Posts Tagged ‘screenwriting’

Nathan Summerlin’s CineStory

November 18, 2014

idyllwild1Idyllwild, California feels separated from the rest of the world. The little mountain town of 4,000 is nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest. It’s quiet. It’s clean. What air there is at the mile-high elevation is fresh and clear. For reasons I cannot guess (given the size of the town and the fact that it’s 2014), Idyllwild offers more than one place to rent movies.

Maybe Idyllwild has some strong movie mojo, because the tiny town, two and a half hours east of Los Angeles, hosts the annual CineStory screenwriting retreat. (Two and a half hours can turn into six if you’re unfamiliar with L.A. traffic. That’s not a hypothetical figure – leave early in the day.)

CineStory is a nonprofit organization that aims to nurture new screenwriting talent through its annual retreat and fellowship. The retreat unfolds as a mix of panels, one-on-one sessions, and meals. Meals may seem an odd inclusion in that list, but the schedule allocates plenty of time for lunch and dinner socializing. The mentors – all industry professionals who donate their time – eat with the writers (that’s you – your CineStory badge has “WRITER” printed right below your name. The badge is a handy reminder for those moments when you doubt you could ever possibly be a writer – just check your badge! I still check mine from time to time.). Meals are a chance to talk shop in a laid back setting with people who know what they’re talking about. For me, this was an education in itself – getting a sense of how professionals talk about their own projects, the industry, and how one works within the other. It’s also one of the ways CineStory builds an extraordinary sense of community during the short four days of the retreat.

The panels cover a lot of different topics, from how to get a manager to sign you (the panelists in this case are working managers) to what producers look for in a script (with, yes, actual producers). A few panels blur the line between presentation and workshop. One session focused on crafting a great logline, and the writers all had a chance to present our loglines for critique by the panelists. Two sessions are devoted to writers pitching to mentors as if they’re in a meeting with studio executives. The mentors then conduct an “after meeting,” in which they talk about the pitch and the writer as executives would after the writer has left the room.

You’re assigned three ninety-minute meetings with mentors for one-on-one sessions. Each mentor has read your script before the meeting. I received several pieces of game-changing feedback. One example: I found out that my story, about a sixteen-year-old kid on a mission to rescue his dad, was straddling the line between a PG and PG-13 rating. In PG-13 movies released in the last five years, parents are almost always absent from the main story line. Guardians of the Galaxy? Mom dies, Dad missing. Hunger Games? Dad dead, Mom incapacitated by grief. The prevailing wisdom is that a PG-13 audience doesn’t want to see a movie about kids and their parents. They want stories in which the kids face challenges on their own.

I had time (meals!) to bounce that advice off several mentors during the rcinestory-badgeetreat and almost everyone agreed. The lone standout said this may be true, but that his recommendation was for me to write whatever story I’m passionate about, regardless of the market. Since my passion for the story didn’t hinge on the dad rescue, I changed it.

My big takeaways:

  • A better understanding of the movie business. Especially the way in which each script has to be considered for a very specific spot in the market.
  • How to shift my story’s plot and theme to give it a better chance of finding a home in that market.
  • New friends. Everyone at CineStory loves movies. Everyone there either is a writer or appreciates writers and the fact that – as writers – we alone have the ability to begin the process that results in a movie. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that an amazing sense of connection and camaraderie develops among the writers, mentors, and organizers.

I highly recommend CineStory. Remember to get out of L.A. ahead of traffic, then you’ll have time to enjoy the drive, walk around Idyllwild, and kick back with a rented DVD before the real fun begins.

You can find more information about CineStory at their website, http://www.cinestory.org.


nathan  Nathan Summerlin is a screenwriter, as well as a current M.F.A. student and Graduate Assistant for Etrsuscan Press. He lives in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

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Ross Klavan’s (a) “Schmuck”

August 12, 2014

Ross Klavan, the charismatic voice of the creative writing program and one of our beloved screenwriting faculty members, was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and process for his novel, Schmuck with The Write Life blog.schmuck

Schmuck takes place in 1960’s New York, where Jerry Elkin and Ted Fox rule the radio airwaves. Between Elkin’s zany dialects and impressions and Fox’s golden, straight-man voice, they’ve got it down pat. But if listeners could hear between the lines, they’d notice an undertone of tension between the hit team. Jerry resents Ted for his dismissive attitude towards TV offers, and his ability to sweet-talk the ladies. Even his own son gets the girl, Sari Rosenbloom, an eighteen year old bombshell that Jerry can’t get off his mind.

Between seedy, well-connected mobsters, a head-swiveling femme fatale, and a son that just doesn’t get it, Jerry navigates this post-war, Jewish-infused, zany, larger-than-life landscape.

Schmuck was published by Greenpoint Press and is available through their website, which can be found by clicking here: http://www.greenpointpress.org/gb_book_schmuck.html

You can also purchase the book on Amazon and through Barnes & Noble.

Schmuck is loosely based on your father’s radio show. Why write something so close to home?

The most famous joke about show business is the one about the guy in the circus who sweeps up behind the elephant. You know which one I’m talking about. He walks behind the elephant with a broom, clearing all the elephant crap and cursing to himself about how much he hates his job. And when somebody says, “If you hate it so much why don’t you quit?” He says, “What?! And leave show business?!” I’ve lived all of my life connected to show business and I’m sort of the guy sweeping up behind the elephant…and also the guy writing about the guy who’s sweeping up. All writing and performing is obviously based in your self since you’ve got no other place to begin. I’m lucky that my own personal lunacy–mishegas as the holy men say–leans sharply toward a combo of the masochistic and exhibitionistic. That means that I can exploit my own experience and then beautifully alter, embellish, form, shape, structure and compose until it both seems real and strangely heightened, both at the same time. It’s either that, or I go back into analysis.

Does your artistic work take from your real life often, and is it hard to balance between what’s real and fictional?

My work almost always takes off from real life, at least to start out. As for the line between real and fictional—I don’t know, it’s not so solid for any of us, I think. I like to jump back and forth across that line or blend both sides or step aside and see what gets called up from the dregs. That’s an incredible pleasure. Dream experience—that’s real experience, too, just a different kind. And like I said before, I’ve spent all my life around show business and I like writing about show business—not major movie stars and big money deals, for some reason that’s a snooze for me. I like the other levels. Clowns and jokers and radio guys who live in a world of TV. Where people are desperate and striving like their life depended on it and not usually succeeding. The screenwriter who can’t sell anything and who ends up shot dead by his mistress and floating in her pool, to me that’s a better story than the big names who end up on the cover of “Vanity Fair.” It’s plays more in my imagination. For a while, when I was younger, I supported myself as a reporter doing grunt journalism and you were supposed to be accurate above almost anything else. Eventually, my mind started to develop hemorrhoids. Even if you’re not going to be in the arts, I highly recommend living by the imagination as long as you’re not walking off a cliff.

“Schmuck” has been said to blend zany humor with a deadly somber undertone. Was it hard to write in such opposition?

It’s much more difficult to live with that opposition, which many of us do. It’s sort of like, one minute it’s all “ha-ha-ha” and you recognize the Absurd…then, when you see how absurd it all is, you start to feel it’s all so sad there’s not enough tears in the world to cry, and then you start laughing again because you hear yourself thinking that and it all seems so ridiculous. I tried to give Jerry Elkin that quality—underneath it all, he knows that we’re all sharing a misshapen rock spinning around in space and nobody really knows what the hell is going on.

Jerry Elkin is loosely based on your father. Has your father read the book, and if so, what does he think of Jerry?

My father died ten years ago so he hasn’t read the book—at least, I don’t think he has. I like to imagine that if he’s out there in that Great Radio Station in the sky, that maybe he got a few laughs out of it. He had a pretty wicked sense of humor that stayed with him until the end.

Do you have a specific process that you use when you write, and does “Schmuck” differ from your usual process because of it’s roots in your own life?

A theater director once told me that he went into rehearsal with a specific goal in mind for each particular session and then, when he got there, it was time to go home even if rehearsal only took five minutes. For some reason, that’s how “Schmuck” was written. Every time I sat down to work, I had a specific problem to solve—not a number of pages—but a chapter or a scene or a sequence of scenes to finish. Just what felt right. When that was done, I headed for the couch, lay down and put the “New Yorker” over my face. I also kept a notebook of ideas and lines and things to look at or change when I hit the next draft. Every project has something of its own character. I usually start off with a process of free association, just riffing and coming up with scenes and ideas that light up, even if they seem to be totally unrelated. Then, if I haven’t completely cracked up, I start finding some kind of narrative line that connects what scenes I’m going to use.

What the most important thing that you want to convey to an audience when you write, and how do you try accomplish that?

That’s an incredibly tough question to answer so I’ll hide from it as best I can. One way of looking at it—only the book itself can answer that question, otherwise there wouldn’t be a reason to write it. Also, you don’t want to get between the reader and his or her experience of the book–a writer has no business being there, you should be off working on something else or taking a nap. Then, overall, I’m going for something that’s tremendously alive and vital, or I hope it is, anyway—I don’t have any grand theories that make sense and I’m not smart enough to have any mind-bending ideas. But I hope the reader comes away at least with a feeling of life and enjoyment—like they’ve been hit in the head with some kind of weird tuning fork. And in a book, I think, you do that by rhythm, tempo, structure and a certain kind of language.

Sari Rosenbloom has been compared to Daisy Buchanan. Was this an intentional inspiration, and how else does “Gatsby” fit into “Schmuck’s” world?

Oh, yeah, there’s a definite “Gatsby” thread running through the story. Partly, that’s because I wanted to convince my audience that I’d actually read at least one great book. Also, growing up, I spent all too much time not too far from the real Gatsby House—or what was supposedly the house Fitzgerald used–and I got a feel for the parvenu’s outlook. Then, at one point, I started to think of “Schmuck” as a sort of “Gatsby” that’s told through the eyes of Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish gangster character, the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series. Which, by the way, is not a bad trick if you can get away with it.

You’ve written scripts for Miramax, Paramount, and TNT. How does your script writing differ from your novel writing?

At the gross level—which may be our favorite—a script has more people involved and you get a lot more money. But aside from the practical–there’s a common level in all narrative writing, I think, from commercials to novels to feature films. You’re dealing with characters and stories and people and you’re trying not to bore anyone. I wrote the film “Tigerland” which starred Colin Farrell but I did the script off the first draft of a novel I’d written. I’d worked out the story already, so it was much easier than starting from zero. For prose fiction–a novel can rest more in its language, going directly into the reader’s psyche, a mind dart. A screenplay has to do that also but it has to unfold in the reader’s imagination as a film, so that even a character’s consciousness is there to be literally seen, heard and understood in a medium that’s going to be watched and that takes place in time, somewhat outside of the viewer’s control. At some point, even if it becomes second nature, you have to care about that when you write a screenplay. I love film—I’d have to say that film and a kind of molecular understanding of what it is to write a screenplay have only been of the greatest help in other kinds of writing, especially prose fiction. It teaches you to move a story, not to be precious with yourself, to make everything count.

Your wife, Mary Jones, is a painter. Does her artistic vision bleed into your work, and vice versa?

Mary’s a terrific artist and I’ve probably learned much more from her than she’s learned from me. Her courage and seriousness and willingness to take chances, her connection to her own work and her respect for it, her ability to let it change…that this is part of everything she does and that she wears it lightly, I’ve gained from all this now for a long time. When we first knew each other many years ago, I remember once she lost a lease on her studio and was looking around for a new place. I asked her why she didn’t just rent a cheap apartment, what difference does it make where you paint? And she said, “Because during those times when you’re not selling anything or you’re stuck or you feel like everyone hates your work, it’s important to have a place to go that reminds you who you really are.” Maybe writers have to have a version of that, too…and since we don’t need a lot of brushes or canvases, it can just be in the mind.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Ah ha! The old advice question. Sometimes I hear writers say that there’s more bullshit out there about writing than there is about sex…but actually, I think, a lot of the writing advice is pretty good. It’s just…what do you do with it once you hear it? How do you make it your own? Can you actually sit down and use it? Then there’s this—I think what most of us want when we go after advice about writing is for somebody else to do the real work for us. I’m not talking about specific craft questions. But we live in a world that’s got a large sign across the sky that says, WARNING: DON’T BE ALONE IN YOUR IMAGINATION! And effort, pain or frustration? Forget about it, they get chosen last for the team. But that’s exactly what writers have to do and where they have to go, hour after hour. Real problems with writing are solved by writing. Eventually. Maybe painfully and with much frustration. OK, on some days, more easily. On some days, it’s like a tight muscle opening. So the best advice is that, ultimately, there’s no advice—you have to do your own work, day after day. Abandon all hope! Nobody can do it for you. And if you’re having one of those days when you think everything you’ve done sucks, you don’t deserve to live and you’re wasting your time at the pad or the keyboard…well, after you’ve screamed into the pillow, try not to have too much to drink and then, take a look at your stuff and try to see very, very specifically, exactly what it is that’s turning the blade in you. Try to see exactly what it is that you don’t like. Because that, exactly, can be fixed. With a generality, you’re screwed.


 

Ross Klavan’s work spbossklavanans film, television, radio, print and live performance. His original screenplay for the film Tigerland was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, he recently finished an adaption of John Bowers’s “The Colony,” and he has written scripts for Miramax, Paramount and TNT, among others. The “conversation about writing” he moderated with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer was televised and published as “Like Shaking Hands with God,” and his short stories have appeared in magazines and been produced by the BBC. An earlier novel, “Trax,” was published under a pseudonym. His play “How I Met My (Black) Wife (Again),” co-written with Ray Iannicelli, has been produced in New York City, and he has performed his work in numerous theaters and clubs. He has acted and done voice work in TV and radio commercials and has lent his voice to feature films including Casino, You Can Count On Me and Revolutionary Road and the new Amazon web series Alpha House, written by Gary Trudeau. He has worked as a newspaper and radio journalist in London and New York City. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter, Mary Jones.

What are you Writing for?

July 21, 2014

Let me introduce you to Gaia. Gaia is a human clone or more aptly, a human garden. She is a twisted, mutilated version of woman with little conventional beauty to behold. Yet there’s a sense of strength in her structure and: the beat of her HEART, the bright BLOOD pumping through her veins and the light yellow aura that floats above her- are riveting. Gaia struggles, as so many main characters do, to find her place in the world.

scifiindiegathering

She is also the main character of my sci-fi script, GAIA, which took first place in The Indie Gathering’s sci-fi feature script contest, one of a couple dozen contests I entered over the past two months or so. The win is my first and a welcomed reprieve from the repeated thrashes of rejection from others.

Admittedly, the validity and usefulness of screenplay contests continues to be debated, especially for any contests other than the “Top 5.” Indeed, as I searched for contests, and weighed the benefits and costs of each, I struggled not to let the naysayers drag me down.

Site after site, person after person, nay after nay; these sounded much like this:

“contests that charge over $25 aren’t worth it”

“any other than the top 5 are a waste of time”

“contests are a waste of time… they won’t help you sell your screenplay”

“contests are good for the ego, but that’s all.”

Of course, some of these comments were by people who had not yet placed in any contest, but not all of them and some were directly from people working within the film industry. Regardless, the impact varied little.

With each nay, my enthusiasm waned, even after my win. That is, until I realized something so profound that when I told Confucius he said, “Do what?” Not really, actually he rolled his eyes and said, “Uh.. duh.” So what is this not-so profound realization?

In the screenwriting world (and in fact, most any artistic industries), a reverberating factor of success seems to be the ability to find like-minded people.

A win may or may not mean you write well, but it means that someone or several “someones” appreciated your writing. It doesn’t matter if they appreciated it because it was “good” writing, or because it was a “good” story or for some other reason. All that matters is that you made that connection. For that win, you “won” someone over, and each contest you enter increases your chance to connect.

Think of these contests as fishing. They take time, money and can be tiring. Sometimes you’ll get a nibble, sometimes a bite, but you won’t get anything if the fish in the lake don’t like your bait. Even the biggest worm won’t hook a fish if the fish in the lake prefer crickets. Thus, for me, these contests are my pole.

I use them to gauge the interest in my bait. What other route offers you so much direct access to such a large, diverse range of people. Whether the judges are members of the Hollywood elite or not, they are people you can connect with.

There are many reasons why cult followings are popular and movies that have them are ultimately successful. Not every success is based on the size of the catch. Sometimes it’s taste that counts.

And as I consider the value of screenwriting contests, I remind myself also that Indie films and the whole site of Kickstarter are all about funding based upon a connection. Not a network of who you know, but a connection of a shared vision and goal. And isn’t that why we write anyway; to connect with others?


Autumn pic

Autumn Whiltshire earned her Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She writes poetry, short stories and screenplays. Her thesis script, Gaia won first place in The Indie Gathering’s 2014 Sci-Fi Feature category.  You can follow Autumn at: http://autumnwhiltshire.wordpress.com/

Screenwriters, Beggars, and Whores By Bill Prystauk

May 25, 2011

When I first heard about a one-page screenplay contest at Moviepoet, I gave pause. This site had offered this free contest in the past and my first one-page idea about a murder was ill received. The feedback, however, proved valuable and it was clear I hadn’t executed a story with a solid beginning, middle and end. And with the broad margins, type and spacing associated with screenwriting format, getting a story on one-page had proven difficult.

Though I never read the script, I’ve seen the short film “Shot of a Lifetime”  – a story told in a mere five seconds and it worked. This one-pager then, this one minute of film, was a challenge I wanted to meet head-on – Hell, I had another fifty-five seconds to play with. But coming up with a story that wasn’t the equivalent of a bad joke was far from difficult. I wanted to do something dramatic and poignant.  I’m not exactly sure where the idea came from, but I imagined a “manly” man cross-dressing for a contest, winning said contest, then going home in drag to confront his wife. I pounded out the story of “Catalyst” in short order, revised and tweaked and submitted.

When the results came out a month later, I was disappointed. My script hadn’t even earned an honorable mention. Most comments involved questions that could only be answered if the script was a feature. Many people (it’s open judging for any writer logging into the site once registering for free) could not determine where the “catalyst for change” even appeared in the script. Needless to say, it was evident I had written something obscure and I hadn’t delivered my tale completely.

Rejection Hurts, But Can Lead to Better Writing

Theme had apparently been unclear and my beginning, middle and end didn’t work. As a writer, I had failed. Regardless, I had other scripts to write and would simply learn from the exercise to tell a better story.

But that was a lie. I knew in my heart the story was solid and that in one-minute I had delivered a complete tale to the audience. The story made sense, the catalyst for change was clear and the theme was solid. Then, I received some more feedback from a couple of people who had voted on the scripts for the contest. They thought the script was “brilliant.” One, a close friend, Chris Messineo, who didn’t know I had penned the screenplay because it was blind viewing, thought it was the greatest short I had ever written. Damn. He encouraged me to send it elsewhere and try to get it produced. (When Chris is thrilled about something, he means it.)

Remarkably, I discovered a one-page script contest from WILDsound in Toronto. I entered and soon learned I was a Finalist. Actors in Toronto then performed the script on-stage and the clip was placed on the WILDsound site. The bad news: Judging would be determined by internet voting. For the first time, the fate of my work would not be handled by a group of professional writers, producers, directors or even agents. I was suddenly in the midst of a popularity contest.

Of course I wantedto win. After all, the winner would have his/her short produced. This meant the writer would receive that all-important screen credit – something every screenwriter lives for. So I did something I loathed and despised: I contacted everyone I knew via WebCT, Facebook and regular email to get them to vote – as well as their families and friends, and so on.

Even America's Sweetheart Spent Time on the Streets

I told Ken Vose, a screenwriter in the Wilkes University MFA Program, that I felt like a beggar and a whore, to which Ken replied, “You’re a screenwriter. You’ll be a beggar and a whore forever. Get used to it.” I continued to beg right up to the very end – but ultimately fell short by a handful of votes. “Catalyst” came in second place.

Chris Messineo, the man behind Off-Stage Films and the New Jersey Film School, made me feel a little better. Apparently, the winner of the previous WILDsound contest had his film shot and it was awful. Not the story per se, but its filming. I found the short films of previous winners and noticed that the lighting was bad, many camera angles were weak and the overall feel was one of sterility. Still, I was out of a much desired credit and now had another script that would just collect dust in a drawer. The announcement of “Catalyst” as a produced piece of creative work would not appear in my CV, making that tenure tract position at Kutztown University all the more harder to attain.

I was ticked.

Then, something unbelievable happened.  Out of the blue a high school friend, Debbie Valenta, contacted me from Los Angeles. She had produced several films and worked with Roger Corman for a couple of years. Debbie had recently formed a yet unnamed production company with two other women and was looking for a short script they could film. She knew I wrote screenplays, and even read “Catalyst” when I was “begging and whoring” for votes on Facebook. I submitted four short scripts – and they chose “Catalyst.” Collectively, they loved the story. Whew. The tale did indeed work and my original gut feeling was validated. The only dilemma, and it was a small one, was that they wanted the short to be five to ten minutes long.  Knowing Debbie’s level of expertise and penchant for detail, I am not concerned about the film’s quality. However, I realize that not winning the WILDsound contest may have been the best thing possible for me. This is made clear by the fact this new production company will use “Catalyst” as their calling card to attract investors and talent. In the world of screenwriting, that’s a big deal.  Regardless, even though the script hasn’t been shot yet, it has the best chance of seeing the light of day. And if it does, I will get that credit and maybe more opportunities will come my way if the short is well received. Time will tell.

Once again, the advice to all writers is not to quit. And even if your script is shopped around, this does not mean you can’t resubmit years later. Ken Vose recently sold a horror script that is older than me, as he told me.  As long as we’re honest about the quality of our writing, there is a chance that work will find a home somewhere, and this goes for all screenwriters, playwrights, poets, fiction and non-fiction writers.  Sure, we may feel like we’re a “beggar and a whore” on occasion, but as long as we’re respectful and devoid of cockiness, we’re simply just asking to be heard. We’re pitching. We’re selling. Just like we do in an interview for a job. And if we don’t sell ourselves we’ll never achieve anything with our writing.

Who is Bill Prystauk?

In 2011, Bill’s dramatic horror, “Ravencraft” is currently a Top-Three Finalist in the 2011 AWS Screenplay Contest. His dramatic ghost story, “Risen” was the First Place Winner in the 2010 Horror Screenplay Contest and is currently being shopped around Hollywood. Furthermore, Bill’s character driven, crime/action/horror script “Red Agenda” was the First Place Winner in the 2008 International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival and was a Top-Five Finalist at Screamfest. In 2006, he was the Second Place Winner of the Screenwriters Showcase Screenplay Contest for his erotic crime thriller, “Bloodletting,” which is now a novel under consideration by award winning, Akashic Books.

Bill Prystauk Loves a Pink Background

Bill has also won numerous awards for other screenplays as well as poetry. He completed the Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in June 2011 to earn his MFA with concentrations in screenwriting and fiction. Bill currently teaches English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and is exploring the use of homes in horror movies in his book, “Home is Where the Horror is.”