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Exclusive Interviews

Debbie Lollie

By | Exclusive Interviews

– 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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Submit for notes and potential industry exposure

Alex Ross

By | Exclusive Interviews

– Alex Ross, writer of Hexen (2014 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Competition Winner)

Hexen was your first script—but for a screenplay this well-written, one worthy enough to win the Script Pipeline Grand Prize, “first script” is a bit misleading. How much time and energy did you put into the project before submitting to the competition? What was the impetus behind writing this type of story?

I never considered myself to be a writer to be honest–not a good one, anyway. I’m mostly interested in exploring ideas and feelings through the image, not the word. I spent years looking for a project to direct, but nothing spoke to me, and it was frustrating. Then I heard Quentin Tarantino talk about how if his mother and father hadn’t gotten together, Reservoir Dogs would not exist today, and I took that as: we are all original, we all have things to say, we just have to find a way to get to that creative state.

Writing, for me anyway, requires a tremendous amount of thought, and deep thought requires time, and for most people, for whatever reason–family, work, money–time is limited, and to be able to sit under a tree for an entire afternoon and do nothing but think is a true luxury. And what do you do with all of those thoughts afterwards, are you just wasting your time? Talent obviously helps, but what is talent? Everyone has some kind of talent, the real question is, how can you get your talent out into the world and share it with others? Work ethic and persistence. Hard work can pay off. And if you have a dream, you owe it to yourself to at least try, I can’t imagine a greater regret in life. One of my favorite quotes: “Write what you know, but you don’t know what you know until you start writing.”

So I quit producing reality TV, moved to the desert, and tried to write. And once you take that leap, once you’re faced with nothing to blame, no distractions, when you get to have all the time in the world–that can be a very scary thing. Now you’re faced with yourself. Do you have what it takes? Is this really the life you want?

So yes, “first script” certainly is misleading. I could have written a bunch of scripts, but I chose to keep working on the same one instead, and for a while there, things got very rough, the writing was terrible, the same results, draft after draft. The true definition of madness was becoming a reality. And it took a few years, money ran out, bills weren’t being paid, and it was time to go get a job again. But I always believed. And my friends, my family, my fellow writers, they were all very supportive. They helped me every step of the way.

What made you decide to submit to the contest? Were there certain elements of the script you knew would likely garner the attention of judges?

I felt the script was ready. Friends and family can only take you so far. I needed objective feedback. Script Pipeline was the very first competition I entered. I think there was an hour left before the final deadline. There was a part of me that wondered if the script would even be read at all after page five–there’s no hook to speak of, few twists and turns, very little plot. It’s a slow burn, a single situation. Would anyone have the patience to keep reading? And our protagonists, their motives, their intentions. . . it’s all very ambiguous. I also wrote it with budget in mind, I was writing something out of necessity, a movie for myself  to make, so I followed all the requirements for a low budget: one main location, few characters, little action, etc.

But to answer the second part of your question, no, I had no idea what kind of reaction the script would get. I just tried to write the movie that I would want to see. And I can’t imagine writing something that’s not somehow personal to me. That’s a dangerous road to take, there needs to be passion behind the words. And there’s obviously a certain amount of luck involved, and luck is not just preparation meeting opportunity–sometimes it’s just luck. But to win the grand prize, for my work to go up with thousands of other talented, hard-working writers, it’s obviously tremendous validation. And when I got the phone call telling me I was a finalist, I was overwhelmed by a feeling: I am not alone, someone gets it. Suddenly all of those afternoons sitting under a tree weren’t a waste of time after all.

Modern horror/thrillers: some thoughts on the state of the genre? Hexen is almost a throwback to the moody, surreal thriller we don’t see as often anymore, a la Stanley Kubrick in a way. Why do you think that trend has generally declined? Marketability? Is it simply easier to draw an audience with easy scares or gore?

Horror has never been given much respect. And rightfully so. Most horror films, now more than ever, are dreadful, they insult our intelligence, and scares and gore just aren’t enough anymore. And what’s frustrating is that it’s never been easier to make a movie. The equipment, the costs, the things you can do. . . it’s pretty unreal. But at the same time, it’s never been harder because everything’s been done–the shark, the found footage, the creepy child, vampires and zombies, the chick in the tank-top, the CGI, every city on earth getting blown up. We’ve seen it all, and the image itself has lost its power as well. Does anyone really care about a 10-minute steadycam shot anymore? In other words, we have more tools than ever at our disposal, yet we don’t have much to say with them anymore.

There have obviously been filmmakers who took things to a different level. Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick. . . their work transcended the genre. Rosemary’s Baby remains a master class in filmmaking. But again, would that film work today? I’m not so sure. The world is way more cynical today. Some of the European artists from the past–Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson–I see moments of true horror in their work, I can’t imagine what they could have done if they’d tackled the genre more, maybe horror wouldn’t have such negative connotations.

Your overall intent with this project, a written breakdown of the themes and style you envisioned, caught our attention as well. What came first? The story, the theme, the look. . . ?

I feel that we, as artists, have a historical responsibility to know what’s come before us, otherwise we’re not really adding anything new to the conversation, and the work just ends up being disposable entertainment. So I specifically chose a genre that relies strictly on manipulation and spoon-feeding the audience. Because all of the techniques that have been mastered to lead an audience down a path–cinematography, music, sound design, CGI–have lost their power, they’ve become gimmicks, and they just end up canceling each other out. There’s no point of reference grounded in reality anymore, and as a result, we’re not truly moved or shocked by anything. We’re entertained perhaps, but are we effected at all? I see few filmmakers today who choose to reject that kind of manipulation. Michael Haneke is one of them. He just tries to present you with a situation as transparently as possible, then how you feel about it is up to you.

In terms of what came first, I can tell you, without a doubt, that the story came last. It was like a puzzle, how can I fit these pieces–the look, the feel, the theme–how can I fit them all together within a story? I guess I worked backwards. I would think story comes first for most writers, and then you work on everything else to  support your story. But for me, plot is secondary, things don’t have to be explained fully, let ambiguity linger, give viewers the opportunity to figure things out for themselves. But it’s not so much about understanding something on an intellectual level, it’s about feeling something. The feeling is everything. My theory is that film should be like good music, like a Radiohead song. I don’t fully get what they’re singing about, but for whatever reason, I’m touched by it.

Ideally, what are your near-term goals as a writer or writer/director?

There’s only one goal: to make Hexen. I was able to translate images and feelings in my head into words, and now I’ll have the opportunity to translate them back into images for others to see. But something else is happening–and it’s because of Script Pipeline. I’m starting to look forward to writing another script.

Submit to a Script Pipeline competition

Submit for notes and potential industry exposure

Tom Krajewski

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Krajewski

– Tom Krajewski, writer of Supernormal (2014 Script Pipeline TV Writing Competition Winner)

Your winning script Supernormal is a single-cam comedy with a surprisingly fresh spin on the superhero premise. Ultimately, it was both the concept and the writing that caught the attention of Script Pipeline judges. But did you think it was risky writing what many execs might unfairly label “another superhero script”? Or did you feel the writing alone would at least give it a chance?

Thanks for the compliment–and I’m very honored to have won! I guess I didn’t think it was that risky (I guess I’m ignorant?). To me, the fresh spin–which is very clear in the logline–just sounds unique enough to get an exec’s interest (maybe I’m more arrogant than ignorant?). Anyway, I was also hoping that, once the reader got to the big twist at the end of act one, they’d get hooked after seeing that this is NOT a typical superhero show. In fact, it’s technically not even a superhero show (there’s not a spandexed vigilante in sight). And to be honest, I also think that my writing alone is good enough to keep someone from tossing the script out. In fact, writing is the only thing I believe I do very well (yup, more arrogant than ignorant). That and washing the dishes. Those are the only two things that, once completed, give me a stupid amount of satisfaction (arrogant AND lame).

When it comes to writing comedy, what do you think is more important: the humor of the situation or the dialogue? Or are both equally crucial?

They’re both just as important, because sometimes a scene will need to depend on one or the other in order to get laughs. In my pilot script, there’s a scene where the father is mad at his son for staying out all night past curfew. That’s not a humorous situation at all. It’s not meant to be. But it’s a sitcom, so the scene should make you laugh. So I make the characters’ dialogue witty to carry it. Then there’s a scene where invincible toddlers laugh as they get trampled during the running of the bulls. And their invincible mothers are laughing from the sidelines, while our main character, a mortal mother, just stares in horror. It’s funny because it’s absurd. There’s no witty dialogue because the situation speaks for itself. So yes, both are equally crucial. And when they can be combined, it’s even better.

The pilot touches upon some universal themes. Was this something you were consciously aware of when developing the premise and writing the pilot, or did it arise organically based on the overall setup? How important is to ingrain these grounded ideas into what would otherwise be a very light comedy?

The main theme, technically, was there first. I think a successful family sitcom is one where it has relatable themes every family can identify with. Stuff about your typical everyday issues, like the themes in my pilot. They revolve around “keeping up with the Joneses” and “the grass is always greener.” What family hasn’t experienced those? What family hasn’t felt like they’re less than their seemingly-perfect neighbors? What family hasn’t felt like they’re missing out on something? But is it really necessary to feel superior than, or equal to, your neighbors? Why? What’s the point? Will it make you happier? I probably would have put these themes in any family sitcom I came up with, because I love an underdog story where the “losers” (my sitcom’s main characters) constantly fight to get what the others have, but eventually realize that they don’t need those things at all. And thus, the “losers” are happier for NOT matching their neighbors in social or economic status.

I guess one of the show’s themes is self-acceptance. Stuff like “Quit whining! You have a great life! Don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses! Things could be much worse, so stop and take a moment to be grateful and appreciative! You’ll be happier when you stop competing! Life is too short to care!” Those are things I often tell myself when I complain about stupid, insignificant things. And in my sitcom, I hope to get that message across to the audience and maybe inspire them (Wait, what?! Yeah, Tom, your sitcom is going to “inspire” people to be happier. . . . Idiot. . .).

What draws you to writing comedy instead of other genres? What are some of your biggest film and TV influences?

I like comedy because it’s positive by nature. I love being goofy, I love laughing, I hate taking anything seriously, and I love drinking. I just want to have fun. And drink. I’m really just a big kid. Who drinks. And though I gravitate toward writing comedy, I actually have a massive file of film and TV ideas of every kind of genre–drama, horror, sci-fi, etc. I love all kinds of movies and so many of them inspire me. But comedy grabs me because it’s just plain fun.

My biggest influences in TV comedy are MTV’s The State, The Simpsons (the 90’s eps only), The Goldbergs, and The Middle. The latter two are BRILLIANT and were very influential in Supernormal, as you can probably see by their similar comedy style and themes.

As for film influences, I tend to write screenplays that are dumb comedies, like recent greats Step Brothers and Beerfest. Yes, Beerfest. It’s hilarious and revolves around drinking. But my favorite smarter comedies are The Big Lebowski and Sideways and other smart stuff like that. I wish I could write that well. But dumb comedy is easier. Because I’m lazy. And I drink too much.

Every writer knows the industry is tough to crack. What are some tips you could give aspiring writers, especially those writing for TV and looking to get an original project off the ground?

I guess a lot of factors are involved. When I wrote Supernormal, I knew it had to have a great hook to get noticed. So I came up with the logline: In a world where everyone has superpowers, one powerless family struggles to keep up. There. Easy. A complete twist on the superhero genre. Never been done (uh, I don’t think). But that hook is what has grabbed the attention of so many. Whatever show you create, try to give it a hook. Make it stand out. But then again, sometimes an exec is actually looking for something simple that’s tried and true: like an office comedy, a blue-collar comedy, or a murder mystery. You may not require a hook, but your writing should really stand out to make your simple story pop. Practice your craft and read produced scripts–and learn how to copy their styles.

Other super helpful things to do include making connections in the business, anywhere you can (it helps if you live in LA). You never know who can help–from the intern, to the mail room guys, to the PA, to the gaffer. And enter contests! It was the best advice I got when I was at the end of my rope last year. My friend, who’s a successful screenwriter, TOLD me to do it. I thought it sounded like a stupid long shot, but he said that’s how he and a lot of his writer friends got noticed, thus beginning mega-successful careers. He specifically suggested Script Pipeline, and now that I’ve won, I’ve gotten a lot of attention. It’s amazing. Plus, now my friends who DO have big connections to managers and agents and producers have no problem handing my script off to them. A contest win or placement is a big credit to your work. Without Script Pipeline, I wouldn’t be as busy as I am today.

Submit to a Script Pipeline competition

Submit for notes and potential industry exposure

Tripper Clancy

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Tripper2013

– Tripper Clancy, writer of Henry the Second (2010 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest Grand Prize Winner), and the upcoming Stuber (Fox), The Ambassadors (Fox), and Shedd (Paramount). In 2014, Tripper was hired to write the Kevin James adventure/comedy Stranded for Sony Pictures, and in 2017 was brought on board to write an adaptation for the critically acclaimed novel The Art of Fielding.

You won the 2010 Screenwriting Competition with the comedy Henry the Second, and after industry circulation by Script Pipeline (with a very small handful of rejections), you secured representation relatively quickly. What has that process been like the last couple years?

I was lucky enough to land my first agent about a month after moving to LA. Sure, it was a tiny agent at a tiny agency (and I had to pay formy own copies when a spec went out!), but I thought, “Holy shit, this is easy!” Five years—and several specs—later, I hadn’t sold anything or even sniffed a paid writing job. After Henry, and after winning Script Pipeline, I connected with my current manager and my current agents and everything changed.

The mentality shifted from, “Wouldn’t it be cool to land a paid writing gig?” to, “Let’s get you the hell out of your day job.” That shift took place quickly, and within six months, I quit my day job and focused on writingfull time. More specifically, the meetings I took changed from theoretical talks about enjoying my script into more practical discussions about paid writing jobs.

What do you attribute most of your success thus far to? Is it just about being a great writer, or do the little things really add up being good in a pitch meeting, the ability to take and implement studio-level feedback, and so forth?

It’s some combination of hard work, talent, luck, persistence, manager/agents I can count on, persistence, an ability to not make a fool of myself in a room, meet deadlines, remain open minded in the development process, lots of strong coffee, persistence, and several other things I’m forgetting. For me, the trick is to constantly be working. I write seven days a week. When a draft goes into the studio or a spec goes out, you can’t wait to see what happens. For one thing, you could be waiting forever. But for me, once I hit send on the email, I switch gears to another project, or if I’m clear, I’ll brainstorm loglines or TV pitch ideas.

Often times, young writers will get a bit overwhelmed with the demands of the industry. Which is probably natural. What’s been some of the roadblocks? Was there a point where you said, “Whoa, can I handle writing X script for X studio?”

You work your ass off for so long to land any type of paid gig that when you’re hired to write X script for X studio, you jump for joy. It’s an exciting feeling. I think if you’re lucky enough to land two or three around the same time, that’s definitely an overwhelming feeling because each project needs to be a priority.

But that’s a champagne problem. Sometimes you find yourself pitching on an assignment that might not be right for you and deep down you’re not exactly sure how you’d even write the actual script if you got the job. Those situations have always worked themselves out—meaning, they didn’t hire me. Probably for the best.

Looking back, what were some of the key decisions you made, or even the guidance you received, to set yourself up for a career in screenwriting? Is there a specific moment that stands out?

I think there were several moments. Not to sound like a paid endorsement, but submitting to Script Pipeline was definitely a big one because it started a chain reaction that resulted in me quitting my day job. Also, after I graduated from college, I told my parents I was moving to LA to be a screenwriter because I had written one script and it was amazing (it sucked). My Dad talked me into going to film school, and that was definitely the right call. Spending two years in Austin at UT, learning how to write bad scripts—and eventually how to write decent ones—was invaluable. Austin also has some of the greatest outdoor drinking venues on the face of the planet, which has nothing to do with screenwriting, but it’s worth mentioning.

What struck us with your writing was your ability to pass up a cliché joke in favor of something smarter. As far as studio releases, do you think the comedy genre is evolving, in terms of the type of humor we’re getting? Maybe it’s more prevalent in television, but are comedy films in development clinging close to their roots, or are you seeing more “educated” (not pretentious—educated) humor?

Hard to say. Every time I think comedy is evolving, some atrocious sequel comes out and. . . crushes it at the box office. This will sound soulless, but the studios must service their parent companies, which, in turn, must answer to investors. So from a purely business standpoint, if an idiotic comedy makes money, that’s a lot better than a smart comedy that doesn’t. That’s just the reality of the situation. I think as a screenwriter, the trick is to try to elevate the comedy as best you can, even if you’re hired to write Grown Ups 6. The best way to do that is to write in your own voice, no matter what the situation.

You recently sold a pitch, The Ambassadors, to 20th Century Fox. You’re also working on Shedd for Paramount Animation. How did both projects come about?

The Ambassadors actually came out of my job working at the (now extinct) Fox Writers Studio. The studio exec and producer on board have been incredibly determined in pushing it forward, which is awesome when that happens. Shedd was an OWA and I was lucky enough to have a fan at Paramount Animation who invited me to come in and pitch on it. I’m not sure how many writers pitched, but with my zero experience in animation, I’m grateful they took a chance and hired me. But on a more basic level, both jobs only happened because my reps made sure the right people at the right places were reading me.

What else is on the horizon? That you can speak publicly about, anyway. . . .

I’m writing an R-rated comedy for QED International called Winter Break, which follows a few college seniors back home for their final winter break ever before entering the real world. I think of it as Superbad. . . in college. . . at Christmas. I also have a new spec going out soon, but I don’t want to say anything about it for fear of jinxing it. Other than that, there are a couple of scripts I’ve written in the last few years (including Henry) that have producers involved pushing them forward, so I never lose hope!

Best comedy. All-time. No wishy-washy “anything funny” answer—gotta pick one.

I think Big is one of the best movies ever made and it just happens to be really damn funny. I’ve seen other comedies more times (Lebowski) and have soft spots for others (Rushmore, Annie Hall, Ghostbusters, Planes/Trains, High Fidelity), but Big has everything you could ever ask for in a comedy.

Submit to a Script Pipeline competition

Submit for notes and potential industry exposure

Morgan Von Ancken

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Morgan

– Morgan von Ancken, writer of Cutting Numbers (2013 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest winner). After being announced as the Grand Prize winner, Morgan later signed with agency powerhouse UTA.

Cutting Numbers is a unique premise in a genre (essentially an indie dramedy) usually devoid of true originality. How’d the concept come about?

My first job out of college was a temping gig where I transcribed thousands and thousands of handwritten names into a spreadsheet. One of the ways I coped with the monotony was by inventing a super sad series of little games. In my favorite one, I pretended that each name I invoiced was someone whose life—in some anonymous, inexplicable way—I was saving. The responsibility was empowering, and I remember extrapolating each person’s personality and appearance from their name and handwriting. It kept me sharp, too. If I screwed up and skipped a name, that person’s blood was on my hands.

A few years later, I realized that the inverse of this game might be an interesting premise for an off beat thriller–what if I was unwittingly killing all those random people, instead of saving them? How could I come to this realization? What are the implications of that kind of power? And what would happen when my boss found out?

When you start with a new script, what’s the process? Are you thinking, “I’m going to write whatever I want,” or “I’m going to write with the audience in mind”? Perhaps a mixture of both?

I don’t have a process. What I do have is a running list of ideas on my laptop, random thoughts and fragments that at one point or another I’ve thought would make cool movies. Most of them are terrible.

I just checked, and my latest entry, idea number 202, reads: “Different tribes of unicorns. Afternoonicorns. Spoonicorns. Balloonicorns.” Out of that morass of weirdness, maybe four or so ideas have some tiny kernel of potential. Then, for me, it’s just a matter of picking which idea I’m most enthusiastic about.

I’m so lazy, and writing a screenplay is so labor-intensive, I’ve found that I can’t grind away on something if I’m not totally enamored with it.

A remarkably vivid setting—besides well-above-average writing throughout—was one of the reasons the script was selected as the Grand Prize Winner. And yet, the backdrop, New York City, is quite common in film. At this point, too much so. How important was it to make this a different type of NYC story? Do you think location itself is important, in terms of getting the story’s theme across? Was NYC chosen for a specific reason?

I like the idea of bringing as much specificity as possible to my writing. I know there’s a school of thought that cautions against that, but if I’m reading something, and I come across a few well-placed details that resonate with me, I’m instantly there, inside the story. So I guess setting this script in New York was just a way for me to cheat, since I’ve lived here for a few years, and I’m familiar with the parts of the city I wanted to write about.

There’s also a lot of crowd imagery in the script, as Ben wanders around, wondering who he has consigned to die, and I thought the bustling streets of Manhattan fit that motif nicely. And then I suppose the whole notion of a young artist taking a temp job to subsidize their weirdo existence has a very particular kind of New York City naivety to me.

Although I’m sure that’s just because I live here–there’s probably weirdo subsidization going on everywhere.

How did you get into screenwriting?

I don’t know. I’ve always considered myself a writer—mostly because I thought that was better than considering myself a nerd—and I’ve always loved movies, but I definitely lack the obsessive zeal for film that some of the other screenwriters I’ve met have. I guess screenwriting is attractive to me because it’s so visual, which is the way that I think. It also has a wonderful pragmatism to it: most people won’t read a five hundred-page novel, but hopefully a few of them will sit through a two-hour movie.

As far as what type of screenwriter someone becomes, is it a conscious decision, or do they kind of naturally gravitate toward a particular style or genre? Which was it for you?

I think you have your strong suits. But I also don’t think they have to define you. This script was an elegiac fairytale, but the one I wrote before it was a rigorously researched period drama about the synthesis of aspirin and heroin. Right now, I’m writing for an awesome preschool cartoon show about talking monster trucks. I think if you’re a writer, then you can bring your ability to tell a story to bear on whatever medium you’re writing in.

What other successes have you had thus far with the script? Do you think there’s a bias against dramedies in the industry, regardless of how superb the writing? If so, why?

It’s funny, out of all the scripts I’ve written, this one is by far the strangest and least commercial. . . and it’s also the one that has opened the most doors for me. So there’s probably something in there about telling the stories you want to tell, regardless of what you think other people want to see.

As far as a bias against dramedies in the industry goes, I’m not sure I have enough perspective to have any sense of that. I suppose dramedies are generally easier to write and film, so yeah, I’m sure it’s hard to stand out unless you graft your story onto some kind of imaginative, high-concept hook. You know, like if two balloonicorns fell in love, but they could never be together for fear of popping each other’s rubbery, tensile bodies with their horns.

Actually, I kind of like that.

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Haji Outlaw

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Haji

– Haji Outlaw, writer of Deadmen (2013 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest runner-up)

You were a former Script Pipeline finalist with a TV spec for the comedy Eastbound and Down. Your 2013 runner-up screenplay, Deadmen, is a western (technically), yet a “lighter,” psychological western. What’s the transition like writing straight comedy to this type of material?

Honestly, the transition from straight comedy to Deadmen wasn’t much of a transition. It just comes down to telling a story and characters for me. As long as the story and characters are interesting, I’m ready to write it. I actually wrote the first draft of Deadmen about four months after I wrote Eastbound. Even though I’ve done standup for nearly 10 years and wrote Eastbound, the majority of what I enjoy watching are not comedies. My favorite TV show of all-time is The Wire (and currently Breaking Bad), and my favorite movie of all-time is The Matrix.

Few, if any, studio execs would recommend someone write a western—it’s simply not a marketable type of film at the moment—and yet, you managed to pull off a fresh, unique take on the genre that was thoroughly engaging and original. What inspired the concept?

The concept was inspired when I got the idea of a grim reaper telling a guy to kill himself. I woke up thinking about this idea two days in a row and knew I had to write this screenplay. The Western angle simply came in when my roommate, months before this, said that I could write a good western. At the time I wrote Deadmen, I had only seen three westerns (Unforgiven, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and 3:10 to Yuma). But I always loved the lone gunslinger type character. Whether it be Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series or Jack Burton from Big Trouble In Little China.

Do you think more writers should take risks on concepts? Should they worry much about marketability?

I think writers should write what makes them happy. Because in the end, it’s going to come down to the people with money (producers, studios, etc.) to take a risk on turning a screenplay into a film. I would like it if these people took more risks, but like they say about any business, it’s a business. And a business is always in the business of being a business. . . . I do think writers should worry about marketability, if they want to not sleep on a futon.

What’s your writing background in general? How’d you get started?

I started writing creatively in grade school. By 5th grade my teachers all thought that I would grow up to write books. While I still may write a novel, between 7th grade and junior year of college, I don’t believe I read an entire book, let alone wrote one. This was mainly due to teachers telling me that I couldn’t write anything creative in their classes. But my dislike of school is whole different subject.

After I graduated from college, I started writing for myself as a standup comedian in Chicago. As I started to get more and more work as a standup, I realized that my comedic voice is not broad, but more of a niche. And the ability to write in this niche would work very well in television and movies, which is what I’m pursuing now, along with doing more standup.

How far outside your writing comfort zone do you go, if at all? Is it important for writers to test their talents, so to speak? Challenge themselves in this respect? Or is it wiser to stick to your guns, write what you know, what you know you’re good at?

I can go as far outside of my writing zone as the story and characters will allow. Once the story and the characters are not interesting to me, I’m done. . . . I think it’s important for writers to push or challenge themselves. But I come back to a quote from a man, who in my opinion was the most charismatic wrestler ever, The Rock, who said, “Shut your mouth and know your role!” That’s how I feel about writing. If your voice is unique and your talent is special, I think your writing will come through no matter what genre you’re writing in. If Tarantino wrote a romantic-comedy, it would definitely be a Tarantino romantic comedy. And I believe it would be that way because he would love the story and the characters he created. And yes, I just equated myself to Quentin Tarantino and gave myself first billing.

Where do you see the film industry headed with regards to the types of projects produced, studios and indies alike? In your experience, should a writer follow the trends? Do they need to? Or is it simply a matter of writing a good script and hoping someone finds interest eventually?

I think big studios will continue to do what they’re doing, to a certain extent. They need to make big movies with big budgets. And in order to do that, they need to do broad movies. That’s simply what big studios do. I’m sure they will do their best to avoid flops like R.I.P.D. or John Carter, but that won’t stop them from making big-budget movies. I think independents will take more risk as far as the films they make because they don’t need to do $250 million at the box office to break even on a picture.

A writer should do whatever is necessary to get their screenplay turned into a film. Whether that be following or bucking the trends. While I do think that a great script will garner attention for a writer, the reality is that no one shows up to a movie theater to read a script. TMZ has proven that people would rather watch celebrities leave restaurants and nightclubs than watch most scripted television shows. So I would say that a good script is a good thing, but a good script with a star attached is ideal, at least in the business of filmmaking.

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Andy Demsky

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Demsky

– Andy Demsky, writer of Totaled (2012 Script Pipeline Contest winner)

Without giving away too much of the concept, what prompted you to come up with the idea for Totaled?

A few years ago, a friend was telling me how his car had been totaled and I should have been listening to him, but instead my internal English Major was geeking out on how much that one word packs into it. If you say your car is totaled, I know there was a wreck, probably pretty bad. There was surprise, fear, and uncertainty, maybe pain, but certainly drama. Someone got pissed, someone may have faked an injury. Police may’ve been called. The car had to go to a body shop for evaluation, phone calls had to be made to an insurance company, someone along the line shouted “This is bullshit!” and the owner is now faced with a lot of decisions and on and on. All this in just one word. An entire story outline.

From there, I thought, “What if a person could be totaled?” Deemed to be not worth the cost of repair. What kind of person would that be? What kind of world would that be?

Do you feel that, when writing a comedy, there should be a larger, serious purpose behind it all, or is the humor itself all that matters?

The comedies that stick with me most are the ones that have a similar density of storytelling as dramas, movies like In The Loop, Foot Fist Way, Humpday, Juno, SidewaysWaiting for Guffman, Election. What works best for me is when you push the tone of the story just past drama into comedy. I love how Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Jody Hill and others can get this very tricky thing right.

But that’s all personal preference. The truth is you can point to a lot of very successful comedies, that I also like, which story-wise don’t aim for 21-ounce-steak storytelling at all like Anchorman or Hot Tub Time Machine. So I think you can do either. Ultimately, it has to take the audience off-guard in ways that spark laughs.

The writing process, for you personally. What keeps you motivated? Where do most of your ideas stem from, and how do you go about evaluating what to pursue next?

Great movies, great scripts are very motivating—all the movies I’ve seen over and over such as Blue Velvet, Barton Fink, Defending Your Life, David Cronenberg’s Crash, Lawrence of Arabia, Brazil, were like doing drugs, just enthralling. They all made me want to do that, too. Ideas come from everywhereand nowhere. I’m working on something now that comes straight out of my geeky obsession with History Channel conspiracy theories. With Totaled, it began with a single word. With another project it came from my sick, sad nerd-love for Basil Rathbone and the old Sherlock Holmes series. And others are just stray thoughts while jogging or driving or lying awake at night. Sometimes I steal ideas from my kids. I’m not proud.

The projects that I focus on currently are those that I’m most likely to sell. Money actually does bring me happiness. On top of that in about six years my son will go to college and unfortunately he’s extremely bright, charming, and has wide range of interests.

All of which means he’ll probably end up going somewhere stupidly expensive, which will require me to sell as many scripts as humanly possible between now and then. His sister is only two years behind so I don’t plan on sleeping a lot over the next ten years.

As someone who lives outside of Los Angeles, since you have experience with story development, dealing with producers, and so forth, how beneficial do you think it is to live near Hollywood? Does it matter?

It’s important to live in or near L.A. The only reason I’ve gotten away with it so far, I think, is because I live in Napa Valley, which is familiar, weekend-getaway turf for a lot of people in the entertainment industry. A number of my friendships in the business actually originated here in wine country over dinner or at winery events, things like that, rather than in L.A. In addition, I have a lot of flexibility in terms of getting to L.A. It’s an hour flight and, to be honest,I’ve developed a huge crush on the Sacramento Airport. That said, though, setting up meetings is much harder and more cumbersome from here. Getting to last-minute meetings is impossible. And probably worst of all, I’m not in the mix on a day-to-day basis and that puts me at a disadvantage. Everything takes longer, all of which just makes me work harder to create un-put-downable scripts.

What do you feel are the most crucial elements in a screenplay? What gets your work noticed by industry?

Whoever said “don’t sweat the small stuff” didn’t write screenplays. Every page, every scene, every word, every character, every idea is important and needs to be put under a microscope. I’ve re-written Totaled, in major ways, at least 25 times and in smaller ways too many times to count. And it’s still not right.

You have to be your harshest critic. Your willingness to rewrite and re-edit has to border on a kind of mental illness. And I think you have to not only be willing to collaborate but to actually enjoy it.

Overall, I think that first screenplay has to come with a mix of originality and familiarity. You have to have an original concept, characters, set pieces, and plot. However, since I’m not going to shoot this and raise the funds myself as a writer/director, I need to sell this to a producer who can imagine a poster and trailer and who can assure investors that their money will be returned with crazy interest. That means there has to be an element of familiarity. In a producer’s mind, as far as I can tell, the average audience member should have some sense of what the story is about, that they’ve seen some iteration of this before and want to see it again through a new lens.

Personally, I love diving blindly into unfamiliar territory. The films of the Coen Brothers, David Cronenberg, Lars Von Trier, Peter Greenaway, or David Lynch are good examples. But in order to sell my first screenplay, I know I’m never to sell something like Fargo or Drowning By Numbers.

At the end of the day, what wins: concept or execution?

Concept.

No,execution. No, concept. Or. . . .

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Jason Vaughn

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JasonVaughn

– Jason Vaughn, writer of The Synth House Wife (2012 Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest winner). Synth is currently in the latter stages of development and is headed toward production.

Describe the process of writing The Synth House Wife. Where did the concept stem from, and what type of story did you want to tell?

My concept was triggered by that scene in Minority Report when John Anderton takes the precog, Agatha, to a hacker who helps people live out their fantasies. I thought, what if an entire story was focused on a man going someplace to relive one night of his life? What if this fantasy involved a woman he loved? What if the facility could create a physical simulacrum of her? And, if he wasn’t going for sex (as other people would, in this future), then why was he going?

Thinking of trying a short story, not a screenplay, I worked out a two-page sketch—a fuzzy beginning, an even fuzzier ending, and scattered bits of a blah-dialogue middle. I had never attempted science fiction, and, though the idea intrigued me, I felt I didn’t yet have the power to make anything out of it. So I deleted the file. Weeks later, while happening to look at a script as I watched its film, I discovered that screenplays are, after all, just words written down by mere mortals (and nowhere did I see that you have to be a rocket scientist).

Within two weeks I’d bought some software and written close to twenty pages of what was clearly destined to be a quieter type of movie. The questions that got it rolling were the architects of what it would become.

Moody, character-driven sci-fi/futuristic dramas are, relatively speaking, a rarity amongst the many comedy, action, horror, and straight drama specs. Do you think it’s a tougher genre to write, at least in the sense of piecing everything together regarding plot and creating a unique world?

I don’t have enough genre experience to answer this with authority, but I’ll say that, at least as far as world-building is concerned, science fiction is perhaps tougher than the others (unless you’re talking about multi-genre films). No matter what you do, something that’s been done before is going to leap out. You’ll think you’re being totally fresh and then someone’ll come along and say, “Cool,man—that’s just like Blade Runner.” What??? Just because there’s a synthetic human???

If you’re writing a family dramedy, the fact that you set it in a small Midwestern town probably won’t ruffle any feathers. But if it’s a sci-fi drama showing a crowded only-“night”-scenes metropolis with Asian influences and lots of rain, you’ll never hear the end of it. In one descriptive passage in an early draft, I mentioned rare vehicles and taxis, and that there was “not one rickshaw among them.” I tried to keep this mindset going through the whole thing, but was fine with the fact that I wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel.

As far as plot goes, I don’t think a futuristic drama is harder to write. It all depends on who you are. If I had to come up with an espionage thriller, my head would probably explode.

What were some influences on your writing?

While writing the first draft, I was influenced by my own life, and by the films and thoughts already running around in my memories; I didn’t actively watch any movies to get creative juices flowing. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Exotica, however, seemed to speak louder to me than other films, at that time. After the initial draft had gone through its first Script Pipeline contest, and then through additional consultations from development pros, I watched specific movies over and over, hoping to absorb something. I was drawn to Before Sunrise; Before Sunset; Two Lovers; Synechdoche, New York; The Dead Zone; and Snow Angels, among others. Later, toward my second entry into the SP contest, I watched Adventureland every night for ten days and began to feel addicted to it.

Should writers always “go with their gut,” even if that genre is less marketable than, say, a high-concept comedy or action screenplay?

Yes. Definitely. Because you’l be more likely to finish a story that you’re driven to tell, or at least one that’s pleasurable for you to write. Screenplays, as you know, rarely exist without being written. If everybody thinks the R-rated animated children’s film you came up with is just plain crazy, then you can always make adjustments. Or you can set it aside, emboldened by the fact that you wrote a script. After you finish that first one, the mystery of screenwriting will forever live in your mind as a thing that’s possible, even if you still have no idea what an INTERCUT is.

You had entered the Script Pipeline contest before, but didn’t quite crack the top 20. What do you think changed in this latest version to garner interest?

I tried to enter scenes later and leave them earlier, to beef up the subtext everywhere, and to give my protagonist a few more obstacles. An overall cleaning and tightening-up made a big difference. If I remember correctly, I cut ten or eleven pages.

Surprisingly to us, you noted that this was, technically, your first feature script, albeit it’s gone through numerous revisions. For the writers who only have one script and think it’s next to impossible to win a contest or snag industry attention, what would you say? Does being a “beginner” (whatever that really means anymore) matter?

As of now, though I’ve started two others, I still have only one feature script completed (and it still needs work). It would be nice if this fact could give other beginners a little hope. When you hear about well-known writers who finished twenty scripts before making their first sale, it can really knock the wind out of you. But if you’ve got an idea that grabs hold of your mind and won’t let go, a story that seems to answer some of its own questions while you’re asleep, and causes you to jot notes down at work when you should be working, then there’s a good chance someone else might also feel something for it. Even if you don’t get anywhere with your first contest entry, you can take advantage of a consultation (as I did), and find out what’s working and not working. (This is necessary, I think, as your loving friends and family can’t always be trusted.) Then you can submit again. And again and again, if you haven’t burned the script in a rage. Ultimately, though, if you don’t need to write, then you’re a beginner who should probably begin somewhere else.

Writing in other mediums, as you had, prior to penning The Synth House Wife: do you believe that helps? Is it easier for a poet or a fiction writer to transition to screenwriting?

I think previous writing experience has to help in certain ways, even if only making your script less painful for others to read. This can be big, because if a reader can’t get through the first five pages without stumbling over huge ugly-sentence blocks, dull dialogue, and at least fifteen typos, will they really want to keep going? That said, my short-story and poetry experience didn’t help me much with structure, or with throwing obstacles at a proactive—as opposed to a passive—protagonist. I still have plenty of work to do in those areas.

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Michael Toay / Travis Mann

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Toay

Michael Toay

– Michael Toay & Travis Mann, writers of Red Hats (2012 Script Pipeline Contest winner)

Many writers go about their screenwriting career solo, but for writing teams, what do you think is the most difficult thing to overcome? Agreeing on concept? The details of a scene?

Michael: I think it’s hitting on that right idea that we both spark to. There are some ideas that I’m passionate about that don’t interest Travis, and some ideas that he loves that I don’t get that excited about. It’s kinda like that famous Supreme Court Justice’s quote—something to the effect of, “I can’t tell you what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.” That’s how it is with our ideas—some are really great, and some don’t excite me as much, but I know a terrific one when I hear it. That’s how it was when Travis pitched me the ideas for both Red Hats and Nuclear One. He’s great at coming up with exciting and high-concept ideas. I think the other challenging (and rewarding) part of the relationship is that we both have strong opinions on some scenes and we both think we’re right (or as a friend of mine puts it, “I’m not always right, but I’m never in doubt”). We try to work so that neither of us is being “over-ruled” on anything. We both have to be happy so we’ll keep working on a scene or dialogue until we’re both satisfied.

Travis: The most difficult thing to overcome—once you’ve decided on an idea to write together—is what to cut. “Killing your babies” is hard for any writer, but having your writing partner try to kill your beloved moments is even worse. Most of the time, Michael and I end up agreeing, but if there’s no consensus, we’ll let trusted readers chime in to break the impasse.

How long have you been writing as a team? Individually?

Michael: We’ve written three feature scripts together and I also write on my own. I’ve written or co-written 11 feature scripts so far.

Travis: Michael had been writing for a long time before I started writing with him. There was an idea and outline I had, but I didn’t see myself as a writer, so Michael was going to write it. Then, as we collaborated on the project together, it just sort of naturally evolved into a writing partnership by the time we had finished. We each have different strengths and weaknesses as writers, so it’s been a good fit for both of us.

Do you stick to a particular genre, and if so, do you feel it’s a requirement for writers to have scripts in different genres and budget ranges?

Michael: As a writing team, we tend to stick to action and action-thrillers. I also enjoy writing drama. I just really appreciate good storytelling. As far as what genres should writers write—I think, and this is just me, they should stick to what they enjoy and work to get really good at that. For example, I love comedy, but I don’t write it really well. The one action-comedy I wrote several years ago, I worked with a guy who’s naturally very funny and can write that way. That’s another strength Travis brings to our relationship—he’s really good with dialog and comes up with some great one-liners that really work. That said, I think writers can learn any genre they want to—how to hit all the beats, the expectations of each, and so forth. The skill can be learned and honed. I just prefer, generally, to play to my strengths and work within those areas I tend to be good at.

Travis: I love big, fun, high-concept films. So I naturally gravitate to those. Before I started writing with Michael, I set up several pitches, then watched as other writers did the heavy lifting to turn those fairly simple ideas and concepts into full-fledged screenplays. Now, writing on my own and with Michael, I realize it’s a lot harder than it sometimes looks and takes a lot of discipline. As far as different genres, I say write whatever type of movie you love. It’s too much work to grind away on a script you’re not absolutely excited about getting made into a film. And on the budget question, I always opt for “bigger and more expensive is better.” Huge set-pieces can always be whittled down later when budget realities hit.

How much do news and present-day events influence your writing? When writing in the broad action genre, do you think it’s important, or even crucial, to have a premise that’s current and socially-relevant?

Michael: Current events and news are huge for me. I like to keep things at least somewhat grounded in reality, and having events in our scripts tie into what’s happening in the real world helps that. I also love doing research. I’m a big reader. I think that drives Travis a bit crazy at times because, like in Red Hats, he’ll want to crash a plane a certain way and I’ll say, no it can’t be that way because the Burner Can on the engine is over here not over there, or whatever it is. I love accurate and realistic detail,and I’ll consult with people I know in the military and government to get it right. Travis sometimes has to remind me not to let the details get in the way of a good story.

It can also be a bit tricky to navigate some of the politics and the realities of the real world and Hollywood today. For example, in Red Hats, Chinese, North Korean and Iranian military capabilities and ambitions play a prominent role in the script. Now, we’re not bashing the Chinese by any stretch, but we are using a Chinese stealth fighter because currently only they, the U.S., and Russia have the capability to field a stealth fighter in real life. For our story, we can’t use a U.S. stealth fighter, and the Russian angle was done in Firefox and could make the story seem like something from the 80s, so we went with a Chinese plane, and it works and makes perfect sense for this story. The challenge is that some people in Hollywood are afraid of offending the Chinese government since China is an emerging market and that’s where they get some of their funding from. Which I completely understand. Our hope is that when people read Red Hats and see it on the screen, they will get that it’s (a) just a movie and (b) understand that we are in no way bashing China, we’re just telling a really fun, exciting story that happens to feature a Chinese plane.

As a final thought on the subject, it is rewarding when current events actually catch up with what we’ve written. Last year, we finished a script called Nuclear One, in which a nuclear reactor is taken over by terrorists who threaten to melt it down. People said, “oh they could never take down a reactor that way” or “there’s no way someone could get into a nuclear plant that way.” And then news came out about the Stuxnet Virus and also the FBI arrested a guy in Yemen who actually worked inside a U.S. nuclear plant for 6 months using the same methods we described in our script. That tells me I’ve done a good job on my research.

Travis: Several of my ideas have been spawned by current events and news articles, but I don’t think it’s required that you be topical and timely. If you do your job right as a screenwriter and tell a compelling story incredibly well such that a film gets made, the motion picture itself will drive the public’s conversation. The big caveat to this theory is that you never want to be behind the curve with a story that’s seen as stale or yesterday’s news.

Also with regards to writing high-concept action: in the end, are the characters or the plot the most important element in a successful script? Obvious answer would be characters, but in your eyes, what’s the balance there?

Michael: I think it’s both. You have to have characters people care about or can relate to and they have to be doing something interesting or that matters. I don’t think every story has to be—or can be—a “hero must save the world from imminent destructionÆ story. I mean, how many of those can you watch without going “oh, the hero has to save the world again?” I also get tired of characters’ motivation being “the money.” I think we’ve all seen villains “doing it for the money” to death. I think it’s more interesting when the villains want to achieve something for some reason other than money. But I do think there need to be stakes for the characters. Something has to be at risk. And I love good plotting. I love complex plotting. I enjoy movies that make you pay attention and make you think such as Inception, Michael Clayton, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Travis: You definitely need both. Intriguing characters who don’t do anything is a wasted opportunity. And characters that audiences don’t care about racing around the world doing the amazing things is also a waste.

Some advice for new writers: is it integral for them to write something geared toward a studio market, like Red Hats, or should they go with whatever is in their wheelhouse, whatever they’re comfortable with?

Michael: For me, I’d say write what you want to write, what interests you. The studio market is really pretty small, unfortunately. Your chances of winning the lottery may be better than selling a spec script to a studio. It’s just that competitive. It’s kinda like that question Travis has asked some actors in the past: do you wanna be an actor, or do you wanna be a star? There’s no right or wrong answer—it’s just how do you define success for yourself? Because actors can act in community theater or wherever and be very good. Being a star may be a whole different deal. Same thing with writing. If you want to write, then write. Even if it’s only in the indie market or online, or whatever, if you’re passionate about what you’re writing and you have talent eventually you will get noticed.

Travis: I agree, and to reiterate: write what you love. Personally, I realized a while back that I’m really not crazy about most indie dramas. They’re just not my thing. I went to Sundance several times and found myself wishing I could sneak away from the festival’s dark and edgy fare to take in some big-budget studio extravaganza with lots of car chases and explosions. So in that regard, I’m not trying to write a script that I think will be most likely to get made. In many respects, I’m writing scripts least likely to get made. It’s a bad business model, generally speaking, but these are the projects I love.

What have been the lessons you’ve learned in navigating the industry?

Michael: Don’t Lie. Take Risks. Form Alliances with people you know, like, and trust.

Travis: Don’t quit your day job! If you’re a writer, then you should be writing, and your day job is not an excuse.

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Jason Kaleko

By | Exclusive Interviews

Kaleko

– Jason Kaleko, Writer of Hold Up! (2012 Script Pipeline Contest Winner). Jason is currently developing new material with Script Pipeline development execs and other Pipeline industry partners.

Your winning script was touted by some of the judges as one of the best comedies that came through Script Pipeline in years—why do you think that is? Is writing comedy tougher than people think?

Comedy writing is tough because it’s such a fine line between the ludicrous that makes us laugh and the ludicrous that makes us roll our eyes. Comedy is rarely universal and even more rarely timeless. Austin Powers had people rolling in the aisles in the late 90s, but now, many people consider those films to be silly and corny. There seems to be a “you had to be there” element to all humor—but comedies like Tootsie or Dr. Strangelove persist because there’s a structure and wit to appreciate in addition to the laughs. I defy you to watch a film like Arsenic and Old Lace and not at least acknowledge the cleverness of the idea and execution.

I am greatly humbled to hear that my script was considered to be funny—I suppose if I had to pinpoint why I personally think it’s funny, it’s because each plot point and character starts as only slightly ridiculous, but ends up having major implications for the rest of the story. Soon, scenes that were initially smirks have been built upon until they become small laughs and eventually big laughs. . . kind of like a cycle of compounding ridiculousness. . . if that makes any sense.

How much success have you had in circulating your scripts in the past? Have you entered other contests?

I have had minor successes with previous scripts in contests—quarterfinalist and semi-finalist rounds for various other submissions, but never far past that. I submitted Hold Up! to a few contests and received similar results, but was elated at the response from Script Pipeline. Perhaps it speaks to the subjectivity of comedy that Hold Up! garnered a Grand Prize at Script Pipeline and only a quarterfinalist or first-round finish in other contests.

Alternatively, I believe it speaks to the need for writers to get their work out there and always keep writing, keep submitting. You just need one person to laugh out loud toget that foot in the door.

Do you stick to one genre, or write whatever you feel “clicks” at any given time?

I have ideas for a variety of genres—I’ve written horror, sci-fi/action, and like most writers, have a whole book of loglines for stories of all types. I think for writers like me, in their early stages, it’s important to find a strength and stick to it. Maybe you want to write that Grover Cleveland biopic or animated torture porn you’ve had your heart set on, but if you’re great with action or great with comedy, stick to that for now. All your bizarre writing dreams will be there waiting when you have the means to make them bizarre writing realities.

The Jason Kaleko writing process: how does it start? With the premise, with a single scene that spawns a completed script, a character. . . ?

My process starts in all varieties of ways—sometimes I have a moral dilemma I want to explore. . . sometimes a crazy character. . . sometimes I might be watching a movie and think, “What if that character had taken a left instead of a right turn there. . . .” Good ideas can come from anything. Hold Up! came from spontaneously watching Airplane! and Ocean’s Eleven in the same week, and realizing how Ocean’s Eleven was a bad pun away from being absolutely outrageous.

What spurred you to write Hold Up? Any influences? TV shows, films?

I took the Tarantino approach to film and stole from everything I loved. Aside from parodying films like Dog Day Afternoon, The Inside Man, Reservoir Dogs, etc., I lifted my comedy stylings from classics like Airplane! and The Simpsons. We are only the sum of everything that has influenced us, and in that vein, writing is stealing, plain and simple. I always thought if I didn’t pursue screenwriting, I’d love to be a thief or crook of some kind. Maybe a counterfeiter—I hear there’s good money in it (rimshot).

In capturing humor and comic timing, which is no easy feat, what’s the number one most important factor, to you?

To me, comedy is about catching the audience off-guard and also rewarding them for ‘getting it.’ Most educated audiences these days can figure out the punch-lines to jokes before they’re even said. With this in mind, anti-humor is a great tool (“A dyslexic man walks into a bra”). As for rewarding the audience, Family Guy‘s success suggests referencing pop culture is so rewarding that you may not even need a punch-line, but I believe a good recurring or running joke gives a bit of ‘reward’ that standalone lines don’t.