If It Ain't On The Page ...
A 'tales from the trenches' series of posts (covering the period: 1994 to the present day) chronicling the ups and downs of being a writer (films/plays) and independent producer. (Comments have been disabled due to Spam. I can be emailed at: swunderwoods[at]yahoo[dot]co[uk])
Friday, November 25, 2005
Unadulterated and uninhibited praise please!
Here is a funny and painfully accurate extract from Rob Long's new book - Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke:
When a writer gives you his script to read, he usually says something totally dishonest like, 'Hey, let me know what you really think, okay?'. In other words, he wants you to be honest. He can take it, he says. 'I know there's some rough spots in the seond act, he may say, 'so just give me your honest opinion.'
There is, though, only one response that he will find acceptable. He wants you to read his script in a kind of rapture, laughing yourself in tears at the right spots, emitting low moans of pleasure or surprise here or there, until you finally wipe the mist from your eyes, hold the script in your breast, look at him with awe and gratitude and a dash of what-a-terrible-burden-such-insight-must-be pity, and say in a low, quavery voice, 'This is one of the greatest scripts I have ever read. It is absolutely perfect.'
Anything short of that - anything even a fraction short of that - will be a crushing disappointment. The writer will say something like, 'You hate it, don't you?' And you will say something like, 'No, no! I love it! But you're right about the second act. But I love it!'
The writer will respond with: 'You hate the second act?' I thought that was the best part.'
And you will counter with : 'I like the second act. But it's just a little slow'.
Writer: 'Why are you trying to destroy me?'
You: 'I'm just being constructive.'
Writer: 'You call that constructive?'
You: 'What do you want me to say? That this is one of the greatest scripts I've ever read? That it's absolutely perfect?'
You: 'I thought you wanted an honest opinion'.
Write: 'I want that to be your honest opinion.'
Mr and Mrs Treatment
Before earning over $50 million at the box office in its opening weekend, Mr. & Mrs. Smith began as a treatment written by then-unproduced screenwriter Simon Kinberg as a part of his graduate thesis project at Columbia University's film program.
Read the on-line treatment here:
Mr. and Mrs. Smith Treatment
Now that man could write
James Joyce's Ulysses has been labeled dirty, blasphemous, and unreadable. In a famous 1933 court decision, Judge John M. Woolsey declared it an emetic book.
Hey, whatever - this is an extract from Episode 13 - Nausicca - in my mind one of the most beautiful passages I've ever read in English literature. Like all great art it hits all the right spots, poetical, emotional and spiritual. Sublime! Enjoy!
THE SUMMER EVENING HAD BEGUN TO FOLD THE WORLD IN ITS mysterious embrace. Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay, on the weedgrown rocks along Sandymount shore and, last but not least, on the quiet church whence there streamed forth at times upon the stillness the voice of prayer to her who is in her pure radiance a beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man, Mary, star of the sea.
For an online search of Ulysses see:
More words from 'The Man'
Here is another sublime, goose-pimple-creating extract from James Joyce. Simply awesome!
This extract is taken from 'The Dead', also an excellent film directed by John Huston in 1987.
Read, 'The Dead, on-line at:
EXTRACT FROM 'THE DEAD' by JAMES JOYCE
The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
"People don't talk in full sentences. There's subtext in real dialogue. I would cite something like this: You're in a restaurant, you're waiting for a guy who's really late and you're pissed. When they walk through the door, you don't give them a big speech about how late they are. Usually they say, 'Oh, sorry I'm late,' and you just say, 'It's OK,' but it's not OK. In a movie there are a lot of ways of showing that subtext. You have an opportunity to use people's faces, details, and visuals to counter the dialogue to actually have dialogue that's full of subtext and not put the subtext in the dialogue. That's very important. You have to know how to do that."
– Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal
Taken from Creative Screenwriting Daily:
Screenwriting shopping list
This is an extract from a post on the Done Deal forum:
Here are ten great questions you should ask yourself about your script/story while you are developing it, writing it, and when you are finished.
1) What do you want to say with your script or story about...?
The state of the world?
Life in general?
2) How will audiences/readers react to your story? Is the story...
3) Where does your story begin?
What is the set up?
Is the protagonist in a crisis?
Have you established your world? The rules? The restrictions?
4) Where does your story end?
What is the outcome or resolution? And why?
Do you answer any and all questions presented?
Did you fulfill the premise of the story?
5) Is there rising tension?
Are there suprises?
How does the conflict escalate?
Is there a climax?
6) Your characters?
Are they likable?
Unique or different?
Bigger than life?
Will an audience care about them?
7) What is your protagonist like?
Can audiences empathize with them?
What do they want?
What are their goals in life? Needs?
What's at stake for them?
Are they tied to the problem they face? No turning back?
8) What is your characters motivation?
Are these motivations shown?
Woven into the story?
9) Who or what is the antagonist?
Why are they trying to stop your protagonist?
Is the antagonist a worthy foe?
What drives them?
What do they want or need?
10) Do you over explain your story?
Is everything spelled out too clearly?
Is the set up "messy" and too busy?
Do events get explained rather than unfold dramatically?
Do too many key events take place off screen?
Meetings, meetings, meetings
An interesting insider's view on sellng v. getting assignments from ICM agency's story analyst Chris Lockhardt:
See Chris's site here:
Since only a small amount of spec scripts are
purchased a year, the likelihood of receiving a
"pass" is about 99%.
So, IMO, a "pass" is not a good litmus test
for whether or not the script "sucks."
You want the script to earn you - at least -
If you can't even get a meeting out of the
script - then it isn't connecting with anyone
who's reading it.
Maybe you need to reassess. Maybe you
need to put it aside.
And sometimes you can't polish a turd.
Meetings are a good barometer of a script's
pedigree because execs have to meet - it's
part of their job. They need to fill up their
calendars. And if they can't find time to
squeeze you in for even 15 minutes - they
didn't find much merit in your project.
Most scripts suck.
So you're in good company.
And remember that a bad script does not
(necessarily) mean the writer has no talent.
Even some of the very talented singers on
AMERICAN IDOL (someone referenced it above)
give a bad performance every now and then.
When I first started at the agency, my boss
asked me to read a script and then called me in
wanting to know if the writer had any talent.
I was stunned by the question, replying that
I could not base a writer's "talent" on one
script only. In theory, I couldn't do it with 30
scripts either. Because the 31st script could
I have read DREADFUL scripts by writers
And hundreds of others. (Some of the
worst scripts come from the best writers.)
If I hadn't known who these writers were,
I might assume they had no talent.
Every writer will write a script that sucks.
Some will have a higher "suck" ratio than
others. (And remember, it's ALL subjective
But keep writing. Enjoy the process. There is
no rule that says you have to be good in order
to write anyway. It's a free country. Writing
is cathartic. (And I'm the one who should
complain about the bad scripts, because I'm the
one who has to read them.) The more you
write, the better you may get. And you just
might write the script that connects with
someone enough to shell out some bucks for it.
Wavewhite wedded words
More descriptive gems from Joyce's Ulysses:
From Episode 1 - Telemachus
Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.
From Episode 3 - Proteus
In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising, flowing. My ashplant will float away. I shall wait. No, they will pass on, passing chafing against the low rocks, swirling, passing. Better get this job over quick. Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.
Here is a summary of feedback I gave recently on a first time screenwriter's first draft. By the way, in these feedback posts I've edited the parts where I actually praised the writing since that wasn't really relevant here. The upshot of that is this feedback sounds a bit harsh. Just remember it is out of context!
The writer was complaining that she couldn't get read. She lives in LA and has some contacts in the industry but hasn't been able to get anyone to read it. This wasn't the problem. The problem was that the script wasn't ready for the marketplace.
Basically since the film is not very high concept the best thing to do with it is turn it into a good writing sample. It's not there yet.
Your problem is not getting this script read but getting the script in better shape. Did you say you hadn't read any screenwriting books? Well, it shows. I suggest you read about 10 of them. Go to screenwriting seminars. Join a writers group. Try a script consultant. Turn this script into a page turner.
Do you know where Turning Point 1 is because I didn't. Do you know where the Mid Point is? I didn't see any clearly definable peaks and troughs which you need for a Hollywood screenplay. These are all 'the rules' of screenwriting. Protagonist goal, scene dynamic, conflict, plot points, character arc. You have the potential to turn this into a good writing sample that could get you in the door but it has to be very tight and it needs a lot more work.
Don't worry about your contacts getting this script out there because they wouldn't be able to sell it in it's present form anyway. Get it to the point where it is a 'can't put it down page turner' and you will definitely get noticed even if you can't sell it. Some scenes which contain conflict and tension are very good - (examples given) - you need that standard of conflict and tension throughout the script and you need to have definable plot points that jettison the narrative into the next level. Screenwriting is structure!
Try and get Bill Martell's book on Action Screenwriting. Go to the writer's store and buy a whole bunch of books - you live in LA! Go to Robert Mckee's seminars etc. but whatever you do go back to basics and re-structure the piece so it is a tight piece of writing that makes you turn the page.
More tales from the feedback bucket
Here is a collection of feedback I've given on a number of different first time screenwriter's scripts. A useful reminder for ME! when I start writing my next script.
I think you can get more out of what you've got by just working the description (to make it more of a suspenseful read) and sharper dialogue so you bring out the conflict and tension and avoid easy situations for the protagonist. You have all the ingredients there now you just need to execute all the strands. It's hard because in a script you can focus on one thing and then you see that something else is missing. Most scripts have holes, but if you've followed most, not all of the dramatic rules then you can hopefully get away with it.
You are also bringing in more twists, rug-pulls and surprises - but again you could ramp this up - this is something that improved through all my scripts - because I consciously started thinking about how I could build in the surprise element at the outline phase. You should be saying to yourself - could I build in a twist/surprise in this scene?
William Goldman said there should be a surprise on every page! The more you do that, and the more tension and suspense you put in the script the more chance you have of the reader, agent, producer making it to page 120. Don't sell yourself short by letting the energy drop because you've now got strong story elements, an original idea, a strong and unique protagonist - don't waste it.
Wherever you can, increase obstacles, conflict, dramatic tension - you have a tendency of letting the tension drop - people agreeing with each other - this shouldn't happen. Avoid agreement in screenplays!
CONFLICT<>OBSTACLES<>TENSION<>CONFLICT<>OBSTACLES and then these obstacles have to increase! This accelerates the pace in Act 2.
Empathy, fear and catharsis - the essence of Greek drama. We need to FEEL and FEAR for our characters.
Now we're at the mid point of the movie so my question/concern is pacing/plot/narrative drive - do we see some major turning points now? - an irreversible change of circumstances for the characters that will move the plot forward - because it's kind of due around now...if you want it to be Hollywood mainstream rather than indie.
The main notes I have is that the script, overall lacks real dramatic tension and conflict. There is far too politeness going on. Characters in scripts should be at each other's throats!
You have whole scenes where nothing really happens. Each scene should if possible have conflict. You need to re-examine the script and pair it down into REAL dramatic beats. To me you have too much screenplay and too little story. There is not enough danger.
There is too much lengthy dialogue that a) creates no conflict and b) lacks dramatic tension. You have too much chit-chat - introductions, thank you's etc.
You need more extremity, the antagonist should be evil and menacing. It's okay if you have the bad guy being polite and civil if that is offset against something like a guy getting tortured in the room at the same time. Drama is contrast and contradiction.
The whole dramatic ante needs to be upped and you need to examine your character's motivations. I didn't believe X's motivations for instance. I think you need to go deeper into sub-text there.
The set up was far, far too long - the protagonist needs to be in a position where at around 25-30 pages he reaches an IRREVERSIBLE position where he has NO CHOICE But to move forward and act which then creates further complications. This didn't happen.
Never have it so that your character can decide to give up and go home. He has to be FORCED to act. X needs to be a much stronger protagonist with much bigger obstacles and he has to be really FORCED to act.
The antagonist should be one evil bastard - make him scarier!. We have to FEEL and FEAR for our characters (essence of Greek drama) especially the protagonist. I don't fear or feel for the protagonist enough. Overall the characters need to be developed more, this involves writing lengthy character biogs. See Linda Seger - 'How to make a good character great'. That might give you some ideas.
Also read up on exposition and on the nose dialogue. Harold Pinter is an example of almost pure sub-text. Read up on that. Read Lou Hunter's Screenwriting 434 and Robert McKee's story and read LOTS of dramatic scripts of films that have been made. 'Read 500 ways to beat the Hollywood reader' and 'How NOT to write a screenplay'. Read 'Save the Cat'.
You make the common beginners mistake of having expositionary dialogue, and lots of it, which is just revealing reams of information to the audience. Information has to be revealed on a drip by drip basis and must be in a dramatic context. Read scripts and examine why they create tension - study conflict and structure and dialogue.
Cut out all intros to scenes - go in late and leave early. Read LOTS of scripts. Every script should have a dramatic point and should push the story forward. Create more fear and menace so our heart beats faster.
There is nothing unusual with these script problems, all new writers write expositionary dialogue and write scripts lacking in tension and dramatic conflict.
Agents will dump a script after 5 pages even after one page! It is VERY brutal out there and the bar is very high. Also you need to read up on script style and technique. Go to www.scriptsales.com for the various forums.
You have the makings of a good film but it's not there yet. It's time to start the re-writing process. Welcome to the machine!
AND MORE FEEDBACK
I've read 65 pages of your script. To be honest I think it needs a lot of work. The weakest area in the script for me is the dialogue which reads quite flat and unauthentic - sorry. The characters and the situations come across as unauthentic as the result of the dialogue. I didn't really believe that I was in the world that you obviously intended to lead me into.
I think you need to work on some classic first time screenwriter problems like exposition i.e. too much relaying of information to the audience. Also a lot of the dialogue lacks sub-text, it's too on-the-nose, too obvious. Most screenwriting books talk about these problems.
The other aspect that needs work is the characterization - they seemed to be a bit two dimensional to me. I found it hard to believe them along with the situations. I think you need to break down each characters motivation and their particular qualities so they each have a unique voice and stand out as 3 dimensional people. The conflict needs to be clearer and the characters need more layers.
The whole upper echelon world needs to be more believable. Also you use parentheses a lot (angrily) which are a complete no-no. Also your descriptions sometimes stretch over 10 or 15 lines - this is also a complete no-no. It makes you look like an amateur straight away.
1) Sub-text - try and create situations where people don't directly say exactly what they feel - this is known as sub-text - it is written about in these books
2) Avoid exposition - where characters are relaying to much background information through dialogue - also written about in these books
3) Know your characters inside out - write detailed biographies on each one, map out the story and motivation for each character, also the character arc? Do any of your characters change? Learn anything? Why does X act like she does, why does Y act like he does - if you map out detailed biographies with their character traits then you will know them better and why they act like they do in certain situations. You need to make each character's voice and shape distinctive. Many of your characters are fuzzy like X, Y and Z - we can't see them clearly - who are they? Also if this is America they have to feel like Americans and talk like Americans. They have to feel real.
I think you need to research your worlds and your characters more so it feels authentic. If you don't know the world you need to research it. Read about wealthy Americans, learn the way they talk, their dialogue. It has to feel authentic.
Screenwriting is more craft than art as William Goldman says and you don't learn a craft overnight, it takes time and money to master a craft. I would avoid sending your script out to agents and producers until the script is ready.
The Futility of Pursuing an Agent
Here's an interesting post on chasing agents from:
I haven't posted on the board recently, but I am a Top 5 repped writer that has worked for studios for seven years. Production just wrapped on my first "real" (read: 20mil+ budget) film, helmed by an Academy Award nominated director.
I have many friends and even more acquaintances who want careers as screenwriters. The passion for that result is something I am intimately familiar with. My 20's were consumed by it. The first question out of my mouth during my pre-professional years was: "how do I get an agent?"
The logic being:
A. My work is excellent.
B. The only obstacle between me and a career is the dissemination of my work to an audience of buyers.
C. The only way to expose my work in a viable way to those buyers is through an agent.
D. The most imporant thing for my career is to get an agent.
Unfortunately, that logic is fatally flawed and always has been for the following reasons. And let's presume for a moment that we're talking about Top 5 agencies, the place where the real business is done and the real money is made.
First of all, let's put on a different hat and look at the world from the perspective of an agent. An agent pays his bills by getting his existing clients work. That's how the agent achieves his or her hopes and dreams. Good agents are on the phone eleven hours a day, having breakfast, lunch, drinks and dinner meetings six nights a week. These meetings are most often about claiming the market. Meaning, finding out what assignments are available, positioning their clients to be the ones chosen for those assignments, helping clients arrange pitches and acquire rights, negotiating deals, getting their clients invoices paid (if you think getting a deal is hard, try getting paid after you've made the deal), keeping up with the most recent festival hits, the newest round of hot scripts for their director clients, reading the latest drafts of each client's recent work... you get the idea.
Signing new talent is in the "important but not urgent" box in the agent's life. If you are a Top 5 agent, you know you're pretty much the last stop on the train anyway. So how do agents sign new talent?
Let's say a good agent spends a couple hours a week checking out or thinking about representing new talent (my bet is it's much less, but let's be conservative)
70% of the time, the talent they consider "new" are people we know to be celebrities. In other words, they target vulnerable clients at other agencies, take advantage of turnover at other agencies, and aggressively sell themselves as the "turnaround artists" that can improve this Known Quantity's career.
The other 28% of this two hours a week is spent chasing talent that has already "broken". So, for example, let's say a film has just won the Audience Award prize at Sundance. Or a foreign film from a first time director is meeting with rapturous reviews - the agency targets the writer or director and pursues them with the full knowledge that this person is being pursued by other agencies as well.
The agent would rather sell against competition now to get a proven commodity then to try to create that commodity themselves.
In other words, agents - for understandable reasons - chase the heat. The heat is there first, and the agent seeks to be the one that wins the battle for the potential client with the heat. Because selling that person will be easy. Everyone knows about the movie - or the script - and they can/will be the agent that has the hot property. It's the same principle at an ad agency. The effort is targeted towards getting the big account, and then basking in the rewards afterwards. Not in taking on a tiny account and making them into a big company.
In other words, your career is yours to create first - and after you have, an agent can help increase the scope of that career.
So assume for a moment that the goal is not an agent - it's the heat that an agent follows. How to create that heat?
1. Make a movie that's so good it's the talk of one of the major festivals (Sundance, Toronto, Cannes).
2. Write a script so good it wins - WINS - a major contest like Nicholls, Sundance or Chesterfield (though my friend that won Chesterfield is still looking for work).
3. Write a script that delights and dazzles every single person that reads it. This is your "Magic Script" - the one that will swim like a strangely talented guppy through all the land mines the business offers. The one that will turn the rules and conventional wisdom on its head. This kind of script could very well get talent and financing before an agent ever gets wind of it.
There are wonderful fluke stories. Jon Lesher once told me how he signed Harmony Korine ("Kids"). He came into the office on a Saturday. The familiar slush pile was in the corner of his assistant's cubicle. On a whim, he did something he had NEVER DONE before. Like never, as in, never in his years as an agent had he engaged in this activity. He picked a script randomly off the slush pile and read the first page. It was "Kids". He was hooked. He tracked down Harmony and signed him.
But that's a fluke. That is not a career plan.
Excellence is the only viable career plan. A respected indie producer tells his filmmaker clients (he consults sometimes) to spend 10 percent of the film's budget on "dramaturgical advice".
He routinely gets them to call up the agents of Scott Frank and Alvin Sargent, and offer them five thousand dollars to read and critique the script. Often the guys will do it. The result is a mirror of reality onto the state of the script. Neutral observers of this caliber will not lie and will probably not be mistaken. They also will probably have lots of suggestions of work that still needs to be done.
It's never good enough.
I asked the question "how do I get an agent" because I couldn't bear for years to ask the question "how do I become one of the best screenwriters in the world?".
Because after all, isn't that what you're asking? How do I become one of the best screenwriters in the world?
Do you see NBA hopefuls tracking down Leigh Steinberg to convince him of their skills on the court before they've excelled in playground, high school, college and pro ball? No, and screenwriters shouldn't go that route either. Agents are not the best advocates for developing talent. They are terrific advocates for established talents.
Becoming one of the best asks for enormous sacrifice. It asks that you educate yourself. That you do research. That you draw on a unique well of experiences and observations.
And it presumes that you have a natural knack for the game. Which is something that the world probably will tell you one way or another at a pretty early age.
Seven years ago, after banging my head against the wall, my logic had to change.
It changed like this:
1. Write from the darkest place inside me. The place where I keep my secrets and my shame. Reveal the few things I know about the human experience that are unique to me.
2. Use twelve years of learned craftsmanship (college degree, three years of intensive study of Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Beckett, Brecht and other great dramatists, the experience of writing six scripts, twenty or thirty short stories, poems, songs, and receiving merciless professional quality feedback that increased in rigor as I went along) to elucidate that darkness in the medium of screenwriting, knowing that medium the way a great mechanic knows exactly how the different parts of a car move together.
3. Rewrite into blood hours. Go back to the readers. Listen. Kill the darlings. Rewrite again. Be certain its perfect. Go back to the readers. Listen. Throw everything out. Start over. Rewrite again, this time from scratch. Find out from the readers that the entire concept is flawed. Start all over again with a new script. Repeat process.
4. One day, when there's a breeze, when you're least expecting it, you get a phone call from one of your readers. The breath is out of their voice. They don't even bother to comliment you. They want to be attached as a producer. They have ideas who to give it to. It moved them. It actually moved them, altered them, interrupted their weekend, motivated them to have conversations with spouse, friend. They never thought you had it in you. They want to help.
5. Throw the script in the street and put double locks on the doors as the forces of forward motion take over. Talk to producers, managers, financiers, actors, directors. Make a deal. Make a movie. Begin your life as a functioning, self-supporting screenwriter.
6. Pick an agent.
Hollywood - Reality 101
Here is a real-world overview on writing from working Hollywood screenwriter Bill Martell who I met at the Word Player get-together in LA, June 2005:
See Bill's web site at:
1) Your deal usually includes a couple of rewrites and a polish. A rewrite in Hollywood is when they read your sci-fi script and ask "What if they're cowboys?" - and then you rewrite the script so that your starship crew are all cowboys. A polish is what writers think of as a rewrite.
2) Someplace along the line, you will be "let go". When that happens, some other writer will be brought in and your cowboy sci-fi script will get a note like "What if they're spies?" and the new writer will further change your story so that the lead characters are spies.
3) This will happen over and over again, for a period of yrs, until the project either dies or a star is attached nd it gets made (in whatever weird form the story is in at that time).
4) Okay, WGA says you have to be invited to the premiere (or cast & crew screening), so (unless someone "forgets" to put your name on the list) you get to see the movie that all started with your script... And you may not recognize *any* of it. I laughed at the screening of TREACHEROUS when a line of my dialogue finally made it to screen - it was the only line that made it!
5) You will probably not be involved in casting because some other writer did the draft they are shooting, but even if it's *your* draft, they won't listen to a single thing you say. For *years* I kept suggesting Sam Rockwell, an actor from the Bay Area who I met a couple of times. I suggested him for every single film that I was still involved in. The producers never hired him... and now the probably couldn't afford him (he starred as Chuck Barris in that movie Charlie Kauffman wrote and Clooney directed about the game show host - oh, Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore were his co-stars). So even if you suggest some great afforsdable actor - they won't listen. Why? Because you're only the writer, what could you know?
6) Movies are not like any other kind of writing - the writer isn't the main creative force, you're just one guy on a team
A query letter is a letter or email that you write to an agent, manager or production company requesting that he or she reads your sparkling masterpiece.
The majority of query letters/emails are ceremoniously met with an underwhelming, well...nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero response.
The better the query, the higher the response rate.
Here is an extract on Query Letters from:
Writing Movies That Get Made
...Once you know that civilians are interested in your pitch, it might be a good idea to see if motion picture industry people would be interested. I'm making the heretical suggestion that you might want to send out your query letters before you spend all that time writing your script rather than after.
A query letter is a letter you send to all the development executives in the Hollywood Creative Directory, or if you're trying to get an agent, to all the agents in the Hollywood Representation Directory. It is a one-page letter that explains what your screenplay is about and asks if they'd like to read it. As a development executive, I have read thousands of query letters. If you don't know people in show business, a query letter is the natural way to get your script to people who can do something with it. No one wants to read a screenplay unless there's a chance she could do something with it, so if someone reads your query and asks you to send him your screenplay, she thinks you have a hook.
Now this is a step you may not want to take just yet if you're anxious that people will steal your idea. You may want to wait until you have a plot outline that you can copyright at the Library of Congress (see Chapter 9). But frankly, I don't think much stealing goes on in show business, except the kind of Stealing I'm recommending you do. I'm going to make the movie for millions of dollars of other people's money; out of that budget, your script is likely not more than a hundred thousand bucks, and the money isn't even mine. Why would I steal your script and get myself into a lawsuit? I can probably option your script for a few thousand bucks. But if I want to steal your idea, I have to hire a writer to make a script out of it, and he's going to cost fifty grand, and he's probably going to come back with something different than what I asked for. Why wouldn't I just ask to read your script, option it, and then get it rewritten if I think it needs fixing? I might still have to hire another writer, but writers charge less for rewrites than for fresh scripts.
Okay, here's the idea. When I read a query letter, I don't actually know that the writer has written the screenplay already. I send back the stamped, self-addressed card and forget about it until the screenplay shows up. That's because even the tiniest, credit-challenged company listed in the Hollywood Creative Directory gets ten or twenty queries a day. You have to read fifty of these letters to find one that sounds even vaguely promising.
As a development executive, you might think I'd be peeved if people used me for free market research, but actually, I wish they would. Then I'd be more likely to find a screenplay that I could do something with.
If you send out two hundred query letters and get back two responses, you may not want to waste your time writing the script. If you get back ten, you might want to write the script. If you get twenty, stop sleeping and write the damn screenplay already.
One side benefit of writing your query first, by the way, is that you may realize that you're focusing on the wrong aspects of your screenplay.
Suppose your hook is, say, "A marine biologist falls in love with a mysterious girl who turns out to be a mermaid." Suppose in writing your story, you find yourself concentrating on the adventures of the mermaid. If you took a look at your query, you might realize you were getting off track. Or, if your gut tells you you're on the right track, you could rewrite your hook ("A mermaid falls in love with a marine biologist.") and see if people are still as interested.
This is not to say, of course, that you should reduce your screenplay to the simplicity of a query letter. You need richness and depth. You need surprises and twists and turns. I am only saying that if your concept doesn't query well, then either:
you're not getting through to people how wonderful your idea is, and you need to rewrite your query, or
people don't think it's that wonderful an idea, and you need a better idea.
Either way, you can now fix the problem before you write the screenplay, rather than after.
How To Write a Good Query Letter
A good query letter says in one paragraph what the story's hook is, and asks if I'd like to read it. That's all it needs to do! The story sells itself, or it doesn't.
I spend about three seconds reading the average query letter. If it doesn't grab me by the third sentence, I'm on to the next envelope. Sorry, folks, I know that sounds philistine, but I've found through years of reading query letters and scripts that if a writer can't grab me in three sentences, the script is not going to be something I can get made into a movie. Even if the idea is good, if you can't write a clear one-page letter that draws me into your story, I assume your 115-page script won't draw me in, either.
If I am interested, of course, I read the rest of the letter, and think about it, and ponder whether the idea sounds like a good movie to me.
Your hook should always introduce the central problem or mystery of the script, and the central character who's going to deal with it.
Here is a good query letter:
"Dear Mr. Epstein:
I have just finished polishing MYTHIC, a thriller about a dragon that attacks an isolated Alaska oil rig community; the drilling has roused it from ancient sleep. Without help from the mainland, the island's fire chief must stop it before he destroys the town.
Please let me know if you'd like to read the script. I would be happy to sign a release form if you have one, or I can have my agent send you the script.
Yours very truly..."
See how short it is? But if there's any chance I might be interested in producing a contemporary dragon movie, I'm going to ask to read the script.
(In reality, Mythic, a superb script by Ehren Kruger, came to me through his gifted agent Valarie Phillips, not from a query letter. We optioned it, and I believe my old company still has it optioned. Ehren has gone on to write big studio pictures, but none as close to my heart as this one. Make this picture, guys, I'm dying to see the movie!)
Here's another good letter, only slightly longer.
Dear Mr. Epstein:
Michael Eisner suggested I contact you about my new screenplay, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. It's a bittersweet drama about a Jewish man in 1943 Italy who tries to hide the horrors of the Nazi occupation from his young son by pretending it's all a big game. Although the historical events are sorrowful, the story is uplifting and even comedic.
My grandfather survived the Holocaust himself, and I wanted to bring to life some of the almost unbelievable stories he told me.
If you are interested in taking a look at the screenplay, please let me know. An SASE is enclosed for your reply. Thank you for your consideration.
Very truly yours..."
(A SASE is a Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope.)
The above is a made-up query letter for the hit film Life is Beautiful. I have no idea if anyone ever wrote a query letter for the film. Since the writer-director was also a comedy star in Italy, probably not.
If someone in show business recommended that you write, mention that first. If you or (especially) your screenplay won an award, mention that. Awards and recommendations are the two strongest things you can put in a query letter. They mean that someone other than you thinks this is a good screenplay.
If you have some direct personal experience that touches on the screenplay, or you've done in-depth research, it's worth mentioning.
By the way your hook in a sentence or two is often called a logline. Think of it as the sentence that would describe it in TV Guide.
A dragon, awakened by oil drilling, attacks a small Alaska town.
A Jewish man tries to hide the horrors of the Nazi Occupation from his young son by pretending they are all playing a big game.
Don't tell me why your script will have a big audience or satisfy a need. The producer or agent or exec reading your letter knows far more than you do whether there's an audience for your story or not, or at least thinks she does. Just tell the darn story. The story sells itself, or it doesn't.
Don't compare your script to other movies. "It's COMA meets THE SIXTH SENSE" tells me nothing.
Some writers (Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, for example) claim you shouldn't state your hook, for fear of someone stealing it. Instead you should just talk about the genre it's in, and say something like "I have a suspense thriller consistent with the quality of your productions." I can't imagine why anyone would bother responding to a cover letter if there's no hook in it. I never have. Also, with many of the companies you'll be sending the script to, "consistent with the quality of your productions" doesn't speak that highly of your work.
Don't apologize in advance for wasting my time.
Don't tell me five stories. It suggests you're just throwing stuff up against the wall and hoping something sticks. Write five letters, and send them to different people.
Don't write your whole query as a scene from a movie. It's been done.
Spelling counts. I will reject a misspelled query instantly, regardless of what it says. Spell-checking is not enough. If I see "whose" for "who's" or "it's" for "its," the letter is toast.
If you've done something really exciting in your life ("I was an AP stringer in Beirut for 5 years, was kidnapped by Shi'ites, and escaped after 111 days of solitude"), then let me know. If you have done years of research, let me know.
If you have written nine earlier scripts, don't mention it. People in show business have sheeplike tendencies; they trust other people's judgment more than their own. They will wonder "if no one liked the other scripts, why should I like this one?" On the other hand, if you have written scripts that have been produced, or even optioned, let me know!
If you are snail-mailing a query to someone who doesn't have e-mail, use a plain white regular business envelope for the query. Don't bother with a big manila or Tyvek® envelope. Be sure to include a stamped, self-addressed postcard where I can check a box that says "send me the script."
If it's an e-mail query, don't send a query letter as an attached document. Send it as plain text in the message body itself. Attached documents are a pain to locate on the hard disk, and often show up unreadable. There is no excuse for attaching a one page letter.
It's all about the story. No fancy paper, fancy formatting, colored type, or a picture of you; it just looks amateurish. You're not selling yourself as a graphic designer, you're selling yourself as a wordsmith. I'll take a letter neatly typed on a manual typewriter as seriously as I'll take one from a computer.
I don't think you should offer a synopsis. That's just encouraging them to ask for the synopsis instead of the script, which creates one more step where they can say no. They may ask for a synopsis. In that case, don't send them a synopsis, which tells them everything that happens, send them a pitch. A synopsis is a working document that details the plot. A pitch is a selling document that sketches the story out for them. See chapter 2 for how to write a pitch.
By the way, don't follow up a query letter with a call or another letter or email. It is a complete waste of time. If they wanted to read your script, they would have let you know, y'know?