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Voice of America Interviews Craig and Judy

Voice America.com Interview with Hollywoodscript.com
Guests: Craig and Judy Kellem
Interviewed by: Deon Van Rooyen

D: Before writing word one, you need a good story. What in your opinion comprises a good story?

CK: Something that captures your imagination, which taps into something that’s happening in real life that NEEDS to be expressed in some way…that’s usually a great measuring stick. Something we need to know about or are upset with, or are curious about. Sometimes when you tap into something like this and it happens at the right time, great things can happen.

D: What are some of the ways writers prepare before plunging in?

JK: The first thing writer’s need to do is get very clear on their story. Great story telling comes down to some essential and universal truth that lies at the base of whatever the particular plot is, that touches and reaches people. It can be something very simple or something deeply complex and existential. Different writers work different ways. Some people have just a glimmer of an idea, in which case they have to go through a process of first fleshing it out with themselves, free writing and then narrowing it down into some kind of synopsis. Once they can put forward their main story in a page, they can start getting ready to go into the script writing process. They will begin to break it down into individual arcs, beat sheets, etc…

CK: And one of the things you can do is not put pressure on yourself to have it come out of the hatch perfectly. One of the great luxuries in preparing a project is just to splatter it on the wall for a while. You have a hot idea --put it on an index card. What are some of the juicy moments you may have with a given character? Put it on the card and on the wall. Are you clear on a particular character arc or a subplot that’s beginning to make sense? Just collect it all for a while; look at it, play with it and trust that the creative part of yourself now summoned, will give you more solid ideas, and notions on how to connect all the dots. A lot of people in today’s world expect instant results and the creative process doesn’t work that way. It needs time to gestate and grow.

JK: Right, it’s also very important because if you just jump in and do no prep work, it always comes up in the pages. If you write a hundred twenty pages of dialogue around one idea that hasn’t been fleshed out, the reader feels it. The screenplay is like a shell and you have to go back and sometimes start from scratch because you can’t build the entire movie around just a notion that hasn’t been fully realized into a full story, plot, character, something that’s very vital and has “legs”

D: Talk a little about plot and subplot.

CK: Movie making (via writing) is essentially good storytelling. A good story has a beginning, middle and end. It has surprises and some kind of a thematic outcome. And more than anything, you want the audience to passionately wonder what’s gonna happen next! Writers often fall into contrivances when they’re developing material. They imitate art or what they think art is, rather than life. What you want to do is just tell a good story, that’s essentially what it boils down to. I work with writers to whom I sometimes say, “this doesn’t make sense.” Or “it’s all over the place.” Then I recite the story of Cinderella--they think, why is this guy telling me a fairy tale? Well I do it because this classic tale has a clear beginning, middle and end. It has surprises. It makes you root for a worthy protagonist. It has real bad guys (who get their comeuppance) and a theme etc etc. It TELLS well-- no one’s gonna say “I don’t get it.” If you can use these simple principles and techniques when you’re crafting your own material, you’ll be way ahead of the game.

JK: I agree and just want to add, I think a lot of times the main plot writers think they are writing ISN'T in fact the focus of the screenplay. Often it is their primary subplot that proves the central most tale. So too with the characters. Though the writer has made one guy their hero, a side character seems to be the real apple of the writer's eye. So sometimes through the revision process, writers become very honest with themselves. They realize they were nervous or couldn't admit to themselves they wanted to write a love story, so they wrote a mystery. But in the end, it was obvious that the mystery really was bottom line a love story, and so on.

D: When you receive a script for analysis, are there specific steps that you follow and can you read it immediately without analyzing it?

JK: When I get material I get up really early and sit with it for many,many hours. I read it very carefully and every single thing that stops me - from a misspelled word or grammatical error to some glaring structural problem or character problem - I mark a page note right in the margins of the script. By the time I finish the script I have either stopped a million times or just a handful, depending on where the material is at. And then I’ll digest everything that I’ve read, go back and look at all the page notes, at what seemed to be the main things that were and weren’t working and get clear with myself about what the main problems are and then how they can be solved. What can be taken out, or put in, or developed or omitted, in order to make the next revision much stronger. Then depending on whether or not the screenwriter wants to have a phone conversation or summary email (usually people want to talk on the phone so they’ll call me) I’ll sit with the material in front of me, all marked up, and write or discuss what was great about the script, what still needs work and how the writer can begin to address those problems in very practical ways.

D: What are some of the more common mistakes writers make in the scripts you analyze?

CK: There’s a lot of them. I’d say one of the great common mistakes is a lack of preparation, which I alluded to before. Professional screenwriters that I know have to do an enormous amount of prep work before they write the script and, in fact, more work is often done in the preparation than is done in the writing itself. You want to create a game plan that’s so well put together and so full of nuggets, it practically writes itself. But there are very few people, writing on their own, who impose this kind of criteria on themselves. But in the real world of writing in Hollywood, you don’t get to write the script until you fully write the story, preceded by lots of “creative negotiations.” Even if you’re coming in and doing a humble sit-com you’re in a creative interface right from the get go. For example, come to the producers office and pitch an idea, they’re probably going to be challenging you on certain aspects of the idea, which will immediately change the idea, adjustments have to be made etc. And then if you get the gig to write the script, you first have to write the story in narrative, for a sitcom it would probably be fifteen pages, for a feature forty or fifty. I’m talking narrative. No dialogue.

The point is it’s all about prep work to begin with.

Then you’ll get three or four development people in your face for probably three rounds of drafts before someone decides whether or not the story will go to script. Now with that kind of a grueling process, you’re bound to benefit from constructive checks and balances. It’s a good system and I promise you, by the time the script’s ready to be written, you’re way ahead of the game.

D: When you say prep work what kind of specific tasks are you referring to?

CK: It’s taking an idea and fleshing and figuring it out. After all, you might have a tremendous idea but the idea is only an idea. The rest of it has to be invented. So who are your characters and what do they want and who’s trying to stop them from getting it. And what are the subplots, what are the “runners,”-- is the idea really a good one etc. Better talk it through and see if it’s one of these notions that sounds good at three o’clock in the morning when you’re lying awake in bed…but does it sound good three days later when you’re sitting in your office and you’re imagining taking this to a motion picture company.

And then, what happens is you start to put together ideas for scenes, bits and pieces at first and try to connect with your characters in some way – hopefully you connect with them on an emotional level, which to me is the most important thing that you can do - and then you start figuring out how to fill three acts:

Act One sets up the movie – Do I have a set up? Is it exciting? Are the first pages going to engage people? Do I have an exciting act break at the end of thirty pages or so?

Act Two tells the story. I might have a great Act One in the “setting it up” part of things and a great Act Three, which pays it off, but do I have a movie? Act two will make you or break you. It’s also as long as act one and three put together.

So, it’s the process of laying out your entire creative agenda and then besides figuring out what the story components are, who the characters are etc. It’s also figuring out how to make the scenes intrinsically interesting. Because, scenes are not only units that tell a story, but they also need to provide intrinsic entertainment value. Is there anything that you can add that will make this something really special?

Hollywood writers spend enormous amounts of time with their invention, i.e. their screenplay blueprint, and once they’ve got it right, once it’s absolutely together (doesn’t mean they’re not going to make some changes) they know what they’ve got and they know what they’re doing. That’s preparation.

Now, again, if you’re working for somebody, they’re going to make sure that you know what you’re doing because you’re not going to get hired to write the script unless the story is satisfactory and, under the Writer’s Guild rules, you probably have three whacks at getting the story right --you have to make changes until they are satisfied.

D: In terms of language use, grammar, phraseology, etc. what kinds of things do you look for or jump out at you?

JK: I keep a close ear to how authentic the voice of the characters sound, whether or not all the characters in the movie sound exactly the same or if you can hear the actual characterization transmitting itself through the phraseology of each character. Another thing I notice is if there is a narrative voice overriding the screenplay. This is something I think is also connected to what Craig was saying about preparation. When you are very crystal clear about exactly what you are writing, what you’re writing about, who you’re writing about and all those character voices are alive and well in your mind, then when you actually sit down to start writing the screenplay, a lot of times what comes out is a certain level of persona. It transmits itself in the descriptions and stage directions, the way the reader’s eyes are directed to view the players. It pervades the material, can be incredibly charming or incredibly annoying or so neutral that it doesn’t compel you one way or another. So those are the kinds of things I stay close to with native English speakers who are writing.

As you know I used to direct a school for English as a Second Language and taught all levels of ESL for a couple years (in Bologna, Italy). I now work with a lot of writers who are writing in English, but it isn’t their native tongue. So in consulting with those writers, I try to help them get a better ear for American English, the cadence of how American characters would express themselves and the idioms they use, or what would seem a more natural way of expressing something in American English.

D: Can you talk a bit about the layering of scenes?

CK: Layering of scenes means that if you’re writing a script and you know that you’re stuck in an expositional kind of scene --like two guys in a bar having a conversation, you automatically know that this is going to be a problem because it’s a sedentary kind of situation, talk-oriented, which is not very mobile or cinematic. So, a positive knee jerk reaction to this would be to figure out some way to keep it more interesting, to find another element to spritz it up a little bit. So one thing you could do (for example) is have them play pool, a killer game of eight ball, where the subtext of the game is “I’m a tougher guy than you are.” So you craft a terrific scene where they play an engaging game, and there is an enormous amount of tension and everybody is watching. It has a lot of macho meaning etc but, at the same time, every time they freshen their drink or chalk up their stick, they render the information they would have rendered in the sedentary scene. The audience never knows that the real purpose of the scene was to transmit information, they think it was a cool game of pool.

D: The movie ”O”, which is out on video, was one you consulted on. What was the state of the script when you first received it and what was your contribution?

CK: You never know when a movie that you work on will get made. But the writer was a professional by the name of Brad Kayya, who’s a pretty hot writer now, he’s written several movies, and…I’ve done several scripts for him and this one was a while back. It takes a long time to make a movie…so I do not remember the specifics of it. What I do remember was that I was glad that it got made and I like Brad, I think he’s a terrific writer.

D: You guys have a newsletter as well on the website, how can people sign up for that?

JK: Just go to our website, which is www.hollywoodscript.com , then right on the front page you can click on the box entitled “newsletters” and look at all the issues which have been published and/or look at specific articles or interviews…

CK: We have a bunch of things that we do for free: Our newsletter, a mini consultation if somebody wants to call either one of us just to chat about their project. We also look at query letters for free – and we have many different services including a free monthly contest. There’s only two of us in the company so it’s relatively easy to win the contest if the script is really good--it’s not like you have five hundred scripts competing with each other and it’s free to our clients. We’ve had a tremendous amount of luck with this contest – had a guy two winners ago that received fifty requests to read his script. And we’ve had a lot of people who have been optioned, and obtained representation. Plus it’s just nice to be recognized.

D: So do you actively shop the winning script around?

CK: We do a lot of things with the script. The first thing is we put together coverage. We ask the winner to write a synopsis – it’s a very “directed” synopsis…a selling tool/ trailer rather than just the facts of the story. Then we go back and forth with the writer honing it until it’s truly ready. Of course we add our opinion and evaluation, which is very positive since they won the contest. And then, with the writer’s permission, we send the coverage out to lots of contacts. It should be noted that we do not mess with these contacts. We don’t send them material all the time and we don’t send “filler.” When we send material we mean business and they know it and our writers get both respect and responses. The responses go directly to them. On top of that, we have relationships with Scriptblaster, which is a fine outfit that sends this coverage out to a zillion of their contacts via their database..and also Inktip.com does their thing which is similar in scope and purpose and quite effective. And the combination of elements is very powerful. It’s very gratifying to have some person who’s sitting in Montana, who’s written a terrific screenplay but with no recognition, and all of a sudden s/he’s having conferences with producers in Hollywood. It makes us very happy when that happens.

D: Generally there’s a list of dos and don’ts – you know, don’t write directions, etc. I once saw where using a “cut to” was considered the sign of an amateur writer. Would you like to debunk any of the don'ts and emphasize the dos?

CK: It’s an interesting thing: If you take five professional screenplays, I’m talking “The Godfather,” “Cold Mountain,” “Sixth Sense,”– whatever, contemporary or not, and you line up the scripts you’ll find the formatting of each script is slightly but discernibly different from the others. Moreover, I work writers who use “cut to’s” and writers who would never think of putting one in the script. There are writers that think it’s real macho NOT to use stage directions (just let the reader imagine what the physical action is--such as “they locked eyes” or “she begins to sweat”) and others who put in whatever it takes to communicate the creative vision. So regarding the do’s and the don’ts – the real do is that your script should basically LOOK like everybody else’s even with it’s invariable formatting differences. The title page is standard, you don’t use any fancy binders or anything – it should just look like everyone else’s script. That’s the big DO. But the other big DO is make sure it’s really good.

JK: I agree and just want to throw in one extra thing, because it might help listeners, which is that people do need to be very hyper-vigilante about keeping their time and location cues crystal clear, because when you are reading a script, from scene change to scene change, if people get sloppy and it’s not clear to you the reader, where you are located, or what time zone you’re in, or if you’re in the middle of a flashback and the flashback ended five pages ago but no one marked that, it’s maddening. And also, when people get sloppy about identifying which characters are in one scene after another, it gets confusing and the filmic flow is broken. So they'll have, for example, "INTERIOR- LIVING ROOM" and there's a whole heated exchange between Martha, Sue and Jen, and then "CUT TO: EXTERIOR IN FRONT OF CAR" and the stage directions read, "she goes to car door, opens it, pulls out a gun..." but they don't tell you WHICH "SHE" character it is, so you're completely lost as to what's transpired and who is in
the scene. Those kinds of technical elements are really important because when they fall apart, it destroys the fiction.

CK: There’s a time and a place for formatting, but before you get hung up on formatting, get hung up on the art.

D: What are some of the pitfalls in adapting a book to a film? What should people be cognizant of?

JK: First is the obvious thing that they’re very different mediums. A screenplay is built on trickery because you’re using words to enact a visual medium, whereas a book is all about the language. Both have scenes and books can be very “cinematic” but they ultimately come down to words.

So when you’re doing an adaptation you must be very clear with yourself on what point of view you want to take. Do you want to follow the book, strictly replicate the perspective from which it is told? Or do you want to give it a different narrative spin. Also, get clear on how you’re going to write -in dialogue and description- the very complex and (often) overly involved stories that novelists get into, where it just sprawls on and on.
One must know how to be restrained and give stuff up. You’re not going to be able to have ALL those characters and all those subplots and all ALL those dramas. You’re going to have to distill what the book is about to its main core: The central drama and a couple of subplots to contain it.

And then you need to be very imaginative about translating. A prose writer will spend twenty pages conveying to -and evoking in- the reader the feeling of eating a cookie. The screenwriter needs to translate, like a poet, those twenty pages into a glance. Or, a moment that’s been framed. Or a small montage that is going to somehow elicit the same emotional response from a viewer.

It’s like being out on a major diet, because you can’t take up all that space and you have to really cut down.

D: Writing is usually a solitary process, but there comes a time when you have to pitch your story. Is learning to pitch a necessary evil and what’s the best to approach it?

CK: First of all, most pitching comes with a screenplay that hasn’t been written. If you have a screenplay that’s been written, you don’t have to pitch it, you just have to get somebody to read it since it speaks for itself. In the professional world, writers pitch their IDEAS hoping that it will result in a job to write the script. Producers often know a writers work (thanx to industrious agents)) and will invite him/her to come in and pitch so writers spend time around town pitching their unwritten projects. Or they can receive someone else’s script that needs work. They read the script and then meet with the producer and pitch how they would change/fix it. And they may win a job or not depending upon their ideas.

On the other hand, you may find that for whatever reason you have to enchant somebody verbally with what your screenplay is all about. This will take some special “doing,”

I know a lot about pitching because I’ve done it myself plus I used to head a creative department at Universal and had to pitch television shows all the time. I learned this--you’d better be good or they’ll throw you out of the office.

Basically the secret to pitching is there’s no secret at all.

You go in and you simply talk about what it is--you tell the truth. You tell them honestly why you are enthused about the project --(remind yourself before you go in why you’re enthused about it). And you try to accurately describe what it’s about in a reasonably succinct and entertaining way. There is no magic way of doing it. There are people who are terrific salespeople, who can give a dazzling, traditional type of sales pitch and there are others who are very low key and just as effective. The thing that you don’t want to do is go in there and try to contrive something. That goes for writing to. What works for pitching, works for writing. If you’re lying and you’re trying too hard, it doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t feel good to read it either.

D: Talk about writer’s block, what it is and how it can be overcome.

JK: Writer’s block is a misery for all writers, but it can also be an enormous gift. When you get blocked, a lot of times it’s your mind, your imagination, your heart telling you that you are getting into some very spooky material - material that will have power and resonance if you can move through that block and access it.

The block is trying to block you from going there and I don’t mean to be so psychoanalytic, but I think that it’s true. The reader can feel it in material when the writer is writing with passion and conviction and then all of a sudden does a one-eighty and writes away from the story. For the reader it’s absolutely jarring, a total disruption in the fiction.

Somebody who is experiencing writers block must sit inside of it. They must go back to the original idea that brought them to their desk, go to what it was that they wanted to write about and see what comes out, start writing about THAT. When in the free writing they get in touch with where the original passion is coming from, if they start hitting (again the idea of essential truths) those truths about themselves or stuff that they want to express that they are terrified to express, characters that they would never admit to themselves that they want to write about, they have to just GO WITH IT. Even if they put those pages under lock and key, don’t revisit them for years, at least they are going to get one boulder out of the way.

Writing is such an intimate and solitary practice. You are inviting yourself to go to the scariest but most potent parts of who you are. So it is in the writer’s block that those parts of you will jump out.

D: Right, much of your personal stuff comes out even if you don’t intend it.

JK: Yes. I’ve worked with writers who would swear they were writing about one thing, but as a reader it’s nakedly clear they are writing about something else. I get on the phone with them and give feedback and we start to talk about the fact that they thought they were writing about the annoying neighbor, but are really writing about their mother…it’s screaming out of the pages.

Writing is a very confrontational art.

D: One rule is less is more. Would you like to comment on that?

CK: Well, because a screenplay can be ninety-nine pages or a hundred and nineteen, it’s an illusion that it’s a free form and you can do whatever you want to do. We live in a very fast paced society and you have to spit it out as succinctly and judiciously as you can make it. There are writers who don’t trust brevity. They trust doling it out the long way because they are admirably obsessed in making sure that you understand it all. They don’t understand that what they’re writing is not a thesis or a dissertation. It’s a screenplay which has its own weight and “requirements.” After all watching a film is not something you can go back and study. You’re only going to hear it once so it’s best to figure out how to say things in a concise way. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t render a terrific speech in a movie, like a mea culpa or an impassioned speech--there’s room for this. But you need to know how to be balanced and judicious in this area. For example, if you go to a Jim Brooks movie, I defy you to sit through the entire movie and find three extraneous lines in the film. There aren’t any. It’s all meat on the bone. There’s a purpose for everything and it all works. You feel it when you are watching something that’s tight and lean and that’s vital, rather than something that goes on and on.

I often deal with writers who overwrite. I try to sell them the beauty of economy, and occasionally I get a subsequent phone call – which gives me tremendous satisfaction. An excited little voice on the phone telling me that they spent the night making careful trims in their script. And that it finally feels right. I always suggest that go page by page and merely look for FAT-- is there a way of getting into a scene later?--is there a way of getting out of a scene sooner?-- is there something redundant?-- is there one sentence that can be removed? Basically, what happens is you get a writer who goes through this process then prints out their script and finds they’ve lost eight pages… they now feel like they went on a diet and achieved their fighting weight. And that inevitably inspires them to go back and take an even closer look and do a little trimming, and get the script down to the right size. It can make a huge difference.

D: We have Caller.

CALLER: What kinds of stories would you like to see more of?

JK: I love all of them. I’m not partial to comedies, or horror, or drama. But I think a lot of people feel enslaved by the cookie cutter, archetypal, recycled characters and story lines that get fed to them in the media. When they write their scripts, instead of allowing themselves to have a distinct and original voice, they think they have to narrow themselves, be derivative. So instead of some great quirky guy they knew growing up it’s “the jock”. Instead of some woman they find truly interesting, it’s “the Barbie blonde” or “the sporty smart one”. Their characters become stock.

I’ll then sit with the writer and say, “but did you really want to have a generic type landscape or are you really wanting to write something that comes straight from the original experience that you’ve had?”

That freedom to be more original is what I wish for.

CK: For me, I remember things that I feel. So what I want to read is material that I feel and that comes from the heart.

What comes from the heart, reaches the heart. People go to the movies to experience emotion, to be scared, to be elated, to be mad, to enjoy a quiet tear. And that’s the kind of material that turns me on.

Copyright 2004, Hollywoodscript.com LLC., All Rights Reserved.

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