Sunday, May 29, 2016

Interview with Sean Nalaboff

Sean Nalaboff wrote and directed the recent movie Hard Sell starring Skyler Gisondo (Vacation), Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies, Glee), and Katrina Bowden (30 Rock, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil). The story centers on Hardy Buchanan (Gisondo), a senior at an elite private school who struggles to support his unstable mom (Chenoweth). Desperate to make some quick cash, he enlists the help of Bo (Bowden), a beautiful runaway, and together they devise a plan of profiting off of the wayward teens at Hardy’s school. When the students learn that Bo has more to offer than what meets the eye, the unlikely duo’s new business takes a unique turn, tossing them headfirst into the lifestyles of the rich and dysfunctional.

Sean was a student of mine at ArtCenter College of Design (in fact, he worked on the Hard Sell screenplay in my class), so I convinced him to do an interview for LetsSchmooze.

Q: The film has an impressively authentic sense of character and place. Where did the idea for the film come from?

I was attending Art Center College of Design about 3,000 miles away from where I called home (Long Island, NY) and I was homesick. I kept thinking about that environment and the colorful characters I grew up with. I thought it was fertile ground for a cool story. And so I started writing about a private school student on scholarship who very much feels like a square peg in a round hole, which was similar to my experience in private school. I was dealing with these morbid themes of isolation and despair with a sense of humor. I thought of the uniformity of the suburbs and prep schools and the resulting identity crisis that spawned from that. All the ideas for plot generated from there.

Q: How did you do your character development?

I would doodle in class having conversations with these characters. In particular, everyday I found myself excited to be in conversation with my protagonist, seventeen-year old Hardy Buchanan. It was all dialogue. Monologues about life, religion, love… I’d wax poetic about a ton of unrelated topics (nothing that really ever made the movie), but I became to understand Hardy’s point of view. I did that for everyone. It started with Hardy and then I’d add one more character to the conversation, then one more, then another, until finally I started to understand everyone’s POV.

Q: Did the characters change once the actors got involved?

The actors were really willing to listen. That was one of the things I was most surprised by being that I was a first time feature film director. I remember Kristin Chenoweth calling me into her dressing room on the first day and asking me to tell her what I wanted. She was so receptive to my vision for this. Little ideas were introduced by my conversations with the actors, you know, like “I think this character should smoke cigarettes,” or maybe they’d want to riff with some improv. Katrina Bowden wrote up a whole background story for Bo that contained VERY specific information about her upbringing that she used for her performance. I thought it was great. I became fast friends with Skyler Gisondo, the actor who plays Hardy, and we had the opportunity to really dive deep into the character and story. The actors brought something to the table that was never on the page, BREATH. Their cadence, their timing, the delivery, it was all so much fun to see it come to life through their unique voices.

Q: What is your writing process like? For example, how much time did you spend outlining? How many drafts did you do?

Man, I’m so impatient. I’ll have an inspiration for a broad idea of a story and I get really excited about it. I try to outline, but I get so eager to jump into writing dialogue. I develop the characters' voices for months writing scenes (that won’t even end up in the final draft) where they’re having a conversation with another character. I just like deciphering these characters motivations and how they represent themselves to the world before thinking about plot points. I re-write and re-write and re-write for years (everyday) until I have a draft that I feel comfortable producing (or at least that’s been the process for the first two films). It’s probably a ridiculous waste of time to not be outlining, but I go where the inspiration is. I really enjoy writing and I don’t want to screw that up for myself by considering it to be work.

Q: Once the script was done, what did you do? This is your first feature – how did you get it financed? How did you get the cast?

This is an incredibly abbreviated response to that question… I knew the script was ready to be made. The script was awesome. Truly proud of it. I figured if I could cast the three leads then I could simultaneously attract money to the project. I researched indie films with NY casting directors that put together casts that I liked and eventually found Bass Casting. While they put out offers for cast, I teamed up with one of my best friends from home who became my business partner, Jared Greenman. Greenman was in sales at a tech startup and wanted to sink his teeth into something more creative. We started lining up contacts to approach for financing. The game plan was to have it all independently financed through angel investors outside of Hollywood. So Greenman, myself, and my other friend from LA, Jimmy Seargeant, partnered up as co-producers on a quest to get this movie made. Meanwhile, The script was getting a great response from agents. Katrina Bowden signed on for the part of Bo. Then, I received a message from Kristin Chenoweth’s manager asking what I thought of Chenoweth for the mom? I had been hired to shoot a behind-the-scenes video of one of Chenoweth’s concert tours a few months prior and it turned out Chenoweth was a fan. I didn’t know at the time, but Chenoweth told her manager if I was ever doing something independently then she’d love to be a part of it. Once we had that, the pieces began to fall into place (sort of).

Q: You directed the film. Did you learn anything about writing from the directing experience?

I learned a tremendous amount about writing from directing and editing. I didn’t edit the movie, but I certainly sat through all the sessions and realized what made the cutting room floor (I recommend all writers sit with editors). Getting back to the question, you realize what moves the story forward in directing that you might overlook during writing. There’s a certain flow/momentum in a script that’s hard to pinpoint until you’re directing scenes. Some stuff just flatlines and you realize it’s because of the shitty writing (my script wasn’t perfect). Sometimes it’ll take an actor to tell you, “I can’t tap into this scene for some reason.” What’s not working here? It’s generally because there’s no POV and maybe it’s exposition heavy or something like that. If there isn’t a motivation to get from point A to point B in every scene then you have to figure something out quick on your feet while directing. We’d have what I called “Writer’s Meetings” on set where the actors and I would sit down and see what worked and what didn’t in the scene we were tackling that day. Kind of like small daily table reads. Some words felt weird coming out of some actors mouths, so I obliged them and let them change it to something more comfortable for them. Directing is one big collaboration and writing for me is an isolated thing.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’m in pre-production on my next film, Kingfish, which we aim to shoot in September. I’m also writing a book about my experience producing my first feature film while it’s still fresh in my heart and head.

Q: Any advice for aspiring screenwriters?

Write what inspires you.

Thanks, Sean. You can watch Hard Sell on VOD and iTunes. Visit the Hard Sell website.


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Do You Have to Live in Los Angeles?

If you are an aspiring screenwriter who lives somewhere besides Los Angeles, you will inevitably ponder whether it is necessary to live in Los Angeles to succeed as a Hollywood screen or TV writer.

The simple answer is: Yes.

But the answer is really not so simple. Is it possible to maintain a screenwriting career outside of Los Angeles? Sure, a small but notable minority of working screenwriters live outside of Los Angeles. Is it possible to break into the business from outside of Los Angeles? Possible, maybe, but incredibly more difficult. Most working screenwriters who live outside Los Angeles lived here when they broke in and then moved.

The Advantages of Moving to Los Angeles

Living in Los Angeles has several advantages for the aspiring and working screenwriter. Chief among them is networking. It is almost impossible to get anyone to read your script via a query or other long distance contact. In Los Angeles, you can meet someone who can help you in your career anywhere – at a party, at Starbucks, watching a sporting event. Los Angeles is where almost all of the producers, agents, managers, directors and other screenwriters live. It’s hard to be here long without meeting some of them, even if you don’t try. And if you intentionally set out to network, there are plenty of opportunities every week in Los Angeles to put yourself in proximity to industry professionals. That’s not all there is to networking, but it’s the first step.

You also have many more opportunities to become better at your craft in Los Angeles. There are dozens of seminars, classes, speakers, etc. pretty much every day in Los Angeles. You will also make friends with other serious screenwriters who can give you feedback on your scripts.

Once you crack open the door to the industry, you will need to take meetings in Los Angeles because that’s where the producers and development execs are. You can fly in for a week to do a series of meetings, but that requires everyone else to arrange their schedule around you – something they may not be willing to do if you are just starting out. It also takes you out of contention for emergency gigs – if someone needs a writer to rewrite something ASAP, I can be at a meeting in hours. A writer living in Denver can’t.

Finally, if you want to work in television, almost all writers’ rooms are in Los Angeles. They may shoot the show in Vancouver or Georgia or Hawaii, but the writers are in Los Angeles.

The Disadvantages of Moving to Los Angeles

There are, however, some downsides for an aspiring screenwriter moving to Los Angeles. For one thing, the cost of living is high here. It can take a while to break in, and supporting yourself during that time will probably be more difficult in Los Angeles than elsewhere.

Also, since almost every screenwriter lives in Los Angeles, we are exposed to a lot of the same influences and inspirations. With several million people in the city looking for movie ideas, many are bound to come up with the same ones. Which is why you so often see movies with the same premise being developed at different studios.

For these reasons, it can be wise to time your move carefully. If you live outside Los Angeles, consider building up a body of work – a portfolio of really great spec scripts – before coming out here. Maybe you can even win some contests and make some initial contacts before moving out. That way you hit the ground running, armed with a reason people should want to read your work.

But What About New York?

The one other place that you may be able to break into the screen or television business is New York. There are a significant number of producers and agents in New York – not nearly as many as Los Angeles, but enough. Unfortunately, New York is even less affordable than L.A. But there are some cultural advantages L.A. doesn’t have (and L.A. has some cultural advantages New York doesn’t have.)

There are a few business reasons (as opposed to personal reasons) that you might choose New York over Los Angeles to try to break into screenwriting:

First, if you plan to work in independent film, there are a lot of indie film producers and distributors based in New York. There are also a lot in Los Angeles, but New York is really the bigger independent film scene. It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer of independent films, but many of those writers parlay their success in that world into studio rewrite gigs to support them while they work on their independent projects.

Second, New York is the premiere city for stand-up comedy. If you are a comedic writer who also does stand-up, New York is probably a better place to get discovered on stage. You can then parlay that attention to the film/television business.

Third, New York is the place to be if you are a playwright. Succeeding as a playwright is a good way to get Hollywood’s attention. But now we’re really talking about breaking into a different industry and trying to leverage that into a movie or television career.

New York is also still the center for book publishing, so if you are both a novelist and screenwriter, that might suggest New York is a better destination. But the book business seems less dependent on being in the same city with the publishers. Many authors live outside of New York… not many screenwriters live outside of Los Angeles.

Moving is Scary
It can be a big decision to uproot your life and move to a new city without a guarantee of employment. But guess what? That’s what it means to be a screenwriter. This is not something you can do as a hobby, it has to be your career. And the career of screenwriter is an entrepreneurial one. No matter how big you get, you never really have job security. You will always be hustling to get your next gig.

If you are trying to break in, you are competing against tens of thousands of people who are willing to take the risk, move to Los Angeles, and dedicate their life to becoming a screenwriter. If you aren’t willing to do the same, you will be at a significant disadvantage.


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Awesome Stakes with Bill and Ted

(Spoilers: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)

One of the most critical things you must do in a story is establish what’s at stake for the character. What happens if the main character succeeds or fails? The more the character has at stake, the more dramatic and exciting the story. Conversely, if the outcome of the story isn’t going to affect the character, then why does the audience care?

But raising the stakes isn’t just about increasing the size of what’s at stake.

The key to raising the stakes dramatically is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation. We care about the story only as much as the character does. The more important it is to the character, the more important it will be to us. So to raise the stakes, make them more personal to the character.

Stakes come in both positive and negative flavors. Many of the best stories have both. The character gets something good if they succeed and they suffer something bad if they fail. This gives the audience something to hope for and something to fear.

I recently watched the classic eighties comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon). It provides a great demonstrates of the nuances of using stakes. In the story, Bill and Ted are in danger of failing history class if they don’t ace their final presentation. If Ted fails, his father will send him off to military school.

The biggest stakes in terms of objective importance come from Rufus, the time traveler from the future. He is sent back to 1991 to ensure that Bill and Ted form the band that will ultimately bring peace and awesomeness to the world. These are pretty big stakes! But it’s not really the reason we care whether Bill and Ted pass their class.

No, the bigger stakes come from the threat to Bill and Ted’s friendship. We like these guys and we want them to stay together. More importantly, they want to stay together. Their biggest dream is to form a great rock band. That dream will be destroyed if Ted gets sent to military school, which means they have to pass their final project.

The audience hopes Bill and Ted succeed in their quest because that will make them happy. The audience’s way into the story is the characters. We care about their happiness. Sure, Bill and Ted think it’s cool they can create a future utopia, but that’s not what’s motivating them on their quest. And it’s not what we really care about either.

The bit about the future utopia is really only there to provide the mechanism for Bill and Ted’s time travel. It’s why Rufus brings them a time machine, not why we care about whether they pass their presentation final. Really, they could find another way to travel through time and the story wouldn’t change much.

The film does a good job spelling out both the character's excellent potential future: a life as rock stars who save the world – and their bogus potential future: military school and the end of Bill and Ted’s friendship. This gets the audience invested in the outcome of the adventure. And note that the dramatic question of the film – “Will Bill and Ted pass history?” – is relatively mundane and minor. It’s what the resolution of this question means to the characters that makes it significant.

Good stories connect the main character's internal journey to the external journey (the plot). In the case of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, this comes in the form of the characters' self-discipline. They want to create a great rock band, but they don't know how to play their instruments. They are as lazy as musicians as they are as students. But over the course of the movie, Ted comes to the realization that if they want to be great, they have to learn how to actually play. Thus the stakes in the external journey - passing history so Ted can avoid military school - dovetail with the stakes in the internal journey. If Ted doesn't have this realization, the band will never achieve greatness.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure may be just a dumb comedy, but it still has stakes that are the most important thing in the world to the characters. That’s why we engage with the story. Make sure the stakes of your story are equally important to your characters.


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Using Minor Characters to Explore Theme

(SPOILERS: The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Up in the Air, American Beauty)

We don’t talk about theme in Hollywood much, but every movie has some kind of philosophical subject, even if it’s just good vs. evil. You can deepen your story and provide a more meaningful experience for your viewers without sacrificing entertainment value if you explore a complex theme in a way that is not didactic. One of the best ways to do this is by giving different supporting characters different points of view on the thematic topic of your story. This will not only add intellectual and emotional depth to your story, it will help you develop interesting supporting characters and insert conflict into your scenes as points of view conflict.

This approach is one of the reasons why the screenplay for The 40 Year Old Virgin (written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carrell) was nominated for an award from the WGA. The thematic subject of The 40 Year Old Virgin is, obviously, sex. Notice how each of Andy’s friends holds a different take on the topic: David is still hung up on an old girlfriend and has an over romanticized view of sex, Jay is in a relationship but cheats because he is afraid of monogamy, and Cal just likes any kind of freaky, no-strings-attached sex. These views interact with Andy's anxieties about sexuality in a way that makes the movie more complex than a simple "losing his virginity" story.

The theme of Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is success and failure. Richard believes the world is made up of winners and losers, and commitment is how you become a winner. Sheryll, on the other hand, believes everyone just needs to be practical and take care of their responsibilities. Grandpa doesn’t care about success, he advises everyone to just enjoy life. Olive loves the process of preparing for competition. Dwayne represents someone who does everything in their power to achieve a goal, only to be foiled by something out of their control. And Frank has given up on life altogether. Each character takes a different approach to the question of success and failure, allowing the film to explore the theme from different perspectives.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine are ensemble movies, but the same technique can be used in movies with a strong central character who is going on an emotional journey. The theme of Up in the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) is relationship. The main character, Ryan Bingham, believes that relationships weigh you down. He goes through life avoiding any kind of attachment. But over the course of the movie this point of view is challenged by Ryan's experiences and the characters around him.

Natalie, the young woman Ryan is forced to train, longs to be married but has unrealistically high expectations. Alex, a woman Ryan is sleeping with, seems to share Ryan’s point of view but we later learn she’s leading a double life – trying to have it both ways. We get additional perspectives from Ryan’s siblings when he goes back home for his sister’s marriage. The bride and groom are perfect for each other, and though there lives aren’t fantastic (there’s intimations of considerable financial difficulty), they are happy. Meanwhile we get an even different perspective from Ryan’s other sister who has just separated from her husband.

Each of these characters allows us (and Ryan) to view the question of whether relationships are good or bad from a different perspective without implicit discussion (though that sometimes occurs). And the movie doesn't shy away from things that reinforce Ryan's original position.

Dealing with theme is tricky. You don’t want your story to come off preachy. Characters should have good, justifiable reasons for their point of view. And it’s much better if they demonstrate their point of view through their actions, rather than through debate and argument. Watching characters debate philosophy is not a recipe for engaging storytelling!

In the beginning of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball), the main character, Lester, is doing what a middle aged family man is supposed to do in the suburbs. He works at his job, provides for his family...and is thoroughly miserable. Over the course of the movie we see Lester abandon his concern for what others think of him and be true to his own desires. This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways. He quits his stultifying job but there is some question if he can sustain his new lifestyle financially. He gets in shape and starts to enjoy himself by buying a car he wants and smoking pot. But he also pursues an immoral and inappropriate attraction to an underage girl. Ultimately Lester finds balance between honoring who he is and being responsible.

The minor characters illuminate this theme of individuality and conformity. For example, Caroline is the embodiment of the suburban image. Maintaining that image has become her entire purpose as shown by her carefully coordinated dinners and attention to landscaping. And being accepted and “normal” makes her happy. Meanwhile Ricky has abandoned any need for acceptance or normalcy. He is an outsider and proud of it. This attitude grows out of the dysfunction and inauthenticity we see from his family life.

Angela is one of the most interesting supporting characters from a thematic point of view. She constantly talks about her various conquests and sexual experiences. Of course we learn at the end that she's been making it all up. She's a virgin. We also learn that Angela's biggest fear is being ordinary. It's when Ricky insists she is just ordinary that Angela works up the nerve to actually sleep with Lester. It's an attempt to be special. Angela doesn't want to be just another suburban girl, but the pressure to conform has forced her to seek distinction by pretending to fulfill a stereotype - the sex object.

The most important thing to keep in mind when assigning thematic points of view to your characters is to make sure they are human beings, not bumper stickers. Give them fully fleshed out lives, human desires and foibles, so that we get caught up emotionally in their story.


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Monday, May 2, 2016

How to Succeed at a Pitch Fest

Before I dive into this week’s topic, I wanted to highlight a couple of places I will be appearing in the near future:

This Saturday, May 7th, I will be conducting a workshop on pitching at The Writers Store in Burbank

On June 3rd I will be appearing on a panel at the Phoenix Comic-Con called “How Do I Pitch my Property?


Pitch fests like the upcoming Great American Pitchfest can offer an opportunity to crack open the door to Hollywood for those who find themselves stuck on the fringes. They give you an opportunity to have brief meetings with producers, executives, agents, and managers to pitch your project. Sometimes you will be pitching to an assistant or even an intern – that’s okay, those people are often the best connections for unknown writers as they are looking to move up by discovering new talent. But there will also be legitimate high-level buyers at many pitch fests. I spoke at the Great American Pitchfest last year and discovered that a producer who had recently hired me to rewrite a script was there personally hearing pitches from total newbies.

However, it is not as simple as paying your admission and showing up. You will be competing against hundreds of other writers just at the pitch fest. And most of the buyers will not end up buying anything pitched to them that day – remember, they hear pitches every day at their jobs and probably only buy a handful a year at most. If you come into a pitch fest unprepared, it can be a big waste of time and money. So here are some tips for increasing your odds of success.

Know your goal. Who are you trying to meet and what do you want them to do? If you are an unknown writer, the chance of selling an original idea on the spot is about the same as the chance you’ll stumble across a ten-pound diamond in the parking lot. But it is entirely possible that you can convince people to read a spec script. So you should be pitching something that is already written and that you are ready to send off as soon as the pitch fest is over.

Are you looking for representation? If you are pitching to agents or managers, you will still be pitching your idea, but agents and managers represent writers, not projects. They will want to know you have other scripts in the same genre, so have a couple of extra log lines prepared, and be prepared to spend a little more time talking about yourself and your qualifications than your script.

At least in the beginning of your career, you will probably be working mostly in one genre and one medium (TV, features, etc.). So you should pick people who work in that genre/medium and pitch them an appropriate project. However, you may find that you still have time after you’ve pitched to all the TV comedy people (for example), so you should also prepare a related back-up pitch, such as a comedy feature. You’re already there – don’t waste the opportunity.

Do your homework. Once you know whom you will pitch to, do some quick homework on them. Find out what they’ve produced, or in the case of agents and managers, who they represent. This will help you seem informed when you meet them. You might not know exactly who you will be talking to until you actually arrive on site, so be ready to check IMDBPro or similar databases.

Construct a great two-minute pitch. You generally get about five minutes with each table of buyers at most pitch fests. Prepare a tight two-minute pitch to give yourself plenty of time for introductions and questions. Two minutes is plenty to get someone interested in reading a spec if you do it properly. A good two-minute pitch should contain:

1. A brief personal connection explaining why you are interested in writing this story – implying why you are the best writer for the story and why others will be interested in seeing it.

2. The title, genre, and rating (for features) or format (for television). Don’t make them guess whether it’s comedy or drama, science fiction or horror, animated or live action. Tell them up front.

3. A great log line that contains the hook of your idea.

4. A sentence or two about the main character(s) implying why we will care about them.

5. The set up for the plot. You do not need to tell the ending (unless they ask). That’s what the script is for. Instead, give them the set up and end with a statement of where the story is going that can sustain a movie or TV show. For example: “So the soldier will have to make his way through enemy territory to find his true love and get her to safety.”

(For more information on constructing a two-minute pitch, see my book The Hollywood Pitching Bible – or attend one of the events above.)

Present yourself like a pro. Don’t over or under dress. The entertainment business is casual, so wearing an expensive suit to a meeting feels awkward. However, it never hurts to look sharp. You don’t want to look like you came from your job at the car wash... or from the nightclub. Dress nice-casual and business appropriate.

Also remember that you are selling yourself as well as your idea, particularly if you are looking for representation or to work in television. Be friendly and polite. Prep your introductory comments - do you have some experience relevant to your story? Did you go to a film school or win an award? Try to bring that kind of thing up (in a modest way) when you introduce yourself.

Avoid gimmicks. Your job as a writer is to just tell a good story. Artwork, mock trailers, costumes, Power Point presentations, or "clever" gifts will not impress anyone and may make you look amateurish. If bringing a photo or map or something like that helps you more easily explain your idea, that’s fine – but otherwise just focus on telling a story. You should bring business cards, possibly printed with your log line, but it’s usually better to get the business cards from the buyers and be the one in charge of making contact afterwards.

Network with other attendees. The obvious purpose of a pitch fest is to make contact with potential buyers or reps, but you may actually get more value out of meeting your fellow attendees. People tend to break into the business by making a network of friends at the lower levels of the industry who work their way up together, helping each other out. So don’t ignore opportunities to socialize with other attendees.

Following up. If you do the above things well, you will hopefully get several people to request your spec script. Follow up promptly, reminding them of your log line and your interesting background and qualifications in your cover letter or email. Then don’t bug them. A polite inquiry four weeks or so after sending material is fine, but it can take a while for people to read material. It has also, unfortunately, become commonplace for people to reject material by simply not replying at all. So following up once or twice after sending your spec is fine, but after that, take the hint.

It is very likely that everyone will pass on your script, but if anyone responds with encouraging words or compliments when they pass, be sure to follow up with a query when you have your next spec script done (hopefully not more than six months later). If they genuinely like your last script, they’ll remember you. Hollywood success is a marathon, not a sprint. Building fans is the path to a career. Overnight success is a myth.

Most of all, stay calm and try to have fun.