Go Into The Story Interview (Part 3): Jack Epps

My talk with the co-writer of Top Gun, Legal Eagles, The Secret of My Success.

In 2016 as part of the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts Visiting Artists Series, I had the pleasure and honor of moderating a Q&A panel with two screenwriting giants: Jack Epps, Jr. and Steven E. de Souza. I followed up with both to do a GITS interview. This week: Jack Epps.

Jack Epps, Jr. is an award winning writer and filmmaker who first became involved in making films while an undergraduate at Michigan State University. Inspired by a student film festival, Epps made his first film the following semester and has been making movies ever since. His student film The Pigs vs the Freaks, was purchased by NBC and made into a Movie of the Week, re-titled Off Sides. Epps produced and worked as second unit director on the film.

Upon arriving in California, Epps wrote an episode of Hawaii Five-O and Kojak. While continuing to pursue his writing, Epps also worked as a cinematographer and an assistant cameraman on various local productions. Epps had the good fortune to work for a period of time as a second unit cameraman and assistant cameraman for Orson Welles on Mr. Welles’ last film, The Other Side of the Wind.

Epps united with his screenwriting professor from Michigan State University, Jim Cash, and began writing screenplays together. After writing seven unproduced screenplays, their first produced screenplay was Top Gun which went on to become the #1 world wide box office hit in 1986. Within eleven months, the writing team of Cash & Epps had three produced screenplays in the theaters: Top Gun, Legal Eagles, and The Secret of My Success. As a screenwriter, Mr. Epps co-authored over 25 screenplays and eight produced motion pictures including Dick Tracy, Turner & Hooch, and Anaconda. Epps also did extensive revisions on Sister Act and Die Hard III.

While Epps is primarily known for co-authoring big actions movies, Epps equally enjoyed writing romantic charm and chase comedies inspired by the films of Hitchcock, Wilder and Sturges. Films like The Secret of My Success, Legal Eagles, Turner & Hooch, Viva Rock Vegas, and Sister Act are examples of the comedy of Cash & Epps. Recently, Epps wrote the video game Top Gun for the Sony PlayStation network. Epps has also written video games for THQ.

Epps had the pleasure to write for some of the most successful actors in the motion picture industry including Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, Michael J. Fox, Debra Winger, Al Pacino, Anthony Edwards, Bruce Willis, Meg Ryan, and John Voight. He also worked with such motion picture giants as Ivan Reitman, Jerry Breckheimer, Joel Silver, Herb Ross, Tony Scott and Dick Donner.

Epps was recently honored as the recipient of the first Victoria and Jack Oakie Endowed Chair in Comedy at the School of Cinematic Arts. Epps was the fall 2008 commencement speaker at the Michigan State University graduation ceremonies and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Michigan State University. In addition, Epps is recipient of the Michigan State University Spartans in Hollywood Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, the team of Cash & Epps was recently honored by the American Film Institute as one of the Top 100 Greatest Quotes in American Cinema for their line: “I feel the need… the need for speed.”

Epps is a thirty five year member of the Writer’s Guild of America, and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Today in Part 3, Jack and I discuss to other movies he worked on: Legal Eagles and The Secret of My Success:

Scott: You can tell the whole character-centric vibe that you and Jim brought to it just from hearing how you’re talking about it because the way that you focus on the characters, you think about Top Gun as a sports movie, these are these supreme athletes, the “no man is an island” as a theme, it gives the characters an arc, so you can see how somebody like Tom Cruise would attach himself to that project.

Jack: It’s the only movie I ever cast. I said to Jim when we wrote it, “Look, here’s this young actor by the name of Tom Cruise. He’s great. We should write this movie for Tom.” We wrote it with him in mind. When I gave the script to Jerry Bruckheimer, I said, “Think Tom Cruise.”

The producers loved it. Simpson called and said, “I will kill to get this movie made.” They agreed that Cruise was the guy, and so their brilliance was actually landing Tom. He initially didn’t want to do the movie and it took a while to get him to agree to do it.

The kicker was when we handed in the draft to the studio, they turned it down. They said, “There’s too many planes in the sky. Nobody wants to see all those planes.” They put it on the shelf. It did not get green‑lit. We were crushed. This was our seventh unproduced screenplay and it was dead. Fortunately, those executives left the studio and Frank Mancuso came in as head of Production. He looked in the cupboards and they were bare. Mancuso asked Simpson/Bruckheimer, “Guys, what have you got? We need to make a movie.” They handed him Top Gun and said they wanted to make it. Mancuso said, “Fine. Go ahead. Make it.”

Scott: That’s another little wonderful Hollywood trivia, man.

Jack: We did everything we possibly could to write a hit movie and then nothing. When the movie was initially put on the shelf, our agent put us in touch with the hottest director in town, which was Ivan Reitman, because he had just finished Ghostbusters. We were desperate to get a movie made, so it was like, “All right. Ivan makes movies, so whatever we’re going to do with Ivan, he’s going to make it.”

Scott: That’s Legal Eagles.

Jack: That’s Legal Eagles.

Scott: “A New York District attorney works and flirts with his adversary and her kooky artist client who’s on trial for a murder she didn’t commit.” You move from Tom Cruise to Robert Redford, and Debra Winger and Daryl Hannah, and working with Ivan Reitman, so that’s how you got involved in that. What do you remember from working on that project?

Jack: Ivan’s a wonderful guy. I really loved working with Ivan. Originally, he brought us on because he wanted to take the characters of Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray from Tootsie, and create a movie around them. So our first draft was a story between the two guys, with Bill Murray being sort of a wacko ambulance chasing attorney and Hoffman being a very uptight neurotic district attorney.

We got half way through the script and Ivan decides, “We’ve got to get the script to Bill and Dustin.” We didn’t want to send out an unfinished first draft. Not the way we liked to work, but Ivan is in charge. Bill looks at the script and he goes, “I hate attorneys. I’ll never play one.” Dustin Hoffman gets pulled away by Warren Beatty to make Ishtar, and suddenly we have no movie. Then Ivan calls and said, “What about if we do this as a romantic comedy for Robert Redford? Could we do that?” I said, “Yeah, we can do that.”

Scott: At this point are you thinking maybe you’re cursed? Like you’re never going to get a movie made?

Jack: Pretty much. It’s that hard to get a movie made. Much harder than everyone thinks. As the saying goes, it’s amazing movies get made at all. But Ivan is a very determined individual, and of course having Ghostbusters, they would have greenlit the phone book for Ivan. He wanted to do something a little different than the improv stuff, and so he was interested in working with someone like Redford.

Scott: You had two movies come out in 1986. That must have been some heady times for you.

Jack: It absolutely was. We were working in obscurity, seven unproduced screenplays and suddenly we have two films released in one year. Our first film produced is Top Gun and it becomes the number one box office in the world.

Scott: That leads to one of my favorite ones that you did, The Secret of My Success, which I just though was a wonderful movie starring Michael J. Fox. I guess it was pretty much at the height of his stardom of the TV show and Back to the Future, directed by Herbert Ross. Such a fun film. Could you maybe talk a bit about your involvement with The Secret of My Success”?

Jack: It was very exciting to be able to write for Michael J. Fox. It was interesting, sometimes things fall your way. Usually, they don’t, so because we had been working on Dick Tracy, we were very well known at Universal, and knew the Head of Production, Frank Price, who I think was one of the best executives of all time.

Frank had a project called “Family Affair.” They had a script they didn’t especially like, but they were going into production in eight weeks come hell or high water. Michael J. Fox had a hiatus from his TV show, Family Ties. They had to start on a certain day in June and finish on a certain day in August. They were going to shoot whatever script they had.

Early, I had pitched Frank Price an idea about a young kid trying to be his first jobs but they didn’t pick it up. Then Frank thought, “We can take that idea and marry it with The Secret of My Success.” Being that I love Billy Wilder, I wanted to my sort of homage to Some Like it Hot, and have a character who’s playing dual identities.

We came on board and basically wrote a script in six weeks. It was reboot from beginning to end. The director was Herb Ross. Herb was fabulous. Every director is a little different. Herbert basically came from Broadway, and so he was very friendly and respectful of the script.

Because they had this short window, I think the film has the truest Cash and Epps dialogue and captures our tone and comedy. Right director, right actor, right script.

Scott: It’s such an interesting comment that you make, the Billy Wilder connection, because once you said that he’s my favorite writer-director. Great run, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, but it has that sensibility. It’s kind of edgy, The Secret of My Success, and it’s got that conceit like Some Like It Hot, the dual role thing, so that’s very interesting that you made that comparison to Billy Wilder.

Jack: I hope young writers today know who Billy Wilder is and if they don’t, they should watch all of his work. For Jim and me, he was our go‑to person. We always asked: “What would Billy Wilder do?” Wilder had such an amazing career from drama to comedy. He could do anything and do it brilliantly, and move you in the process through character and wonderful stories. At the center of all his work was a character the audience could emotionally identify with.

With Secret of My Success, we had a director who could pull it off. There’s a farce scene at the end — a French farce where everyone’s changing bedrooms in this house. Very hard to write. Harder to direct. I was so pleased when I saw it in a premiere that Herbert just nailed this thing and made it work. You’ve got to have the right director to pull off something like that. It came together very well.

Scott: I’m so glad you mentioned that scene because I was going to mention it too. It’s like a classic farce. The director has a stage background and a play is like a classic farce, the whole thing. Everybody’s going from one room to the next. That’s great to hear.

Jack: It really was one of those things where it just happened, fell into our laps. We executed very quickly. We had clarity all the way though the writing and we were hitting on all cylinders. And we were writing for Michael J. Fox. What else can you say? We both really liked writing for specific actors. Really helped with the voice.

Here is the farce sequence in The Secret of My Success Jack and I discussed:

Tomorrow in Part 4, Jack talks about two other movies he worked on as a writer: Turner & Hooch, Dick Tracy.

For Part 1, go here.

Part 2, here.

For Jack’s book “Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision,” go here.


Go Into The Story Interview (Part 3): Jack Epps was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Go Into The Story Interview (Part 2): Jack Epps

My talk with the co-writer of Top Gun, Legal Eagles, The Secret of My Success.

In 2016 as part of the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts Visiting Artists Series, I had the pleasure and honor of moderating a Q&A panel with two screenwriting giants: Jack Epps, Jr. and Steven E. de Souza. I followed up with both to do a GITS interview. This week: Jack Epps.

Jack Epps, Jr. is an award winning writer and filmmaker who first became involved in making films while an undergraduate at Michigan State University. Inspired by a student film festival, Epps made his first film the following semester and has been making movies ever since. His student film The Pigs vs the Freaks, was purchased by NBC and made into a Movie of the Week, re-titled Off Sides. Epps produced and worked as second unit director on the film.

Upon arriving in California, Epps wrote an episode of Hawaii Five-O and Kojak. While continuing to pursue his writing, Epps also worked as a cinematographer and an assistant cameraman on various local productions. Epps had the good fortune to work for a period of time as a second unit cameraman and assistant cameraman for Orson Welles on Mr. Welles’ last film, The Other Side of the Wind.

Epps united with his screenwriting professor from Michigan State University, Jim Cash, and began writing screenplays together. After writing seven unproduced screenplays, their first produced screenplay was Top Gun which went on to become the #1 world wide box office hit in 1986. Within eleven months, the writing team of Cash & Epps had three produced screenplays in the theaters: Top Gun, Legal Eagles, and The Secret of My Success. As a screenwriter, Mr. Epps co-authored over 25 screenplays and eight produced motion pictures including Dick Tracy, Turner & Hooch, and Anaconda. Epps also did extensive revisions on Sister Act and Die Hard III.

While Epps is primarily known for co-authoring big actions movies, Epps equally enjoyed writing romantic charm and chase comedies inspired by the films of Hitchcock, Wilder and Sturges. Films like The Secret of My Success, Legal Eagles, Turner & Hooch, Viva Rock Vegas, and Sister Act are examples of the comedy of Cash & Epps. Recently, Epps wrote the video game Top Gun for the Sony PlayStation network. Epps has also written video games for THQ.

Epps had the pleasure to write for some of the most successful actors in the motion picture industry including Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, Michael J. Fox, Debra Winger, Al Pacino, Anthony Edwards, Bruce Willis, Meg Ryan, and John Voight. He also worked with such motion picture giants as Ivan Reitman, Jerry Breckheimer, Joel Silver, Herb Ross, Tony Scott and Dick Donner.

Epps was recently honored as the recipient of the first Victoria and Jack Oakie Endowed Chair in Comedy at the School of Cinematic Arts. Epps was the fall 2008 commencement speaker at the Michigan State University graduation ceremonies and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Michigan State University. In addition, Epps is recipient of the Michigan State University Spartans in Hollywood Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, the team of Cash & Epps was recently honored by the American Film Institute as one of the Top 100 Greatest Quotes in American Cinema for their line: “I feel the need… the need for speed.”

Epps is a thirty five year member of the Writer’s Guild of America, and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Today in Part 2, Jack talks about working on Top Gun and how that movie became such a phenomenon.

Scott: That segues right into this famous Cash and Epps relationship. When I broke in, you guys were on a roll. How could you describe how that worked? Because he’s teaching at Michigan State, you’re living in Hollywood. How did you make it work back then? I think it was much different pre‑Internet, but how did that happen?

Jack: Jim and I invented the Internet.

[laughter]

Scott: It wasn’t Al Gore?

Jack: No, that was us. After taking Jim’s class at Michigan State, we stayed in touch. He would read my scripts and I would read his novels. Jim was a real wordsmith and it was always a pleasure to read his writing. I went out to California and when Jim heard I had written a Hawaii Five-O, he suggested we write together.

After Andy and I parted ways, Jim and I stated talking long distance, but nothing really happened. The distance seemed formidable. I went back to Michigan to pick up my motorcycle and drive it back to California. I drove up from Detroit to East Lansing to visit with Jim. We pitched eight ideas at the MSU Union Grill but none of them stuck. While I riding across the country on my motorcycle, one of Jim’s ideas clicked and when I got to California I called him and said let’s give it a try.

At the very beginning, we didn’t know how to work together. We had no money for long distance phone calls which were really expensive because of the AT&T monopoly. We sent cassette tapes and pages through the mails. At the same time, we both had to pay bills. I was doing a lot of crew work to pay my bills. Because I had made a lot of short movies, I was very good with cameras. I was cameraman and an assistant cameraman In fact, I was assistant cameraman for Orson Welles on his movie The Other Side of the Wind. So my crew work took me to interesting places. Jim was still in East Lansing, Michigan working as a writer/producer at a local PBS TV station.

It took us about two and a half years and five drafts, to finally figure out how this relationship worked. I like to say we had a “words and music” relationship. I wrote the music and Jim wrote the lyrics. We’d talk the script through over the phone so we agreed on what it was about. At first, we sent pages to each other through the mails and talked by phone. We broke down our responsibilities so we would do hand offs and then come together when each of us completed our work. We’d go away and work on our own and then come back together. Invariably, we would have the same solution time and time again. I think the key to our collaboration is that we had the same taste and the same instincts. We also did different functions so we didn’t compete with each other as a team. There was Cash, Epps, and Cash & Epps.

It wasn’t until much later, after Top Gun, that computers came in and we could link up our computers and work on the same page at the same time. That was a miracle and save a whole bunch of time.

Scott: What about those times when, say, you may have disagreed like on a particular story point? How did you go about resolving that?

Jack: We’d just hang up the phone.

[laughter]

Scott: Whoever hung up first wins.

Jack: I’ve worked with partners in the room, and one of the tough things about that is, it’s a lot of face time with somebody. The fact that Jim lived in East Lansing, and I lived in Santa Monica, meant that we didn’t have to have social lives together. On the weekends, we didn’t have to get together. It really allowed us to get away from each other and then come together to do the work. Usually, we’d come back and have the same solution to a story or character problem.

We agreed more than disagreed, and ultimately on a partnership, it became about passion. If one of us was so passionate about an idea and said, “No, I think this is the way it should be done,” we’d do it. We’d try it, and the worst was it didn’t work. Once we made a decision, it was “our” decision. If it didn’t work, we’d share it. We didn’t mind taking chances and running some things out, seeing how the story worked. We weren’t in a hurry. Let’s get it right. Best idea wins. We really learned quickly to bury the ego.

For instance, I wanted to do Top Gun. Jim had a fear of flying, so he really didn’t see it. His initial instinct was, “I don’t get the movie.” I had my private pilot’s license — I’m a pilot — I got the movie. I had the passion. He said, “All right, let’s do it.” Then on Turner and Hooch, Jim had three dogs, “Oh, I want to do a dog movie. I love dogs.” I’m going, “I don’t really want to do a dog movie,” but he was passionate, so I said, “All right. Let’s do it.” But once we committed, 100 percent in. We both owned it success or failure. No recriminations.

Scott: Let’s talk about this. I want to focus on five movies that you had in a string of five years. It was a great run. As I say, I broke into the business in1987, so I was able to watch this firsthand unfolding. Of course, Top Gun, which has become a cultural phenomenon, you really hit the floor running with that in 1986.

I think it’s like three‑quarters of a billion dollars in box office revenue if you figure the adjusted gross for today. The movie stars Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, director Tony Scott. I know you have an aviation background, so how did you intersect with that project?

Jack: I had a breakfast meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg. At the time, we were working on Dick Tracy. Tracy was a co‑production between Universal and Paramount, so I got to know Katzenberg at Paramount, and Jeffrey liked the work that we had done on Tracy.

So we had one of those 8:00 AM breakfast meetings. He had 10 ideas that he threw out, and Top Gun looked interesting because I had my pilot’s license. We had six unproduced screen plays up to that point, and I sort of figured that if the movie didn’t get made, I get a Navy jet ride out of it. Very hard to get up in a Navy fighter jet. But we didn’t say yes immediately. I was very concerned about whether this would get made. We had six unproduced screenplays and needed to get a movie produced.

So we set come conditions. One of the concerns was that we felt that if we couldn’t get the Navy’s planes, if we couldn’t get the Navy’s cooperation, then the movie would never get made. The movie to be shot at 28,000 feet or it wouldn’t work. The producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, agreed. So, we went to the Pentagon, we met the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, talked to admirals, pitched them this heroic movie about these pilots, and they said, “OK. Great. We’ll give you all the gear you want.” That was nice.

Then I was concerned about the movie, The Right Stuff, coming out. I had read the book and the Chuck Yeager story had a lot of the same fighter pilot elements. The producers got me the script and I read it, and said, “OK, this is a very different movie.”

At this time we had a lot of work, and were turning down offers virtually every week, so we said, “OK, we’ll write you this movie, but we’re not going to pitch it to you. We’re not going to show you pages. You’ve got to trust us and let us go and just figure out this movie.” We all agreed the movie was about “the best of the best,” “the highest level of competition” and it would end in a real fight. Those were the only working orders, and because we had said “no” so many times, they said, “OK, we’ll agree to it.” Then I went and did a ton of research. I went on the base and flew on navy jets several times.

That’s when the breakthrough happened. The pilots love to take you upside down or flip you around, and pull eight Gs, and do all sorts of crazy stuff. I mean, they were taking me for my first ride and they kept saying, “Oh, we’re not supposed to be doing this but…” and then they go do something crazy.

I was so exhausted when I got off from the G forces, all the upside‑down, and the physical exhaustion of it all. I immediately called Jim and said, “This is not what we thought this was. We’re not some guy sitting in a cockpit. This is a sport, and these guys are the world’s greatest athletes, and this is what this movie is about.”

That became our metaphor. So for me, Top Gun is a sports movie. It’s about these amazing athletes trying to figure out who’s the best athlete. It’s really a team movie. That’s sort of how we found the heart of that movie.

Scott: I don’t think I’ve ever heard that particular take on it, but it makes perfect sense. It is a sports movie, isn’t it?

Jack: It is. I was a goaltender at Michigan State. I was a walk on and made the freshman team and beat out the scholarship kid from Canada for the position. As a goal tender, you have to be the starter. There’s only one guy on the ice. Sitting on the bench is not an option.

[laughter]

Jack: Jim was a quarterback in high school, so he was that guy. To be a starter you have to be the last man standing. The script was really personal for us. We understood the psychology of it. That’s also why there was a lot of locker room scenes because as an athlete, things happen in the locker room. You put your game face on, and you get ready to play, or you have the consequences of a bad game.

Scott: Did you have any idea, when you were writing this, that it was going to become the phenomenon that it did?

Jack: No. Absolutely not. It was just a movie. No one was paying a lot of attention. That’s why Don and Jerry said, “Yeah, go off and write this thing.” No one really cared about it. It was another movie in development. When was the last time anyone had a hit aviation movie?

I think the best thing we did was not pitch the movie. If we had pitched the movie, it would have been an entirely different movie. I would have pitched a plot like saving the admiral or some mission driven plot. Instead, it really was about this extraordinary world and these amazing pilots, and all that came out of the research. It’s really about this man’s journey. “No man is an island” was our theme. But because we were left alone to discover the movie, we became absorbed with the pilots and found the story between them and not the action.

The Top Gun pilots were some of those most amazing, charismatic, crazy people I’d ever met in my life. And the stories they told were just remarkable. One of the other keys in doing the research was that when they talked about losing somebody, somebody they had lost on cruise, or who has been shot down over Vietnam, their countenance completely changed. They became silent. You could feel it still hurt and how deeply it affected them. I realized that my goal as a writer was to capture the emotion these guys felt and put that up on the screen. If I could get the audience to feel the sense of loss that these pilots felt, I would have achieved something.

Not only did I want to have Maverick’s heart broken, but I wanted to break the audience’s heart broken so they had a stake in it emotionally, too. Then when Maverick loses his confidence, and is overwhelmed by his guilt for Goose’s death, the audience feels it, too. We also broken one of the cardinal rules of motion pictures which is don’t kill off the most popular character in a movie.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Jack shares some stories about two other movies he wrote as part of Cash & Epps: Legal Eagles and The Secret of My Success.

For Part 1, go here.

For Jack’s book “Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision,” go here.


Go Into The Story Interview (Part 2): Jack Epps was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Mickey Fisher on Writing, Selling, and Producing a TV Pilot Spec Script — Part 1

7-part series on going from original TV pilot script to network series.

Mickey Fisher

On May 24, 2013, I posted about a TV pilot spec script which had Hollywood all abuzz:

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the Hollywood development world — movies and TV — nothing shifts the tectonic plates of The Biz more than a spec script that gets people salivating over it. It’s also a time when writers can learn an awful lot about the buying pulse of Hollywood.

Such is the case right now as Hollywood froths over a 56-page spec TV pilot “Extant” written by newcomer Mickey Fisher. Background from TheWrap [emphasis added]:

Mickey Fisher, an unknown and unsigned writer until recently, has film studios drooling over his script “Extant” for weeks. There’s just one twist: it’s not a film script.

Fisher wrote “Extant” as a TV pilot. It’s a one-hour sci-fi drama about John and Molly Watts and their son, a human-like robot named Ethan. Molly, the space-traveling wife, is also pregnant with a baby that is part human and part alien. The family intrigue deepens in subsequent episodes.

Multiple agencies sought to sign the writer after reading the script, and WME won out. WME and manager Brooklyn Weaver, who discovered Fisher, sent the script around to the studios who are hot to trot for a high-concept script mixing sci-fi and familial drama.

“Everyone is freaking out about it,” an agent at a rival firm said. “It’s ‘A.I.’ as a TV series.”

— —

Warner Bros. still made an offer to acquire the project and turn it into a movie, according to multiple individuals inside and outside the studio, but now the studio is talking with Fisher about acquiring a different pitch. The studio declined to comment.

WME and Weaver always harbored dreams of turning “Extant” into a TV series with Steven Spielberg producing. They are halfway there: Amblin TV, which produced “ER” and “The Americans,” is developing and packaging it. It remains unclear if Spielberg will take a credit, though his involvement would make it even more attractive to networks.

Here is Mickey Fisher. Apparently he is a Hollywood outsider. He writes a spec TV pilot script. It turns the town on its head. Now he has interest from movie studios. TV networks. Perhaps “acquiring a different pitch.” Steven Freaking Spielberg.

That script turned into a CBS series which ran for two seasons.

In 2016, Mickey Fisher — a long-time fan of the blog — posted this:

It’s a tremendous read with lots of information and insights into the craft, so I reached out to Mickey and he agreed to let me serialize his entire missive. It’s a great story and I’ll use the opportunity to spotlight the many takeaways Mickey touches on in his observations.

Today in Part 1: Mickey talks about his background as a writer and delves into the process of writing the script for “Extant”:

WHY I WROTE THIS:

Over the past few years I’ve had requests from people asking if I had time to sit down for coffee so they could pick my brain about my experience creating and selling EXTANT. It’s often difficult to make that happen in person so I decided to write down common pieces of advice I received or parts of my story that might help someone else. If you don’t know my story…

The short version is: I went to college for Musical Theater at The University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music. While I was there a lot of my professors told me that because I was a character actor it might be awhile before I was right for a lot of the roles I’d be playing, maybe it wouldn’t even happen until my forties. So I decided to start writing roles for myself instead. By the time I finished school I wanted to be a writer as much as I wanted to be an actor, and over the next twenty years learned to write plays, movies and television. The day I turned forty years old I sold my first big script, a tv pilot for a new show called EXTANT. One of the Executive Producers was Steven Spielberg, it starred Oscar Winner Halle Berry, and got a straight to series order for thirteen episodes from CBS. I was made an Executive Producer as well and spent two years learning how to make television at the highest level. It was my first job in Hollywood.

A lot of people are going to tell you that it NEVER happens that way. But Goddamnit, it DID happen and to quote David Mamet from THE EDGE, “What one man (or woman) can do, another man (or woman) can do.” So I’m passing along what I learned from my personal experience. I know it’s not going to happen for everyone the same way and there will be plenty here that other people will disagree with. This is just one guy’s overall experience from writing the pilot to selling it. It doesn’t cover making the show. I’m offering it to you in the hope that some part of it may be useful. I won’t make any assumptions about your experience/expertise, apologies if this seems like basic common sense or stuff you already know. I’ll start with…

HOW I WROTE THE SCRIPT:

By the time I sat down to really write my first pilot, I realized that I knew very little about writing television. I’d been writing plays for almost twenty years and writing feature films for nearly that long. As much as I LOVED television I didn’t know how to write it. So I spent a few months really looking at the structure and rhythm of my favorite shows. I took a number of episodes of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, BREAKING BAD and DOCTOR WHO and watched them with a remote in one hand and a notebook in the other. I made note of how many acts there were in each one, how many scenes were in an act, and the approximate length of each scene. I did this over and over again, with probably twenty episodes in all over three months.

After that, I wrote a pilot for a show called HOPEWELL that was kind of a practice pilot about a small midwestern town where strange supernatural things began to occur. At the time I was using CELT-X screenwriting software on my iPad and it had a template for a Bible, with sub-categories for Characters, Timelines, etc. I got into filling all of those things out, imagining the world and the longer arcs for the characters. That first one was just ok.

Then I followed one of the most important pieces of writing you can get: write the show or movie you would want to watch. Until then I’d been writing what I knew, keeping my stories small and contained, stuff I could shoot on my own for very little money in my hometown in Ohio. But I realized that the stuff I was writing is not the first thing I would go see if I was looking at a film festival brochure or deciding what to see on a Friday night. I was a genre guy, have been my whole life. My earliest memory (other than my youngest sister being brought home from the hospital for the first time) is seeing STAR WARS. In fact, I’m listening to THE FORCE AWAKENS soundtrack as I write this. So what came out was a sci-fi thriller about what it means to be human, wrapped up in a story about a female astronaut who goes to space on a solo mission and comes back pregnant to her husband and android child.

I wrote the first draft of the pilot over a month and then did a lot of rewriting after. I was conscious about laying the pipelines for a serialized story and where these characters might go and conscious about the world the story took place in. A lot of the technology was grounded in stuff I was reading on Wired or finding on Reddit, stuff that’s going to be available to everyone in the near future. I didn’t realize it at the time but grounding it in reality was a big selling point.

After the pilot was finished, I did one of the most important things I could have ever done. On instinct, I wrote a 6 page or so SEASON/SERIES OVERVIEW DOCUMENT for myself, imagining where this story and these characters would go after the pilot. Only my girlfriend and a couple of friends knew anything about the script at this point, so this was strictly for myself, to help me understand more about what I was doing. I was basically taking what was in the Celt-X bible template but putting it in prose form, like a treatment. It wasn’t until over a year later that I realized HOW IMPORTANT this step was. In the end, it would prove to be important not just as a presentation document but it also gave me a bedrock of information to mine in future meetings when people asked insightful questions about where it was all going. I hear some writers talk about having a full six or seven season arc planned out for the characters and that all sounds great, but in my experience, you don’t need that much. You want to show you have an understanding and know WHY you made the choices that you did. It’s ok to not have ALL the answers and you also want to leave room for collaboration.

Because I had fallen in love with these characters, I took it one step further: I wrote a second episode for myself, basically creating my own fan fiction for a show that didn’t exist yet. Very few people know about it and we never used it other than mining it for a few ideas later, like Ethan getting into a public school and the problems that arose. But again, it gave me more ammunition for going into later meetings. I’ve heard writers ask about writing their whole season of scripts on spec and I even thought about that myself once. I can tell you now that going that far would have been a waste of time. Once you start working with other people there are all kinds of new ideas and notes about things that aren’t working. For instance, I had originally intended the character eventually named Yasumoto to be a kind of “man who fell to Earth” character, an alien from a different species. If I’d written thirteen episodes based on that being an enormous part of the mythology, I would have had to go back to square one. And that’s long before you get to issues with actors, production demands, audiences not responding to characters, etc. I don’t think you need to write more than one. Two at the most.

Again, looking back, I lucked into doing this for myself even though no one was asking for it. Once the pilot script started getting me meetings, I was hit with tons of questions about where I thought the story was going. Because I had done all of this work, I had a ton of answers. I think that’s a large part of why I got to stick around for as long as I did. I had a vision for what this could be and after living with it and doing this kind of work I was able to articulate it.

Takeaways:

  • By the time I sat down to really write my first pilot, I realized that I knew very little about writing television: One of the keys to writing well is being honest about what parts of the craft you know… and what you don’t know. Since you are competing against the best screenwriters and TV writers in the world, you need to do whatever you must to up your game in all areas and on all fronts.
  • I spent months really looking at the structure and rhythm of my favorite shows: If you want to learn story structure for TV or film, there is perhaps no better way than actually watching produced content and breaking it down — act by act, scene by scene. William Goldman famously said, “Screenplays are structure,” and this truism pertains as much, if not even more, to television as it does to movies.
  • I got into… imagining the world and the longer arcs for the characters: When you write a TV pilot or a movie, you are in effect creating a story universe. Even if that universe is a common American suburb, you need to immerse yourself in lives its characters and the specifics of that sub-culture because in that way, you reveal the unique, compelling personality of that place and its people, transforming what appears to be typical into something distinctive and entertaining.
  • Write the show or movie you would want to watch: Don’t just write any story, rather find one you are passionate about… and write that. That is likely the only way you will have the stamina and persistence to write and rewrite it until it’s great. Moreover when your passion comes through a script, the words magically lift up off the page directly into the minds-eye of the reader.
  • So what came out was a sci-fi thriller about what it means to be human: While your story may very well have multiple themes, find the one which lies at the core of its emotional meaning. That can be the touchstone you use to inform every major and even minor choice you make in writing your script.
  • A lot of the technology was grounded in stuff I was reading on Wired or finding on Reddit: Do your research. While you may not be writing a documentary, your story universe has to feel authentic, and to gain the trust of a reader, you must demonstrate to a reader you know this place and these characters.
  • I wrote a 6 page or so SEASON/SERIES OVERVIEW DOCUMENT for myself, imagining where this story and these characters would go after the pilot… Because I had fallen in love with these characters, I took it one step further: I wrote a second episode for myself: This recalls the Iceberg Theory of Writing wherein the script itself represents 10% of the iceberg which appears above the surface of the water, but all your character and plot work amounts to the 90% below the surface. Again immerse yourself in the story universe, know your characters, and imagine what each of their narrative fates could be.

In sum, do enough to hit the sweet spot Mickey did by the time he had gotten his spec script into shape to send it out into the world: I had a vision for what this could be and after living with it and doing this kind of work I was able to articulate it.

Tomorrow in Part 2, Mickey reveals what happened after he wrote the script and how that jump-started a process which eventually led to “Extant” becoming a prime-time major broadcast network TV series.

Mickey is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.

Twitter: @MickeyFisher73.

UPDATE: Mickey recreated his magic with a spec TV project called “Reverie”:

Like Extant, Reverie originated as a spec. Penned by Fisher, it is described as a grounded and dramatic thriller about a former detective specializing in human behavior who is brought in when the launch of an advanced virtual reality program has dangerous and unintended consequences.

— —

Fisher was an unknown writer when sci-fi spec Extant won an online screenwriting contest and was picked up by Amblin TV, sparking a bidding war before landing at CBS with a straight-to-series order with Halle Berry signing on to star.

Similarly, Fisher sent the first draft of Reverie to Frank and Falvey, who boarded the project to develop and produce the script. It was taken out to the marketplace during pitch season, garnering interest from multiple networks and ultimately landing at NBC.

It appears lightning DOES strike twice!

Comment Archive


Mickey Fisher on Writing, Selling, and Producing a TV Pilot Spec Script — Part 1 was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story - Medium

Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge: Story Prep (Part 9) —Get Your Head On Straight

A series to help prepare writers for next month’s writing challenge.

Do you have a story you want to write? A feature length movie screenplay? An original TV pilot? A web series pilot? A novel? Short story? An epic length limerick?

The Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge is for you!

AND IT STARTS TOMORROW!!!

September 1: You type FADE IN / “Once upon a time…”
September 30: You type FADE OUT / “…They all lived happily ever after.”

It’s free! It’s fun! It’s Fade In to Fade Out!

For everything you need to know to join, click here.

To help prepare writers for the #ZD30SCRIPT Challenge, the last two weeks, I’ve been running a series on Story Prep.

Today in Part 9: Get Your Head On Straight

Here’s the deal. No first draft of any written project — novel, short story, play, feature length screenplay, TV pilot script, poem — is EVER going to be perfect. It is ALWAYS going to need to be rewritten.

This is the key to getting your head on straight about writing anything, but especially something you’re going to write in 30 days.

The perfectionist in you may recoil at the very idea of writing something which is imperfect. But as this famous screenwriting guru notes below:

It’s a FACT! What we do in the Zero Draft Thirty Challenge is EMBRACE that fact. So if our first draft is going to be imperfect… indeed, writing a draft in thirty days, there’s a very good chance it’s going to suck…

Then lean into that mofo and call it a ZERO DRAFT!

What you write in the next month is not even expected to be a first draft, rather it’s a pre-first draft.

A vomit draft. A muscle draft. A Zero Draft!

The point of the #ZD30SCRIPT challenge is to put down words and p0und out pages. No judgment. No negativity. No perfectionism.

30 days of removing the weight of expectations with one single goal:

GET THE DAMN THING DONE!

Fade In. Fade Out.

So THAT is what I mean by getting your head on straight for this Challenge. Spend a month punting perfectionism and replace it with productivity. Word after word… page after page…

Just. Write.

The Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge officially begins tonight at Midnight Eastern Daylight Time (U.S.). I’ll note that on Twitter with our official hashtag: #ZD30SCRIPT.

Tomorrow I will post the first of 30 daily Zero Draft Thirty Challenge posts here on the blog during the month of September.

Also at Midnight (EDT) Friday, September 1, many of the good folks at the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook group will be taking turns hosting our monthly 24 Hour Writing Scamper-A-Thon. To learn more, go here.

Part 1: “What if…”
Part 2: Gender-Bending
Part 3: Genre-Bending
Part 4: Think International
Part 5: Franchise
Part 6: Character Development
Part 7: Index Cards

Have you got your story concept waxed and ready to rock and roll in the Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge? Come back here every day in September to share the experience with a slew of other writers.

Zero Draft Thirty Challenge: Punt Perfectionism, Pump-Up Productivity.

Twitter: #ZD30SCRIPT.

Facebook: Zero Draft Thirty.

Onward!


Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge: Story Prep (Part 9) —Get Your Head On Straight was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge: Story Prep (Part 8) — Script Diary

A series to help prepare writers for next month’s writing challenge.

Do you have a story you want to write? A feature length movie screenplay? An original TV pilot? A web series pilot? A novel? Short story? An epic length limerick?

The Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge is for you!

September 1: You type FADE IN / “Once upon a time…”
September 30: You type FADE OUT / “…They all lived happily ever after.”

It’s free! It’s fun! It’s Fade In to Fade Out!

For everything you need to know to join, click here.

To help prepare writers for the #ZD30SCRIPT Challenge, this week and next, I’ll be running a series on Story Prep.

Today in Part 8: Script Diary.

The last thing I do before I type FADE IN is create yet a Word file, which I call Script Diary.

I come to the diary to start every writing session. I visit it when I get stuck. I return to it when I hit on a story revelation. Day after day, I use my script diary to chronicle the writing of the story.

At the start of a writing session, I note the date and time in the script diary, then get my fingers and brain loosened up by typing up my thoughts about the scene I am about to tackle. I’ll remind myself what type of scene it is, which characters are participating in it, what each of their agendas is, who is playing what story function for that scene, how the scene relates to the overall plot, what the central point of the scene is, and so on. As I’m doing that, normally lines of dialogue pop to mind and I’ll put those down — so in essence I’m pre-drafting the scene, and can take that sketch to my script file and use it to write the actual scene.

I also use the script diary to track my emotional connection to the story. For instance, I may be worried about whether the scene I’m about to write will work or not. I may be concerned that one of the characters doesn’t feel quite right. If I’m stuck, I use the diary as a place to express my fears about the story; in fact, if I’m really stuck, I’ll ‘ask’ the characters, right there in my diary, to talk to me, show me what they want or need.

Now you may think I’m crazy — talking to my characters, asking them for help! But ever since I’ve started using a script diary, my experience of my story’s characters has become that much more… real, I suppose is the best way to describe it.

Whenever I am stuck, I start writing in my script diary, and invariably I become aware of my characters. Suddenly, one of them will turn and halfway glance at me or motion, and I’ll ‘follow’ them.

What I am saying is that my characters lead me deeper into my story. They show me the way. And the script diary is a crucial part of that experience because, I think, I am opening myself up to my characters, creating a ‘dialogue’ with them on those diary pages.

And there’s something else that’s very cool about a script diary: when you’re done with the project, you’ve got this journal of the entire writing process. You can go back to see and feel the actual moments where you found a breakthrough, where you busted through a story block, where your characters spoke to you.

Like everything else in this succession of posts, a script diary may not work for you. However, I encourage you to try it at least once. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

My embrace of the importance of story prep led me to create — to my knowledge — the first online workshop of its type — Prep: From Concept to Outline. During the academic year, I offer it as a private one-on-one workshop. If interested, email me.

Which brings us back to the Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge.

Part 1: “What if…”
Part 2: Gender-Bending
Part 3: Genre-Bending
Part 4: Think International
Part 5: Franchise
Part 6: Character Development
Part 7: Index Cards

Have you got your story concept waxed and ready to rock and roll in the Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge? Come back here every day in September to share the experience with a slew of other writers.

Zero Draft Thirty Challenge: Pound Perfectionism, Pump-Up Productivity.

Twitter: #ZD30SCRIPT.

Facebook: Zero Draft Thirty.

Onward!

And don’t forget to join the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook Group.


Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge: Story Prep (Part 8) — Script Diary was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Become a Workflow Master, Part 1: Before the Edit

Mastering post-production workflow can be a lifesaver for any project.

Becoming a post-production workflow master may not sound super exciting, but the time, energy, and frustration that you can save by mastering your own workflow will lead a more successful, less stressful, and more efficient post-production experience.

When I launched my video production company, it was a solo operation so my workflow didn’t need to be super clean. Today, Fractal Visuals has grown into a phenomenal and talented team of over 15 cinematographers, editors, and support crew. Creating a universal, ultra-clean, and unwavering workflow was a critical part of this growth. For any production company, a carefully crafted workflow ensures maximum productivity, no failures of communication, rapid turnaround times, and quality organization for archiving.

A carefully crafted workflow ensures maximum productivity.

Read More

No Film School

Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge: Story Prep (Part 3) — Genre-Bending

A series to help prepare writers for next month’s writing challenge.

Do you have a story you want to write? A feature length movie screenplay? An original TV pilot? A web series pilot? A novel? Short story? An epic length limerick?

The Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge is for you!

September 1: You type FADE IN / “Once upon a time…”
September 30: You type FADE OUT / “…They all lived happily ever after.”

It’s free! It’s fun! It’s Fade In to Fade Out!

For everything you need to know to join, click here.

To help prepare writers for the #ZD30SCRIPT Challenge, this week and next, I’ll be running a series on Story Prep.

Today in Part 3, Genre-Bending.

Here are excerpts from my Core II: Concept course:

Bending a story’s genre offers even more opportunities to recycle concepts as there are eight different primary genres. Here is that list:

Action
Comedy
Drama
Family
Fantasy
Horror
Science Fiction
Thriller

Let’s look at the logline of the 2010 Warner Bros. comedy Due Date:

IMDb plot summayr: High-strung father-to-be Peter Highman is forced to hitch a ride cross-country with aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay in order to make it to his child’s birth on time.

Let’s go down the list of the other main genres to see what gender-bending variations we come up with:

Action: Peter is forced to hitch a ride with Ethan on a road trip in order to make it to his child’s birth on time, only to discover Ethan is wanted by the FBI, sparking a frenzied cross-country manhunt.

Drama: Filled with self-doubts about his ability to be a father, Peter discovers heretofore unknown parental instincts by tending to Ethan’s emotional needs and psychological wounds on their cross-country trip to get Peter home in time for the birth of his child.

Family: Peter is forced to hitch a ride with Ethan, a single father traveling with his infant septuplets creating hijinks and mayhem on a cross-country trek to get Peter home in time for the birth of his child.

Fantasy: Desperate to get back in time for the birth of his child, Peter’s cry for help is answered when Ethan shows up, claiming to be the Stork King, patron saint of fathers-to-be, driving Peter on a magical cross-country trip home.

Horror: Driving cross-country to get home in time for the birth of his child, Peter stops at a backwater town to get his car repaired, only to discover the mechanic Ethan is a psychopath with deep-seated father issues.

Science Fiction: Peter desperately tries to get home for the birth of his child, but he begins to believe he has been abducted by aliens who have implanted the story of his potential fatherhood in his brain — for some ulterior motive.

Thriller: Peter is forced to drive a rental car across country to get home in time for the birth of his child, but runs afoul of a hostile motorcycle driver Ethan who pursues Peter in a deadly game of chase.

Okay, not the greatest ideas in the world and doubtless you could come up with some better ones. But these variations make the point: An idea becomes a different story if you switch its genre.

Here are a few more examples of genre-bending:

Bend the comedy What About Bob (a patient injects himself into life of his therapist) into a thriller and you get the set-up to The Sixth Sense.

Bend the drama The Verdict (an underdog lawyer takes on a case in which he’s over his head) into a comedy and you get something like My Cousin Vinny.

Bend the comedy Real Genius (Teenage geniuses deal with their abilities) into a drama and you’re in The Social Network territory.

Since remaking 80’s movies is another current trend in Hollywood and we’ve already dusted off 3 Men and a Baby and 9 to 5, let’s do an exercise where we genre-bend some hit movies from three decades ago:

How about the Action-Science Fiction movie The Terminator:

A human-looking, apparently unstoppable cyborg is sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor.

What if we bend that into a Comedy?

A human-looking cyborg from the future is sent to kill Sam Connor, only the frat boy teaches the robot how to party down in college.

How about the Romantic Comedy When Harry Met Sally:

Harry and Sally have known each other for years, and are very good friends, but they fear sex would ruin the friendship.

What if we bend that into a Thriller?

When longtime friends Harry and Sally finally have sex, she sees it as a one-time fling while he becomes a jealous stalker.

How about Drama Stand By Me?

After the death of a friend, a writer recounts a boyhood journey to find a body of a missing boy.

What if we bend that into the Horror genre?

A group of youths find the body of a missing boy, inadvertently bringing it back to life — with bloody consequences.

More than a few times when working with a writer, I’ve found their initial take on a story concept was improved simply by switching its genre. So what if you are slogging your way through a story and it seems to be going nowhere? Why not step back and out of the writing process, and consider if the story wouldn’t be better served as a different genre?

Also look at the roster of your story concepts, the ones you hope to work on one day. Before committing to them, why not put each other through the genre-bending exercise. Or perhaps you’ve kicked a few concepts to the side because upon further review, you decided they stunk. What if you switch their genre? Maybe they come back to life?

Tomorrow I’ll have another story prep tip.

Part 1: “What if…”

Part 2: Gender-Bending

Have you got your story concept waxed and ready to rock and roll in the Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge? Come back here every day in September to share the experience with a slew of other writers.

Zero Draft Thirty Challenge: Pound Perfectionism, Pump-Up Productivity.

Twitter: #ZD30SCRIPT.

Facebook: Zero Draft Thirty.

Onward!


Zero Draft Thirty 2017 September Challenge: Story Prep (Part 3) — Genre-Bending was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5)

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Tuesday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Wednesday we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process. Thursday we considered writers who carry a concern about theme: Not to come off as “preachy”. Today writers who emphasize the importance of theme being personal.

Stephanie Shannon: “Theme is really important to me. They emerged in my research– learning about what made “Alice in Wonderland” different from other children’s stories and learning about what was really special about Lewis Carroll and what was going on at Oxford at the time. In my research I found so many interesting things to mine in the story. I think I ended up embracing the themes that also meant something to me personally. Father/daughter relationships are an important theme with me. I think it was important to me that the theme not only serve the story but also was something that was close to my own heart personally. I think those are always the stories that I want to tell, that I’ll end up telling the best.”

Brian Duffield: “Usually it’s a theme I want to explore because it’s really locked into my head as a person, as something I’m going through or struggling or interested with, so even if I throw out the characters or genre surrounding that theme a dozen times, the theme stays intact because it’s an itch I need to scratch.”

Seth Lochhead: “I leave theme to my subconscious (I’ll let it come out as I pursue the more tangible elements of the story — although according to my previous answers, tangible doesn’t seem to be one of my writing pursuits). If I’m obsessed with something, if I’ve noticed something, some illness in the world, some crack in reality, I let it in and if it wants to come out in my work so be it.”

Spenser Cohen: “Movies are there to teach us about the human condition, what it’s like to be in difficult or impossible situations… Every writer has their own life experiences, their own point of view, so the way they see the world often dictates the theme.”

Geoff LaTulippe: “The good news is that, in talented writers, I think theme comes out organically. It’s not something you have to force. But it is something you have to consider, or why are you writing the fucking thing in the first place? Why bother?”

Takeaway:

  • You are more likely to write an empowered script if you have an emotional connection to its themes.
  • You can also reverse this: If you can identify your points of emotional connection to a story, there’s a good chance some of its themes are to be found there.

For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Par 4, here.

For more insights from Black List writers on the craft, go here.


Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3)

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Yesterday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Today we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process.

Eric Heisserer: “Theme. That’s something that I have such a hard time engineering. If I were given nothing but the tool of ‘Here’s the theme. Write something with this theme,’ that’s an impossible task for me. I can’t start a story with that. I can figure out later on, after I’ve written a story, what the theme is. I can’t start with that in the forefront of my brain. It doesn’t work for me as a storyteller. I think other people can. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for anybody else. I’m just saying it’s not how I’m wired.

James DiLapo: “I think theme is immensely important, but for me, it’s not always readily apparent when I begin the process. With ‘Devils At Play’ we were talking about the idea of redemption, that there can be angels and devils inside our own personalities and societies. That, for me, is the theme of the story, but I didn’t know it when I began. Eventually the story itself will tell you what the theme is.”

Nikole Beckwith: “I think it definitely evolves over time. I’m sure that there are things that I carry around with me while I’m writing and they emerge on their own, I don’t say, ‘I’m going to write something that explores identity.’ That’s all I do, immerse myself in it.”

Aaron Guzikowski: “Definitely that they emerge whenever I’m writing the story. I definitely think a little bit about it at the beginning, but usually it’s more after you’re writing the story, the theme just emerges. If it’s a story that’s working, then themes generally just start to bleed out of it, and they just present themselves to you. They just appear.”

Julia Hart: “My students would always get frustrated when we would talk about the themes that the author was using. They would always ask, ‘Did they really think about all this before they started writing it?’ And I don’t think that they do or I don’t think that good writers do. Of course when you’re writing a cohesive world the themes are going to rise out of it.”

Lisa Joy: “I don’t necessarily start with theme, but by the time I’m done — I always have one. And often, writing a script shows me what my theme is and allows me to deepen my own thinking on that theme. Writing becomes, in its own way, a philosophical investigation into theme. Sometimes I go back, once I understand the theme more fully and use it in the rewrite to enrich the scenes.”

Chris Borrelli: “If you don’t have a theme as you write, then you are writing blind… Sometimes the theme presents itself. Usually other themes present themselves as I write, and I’ve had a theme or two change as I write, but still become something I care about…I want to say. That’s the jumping off point for me…something I care about…something I want to say.”

Justin Marks: “I think theme comes very late in outlining. I don’t think it comes immediately at the beginning. I think at the beginning it’s a character that you really like, or it’s a hook that you want to figure out. I don’t think it becomes a movie, though, until you find that theme. Until it centers on some idea that is not specific to the plot. I think you need to know theme before you start writing dialogue. I think you need to know theme before you start writing scene work.”

Declan O’Dwyer: “Thematically, I try to be governed by what my character is telling me it should be and not what I’m deciding it is on the outset, because it will grow and it will change as they grow and change.”

Daniel Kunka: “For me, theme is usually something I find as I write through the first draft. I probably have a general idea when I start, but theme becomes the unifying factor as I go. I always work better sort of discovering it rather than coming up with something early in the process or even before I start writing pages. That’s not to say it’s not there, but I don’t consciously make the decision ‘this is my theme.’ I think theme is directly related to voice. A lot of my themes are similar, because those are the stories I want to tell. And it’s not planned, it just is. Because of that I’ll sort of trust my theme to tag along with me until I’m done with the first draft, then the second draft is when I’ll go back in and add a few lines here or there to highlight some things that will help take the piece to the level I want it.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I don’t like to go into a script saying, ‘I want to write a story about forgiveness,’ and then try to fit forgiveness into every single scene. That feels maudlin and a bit silly to try to imbue every scene with a theme. It feels like a homework assignment and it doesn’t allow for much discovery or revelation. After all, you’ve already told yourself what the movie is about. You’ve limited yourself. What I prefer to do is say, here’s a character. I like this character and I know the journey I’d like him or her to go on. And then I write that journey, that arc, and then I let the audience or reader decide what the theme is. Let them take what they want from the story. If you say a movie is about forgiveness, then an audience or a reader is only looking for that theme in the material and there’s no discovery. But if you present them with a character on a journey, they’re able to take away from that character and that journey what they want. It’s less limiting, I think. Stories mean different things to different people.”

Justin Kremer: “With ‘McCarthy,’ people have said things to me on the thematic level — “oh, I enjoyed this thematic element of the script” — and I’m surprised by it. Often, that thematic element wasn’t even something that was intentional on my part. Reading is obviously inherently subjective and people can take away so many different things from a work. As long as you have a strong character and a clear arc, it tends to come together organically. Look at a classic like The Godfather, it can be this intimate father son story or an epic about American capitalism and the American dream.”

And why is theme so bloody damn important? How about this:

Stephany Folsom: “I think when I first find an idea that I’m not like, ‘Oh, gosh, let’s find the theme in this.’ But as I go through my steps to see whether or not this idea is going to be something that can actually make a good movie, one of my steps is, ‘What is going to be the theme?’”

And this:

Jason Hellerman: “I think theme is super important, but I let myself find what I’m afraid to talk about, and I let my fears and my own inhibitions dictate the theme of what I need to get off my chest.”

And this:

Chris McCoy: “A story theme is tremendously important, because it’s what you’re trying to say with the work as a whole. If there’s no theme, there’s nothing holding the script together.”

And there’s this:

Justin Marks: “Look at how Chris Nolan writes. Everything is written to theme. Everything comes back to that. That’s what makes the Batman movies so great is that they’re always about theme. Every scene is about guiding itself towards theme. When you don’t know what a scene is supposed to be about, the answer is theme. Yeah. I think if you’re getting away from it, that’s when you ask, why doesn’t this scene feel right? Or, why doesn’t this sequence feel right? Or, why does the third act feel right? Oh yeah, because it has nothing to do with my theme. It has nothing to do with what I wanted this story to be about in the first place. If a script starts to meander beyond theme, I think you lose your reader. Because they start to wonder, ‘Why am I reading this? What am I getting from this story?’ You’re getting theme. If you don’t get it, you’re not going to read it.”

Takeaway:

  • Trust the process: If you go in the story… if you engage your characters… if you live in, then reflect upon the narrative… the themes will emerge.
  • Use your themes as a touchstone: For everything including how you approach scenes to how you handle character relationships to how you write scene description, from big to small, themes can help you expand your understanding of your story and focus how you convey it emotional meaning to a script reader.

How about you? Do you discover theme in your writing? How is theme important to you in your writing?

For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.

Part 2, here.

Come back tomorrow for more about this important subject: Theme.

Comment Archive


Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

Are you telling the best part of the story in your novel or script?

When you have a great idea for a screenplay it’s very tempting to rush to the computer and start writing. However, taking some time to think about a number of different ways you could tell the story may lead to a truly outstanding script rather than just a good one.

In a Fast Company series of successful authors’ tips on writing better stories, Terence Winter (creator, writer, and executive producer of the series, Boardwalk Empire) makes a great point about choosing the most interesting part of a story to tell:

“Every movie you’ve ever seen about Al Capone shows him at the height of his power, and sort of like Al Capone’s Greatest Hits. If you can only spend two hours with Al Capone, you want it to be when he’s at the top of his game.

On Boardwalk Empire, we meet Al Capone when he’s a kid driving a truck. That Al Capone is so much more interesting to me because we get to see him become the guy we know, and we had hours and hours to do it, and really see what formed him and what made this guy tick and that’s so much more a luxury as a storyteller and more satisfying for the audience.”

The series Gotham does something similar by looking at the formative years of the man who became Batman, and also by focusing on a character (Inspector Gordon) who has a supporting role in the later story.

Even for a screenplay there’s value in taking the time to brainstorm a number of ways of approaching the story before committing to one. For instance, a kidnapping story could be told with any of these as the viewpoint character:

* the victim

* the loved ones of the victim

* the detective investigating the case

* the kidnapper

* someone who is wrongly accused of the kidnapping

* someone who inadvertently or unwillingly gets involved in the crime

* a psychic (fake or genuine–if there is such a thing–who is asked to help locate the victim

* a previous victim of the kidnapper who realises she knows something that could help but is reluctant to relive the experience

Find out more about writing your screenplay at The Script Coach Series Jurgen Wolff starting Monday, 10 July. 

The post Are you telling the best part of the story in your novel or script? appeared first on Raindance.

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