This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 064: Writer Michael Stagliano Talks About His Emerging Screenwriting Career.
Welcome to Episode 64 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment, I’m interviewing Michael Stagliano. Michael was a contestant on The Bachelorette a couple of years ago and is now a screenwriter. After talking with him, it seemed like he was doing a lot of the right things and he’s starting to have some success with his scripts. So I thought he might be an interesting interview. He also had a bunch of questions for me so we thought it might be an interesting idea to have him ask me a few questions. So today’s interview is a little different. For about half of that, I ask him questions and we talk about what he’s doing as a screenwriter and then for the second half of the interview, he actually asks me questions so stay tuned for that.
If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review on ITunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread the word about the podcast so they’re much appreciated.
A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the 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 64. Also, if you want my free guide How to Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Again, just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
Also, a quick plug for the new Sys screenwriting analysis service, it’s a really economical way to get high-quality professional script evaluation. All these readers have experience reading for studios, production companies, or contests. The readers I’ve partnered with are the gatekeepers of the industry. They’re exactly the same people who are going to be reading your scripts at the production companies and agencies you submit to. The readers will evaluate your script on several key factors like concept and premise, structure, character, dialog, and marketability. Every script will get a grade of pass, consider, or recommend. So you’ll kind of get a feel for where your script stands in the screenwriting landscape. And I’m also offering a bonus. If you get a recommend from two readers, you get a free email and fax blast to my list of industry contacts. This is the exact same blast I use myself to promote my scripts, and it’s the same service I sell on the website. It’s a great way to get your script into the hands of producers who are looking to make movies. Also, you can read a quick bio on each reader and pick the one you’d like to read your script. If you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m talking with Michael Stagliano. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Michael, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Michael: I’m very thrilled to be here. I’ve been a fan for quite a lot of months now so it’s exciting to be on the show.
Ashley: Great! So let’s back up a little bit and just talk briefly about your appearance on—it was The Bachelorette—correct. And you appeared on kind of a few other shows from that.
Michael: Correct. I was on Season five of ABC’s The Bachelorette. I had just turned 25 when I went on the show and went on for love—I know this is a podcast—and I got dumped. I did not find love but I made it really far and it was one of the best experiences of my life. And from that show after getting dumped, they did a spin-off game show called The Bachelor Pad, and I went on the second season of that and actually won a quarter of a million dollars which was pretty nice. They actually had me back on the third season as well which I didn’t win. I went home pretty close to the end, but the general statement I say about the whole franchise in my experience with it the last four years is that it’s filled with a lot of really, really good people, and I had an absolute blast. It was pretty life-changing as a result.
Ashley: Perfect. So now you’re a screenwriter and have written some scripts. You’re trying to get them out there. So let’s dig into that a little bit. The first question I thought of was have your connections being on a reality TV show, have those connections helped you gain a foothold as a screenwriter. I mean, there must be some crossover just knowing producers, agents, managers, that kind of thing.
Michael: It’s a yes and no. The reality world is a pretty different world than scripted television or film but the biggest connection which I was able to make is honestly just kind of producers and people in production, not necessarily writers but yes, just friends that I made from the show are friends who know friends who work in the industry and I think kind of the biggest thing that I would say it led to was—my family already lived out in California—but I was on the show and moved. I was living in New York at the time and moving out here and kind of meeting everyone that worked on the show and their friends who work in the industry, that was kind of an indirect way which I think being on The Bachelorette did help being a screenwriter and just kind of getting to know people in the world.
Ashley: I’m curious, the opposite effect, reality shows and I think The Bachelor is probably a prime example—the people on those shows are not necessarily known for their intellect, it’s more of their good looks and so I wonder if you felt like there was any kind of the opposite reaction where now you’re trying to be taken seriously for a much more intellectual pursuit and people are like that’s the guy from The Bachelorette, if you found any sort of reversal that people don’t take you seriously.
Michael: Great question and I think if I were honest with myself, I would completely agree that I can’t imagine that people look at the bachelors which go on the show and think man, he’s probably a great guy and really smart other than being dumped on national television. Fortunately I have not had really any kickback. I’d say it’s only helped—and this is probably also worth mentioning for the viewers too—I got a very good edit. I was a good guy on the show so I think that helped—and I’m sure you know this too. People like working with people who are generally nice and easy to work with. So I think if me being on my show got my foot in the door in some capacity because people watched it or maybe someone’s wife watched it and that helped me get in the door, it also certainly helped that I was kind of portrayed as a nice guy—and I am a nice guy—but the kickback of any kind of feedback I’ve gotten in terms of being a reality TV show guy, I’d say has only been positive translating into wanting to work in the industry.
Ashley: Okay. So let’s dig into your screenwriting career and maybe you could just kind of tell us how did you get an interest in screenwriting and kind of what you’ve done up to this point.
Michael: Sure. It is two things: (1) I’ve really always been a writer backing it all the way—and I won’t spend much time here, but in fifth grade was kind of really when I realized that I loved writing. I just had a teacher who did a lesson on showing vs. telling in writing and I was hooked. I loved it. I thought that was so cool, and I was terrible at math so also process of elimination. I got an English degree at Illinois State University. I wrote my first book in college. I wrote a middle-grade fantasy novel. So I was kind of always a writer and reading for sure. I’m a huge reader as well. And then along the same lines, I’ve just always loved movies, particularly the horror genre. I just love scary movies. I think it’s really hard to make a scary movie that’s also a very good movie. That’s kind of my real fascination and three years ago in 2012—I have an identical twin brother—we went and saw the first Woman in Black—did you see that movie by chance?
Ashley: I did not, no.
Michael: The second one just came out a few months ago. Anyway, we saw it, we really liked it and we came home and we were like what we should do is write a screenplay and we did. That was three years ago. It was kind of a combination of always being a writer and always loving movies, particularly the horror genre is what got me into it. You said this several times in the podcast but I can’t agree with it more. I also live in North Hollywood—actually I just moved to Burbank over the weekend—and living in Burbank and Hollywood is really a good place to be a writer. It’s actually the best place in the world to be a screenwriter or TV writer so the shoe kind of fit in that regard too.
Ashley: Sure. So let’s talk about some of that sort of. You’ve written a script and let’s talk about some of the practical steps that you’ve taken to get this script out there and get it sold, get it made, whatever you’re doing on that front.
Michael: Sure. I wrote the scripts over the course of about thirteen months and this is obviously me coming to the craft of screenwriting knowing just about nothing and my brother and I came up with an idea. We kind of generally outlined it and then I essentially just dove in and wrote it all out. Fortunately—and I heard this on your podcast as well—but heard someone say you don’t want to send anything out until you’re ready. I was, I think; humble enough to kind of realize this probably isn’t ready. A first draft is probably not that good. So fortunately I’m going to be able to reference the Bachelor connection. Again, I had a director buddy who does feature films. He did Parental Guidance. His name is Andy Fickman. He is just a really, really wonderful guy who’s been working in Hollywood for about twenty years. He just had a big viewing party for the Bachelor and we had some mutual friends. He invited me there. We started talking—this was all two or three years ago—and then fast-forward to my brother and I finished the scripts and I was like hey, you’re kind of the only person I know in the industry. I know you know nothing about me in terms of being a writer, but I wrote a screenplay. Would you mind taking a look? He said yeah, to be honest, I usually don’t do this. I get a lot of friends who ask me to read screenplays and they are usually not very good but he said he’d take a look. So he read it and he called my brother and me up and said you guys should come in for a meeting. You are actually really good. This is a really good screenplay. So we came in and structurally—he just tore it apart and said there’s a lot of stuff that you guys have to fix but you can write and it really surprised me. I think you should keep going. So that was about two years ago, and he’s kind of been involved every four to six months we’ll set up another meeting, go check in with it and then most recently that has led to he’s got someone interested in it who wants to buy or I suppose option it—I don’t know the exact specifics of how involved he wants to be—and then he does a lot of work for Warner Brothers. So he has offered to get us a bunch of William Morris actors and do a table read in front of basically agents and producers and really start shopping it that way. So that’s basically what we’ve been leading up to the last three years.
Ashley: I’ve had some guys who did some table reads and have had some success with that. Definitely check back with me after you do the table read. I’d be curious to see how that goes. We did some emailing before this interview. You gave me a couple of things that you had talked to. One of the things was you mentioned a short film, and I’m always curious that you mentioned, I guess it was called Sweet Dreams. I’m always curious to hear short films, what you do with them and if you feel like that they were worth doing?
Michael: I’ve been really interested to hear people on the podcast talk about short films and I’ll start by saying mine was a short, short like a three-minute but we actually—Eli Roth I think—about five or six months ago, he did a six-second scare contest—I don’t know if you heard about this—but basically people could make a vine or an Instagram video and submit it, and if you won you got the chance for it to be turned into a future film and then the second-place prize got a big old expensive camera. Anyway, so that kind of sparked the idea of me and my buddies—I’ve got two of my writing buddies—actually one of them is an editor and one of them is more of a DP (director of photography) but we kind of had the idea to make a bunch of them. So we made like five or six little six-second videos, submitted them, and out of that we liked this one idea a lot. So we rented a camera. We got some of our friends. I went on craigslist and got four actors. We went to one of my buddies’ house and took about eight hours to shoot three minutes but we had an absolute blast. It was so fun. So to answer your question directly, has anything come of that? No, not at all, but I love having it as kind of a digital resume to send to someone and say hey, I really like horror films. This is kind of a little snippet of something that I and my buddies can do. Have I used it yet? No, but it cost maybe 200 dollars all in and it’s part of the craft. I think it is great as a screenwriter to kind of realize how lines translate on screen.
Ashley: So I’m curious. Obviously you’ve been listening to my podcast and I’m curious, have you tried or why have you not tried the Blacklist and Inktip. Have you just not felt like your script is ready?
Michael: Yes, definitely that. It’s actually funny. I certainly have interest in that and screenwriting contests. At the same time I’m listening to all the guests come on and talk about those things and the success that has come. I’ve also been hearing people say your first script is probably not going to sell and here’s why. My God! It’s been so valuable to listen to your podcast and then look at my first script. One of the biggest things is—I can’t remember if you said it or one of your guests was just saying, if you have nine subplots, it’s probably a little bit too busy. There has been a lot of that like reworking and reworking in terms of just trimming down, trimming down, and trimming down. So I haven’t really started to submit to Blacklist and shopping it around that much because I think it’s going to need a lot of trimming.
Ashley: And that kind of leads me to my next question. You’re talking about having the one script not being ready and the first script maybe is not something that is going to sell, why haven’t you written a second script?
Michael: I actually had two other features which I wrote like a first act. One was basically rebooting Ghost Busters like dark-nighting the Ghost Buster franchise. There’s obviously a lot of red tape there. It’s probably not going to go anywhere but the idea just came to me and hit me like a ton of bricks so I wrote thirty pages. And then the other one we basically wanted to—you know, the Broadway musical Wicked—I essentially wanted to do Wicked, the story of Never land so talk about the lost boys before Peter Pan got there. I wrote that out and then about two weeks ago turned it into a pilot which I really liked and directly listening to your podcast. There have been some TV writers on there as well and turns out I’ve got a few connections in the TV world as well. So I just recently started to kind of split my paths into writing for TV as well. Me and the guys whom I write with I just sat them down I guess three weeks ago now and said look, Salem has been great. We’ve been working on it for three years and I love it but we’ve got to get five or six other scripts out. So we’ve been starting to have more meetings about brainstorming and structuring together. Actually I can’t even compliment and thank you enough. I really would not have moved on to my next script without listening to the podcast. There has been really good advice about how you need quantity. Get them out. You’ve got to write a bunch of them. You can’t just rework the same script for three years. Someone else said this and it’s my favorite quote. “A script is never finished, it’s only abandoned.” I kind of take that to the extreme. I could rework and rework and I actually like rewriting a lot, but there’s certainly a point when you should start spreading your wings to other material as well.
You mentioned some of these other people you’re writing with. You mentioned your brother. Who else do you write with? You just have a bunch of friends?
Michael: I should be a little more specific. I’m the only one who writes, the only guy who sits in front of final draft and bangs it out, but my other buddies are basically—here’s what I—again, may, I keep saying this and it’s a great thing, though. I learned this from the podcast. I am very much an intuitive writer. I follow around my characters with a camera and listen to what they say and I write it down. I am not a conceptual structured writer so the other guys whom I write with are basically there to say yeah, you can get rid of the first eight lines in this scene and the last three lines in this scene. Here’s the real meat and potatoes and then kind of structurally talk about what’s working and what’s not. That’s my weakness is being a structure hound and they’re really good at it. That’s really how I partner with them.
Ashley: Okay. So on this script, Salem, it would be written by you and then storied by you and your brother?
Michael: It would be created by me and my brother, written by me and then I think we said story by or revisions by my two other buddies.
Ashley: I see. Perfect. So, one other thing you mentioned in this email to me was that you attended Jeff Gordon’s Writers boot camp. I’ve had other writers ask me about this. Years ago I actually went to one of his like it was basically a sales presentation trying to get writers to sign up. I was impressed with the guy. I mean, he was a really smart guy and he seemed to have a good strategy. So maybe you can just talk about this. This isn’t a plug. I have no direct relationship, but I have had other people ask me about it so I’d be curious to get your honest take on whether you thought it was worth the money. He even sells it—at least the one I went to was—he even sold it as listen, this is not the cheap way of getting a screenwriting education. This is more of the Mercedes Benz of getting it so I don’t remember what it cost back then, but I’m sure it’s only gone up. I think it is pricey but I’d be curious to hear if you think it’s worth it.
Michael: Yeah, of course. It was pricy; it was a couple thousand dollars I think. I did a six-week crash course, and it was incredibly valuable for learning structure, kind of a 3-6-3 beginning, middle, and end and very closely tied into all the Blake Snider stuff. I think it’s a good process. He takes you from log line to finish, a treatment and a synopsis, all that stuff. Did it work for me in terms of my screenplay because that was kind of the point of it to put Salem through that? I felt way more constricted like hey, you can’t do this because it doesn’t fit within this mold, and a large part of it was me kind of being a new screenwriter and also being such an intuitive writer. Talking about structure to the degree they do, again, it just felt really, really constricting to me. I learned a lot. I wouldn’t say that it was great for my screenplay. As a matter of fact, it barely did anything for my screenplay. But I learned a lot of words to throw around in pitch meetings. That was valuable and yes, Jeff really does know his stuff really well. Would I recommend it? Yes in terms of an educational tool. Would I recommend it in terms of making your script better? No, I don’t think I would say that.
Ashley: Okay. Good to know. So one of the things we discussed before you came on the show was that you had some questions. Obviously you have been listening to a lot of the podcasts. So let’s just turn it for a minute and I’ll give you an opportunity to fire off some questions for me. I’m hoping that this is—I’m sure other people are watching the podcasts and hopefully have some of the same questions so we can just answer them as quickly as you can ask them.
Michael: Yeah. I hope so too, and love the chance to do that. Again, I’ve probably listened to maybe 20 or 25 and it happens every single time, I’m always like I wish Ashley would answer that question that you asked. So some of them are less serious than others. The first one is are you a conceptual writer or an intuitive writer, and I guess maybe for the listeners it might be good to kind of recap the difference there.
Ashley: Ashley: I think Corey Mendel was his name, and I will link to that episode. He’s the one who came on and talked about that. I got a tremendous amount out of that episode as well just interviewing him.
Michael: I loved that episode as well.
Ashley: I’m hoping to have him back on, and we actually had a whole conversation after the podcast ended sort of about Blake Snider and this kind of thing. I think just to sum it up, the core; at least my take-away was that some people start their story from more of a structural standpoint thinking about the structure. Some people start their story more about thinking from the character and the conceptual people start with structure; the more intuitive people start with character. And his point was that everybody comes from one angle or another. You need to kind of reverse that and try and come from another angle. So I’m definitely more conceptual, and I think you can see that. Most of my scripts are very well structured and I want to have him back on because I want to have this because he’s a very smart guy and really knows his thing. I want to have him back on and I want to pose some of these questions because I’ve never felt like I’m a particularly quick thinker so I always think of a hundred questions after the thing ends. So I’m hoping to have him back on. We’ll have a conversation hopefully about this. But one of the things that is clear to me—one of the things that I accept that 99.9 percent of the other people in the world don’t accept is that I’ve kind of accepted the fact that I’m not a great writer. What Corey was recommending, his strategy is only going to work if you really are a great writer and there’s no fall back in his strategy. His strategy, I don’t think is contradictory to mine. His basic strategy was write something that’s really off the wall. Don’t write something formulaic. Don’t worry about structure. I definitely think that the structure is very important, and what I’ve found is yes, if you want to get to that A-level studio screenwriter, you need to write something that’s just wholly original and blows people away. But in order to do that, you’ve got to be really good like you really have to be great. You’ve got to have a great idea. It’s got to be well-executed. You’ve got to have a lot of just God-given talent, and what I’ve found with my career is my scripts—and I’m in a writers group and most of the writers I would say are more intuitive writers and I would say that I’m the most successful writer in the writers group not because I’m the best writer but because I consider these other things. I consider the marketability of my script and I get that all the time. This sounds so familiar, not even commercial just very familiar in this but those are the things when you’re talking about like if you don’t hit the ball out of the park, if you try and write that wholly original script that’s going to knock people’s socks off, if it doesn’t do that, you have a script that makes no sense and it’s not going to go anywhere. If you write something that’s well-structured, you think about where it could fit in in the marketplace, you can sell some scripts. Again, I’m not a brilliant writer but I’m smart about what I do, and you can go look me up on IMDB. That’s the result. There are a lot of people listening to this podcast that probably have more God-given talent as a writer than I but they don’t have as many credits and they haven’t had as much success. I would argue this because they’re not as concise with coming up with using their structure and thinking about the marketability and understanding what they can actually sell vs. oh, I’m going to be intuitive. I’m going to write this great character. The number of scripts which come into my writers group that are the quirky character-driven comedies, it’s like there’s one of those a year that breaks out. But that’s what everybody’s writing, the quirky, the Juno. It’s like yes, but there are a gazillion of those out there. If it’s not great, it’s terrible. Whereas my scripts—if my script isn’t great, it’s not terrible. It’s well-structured. It fits a specific market. It makes sense. It’s got a clear beginning, middle, and end, some clear characters. It’s not great, but at the level that I’m playing at, that’s what the producers want. They want something they can produce; they want something that has a clear and concise story. It’s something that they can go out and sell. It’s not going to be great.
Michael: I’ve heard you and others mention this too that the other benefit of writing that you do which is structurally and with form and everything, even if it doesn’t have the greatest lines or the most amazing original story, that if and when you submit it to people even if they want to pass on the story, they might at least be like the guy can write and he knows his structure so maybe you can get another writing assignment out of that. Again, you and others have spoken too.
Ashley: I’m not so sure that that’s the greatest sort of fall back because I haven’t found that. That’s been always a big thing. You read about this a lot in screenwriting books that you’ll send something to a producer and they will read it and like it and then they’ll hire you to write something else because they like your writing. At this point I’ve had some writing assignments but I haven’t really found that that’s been—I mean, most of the scripts that I’ve optioned and sold has just been me writing a spec script and blasting it out there and muscling it through. It’s a tough business. That’s the thing. It’s a really, really tough business no matter what you do or how you skin it. For the amount of effort I put into screenwriting, it’s not worth the amount of money that I’ve made. I can tell you that.
Michael: One other thing I wanted to piggyback to—and really the reason why I wanted to ask you and maybe you can even speak to it more—I heard a similar analogy to conceptual vs. intuitive. Do you watch Game of Thrones or are you familiar with George [inaudible 0:28:29.2] Martin, the author?
Ashley: Not at all, no.
Michael: So he said something that I love that I wanted to share with you and the listeners and then maybe have you piggyback off of it as well. He basically kind of talked about there are two types of writers—this is obviously for novel writing but I think it applies to screenwriting as well—there’s an architect who blueprints everything out and draws everything and then there’s the gardener who kind of knows what seed they’re planting and generally knows that they’re going to get a flower or whatever type of plant, but they kind of watch it grow and mold it a little bit. And the only reason why I wanted to bring it up is because of listening to your podcast, I thought really hard—and I guess Corey Mendel specifically—about what kind of writer I am and then, more importantly, recognizing my weakness is structure and I need help structurally and when I ask people to read it—you know, I talk to them all about structure. I don’t say things like hey, did you think the dialog was good or did you like the characters because I think that’s my strength—again, just kind of recognizing what is your strength and what is your weakness and writing accordingly and asking for help accordingly as well.
Ashley: I definitely agree with that. Like I said at the beginning of this question, I got a lot out of talking from Corey that did make me sort of think and the current script that I’m working on, I’d really tried to start that script with a character. Here’s a character with a problem and then fit that into a story’s secondary. So I’m making an effort like what you’re talking about. I realize that I’m good with structure and am more conceptual so I’m trying to sort of flip that and get into the other angle and try and start more from the script. I went back after talking with Corey and thinking about what I consider to be my best scripts and the scripts which I’ve had some success with and I looked at some of them and I got to thinking that some of them I did start with the character and the ones that I had seemed to have the most success with were ones that I did start with the character and then I was able to fit that into a story. So I do think that understanding which one you are and then really trying to start it from an opposite of what you feel most comfortable with, starting from the opposite point, I think that can pay dividends.
Ashley: I want to go back now. As you were asking the question, I thought of one of the things—you asked the question about if you’re good with structure, maybe you can get some rewriting assignments, one of the things that I also think is I think most people who go into screenwriting, they are more on the intuitive side. And I base this on being in writers groups talking to other writers. I think most writers come at this more of their creative types. They’re intuitive, more about the character. I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the people also who are readers at production companies and stuff; I have a sneaking suspicion that most of them are more of this creative type. However, I also have a sneaking suspicion that the producers are not like that. The producers are more practical, pragmatic, and that’s why I said, I’ve had a lot of success with my own email and fax blast. I’ve had very little success with things like the Blacklist. I suspect some of that is just what you’re saying. So it’s like yes, my scripts are well-structured but the more intuitive writers who are generally the low-level readers, when I can get a script to an actual producer, I think the producers are more likely to appreciate what I have, whereas the readers—this is just my hypothesis because I never did well in contests and I never had any scripts do particularly well on the Blacklist and that’s all about getting those low-level readers to like your stuff.
Michael: And again, it also seems like you’re right. That’s kind of the theme for that creative, original, new material that isn’t really structurally based. It’s more kind of higher-level concept stuff. Okay, can I ask more questions?
Ashley: Fire away.
Michael: This one’s very simple. Do you watch a lot of movies and do you feel like that is important for a screenwriter?
Ashley: I do and I do watch a lot of movies and I watch very little TV. Now I have really dialed it back so I watch virtually no television because I’m not writing TV. I have seen some of the really highly acclaimed critically acclaimed cable shows, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, I have watched those. My routine, I have two young children so it’s like by 8:30 the kids are in bed and typically I will then get out the I Pad and I’ll watch, even if I only watch 15 or 20 minutes or 30 minutes of a movie, I can get in a movie, I mean, I wake up early so I usually fall asleep at 9:30 or 10:00 at the latest. I mean, I’m watching Her right now on HBO-Go and I’m starting the third night tonight. I got 18 minutes the first night and 40 minutes the second. So I’m exhausted by the end of the day but I get a few minutes. I do try and watch movies at night. That’s one thing I really want to emphasize. It’s not productive time. If you’re given the choice of writing a script or watching a movie, it shouldn’t be a diversion. It’s basically the last 30 minutes before I fall asleep I will watch a movie. That’s not my writing time or productive time.
Michael: It’s part of the study, yes.
Ashley: Exactly. But I do find it helpful and even as many movies and as long as I’ve been doing this, I still watch movies. I got Shaw shank Redemption, went back and watched that. One of the classes I taught was on that. I’m writing a script with a sort of a sociopath mobster. I went back and watched Sexy Breast again. I mean, really watching these movies and understanding why they’re great, just as an aside, I was on stage 32 the other day and someone posed the question why is Shaw shank Redemption considered such a great movie? I had just rewatched it and to me it’s like to me if you don’t understand why that movie is so great, just go watch it and watch it a bunch of times. As I said I have two young daughters, my five-year-old was really into Wizard of Oz and now my two-year-old is really getting into Wizard of Oz so I’ve probably seen parts of the Wizard of Oz a hundred times over the last five years. There’s a level that you hit when you see the same movie over and over again, you hit this level of starting to notice incredible details. It’s like if you’re a screenwriter and you’re wondering why is Shaw shank Redemption considered one of the best movies of all time and you genuinely are wondering that, go back and just start watching it every night. Watch it a hundred times and learn and continue to pull out what’s so great about that movie and why the script. That’s a great script. It’s not just a great movie. Go back and watch that movie. Just keep watching it until you understand it. I remember when I first started on my screenwriting journey, I never understood Shakespeare. It was hard to read but everybody always said he’s the world’s greatest dramatist. And I’m sitting there thinking you know, if I want to be a dramatist and I don’t understand why the world’s greatest dramatist is actually the world’s greatest dramatist, I need to figure it out. That’s pretty rudimentary. And in my senior year in college, I signed up for appreciating Shakespeare or something. It was an elective English class. It got me in there and got me reading those plays. I’m by no means a Shakespeare scholar or even an expert but I do think I got an appreciation for why he is considered the world’s greatest master. I think you really need to watch movies to really get that and think about them, not just sit there and watch it and just let it wash over you. You need to think about it, stop the pause button and pay attention to what’s happening. Pay attention to your emotions when you’re watching a movie and you’re feeling those emotions, hit the pause button and think about how did this writer get me to the point where I’m really tense or I’m really happy or I’m really sad. How did that writer make me feel that? Those are the lessons that you can bring to your own writing. Those are the things, understanding the mechanics of how a writer makes another human being actually genuinely feel emotion. That’s the long answer; the short answer is yes.
Michael: There’s another book I’d recommend too. Actually my dad worked—and he’s retired now—but worked in the Nielsen ratings so he would basically do pilot testing and feature film testing for trailers and stuff. Long story short, he read a book called The Writer’s Dream, have you heard of this book?
Ashley: Oh sure.
Michael: Anyway he had me read it–this was four or five years ago but that was kind of my first real understanding of why the greatest stories and movies, why they work—and they all do have those kinds of beats and those moments along the way that are there and working in a really practical way that you should certainly be aware of. And watching Shaw shank Redemption, that’s my all-time favorite movie as well and Forrest Gump. They work for a reason.
Next one, is there a specific movie that made you want to write movies? Was it Shaw shank.
Ashley: No, it definitely wasn’t. I’m probably a lot older than you think. I was already out in Hollywood writing when that movie came out. For me and my generation—I mean, I’m 43 now so for people who are in their late 30’s or early 40’s, I think Star Wars, the impact that had on our childhoods—as I said, I was born in ’71. I think it came out in ’76 or ’77 so I was the exact person to really feel the impact of that movie which we’re still feeling now almost forty years later. I definitely think that that—I mean, me and my brother literally we saw that movie as kids seventeen times in the theatre. We would go and we would just see it over and over again and just the toys and the action figures and playing Star Wars and getting—I remember VCR’s came out in the 80’s. We just thought it was amazing that we got to the library and were able to rent a VHS copy of Star Wars. It was unfathomable. We were so excited we could watch it another 20 times. We had this record. It was literally just an LP record of the abridged Star Wars story that we would just listen to. My parents got it for Christmas and we would listen to this story. And I went back—one of the classes I taught through Selling Your Screenplay, recently I went back and looked at the third act of that. It was brilliant when Luke was going down—I mean, you talk about the Blake Snider and all of the stuff, the ending of stories, it’s not just this big action scene. I go back and I read—I got those DVD’s for my daughter so I have been watching a lot of Star Wars recently—and I feel like the first one—everyone says Empire Strikes Back is the best. I think the first one is the best. I look at it now and it just holds up. It’s brilliant now. It’s absolutely—
Michael: Last year I actually did that too. I went back and watched all six and it’s amazing how much the first three chronologically hold up I think are better than the new ones that came out, whatever it was in 2005.
Michael: I kind of hear this all the time and my twin brother and I produced board games. We make board games; we had a board game design company. Anyway, our first game that we ever made, we had a publishing company offer to buy it from us and long story short, we didn’t end up taking the deal because it wasn’t what we wanted. About eighteen months later now we’re both kind of kicking ourselves and being like we had no other offers on the table. We were first-time board game designers. It made me wonder if you feel like that translates to screenwriting within a certain degree. Should you kind of pretty much take your first deal and almost no matter what, you know what I mean?
Michael: Just to get the fricking deal and build a resume. I’ve heard some guests talk about it to a certain degree but I’m curious just to ask you directly.
Ashley: (1) I think yes, I think people should be a lot less worried about if they have no writing credits, they should be a lot less worried about the particulars of that deal and just getting a writing credit. I mean there is some standard stuff you’d want to make sure is in the agreement, but I have turned down some deals more lately. I mean, at this stage of my career, I don’t necessarily need another crappy movie on my resume. So there have been some deals in the last year or two that I feel like the producers were probably going to make the movie. They weren’t offering a lot of money for the script. I didn’t feel like they were going to go a good job so I turned those down. But as a first-time writer, even a second-time writer if you have one or two credits, you want to build a resume and I totally agree. Don’t worry too much about it. The other thing I’ll say is the first real script that I sold was a movie called Dish Dogs. It had Sean Aston—I think I talked about this on a podcast—before the whole thing, they had optioned the script and they were trying to get a director. My memory is hazy so some of the details might be off, but I think Sean Aston had just directed a short film that had gotten an Academy Award or an Academy Award nomination or some critical acclaim. So the producers called Aston and said—Sean had questions about the script. Go have dinner with them. We had dinner with him and he had all these questions. We were kind of arrogant, that attitude that you just kind of said oh, we didn’t think to deal—so when I ended up—we had dinner with him. He told us all his ideas and we kind of got back with the producers and kind of he wants all these rewrites and we don’t think these are good ideas and this and that and the other thing, and they didn’t end up going with him as a director. They ended up going with him as a writer. But in hindsight I should have done everything I could because he is a really smart guy and frankly, his ideas were probably really good. I should have made more of an effort—and I’m not sure it would have helped. I mean, the producers weren’t listening to me any more than they were listening to Sean. But I should have tried harder to get him on as a director because Sean would have worked with us as writers and it may not have been what we exactly had in mind from the beginning but it probably would have been better than it turned out. Because as it turned out, the producers and director they got completely rewrote the thing anyway and their ideas were a lot worse than any of Sean’s ideas. At least with Sean the thing about him was he genuinely wanted to make a really good movie and he was prepared to do the work to get there. So that’s the one thing I’ll say is no matter who you are, whether you be James Cameron or Steve Spielberg or who you are, I can guarantee you there is a very finite number of scripts that you’re going to sell or in the case of a director like Spielberg, there is a finite number—and it might be a big number like 30 or 40—but it’s a finite number of movies you are going to direct or you’re going to sell and every single deal is precious and every movie you’re working on is very precious. And you should never thumb your nose at anything because this business is too hard. You’ve got a chance to get something made or something, it’s like consider it carefully because even if you just exactly what you said, you come out of the box—and that’s kind of where we were. We had written this script; we sent it off. We got it optioned very quickly. We thought we’re going to have tons of these opportunities. This is easy. We thought screenwriting is easy. You know what, every deal, every opportunity is precious and considerate it carefully.
Michael: It seemed like that was kind of an emphasis. There were moments of it in a few episodes which I watched. I just wanted to ask you that directly and basically hear you say that. It really is a big deal to get any deal so treat it preciously.
The next question I had was had you seen the—I guess it’s a documentary—Tales from the Script?
Ashley: I have not. I’ve seen it on Netflix and I think it’s in my queue but no, I’ve never actually watched it.
Michael: So I’m really curious to know what you think of it. I can’t remember who does it but they basically interview—what’s his name—Frank Frank Daraban, the guy who wrote Shaw shank, right? Did he write Shaw shank? They do interview a bunch of writers. I’m not going to say anything. Listeners, if you haven’t watched it, you should absolutely watch it. I think you should too.
Ashley: I’ll check it out.
Michael: I’m going to send you an email and follow up. I’m really curious to see what you think about it. Next question, is there something that screenwriters should avoid doing? I know that’s probably a little bit general.
Ashley: I think it goes back to kind of what I was saying. I think that they should avoid—I hear this advice so often, write what you’re passionate about. That’s good to an extent but I’m on the front lines with Selling Your Screenplay of getting people saying hey, man, I just wrote this script. It’s like I know you’re passionate about this, but this script is never going anywhere. And so I do think people should more carefully consider the marketability of their project and where are they going to sell it and who is going to be an audience for this thing? A personal project that you’re passionate about, it may not have an audience. That’s fine, write that script but realize that’s not going to really go anywhere.
Michael: It also seems like maybe this is a bit too much of a blanket statement but that quantity is even a little bit more important than quality because if you have one amazing script but like that you think is amazing but that’s just not going to go anywhere for whatever reason. It’s too much like Star Wars or whatever. It’s not going to sell. Even if it gets read and even if it’s good, if you have someone say this is great like no one’s ever going to make this, but have you written anything else? I think it’s really valuable to be able to say I have ten other scripts. I’ve started to learn that kind of listening. Again, I’ve already mentioned this a little bit. If you’re a new screenwriter and you want to write one script and you’ve written it and you think it’s amazing, that’s awesome! Good for you, but it’s also really important to write your second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh scripts too and just let the pen hit the paper.
Michael: Okay. I guess one other question I have—and you’ve talked about this to a certain degree. Since we’ve been talking you’ve mentioned writing groups. I’ve never done one and I have always for that reason hesitated to do those seminars where you pay about 250 bucks or 300 bucks. It’s a weekend and you kind of workshop and meet agents and producers and pitch, (a) Have you ever done one and (b) Do you recommend them to anyone? You do a great job of kind of talking about all the different avenues you can go to get your script sold and that you should kind of do all of them. Yes, seminars, workshops, and groups always make me a little hesitant.
Ashley: I’ve never tried one so obviously I’ve never had any success with one. I don’t know. The proof is in the pudding. I do think that people get a little bit caught up on oh, it’s three hundred dollars, is it a rip-off, is it a scam? It’s like it’s three hundred dollars. It’s like if you sell a script, it is like you stand to make 300,000 and most of the time in terms of a marketing budget, it seems to me it’s worth trying. I’ve never felt like I’m particularly, as I said, witty on my feet or good on my feet. I’m not great picking up in cold calling. I know cold calling can work so I just never felt all that comfortable about going to a pitch fest and pitching in person. It’s like 300 dollars, go try it. See if you get anything out of it. The worst case scenario is you lose 300 dollars, especially someone like you who lives in Burbank. I think literally the great American Pitch Fest is in Burbank. So what’s the 300 dollars. You do it once. If you don’t feel like it was worthwhile you do it once. As I said, I haven’t had any success on the Blacklist. I still submit my scripts to the Blacklist. Basically it’s like 125 bucks. I get two readings; I get one month of hosting. The upside is just so great. If I can get a good rating, there is so much potential upside. I’ve said this a lot on the podcast it’s like try everything and just see what works for you. As I said, for some reason—and I don’t know that I have a good handle on it—my email and fax blast has worked the best for me.
Michael: You’ve said that a few times and that’s your bread and butter.
Ashley: My email and fax blast may not work for you. It may not work for other people, but there are going to be other things that might work for you. You’ve got to find something, and if you’re outgoing and you’re a good talker and you’re charming, I think a pitch fest might be something you should try. That’s always one of the big complaints is that they’re low-level assistants. They’re not the real producers and that’s probably—
Michael: But they all want to become someone.
Ashley: Exactly. They all become someone, and I think that’s the other problem with a lot of people’s thinking is they look at this like—and I get this from my own email and fax blast service—it’s like how many scripts have been sold. It’s like don’t worry about it. You’re making connections. If you go to one of these pitch fests, if you go over and over year after year for three or four or five years, you’re going to see some of the same faces. You are going to remember some of the people. If your scripts are halfway decent—I mean, go listen to the first Chris Sparling interview that I did—he met one manager and the manager didn’t like anything that Chris had at the time but it opened a door and Chris kept sending stuff and kept sending him stuff over the course of years. This is going to take years. That’s what people don’t want to hear. Oh, I went to the pitch fest and I only got three script requests.
Michael: One other interview I wanted to revisit since you’ve obviously had time to digest it and I don’t remember her name unfortunately, I think she was a New Jersey housewife of New York.
Ashley: Oh yes.
Michael: What was her name again?
Ashley: Jamie Palmaker?
Michael: Yeah, that’s it, basically the pitch woman. She blew my hair back I guess mainly with her confidence just that she was like I called the production companies and I figured out who was in charge and what they’ve made and then I basically just told them here’s this idea and it’s going to segue into you should make it. They were basically like yeah, okay. They bought her stuff. I’m just curious because I’m similar to you in that I’m not a very good salesman. I think I’m charming and personable but when it comes to talking about my own stuff and selling it, I get a little sheepish and a little bit uncomfortable. And it seemed like—what’s her name again?
Michael: Jamie was the exact opposite. She could sell popsicle to a woman in white gloves, and it made me curious just your response to that interview, were you just blown away as well?
Ashley: I was very impressed with her. She’s a very smart woman and that’s what she does for a living, though. She does PR and so she’s used to essentially cold calling reporters, presidents of companies and pitching them ideas. So she has years of experience. She’s very, very smart. Think about, though, what you just said. She could sell ice to an Eskimo. That’s the whole point. That’s not what she was doing. She was finding out Eskimos don’t need ice. That’s the point. What she was doing, she was finding out what those people need and she was giving it to them. I’m in your boat. I look at her and I’m in awe. She’s got a lot of great advice. I think that was a great podcast. I think people should listen to it. It did help me some because I asked her specific questions about her pitch and her query and it did help me rethink how I’m pitching my query letter, but I’m not going to be able to call up and talk. Again, that’s what I say, you’ve got to try everything and figure out what you’re good at and then push in that direction. She’s great at that, and that’s the direction she’s going in. She’s having success with it.
Michael: It was awesome. Lastly, for me actually, I’ve been listening for about two months now and I’ve probably listened to dozens in literally just in eight weeks, it has massively changed the way I’ve approached screenwriting and I just can’t thank you enough for that. I guess on behalf of the fans, it’s great. I will be an avid listener for as long as you do it.
Ashley: Well, I appreciate that. It’s nice to hear from you and it’s nice to know that. I hope you’re not the only one that’s getting so much out of it. It makes it all worth it when I do. I get these emails occasionally where people are very complimentary so I do appreciate it. Let’s wrap it up and maybe you can tell people—I always like to kind of wrap it up by you telling how people can follow along, maybe just mention your Twitter handle, your Facebook, if you have a blog, whatever you have and then people can kind of follow along with what you’re doing.
Michael: Great! I guess I’ll say three things: (1) Last week my Twitter account got hacked unfortunately so it’s @michaelstag is my Twitter account but it’s not me right now and I’ve been emailing Twitter relentlessly. My Instagram which you can just leave comments which I actually see all the time is michaelstag as well. And then my email is email@example.com if anybody wants to ask questions or get advice.
Just one other thing I wanted to say that I just did this recently. I got a bunch of actors on craigslist and did a read-through. It probably took me 24 hours to find all the actors, email everyone, get them in the same place, and if you can do it, it was crazy eye-opening to me and didn’t take that much work in terms of hearing your script out loud. I just wanted to add that little tidbit of advice because it was so cool.
Ashley: That’s a great tip. Michael, I really appreciate you coming on the show. As I said, I’m thrilled to hear you’re finding the podcasts helpful and I think this was a great episode so I appreciate it.
Michael: Thank you, Ashley. It was a blast to be on.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you soon.
Michael: Okay great! Take care.
Ashley: Take it easy.
So in this show I mentioned earlier the economical script analysis service which I am now offering, it seems to be working quite nicely. It really does seem to be an incredible value and people seem to be responding to it. I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the notes that the readers have been giving. So far all of the feedback from the writers has been excellent as well. So it occurred to me that perhaps my email and fax blast service is a bit too expensive for some writers. Dollar for dollar I do think it’s an incredible value but perhaps it’s just a bit too much of a commitment for some screenwriters. So for a limited time I’m going to simply break my producers list up into three blasts and then you can purchase one-third of the blasts at a time and, of course, at a third of the cost as well. It will be just a little over fifty dollars. Then you can hedge your bet a bit. If the blast works well for you, you can buy a second and third part of the blast but you don’t have to plunk down the full amount from the beginning either. This way it’s not as much of a commitment up front. The full list has about six thousand contacts in it so even divided up into three sections, there are still around two thousand contacts in each section. Even one-third of the list is still a pretty decent-sized blast. The one thing that hasn’t changed, I still require that you join Sys Select which at the time of this recording is just $24.99 per month. The reason I require this as part of the process is that I’m going to personally look at your log line inquiry letter and help you make them as good as possible. This is really for everyone’s benefit. I want to make sure that the query letters and log lines are well-written before I send them out to my lists. The people receiving these email queries obviously they can unsubscribe from this list. So sending out a bunch of half-baked query letters would just burn the list up which hurts everyone who might ever want to use the service in the future including myself. Also, by getting my feedback on your log line inquiry letter, it means your response rate is going to be much higher. I’ve been doing this for a while and have had a lot of success from cold query letters so I think getting my feedback alone is valuable and well worth the price of admission. Also you’re welcome to join Sys Select for just one month and then quit once your query letter is ready to go out. Obviously I hope you don’t but that’s totally fine. And once your query letter is approved by me, you’re free to buy the other blasts later on even if you’re no longer a member of Sys Select. You don’t have to rejoin down the road. So you join, you get your query letter approved, you buy the first blast, and then if six months down the road or three months down the road you want to do another blast, that’s totally fine. You can just buy the next third of the blast or whatever part you want, the two-thirds of the blast and you don’t have to rejoin Sys Select. Again, I really just require the subscription to Sys Select so that I can evaluate your log line and inquiry letter and make sure that it is in the best shape as possible.
Also, a lot of people have joined Sys Select just to get my input on their log line and query letter so you’re more than welcome to join even if you don’t want to use my blast service. So if you’re looking for some feedback on your log line and query letter from an industry pro, this is a great very inexpensive way of doing it. Again, you don’t have to use my blast service if you want to join Sys Select and get my feedback on your log line inquiry letter. Also by joining Sys Select, you get access to the Sys Select forum. In the forum I review hundreds of query letters and log lines and you can see my notes and the revisions the writers made. So this is a great resource just to help other writers hone their own log lines and query letters. So if you’re having trouble with your log line inquiry letter, again, just joining Sys Select and looking through all the other log as inquiry letters should give you a real education on how to write a good one. You also get access by joining Sys Select. You also get access to all the online classes that have been recorded over the last couple of years. There are more than a dozen classes covering all sorts of screenwriting-related topics from writing your script to pitching your script to writing and producing your own short film. It’s a great resource for any writer who wants to further their screenwriting education. Also, I always get questions how long are you going to be running this sale? How long are you going to be doing this special and I honestly don’t know. If it seems to be working well, I’ll probably keep doing it for a while but if it just ends up being a lot more work, I’ll probably just revert back to the one price. So you just have to buy the entire blast in one big purchase. But for right now, as I said, I don’t plan on changing it, but I’m going to run this special for a little while and just see if this doesn’t generate some more interest in the service.
Anyway, to check this out, just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/blast. Again, that’s sellingyourscreenplay.com/blast.
In the next episode of Selling Your Screenplay podcast, I’m going to be interviewing Thomas McCarthy. He wrote and directed the Indi hit The Station Agent and he recently wrote and directed a movie starring Adam Sandler called The Cobbler. We talk a bit about both films. So keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch on a few things from today’s interview with Michael. I feel a bit ridiculous talking so much about myself on my own podcast. Hopefully you did get something out of it. I was actually recently interviewed on the Indi Film Academy podcast. I actually feel like it’s a better introduction to what I’ve done and what I do than some of my own podcast episodes where I just sit here and basically talk to myself. We cover a lot of stuff from how to sell a script, what to look for in an option deal and a bit about my own writing routine. So if you want to hear more from me, I’ll link to it in the show notes, but it’s the Indi Film Academy podcast. Again, I’ll link to it in the show notes and I think it’s episode 10 over there.
So the biggest thing I wanted to point out from today’s interview with Michael—and it’s an issue I see with a lot of screenwriters—basically it’s not getting enough scripts written and out into the marketplace. I didn’t harp on it during the interview because Michael seemed to recognize that it was a problem. But I would like to touch on it briefly here. Writers, especially newer writers, need to write a lot. Michael’s doing a great job getting his screenplay out there. That’s all great stuff, but imagine if he had three or five or even ten scripts that were ready to go out. Then I would say he had a real chance of actually selling something soon. The problem with only having one solid script is that even under the best of circumstances, the chances of any one script actually getting made is very, very small. You’ve got to get a certain amount of volume which means a certain number of scripts out into the marketplace to have even any fighting chance of one of them actually getting made. The even bigger issue—and this is something that new writers really fail to understand—and that’s even if your script does get made, the chances are it’s not going to even be a modest hit and it won’t really do a lot for your career. Sadly this is something I’ve personally experienced numerous times in my own career. So again, you’ve got to have a ton of scripts written and ready to go so that you’ve constantly got irons in the fire. If one gets optioned and is going—and that’s basically what Michael has—he’s got one script that’s basically getting tied up because he’s got some interest in it. But if he had other scripts, he could pursue other avenues and get other people interested in these other scripts. Other than just getting incredibly lucky, I really don’t think that there’s any other way of maintaining any sort of career. You’ve just got to write a lot of other scripts. You’ve got to finish a lot of scripts and you’ve got to get a lot of scripts out there. So that’s my parting advice for everyone this week. Go out there and write, write, write, and keep on writing and once you’ve finished writing a script, market it heavily and keep writing another script and just keep rinsing and repeating until you start to get some traction.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.