Cinequest's Screenwriting Competition Winners

As a story analyst I’ve judged competition entries at all levels from first round to finals. First round competition weeds out the not-ready-for-primetime scripts and determines which scripts possess the potential to compete at the next level. By the time the hundreds and hundreds of submissions have been culled to the finals – the best of the best – its gets very difficult to decide which ones are the best. That’s why I consider it a privilege to be a final round judge for the 30 Minute Teleplay category of this year’s Cinequest Film Festival’s screenwriting competitions. The quality of the submissions to this festival's competitions continues to impress me. Congratulations to the winners in all categories:

30 Minute Teleplay:

Winner: “Throwing Shade” by Ada Lee Halofsky
2nd Place: “Isaac Newton” Gifted by Bo Price
3rd Place: “Department of Ghouls” by Jeremy Dorfman

60 Minute Teleplay:

Winner: “Nightingale” by AJ Bermudez
2nd Place: “Company Town” by Samantha Levenshus
3rd Place: “Nevermore” by Lilly Slaydon

Feature Screenplay:

Winner: “Rubbish” by John Dilley & Seth Corr
2nd Place: “WorkingMan” by Robert Jury
3rd Place: “Johnny Ace” by Moon Molson

Short Screenplay:  

Winner: “Against the River” by Dan Ritter
2nd Place: “Flop by Nick” Coleman
3rd Place: “It Gets Heavier” by Sam Davis

For a list of all the finalists scroll down to the bottom of this Cinequest site page.

A Polarizing Protagonist in "Elle"

Photo from the film "Elle" starring Isabelle Huppert courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

French actress Isabelle Huppert is taking the awards circuit by storm, thanks to her daring portrayal of a complicated woman in the provocative film “Elle.” She took home a Spirit award at Film Independent’s party, France’s Cesar award, and a Golden Globe award last month. Though the Paul Verhoeven film is not nominated for an Academy Award, Huppert is. An upset Sunday over the American actresses, who did not star in a French-language film featuring terrifying sexual assault scenes, is probably unlikely. But the nomination has people contemplating the role the put Huppert in the company of Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, and Ruth Negga.

“Elle” is less controversial than it is polarizing. Huppert portrays a woman, Michele, who runs a video game company. Think: high testosterone, violent, misogynistic, graphic. And then make it worse. She is violently attacked by a masked intruder. But how she reacts to that, and the course of action she takes to track down the identity of her intruder, have a lot of people scratching their heads. You don't have to like the film but you can’t deny that her character is anything short of complicated, complex, and unpredictable. You cannot predict what she will do or say next. Whether you agree with her reaction, and subsequent course of action, you have to appreciate how she keeps us guessing. Despite the tough subject matter and uncomfortably unflinching way it’s portrayed on the screen, it’s actually refreshing to follow a character – to actually have to follow the character – to see where she’s going rather than already knowing. That unpredictability and her complexities that fuel it are what make “Elle” and Huppert so engaging.

Some people complain that Michele’s reactions and actions are just not realistic, not believable. There’s nothing wrong with making that argument. It made me realize how easy it is to project our own thoughts, feelings, experiences and expectations onto a character. I wouldn’t do that, so therefore it’s not realistic, not believable. Or can we allow for complexities that cannot be easily explained? “Elle” teaches us that it is possible to write a strong female character – or any character for that matter – that doesn’t do what’s expected.

Third Thursdays from ISA

Synoptic Media was proud to be a sponsor for the International Screenwriters’ Association’s Third Thursdays networking events last week in Los Angeles and London.  I met some of ISA’s team members, including founder Craig James Pietrowiak, and learned more about some of the exciting things happening at ISA.

Synoptic Media's Liza Olson with ISA founder Craig James Pietrowiak at ISA's Third Thursdays event in Los Angeles

The association not only connects writers but also hosts contests, fellowships, and other events. Its website serves as a clearinghouse for information on writing, film reviews, and contest deadlines, along with podcasts, classes, and other resources for writers.  My service, the Contest Prep Report, which evaluates feature-length scripts with competitions in mind, is listed on their site under Consultants.

I also met writer Matt Lohr, who is moderating a pre-Oscar panel discussion at The Writers Store in Burbank, on February 25 at 2:00p.m. The event is free.

Tip for Writers:  ISA’s Fast Track fellowship program application deadline – March 1 – is fast approaching.

The Interview: Script Pipeline Winners Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini

Putting a new twist on a classic tale is a challenge many writers choose to tackle. Screenwriters Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini took the “Cinderella” fairytale and spun it with strong themes of deception and manipulation.  In their version Cinderella fabricates a story of her life of servitude with an evil stepmother and ugly stepsisters – a story to make her more appealing to the Prince – and then greedily schemes against anyone who gets in her way. 

Penelope & Matteo’s efforts paid off nicely: Their screenplay “Cinderella Must Die,” won Script Pipeline’s Feature Contest Grand Prize earlier this year. I interviewed the busy Australia-based screenwriters via email about their collaboration, their last-minute dash across the Pacific, and those poor ugly stepsisters.

Synoptic Media: Where in Australia are you based?

Penelope Chai: I’m based in Melbourne. Matteo used to live here too, and most of “Cinderella Must Die” was written here.

Matteo Bernardini: I’m originally from Milan, Italy, but am now based in Sydney. I moved here earlier this year when my wife, who’s an Australian writer/director, got into Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art.

Synoptic Media: How long have you been writing together?

Penelope & Matteo: Two years. “Cinderella Must Die” is our first project together. We met a few years before that through Matteo’s wife, Anna. She was looking for her next project and came across a short story written by Penelope and published in a literary magazine. She and the producer asked Penelope to adapt the story into a short film script, which Anna then directed.

Then in mid-2014, we decided to write a feature film together. Matteo pitched the idea of a twist on the Cinderella fairy tale where the Ugly Stepsisters are the innocent victims and Cinderella is the villain who concocts a false rags-to-riches story. We liked the idea of Cinderella using narrative as propaganda to silence her opponents and rule her domain. And we liked the idea of giving voice and dimension to her sisters, who are usually sidelined and demonised. We’ve been working on the script on and off since then in between other projects. 

Dialogue excerpt from the screenplay "Cinderella Must Die" by Penelope Chai and Matteo Bernardini

Synoptic Media: How long did it take you to write the first draft of “Cinderella Must Die?” 

Penelope & Matteo: It took us about six months to write the first draft. We had to grab pockets of time here and there between other projects and scripts. The current draft bears little resemblance to the first draft. The first draft was an unholy mess and, after rigorous notes from tough but trusted friends, we kicked most of it to the kerb. The second draft was pretty much a page one rewrite.

Synoptic Media: To how many contests did you submit “Cinderella Must Die?” 

Penelope & Matteo: We submitted it to Script Pipeline and the screenwriting competition at the Austin Film Festival.  We won Script Pipeline's Grand Prize, which was a big thrill.

Synoptic Media: Congratulations on winning the Grand Prize! You were in Los Angeles this summer. Tell us about that experience.

Penelope & Matteo: We ummed and ahhed about making the trip at all. We didn’t know we’d won, and it’s a long way to travel to not win! But we decided to take a chance and booked flights at the very last minute. We arrived on Friday and attended the awards event the following day. It was great to meet Matt and Chad from Script Pipeline. We’d had email and Skype contact with them back in Australia, so it was good to be able to put faces to names. They’ve been incredibly encouraging and brilliant with championing the script. The awards event was lots of fun and it was great to meet the producers and managers who attended, and also all the other writers who were shortlisted. Everyone was lovely and welcoming.

Screenwriters Matteo Bernardini and Penelope Chai. Photo courtesy: Script Pipeline

After we won, our visit took an exciting turn. We were booked pretty solid with meetings Monday through Wednesday. The water-bottle tour of LA, we’ve heard it called. Then we had to jump on a plane Wednesday night and fly back home. It was a whirlwind few days, that’s for sure. But we plan to return soon and do it all again properly.

Synoptic Media: Do you have representation?

Penelope & Matteo: Since winning Script Pipeline there’s been a lot of interest from producers, managers and agents. We want to do a return visit before signing with anyone. Skype discussions are good but face-to-face meetings are better. RGM is representing the project in Australia. We have both been busy with other projects that had their genesis before we won the competition. We’re also sifting through a bunch of exciting ideas looking for the next script to write together as a team. 

Synoptic Media: Have you had any projects produced or do you have any projects currently in development? 

Penelope: I’ve had a couple of projects produced in Australia. A documentary that I co-wrote screened on the ABC, our national broadcaster, and a short film I wrote premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival, before screening at other festivals including Palm Springs. That short film was actually directed by Matteo’s wife, which is how Matteo and I met and became friends and collaborators. I’m writing an online series called "Other People’s Problems," which shoots in early 2017 and will screen on the ABC. I’m also developing a dystopian sci-fi and a comedic drama set in an empty city in China. Both those projects have been supported by Screen Australia, our national screen agency, which we’re very fortunate to have. 

Matteo: I was a staff writer on a couple of TV shows in Italy, and I collaborated on a lot of non-fiction for the main Italian channels throughout the years. I have a script about propaganda in the 1991 Kuwait War that I’ve been researching for four years (in fact, researching propaganda is how the 'Cinderella lied' idea came about), and it’s finally ready to become a script. We're keen to continue working together and have a long list of possible ‘next projects.” We’re in the process of sifting through them all and trying them on for size. We’re determined not to plunge into our next project until the idea is as compelling as “Cinderella Must Die!”

The end game – a script being produced – is so elusive; you might as well make the most of the journey.
— Screenwriter Penelope Chai on writing with a partner

Synoptic Media: What have you each learned about writing with a partner versus writing solo?

Matteo: I have only good things to say about writing with someone else. It makes the whole process so much easier. I’m a pathological procrastinator, unless I have someone to answer to. But more importantly, the only way for a writing partnership to work is if both of you are ready to be told “that was shit, we’re not writing that” and not take it personally. It’s a very zen-like exercise in relinquishing ego. And that’s how better ideas emerge, by going through a list of bad ones, seeing them shut down and be grateful instead of resentful – because the work is better for it. The work is the only parameter, in the end.

Penelope: I love working with other writers. For screenwriters, the end game – a script being produced – is so elusive; you might as well make the most of the journey. Matteo and I didn’t know each other very well when he pitched this idea and asked me if I’d be interested in co-writing. It was a risk, but it paid off. We’re very different, both as writers and as people, but this turned out to be a help rather than a hindrance. Together we were able to bring different skills and perspectives to the table. And when it mattered, we were always on the same page.

The Gals at Home

A few recent movies have got me thinking about the character we can call the “Gal at Home.” She’s the wife or girlfriend who stays at home while the male protagonist is off behaving badly, fighting bad guys, or saving the world from impending doom. Rebecca Keegan from the Los Angeles Times recently penned an article about a version of this character, the gal, specifically, wife, at home on the phone. Keegan notes that even the most gifted of actresses will often play small roles cheering on or worrying about the men in a crisis, from home, and usually over the phone.

Laura Linney on the phone in "Sully." Photo courtesy: Warner Bros.

In “Sully” Oscar-nominated Laura Linney plays the anxious wife at home to Tom Hanks’ heroic Captain Sully Sullenberger, dealing with the onslaught of attention and scrutiny after his Miracle on the Hudson water landing. And in “Deepwater Horizon” Kate Hudson plays the nervous wife at home to Mark Wahlberg’s oil rig worker who is saving his colleagues from fiery doom. Keegan notes that when those characters “dial into the story from outside the action they’re often there to remind the audience what the hero has to lose, like comfort, family or the love of a good woman… or as evidence of a tough guy’s softer side.”

I would add that they also exist to make things relatable for us non-heroes… we mere mortals who feel helpless, confused, anxious, or nervous as tragic and harrowing events unfold that we can’t control and can’t see. Hudson’s character knows something bad is happening but doesn’t know exactly what or whether her husband is safe. Can’t imagine selflessly running through fire on a collapsing oil rig to help rescue coworkers? Me either. Can’t image landing a packed jetliner on a frigid river? Nope. Not that either. But not knowing what is happening to a loved one or whether they are safe? Absolutely.

Kate Hudson video chats in "Deepwater Horizon." Photo courtesy: Summit Entertainment

Would it be more interesting to see Laura Linney saving a jetliner full of people from a horrible crash while Tom Hanks worries at home? Or Kate Hudson carrying wounded oil rig workers to safety while Mark Wahlberg anxious waits for word at home with their daughter? Yes. I’m there on opening night! But that’s not what happened in the real events chronicled in both “Sully” and “Deepwater Horizon.”

The Gal at Home, or any supporting character outside of the action, and what purpose they serve, is an important for Writers to think about for fictional stories. Does your comedy’s male protagonist have a wife or girlfriend to show us that his stop off at the strip club is a bad idea? Does your adventure thriller have a Gal at Home to raise the stakes of your male protagonist taking extra big risks on his mountainous trek? Taking gender out of it, what purpose does your protagonist’s husband, boss, neighbor, or best friend have? Do they raise the stakes? Do they soften or humanize the protagonist? Create obstacles or conflict? Does your protagonist have a boss who sets an impossible deadline or doles out an impossible assignment? Or does the boss just do something or say something that your own boss once did that you thought was ridiculous? “What purpose do you serve?” is a basic but important question every Writer needs to pose of their supporting characters, especially to those Gals at Home.

The Interview: CWA Winners Colette Freedman & Brooke Purdy

For screenwriters Colette Freedman and Brooke Purdy their writing partnership is a marriage of creativity, geography, and technology. The friends-turned-writing-partners aren’t just writing scripts—they’re producing them, too. This prolific team has four produced films between them, and judging by their collective moxie, several more on the way.

Colette and Brooke's latest collaboration is the apocalyptic adventure screenplay “The Last Bookstore,” which follows children as they traverse dangerous territory to track down medical books they believe will help their sick mother. The script won this year’s Creative World Awards Grand Prize. I interviewed the Burbank-based writers via email about their projects, not talking down to their audience, and the real-life kids who inspired the story.

Synoptic Media: How did each of you get started writing?

Colette: I wrote a play in fifth grade called “An Archie Bunker Hanukah” and was hooked. Writing for the stage is one of my favorite things to do and I’ve been writing plays for the last twenty years. 

Brooke: I started in junior high. Found my imaginary life way more interesting. I also had some AMAZING English teachers early on who encouraged me along the way. I got into NYU via their Dramatic Writing Program at Tisch because I had REAMS of sample submissions. 

Synoptic Media: How many scripts have you written? And, are they all features?

Screenwriters Colette Freedman and Brooke Purdy

Brooke: I have about 20 screenplays in various states. Three with Colette and many from my "freshman years" that will NEVER see the light of day or human eyes. Because Colette and I work SO WELL as a team, I am returning to my favorites with her because I know they have "legs" and can be remarkable under our dual process. My film “Quality Problems,” which I wrote and co-directed with my husband, comes out later this year.

Colette:  I spent the first part of my writing career focusing on plays and novels. My first script “Sister Cities” is now a film and my second script “And Then There Was Eve” just finished principal photography. My next three (and hopefully the next hundred) scripts are co-written with Brooke.

Synoptic Media: It sounds like you work well together. How did you come to be writing partners?

Brooke & Colette: We were friends first and then started helping each other on scripts… punching them up for each other. It was only a matter of time before we started writing together. We have the same humor and sensibility so we knew that we could create some pretty fantastic stuff together. We live less than a mile away from each other, but 99% percent of our communication is via text or email. We also both like to cycle, so we’ll go on long bike rides to marinate the stories we write before we dig into them. 

Synoptic Media: How do you decide what projects to work on together and once you do, how do you divvy up the work?

Brooke & Colette: We divvy up the projects pretty organically. Depending on whose idea we are working on, one of us will write pages then send to the other for "tuning up," structure help and elaboration. It's an amazing marriage of creativity.  

Excerpt from the screenplay "The Last Bookstore"

Synoptic Media: “The Last Bookstore” has a “Goonies” adventure vibe but set in a dystopian future like “The Book of Eli.”  From where did the idea come?

Brooke: I wrote the story for my son, Max (12). We are a pretty twisted clan but we all love dystopian books ("Rot & Ruin," "The Knife of Never Letting Go") and zombie and apocalyptic fare (“The Walking Dead”). Placing it in a "not too distant" apocalyptic world gave the child actors a reference point that was different than today's XBOX/iPhone tech world. I wanted to simplify them and bring their perspectives into a world where you need to fight every day for basic needs as well as make your own entertainment. Yet I still wanted them to "know of," in a historical sense, the "past" of television, video games and airplanes.  

Synoptic Media: Your script walks a tonal tightrope with the kids being on a dangerous journey. How did you balance putting kids in peril with their comedic bickering and teasing?

Brooke: It’s my life. I have a 12 year old and a 9 year old and at any given moment they are either experiencing the WORST TRAUMA EVER (lost notebook) or RIDICULOUSLY HAPPY (Last mini Snickers in the back of a drawer from 3 Halloweens ago). Kids are immediate creatures. They exist in the moment. Their emotions are so accessible because they are like this. So, if you're a 12 year old and you are running for your life, if someone farts you're gonna laugh. I try and write as truthfully as possible. Throughout “Bookstore” I constantly asked myself, "How would Max react?" or "What would Scout (My 9-year-old daughter & model for Beckett) say?”

Colette: One thing we were very clear about from the get-go was not talking down to our audience. The kids in “Bookstore” are smart, savvy and flawed. Like Brooke’s own kids, they are relatable and likable. It is easy to identify with characters in dangerous situations as long as they react like real people and not stereotypes. Jack, Beckett and the gang, because they were drawn from real kids, did the tightrope walking for us. 

Synoptic Media: To how many contests did you submit “The Last Bookstore?” 

Excerpt from the screenplay "The Last Bookstore"

Brooke & Colette: We submitted it to half a dozen and so far the results have been pretty fantastic. We’ve gotten nods in most of them and then winning the CWA was the cherry on top.  

Synoptic Media: Do you employ a specific contest strategy?

Brooke & Colette: This was our first time submitting. Our only requirements were that the contests had a good reputation and had been around for at least three years. Industry connections and visibility are pretty important since we are looking for previously restrictive exposure.

Synoptic Media: You’ve both had scripts produced. What has that process taught you about writing that now informs how your tackle story ideas or how you write scripts?

Colette: Life is short. You either write for money or for passion. In ideal circumstances, the two are one and the same. I started as a novelist and playwright, so filmmaking is still relatively new to me. I’ve been fortunate to have the first three projects I’ve been heavily involved in produced, Brooke’s opus “Quality Problems,” which is really quite spectacular, and two issues-driven pieces of which I am unbelievably proud: “And Then There Was Eve,” a transgender love story which is currently in post-production and “Sister Cities,” about death with dignity starring Jacki Weaver and an amazing cast of actresses. When I write, I write about what I care about, what excites me and what I would want to see. Brooke and I have several exciting scripts in the hopper, some we want to sell and some we plan to produce with our extraordinary team who brought “Quality Problems” to life. 

When I write, I write about what I care about, what excites me and what I would want to see.
— Colette Freedman, Screenwriter

Brooke: I categorize scripts into two different columns. Ones that I am proud of but have no emotional attachment to and ones I am emotionally attached to and invested in. I have had one produced in each category. One, "Hindsight," which I sold in a pregnancy panic and the other "Quality Problems," that I wrote and co-directed with my husband (and that Colette helped produce and I never would have finished without her...) I'll just say that the experiences were very different. While producing your own work is spiritually, physically and emotionally exhausting, it's one of the greatest life lessons a writer can have. I learned SO much about my writing from having to activate the words onto the screen.

Synoptic Media: Do either of you have representation?

Brooke & Colette: Not currently. We're looking for someone who will swoop on us as the "Next Hot Female Screenwriting Duo"... there's a category for that, right?

 

The Interview: ScreenCraft Comedy Winner Samuel Laskey

With two dozen features and an MFA under his belt but representation still eluding him, screenwriter Samuel Laskey felt it was time to write something more commercial. So he turned to a pro – Alfred Hitchcock – for some advice. The result was “The Fake,” an action-comedy feature about a teenage girl who is hunted by terrorists when she buys a fake ID that happened to belong to a wanted hacker.

“The Fake” recently won ScreenCraft’s Comedy contest and helped Laskey land management. I interviewed the Kentucky native-turned-Angelino via email about his merciless approach to first drafts, the help he got from Hitchcock, and the satisfaction of a clean whiteboard.

Synoptic Media: How did you get started writing?

Laskey: I've been writing scripts in one form or another since I was 15 and making short films on a mini DV camcorder. I finished my first feature screenplay (after many false starts) in my senior year of college in 2011. It was called “Jesus Battles the Nazis,” and it was every bit as ridiculous as the title sounds. I was working as a Reader at the time, which inspired me to get off my butt and finish something myself. That script got me into grad school, and I never stopped writing from that point onward.

Synoptic Media: To how many contests did you submit “The Fake” and what were the results?

Laskey: I submitted “The Fake” to most of the major competitions and a few smaller ones…at least a dozen, but I try to forget about what contests I've entered until they announce. Otherwise, I just get stressed out checking the websites. I'm still waiting to hear back from most of the contests I've entered, although I did just find out that “The Fake” is a Nicholl semi-finalist.

Excerpt from the screenplay "The Fake" by Samuel Laskey

The first competition to post results was the ScreenCraft Nashville Live Read Contest (in which I placed 2nd). I got to go to ScreenCraft’s first ever Writer's Conference at the Nashville Film Festival. (Which is awesome! Totally recommend it! Everyone should make it a priority to go.)  It was in Nashville that I met Daniela Garcia-Brcek, a manager at Circle of Confusion, who was on a few of the panels. I cornered her at an after-party and got her to give me 15 minutes of her time back in LA. In LA, I pitched her “The Fake,” got her to read it, and she and Zach Cox signed me soon after.

Synoptic Media: Where did you get the idea for “The Fake?”

Laskey: “The Fake,” like most screenplays I write, grew from multiple sources. The first is that back in college, fake IDs with your actual photo on them cost upwards of $150, and I could never afford one. Of course, you could get someone else's discarded ID for less and hope that the bouncers and liquor store clerks didn't look too closely. I always wondered about the previous owners of those IDs. Could they be criminals? You'd have no way of knowing. That nugget of an idea got filed away for years. That's the first part.

ScreenCraft Comedy contest winner Samuel Laskey

The second part is that last year, I knew I wanted to write something that was commercial and Hollywood appropriate -- something that would get me recognition and management, essentially. What I had been writing wasn't doing that. I took stock of my strengths and weaknesses. I knew I was good at writing teenage characters. I knew I could write set pieces -- both action and comedic. I loved writing heists. I also knew that I sometimes struggled with plot mechanics. So I decided to look at the work of a master of plot and structure. I went down a list of Hitchcock movies and asked myself, "Can this premise be done with teenagers?" (This is an exercise that I find really useful for brainstorming ideas. Take a list of movies and try to twist their premises to work with an alternative setting/tone/set of characters.) I struck on “North by Northwest.” What would “North by Northwest” look like with a teenager as the protagonist? How would a teenager be mistaken for a dangerous agent/operative?

I remembered that kernel of an idea about fake IDs and put it with the Hitchcockian premise. From there, things just spiral out logically. If you're writing about a character who pretends to be someone cooler and more interesting than herself, then that character needs to start the story very uncertain of herself and her identity (which works really well for a movie about a teenager). If she's thrown into a world of espionage and action, I need to give her an ally who's done this before. The villains need to contrast with her weaknesses. The high school drama from act one needs to return in act three. And frame it all with a question that reflects the theme. (What should I do for college?) Like I said, it's all pretty logical once you get the premise. And whenever I got stuck, I just looked to Hitchcock for answers.

Excerpt from the screenplay "The Fake" by Samuel Laskey

Synoptic Media: Do you have a writing routine or specific process?

Laskey: I do the bulk of my writing in the morning after a few cups of coffee. Then it's lunch, nap, long walk to brainstorm, more coffee, and back to writing or outlining for a few hours in the afternoon. I outline on a whiteboard and then do scene breakdowns in a notebook. Wiping my whiteboard clean after finishing something has become a hugely satisfying ritual for me. But no matter how detailed my outlines are, I tend to be pretty merciless about scripts after I finish a draft if I feel something's not working. With “The Fake,” for example, I threw out 75% of the first draft. Then I rewrote. Then I threw out 75% of that…and on and on like that until I was satisfied. I'm on a similar process with the script I'm writing now. I've churned through about 200 pages and two drafts in the last three weeks, and I'm happy with maybe 40 of those pages. Hopefully, the third draft is the charm.

Whenever I got stuck, I just looked to Hitchcock for answers.
— Screenwriter Samuel Laskey

Synoptic Media: What’s been the best writing advice you’ve gotten?

Laskey: A little backstory... My dad is an interesting dude. He was a finance guy when I was very young, then a carpenter for a while, and now a small-town lawyer. And I've distilled a lot of lessons from all of those professions, whether it was craftsmanship during his carpenter years or rhetorical strategies and logic now that he's a lawyer. But there was one nugget of MBA/finance wisdom that I picked up from him. It's not strictly writing advice but I've applied it as such: "Never make a decision based on sunken costs." Don't continue on a mistaken path purely because you've invested time, energy and money into it. There are a couple ways that this applies to writing. A lot of writers will keep revising and revising a script that will never ever work because they want to justify the time they've put into it already. They refuse to abandon a project no matter how wrongheaded it may be and even though they'd be happier and more successful working on something new. 

Also, writers are often afraid to cut scenes that don't work or are unnecessary. The old axiom is "Don't be afraid to kill your darlings." But it's not even always the darlings that we're afraid of cutting. Any scene that took time and energy, whether you love it or not, is hard to cut. But keeping something because you sunk energy into it is a bad way to make a decision.

Synoptic Media: How have things changed for you since signing with your managers?

Laskey: Since signing in June, I've been on a bunch of meetings around town doing the "couch and water bottle" tour. It's been a lot of fun and really encouraging. I haven't sold anything yet, so my financial situation hasn't changed much. But it's been a huge self-esteem boost to feel like a real Hollywood screenwriter. There's always another mountain to climb immediately after every victory. So it's back to the incredible joy and the incredible anxiety of writing.

The Interview: TrackingB TV Finalists Thomas Aguilar & Michael Ballin

Writing partners don’t always see eye to eye. They don’t always find their creative rhythm. And sometimes they even go their separate ways. But when writing partners Michael Ballin and Thomas Aguilar have a disagreement they can only go so far. That’s because they’re brothers. Mike and Tom grew up in the community of Pico Rivera near Los Angeles. Being siblings helped them develop a shorthand that they employ in their creative process and one they employed while tackling a new teleplay called “Alternative Medicine.”

“Alternative Medicine” recently made the finals in TrackingB’s TV script contest. The procedural’s deathly ill protagonist rails against what he sees as a corrupt system by taking his medical treatment, and the treatment of others, into his own hands. In an interview via email the brothers talk about the near-death experience that became the genesis of the script, finding time to write, and “fighting it out.”

Synoptic Media: This script is an indictment of the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries. From where did the idea come?

Tom: About 5 years ago we had a simple idea to do a different type of doctor show from someone who didn’t actually go through training or was licensed, but was brilliant like a "Good Will Hunting"-type character. But we didn’t have much else. Mike dealt with an illness where he had a serious procedure and nearly died on the table. He survived and went through a whole year of going to different doctors. And his understandable resentment from that experience helped form this rebellious idea of "underground medicine."

Mike: Once you've gone through many different doctors with few results, you get the idea that nobody really knows what they’re doing. Medicine is a trained practice. Now I had a great surgeon, who totally went above and beyond for me, but the healing process was tough and many times other doctors couldn’t help. I started reading journals myself [and] tried some healing medications from online and they worked! Then eventually we broke story on this and wanted it to reflect the “real side” of the medical industry that you don’t really see on TV.

Excerpt from the teleplay "Alternative Medicine"

Tom: Exactly. A broken healthcare system affects everyone. Like how doctors can make mistakes, insurance companies can be ruthless, and how the pharmaceutical side operates as a profit-based enterprise. It was a new way into the medical procedural that felt fresh.  

Synoptic Media: Your main character, Victor, narrates his story. How did you decide to use that particular storytelling device?

Mike: Honestly, it came out of scouring the web when I was sick and going to these dark corners of the internet where people would give advice, criticize, and document their own treatment in the most honest way... little forums that I consumed daily in hopes of getting better. 

Tom: We felt like having our VO be a version of these would give it a different feel—like if Victor had a blog, this would be on it. And that’s still very much a possibility that he’ll make one, but we felt to get through his background and to believe this, VO was vital. 

Mike: And people say don’t use VO, it’s a crutch and we felt that too, but when it works for your story and there’s good reason for it, use it. Like in “Dexter,” where without VO it would be hard to root for a vigilante serial killer, but if you're privy to Dexter's thoughts and rationalization it makes it easier. VO was our way to comment on the world, Victor’s thoughts, and his current situation while letting us empathize with him. 

TrackingB contest finalists Thomas Aguilar and Michael Ballin

Synoptic Media: What’s your process like?

Mike:  It usually starts with coffee and a game of ping pong or a game of Madden. We honestly make it like a music studio environment where it's relaxed. We put on music and then start bouncing ideas off each other. We approach outlines a little differently. We like to use Google Slides and make interactive outlines with GIFS, pictures, videos, and links. It's a really fun to lay out our story and create the tone of our script. We pass that "outline" back and forth for a few weeks, while diving into heavy research until it's ready. Then we'll break into writing it out, which takes about a week. After that we just take anywhere from 5-15 passes on it. One of the most essential parts of the process is the "page by page," where we really go through the script line by line to find its rhythm and accent our big story beats. We'll do a few reads with trusted friends and refine some more. We both know our own personal strengths and weaknesses so that's good. Sometimes I'll focus on structure and Tom will get dialogue. We joke and say "I lace the track you lock the flow" because it has that collaborative feel. Plus we grew up in a noisy, busy house, so we like our atmosphere to be open as well. 

Synoptic Media:  A lot of writing collaborations fizzle out fast. But it sounds like being brothers has a lot of upside in your partnership and process. How do you handle disputes or disagreements?

Tom: Usually we prefer to fight it out like an epic scene from “Step Brothers” and early on we had quite a few arguments. I mean, we’re siblings… we'll fight about anything. But we have grown to really trust the process and make it about telling the best story possible. 

Mike: One of us will usually take a stand for something and they’ll usually win. Sometimes Tom will tell me something and I'll disagree (but secretly think he’s probably right). A day will go by and I think, yeah, let’s do it. Now it's really “best idea wins” and you know it when you see it. That really guides us home. And honestly the partnership is cool because we just like hanging out together. 

We have grown to really trust the process and make it about telling the best story possible.
— Thomas Aguilar, Screenwriter

Synoptic Media:  How many scripts have you written? 

Tom & Mike: We write everything together. We’ve written four drama pilots and nine feature film specs. And some other specs/pilots that haven’t escaped Final Draft, for good reason!

Synoptic Media: Have you had any scripts produced?

Tom & Mike: Nothing produced yet, but we have a script, “Skateland” at Imagine Entertainment. We also got a feature, “The Golden Gate,” based on the designing and building of the landmark, which placed in quarterfinals at Nicholl.

Synoptic Media:  Do you have representation?

Tom & Mike: Yes, we’re repped by Mike Goldberg and Kyle Loftus at APA. They're great agents! They give amazing feedback and guidance, plus they're really exceptional at what they do. 

Excerpt from the teleplay "Alternative Medicine"

Synoptic Media: What kinds of doors have contests like TrackingB’s opened for you?

Tom & Mike: TrackingB has opened doors in many ways including: getting great people to read our material, helping us out there in the world as writers, and helping secure some great meetings. The site’s founder introduced us to our agents and really helped us navigate this crazy time. 

Synoptic Media: What do each of you do to support your writing habits?  

Tom: I think working in the business is a great form of exposure and experience. I started my career in TV working at Sony Television. Afterwards, I then went on to work in Features at Imagine Entertainment, which was a true building block in my career. I currently work for Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz at “Once Upon A Time,” which has been a phenomenal learning experience, plus they're really great guys. Working in this town equals long hours. Finding the balance between writing and working is always tough, but you gotta make the time. Having a robust social life isn't easy and my weekends are basically non-existent. 

Mike: I read and did coverage on a ton of scripts as a development intern at places like New Line Cinema and Fox. I've also PA'd at a number of production companies, but for the past two years I’ve been teaching and writing. The schedule helps with writing every single day. Also, it allows us to stack projects and keep churning out work in a productive manner. It's hard to break into this industry as one person, but we figured out a way that works great for both of us. Honestly, we feel lucky because we’re a team with individual strengths that we utilize. 

A Conversation with Lit Manager Steve Mayes

As a literary manager Steve Mayes spends his time discovering new writers and shepherding their careers. After a project he and a friend wrote and were developing fell through, Mayes was recruited to help launch the literary department at Credence Entertainment, a boutique production and management company in Los Angeles. I met him at a Film Independent networking event a few years back and took note of his energy and enthusiasm for discovering talent. I recently talked to Mayes about being a manager, the benefits of failure, and why screenwriting is like online dating. This is a condensed version of our recent conversation over lunch at the Four ‘n 20 restaurant in Studio City.

Synoptic Media: Can you describe a typical day as a lit manager?

Steve Mayes: A typical day is really atypical. I’ll put it that way. A lot of it is just staying in touch with your clients and catering to their needs. I wish I could say, this is what every client likes. There are some clients who don’t want to hear from you all the time. Other writers love to talk. They got to talk it out. I really relish that. The industry has its own rhythm. You make phone calls during the day and you’re probably not going to get return phone calls until later. There’s a lot of waiting. Reading is a big part of the job. I read a lot of scripts. As a script reader you have to read every page, right?

If someone’s paying me to, yes.

For me it’s a lot easier because I can just read the first 20 pages and be like, ugh. But in your experience is there a certain page count where it’s either grabbed you or not?

It depends on the genre. I think there are different expectations for it. If I’m reading something that’s billed as an action script I better start seeing some action. The script needs to show that it’s meeting the expectation of the genre. If it’s a character drama then I give that one a little more room, because maybe it’s a slower build. Or, where is it going? Sometimes I’ll write a note for myself such as, “page 30: where is this going?”

I do that. But I’m not a big proponent of over-structuring your script where you can read a script and realize this person had Syd Field’s book. But I think it’s a guide or a road map. When I read a script and the structure is all over the place, or the inciting incident hasn’t happened in the first ten pages, I am inclined to throw it out. That’s your most basic thing. How are you going to suck us in to your world? I should know where I’m at and why I’m watching this movie in the first five pages. Every great movie has a great inciting incident that either introduces the story over all, the plot, or the characters. If it’s an inciting incident that introduces the character dynamically it’s a stronger opening. “The Raiders of the Lost Arc” does that. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is another good example.

How many scripts do you read on average?

It’s tapered. I used to be really voracious. I’d read anything. I was really hungry for it. Now I’m a little pickier. So, a couple a day. I’m usually not reading the whole thing unless it’s really impressing me.

Literary Manager Steve Mayes

How much of your time is spent fostering existing clients versus trying to find new clients?

It depends. I have to be more selective about who I rep because I don’t want to be that guy who has 20 clients and I only talk to five of them and they don’t hear from me for a year. What’s the point of that? I work more on referrals at this point, unless I’m blown away by a cold submission. We found that our niche was comedy. I had always come from a comic perspective. LA has a really good sketch community. You have so many talented people. It’s attracting a lot of people out here, too. So you have this really active, vibrant sketch community of talented writers and performers. That’s an easy way for us, as a smaller fish, to go into. Let’s work with the people who are really committed to writing and always working. But also, they can see through the bullshit. I’ve learned this working with writers. Comedic writers, especially in the sketch community, they’re a little bit more hardened, a little bit more street-smart, whereas feature writers who are sitting in a room by themselves writing their next masterpiece, they romanticize the idea of screenwriting. Sketch writers know failure is going to happen all the time. They face it every day, so it’s not crippling. With the sketch community people you know this is in their DNA and they don’t need the reward mechanism of “I’m going to sell a spec and get my deal with Warner.” They want to write because they have something funny to say and they just got to get it out there. And those are the people I want to be in business with.

Do you go to performances?

I’ll get a lot of referrals from friends and clients who will say, “this is a really good group… you got to check them out.” But sometimes it’s just… let me see what the new acts are because you never know. You’ll see a lot of the same faces and a lot of the same acts but you’ll always see something new. You never know.

Do you think there are misconceptions among new writers about the role of a manager?

I’m looking for the writer behind the project, not necessarily the project itself.
— Steve Mayes, Literary Manager

Yes. There are a lot of misconceptions about management in general in the entertainment industry. Basically the agents are the shark that wants to get the best deal for you. We’ll help you write the script; they’re going to help you sell the script. We’re going to try to put you in meetings with people we think could try to sell your script or buy your script. We’re not legally allowed to negotiate. We can get you to a certain point, but then you’re going to need an agent. I think it’s a little bit more advantageous for new writers to seek managers rather than agents. In starting out, agents are there to see what’s going to sell, because their job is dependent on making those deals. Unless you’re with a nice, small agency with a solid literary department willing to foster you as a developmental client, they’re not going to take chances, they’re not going to take the time. What do you have that I can sell right now? Whereas if you find the right manager, especially at a smaller shop, there’s an expectation that you’re supposed to see the talent, not just the project. I’m looking for the writer behind the project, not necessarily the project itself. If one of these young writers has a project that’s getting a lot of attention and is getting them in rooms, yeah, then go to agents. But if you’re starting out, a manager should be your first step.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I’d say it’s second guessing myself.  I have to really dig it. I have to really, really be committed to it. When I really like something, I have to think, do I like this for the right reasons? I could like a certain character and my first instinct is to sign the writer, but am I ignoring the overall deficiencies of the script? I always ask for another sample. If you get in a room with a producer or network executive, they’re going to ask you, “What are you working on?” or “What else do you have?” and if you have one script and that’s it, that’s your one shot and you’re done. That’s not impressive. It would be awkward. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t slave over one script and hope that’s your magic bullet that’s going to get you in the door and get you representation. That also helps you desensitize. You’re going to be really defensive about that script if that’s the only thing you have. If you have five or script six scripts and they don’t like one, that’s fine, because here’s another script you have. I always ask for a follow up sample. As far as really loving a script, I have to be careful. You can have a dynamic opening ten pages and then it just goes to shit. You had me and then you lost me! Someone could have a really good first five pages and then they ran out of ideas.

Do you think that writers have the wrong idea about how a lot of the business works, with trying to get representation or trying to get their script into the hands of a producer?

There are definitely a lot of misconceptions. I think writers fetishize getting an agent or a manager and they almost imagine that once you have that it’s some sort of master key or skeleton key to the industry.  A lot of people use that as their goal as writers, to get representation and everything will fall into place afterwards. I’ve had that experience with clients where I am basically lugging their career, single-handedly, down the road. Once you line up representation that just makes your job harder because I’m going to be on your ass… I need new stuff! I need something new!

Do you think writers get an idea that if they’ve written a couple of scripts about, let’s say, being a millennial trying to find a job, that they’re going to just be able to keep writing stories about millennials trying to get jobs? Do you think they don’t understand that if they’re going to be up for a writing assignment, the writing assignment is going to be something else?

Exactly. If a writer has written two scripts very similar to each other in tone and genre I start to wonder. It gives me pause. How limited are they? One key aspect of a really talented writer is understanding humanity and how people act within certain situations. It adds more authenticity to your writing. A lot of people will write whatever voices are in their head, which is fine, but you have to filter that through humanity. You have to have a good read of people in general to write an effective character. That’s why I love sketch comedians because they are in touch with humanity every day. To actually appeal and resonate on a comedic level with people, you are touching them on the most basic human level. If you can make someone laugh, that’s an unbelievable shared experience.

When you’re reading a submission and you look at the cover page and it says St. Louis or Philadelphia does that factor into whether you’re going to pursue them as a client?

Logistically speaking, if I get them meetings will they show up? If they are willing to come out to LA for some meetings, I can get them a couple of meetings in a set window of time. To limit myself by region, I think I’d be doing a disservice to myself. Not every talented screenwriter is going to live in LA.

Do you have any general advice for writers?

Just try to find your own voice. Stay authentic to what you want to write. Unless you know where your strengths are, you’re not really going to make any committed decisions in your writing and I think that’s what reflects in any script that I read, is that someone made a really strong choice that was authentic to them and that’s what resonates and just leaps off the page. New writers, even if they’re just out of college or it’s a hobby, try to find a community where you can have an outlet. Get into a writers group where you are exercising that creative muscle and also desensitizing yourself to criticism. Thicker skin…they’ve got to have thicker shin or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

It’s such a personal thing. It’s so hard to divorce yourself of the idea that your script is an extension of you.

At least you know they’re putting a lot of themselves into the script. It’s almost like online dating. You’re putting your profile out to the world and you hope it’s good enough but sometimes it’s just not. You have to roll with the punches.

Are there common mistakes you see in writing?

I would say, don’t write anything autobiographical unless you are a famous politician.

With a sex scandal.

Right. When people say, “write what you know,” people think that means they can only write about things they’ve experienced. It gets lazy. You’re not allowing your imagination to operate outside of your experience. You should always be learning new stuff, about the human condition, about society around you, so everything you learn becomes what you know. That’s how you come up with fresh ideas. Always be learning about the world, about you, about other people. That will positively influence your writing. It can only help your writing. It can never hinder it.

The Deceptive Simplicity of "The Shallows"

It’s easy to dismiss movies like “The Shallows” as being simple. A girl is marooned on a rock after being attacked by a shark. Let’s admit what we’re all thinking: I could write that. But there’s deception in its simplicity. There’s more to the plot than a vengeful shark attacking and there’s more to the protagonist than a pretty girl in a tiny bikini. Dare I say it, but “The Shallows” is kind of deep, if you’re willing to look beyond the surface.

Blake Lively in "The Shallows." Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony.

In "The Shallows," written by Anthony Jaswinski and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Blake Lively plays an impossibly tanned and toned surfer and medical school dropout grieving her mother who lost a vigorous battle to cancer. We know who she is and why she’s at that particular surf spot. After an overly-long surfing montage the plot gets down to business. Without giving away any more than the reviews or the marketing, the shark attacks Lively’s surfer and then continues to prey on her and her bleeding, discolored leg. The plot develops a nice rhythm as it presents problems, then solutions, then new problems for the increasingly weakened and desperate woman. (See also “All is Lost” for a great example of a movie that capitalizes on that plot rhythm.)

The shark isn’t just a shark here. The man-versus-animal stories never are. The shark represents all of the things that trap us and leave us cowering in the corner. It’s the boogeyman in the closet. It’s our fears. It’s our weaknesses. It’s the cancer that relentlessly attacked her mother. It can’t merely be survived—it must be destroyed. That symbolism helps creates an important turning point in the story where the table gets turned (or in this case, a buoy) and where the hunted becomes the hunter. "The Shallows" isn’t perfect (I could spend three more blog posts detailing its faults), but in its imperfection it reminds us that its strong female protagonist is more than just another pretty girl in a tiny bikini and a vengeful shark is more than just a vengeful shark.

The Protagonist is Pretty, But...

ROSS PUTMAN (early 30s), handsome and tall, with broad shoulders and sandy blonde hair, walks into a busy coffee shop in Los Angeles. That is one way Ross Putman could be introduced as a character in a screenplay, but one that isn’t very helpful in understanding who he is. And that’s part of the point behind the real Ross Putman’s now globally-recognized Twitter feed.  After reading hundreds of scripts in which female characters were introduced using words like “sexy,” or “beautiful,” or “gorgeous but smart,” Putman, a film producer, started posting those female character introductions on the Twitter feed @femscriptintros. The introductions reveal the misogyny, both overt and not-so-overt, behind how writers often see their female characters. While they may sound flattering, they don’t reveal anything about the characters beyond what they look like. Putman’s Twitter feed has drawn interest from media ranging from NPR to Vogue. I’ve known Putman since we shared an office (supply closet) in a building at Hollywood and Vine, so I was able to snag some of the busy producer’s time to discuss misogyny, lazy writing, and what he wishes screenwriting instructors would stop telling their students. This is a condensed version of our conversation over bagels and coffee cake at Stories in Echo Park.

Synoptic Media: The first character introduction you posted on Twitter had four physical descriptors: “athletic,” “sexy,” “natural beauty,” and “she makes her jeans look good.”

Ross Putman: Jeans. That’s where we focus… jeans.

I noticed in a lot of the introductions there is some common language used: beautiful, attractive, knockout, sexy, pretty, and gorgeous—all very subjective interpretations of people’s attributes.

Nothing but subjective, yes.

What was the impetus for exposing this?

I have been complaining on Facebook about scripts for a long time, and not just the way women are treated but bad screenwriting tropes or clichés or bad typos. I was getting funny feedback from my friends in the film business. It was funny for a while.  And then one of the things I started noticing was just how terrible women were being treated and it went from being funny to being awful. The more I saw it, the more I started to feel that these weren’t outliers. Certainly there are some that are absolutely pornographic but others that are more insidiously subtle, in that women are almost first and foremost described by their beauty, which is subjective and useless to a casting director, by the way. It’s very gross when you think about it. It’s not to say that men aren’t described physically sometimes. But most of these writers are men. Women are an object of desire, an object of beauty. I kept track of them for a few months in a document on my computer and it started to be pretty startling, just how many similarities there were. “She’s a natural beauty.” I posted a ton of those. Everybody uses these same phrases. But they don’t really tell you anything about that character and they certainly don’t help you get into the mindset of the character. It’s a little troubling. And, it was part of a larger conversation that was happening about equality of pay for women in front of and behind the camera.

My favorite is the use of the word “but.” “She’s ___ but ___.”

“Beautiful but tired.”

“She’s smart but—“

 “—but beautiful.”

Can this exist in the world? Can somebody be smart and something else? Or can they only be smart? They make no other impression?

More often smart is the second one. Beautiful but smart. The assumption is that if you’re calling them “beautiful” they’re dumb? Is that what you’re saying? First of all, “smart” is also a very vague term. A lot of this is, and I hate to say it, just bad writing. And I know that’s what you’re talking about here. But there’s casual misogyny to a lot of what we’re talking about. But in addition to that it’s lazy writing. It’s not effective writing. It’s not doing anything for you as a writer to describe someone as “beautiful but smart.” How do you really quantify those things? What, they read books? What does that mean? It’s hard to even describe what “smart” means. Here’s the thing, if you’re telling me they’re a microbiologist I’m probably assuming they’re intelligent anyways. There’s ways to communicate all of these things. I even like more impressionistic things that give you an idea of their personality. I even like offbeat descriptions that aren’t just one-word adjectives. Have more fun with it. Get into the essence of this person. What’s a really interesting way to describe them? Think of the description of your character as having their own logline.

When I read a character description with hair color or dress color I think that these must be critical to the story. It must be important that this character is wearing a yellow sweater or that this character has a certain color hair. I’m taking note of those details because I think they’re going to be relevant, and then I wait for it but it doesn’t materialize.

The difficult thing for writers is that they have an image in their head of these characters because they’ve spent a long time developing the script so they want to put it there on the page. They want to say that she’s wearing a flowing floor-length dress or something because that’s how they would imagine the character would dress but unfortunately that’s not your job and if you did your job properly of creating the character in terms of the essence of this person the costume designer is probably going to say that this character should be wearing a flowing floor-length dress anyways. Why are we even fixating on these details? What is important? The age range of the character, usually, though we break those rules all the time. How they fit in this world and how they see the world is the more important thing about this person. Film is all about point of view. Tension is about conflicting points of view, conflicting goals and ambitions. So that’s what the film is about, it’s about people that want things going up against people who want other things, so what does that have to do with what color your hair is?

Ross Putman, the producer behind the Twitter feed @femscriptintros

I think a lot of screenwriting instructors, or people who write screenwriting books, sometimes say to “write the movie that you see in your head.” I think that’s well-intentioned advice but writers take that too literally and they start describing the color of the walls.

Never doubt that someone will take something too literally. The thing that I wish screenwriting instructors would stop telling people is, “write what you know,” because people don’t understand what that means. They think that means “write my life.” And yes, you know your life. But what that means is take the emotions and feelings and themes from your life and put them into a more entertaining story. I don’t want to read about you and your friends hanging out in LA. Sorry. “Write what you know” and “write the movie you see in your head” – these are abstract concepts but people take them literally. It’s all well and good if you see the character in your head looking a certain way but that’s just helping you write the story because you’re seeing it. But what is this person like? How do they behave? Those are the important things. And that’s what a good script does: it gives you a really clear picture of who the character is.  A script gives me their voice. Voice is not just dialogue. Voice is things that are unsaid. Voice is how they relate to other people. Voice is how they change who they are. That’s what important to me, because that’s also what’s going to be important to an actor.

Are you surprised at how the subject matter of character introductions in screenplays has resonated with people so far out of the industry?

I never thought I’d have to think about the existential consequences of this but I did. I think it’s part of a larger narrative that’s going on about lack of representation for women and people of color in the film business. It continues to be a bigger conversation and people latched on to it. I also think people like insider stuff. I purposely put my name on it opposed to doing it anonymously. I felt like this won’t make an impact if I don’t put my name on it. I certainly had some anxiety that people were going to get mad at me about it—agents and managers—but honestly the response was overwhelmingly positive from inside the business. The fact that it went somewhat viral inside the film industry means that everyone will hopefully have this in the back of their head when they’re looking at scripts and they won’t think that it’s okay to send something out like this. It’s a mix of amateur and professional scripts. And I purposely didn’t say who the writers are because that’s not the point. It’s about systemic, not individual problems. The fact that you could think it’s okay to widely disseminate a script that treats women so terribly speaks to the male dominance of the industry. If there were more female directors, then this shit wouldn’t fly. If I can get people to start thinking about that a little more, then the feed has done something. Look, I love writers. I love writing. I come from a writing background. I fall in love with writers. Every one of my projects I’m doing is because I fell in love with the writing first. Me doing this was a combination of outrage over how women are being treated, which is a bigger conversation and also just because I’m tired of shitty writing. We can all do better.

One thing that bugs me, specifically, is when writers are trying to convey that a character is smart, they have them wear glasses.

Well, duh. Literally all of my friends wear glasses. I’m the only person who doesn’t.

I didn’t realize there was a correlation between nearsightedness and intelligence.

It’s lazy. It’s treading in stereotypes. It’s dealing in easy signifiers. At the end of the day, subverting stereotypes and dealing in more complex characters is the joy of storytelling. Why are we just saying they wear glasses? Get out of here. Everybody wears glasses.

She must be serious because she wears glasses, opposed to everyone who doesn’t wear glasses. They’re not serious.

I have 20/20 vision.

Sorry Ross, you’re never going to be smart in the world of a screenplay because you don’t wear glasses.

That’s a shame.

You know what though? When we write your character description we’ll add some in.

Cool.

The Interview: ScreenCraft Winner Lynn Esta Goldman

Whether it’s a newspaper article, a workplace incident, or a personal relationship experience, there is no better place to mine stories and characters than from the world around us. For screenwriter Lynn Esta Goldman, winner of ScreenCraft’s Family Friendly Screenplay Contest, it was a particular television image from a real-life disaster. "Buddy, A Dog of New Orleans" is about a young boy separated from his loyal dog during the tragic flooding that ravaged the city during Hurricane Katrina. The story is told from alternate points of view: the lost Buddy, the distraught boy, and the determined woman who becomes instrumental in their tearful reunion. I interviewed the San Francisco-based Goldman via email about re-writing "Buddy," late-night writing, and the best source for great dialogue.

Synoptic Media: How did you get started as a writer?

Goldman: I was initially a painter who wrote short stories and loved films. My paintings were becoming so narrative that an artist friend joked I was writing movies. It was like a light bulb switching on. I went to my local library and read the only screenplay they had – “Dances with Wolves.” And that was the beginning.

After reading your first screenplay, what else did you do to learn the craft?

I read every book on screenwriting and screenwriting format I could get my hands on (Seger, McKee, et al.).  I also downloaded and read PDFs of screenplays from produced films.  (This is something I still do.) For the past few years I have been a member of The Left Door, a private online workshop for serious screenwriters.

How did you come up with the idea for "Buddy, A Dog of New Orleans?"

Like most Americans, I watched the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV and was horrified at the sight of people stranded on rooftops and bridges for days, waiting to be rescued. On top of the human suffering –the loss of life, home and community – the victims of Katrina were also forced to abandon their pets because the shelters didn’t allow them. The video image of a bewildered and frantic dog, running back and forth across a flooded roof top, burned itself into my brain. As the years went by, I kept coming back to that image, wondering what had happened to that dog, to that dog’s human family, wanting to believe that there was a happy ending. Finally, six years (and much research) later, I decided to imagine what happened and write that happy ending.  

The dialogue, specifically the characters’ vernacular, helps the characters come to life on the page. How did you go about trying to capture that?

I don’t really “think” about dialogue. I do put a great deal of thought into my characters, even the minor ones – who they are, what their lives are like, what they are experiencing internally and externally in every scene – and once I know who my characters are, then what comes out of their mouths should ring true. Writing dialogue, too, is about listening closely to the world around you. I’ve lived in the South and the West, I’ve traveled abroad, and I live now in a multicultural, urban area. I take public transportation. I walk. I encounter amazing characters on a daily basis and I try to soak up everything I hear and see.  All of that finds its way into dialogue.

Screenwriter Lynn Esta Goldman

Did you win or place in other contests with "Buddy?"

I wrote "Buddy, A Dog of New Orleans" in 2011 and entered the initial draft into the PAGE, where it won a Silver Prize. I continued to work on the script. In 2014, I entered a newer draft into the Nicholl and it advanced to the Semifinals. Last spring I did another polish on the script and submitted it to the NYWIFT Writers Lab, where it made the Finals. And late last year I sent the script into ScreenCraft, and happily, it won the Grand Prize.

After that success, what made you keep working on the script?

Whenever I read through a screenplay that I’ve written, regardless of how finished I think is, I see places where it can be improved. Maybe enhancing a character, or adding or eliminating a scene. After finishing a screenplay, I try to put it away for a few months. Returning to it with fresh eyes always surprises me. With "Buddy," I not only polished and tightened it on the re-writes, but I actually added two more short scenes to the third act.

Do you have a particular writing process or routine?

I don’t have a regimented routine. I’m a night person, and my most productive time is very late at night when the world around me is quiet and sleeping. I wait until I can close my eyes and roll the entire film in my head before writing the actual script. Of course things change -- sometimes drastically -- as I write and new ideas occur to me. But I start out with a clear idea of the story I want to tell.

What’s next on your writing agenda?

This year I had a creative spurt and started work on three new screenplays, a dramedy, a sci-fi drama, and an espionage thriller. I’ve finished two and I’m working madly to finish the third. Then comes the hard work of re-writing and polishing.

New Service: The Contest Prep Report

I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of screenwriting contest entries. I’ve read every genre and genre mashup you can think of, with original ideas and not-so-original ideas, linear plots and non-linear plots, male POVs and female POVs, happy endings and twist endings. You name it, I’ve read it. But the one thing many of them have in common is they were not ready to compete. Many entries lack even the basic qualifications needed to advance to the next round of competition.

This is why I’ve started a new service for writers called the Contest Prep Report. I will evaluate your script based on 15 different criteria I’ve developed, provide written feedback including tips and suggestions, and a list of top action items to help get your script in shape and ready to compete and to get "past the Reader."

Check out the particulars of the Contest Prep Report here, and feel free to contact me with any questions.

The Interview: Cinequest Winner Jeremy Rush

Jeremy Rush had an idea for a script simmering in his head for a few years. After working through his protagonist’s relatable inner struggles the idea became “Wheelman,” a feature-length script about a getaway car driver with a lot on his plate, including colleagues with questionable motives and a turbulent home life. The action-thriller recently won this year’s Cinequest Film Festival Screenplay Competition. I interviewed the Los Angeles-based Rush via email about his contest strategy, learning the craft, and car chases.

Synoptic Media:  How many script have you written? And, are they all feature-length scripts?

Jeremy Rush: I've written 7 completed feature screenplays, including “Wheelman,” two adaptations for novels I've optioned, as well as an original screenplay co-written with Steven Shibuya (who co-wrote “Sucker Punch” with Zack Snyder.) And I have a dozen treatments and outlines, including two one-hour television series ideas. I keep a spreadsheet of my screenplay ideas, with fields rating from 1-10 the level of my development for that idea, my interest in the idea, and projected commercial viability, as well as a working title, a logline, and a synopsis with notes and references/research. Right now that spreadsheet has 30 or 31 ideas. I hate forgetting ideas.

A spreadsheet sounds like a very Type A tool for a writer to employ. It’s like you’ve created your own little movie database! 

Excerpt from Jeremy Rush's screenplay "Wheelman"

Ha! You may be right. Early on in my endeavor to write I was very disorganized. I didn't really outline, plan rewrites, etc. I just jumped in and indulged in writing. About three years ago I decided I wanted to take writing really seriously in an effort to see if I could get better at it. Part of this effort was getting organized.

To how many contests did you submit the script “Wheelman?”   

I submitted “Wheelman” to four or five festivals and contests. Submitting to screenwriting competitions is a valuable part of my writing process. I have 6 or 8 competitions and festivals that I submit to for different purposes: #1, I have a schedule of contest deadlines and it forces me to complete drafts and submit throughout the year, #2 I submit to the contests that I've found provide the highest quality reader/judges feedback, which is invaluable for rewriting and charting progress, and #3, I submit to the contests that matter to the industry, so if one were to place in one of the top contests then some exposure and opportunities can follow. For instance, Wheelman placed as a "Top 50" semifinalist in Nicholl, and after the Nicholl notification email went out to the industry I received some interest from producers and representation. However, submitting with hopes to place or win is a very small part of the point, deadlines, and feedback are most important, for me.

You have experience directing and producing. How have those experiences affected your writing?  

Screenwriter Jeremy Rush. Photograph by Alex O. Gaynor

You've hit on the reason I started writing. Very early in my career, when I was just starting out, I had written and directed my first short film. This was IT for me: directing. The reason I moved to LA was to direct films. I was fortunate enough to speak with Joel Coen early on. I told him "I want to direct. What do I need to do to get into directing?" And he said, "If you want to direct, learn to write." So I started writing with the intention to get as good at writing as I could in order to direct. 

Do you have a so-called day job to support your creative endeavors (and your contest entry fees)?

I work freelance in production and post-production, generally trying to take lower responsibility roles so that when I wrap I can clock out, go home, and write. Contest entry fees get expensive if you submit to too many contests and without a plan. I used to submit to every contest and festival every time I finished a new draft. A "shotgun" approach—expensive and fruitless. Now I only submit to the six or so contests that I've found offer solid feedback that help me rewrite. 

How did you learn the craft?   

Reading. A few screenwriting books, but mostly articles, blogs, interviews, etc. And reading every screenplay I can find. Reading scripts is #1. And then, of course, writing a lot. The Scriptnotes podcast is also a regular staple in my weekly screenwriting diet. But, for me, 90% of learning craft, and staying current with it, comes from reading screenplays.

90% of learning craft, and staying current with it, comes from reading screenplays.
— Jeremy Rush, Screenwriter

Let’s talk about “Wheelman.” Your story’s protagonist is a getaway car driver in the middle of a job that is quickly spiraling out of control, putting himself and his family in danger. How did you come up with the idea?    

I love gritty car chase films from the ‘60s and ‘70s: “Bullitt,” “The French Connection,” “Duel,” “Taxi Driver”... I like tense action thrillers with car chases and shootouts. I have a passion for cars and performance driving. So these are things that are always on my mind. “Wheelman” really struck me as something I had to write once I came up with the character's struggle between his responsibilities as a father and his compulsion for getaway driving. I think it's a struggle we all have to some extent: how to balance our role as a parent, with our need to maintain and indulge our independence, our former pre-parent life, or our career, or an addiction, etc. Wheelman's struggle is like a gunslinger. The gun is an extension of the man—for the Wheelman "the car" is part of him. It's who he is. It's what he's best at. It's why he matters. And it what will destroy him. His question becomes: can he "lay the gun down," can he stop driving on these dangerous high risk jobs? Can he walk away from "who he is" for his family? These feel like important and pretty universal questions, a very cool character struggle, that happens to be hidden inside of an action thriller. 

Excerpt from Jeremy Rush's screenplay "Wheelman"

You mentioned using competition deadlines as part of your process. When you sit down to write, do you have a particular routine or process that works for you?

A process is exactly what I've been trying to develop for myself over the last few years. Probably like most writers, my daily routine mostly consists of trying to stay off the internet…and mostly failing. In thinking about wanting to do screenwriting as a profession, I know that I must have a repeatable process that I can superimpose over any writing project. Sitting down to write is about 50% of the overall process, for me. Getting the seed of an idea, and consciously noodling on it and keeping it present in my mind, usually while finishing or working on other stuff, is where my ideas start, and simmer into more developed ideas. “Wheelman,” as an abstract idea for a script, is something that was simmering in my head for a few years. Then the parts reveal themselves and the abstraction becomes a more fully formed idea ready to be explored in a more formal way.

I usually start with fairly disorganized notes and random ideas, notions for scenes or cool moments I want to have, character details, lines of dialogue, etc. all in a bullet point Word document. I usually start this list of random ideas and notes for a project as soon as the notion of the script occurs to me. So I may add random notes, intermittently, for years as the ideas simmers and develops. I often end up with a document that's 10 to 20 pages (and a couple times a 70 pager!).

Once I complete a first draft I do a polish and incorporate any notes or ideas I've had, rewrite remnants of old versions of the ideas out of it and update with the newest ideas. I have five or six colleagues who give fantastic notes, and who all have a different focus: some are plot hole detectives, some are character people, and some formatting and general editing proofreaders. I generally space out the feedback between rewrites and try to maximize each person's read and feedback. The contest submissions fit into this schedule as well, depending on the time of year and what festivals are accepting. 

The Interview: Cinequest Winner Rona Mark

Rona Mark’s resume is impressive. She earned an MFA in Filmmaking from Columbia University. She’s successfully navigated the festival circuit as a writer-director of features and shorts. And, she teaches screenwriting at Sarah Lawrence College. While Mark has about twenty features under her belt, it had been about a decade since she wrote her first teleplay. She returned to that format with the script “Brooklyn Bus.” It recently won the Cinequest Film Festival’s 60-Minute Teleplay contest, which I had the privilege of helping to judge again this year.

The story is set inside the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. The protagonist, Sam, who works for a volunteer ambulance service, has recently converted and finds himself with a foot in two worlds. I interviewed the Queens-based Mark via email about the idea for “Brooklyn Bus,” the advice she gives her screenwriting students, and getting her house in order.

Excerpt from Rona Mark's teleplay "Brooklyn Bus"

Synoptic Media: After such a long break from teleplays, what made you return to that format?

Rona Mark: I think the idea came to me as a TV idea, somehow. I have been watching a lot of TV series lately, and I like the fact that you can get deep into character in television. The germ for "Brooklyn Bus" came to me out of a character I met when I was doing my BA in Jerusalem. My roommate's hashish dealer was a Hasidic guy. So I asked him about it, how does a Hasidic guy become a drug dealer, and he told me that actually, he was a drug dealer that became a Hasidic guy. The Hasidim were trying to help him out of his drug habit and lifestyle, as religious people do. He was trying to lead a righteous life, but he wasn't really equipped to do anything else. The conflict seemed big enough to sustain an entire TV series.

To how many contests did you submit the script “Brooklyn Bus?”

Writer-Director Rona Mark

I think I submitted to the Final Draft competition and Cinequest. Because I'm not as confident writing in television format, I thought I'd enter a competition to get some feedback. I've been writing for a while, but I had not entered a screenwriting competition in several years. I usually enter these things (contests) impulsively and then instantly try to forget about them. Once I enter a competition or a festival, and the decision is out of my hands, I try and move on; start the next project.

Some of your classes cover specific topics such as structure and rewriting. When it comes to teaching screenwriting, what are some of the hardest lessons for students to learn?

My classes are generally full of first time screenwriters, so "show, don't tell" is still the toughest thing for many of them to grasp. Finding the behavior that dramatizes whatever the characters are going through is a skill that one masters over a lifetime, I think. Whenever a character starts explaining backstory or plot or motive, I usually interject with, "No explaining". Most of the problems I encounter structurally seem to come from not really committing to a clear, simple throughline for the film. For that reason, I find that making students work on a logline before they start writing is helpful. If a writer can distill the story into a concise logline or elevator pitch, then she knows what the film is really about.  

Whenever a character starts explaining backstory or plot or motive, I usually interject with, ‘No explaining’.
— Writer-Director Rona Mark, on evaluating her students' screenplays

You’ve written and directed several features and shorts. What lessons have you learned from the filmmaking process that inform how your own writing?

I learned that if I have an inkling that something could be cut in the script, I will end up cutting it in the editing room. So I try and edit down my screenplays ruthlessly before going into production. Screening a film with an audience is invaluable, in that you can literally feel a joke fail, or feel air get sucked out the room by a scene that lingers too long. I've also learned that producers will ALWAYS give you notes, usually wanting things that are implicit made explicit, and those explanations usually end up on the cutting room floor. Similarly, working with actors teaches you to hone the drama in a scene and trim the fat. Actors tend to get lost when the writing doesn't make sense, or when the dramatic juice of a scene is used up. Generally speaking, making films has made my writing more concise. I hope I've become a better editor of my own writing.

An excerpt from Rona Mark's teleplay "Brooklyn Bus"

Do you have a particular writing process or routine? 

I'm a person who likes to set deadlines for myself. I don't write every day but I do schedule my writing. I know I need long chunks of uninterrupted time to hammer out a first draft of anything. I let my husband know in advance that I plan to take x amount of days to write and then I kind of turn into Jack Nicholson in The Shining: "Wendy, let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you're breaking my concentration. You're distracting me. And it will then take me time to get back to where I was. You understand?" When I write I find it hard to do much of anything else, so I try and get my house in order first. I need a clean house before I can sit down and write. I can't have disorder or I can't think straight about my story. I also do my best work in the morning, so I try and write new stuff in the morning, then I like to print out my work and go over it with a red pen in the afternoon. I don't usually sit down to write until a story has been pretty well gestated in my head for a while. I usually know the main characters pretty well, the act breaks, the general idea for the resolution, and the midpoint at least, before I start.

The Interview: Cinequest Winner Rowan Meyer

The Cinequest Film Festival in Silicon Valley recently announced the winners of their screenwriting contests. I was privileged to serve again as a judge for the competitions. The winner of the 30-minute Teleplay category is “Patient” written by Rowan Meyer. “Patient” is about an actor who poses as a patient in a teaching hospital (it’s a real job). I interviewed the New York-based Meyer via email about where he got the idea for his winning script, how he tackled tone, and day jobs.

Synoptic Media: How many scripts have you written?

Meyer: I've written six episodes so far for my series "Patient", and a spec script for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine". I also have a bajillion sketches, a couple plays, and am working on a feature.

To how many contests did you submit this script?

I think about 8 or 9. Cinequest was the first, though. I'm waiting to hear back from the others which have summer notification dates, but I did recently find out that I'm a quarter-finalist for the ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship.

Writer/Actor Meyer in action. Photo courtesy of Tim Liu.

How did you get started writing?

I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I didn't have money as a young kid to buy Christmas presents for my family so I would write stories on computer paper and bind them into a sort of book. It was cute at first, but now they still expect it, even in my 30s. The holidays are a busy writing time for me.

Your script is about an actor, Adrian, who poses as a patient at a teaching hospital—something called a Standardized Patient. How did you get the idea?

I graduated from Rutgers with a MFA in Acting, moved to New York, and started looking for a survival job. I am, however, the world's worst waiter, so wanted to find something more creative. A friend told me about an ongoing gig he had as a standardized patient, someone who pretends to take on illnesses to help train med students and new doctors. It sounded perfect. I was both a trained actor and had a degree in biology. How could I be any more qualified, thought I? Well, all the hospitals with SP programs that I applied to thought otherwise because I couldn't even get an interview. In the end I threw up my hands and said, "Fine! I'll just write it for myself, then! That'll show 'em!"

Excerpt from Meyer's script "Patient."

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Two days. Or, nights, rather. I do my best writing around 1:00 am.

What else is involved in your writing routine?

Can I let you know when I find a routine? I'd like to say it involves a steaming cup of Earl Gray and sitting at my reclaimed cherry wood desk for three hours a day... but usually it involves me sending a dozen emails to myself about lines or plot points I want to remember while waiting for the train or in line at Trader Joe's. Truly sitting down with the express intention to write is very difficult for me.

How did you learn the craft of screenwriting?

My only 'training' has simply been watching huge amounts of TV and film. Like digital osmosis. I've never taken a class, though I would like to this year. I did recently read "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder which has some pretty good advice on structure. It's a bit formulaic, but it's probably a good idea to at least learn the formula before deviating from it. In terms of formatting a script, I just picked it up from reading audition sides and Googling the rest. I'm no doubt breaking at least a dozen rules with every teleplay I write.

...my favorite comedies always have some measure of darkness or underlying tragedy in them.
— Rowan Meyer, Writer/Actor

Your script is an interesting mix of drama and comedy. There's a scene in which the protagonist, playing a hospital patient, uses stage blood to make it look like he’s bleeding from his eyes. There's a scene in which he talks dirty to a vending machine. And there’s a scene in which he sings to an Alzheimer’s patient. How did you tackle tone?

I think "Patient" at its heart is a comedy, but my favorite comedies always have some measure of darkness or underlying tragedy in them. As any stand-up comedian will tell you, comedy comes from pain. Adrian, the protagonist, finds himself (and puts himself) in endless ridiculous situations which, incidentally, are a blast to write. But when you strip away the audience and force him into a vulnerable place, you see that the laughter is a mask for the ugly, complicated stuff underneath. That's just as interesting to me as, say, writing a botched three-way (spoiler: episode 3). 

Do you belong to a writers group or have friends who are fellow writers that you utilize for brainstorming or feedback?

I do know some top notch writers who - for some unknown reason - always let me send them my stuff. I'm very lucky in that regard. Writers groups are wonderful, but I find the idea of joining one to be intimidating. I should probably get over that.

Do you have a so-called day job that supports your creative pursuits? 

I've got two. One is a desk job, and I also get work through TaskRabbit, an app that outsources chores like furniture assembly and heavy lifting. I actually kind of enjoy doing that.

Tips for Writers: Doctors, Detectives, and other Titled Characters

Writers are always being told to “Write for the Reader.” It means writing the script in a way that helps the Reader follow it and understand it. The Writer has lived with their story and their characters for weeks, months, maybe even years. The Reader is coming in cold. In one sitting, Readers have to keep track of all the characters which is required to follow the plot and understand the story and oftentimes also write a synopsis of the script.

Most characters are going to be referenced, both in Action/Description and in Dialogue, by their first name:  Bill, Mary, Antonio, Jim, Karen, Julio, David, etc. Some scripts have dozens of named characters and by the eighth or ninth character they start to get harder and harder to keep straight. Depending on the type of story and genre, some characters will have titles: Doctor, Detective, Chief, Pastor, Professor, etc. Adding their title is a great way to differentiate them. I’m always surprised by the number of scripts I read in which a character is a doctor, a detective, a chief of some kind, or a pastor, and yet the script doesn’t refer to them as such.

Let's say your story has a detective or two, a chief, a deputy, maybe some officers.  You've got a character named Jim Sanderson and he's a detective. Referring to Jim Sanderson as Det. Sanderson in the Action/Description and Character names will make it that much easier for the Reader to distinguish Jim from the other characters. And that will make it that much easier for the Reader to follow the plot. That doesn't mean that characters have to refer to each other in the Dialogue by their titles, only if it's organic to the scene.

Action Item for Writers: Go through your script, find the doctors, professors, and detectives, and add their character titles to the Action/Description and Character names where applicable.

Spotlight on Spirit Awards

Image from "Carol" courtesy of The Weinstein Company

With the Spirit Award voting deadline this week, I spent the weekend (and Monday) marathoning independent films. Each year the nominations list exposes me to smaller films that managed to fly under my radar and that make me ask, “How did I not know about this film?” This year’s list was no different.

Sure, there’s “Carol,” “Spotlight,” and other higher-profile films with big stars and distributors that have devoted considerable resources to promoting them.  Even “Beasts of No Nation” got the full Netflix treatment. But then there are the others—the films with, by, and starring emerging talent—that Film Independent spotlights with its awards.

Image from "Bone Tomahawk" courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

Let’s look at the Best Screenplay category. That list includes Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for “Spotlight,” Charlie Kaufman for “Anomalisa,” and Phyllis Nagy for “Carol.” It also includes Donald Margulies for “End of the Tour,” and S. Craig Zahler for the western “Bone Tomahawk.” Admittedly, had it not been for the ballot, I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to “Bone Tomahawk.” (If you’re a Richard Jenkins fan it’s worth your time just for him. He’s also nominated for Best Supporting Male.)

That’s a tough category. But luckily Film Independent offers a Best First Screenplay category, as well. I knew about Jesse Andrews’ “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” because of the well-documented bidding of seven and eight-figure offers at Sundance. I had seen “Room,” written by Emma Donoghue, in a theater (and was devastated, in a good way). I had heard about “The Dairy of a Teenage Girl,” but just like with “Bone Tomahawk,” had it not been for the Spirit Awards ballot, I might not have gotten around to seeing it.

Image from "The Mend" courtesy of Cinelicious Pics

I was completely unfamiliar with "Mediterranea," written by Jonas Carpignano and also up for Best First Feature, and with “The Mend,” written by John Magary, with Story By credits for Russell Harbaugh and Myna Joseph. “The Mend” stars Josh Lucas as a ne’er do well who crashes at his brooding brother’s apartment while he and his live-in girlfriend are on vacation. The return of the brother, alone, creates an interesting dynamic in the apartment that is now also occupied by Lucas’ character’s on-and-off-again girlfriend and her son. It’s an interesting, thoughtful character study that deftly balances drama with humor.

Image from "James White" courtesy of The Film Arcade

Another film that was new to me is “James White,” up for Best First Feature with nominations for its lead, Christopher Abbott for Best Male Lead and for Cynthia Nixon for Best Supporting Female. Abbott’s White is a struggling 20-something trying to take care of his terminally ill mother, played by Nixon, while trying to find some focus and purpose in his life and while also grappling with the recent death of his estranged father. White is simultaneously trying to salvage his life while also self-sabotaging (and self-medicating). It’s tough subject matter, for sure. I was blown away by the performances. Nixon’s cancer patient is still haunting me, as is the way Abbott portrayed James' emotional spiral.

Another film with tough emotional subject matter is “Meadowland,” which landed Reed Morano a nomination for Best Cinematography. “Meadowland” stars Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson as parents whose young son disappears during a pit stop at a gas station.

"Meadowland" poster courtesy of Cinedigm

There are a few harrowing moments as they frantically race around, yelling out his name. The plot then skips ahead to about a year after his disappearance (presumed abduction) and focuses on how each parent deals with the tragedy and its unsolved nature.

Wilde’s character walks around in a fog until she begins to fixate on a special needs student at the school where she’s a teacher, while Wilson’s character, a beat cop, fixates on the investigation. The story, the performances, and the cinematography—the specific choices made—have really stuck with me. It’s very lean writing and the character study and economical plot is something from which writers can learn.

It’s important that we have an organization like Film Independent that organizes the Spirit Awards to highlight excellence in independent cinema, and to call our attention to films and filmmakers that would otherwise fly under our radar. The Spirit Awards will be televised (with booze and looser language standards) on IFC on Saturday, February 27th at 2:00pm Pacific/5:00pm Eastern.

The Ongoing Stories of "Spotlight" and "The Big Short"

What do “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” have in common? There are some obvious things, of course. They’re both great films. They both have big stars. And they both won Writers Guild of America awards over the weekend. “Spotlight,” written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, won for Original Screenplay, while “The Big Short,” written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, won for Adapted Screenplay.

Image from "The Big Short" courtesy of Paramount Pictures

They are both stories that unfold over time and continue to reverberate through society, both on a large, systematic scale and a small, very personal one. They are both stories in which there are real-life victims. Despite decidedly different tones, they are both stories about power and corruption and about undue influence by a larger-than-life institution. In the case of “Spotlight” it’s the Catholic Church and in “The Big Short” it’s Wall Street.

Let’s focus on how the stories unfold over time. In both cases there isn’t one big singular event to which the rest of plot reacts. It is one case of abuse, and then another, and then another, and then a few decisions here or there to cover it up. It then snowballs into something much larger and insidious. It is one bank, one mortgage holder, one money manager, then more mortgage holders. The stakes get higher and soon it snowballs into something much larger and insidious.

Photo of "Spotlight" cast courtesy of Open Road Films

These are not isolated events, not stories that can be wrapped up with a pretty bow. Rather, they are ongoing, to this day. There are people still reeling from the housing crisis and ensuing recession, from having their homes foreclosed upon. (See "99 Homes" for a more personal look at the housing crisis, from the perspective of the struggling mortgage holders.) There are people still reeling from the violation and abuse by their religious institution.

So, how to wrangle all that into manageable screenplays and films? In “Spotlight” the writers focused on the Boston Globe’s investigation into allegations of priest abuse and its cover up, and “The Big Short” focused on the managers and analysts who saw the housing bubble, predicted its popping, and maneuvered to cash in on it. Both therefore tame each story’s unwieldiness and large scope and make them manageable, digestible, and in the case of “The Big Short,” funny. Both contain elements that on paper could be viewed as dull (a painstaking, pavement-pounding investigation and the complexities of the economy and finance). Both are based on real people and real stories. Both are "adapted" from real life.

The Global View from Palm Springs

Some people have heard me insist that writers should watch foreign films, not just American films, to get a more well-rounded view of storytelling. The best classroom for that this week was in Palm Springs. The Palm Springs International Film Festival, wrapping up this weekend, boasts that it screened 180 films from 60 countries this year, including 40 of the 80 foreign language entries for this year’s Academy Awards®. Judging by conversations overheard during the patience-testing amount of time waiting in line for screenings, the shuttle, the bathroom or for a beverage, festival goers really take advantage of the opportunity to see films from and about countries that they wouldn’t normally see in their local theaters. 

Image from "Mountains May Depart" courtesy of Kino Lorber

As one woman noted as we were filing out of a screening of “Mountains May Depart,” she doesn’t normally get to see many Chinese films. I had to agree. I love foreign films and yet I admit to watching very few Chinese films. “Mountains May Depart,” which premiered at the Cannes film festival last year, takes place in China and Australia over the course of several decades, starting in the past and going into the future (lots of handy gadgets, yet vinyl prevails!).

Image from "Mountains May Depart" courtesy of Kino Lorber

 

Focused on a woman named Tao, the story begins with her choosing between two strikingly different suitors: one blue collar buddy who adores her and one wealthy proprietor who wants her probably because everyone else does, like some kind of prize. The story continues with the consequences of her decision, leading up to her adult son’s estrangement from her and from their heritage and language. It’s a film that’s longer than it needs to be, but the time-jumping structure is interesting, because it forces the audience to make some assumptions about what’s transpired.

Image from "Liz in September" courtesy of Wolfe Releasing

A more traditional narrative structure plays out in the Venezuela-set “Liz in September.” The title character is a beautiful model attempting to hide her terminal cancer. Liz, played by the luminous Patricia Velasquez (remember Marta in “Arrested Development?”), is a lesbian on what seems like an endless vacation in a secluded resort with a cadre of her lesbian friends, which includes at least one jilted ex-girlfriend. When car trouble sends a fresh-faced young woman—straight and married—their way, Liz makes a bet with her gal pals that she can woo the straight woman into her bed. That the bet doesn’t come back to bite Liz is a little frustrating, but it is refreshing to see a woman in the role of the chest-pumping, challenge-taking man.

Image from "Liz in September" courtesy of Wolf Releasing

The director, Fina Torres, who adapted the script from a play, told the audience that making a film about lesbians in Venezuela was a challenge. The Venezuelan audience, she said, assumes that an actress playing a lesbian must really be a lesbian. This was going to present a casting challenge, Torres thought, but she was pleasantly surprised at the actresses’ willingness to take on the parts. She noted of all the actresses, only Velasquez is a lesbian in real life, and is only recently out. Torres said that when her film first screened in Venezuela, some audience members stormed out, aghast at the scenes depicting a woman kissing another woman. The scenes are arguably “tame” and Torres even pointed out she wasn’t setting out to make a Venezuelan version of the risque “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Lesbian love scenes aside, “Liz in September” is a beautifully shot film that could double as a promotional campaign for visiting Venezuela. It’s one of many stops on the global story-telling tour that departs from within the cinemas in Palm Springs in January.