Ashley: Welcome to Episode 49 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger, at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment I’m interviewing Correy Mandell. Correy is a screenwriter and screenwriting teacher. He’s got a ton of great actionable advice for writers at all levels so stay tuned for that.
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A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog and show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts and then just look for episode 49.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m talking with writer and screenwriting teacher, Correy Mandell. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Correy, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Correy: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: So, to start out, I wonder if you could give us a quick overview of your career and kind of how you got into the entertainment industry.
Correy: So I went to film school at UCLA and I was really fortunate to sell a pitch to Ridley Scott. Anyhow, I really liked Metropolis and Ridley Scott was one of my heroes so it was kind of like a dream come true. I literally was in film school one day and being flown to London and working with Ridley and his team the next day.
Ashley: And that was just literally your big break and then you were off to the races. You got an agent from there, a manager—
Correy: Actually I got an agent before that. That’s how I got that so I guess to back up a little bit, I had written a script. This was in the late 90’s and so Meg Ryan got attached and Chris Minolta directed. It didn’t actually end up selling. My agent said it got about as close to selling as you can get without actually selling, but it got me meetings and I had an idea for a story. And my agent said what’s your dream list? Who would you most want to sell this to and the first person was Ridley Scott and that was my first meeting and really bought it in the room. I thought I was going to wake up and it was a dream literally.
Ashley: So let’s back it up even further. You said you were at UCLA. Were you a graduate student or were you an undergraduate?
Correy: A graduate MFA. Actually I was in the producers’ program and decided I wanted to be a screenwriter and not a producer so I switched into taking the screenwriting classes.
Ashley: Okay. So while you were in there, you wrote the script that Meg Ryan got attached to, and had you written scripts before that? Were you on this track to be a screenwriter?
Correy The official PR answer is that was the very first script I wrote and I wrote it in a weekend and I’m just natural. The reality is it was about the fourth script that I wrote. I was interning for a manager and so actually here’s the truth of it. The truth of it was I’m in film school and it’s toward the end of the second year and I’m in a screenwriting group. We’ve all decided we’re going to be completely honest with each other. We’re not going to blow smoke up each other’s pants or skirts. And there are a couple of professional writers in the group. And I’ve written a script and they’d given me feedback. And I’d done a bunch of rewriting and it got to the point where they all said this is amazing; this will sell. This is awesome. And just to verify it, I went to a professor that I really trusted at UCLA. A lot of very famous writers had started out in his class and I gave him the script. And he read it and he said this will sell; this will get you an agent. This is one of the best scripts I ever read. So I was interning for a manager. He wasn’t my manager, and really as a favor I gave him the script to read. As a favor, that was my intent and so he read it and we met. I’ll never forget. He said it’s a good rough first draft that you don’t want to show anyone in the industry. And it said it’s not good enough, and I said did I tell you what my screenwriting group said; I’ll tell you what my professor said. And he said they’re not in the business of breaking writers in the business, I am. I know how good things have to be. This will hurt you; it won’t help you, and he did something that I’m forever grateful for. He said I can tell you’re not sure if you want to believe me so here’s what I suggest you do. Hire studio readers under the table—actual studio readers, not consultants, actual studio readers. Pay them and say if this script came across your desk, write the actual coverage you would write. And I didn’t have the money to do it but I did it. I hired three, and as you know when coverage comes back, there are lots of things but for the writer it says recommend, consider or pass. All three coverages came back with pass, and it was just like a body blow that really hurt. And I went to the manager and I said can you help me? And it said you have some inherent strengths; you have inherent weaknesses. You don’t even know what those weaknesses are. You don’t know what you don’t know and I can help you turn those weaknesses into strengths but it’s going to take time and I’m only going to do it if you’re in it for the long run. I said yes and so he worked with me for a year and a half. And at the end of that year and a half, he said I now think you’re ready. I’ll pay for the coverages and the coverages came back recommend, recommend, recommend. And within a few weeks I had an agent and within a few weeks I had the Ridley Scott deal. So the PR story actually is I was in film school; I was in the producers’ program. I took a screenwriting class. I wrote the script. Bam! I have a career. That’s the story I would tell people in the industry because they believe in this sort of natural talent, you have it or you don’t. But for your listeners, because the biggest mistake writers make is going out to the marketplace before they’re ready. And I would have made that mistake if not for this manager. So it was a year and a half of intensive training and learning before I got to the script that got me an agent that got me the Ridley Scott deal.
Ashley: So was it the same script? You had this script you had been working on. You had this manager. You just rewrote this script for a year and a half and then ended up with something or was it different scripts over that period?
Correy: Correct. The first one, correct.
Ashley: Correct. The same script.
Correy: Yeah, over and over and over. I mean, honestly, if I knew what it was going to take and how hard it was going to be to work with him, I don’t know if I would have done it. I mean, it was long, hard, and grueling but that was my education. Unfortunately you just don’t get that education in an MFA program. So that was my education. And then I was really fortunate because Ridley and his team took me under their wing and they helped teach me and developed stuff. When I was with Ridley, my biggest fear, here I am, I was in film school, a total nobody. The next day I’m in London. I’m still a nobody but I’m working for Ridley Scott who is one of my heroes, and I’m terrified that they’re going to realize that they made a mistake. They hired a nobody who doesn’t know anything. The second or third night we were at dinner and one of the producers leans across the table and asked do you go to film school? I go yes I do because I have something I can hang my hat on right? And he said, so you know the three-act structure, 17 pages, citing incident, midpoint structure. I’m like yes, I do and he said if you tried—I don’t know if we’re allowed to use profanity so I will do this without profanity on this podcast—but he said if you try to write this script to that BS formula, I will fire you so fast your head will spin and I’ll hire a real writer. And I actually laughed because I just thought he was joking and he just looked at me. In a very calm British accent—this was Ridley’s producer—and he said I am not joking. I kind of looked at my watch and I’m like okay, so my career has lasted two days and 17 minutes because it’s over. And they taught me organic story structure and then Ridley committed to making Metropolis. It didn’t ultimately happen. I’ll spare you the gory details, but it was the front page of Variety that Ridley was going to make Metropolis and he actually mentioned me by name on the front page of Variety and said very complimentary things about the script. So you know—I’m sure your listeners already know this—but obviously if you write something and Ridley Scott makes it, that’s a great way to launch your career. Second best is write something and Ridley mentions your name in the script on the front page of Variety in a complimentary way. So at that point I became the guy in town and the really hot writer for six-and-a-half minutes and the next project I wrote was for Wolfgang Petersen and they also taught me a lot of stuff. So I was really fortunate to launch my career early, and I was really fortunate to work for really great people who helped me become a better writer.
Ashley: Well, I’m glad I dug into that because that’s a grate answer. I think it’s really worth noting that as you said, you’re in this writers group with professional writers. You go to UCLA which is the top film school in the country and one of your professors says this thing is awesome. And the man on the street actually says no, it’s not going to work and that is then empirically verified by sending it out to the readers and getting these passes because we’re not even talking about your mom or your brother, these are actually people that have some credentials and they’re telling you and it still was not. So really, I think that’s a great story and a great lesson for people at home.
Correy: To quickly jump in, I just yesterday had lunch with a manager and he said his biggest role when he signs someone is to be the protector of the writer because he said writers are always in a rush to launch a career and the biggest mistake is to go out when you’re not ready because you’ll only get one first impression. And he said the clients that are the hardest are the ones who have friends who are professional writers because their friends are telling them they’re ready, why wouldn’t you believe that when working writers are telling you you’re ready and the manager said it’s a hard struggle and I don’t win all of the struggles to tell that writer you’re not where you need to be. And he said sometimes I have to let clients go. I love signing writers who don’t have friends in the industry because they don’t get that. I teach screenwriting and I will get to that. It’s such a struggle and I understand how people work really hard and they want to be verified and they want to have a career and they want to know they’re not wasting their time but yes, it is such a big mistake to go out there before you’re ready.
Ashley: Okay. So let’s go ahead and maybe take it a step back. You know before we got on the interview we were emailing back and forth and one of the things you said that you see a lot of people trying to break into the industry doing it the wrong way and I think this is a good segue. So let’s talk about that. What are some of the mistakes you see people making when they’re trying to break in and then what are some of the things that they should be doing?
Correy: Great! The biggest one we’ve already covered is going out before you’re ready and I always bring in agents and managers to my classes and the say the single biggest mistake. I’m sure your listeners know this. Every time you show your script to someone in the industry, that’s covered and that coverage goes into a database that they all share. So if you go out before you’re ready and burn your bridges at a production company, the mistake is globalized because any other production company when you try to submit a script or get a manager to read your script, they can access that coverage. So it’s like going to an interview drunk with a misspell in the resume and that HR person has a database where all HR people can access so you’re trying to get another interview, another company, it’s really difficult. So that’s the single biggest mistake. I think the second biggest mistake is writers really want to get an agent and that’s smart. You obviously—and I know your listeners know this—you need an agent. An agent is the one who is going to sell your material. An agent is the one who’s going to get you in the right room with the right people and most importantly, an agent gives you what you most need which is credibility because everyone is so busy out there, if you have a script and you want a producer or studio executive or network executive or someone to read it, they’ve got to get up at six or seven in the morning and read it. Nobody wants to do that. And if you don’t have an agent, they’re just going to assume that you’re not good enough to get an agent. I notice people out there who say you could be an amazing writer and not have an agent, and that is possible but from an industry point of view you’re going to play the percentages. So an agent can get people to read your material. They take their credibility and transfer it to you. Okay so everybody wants to get an agent. So the first question you have to ask yourself is what does an agent want? And people understand that agents want money. So agents want clients who can make them money. That’s true, but here’s a mistake that writers make. Agents aren’t thinking in the short term; they’re thinking long run. Therefore, a lot of writers think I need to get material that that agent can sell. Now what is marketable material? Well, let me look at what the studios are making or the networks are making. They seem to be making a lot of somewhat formulaic generic rip-offs of successful fare. They’re taking the hangover or whatever movie and they’re doing their variation on it. So that’s what I should be writing. I should be following these formulas, writing something that is my take on something that’s fairly generic and well-traveled territory because that’s what the studios are making. When you talk to agents or managers, they will tell you, you cannot break into the business or it’s almost impossible to break in the business with those kinds of scripts. And so many people are doing it and they’re trying to chase the marketplace. So what agents always say is we need writers who can write pitch-perfect authentic. And authentic is a script that only you could have written, characters we have never seen before, a story we’ve never seen before, a sensibility dialog. It’s just unique and Pitch Perfect is a pitch perfect execution so original authentic characters, original authentic story, and a script we’ve never seen before
Writers will say that most of those kinds of scripts never get made. Sure, you can be really lucky and be Alan Ball with American Beauty or Yama Cody with Juno but that’s an exception and the answer is yes, you’re right. You have to win the lottery for that script to sell and to get made. By the way, if you win that lottery, you have a really nice career right out of the gate. But sure, the statistics tell you that’s not overly likely. But here’s the thing, most agents will say I sign my clients off of scripts that I am almost definitely sure I cannot sell, and that seems weird for a lot of people. Why would they sign someone off the script that can’t sell because if you can’t sell it, you can’t make money. The reason is if an agent gets a script that is amazing, that no one’s ever seen before, that script is going to get buzzed. Everyone’s going to talk about that script. Everyone’s going to want to meet that writer. That writer breaks out of the noise of everyone that wants to break into the business. There’s something unique and special about that writer, and what that agent wants is meetings and relationships all over town. Yes, if you’re super lucky, that script sells. If you’re not super lucky, there are going to be a lot of people who want to work with that writer, and that’s how you get a career. And I’m suddenly blanking on the gentleman’s name but the gentleman who wrote American Hustle, he broke into the business—Singer, Eric Singer broke into the business with a script called The Sky Is Falling, very unique original script, incredibly violent. It would make Quentin Terantino blush. I mean, it was dark and violent. Everybody had to meet that writer. Everybody had to know who this guy was. Nobody bought that script. Nobody’s going to make that script. It’s just too out there, but everyone met him. Everybody wanted to work with him. He was doing writing assignment after writing assignment making nice six-figure income for many years. One of his movies got made and now American Hustle comes out and he’s now a big A-list writer. And a lot of my students have had the exact same experience. So from an agent’s perspective—I’m sorry for droning on—as an agent, you want to be an incoming phone call business not an outgoing phone call business. So if I’m an agent and I sign someone and they’ve written a nice smart version of Game of Thrones or a nice smart version of Transformers or The Hangover, I’m calling everyone saying you haven’t heard of this guy or gal but they’re great. You should get up at six in the morning and read this script. I’m telling you, they’re great. If I make enough of those phone calls, a bunch of people will read the script and if they think the script is great, they’ll eventually meet with that writer. But if you come to me actually and you’ve written a script and it’s just gone viral, that’s what they want—scripts that go viral. All of the development executives are passing it around you’ve read Ashley’s script? Have you read this script? It’s flipping unbelievable and it’s something I’ve never seen before. It’s amazing and they’re all buzzing about it. Now executives are calling me and saying how can I haven’t met with Ashley? I’m like he’s booked in meetings for three weeks. They’re like flip, I will drop everything and have lunch with him tomorrow. You tell me when he’s available, I’ll make myself available. I’ve got to meet with this guy. That’s what I want as an agent because now you—I don’t know if I’m going to sell your script and it’s going to get made. We have to catch lightning in a bottle. Let’s say it doesn’t happen, everybody in town wants to work with you. You have a shot to be an a-list writer. I don’t know if it will happen, but you have a shot at it where the guy or gal who writes the formulaic seen a million times—I won’t name the book, but this happens on this page-type mentality, even if they knocked it out of the par which is impressive because it’s not easy to write a great version of a formula. It’s impressive but nobody cares because anybody can do that and there are a ton of writers who can do that who have credits. So why do I want to drop everything and meet with someone who wrote yet another third version of something that was already created? It’s just not that interesting to me. I’ve been on those panels with those experts and they’ll say you have to write this, you can’t write drama. You can’t write war; you can’t write western. I don’t care how good it is, and yet my students and clients break into the business with those kinds of scripts. They usually don’t sell but they get meetings. They get relationships; they get jobs. And if they don’t get a job out of those meetings, then the agent might say okay, with your next script, maybe we take your sensibility and we bend it a little bit more towards commercial fare because now you have all of these fans because the big difference when you brought with the script and there are readers who read it vs. fans, people who want to be in business with you and excited about you, so let’s get those relationships. Then maybe we’ll talk about you writing a more understandably commercial project. So I think the biggest mistake that writers are making is they’re listening to all this advice about, I’ve decoded these scripts, this is what happens on this page. This is how you put this script together; this is what readers look for. This is what you need to be writing and when you talk to agents and managers, that’s like the worst thing you can be doing. So that’s also a really big mistake that writers are doing.
Ashley: I think that’s great and I’ve heard people try and explain sort of that situation of what the agents are looking for and that was an excellent explanation. I want to touch on a couple of things. One of the things I’ve made my career at as a writer is sort of these low-budget genre films and I actually am a big proponent of that being a great way to break in. There is some track record of this. I think James Dunn, who just did [not understood 0:21:40.3] one of his first movies was Tromeo and Juliette. So I just wanted to kind of clarify a couple of things. You talk about this database that these people have. A lot of those movies that you see at AFM, it’s like those producers are not piped into this database. What you’re talking about here getting the agent, getting into this database where the coverage goes around, that’s purely at the studio level correct? You wouldn’t think that a lot of these more independent producers are connected with that kind of stuff.
Correy: I can’t give you a definitive answer but from what I know, the answer would be yes. You’re right.
Ashley: Okay because that’s one of the things that I just interviewed another director and he’s making these types of movies and we go into that. These producers at this independent level, we’re talking movies that are a million dollars a blow, they’re very open to any writer, agent or no agent and so that’s kind of one of the things that I’ve been proposing. And what you said is not like you and I don’t disagree and I just want to make that clear for the listeners is that we’re not disagreeing, what you’re saying is absolutely correct but it’s much more geared towards the studio level and that A level sort of writer.. Absolutely the TV level and the network level actually but we’re talking about more the big corporate studio. So let’s get on to our next topic. I read an article on your blog Why Writers Fail and I thought this was an interesting topic that we could really dig into. You mention that there is a certain skill set, and I mean this is an age-old question. Is there some inherent talent and really the question is not how much talent, it’s how much can be learned. It’s a sliding scale. Is it a 90-10 split, a 50-50 split or a 10-90 split? I mean, I think it’s some of it, you have to be intelligent, you have to have some inherent talent, but I think you break it down into some nice manageable chunks so let’s go through that. Tell us what skill set you think the writer should really concentrate on. And the one thing that I really liked about your article was it was like before you start spewing out screenplays, make sure you understand these different skills because they’re going to be the building blocks of screenwriting. So let’s talk about the skill set and how writers can acquire those skills.
Correy: So what I would say to this talent thing is talent is repeatable skills and those repeatable skills can be inherent and/or learned. It doesn’t matter. Talent is repeatable skill, and I have been teaching screenwriting at UCLA and in private workshops and at the AFI screenwriting lab for a long time like over a decade. And what I’ve found is writers have inherent strengths, inherent weaknesses, and inherent blind spots which are weaknesses that they don’t know they have. And when people write they’re trying to write the best possible script they can obviously, but the thing is, if I’m trying to write the best possible script that I can, then knowingly or unknowingly I write to my strengths and I try to hide my weaknesses as I should. But over time my strengths become stronger and my weaknesses become weaker. And that’s why there’s a 99 percent failure rate out there because too many writers keep writing and just making the same mistake. So in terms of skill sets, there are two that are really vitally important. The one is I’ll call it creative integration and I’ll say that there are two modes to writing, conceptually and/or intuitively. And most writers are wired to predominantly write conceptually or intuitively. So conceptual writers, they write outside in and intuitive writers write inside out. What does that mean? When you work with a conceptual writer and you say why did you write this? What got you excited? It’s almost always the idea, theme, a world, something external that got them excited. An intuitive writer, it’s almost always the character or perhaps an emotion. Conceptual writers are people who would say I have to figure out my story and outline it. I have to figure out my story so I can go write it, and an intuitive writer would say I have to write out my story so I can figure it out. It’s a very different way of approaching the writing process. Now with conceptual writers, they tend to have scripts that have lots of really interesting things happening but the characters aren’t compelling enough for them usually to launch a career. The characters sort of feel like puppets because, to a conceptual writer, they invent the characters; they are in charge of the characters. The characters work for them, and they decide what the characters do or say in order to tell this really interesting story. So the characters almost never seem compelling or real enough. Now when you work with an intuitive writer, they don’t invent the characters, they discover them. They’re real people so you hear Quentin Terantino say I just get my characters talking and just follow them around like I’m a court reporter, that’s a very intuitive way to write. The characters are real people so they know what the characters would say or do. They’ve got to put the characters into a situation and they know what will happen. But the problem is with intuitive writers is characters left to their own devices almost never end up telling a compelling story. And so intuitive writers have great characters and great dialog but they can’t sustain or create strong enough stories and they often feel—you know, I’ve worked with writers and they have a sense of almost shame about this in a sense of futility like what’s wrong with me. And what’s wrong with them is they’re trying to pound nails with a straw. They’re using the wrong tool. The intuitive mind, all that it cares about is what feels authentic to you, what is interesting to you. It doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just what is most engaging to you in the moment. Conceptual writers are very concerned about what other people think. They’re very concerned about story, logic, causality, having interesting things happening, but the conceptual mind, again, invents and controls characters. So there are a lot of writers out there, as I’m sure you know, who are really great with character and dialog, they just really struggle at plotting and structure, and there are writers who are really good at great big ideas and interesting things happen in set pieces. A former student of mine who’s now becoming a big-time comedy director just complained to me that he’s looking for his next project and he’s been sent scripts. He says I keep reading these scripts. They’re really funny, great concept, great set pieces, but the characters feel like they were just stolen from other movies and there’s no heart to it. What’s wrong with these writers? What’s wrong with these writers is they’re really funny conceptual people and they can’t access that intuitive side. So what I do when I work and train writers is I make them write to their weaknesses and hide their strengths. So if they’re a conceptual writer, I train them how to turn that part off and how to work from a pure intuitive place. And what’s difficult about it is both parts of your brain can’t be active at the same time so you really have to turn off your conceptual brain to access your intuitive brain. And for intuitive writers it’s the opposite. And it’s really hard for writers to do this. Once they can do this, then I teach them how to integrate the two so that you ultimately can have great characters and great stories which I show you get to Pitch Perfect authentic. It’s transformative. It takes time. It isn’t easy. So that’s one skill set I would say…
Ashley: Just one question I have about that is do you think that there’s any kind of a split like if you were to take the group of a hundred A-list successful screenwriters, is there any kind of a split where more of them come from the intuitive side vs. the conceptual side? I mean, Charlie Kaufman comes to mind. It seems like the screenwriters who get sort of that real critical acclaim are definitely more towards the intuitive side of these great zany characters and then over rewriting and rewriting, they’re able to pull those characters into an actual story. But do you think there’s a split?
Correy: I think that you have some really crazy hyperintuitive writers like Charlie Kaufman who have managers or producers or directors in their lives who put that conceptual skill set and discipline into the mix and/or you see a lot of writers who have gone through the integration process. So, for instance, a lot of writers will say improve was some essential for my success. Improv is a great way of doing intuitive training. So an intuitive writer who does a lot of improve is one way that you could get to creative integration. So I think that most a-list writers have done integration work knowingly or unknowingly, and the you have certain ones like the Charlie Kaufman who—I don’t know because I don’t know Charlie Kaufman—but from what I can tell, I think he works with other people who help put that story discipline to his amazing intuitiveness and it often turns out into really great crazy movies. I know a lot of TV show writers and they are integrated. They can work from both sides because you have to, and most of the a-list writers that I know are integrated. But sure, what I would tell someone is you want to become as integrated as possible and you certainly don’t want to be in a place where you’re dependent on someone else for your success. So that’s where integration comes in.
Ashley: Okay. So maybe what the next logical step is talking maybe about how that integration actually takes place.
Correy: Well, that would be like an entire podcast. But we can move to another skill set if that’s cool.
Ashley: Let’s do that.
Correy: Another skill set I would say is writing in compelling conflict. When you read Neil Simon’s rewrites, he talks about all of the plays that he wrote with these great characters and this great dialog. But they weren’t good enough and he knew something was missing but he didn’t know what. I was just talking in front of a hundred people at UCLA and asked them to raise their hands if you feel like something’s missing in your writing but you don’t know what it is. Almost everyone raises their hands. It’s a tough spot to be in. Neil Simon eventually went to his older brother who was a successful writer at the time and said what’s missing in my writing? And his older brother said you don’t write in compelling conflict. And he said yes, I do. Of course I do. What is compelling conflict? He said my older brother taught me and I suddenly understood what was missing? And then I realized that my writing was creating compelling conflicts and then filling in the dialog. He’s gone on to have a pretty big career. Aaron Sorokin and I share the same agent and I got a chance to sort of know him. And I’ve heard him a couple times say so many new writers are so interested in designing the car and the features and the design. They never build an engine so it isn’t going where I was trained to start with the engine. It’s the grunt work; it’s not sexy. When you have a strong engine, you build a car around it. That engine is compelling conflict.
Ashley: Maybe define a little bit like what compelling conflict actually is.
Correy: Compelling conflict is conflict where we are externalizing the internal. There is efficient clarity. There are stakes that are meaningful to a reader and the conflict supports the page count. We’ve all read scripts where it’s really interesting and then it runs out of steam. So we’re talking about organic escalation and a sense of sort of cohesion. I could spend 20 minutes on each of those which I know we don’t have that time. But what I would like to say is I have found that about five percent of people natural write like that. So if I have 20 students, about probably one or two naturally do this and the others don’t. So most people don’t, and if you don’t write in compelling conflict, there are a couple things that are going to be really bothersome that you probably won’t know. One is when we write scripts or movie plays in our head and then when we give the scripts to other people to read, movies and character’s play in their heads and we usually assume it’s the same characters in the story. But if you actually do the job of asking the right questions to see what movie and characters other people are experiencing, writers would be shocks and appalling. They’ve spent more and time and passion writing this and other people seeing something different. It’s not a better version; it’s a worse version. If you don’t write in compelling conflict no one else is going to see what you see. I don’t know if you do consultations or not—I don’t do them anymore, but I used to do a lot of consultations and I would always ask the writer a bunch of questions to see how they saw their character, why they cared about their characters, what was compelling about their characters, same thing with the story. I’d ask a lot of questions, a half hour’s worth to really experience what the writer experiences with their scripts. And then I would almost always say man, you’re experiencing is so much stronger than what anybody else experiences when they read your script. Let me show you why and what to do about it. And it almost always comes down to compelling conflict. The second thing is so many writers complain about second acts and how hard second acts are. Compelling conflict is the gasoline that creates and sustains narrative momentum. So if you’re driving from LA to San Diego ad you only have enough gas for halfway and your car stops in Dana Point, Dana Point isn’t the problem, it’s not having enough gas. So not writing a compelling conflict is another reason why a lot of people think second acts are so hard. It’s a learnable skill set and it’s a really critical skill set.
Ashley: I wonder if you could just grab a movie quickly that we all know and kind of just describe the compelling conflict in it.
Correy: The thing is compelling conflict is comprised of all these different elements so it would just take a long time to sort of break down all of these elements. Here’s an example that might help. When I used to do script consults, I would ask the writer who are your main characters? What’s their main goal? What are they trying to accomplish? And if those goals weren’t external and specific, I knew that story wasn’t going to work as a movie. Half the writers have internal goals or goals that aren’t external and specific. People will say well, I’m doing a small character-driven film like Be So Southern Wild. I don’t want to have external specific conflict, it’s all about the human experience. Yes, what makes Be So Southern Wild so beautiful is the human experience, but it is contained within compelling conflict so when you go and if the characters and you say what is his objective? His first objective is to convince everybody not to leave their community because the storm is coming. That’s an external specific goal. Then the external specific goal is blowing up the levee. He then has another specific goal of escaping the refugee camp. Now the reason he has these goals is he’s going to die. His daughter has no mother. The only thing she will have is this community. It’s the only thing he knows. It’s the only way of life and it’s about to get wiped out. So the stakes are not just his entire community and everything he’s ever known is going to be destroyed, but his daughter will have nothing. So we have goals and we have stakes. And then Hush Puppy’s goal is to find her mother. These are external specific goals. They’re stakes. It is written with the same techniques as The Fugitive is or straight action movie. But in Be So Southern Wild, that conflict contains the human experience and that’s why we go to see that movie. Another example would be—people write a script about a guy who’s going through a midlife crisis and he wants to feel young. He wants to feel alive, and he just wants to get meaning in his life. That script’s not going to work. Now if you take all of that and you can externalize it into conflict so you have a character who’s external specific goal is to have sex with a 16-year-old daughter’s best friend, not an appropriate goal and I’m pretty sure not a legal goal, but it’s an external specific goal built off of stakes. When I talk about that to a lot of writers, they’re like yeah, that makes so much sense, but they don’t write that way. There are one or two or three pieces missing in their writing and there are reasons why which kind of goes beyond this podcast, but learning to write in compelling conflict. When I teach at UCLA and in private workshops, that’s the first thing I teach people; that’s the foundational skill. Until they can write in compelling conflict, I don’t think anything else matters because they’re just not going to succeed.
Ashley: So let’s move on quickly to some of these other things. One of the other points was the writing process. Maybe we could touch on that briefly.
Correy: I think I’ve talked enough. If I could do it quickly, we all have a process in which we create our product. When you start writing, do you outline? Do you do character work? What do you do? Do you evaluate your work while you write? How do you rewrite? All of that’s your process and it creates your product. And most people, the product they use doesn’t allow them to create their best product. The process they use is a very comfortable process that plays to their strengths and hides their weakness. So I work with writers and I give them different processes. We will track product outcome to process to figure out what’s their best process. More often than not, the process that they most don’t want to try, the one that they would never do on their own, creates their best product. Sometimes a person’s default natural process does create their best product. It is possible but it’s unlikely. So process work is literally experimenting with different processes to see what kind of product that it creates to figure out your best process.
Ashley: An example is like a lot of people don’t like to use note cards, they like to just start work on the script. You’re saying take a step back and force them to do note cards before they write. That would be sort of the function of the process.
Correy: Well, that might be one process but often what I’ll do is I’ll work with writers who always outline it, figure it out, and then I’ll make them start from a much more intuitive place or I’ll take an intuitive and there is a lot of variations to process. It’s not quite that clear-cut but that certainly I think gives a good example. But there are a lot of variations on process and I will lead people through kind of a spectrum of processes to help figure out. Because here’s the thing, when I work with someone, I’m not smart enough to know what their best process is going to be and they don’t know either. No one knows until you experiment ad try different processes.
Ashley: No, absolutely. Let’s touch on these last couple of points in this tool box. You mentioned structure. Maybe you could talk briefly about that.
Correy: So again, I think most writers have sort of two choices. They either follow all these rules that they’ve been taught and follow these paradigms and for reasons I’ve already said, agents and managers are now sending me people to my workshops and they’re saying this writer’s got great character and dialog but they are too formulaic. I can’t help them until they break that. Writers do that because either they’ve been mistakenly told that they should be doing that or their alternative is to write a script off of their impulses and instincts. And that doesn’t usually end up with a well-structured story. Again, this could be an entire podcast, but organic story structure is understanding the mathematics of storytelling and the tools that are used and what I do is I will have people read various pilots, various low-budget scripts, very high-budget scripts and then teach them how to deconstruct the structure, understand how that movie was put together the way it was and why. And when you can understand the mathematics, then you can compose an infinite array of structures. So, as an example, I’ll just give one example and maybe kind of concretize this. In the script there comes a point where the reader knows these characters, knows what the main story’s going to be about, knows what’s at stake and with all of that context, either excitedly gets in the car to go on that journey or just says no thank you and tosses the script aside and grabs another one. So here’s the question. At what point in the script should you launch your story and the answer is—at least as I would teach it from organic story structure—is as soon as possible but that depends on how much context you need to get the reader engaged. So if you need 37 pages of context to get the reader engaged and you launch your story on page 30, you’re going to fail. But if you have enough context to get the reader engaged by seven pages and you wait until page 15 to launch your story, you’re probably going to fail. So that means for each story there is a mathematically precise answer to where you launch your story. And professional writers when they work with me, they’re always trying to figure out if they have the right launch point and most nonworking writers, they never ask me that because they already know the answer which is they have to launch their story on page 15 or page 20 or whatever formula or rule that they were taught. When I used to teach, I used to teach people a paradigm. I used to teach formula even though I knew it wasn’t true, I taught it because I’d rather people have formula than no structure and that people should learn the rules and then they can learn to break the rules. And eventually I realized that I was doing them a huge disservice because I wasn’t teaching them how to know how much context you need and also I wasn’t teaching them if you have a script like [not understood 0:44:39.7] or The King’s Speech or Babe or The fighter that has a lot of setup before you launch your movie, how do you keep a reader interested in such a long setup or if you have a movie like Juno or the [not understood 0:44:55.7] where you launch a movie early, how do you keep a reader interested in such a long build section? So I started teaching people those skill sets and I saw the success rate go up exponentially. The problem is too many writers come into this and they’ve been taught these rules so this is where you launch your story. This is what happens at the midpoint because that’s how these three movies did it. But those three movies did it that way for a reason and those reasons probably are not the same as for your movie.
Ashley: You know, one of the things I’ve found as a writer with structure and I really like the Blake Snyder books and he’s obviously kind of become sort of the main structure, all these templates that you’re talking about basically hark back to that. One of the things I’ve found with structure is when I’m coming up with ideas for scripts, understanding the structure, you can quickly get—and I think this goes back to your compelling cinematic conflict idea—is that you know, I’ll come up with an idea and just loosely putting it into the Blake Snyder template, you can tell quickly that some ideas simply don’t have legs and a good idea I can see those ideas organically and I’m able to quickly get rid of ideas and not waste a lot of time working on ideas. I always go back to something like The Wizard of Oz. It fits all those Blake Snyder beats and obviously it was written way before Blake Snyder or even before Sid Field so I have to think that there are certain ideas that are better movie ideas and part of that is that they’re going to fit the structure. Again, it’s not a revisionist thing where you have your idea and you try to push these square pegs into round holes. Maybe that idea is not a good movie idea.
Correy: That makes a lot of sense, but here’s the counterpoint. I bring in agents to my UCLA classes and I have them bring in the scripts that they sign their clients off of. And then I’ll ask everyone to read those scripts and say how many of them follow the Blake Snyder rules. Almost none of them do. There are a lot of ideas out there that don’t fit into that formula and you have to find an organic way to tell that story and that creates that Pitch-Perfect script. So a lot of those ideas that don’t fit the recipe, those are the ideas that when you learn how to develop them, gets you to those agents, gets you to a TV show like Breaking Bat that didn’t fit the paradigm. Madman, if you look at the script, Orange is the New Black, it doesn’t fit these paradigms. They have a unique way of telling their story. So that’s the counterpoint.
Ashley: The counterpoint to that, of course, is I’d be curious to actually look at those scripts and maybe you could actually fit them in even though at first glance maybe they don’t fit the Blake Snyder beat sheet but then maybe if you looked at them they actually would. It’s an age-old argument.
Correy: Here’s the thing. The Blake Snyder thing says at the midpoint you’ve got this falls down or falls off. All you’ve got to do is grab the AFI, the 101 best scripts and just look at those scripts and anyone who’s listening to it can do this and draw their own conclusions. Most of those scripts don’t fit that. Most scripts actually don’t fit that paradigm, Thank God. And here’s another reason, because if they did they would have outsourced writing to Pakistan so many years ago. Here’s what I would say is if you have an idea and it does fit nicely—and by the way, no disrespect to Blake Snyder, but he’s basically [not understood 0:48:39.0] I mean, that’s where all of this comes from and Blake, to his credit, added some things to it, changed some terminology—I’m not saying that he just stole it—but he certainly enhanced it. But here’s the thing, I would say if you have an idea that does fit nicely into that formula, great. Then why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. But most ideas don’t fit into that. These vastly experienced working writers that I know and students that I’ve seen who have gone on to success, very few of them, because if you take a script and you write it to that paradigm, then you’ve written a script that’s going to read like everybody else’s script who’s doing that. And it’s hard to stand out that way.
Ashley: So let’s move to the next point. The final skill set that you talk about is rewriting and that’s definitely worth mentioning because writing is rewriting.
Correy: I think we’ve already talked about that too insomuch as the way I was trained to do it I the first step is how people read your script. You don’t care if they like it. You don’t want notes. You don’t want feedback. All you want to do is ask people a series of questions to ascertain what experience they’re having, what characters are they seeing and why? What’s the story and where are people’s experience divergent from the experience you’re intending people to have. And the first round of rewriting is to close those gaps until you get to a point where a bunch of people who don’t know what you were intending read your script and the experience they have is really close to the experience you’re intending. At that point then you go to step two which is what do you think? What suggestions, all the kinds of things that people ask up front. Most writers skip that first step. They go straight to the second step. If you, who obviously are incredibly bright and know a lot about stories, if I haven’t done my job and you’re a friend of mine and you read my script, and you’re experiencing a movie and it’s not the movie that I intended and you’re giving me your really, really smart notes on the movie that you experienced, it doesn’t actually help me in the rewrite because that’s not the movie that I’m experiencing and there’s a disconnect but we won’t know it. Like I just recently met with a writer and she hired some consultants and had a friend in the business, and she said I got five really smart people to read my script and give me feedback and it was like they read five different scripts. And it’s true because she didn’t write very strong conflict so people were seeing different movies. So rewriting I would suggest is to add that first step.
Ashley: Let’s talk about the current marketplace and kind of what you see as where the marketplace is going and where it’s at currently.
Correy: In terms of what, feature TV and—
Ashley: Let’s stick to features.
Correy: Specifically like where is it going in terms of what? The scripts they’re buying?
Correy: From what I see it’s like that’s a pretty quickly-moving target. I mean, I think the feature business is collapsing. There was a paradigm shift in the 90’s when you had consolidation and you had multinational corporations buying all the studios. Before that you had studios where it was being run by movie people who loved stories and they had to make a certain number of movies a year just to feed the machine. But now when you’re part of this huge multinational corporation and the return on movies is not as good as returning on other parts of the corporation, there’s suddenly not a huge desire to make movies and we experienced that in the writers’ strike because the writers’ strike was like if you don’t give us what we want, we’re going to just shut this thing down and you’re not going to be able to make movies. And they’re like great, we’re not sure we want to make movies anyway. Go ahead and they called their bluff. So they want to make movies that basically are risk-free. They want to make movies that are guaranteed to be successful, movies that are going to have big international appeal and movies that are based on presold concepts with stars. And at some point they realized that stars didn’t even mean anything. In the world of social networking where word-of-mouth is instantaneous, it used to be that you could put a star in the old days you were going to have huge numbers the first week or two before anyone realized the movie was garbage. Now people know it’s garbage before it’s released. So stars don’t matter as much. Then it was presold concepts and that’s what we see. They’re not working either and it’s kind of exciting because basically the model doesn’t work and everybody knows it. So everything’s kind of frozen and collapsing in slow motion. What I see is there are so many screens out there, so many exhibitors, they need product and they need big product but they need midrange product and small product. They need all kinds of movies year-round. And they’re going to the studio saying we need more product and the studios are saying we don’t really care what you want. So there is now an opportunity and you’re seeing more and more money coming in and creating slates where they can fill the gaps because you can make movies in a smaller to medium range and you can start preselling because the exhibitors are desperate. So we’re seeing more—I don’t know the exact numbers in the last couple of weeks—but we were, last time I checked on track to have about three spec scripts sell every week this year. The last couple of years it was like two spec scripts a week. A couple years before that it was one spec script a week so we’re certainly seeing more scripts sell and we’re seeing more types of scripts sell. So there are more different kinds of opportunities. Where I think this is going—and this is just one person’s opinion and I could absolutely be wrong—but I think that five years from now there is going to be more opportunity for writers than there have been in a generation but it will be for les pay because there will be more and more narrow distribution channels where you don’t need to be chasing outrageous returns and there is going to be more and more demand for different kinds of stories for different sensibilities at different levels, kind of what we’ve been seeing in TV. I think it’s going to move into features. Again, I think the average writer will make less money; they’ll be fewer big seven-figure monster salaries but they’ll be more product and more opportunity. And I think most writers would take that trade-off. That’s my prediction and I guess also my hope.
Ashley: I see the logic to that and they’ll be more websites that crop up with, as you say, very niche content and they will need to feed that and they’re not going for a hundred million people. They just need ten thousand people a month basically to subscribe to their service to support them. So, no, I think that makes a lot of sense whether it’s five years or ten years down the road. I agree, I think that most writers, we can only hope for that. So let’s talk about your workshops for a minute. Maybe you can tell us if you do some consulting, you can tell us about that, but when are your classes and how can people potentially join them?
Correy: Though I don’t do consulting, I can certainly refer people but I don’t do that anymore. The workshops are sold out for the rest of the year. The next ones will be in January. I do them live in Santa Monica and I do them online using web-x which is like Skype but it’s multi-party. So I have people literally from all over the world take the workshops. If you’re interested in getting information, email my assistant which is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can email me which is email@example.com. My website is correymandell.net and so we’re almost sold out in January and I don’t know when this podcast will actually go live so if the January is sold out, the next ones will be in March. We generally sell out four months in advance usually. My website will have more information.
Ashley: What are the classes? Are they one meeting? Are they a series of meetings? How do they work?
Correy: The professional screenwriting workshop is an eight-week workshop and we meet once a week for three hours. So we meet 24 hours in total.
Ashley: And is there any sort of qualification like are they geared towards people who have written a few scripts? Are they geared towards newbies, anything in between, professional writers?
Correy: Great question. So what it does is I teaches people how to write in compelling conflict. It puts a foundation for creative integration and shows people how they can continue that process rewriting. It’s designed for people at all levels. In the workshop we have now we have two, one who’s actually currently staff and one who’s on hiatus, TV writers. We have someone who’s with a feature film about to come out and then we have some people who literally have never written anything in their lives and everyone in between. I would say most of the students—we get a lot of people with MFA’s and we have a lot of people who have probably written five or six scripts. Maybe they had a manager, maybe they didn’t but nothing ever happened for them and they just feel like there’s something missing and they can’t put their finger on it. We also get executives. We had the head of HBO. I’m getting more and more managers take it. It’s cool. We get a cool mix of people.
Ashley: In the podcast, you tell about how people can contact you. You covered that with the website, but maybe you could mention your Twitter handle too. People can find you there.
Correy: I’m on Twitter but I’m an email guy.
Ashley: Okay. Email it is. I will link to your website and I’ll put the email address in the show notes so people can find that. They don’t have to worry about writing it down, just find the show notes and they’ll be able to contact you. Correy, this has been a great interview. We covered a lot of great information for screenwriters so I really appreciate you coming on the show and talking with me.
Corey: Thank you so much. I really had fun.
Ashley: I’m going to be running another online class called How to Write a Killer First Act for your screenplay. I’m going to be doing a deep dive into two great screenplays, Unforgiven and Jerry McGuire. These are both great scripts with great first acts and there are a lot of lessons I’ll be pulling out of them. This is the fourth class in this series which is going to guide you through the entire screenwriting process from concept to outline to writing to actually marketing your script and hopefully selling it. If you missed the first three classes, no problem. I recorded them and have put them in the sysselect forum for you to listen to at your leisure. The class is going to be on Saturday, December 13 at 10:00 AM Pacific Time. If you’d like to learn more about this class, go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/classes. Also, if you’re listening to this after the class has taken place, again, no problem. I will record this class too and put it in the sysselect forum. In fact, all the classes that have been taught are recorded and are in that forum for sysselect members to listen to. There are more than a dozen classes in there now. To learn more about sysselect, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
In the next episode of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast I’m going to be interviewing writer/director Matt Coody. Matt is a writer and director of an Indie film that’s coming out in the next couple of weeks called Willie. It’s a really nice film. It’s a true art-house type of film that I know a lot of writers are trying to write. He does a really good job handling a very subtle story and it’s really a very subtle character-driven story. So if you’re trying to write the sort of small Sundance-type of artwork film, you’re not going to want to miss this episode. So keep an eye out for that next week.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch on a few things from today’s interview with Correy Mandell. I’ve heard people talk about the types of scripts you should be writing to break into the studio system, and I think Correy really articulated it very well. And I think he’s just absolutely right. If you want to write at the studio level, you need to write something remarkable and something that’s unlike anything else that’s out there. Writing something totally original really is your best bet. Now this isn’t really the approach that I take and it’s not really the approach I talk about a lot on the podcast. So one word of caution with this approach, if you try to write something like this which is to say something totally original, not worrying about typical screenplay structure or really any of the screenplay rules you read about in the books, if you fail—and most people will fail—you’ll end up with nothing. It will be an unproduceable mess. However, if you follow the rules, give your story a more traditional structure and try and write something that’s maybe less original but has a clear market, it may not break you into the studio level. In fact, I’m sure that it won’t go for all the reasons that Correy mentions, but you’ll have a much better chance of selling that script to an independent producer like John Suit who I interviewed on podcast episode 44. So there is a lot more upside to doing that wholly original screenplay. Potentially you could launch your career into the studio level writing. That’s a great upside. But there’s also a lot less chance that it will actually hit because it’s going to need to be great for it to actually work. The question is can you really write something that is truly great and is going to stand out? Maybe, maybe not, whereas a tightly-structured genre film that might not be nearly as original, it can work even if it’s not great. It can be good or even just okay and you still might be able to find a producer who will make it. So keep this in mind with your strategy.
What I’ve been doing recently and talking about on this podcast, at least in the last few years is to try and write genre films where I feel like I can find a producer who’s interested even if the script isn’t great. I feel like I can find a producer for them if I’m very conscious of other elements like budget and structure and genre. Originality isn’t nearly as important in this market and this seems to basically be working for me. I think for myself when I was starting out my career, I did worry a lot less about the structure and tried to write material that was more original, and I didn’t find any success with it. What I did find success with is these sorts of independent genre films. So that’s the direction I’ve gone. I keep pushing in that direction because that’s where I’ve had the most success.
Now I think most writers who are still trying to sell their first script, they should be writing lots of different things. I highly recommend that you write something that’s exactly like what Correy talks about, something that’s totally unique and original and only you can write it but then also write something that’s more traditionally structured, something that could be produced on a smaller budget, something that fits into a more clear genre and see where you’re getting the most traction and then push hard in that direction. As a writer, especially as a new writer, you should be writing tons of different stuff and finding your voice and finding sort of what your specialty is. I think to really get a feel for this too, have a look at the scripts that are on the black list, either the annual list or even the monthly service and you’ll see the scripts that are successful through it are exactly the types of scripts Correy is talking about, stuff that’s really original but not necessarily all that commercial and then compare that with what the scripts that are being optioned on a site like inktip. Those are the genre things that I’m talking about, less original perhaps but more commercial. These are mostly genre scripts, probably pretty tightly structured, stuff that could be produced on a reasonable budget. I think the key here is being conscious of what you’re trying to do. There’s that old saying the middle of the road is a dangerous place to drive. And I think trying to write something that clearly fits into one of the camps is your best bet. Go hard in one direction or the other. Write stuff in both different camps but make sure when you’re writing it you understand where it’s going to fall so that you can really push hard in that direction. Write something that’s off the wall, totally original. Don’t worry about any of those so-called screenwriting rules. Put that script on the black list and see how it does or if you’re more interested in just seeing something you’ve written get produced at any level, be more conscious of structure, genre, budget, and use something like inktip or my email and fax blast service to get it out there and hopefully get it produced.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.