Thursday, April 22, 2010

Interview with Jim Mercurio

So today I wanted to do a little interview with Jim Mercurio, one of the many friendships I’ve been able to formulate through the Scriptshadow blog, and let you know about his contest, The Champion Screenwriting Competition, currently running, which has a $10,000 Grand Prize. I first became aware of Jim through a contest I held over at the Done Deal site. He wrote this unique script about a seriously dysfunctional relationship that was sort of like a Woody Allen film if it were on speed. It was called, not surprisingly, Dysfunction Junction. Wanting to know more about the warped mind behind this story, I got in touch with him, where I found out he’s been at this game for a while, having worked as a development executive for Allison Anders, directing the first six years of the Screenwriting Expo’s screenwriting contest, and written a column for Creative Screenwriting magazine. In between making a low budget film every other year, he now manages to put out his own free monthly ezine Craft & Career. I used the excuse of promoting his contest to get myself some free screenwriting advice!

SS: First of all, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and your contest? What inspired you to start it?

JM: The name of my contest, Champion, says a lot about what I’m trying to help these writers achieve. I want to encourage writers and help them grow, and when they’re ready, give them access to the industry. Almost ten years ago, Erik Bauer, then-owner of Creative Screenwriting and founder of the Screenwriting Expo, asked me to design and run the Expo competition because he thought I had the risk-taking gene. All of us writers are risk-takers. Choosing this career and writing on spec is a huge gamble. I hope the excitement of vying for $10,000 motivates these writers to do their best work, and it feels great to be able to reward them. I also invite the top writers to a weeklong party called the Champion Lab. We’ve got to feel rewarded as writers, on some level, or it’s tough to stay motivated.

SS: In general, are contests worth the risk?

JM: If your writing is competition quality, then contests can be a smart and reasonable investment. There are other benefits aside from the Grand Prize -- the excitement of waiting for results; making friends and connections on message boards like Done Deal and Movie Bytes, and having a deadline, which helps you to crank out those pages. However, if you enter a dozen contests where your script is the sort that the contest purports to reward and you don’t advance in any of them, consider spending the next $600-$1000 educating yourself and honing your work with classes, coverage, consultants, etc.

SS: You’ve read a ton of scripts, I’m pretty sure way more than I have. What is the big difference you see between amateur scripts and pro scripts? What really sticks out in your mind?

JM: If you don’t want this to turn into a 20-part interview, give me some leeway to give a smart-ass answer or at least a creative one.

SS: Go for it.

JM: I am going to make up a word. Most aspiring writers’ scripts don’t have a high enough “story density.” Story density is the amount of good storytelling you can cram into 110 pages. For beginning writers, there is often too much dead space between the good shit in their script. For some, it might be cumbersome language or style. For others, it might mean the antagonist’s plan in their action script doesn’t have enough twists. In a non goal-oriented script, it might mean a sequence goes slightly astray and wastes our time. Check out the first page of The Beaver. The Beaver’s first page has high story density. I know, that sounds bad.

SS: Okay, let's get more into craft later. What do you personally look for in a screenplay?

JM: I think some contests and university writing programs overvalue the “heaviness” of a subject. Let’s say we take To Kill a Mockingbird and The Nutty Professor. When the writer aims for the To Kill a Mockingbird masterpiece but only accomplishes 55% of his goal, you can’t argue that it is a better screenplay than a well-crafted broad or high-concept comedy that accomplishes 95% of what it set out to achieve. Screenplays can’t be compared or quantified like that. Their aim is not to be literature. The best screenplays are blueprints for stories meant to be told on film that will meet their audience’s expectations. The closer writers get to accomplishing their goal with a script, the more of a chance they’ll have to satisfy their audience.
I look at scripts for what they are trying to be. I want them to aim to surpass what the other writers in the genre have already consistently achieved. And then I look at how well the craft and execution achieves that goal.

SS: If you were a new writer, sitting down to start your next script, how would you approach it to give yourself the best chance of selling the screenplay?

JM: It depends on how new the writer is.

SS: What do you mean?

JM: If you are a beginning writer, write WHATEVER script you want to write and then finish it. Use it to develop your craft, learn your strengths and weaknesses, and grow as a writer.

SS: Yeah but come on. You remember what it was like writing those first few screenplays. The last thing you wanted to hear was that your script was basically worthless, that all it was good for was “to get better.”

JM: True, but that’s what screenwriters have to learn. This industry isn’t a cakewalk. It takes several scripts, sometimes up to a dozen, for most writers to reach a tipping point with their craft. And that’s okay. Don’t think of it as “it doesn’t matter,” think of it as practicing free throws at 11pm when everyone else has gone home for the night. This is your preparation for the big leagues. So write whatever material you’re passionate enough to FINISH, and when the moment comes, pick a genre you know or love so you can transcend it. You have to be willing to do the research or brainstorming to make sure you can nail a genre. For instance, if you aren’t up to the challenge of finding a hundred clever and integrated ways to exploit, say, the first-person camera technique, then don’t write Rec or its American remake Quarantine, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield.

SS: Okay, so this leads to one of my favorite questions: “Should I write a more character driven piece, something I can put my heart into? Or should I write something more high concept, despite my heart not being in it?” The argument is that the character-driven piece will have more depth, but Hollywood is scared off by the fact that it’s not marketable. The high-concept script is more marketable, but is often labeled as “not having enough heart.” Which route should I take?

JM: I think the answer is both.

You are going to write several scripts on your way to learning the craft, so I suggest writing each kind of script at some point.

SS: Well cause I know Dysfunction Junction is a passion project of yours, and that comes through in the writing. But it’s still a hard sell, right?

JM: Unfortunately, it’s true. The problem is, even if something’s good, that might not even be enough. When I entered the industry in the 90s, I fell in love with movies like Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging. Maybe they gave me hope…or false hope… that personal cinema could be done in and around Hollywood.

If you have a character-piece, decide one of two things.

1) It’s a sample: Spend six months on it. Get it done. Move on to the next script.
2) You are going to make it: You can’t really control if it gets made, but you can make it actor bait, easy to shoot, and maybe even have rabble-rousing material (In the Company of Men, The Woodsman). Be or find a “producer.”

At some point, you should write a high-concept script, but be warned -- writing a well-integrated, high concept piece is labor intensive. Look at the first draft of your high concept story and circle the conflicts that are unique to the script’s specific set up. And then circle the ones that are generic (like the drugged out sequence in Land of the Lost, wtf?). If you are not at an 8:1 or 9: 1 ratio between the cool/specific-to-the-concept stuff and the could-be-in-any-movie stuff, then you are not going to compete with Leslie Dixon and Freaky Friday or Charlie Kaufmann and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You have to hit most of the character beats of the character piece but you have to cleverly wrap it ALL around the concept.
One of the goals of in my workshops is to illustrate the subtlety of craft and how understanding the exploitation of concept and the inner workings f character and theme are both essential to writing scripts that have a chance in the marketplace. I actually wrote an article about it here.

Why can’t movies be both character pieces and high concept? If writers do have a tendency or skill toward one or the other, then the real skill is to make sure that they can complement the high concept or genre script with character, or the character piece with some hook.

Are Chinatown, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather smart character pieces or high concept fare? I went old school on purpose. But what about Memento, Wall Street, or The Sixth Sense? If Eternal Sunshine doesn’t have great characters and really honest things to say about memory, shared experiences, and love, it comes off as a confusing gimmick.

SS: As long as I have you here, I’m going to be selfish and get your thoughts on a couple of things I’m always trying to improve on. What are the keys to writing good dialogue and strong characters?

JM: Your readers can check out your Facebook from earlier this week for a link to a longer piece I did on dialogue in Craft & Career. But basically, with dialogue, your creative freedom comes from the clarity of the beats, not the words themselves. Go and watch the famous “I could’a been a contender” scene from On the Waterfront. There is all this heavy stuff about the depth of his brother’s denial and betrayal, about life-changing epiphanies and how relationships will be forever changed and possible lives lost. Brando is overwhelmed with the surprise and revelations. And his response is simply… maybe the first modern hip usage of the word: “Wow.” It only takes those three letters to capture his shock, disbelief and sense of loss.

As far as character goes, I don’t think that there is much debate about the theory. A story challenges the character’s deep-seated beliefs and hidden wounds until the character comes to a crisis and a chance to change. I think what it comes down to is craft. Can the writer find the action and situation that can make these inner machinations external? Can they succinctly show us the character’s essence?

Let’s say you want to show that your character is smart. You have a scene where he uses three or four explicitly spelled out and logical steps to make a deduction. That’s not going to work for a Jack Ryan or Gregory House character. Cut out most of the baby steps and let your character make one big leap of logic, intuition or faith. In every Harrison Ford thriller, there will be a scene where a subtle visual cue will be all the character needs to jump into action. In Air Force One, he sees milk dripping from a bullet-riddled cart -- CUT TO: he dumps gas from the fuel tank. Okay, he’s smart. But the challenge is at the scene level -- can the writer reveal it succinctly with elegance or cleverness?

SS: What is the biggest mistake you see writers make?

JM: Hmm, having read half a million pages of screenplays, I am not sure I can pick just one. Here are a few.

Not writing. If you’re a beginning screenwriter, write a few scripts. They may suck. So what? Keep writing.

Beware of the faux masterpiece. What is that? That’s when you try to tackle something huge like a critical piece of history – the Holocaust, slavery, World War II – or try to set an expensive politically-charged love story against that sort of backdrop. You might be a deep thinker and have an unparalleled understanding of the subject, but as a beginning writer, your craft is not going to be able to do the story justice.

You don’t write The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice or even Atonement as your third or fourth script. When a writer aims for that sort of script – one that only works if it’s a masterpiece – then whether they achieve 50% or 75% of their goal, it’s sort of irrelevant. They haven’t crossed the tipping point where the script has any viability.

SS: Great point about the faux masterpiece. I see a lot of those. But does that mean writers shouldn’t try? Aren’t you the guy who is supposed to be championing people? Ore you are contradicting yourself…you said writers should write whatever they want when starting out.

JM: Fair enough. If you are writing your attempted masterpiece to learn about screenwriting, go for it. And get it over with ASAP. The skill you need to pull off the masterpieces come from finishing several non-masterpieces.

So, let me contradict myself again. One of the biggest mistakes is to not have high enough expectations. Writers shouldn’t just nail a genre. They should innovate and transcend it, too. For example, The Hangover is an okay mystery but the genre-crossing makes it a great comedy. When you come up with a hook like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you will spend several hours banging your head against the wall to find your way through it. If your script isn’t driving you nuts, then you didn’t challenge yourself enough.

And when you are finally in control of your craft… PREACHING TO THE CHOIR ALERT, CARSON! … If you want to be calculating and commercial-minded, aim for modestly budgeted high concept fare with a good hook.

SS: Choir preached to indeed. I know each contest is different, but is there a specific type of script that does better in a contest?

JM: It’s the writer’s responsibility to research who’s running and judging a contest. Look at the winners from previous years. If the contest is giving away 10K or 20k to period biopics, stuffy dramas and literary-sounding faux masterpieces, then don’t enter your “Die Hard in a skyscraper” script, right? Be aware of their tastes and limitations.

Because the stakes in the production world to find good in a screenplay or to find a good screenplay at all are higher than in the contest world, I suggest making your contest script a little bit more the “theoretical good script” that the screenwriting education niche prescribes. You know -- being a good read, having no typos, having a brisk pace, setting up the reader’s expectations very quickly regarding tone and genre and being less than 120 pages.

SS: What types of scripts do better in your contest?

JM: I have an inner film snob that appreciates film as an art form. My last script’s influences are Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, the plays of Patrick Marber and Neil Labute and a few French films like Romance and Dreamlife of Angels. And I have made three low concept features as a director or producer. On the flip side, I am also first in line at the Thursday midnight screenings for The Lord of the Rings and Iron Man and have given development help to some of the most commercial-minded people in Hollywood.

I pride myself on being able to appreciate good screenwriting “across the board.” Last year, Champion feature winners were a high concept comedy, a coming-of-age drama, and quirky buddy picture. One of the shorts winners was a masterpiece (non-faux) and the other a smart comedy.

We have a prize (and a micro-writing deal or option) for best low budget horror and our short categories include prizes for serious scripts, comedies and best script under three pages.

SS: I think contests are a great way for new writers to test their mettle. If your script is good, it will do well, which gives you confidence, pushes you further along in the industry, and buffers your bank account in the process. But I always believe in a multi-faceted attack. So while these writers are waiting for their names to be announced as winners, what else should they be doing to break into this industry?

JM: Writers need to know what stage they’re at in their writing career and act accordingly. The basic stages:

1) Learning – They need to knock out a couple scripts, get some feedback, read scripts, watch movies, take in every opportunity to improve.

2) Mastering the Craft – Here, writers start choosing scripts with some practicality in mind and are writing a couple of scripts per year. They enter contests and share their work with peers or professionals who are willing to give feedback. Don’t blow a potential contact by submitting a script before it’s ready. When you have confirmation via peers, contests and professionals, then you are ready for the final stage.

3) Marketing – Spend some time studying queries and loglines. Consider pitch services and get your material to producers and managers, or people who can help you get your script read. Contests might be a part of your strategy but use your wins or advancements as ammunition in cold calls and query emails. Spend some time with the “salesperson” hat on and get your script out there.

SS: Can you tell me anything else about your contest? Entry fees? Deadline? Where you sign up? Any tips you have to improve the readers’ chances?

JM: With WithoutABox discounts our entry fees are still less than $45 and shorts are $20. I think our prices are the lowest of any of the contests with a Grand Prize of $10,000. For an additional $40, entrants can enter our Coverage Category (and get a free copy of my DVD Killer Endings) and receive a page and a half of notes. Coverage will never be the Holy Grail of insight into improving your script, but I designed the category to help writers advance to the next round where their script garners additional attention. It’s meant to take some of the luck out of the process.

May 15 is the Regular Deadline and the last chance to use the Coverage Service.

Enter at

Even if you aren’t entering the contest, please sign up for my free newsletter there.
If you have any questions about the contest or anything else, please feel free to drop me a line:

SS: Last question. I understand you just got back from Paris for work, right? How the hell did you get out of the country? Did you take a tramp steamer back here?

JM: Yeah and I met a hobo on the tramper who was working on a script. We made a barter deal. In exchange for a semi-stale baguette, I told him his second act was way too long.

SS: And that’s it. Thank you Jim for taking the time to let Scriptshadow pick your brain.

JM: It’s all good. Thank you.

SS: I hope you find the next Aaron Sorkin in your contest. (And I hope he's reading this sentence right now!)