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: 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.