The room where we got our film equipment at Columbia College
Hey everyone. Doing something a little different today. Tom Benedek, the writer of Cocoon, interviewed me for his class last week at Screenwriting Master Class. Since I put so much into the interview and covered a wide range of screenwriting topics, I thought you guys might want to read it. Enjoy!
How did you get started? What has your professional journey been like?
I started out wanting to be one of those filmmakers who does everything - the Robert Rodriquez type - write, direct, edit, produce. So when I first came to LA, I got a job at a postproduction house with the hopes of using it as a place to edit my films. Unfortunately I ended up accidentally destroying a $100,000 piece of machinery and they never let me into an editing bay again. That was the first roadblock to me achieving my dreams, of which there were many more.
How did the Script Shadow blog evolve?
It evolved when I realized how much there was to learn through reading screenplays. I was sitting there thinking, "I wish there was somebody out there when I first started out to tell me how important this was because if there had been, I could've saved myself a lot bad scripts and a lot of heartache." At some point, I realized that I could become that person to other young screenwriters, and that's how Scriptshadow was born.
Did you study filmmaking?
I did study filmmaking. The problem was I studied it at the single worst filmmaking school in the entire country, Columbia Film School in Chicago. One of my professors was an alcoholic. Over the course of the semester he played Full Metal Jacket 9 times, believing each time that it was the first time he was showing it. Another professor would spend the first 20 minutes of every class telling us how he wished he was anywhere else but here. One of my professors was five years younger than me (I was 23 at the time) and she would break down into hysterics at least once a month. And trying to get a camera to shoot on there was the equivalent of fighting in the Serbian-Bosnian war. It was just not a pleasant experience.
Describe your relationship with managers and agents.
A unique one. In many ways, I do exactly what they do, the difference being that I don't have a horse in the race. All of us are looking for the best material out there. All of us want to read something that makes us excited and that we can tell other people about. The difference with me is that I might celebrate something that's not as commercially viable as the agents and managers because the agents and managers have to go out there and sell the script whereas I just have to enjoy it.
Are you dealing with managers as much as agents in seeking material?
I would say moreso with managers than with agents. Agents don't really develop material. They just try and sell it. Whereas managers are very interested in making scripts better, which is why they like the site, because that's the kind of stuff I talk about - what needs work in a script.
What is your process for writing notes on scripts you read?
I have a very specific way I approach critiquing a screenplay. When I open a script, the last thing I'm thinking about is all the rules of screenwriting. I'm not sitting there going, “Nuh nuh nuh, it's already page 15 and you haven't gotten to your inciting incident yet. You lose.” All I care about is being swept away, being entertained. It's only after I'm finished with the script that I go back and try to figure out why a script did or did not work. For instance, I might say, "Man, that second act was really slow. Let's go back and try to figure out why." And I might find out that the hero wasn't active enough. He may have been sitting around and waiting for things to happen too much. That's how I analyze screenplays.
Is it gratifying to see scripts get better through the development process?
Oh definitely. I think it's one of the most rewarding things about what I do. One thing I've learned is that the majority of writers out there, even the good ones and the ones with talent, aren't always able to navigate the problems in their screenplays. They need the guidance of people who have read thousands of screenplays or made tons of movies. And with the right guidance, even inexperienced writers can write great scripts. That's what happened with Oscar winners Diablo Cody, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. None of them really understood how to write a screenplay when they wrote those scripts, but they had some great people guiding them, telling them what to get rid of and telling them how to improve what already worked.
Are they getting better most of the time as they are developed?
No, unfortunately not. You're at the mercy of the writer’s talent as well as how the writer chooses to execute your notes. If someone has bad instincts, or simply instincts that are different from what you intended with a note, they can easily make a script worse rather than better. Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie self admittedly did this for an entire decade before he got back in the game with Valkyrie. Either he didn't understand the producer’s notes or the notes themselves weren't very good and he just ended up writing scripts in circles that never ended up being good enough.
Are you reading many spec scripts each week? Or just projects in development?
I read unsold spec scripts, sold spec scripts, as well as projects in development. I mainly try and read spec scripts because those give the best education for the writers that read my site. They get to see a review of the actual material that a writer came up with on their own that sold. That's a completely different process from a studio developing something in-house.
How does the spec market look from your side?
Well right now it looks great. There've been double the amount of sales this year than each of the last two years. So people are out there buying for sure. It isn’t like the 90s of course, but it's still pretty darn good relatively speaking.
Are the films better than the scripts once they are shot?
Personally, it seems that the scripts themselves are usually better and I think that's because making a film is so hard. You have to compromise so much in terms of money and time that you usually just don't have what you need to live up to the script. The exception would be the really big budget movies like Transformers 8 and Pirates Of The Carribean 13 where the scripts are so bad that it's impossible not to come up with something better.
What are the most important criteria in your evaluation process?
Character and structure. Those are the two things that are butchered time and time again and that's because it takes a really long time to learn how to create great characters and plot your movie in such a way that it doesn’t drag. There are plenty of other super important things of course, but those two are the biggest in my eyes.
Do you have conversations or contact with other people who you consider great readers?
Yes, all the time. That's one of the great things about my blog is that it allows me to meet a lot of other people who do what I do - read a lot of scripts. Needless to say, we always end up complaining about the same issues that we see over and over again in screenplays.
Can anyone read/evaluate a script?
Of course! A Scriptshadow reader sent me a review once, timidly disclosing that it was the first time he'd ever read a script. He gave his opinion and bookended it by saying it was probably pointless because he was so inexperienced. But some of the most honest critiques come from people who know nothing about screenplays. They say things like, “That one scene where he killed the guy was so stupid.” It may not have any fancy-schmancy screenwriting terms in it, but this is the kind of thing an average movie goer is going to say. It then becomes my job to go back and ask "Why did he think that scene was stupid?" It may be because it was cliché. It may be because it wasn't set up well. It may be because both of the characters were boring. But everybody's opinion is valid. Now can anyone read a script and give thoughtful critical analysis that can help a writer improve his material? No. That takes a lot of skill and experience.
Is style as important as story?
Definitely not. I would say not even close. I always tell people that screenwriting is not a writing competition. It's a storytelling competition. That said, you do have to have some style to your writing. You can’t write like a robot or the reader’s going to be bored.
Can style make a script work even if the structure and characters end up being shaky?
No way in hell. Actually, I take that back. I’ve read like three scripts (out of thousands) where the style was so fun that even though the story was kind of stupid, I enjoyed them. I reviewed one of them on the site. It was called “Fiasco Heights.” Here’s the log: “A gunman returns to the crime-ridden city of Fiasco Heights and teams with a degenerate gambler/private eye on the run from a syndicate to look for a beautiful femme fatale.” But this is a very rare exception. Style almost never makes up for lack of substance.
Do the scripts you see trend in any direction in terms of areas that seem to work?
Yes. The scripts that tend to do the best on the market are scripts that have a lot of urgency. So if you have a movie about a guy who needs to do something in 72 hours, that's probably going to have a better chance on the spec market than if you have a movie about a guy who has to do something in 72 years. As scary as it sounds, a movie like The Proposal, which takes place over a single weekend, would have a better chance on the spec market than a script like When Harry Met Sally, which takes place over like 15 years.
Should every writer have a two sentence logline in their head before they start writing a script?
I think it's helpful and I'll tell you why. When you write out a logline, you give yourself a focused synopsis that helps you control your story. One of the biggest mistakes I see in a lot of amateur screenplays is stories that wander all over the place. If you come up with a very specific logline that has a clear direction for your main character with clear stakes and clear conflict, then you'll never be at a loss as to what to write next. When people don't know what to write next or get lost in their story, it's almost always because their central idea is muddled and unclear.
Are some reads more alive, spontaneous though flawed in certain ways?
Yes. I actually run into a lot of these types of screenplays where there's definitely an energy and uniqueness to the story that makes you want to keep reading, but the structure might be all over the place, the plot might be muddled, a few of the characters might be lame. I usually see this with really talented writers who are just starting out. They obviously have an interesting imagination and a unique way they see the world, but they haven't yet learned how to write a screenplay. What new screenwriters have to realize is that writing in different mediums is like speaking in different languages. And out of every storytelling medium out there (novels, plays, video games, short stories, poems), screenwriting is the hardest. It's the Chinese language of storytelling. So it just takes a really long time to learn how to speak that language, no matter how talented you are. It took me a long time to realize that but boy is it true.
How many “uncommercial” “non-genre specific” script projects are there in the studio system vs. the more mainstream projects?
I was just reading that leaked e-mail exchange between Scott Rudin, the producer of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and the critic who jumped the review embargo on the film. In it, the critic expressed frustration that the studio system only made 8 good movies a year and they were all crammed into the last two weeks of the year. And he's right. So that's my answer. Eight. And the worst part about that stat is that none of them are ever spec scripts. They're always some sort of adaptation. The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities for uncommercial or non-genre specific projects outside of the studio system.
Can you feel the writer’s passion for their project in the writing?
Definitely. Unfortunately, it doesn't always mean that the script itself will be good. I just read this sprawling period epic from somebody who had clearly worked on the script for years, and I could feel his love for the subject matter on every page. But the script itself was boring. The subject matter was too confusing, too sprawling and too ambitious. And I told him that. It's really hard to make movies like that unless you're already entrenched inside of the studio system with a high level production deal. But the simple answer to your question is yes. And it should be noted that it's even easier to tell when a writer has no passion for what they're writing about.
What are your top 10 favorite movies?
This list will change depending on the week but…
Back To The Future
The Shawshank Redemption
When Harry Met Sally
Good Will Hunting
The Princess Bride
Top 10 favorite scripts?
It’s pretty similar to the movies I listed above. But as far as unproduced material, I have a top 25 list on the right side of my blog that lists all of my favorite screenplays.
Are there great movies that didn’t come from great scripts?
I think it's a rare but it does happen. I mean I love Terrence Malick's movies but trying to get through one of his scripts is like trying to read the dictionary. The best movies that come from subpar scripts tend to come from visionary directors, guys like Malick and Aronfsky.
Are there great scripts that just did not work as movies? Why?
Yes, a lot of them. And I actually just learned this lesson to a severe degree this year. Two of my favorite scripts were Everything Must Go and Happy Thank You More Please. Unfortunately, both of them were bad movies, especially Happy Thank You More Please. Now a big reason why “Happy” was so bad was because the budget was so limited and the director was a first timer who was shooting everything like he was in his first week of film school. But I think what I learned in both instances was that movies that are solely based around character development can work really well on the page, but once they get up on screen, they sit there. Movies are visual. So if all you see is the same thing over and over again, your brain starts to get bored. Will Ferrell is sitting down in his backyard for 80 percent of Everything Must Go. That didn't really bother me when I read it. But once I saw it up on screen, I just wanted to scream, "Go somewhere!" There are other factors involved of course (I’m not sure Ferrell was right for the part) but if there's too much of a stillness to your movie, if all that's happening is characters sitting around talking to each other, you might be in trouble when it comes time to film.
How important is great dialogue?
Really important and not really important. I say that because 45 percent of screenwriting is getting the structure right and 45 percent is getting the characters right. Dialogue is just that last 10 percent and it doesn't matter how good it is if you didn't nail those first two things. I actually laugh whenever actors say they "rewrote a script" by changing a lot of the dialogue. The only reason you were able to change the dialogue was because a writer did a year of work building up your characters and all the scenes surrounding your characters to a point where they'd be entertaining. Once you’ve done that, dialogue is fairly easy. Having said that, if dialogue is really bad, for example stilted and on the nose, then that can really bring a script down.
Are there great scripts without great dialogue?
It depends on what you mean by "great." There are certain genres that depend on dialogue and there are genres that don't. Comedies for example require a real ear for twisted, funny, cute, clever dialogue. Thrillers on the other hand are much more about tension and suspense. The audience doesn't care if the writer can write a line like, “Oh my blog” in Black Swan. But that doesn't mean I didn't still love Black Swan.
What do you want screenwriters to do better, to work on, in general? What is missing
in the scripts you are reading?
Just a clear commitment to your script. One of the biggest problems I see with young writers is that they're okay with 60 or 65 percent. They don't push themselves to make every single scene as good as it can possibly be, every single character as good as they can possibly be. They have this mentality of, "well this is good enough". So I read a lot of average scripts and it's because the writer isn't pushing themselves or trying something unique or adding a new spin or trying to make every scene pop. Now some of that has to do with the writer not yet understanding how to do that stuff yet. But no matter what stage you're at, you should be giving 100 percent effort.
Any other advice?
Write as much as you can, read as many screenplays as you can, and learn as much as you can about screenwriting. The more time you put into those three facets the better you're going to get.
Would you like to produce films?
On the development end? Definitely. But certainly not on the production end. I can barely schedule my day, much less the days of 250 other people!
What are the most important things you have learned about Hollywood from your work?
That the gatekeepers aren’t these mystical wizards who wave a magic wand over a script to either let it come through or not. It's much more black and white than that. The people who run Hollywood are people who have jobs, just like you have a job. And they want to keep that job. And the only way they can keep that job is if they find movies that are going to make money. I don't see enough screenwriters recognizing that fact. They hold onto this delusional ideal that they can write a coming-of-age film about an albino pastor living in 1782 Germany and that somebody out there is actually going to buy that. Think about that for second. If you were a producer with a $2,000,000 discretionary fund tasked with finding 4 or 5 scripts a year to turn into movies that will make the company money so they can KEEP making films, would you bet on your script? I’m not talking in the fun dreamworld scenario where you have nothing on the line by saying “yes.” I'm asking if you were a real producer who had the power to buy a few scripts a year, and you knew that if you screwed up even one of those purchases and bought something that had no chance of being made because it had no financial potential, that you would get fired, would you buy your script? That's how you have to think of this business, and writers are shooting themselves in the foot by not seeing it that way.
What are the most surprising things you have learned?
How long it takes the average screenwriter to make it. I always assumed that if you were a good screenwriters you would make it in Hollywood in less than a year. But it takes most screenwriters 7 to 10 years to really figure out how to write a good script. I know that's terrifying but that's what I’ve found to be true. If you can make it in five or less, you are way ahead of the game.