Ghosts from your side of things? What pieces had to come together to get the film made?

CGShot

Tim Meadows and Toby Nichols in the dramedy Chasing Ghosts.

It was quite a journey! In 2012, I sent the script, at that point titled The Autumn Children, to producer Molly Mayeux. She liked the script and saw a lot of potential in it, so we worked to develop it as a possible project for a production slate she and our Executive Producer Jay Walters were putting together. After a challenging but rewarding year of rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting), we finally landed on the script that became Chasing Ghosts. From there, the producers hired our fantastic director Joshua Shreve, who they had worked with on a previous project. His involvement really got the ball rolling, but of course his input led to even more rewrites, as he started putting his own stamp on the film.

We officially went into pre-production in March of 2013, and we were racing to get the film started while still casting for our pivotal lead roles. It was only when Tim Meadows signed on and we found the amazing young Toby Nichols for our lead role of Lucas that we knew we had a real movie on our hands. By May, we were shooting.

I also became an Executive Producer on the film, which has been an incredible gift and learning experience, as I got to be on set every day and work closely with the director and producer through every edit, sound mix, film festival, and distribution plan. Now, we can’t wait for people to finally see it!

You and your writing partner, Paul Connor, have placed as a finalist in the Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition with a mystery/thriller (Underground) and the Great Movie Idea Contest with a romantic comedy. What genres do you gravitate toward?

As a writer, I always strive to challenge myself with each new project, whether that be a different genre, world, or storytelling style. That said, I find myself naturally being drawn to stories of characters who are trying to figure life out and who find themselves thrust into a situation that forces them to evolve, grow, and find new answers. I love filmmakers like Cameron Crowe, Richard Linklater, and David O. Russell who mix comedy and drama fluidly to tell stories of the human condition.

So in that sense, even if I’m writing (or co-writing) a thriller or action-heavy script, I’m always coming at it from that angle, and looking for the human connection inside of a story and concept. For example, Paul and I have a TV show we’ve created called Extractors, which is a large-scale action/drama, but at its core it’s a story about people who are given a second chance at life.

What are the biggest challenges (and blessings) when working with a writing partner?

It’s a great experience working with someone who shares your taste in film and sense of narrative, where you’re working together to find the best way to tell a story that you both believe in. Paul and I complement each other in different ways–I tend to think big picture while he is incredibly detail-oriented. We elevate each other’s ideas and push each other to be better. So in that sense, it’s a really great working relationship.

The challenge of writing with a partner, any partner, is that you are not the same person, and arguments and disputes will inevitably rise. Sometimes it’s over where to put a comma, and sometimes it’s over your entire third act. These “healthy debates” can actually serve your script and improve your story, but you do have to be prepared for that being a part of the process. The other challenge is just that you are subject to each other’s schedules, and it’s not always easy to be in the same room when you want to be, so you have to develop different ways of working together while trying to stay on the same page.

All that said, you’ve probably noticed that I also write on my own. Chasing Ghosts is an example of a film that is incredibly personal which I couldn’t imagine writing with any partner, however close we are. I just finished a new feature spec that is also quite personal and idiosyncratic, and it just felt like the type of movie I needed to write by myself. Certain genres and stories lend themselves better to collaboration than others, and Paul and I fully realize that we both have many stories to tell.

ChasingGhostsNow that you have a writing credit on a produced film, have other opportunities risen as a direct result?

Actually, it’s interesting because we haven’t shared the film with too many people yet, so it’s been kind of this big secret that we’ve had for the past year. Having the film released really changes the conversation: now it’s a movie that’s out there in the world, and it’s a real tangible thing as opposed to a file on someone’s computer. I’m looking forward to people’s reactions to the film and hope that it serves as a great writing sample for me on future work.

Outside of that, the script that Paul and I were Script Pipeline finalists on, Underground, now has a production company attached, and we’ll be co-directing the film. So we’ve been working closely with the producers on developing the script and moving into the early stages of pre-production. We’re hoping to get it up in front of the cameras by early next year.

Is there a single, best piece of advice for other writers looking to get their screenplays produced on an independent level? Or is there really no special formula?

The indie world is really thriving these days. There is so much you can do on a much smaller budget today, compared to when I got out of film school. Chasing Ghosts is a great example. We made the film for under a million, but we attracted top talent like Tim Meadows and Frances Conroy because they loved the script.

So while it’s a cliche, it’s actually true that it all comes down to the story you’re telling. If you write a great script that can be produced on a small scale, you have a real chance at getting that movie made and getting A-list actors interested, because actors are hungry for great roles that are few and far between in many of today’s movies.

I think my best piece of advice would be to try to find the types of producers who gravitate toward the kinds of stories you want to tell. There are many independent producers out there who are eager to nurture new voices and tell original stories, and it’s worth seeking them out. Organizations like the Sundance Institute (not just the festival) and Film Independent are great places to begin.

The other option, of course, is finding an economical way to just make your film yourself. It’s amazing how many films are now being funded by Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and people are making incredible films for a fraction of the budget you used to need. The key is to stay passionate about your own project and your story and have that come through on the page–and with every person you talk to about the project. As the writer, your greatest power is your own voice.

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Micah Barnett

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– Micah Barnett, writer of The Rabbit (Warner Bros.) with Chris Tucker attached to star. Micah also sold the television project Ricochet to NBC in 2013. In 2010, after receiving a “Recommend” on his screenplay The Merc List, Script Pipeline introduced Micah to manager Jake Wagner, who later signed him.

What’s your background in the industry? What made you become a screenwriter?

I was an English major in college and didn’t study film or even consider it a career, but I always loved movies. And I remember with only about a month before graduation I read an interview in some school publication with an alumni, Wendy Finerman, who talked about producing Forrest Gump. This was the first time I really thought about where movies came from. . . and I realized that, hell, someone has to actually create all of these great movies I’ve been consuming since as long as I can remember.

Eventually, I worked up the courage to just move to L.A., and after bouncing around some production-type jobs, I became convinced that I had to write a movie. So I began writing. Of course, it’s not that easy to just to write a movie, and for the next several years I worked as a reader. I was lucky enough to work for some A-list producers and have the opportunity to read all of the best stuff coming through town. I consider this my screenwriting/film school. Having to read a script, then write a synopsis, then write up comments/notes and explain what works and what doesn’t work–and maybe most importantly, have an opinion on the commercial prospects of the project. . . do this every day for a few years, and the result is a pretty good understanding of the craft of screenwriting.

But of course, understanding how a screenplay works doesn’t mean you can write one. I wrote a half dozen scripts, that I hope no one will ever see, before The Merc List.

After some development, your script The Merc List received a “Recommend” from Script Pipeline in 2010 and caught the interest of a manager. What do you think was the determining factor? Was it the concept, the execution, the fact it was (and still is) a marketable genre. . . ?

I think the genre and marketability of a concept is important, principally in getting people to sit down and read the script in the first place. Writers sometimes forget this is a business and that the majority of people who read your script are looking at it as a commodity. “Can I sell this concept?” Once they start reading, it’s up to the story and execution to keep their interest. But it’s still a commodity. The question then becomes, “Can I sell this voice?”

The Merc List is a sci-fi action movie, and I think what caught people’s attention was that it had an original twist to this easy-to-market genre.

Every writer needs professional feedback before circulating their script. You know that, and most great writers realize that as well. But why, then, do so many screenwriters circulate their work “cold,” without ever getting an eye on it first? Does it simply come down to a fear of rejection? A misunderstanding of story editing? Besides, of course, improving their script, what are some of the other benefits of going through the development process?

Having got my start as a reader, I’m a big believer in coverage and getting blunt feedback. I also think deep down most writers realize the importance of getting feedback. However, fear of rejection definitely looms larger for beginning writers. The key maybe is to be more afraid of sending out a script that isn’t ready.

Because I’ve done critiques on so many other scripts, I know that the feedback from coverage, or other sources, is never personal. I like to look at it as data about my product. But in order to utilize the data you need to understand how to interpret the data. A good phrase I’ve picked up along the way is “the note behind the note.” I always try to look past the specific comment and get to the core problem. Why did the reader make this suggestion? Why did they not read the scene the way I intended?

The bottom line is that no one writes a submission-worthy script on the first attempt. If they say otherwise, they’re lying. And the best way I’ve found to get a script ready for all those wolves eyeing you as a commodity is to run it through a gauntlet of readers. Make it through that gauntlet, then your script will be ready.

Tell us about The Rabbit, which sold to Warner Bros. a few years back and has Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) attached. Was it a departure from the material you normally write, or was it within your comfort zone?

The Rabbit is definitely right in the middle of my comfort zone. It’s essentially Midnight Run, but on steroids. It’s a fun, action-y piece that at its core is familiar, but it has an original angle that makes it feel fresh. I’m hopeful it gets made, because I really fell in love with the characters along the way and can’t wait to see them come alive.

One lesson I learned from developing Rabbit is the importance of industry allies who are passionate about your project. From the beginning, my manager and agent and producers all loved this character and world as much as I did, and their enthusiasm really helped in the writing process.

Is it crucial for screenwriters to stick to one specific genre? Do you think there are certain genres sort of interrelated a writer can easily skip over to, relatively speaking?

I think a person should write whatever world they find interesting. I actually think stories and movies that borrow elements from other genres are some of the most effective. For example,Bourne Identity is an action movie, but it works so well because it has a punch in the gut romance at its core. And I love comedies like 21 Jump Street which ratchet up the suspense with crazy action scenes.

But you’re right in that it’s not easy. The best work comes when the writer is aware of what they’re doing. They know the rules of a genre, and they know how far they can push certain elements.

Same for the feature and TV series transition. Besides structure, how different is it going from TV to film?

Like a lot of writers (and audiences) I love TV these days. I also think it’s a relatively easy transition from film, although I’m just beginning the process. The main difference is that TV scripts are designed around the cliffhanger. In a movie, you can’t leave any unfinished plot lines. At the two hour mark, everything needs to be resolved. I watched a David Mamet interview in which he compared a screenplay to a jet airplane. Every single part needs to have a purpose, otherwise the whole thing blows up. But in TV, the goal is to keep the audience looking at the horizon. It’s essentially one teaser after another. Each act is a teaser. Each episode is a teaser.

Another big difference is the collaborative nature. The writer needs to be able to collaborate. There will be a lot of notes, and the writer will have to very quickly digest the feedback and jump back into the writing.

Your experience working with companies like NBC and some of the major studios: was it what you expected? If not, how so?

My experiences with producers and executives have been positive. These people are all smart and talented professionals. If they’re working with you on a project, it’s because they believe in the project, and they want it to succeed.

Something else that always strikes me: they’re all movie geeks. They love movies. They love TV. That’s why they work in this business. So no matter where each party comes from, once you’re in the room with a producer or executive, you will always have this common starting place.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m always working on the next big idea. . . .

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Debbie Lollie

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– Debbie Lollie, writer of Help Me Out, aka The Ex-Man (2013 Script Pipeline First Look Project Winner)

You won the First Look Project with a romantic comedy revolving around what’s considered a “high-concept” premise. Was this a deliberate decision? To write something that might appeal to execs at the studio level?

The goal and hope with any screenplay is always that it will be made into a movie. Therefore, attracting the industry’s attention with a “high concept” project is a key objective, but that term is highly subjective and difficult to define. I think of it as being a gut instinct. Something about a story idea just hits you and provokes an emotional reaction. I think another aspect is that the project is commercial.

But a strong caveat here. I don’t think one can set out to write a “high-concept” script. That can’t be the primary driving force. Due to the subjective nature of the term, there aren’t any guarantees. My objective is to always craft the best screenplay I can based on a promising story idea. It is a very personal decision. I ask myself three questions. Is this idea a story worth telling? Will I stay in love with the story and characters so I won’t mind writing and re-writing? And will an audience want to see it, too?

My winning script was a comedy idea that friends and colleagues laughed at out loud when I told them the plot. That was a crucial element. If the premise isn’t funny, the script won’t be. And the men had a different reaction to the male protagonist than the women. So I realized I had a story which would appeal to both sexes and get them debating. That was particularly important because The Ex-Man explores an aspect of the tried and true premise of the “battle of the sexes.” The fact people laughed and in the same breath offered their “ideas” for scenes, and examples of bad break-ups, I knew I was on to something. They wanted to be part of the story. At that point, I had a gut level feeling I had happened upon a potentially high-concept and universally appealing idea.

I purposefully entered the First Look Project contest because it specifically identifies commercial scripts. I believed the contest would be a great testing ground.  When it won, that was thrilling. It corroborated what I thought and really raised my hopes about the screenplay’s future.

What are your thoughts on romantic comedies released over the past several years? Has the genre, in some respects, become too watered-down? Too predictable, even though it relies on its predictability to an extent? Is it possible for a writer to infuse a great deal of originality without reinventing the genre?

With any movie, it comes down to story and character and a well-written script. If a genre label is just slapped onto a movie and the traditional beats and elements are carelessly executed, it’s not likely to succeed. And the audience can instinctively tell the difference.

Romantic comedies do rely on predictability. The expected outcome is the two leads will end up together in the end. There are the additional elements of the “meet cute,” opposites attracting and the couple breaking up.

But the magic in a romantic comedy is executing those elements in a different and unexpected way. Yes, the audience knows the characters will wind up together. But the secret ingredient is to craft a story that has the audience desperately wanting the characters to be together because they’re perfect for each other.

The audience has to be tricked into believing the love interests have bungled the relationship so badly, there’s no chance they will ever be together again. And although the audience may be reassuring themselves it will be okay in the end, that momentary thought “will this one end differently?” is what sets the great romantic comedies apart. The characters have to have great rooting power individually and then as a couple in a situation that raises the stakes high.

I absolutely believe it’s possible for a writer to create an original story that maintains the classic elements of a romantic comedy. For instance, Romancing the Stone is a romantic comedy wrapped up in an action/adventure. Shakespeare In Love, historical romantic comedy. Crazy Stupid Love, romantic dramedy.  As long as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl back, or vice versa, it’s a romantic comedy. For a writer to stretch and find an original plot and a fresh and creative way to package those elements, that’s an illustration of high-concept.

The script was optioned by a Script Pipeline partner several months after the contest ended, and it’s now being circulated to potential investors. Describe that process—rewriting or polishing the script, coming up with a plan on how best to market the material. . . all the details that come after someone has interest in the project. Was it what you expected? 

After The Ex-Man won, I had expert script consultations with Script Pipeline as one of the perks of winning the contest. These discussions were invaluable. I identified some elements I had taken out of the script for specific reasons beforehand but realized they should be placed back. I also needed to add a couple of scenes to increase the emotional impact. I did a re-write which addressed these issues, and that was the script that was marketed.

I was fortunate the script generated so much interest. But I went with the producer who really understood the story and was passionate about it. We were of the same mindset, share the same sense of humor, and our personalities blended well together. And these are key elements to having a successful working relationship.

The producer has a definite marketing plan in mind which suits the script well. Once I began working with him, we basically did a polish. It was targeted specifically for a particular marketing/investor angle. These elements were already in the script, but touches were added to enhance them. And we went through the script addressing the finest points, getting it to be the best screenplay possible.

We also changed the name. The Ex-Man fit the script, but even I was running into brand confusion when I pitched it. Of course, everyone immediately thought of that other franchise [X-men, of course]. So we brainstormed lots of names, tested a few, and selected Help Me Out, which we both agreed on and liked the most.

Working with the producer has really been a team effort. He has had a paramount interest in maintaining the integrity of the script as written and working with me as the writer. Once we locked the script, he created an amazing business plan. One of the best I’ve seen. Which was a really proud moment for me because it’s a vital marketing tool and really captures the script. The care he took just solidified his passion and commitment to getting the movie made.

Based on your experience thus far, what are the keys to successfully working with a producer?

I’ve learned it is essential to pair with a producer who understands the project and the writer’s vision. That the story as intended is the one the producer wants to make. I’m not advocating that rewrites aren’t necessary for a myriad of reasons during the development and pre-production stages. But there’s a significant difference between writing a story, for instance, about Dracula, and it morphs into being about Frankenstein.

For me, life’s too short for screaming matches. Having mutual respect for one another’s talents, expertise, and opinions makes compromising on issues easy. Since Ex-Man is a comedy, it was important we shared the same sense of humor and comic sensibilities. It’s also important the producer had a definite marketing plan in mind and was also eager to move with the script. That definitely cuts down on the “so, what’s happening with my script?” calls.

It’s so often said a producer needs to be “passionate about the project” that it seems like a cliché. But it’s the truth. Passion is what gets movies made because it’s incredibly hard work and an emotional journey. If a writer is fortunate enough to find a producer as passionate about the project as the writer, that’s truly special.

The burden isn’t only on the producer to have a successful relationship. The writer should be good to work with. She/he must also be realistic, willing to make changes, compromise, work hard, and meet deadlines.

In the end, the script is a commodity. It’s for sale. It’s likely revisions will be necessary at some point. However, if both the producer and writer want to execute the same vision, then protecting the integrity of that vision and taking the necessary steps to get the screenplay to the screen aren’t mutually exclusive objectives.

How long has your journey been, from the day you decided to write a screenplay to now? What are some of the most important things you learned along the way?

Sometimes the journey feels like it has taken forever. There are days I feel like I’ve taken five steps forward but then ten steps backwards. And then periods when everything goes well. After I graduated from UCLA film school, I felt I really had a much better understanding of the art and craft of screenwriting as well as learning the business of the business. So that was a real turning point for me, both in ability and attitude.

There are many lessons learned along the way. Very often the best-learned lessons came from painful mistakes.

I’ve learned the importance of seeking advice from the right people, but having the courage to follow your gut. Sometimes that’s really hard because your gut will be yelling one thing and your brain screaming another.

I believe it’s important to know what you’re willing to compromise about yourself and your principles to make it, and what you’re not willing to do. When I was in film school, one of my professors had us do an essay about what we would be willing to compromise about ourselves to make it it in this business. I still reflect on that all of the time. If you don’t set limitations, it’s very easy to lose yourself because it’s so competitive and decisions carry high prices. Having a strong sense of self and knowing your limitations goes a long way to staying sane and staying the course that allows you to look yourself in the mirror.

It is imperative to have genuine friends outside the industry. To know who your true friends are and that they can be trusted to be honest with you and keep you grounded. And who are also an amazing support system.

Develop a reliable “phony” detector. Know who are the legitimate, serious, and credible people in the industry. Research and ask around. If your script ends up in the wrong hands, or you’re in an untrustworthy working relationship, that could be a nightmare.

Always, always, always have a contract. That manages each party’s expectations and protects friendships and relationships.

Be social as well as a writer. Network. Meet people. It’s not enough to just sit at a computer. If a script never gets out of the writer’s workplace, it can’t be a movie regardless of its brilliance.

Always stretch as a writer. Try new things. Be passionate. Observe human nature. Keep up on the news and world events. That’s where the stories are. Truth truly is always stranger and more creative than fiction.

Most importantly, if writing movies is truly a talent, passion, and gives meaning to your life, do your best to stay strong and not let anyone take that dream away from you.

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