This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 078: Screenwriter and Teacher Corey Mandell Talks In Depth About Creative Integration.
Ashley: Welcome to episode 78 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Corey Mandell. Corey is a screenwriter and screenwriting teacher. He’s got a lot of perspective on how to break into the business and how writers can improve 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 re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread the word about the podcast so they are very much appreciated.
A couple of quick notes, any website 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 78.
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. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
I’m excited to announce several new initiatives at Sys Select to help screenwriters get their scripts get into the hands of producers and sell their screenplays. First, we’ve created a monthly newsletter that will be sent directly to producers. Every member of Sys Select can submit one log line per newsletter. I went and emailed my large database of producers and asked them if they would like to receive this monthly newsletter of pitches. So far we have about 120 producers who have signed up to receive it. These producers are hungry for material and happy to read scripts from newer writers. So if you want to participate in this pitch newsletter and get your script into the hands of lots of producers, sign up at sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
The second piece of this initiative is actually fielding leads from producers. We’re doing a lot of outreach to try and bring in specific requests from producers. We’re trying to find producers who need scripts, and we’re trying to match those producers with screenwriters. These are producers and production companies who are actively seeking specific types of material. These leads are very, very specific. Here are a couple of real-life examples: This week we have a production company looking for low-budget horror scripts. They want something that has a limited number of locations and characters and no special effects. The producers have a small budget so there is some upfront money for the right screenplay.
Another lead that came in this week is a company looking to have a synopsis and beat sheet turned into a feature-length screenplay. Again, this is a paid writing assignment. The producers want someone who is familiar with the Rom-com genre, can write witty dialog but also understand slapstick humor and is familiar with hipster culture. If you want to respond to any of these leads directly and get more leads emailed to you as they come in, sign up at sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. I mentioned my baseball comedy that was optioned to a producer in Delaware a few episodes ago. The movie revolves around a minor league baseball team so the producer is trying to get a minor league team to sign on and co-produce the film with him which means basically use the movie as a promotional piece and kick in some of the money. So the producer’s basically approaching this team and saying listen, this script revolves around a minor league team. We will incorporate your team into the actual movie, into the actual script, and it will be a great promotional piece to help you promote your baseball team. So a couple of weeks ago the producer met with the team owner, and the team owner is excited by the idea. He really likes it, but he doesn’t have a lot of experience in producing movies or in the film industry. So he doesn’t necessarily want to kick in a lot of his own money. However, he is going to help to raise the money so that’s a nice thing. Slowly but surely this thing is moving forward. Now raising the money to shoot an independent film is the toughest part of the process by far so this thing still has a long way before it goes into production or if it ever does, it can go into production. In the meantime the producers are flying my writing partner and I, Nathan Ives, who co-wrote the script with Nathan and actually interviewed with Nathan in episode 18. If you want to hear a little bit more about his story, just check out episode 18 of the podcast. Anyway, the producers are flying Nathan and I back out to Delaware. We’re going to see a baseball game at this particular team’s home stadium and then we’re going to go and do some rewrites on the script. The whole idea is we get a real sense of the flavor of this team, and we will be able to really incorporate that into the script. There are some other tweaks. I would say our script was kind of a PG-13. We’re going to have to tone it down and really make it like a G or maybe at the most a PG script. It’s really got to be family-friendly. So we’ve got to really just tone it down a little bit, but bottom line is in a couple of weeks we’re going to be flying out there and talking to the producers, meeting the team owners and the management and hopefully just helping facilitate this thing and get to the next step.
I did do a blast. I’ve mentioned my mob action thriller screenplay a couple times on the podcast. I did do a blast last week and started to get a couple of responses so hopefully more responses from that will come in. I’ve sent the script out to a number of production companies at this point and just kind of now waiting to hear back from them.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing Corey Mandell. I did an interview with him before in episode 49, and in this current episode we dig deeper into a lot of the same things that we talked about. We kind of just build on a lot of the ideals that we talked about in episode 49. So if you have a moment or maybe after you’ve listened to this episode, go back and listen to episode 49. It will definitely give you a little bit of context because we just jump right into the meat of the matter. We explain things. Corey kind of brings us up to speed on a lot of the ideas we talk about, but definitely check out 49. If you like this episode, definitely go back and check out 49. It will definitely help you just get a little more context for what we’re talking about. Anyway here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Corey, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. Thanks for coming on the show again.
Corey: Thanks for having me.
Ashley: I will link to the episode we did before. It’s episode 49, and we covered a lot of great information in that episode including how you got your start as a screenwriter. So if people are curious about that, definitely check out episode 49. One of the main topics we covered in the first interview was what you called creative integration. Maybe we could talk about that for a moment and maybe to start, we could just kind of recap what it is and then I have a bunch of follow-up questions as we kind of move into it more deeply.
Corey: Sure. So the basic idea is that there are two creative muscles or two processes for writing, the conceptual and the intuitive, and almost every writer whom I’ve worked with is more naturally wired one way or the other way as a writer. So I’ll divide people simply into conceptual writers and intuitive writers. Conceptual writers tend to work outside in where intuitive writers tend to work inside out. What does that mean? So conceptual writers tend to be the kind of people who would say I need to figure out my story so that I can write it where an intuitive writer is someone who is more likely to say I need to write out my story so I can find it and I can figure it out. Conceptual writers make decisions; intuitive writers explore options. So more pragmatically speaking when I would do script consults with a conceptual writer and I would ask them so why’d you write this thing? What got you excited? Their answers would cluster around they had a big idea, a plot point, a theme, a what-if, a situation. When I would work with intuitive writers, their answers would be more an emotion, a character, and so it really is a very different type of writing and it has a very different experience for the readers. So just to look at characters as an example, conceptual writers create their characters. They invent their characters. They decide on their characters, and often these characters are smartly thought of and created to serve the plot. So when you read that script, those characters don’t feel real; they feel written. They on some level feel like puppets. And that’s a real barrier that most conceptual writers can’t get past. When you work with an intuitive writer, they didn’t invent their characters; they didn’t decide on them. They discovered them. They’re like real people, and they sound like real people and they feel like real people and they talk like real people. But the intuitive writer is generally terrible when it comes to conceptual concerns like structure, stakes, and goals, logic, and momentum and consistency so that intuitive writers plan to write these scripts that have beautiful characters, great dialog, always in search of a compelling story and never finding it. And I don’t care how great your character is and dialog is, if you don’t have a strong compelling story, the reader’s going to get bored. Whereas conceptual writers are really smart and they’re really focused on story logic, interesting things happening and pacing and so when you read a script written by a conceptual writer, there are all these interesting things happening. It’s just not that interesting to read because (a) They are not real characters and (b) You just don’t feel anything when you read those scripts in large part because the writer didn’t feel anything when he/she wrote that script, and so the problem is all writers I believe, when they sit down to write are trying to write the best possible script. So obviously if you’ve been hired, you want to turn in a script that they’re going to make and say positive things about you into the marketplace. If you haven’t been hired yet, and your agent or manager’s going out with the script, you obviously want to write a script that has a real chance of selling or getting you staffed. If you don’t have an agent or a manager, you’re obviously trying to write a script where you can rectify that. And even if you’re newer to the game and you’re not ready to get an agent, manager or get a job, you’re still probably trying to write a script that people you trust and respect—friends, people in your writing group, in your class, your teacher, your spouse—will read your script and say the kinds of things that make you feel like you’re not wasting your time, that you actually have at least a glimmer of potential and hope. So up and down the board, we’re all trying to write the best possible script that we can, and so what we do knowingly or unknowingly is we write to our strengths and we hide our weaknesses. That’s what we should do. If you’re a manager of a sports team and your team has certain strengths and certain weaknesses, you’re going to want to have a game plan that plays to your strengths and hides your weaknesses. So as a writer, that’s how we’re going to write our best possible product at that point. The problem is by doing that over and over, we make our strengths stronger and our weaknesses weaker, and that’s why most writers keep writing script after script after script. They get a little bit better, but generally they’re just creating a larger pile of similarly-flawed scripts. So that edit or that saying of if you want to become a writer, you’ve just got to write, and the more you write, the better you become. That’s just not true for most people. So what I do with the writers whom I work with is that I taught creative integration, and once identifying what someone’s strength and weakness is, I force them to do the opposite. I force them to write to their weakness and hide their strengths so just as a quick example, if someone is more of a conceptual writer, I’m going to help coach them into turning that part off completely and learning how to create and write from a purely intuitive place and to do that for a period of time with certain exercises to keep training and developing the intuitive side so that their intuitive side eventually can get as strong as their conceptual side and then comes the actual really challenging part which is then learning how to integrate the two together because at the end of the day especially in this marketplace, writers who can write really great paragraphs and dialog, can’t write really great stories, have basically no shot and vice versa. In this marketplace what everyone’s looking for are writers who can write scripts that we love the stories, and the story just pulls us in and makes us want to keep reading. And we love the characters; we fall in love with them. They pull us in, and they make us want to keep reading. So it’s being able to do all of it, and I was a studio reader for many months and I have a fair amount of students come in who are studio and network readers, and I’m sure you’re aware of this. I’m sure you’ve had guests who speak of this, but the reality is a whole bunch of aspiring writers, they can’t write scripts that get anybody’s interest going. And of the small group of writers who can write really amazing characters and dialog, most of them can’t also write really amazing stories. The writers who write really amazing stories, most of them can’t write really amazing characters and dialog—and I know I’ve been talking a lot so I’ll shut up in a minute—but the one thing I just want to say is from working with a lot of writers, a lot of people who are in that boat where they know they can get part of it really well, but they always struggle with the other part, there’s a real natural propensity for them to blame themselves or almost have shame about the whole thing or just feel so incredibly frustrated like what is wrong with me? I’ve heard writers say I’m just not mature enough to write great characters and dialogs, or I’ve heard other writers say I’m not smart enough to be able to write good stories. They start labeling in this really negative way which doesn’t help the case. The point is there’s nothing inherently wrong with those people, and if you’re listening to this and you’re someone who you know or you’ve been told from people, that your characters and dialog aren’t as strong as they need to be or you just can’t consistently create strong enough structure, it’s not that you don’t have what it takes to be a writer; it’s not that there is some great character or genetic flaw, it probably means that maybe without even knowing it, you’re just really strong at one part of the process, and you’re weaker at the other part. And your writing process is not rectifying that. And so creative integration is to aggressively tie your strengths behind your back and to work consistently on your weak side but doing it in a way where you develop it so that it becomes as strong as your strong side. Then you put those two together, that’s where transformation occurs. I’ve received so many phone calls and emails from people who’ve gone through that process, and they’ll say I just got done with my agent. I just got off the phone with my producer. I talked to my wife or my husband, and they said I love you. I can’t believe you wrote this script. No offense but you don’t write stories this good or you don’t write characters this good. Are you sure there wasn’t somebody else working on this script with you? So that’s maybe a little bit longer than you expected, but that would be an old review of creative integration.
Ashley: No, no. I think that’s great. Listening to you talk again just brings back all those thoughts that I had when we originally talked about this so I think that’s great. One of the things I’ve done—and it’s a direct result of talking with you in December—was when I have filmmakers on the podcast, I will ask them where the story comes from. Almost all writers can boil it down to one sort of a seed or kernel, and generally you can get at exactly what you’re talking about. As an example, I just interviewed a guy yesterday. He did a movie called Echoes of War which is the sort of Civil War drama, and I asked him that question. He was talking about the character. It is about a guy who returns from a war, has to sort of reintegrate himself into a family, and it was clearly a character. He was more of the intuitive guy; and the story grew out of that. I want to just take a step back because I’ve been trying to sort of think about this myself. I went back after we talked in December, and I started to think about what you were saying. And I looked back at the scripts that I had written, and I tried to do just exactly what I just said. I asked myself where did the stories come from. I looked at the scripts that I thought were my best scripts and the scripts that I’d had the most success with. And I think I am more of a conceptual person. But I looked at the scripts that I had the most success with, and they actually had started more from a character. So it occurred to me that maybe that’s where I needed to start. And so I’m just going to walk through sort of my thought process, and you can tell me yes, yes, it sounds like you’re doing it right, or no, no, it sounds like you’re doing it wrong. Essentially what I’ve done—because before it was the old advice come up with a bunch of log lines, and log lines are typically—at least when I come up with log lines—they are very story-driven. This happens, and there’s some sort of a story there and then you find the characters later. So what I tried to do with the current script I’m writing was just forget about story, I just started thinking about interesting characters, and I just started coming up with interesting characters and then character arcs and sort of back myself in that way. Then once I had a character that I thought was compelling and interesting, I started to look around for a story that would fit this particular character. Does that sort of sound like the process that you recommend?
Corey: That’s very smart and great question, and so the one thing I would say is we just shifted a subtle shift, but we just shifted from creative integration to process. Let’s say there are a whole bunch of tools that somebody could use to construct a script and one of the tools is a very intuitive discovery of a character falling in love with that character, falling around that character and just getting to know that character at the level where in any situation you know what that character would do. That’s a tool. Another tool could be—
Ashley: And that’s kind of what I did was exactly what you just described.
Corey: There is the outlining tool. There is the log line tool; there is the what’s=-=-the-stakes tool, there are a whole bunch of tools and a bunch of these tools categorically are going to fall more on the intuitive side; others are going to fall more in the conceptual side. So process is when somebody sits down to write, what tools should they use and in what order. So what do they start with? They start with an outline. They start with a premise. They start with a character following that character around, and then when it comes time to start writing, what tools are they using in that writing, then evaluating and rewriting. So process is this really interesting subject, and the thing that a lot of writers don’t understand is that process creates product, and we’re all worshipping product and results. At the end of the day successful process creates successful product and non-successful process creates non-successful product. So you are experimenting now with a different process where you’re leaving off for a more character-intuitive place. The question you’re asking—and this is a question that all conceptual writers ask—is this the right way? Is this smart? Is this a good way to do it? What is the process flow chart that I should be following, and the answer is you should never listen to anyone who would answer that question, and since I want you to listen to me, I’m not going to answer that question because every writer has a different process that’s going to allow them to create their best product. It’s not a process they necessarily keep for the entire time. I’ve had conversations with Quentin Terantino, and he does not write all of the scripts the exact same way. So there is no turn to the back of the book; this is the process that you should be doing. What I will say is (A) Most writers left to their own devices follow a process that doesn’t allow them to write their best possible material because they tend to write in a way that’s more comfortable. So conceptual writers tend to start very conceptually; intuitive writers tend to start very intuitively, and what I will say is a lot of the time people who are more conceptual do create their best product when they start more intuitively and intuitive writers tend to do their best work often when they work more conceptually so what you’re saying makes a lot of sense to me, and if I were a betting man, I would certainly bet that it’s going to help you create better product. At the end of the day, though, process is really case-specific and the ones they would want to share with your listeners are that you can’t really start experimenting with process because that’s what I’ll do. I’ll work with writers, and I’ll give them different processes to do short films. We don’t need the entire feature, and we’ll match product results to process. Usually what will happen is if I give someone six different processes to write six different short films, the one process that they hated—and the one process where they’re like this is the worst process ever is that they actually write something that is by far the best thing they ever wrote and they’re really surprised by that. What I’ve come to understand is as a teacher I’m not smart enough to work with someone and just know what process is going to be the best process for them. But the writer also generally isn’t smart enough to know either. It’s really experimentation. So if I were coaching you, Ashley, and let’s say I was looking at your work, and I was in agreement with you that we’re both seeing this is creating better product for you, I’d coach you on some different processes and then just sort of compare the thing. Maybe what you’re doing now at the end of the day, have hit something that is the best for you right now, but there might be a different process out there that might be a little bit more interesting. Because one of the things I heard you say is you get connected characters and explore characters, then you start thinking about their character arts, and then use that to launch the story. Well, character art is a pretty conceptual concept. So it sounds like you’re starting much more intuitively than you ever did, but at some point in that process, you’re quickly pivoting to a more conceptual approach. If I were working with you one-on-one, I’d be very interested in leading you through some processes where you stayed in the intuitive side even longer, perhaps even to a point where it was uncomfortable and then working with you to help you find less strictly conceptual ways of discovering possible stories from that intuitive work. I just worked with a writer that way, and she was able to finally solve her first spec script. What she would do is she would work intuitively on character and then—it’s like she could hold her conceptual mind back a little bit, but at some point the conceptual mind would say okay, what do we have? What’s the value? Oh, you’ve got all this character stuff; let me figure out a story, and I made her stay much more intuitive, do intuitive writing. So there was no concept of a story or a marketplace or an end result. It was starting to populate a world with characters, then it was putting them in situations that she was just fascinated to see what they would do. Again, the conceptual brain is the part of us that is what are other people going to think? Is this a good story? Does this connect to the marketplace? All of that is conceptual. The intuitive part of us is all about authentic experience and what is most interesting to us and what’s true to these characters. And if you stay in that space longer, you’re certainly doing a lot of writing of things that you’ll never use in an actual script, but if you do that, you’ll start to discover the characters will lead you places that you never would have gotten to conceptually, and sometimes where they lead you to is a lot more interesting and unexpected than the conceptual categorical mind. I know you know this, you certainly can’t stay in the intuitive side forever—I mean, you can, and you can create a log of pages and it can be really meaningful to you—it’s just never going to be meaningful to anyone else because there’s not really a story, just like a long dream. But my point is what you’re doing sounds to me smart and sounds to me like there’s a really good chance it’s going to lead to a stronger product. But, again, if I were working with you, I’d love to push you a lot further than that to see what happens.
Ashley: And just to clarify, you keep saying stay in the intuitive side longer—and this is great information, and I’m going to definitely take this and push myself further along the intuitive side—but what exactly does that look like? In final draft am I just wandering around my house with a notepad writing down notes?
Corey: That’s a great question. So I think for conceptual writers, the first step of the process is actually getting to experience what it’s like to be what I would call intuitive island, and intuitive island is that place as a writer where there is no conceptual interference which means there is no evaluating or judging of what you’re writing. One of the things—speaking for myself—but I think this is for all writers—when I’m writing and I’m sort of looking over my shoulder so to speak, and evaluating what I’m writing, I go oh, this is really good like what you’re writing is good. I feel great! It’s like wind in my sails. But when I look over my shoulder, I’m like this sucks, are you kidding. This is terrible writing. I get crunched out and I feel bad. The thing is both of those are evaluating and judging. So when you go to a pure intuitive space, there’s no looking over your shoulder, no oh, this is good; there is no this is bad. There’s none of that. It is just almost like a trance. It is just authentic, what is true for you just pouring off the page. I can write so fast, and when I’m done writing and I get up and walk away, I don’t even remember what I wrote. And if I go back and look at it three days later, it’s almost like who wrote this because you’re completely taken out of your conceptual head. For most conceptual writers that can take weeks or months to get there. There are exercises that can be done to get there. The first thing is just to know what it’s like to do pure intuitive writing. What I find is lost to conceptual writers is if we think about a volume switch from 1-10, ten being the loudest, and let’s say that they write their conceptual critic, judge, cheerleader, that part of us that’s aware of what we’re writing and making some kind of judgment one way or the other, let’s say that volume is usually a 9, when they start doing intuitive training, they’ll get that volume down to a 7 or a 6, and they’ll think they’re in this pure intuitive state because they’ve just quieted that voice down a little bit, but if they keep at it and they can get it to a 0, it’s transformative. What will suddenly happen is the characters and the dialog that they’re able to produce, while quite raw, they’ll be creating their best raw material. Integration is, of course, how you take that raw material and turn it into a good story without diminishing what makes those characters and dialogs so magical. That’s the challenge of integration. So it’s an interesting journey.
Ashley: But the bottom line is I’m in final draft and I’m just writing and am just trying to not—as I’m sure you can tell—I would have a real hard time sitting in final draft and not having some sort of a point to a scene or some sort of—
Corey: I would suggest not using final draft so the way I would look at it, there are four levels and looks like a video game and the fourth level is the hardest and the first level is the easiest. Let’s go from hardest to easiest. The hardest level to stay in a pure intuitive state is writing in final draft or screenwriting software. There is something about descriptions and character names and just the look of a screenplay that is a muscle memory of I write this; other people read it because here’s the thing, pure intuitive writing is non-performance writing, and that’s a really important aspect. When I did Second City Improv Training, we do in the beginning a lot of non-performance training. So the class is sitting around and we’re doing a story one word at a time. That’s not something we’re going to go on stage and charge twenty bucks to watch people and have them watch us do, but it’s training muscles and it’s training skill sets that will eventually integrate with other muscles and skill sets so that hopefully one day we can get on stage and put on a show that’s worthy of twenty dollars. So in improve training or in sports if you look at professional athletes, they do repetitive training over and over. It’s not performance. So non-performance writing is writing in a way where no one’s going to see it and no one’s going to judge it. You’re writing to find the truth of the matter and to discover really component characters. There is something about final draft that creates a muscle memory of people are going to read this. This is like something that I will be judged and evaluated on, and that socks us right back to the conceptual side. So writing the final draft would be like the hardest way to do it. The third level, the second hardest, would be—and this is a lot of my training, MS Word, just dialogs. No descriptions. Descriptions often trigger the conceptual brain. So no descriptions, no character names, just literally writing dialog and nothing but dialog, and, of course the question is if I write nothing but dialog, how’s anyone going to even know who’s talking, but the whole point of intuitive writing is nobody reads it, non-performance writing. So then the next easier way would be prose so people who really have trouble getting outside of their heads will write in prose, and if you just write short-story prose, that’s an easier way to let go of that critic and that judge and the conceptual overlords. The easiest way is pen and paper prose when you’re actually off the electronics altogether. So when I work with someone in this kind of training it’s a fluid experience. Let’s say it’s me and I’m doing character dialog, just dialog and suddenly I start going I know where this can go and then just start the story or some part of me is watching what I’m doing and saying that’s great dialog or that’s terrible dialog, any of those is conceptual interference. What I’ll probably do at that point is if it’s about stopping, I’ll just switch right to prose and I’ll just start writing prose until those voices disappear. Then maybe when they disappear, maybe I’ll work back up to dialog. So if you were to be looking at by intuitive training which you wouldn’t because nobody would be looking at it, you could almost track my progress. You could see in the beginning he’s a little bit of dialog writing but a whole bunch of prose and then three weeks later he was doing all dialog and rarely going into prose. Look, oh, he actually started doing it in final draft briefly and then ran back down to dialog only and then went back up to final draft. Eventually when I work with writers, I want to get them to a place where they could do it in final draft. But I find for most people they need to stay away from final draft. There is nothing wrong with final draft, but there’s just something about the format, it’s just a muscle memory thing that when we start writing in screenplay format, it feels like something we’re writing that it’s supposed to be good at some point because other people are going to read it and evaluate and judge u.
Ashley: I think that’s great information as a conceptual writer, I’m definitely going to take a lot away from that. I wonder if we could just flip that for a second.
Corey: Give me one second, but I just want to make one quick point for somebody who wants to do more intuitive training. A really great thing to do is to warm up with journal writing and do it twenty minutes of journal writing before you do your intuitive writing, and the reason is journal writing is inherently non-performance. You’re writing a journal; no one’s going to read it, and so we were doing a journal, the thing that you navigate toward is self-exploration and honesty and it’s non-performance and that’s the space you want to be in in your intuitive writing. So I always have people do twenty minutes of journaling, and the people who fight back the most are the people who really don’t want to journal. They’re the ones who even more need to be doing it.
Ashley: As I said, I think that’s great for the conceptual writers. Can we flip that and talk just a minute briefly on precisely what an intuitive writer should do. I mean, it almost sounds like maybe they should dive into final draft straight away and try and shore up their structure that way.
Corey: So most intuitive writers are very much used to writing from instinct, impulse, and discovering characters what’s interesting to them. They are usually very malnourished when it comes to conceptual skills like clarity, context, and escalation, and space and strong goals so what I do when I work with intuitive writers is first of all, I’ll have them do 20 minutes of conceptual warm-ups from the beginning—mathematics, computer programming, playing chess. If they don’t know how to play chess, they can read about how to play chess—basically something that gets them into that very conceptual analytic space, and basically I’ll give them a whole bunch of options and ask them which of these would you least not want to do? They’re like well, I hate foster puzzles; I would hate doing computer programming. Great! Then they’re going to do computer programming because what it does is there’s no joy in Mudville on purpose. It’s like just forcing them into that real logical, clear, analytic space; wake that part of the brain up. When I do a lot of this in the workshops, they’re given weekly exercises that focus on these conceptual skill sets. Now the thing that’s really tricky about this for intuitive writers, they’ll do the assignments, think they did it right, come into class, get peer-reviewed and then I’ll review it and they’ll find out they didn’t even get close to getting it right. And the reason is when I have a conversation with them, they’ll say well, say the assignment was on coming up with strong enough stakes to hook a reader, just for an example, they’ll be like I had these options and these stakes really felt like they—and these stakes were felt, and what it is, they’re letting their intuitive part of them decide that it’s a strong enough stakes that there’s the context; there’s clarity. There’s a strong enough story escalation, story progression, these story elements. They’re so used to letting their intuitive side decide, and their intuitive side doesn’t have the value system to care about any of those things. In fact, it’s value system is the opposite. Just as an example, one of the things when you work with intuitive writers is it’s really hard for them to make really strong story choices and the right kinds of story choices and then stick to them. So first of all, they tend to make fuzzy choices, open-ended choices, and even then they don’t stick to them. So they’ll come in a week later or two weeks later and their script is going in a whole different direction. They’ll say this didn’t feel right; this feels better to me. This is what I want to be doing, and then two weeks later they’re going in a different direction. And the reason is from the intuitive side of things, making a decision is a violent act and it’s a mistake because once you make a decision, you preclude all these possibilities. That’s why when we dream it doesn’t always make sense. You might be talking to someone in a dream, and then it’s that person. Dreams aren’t bound by logic or consistency, and they’re not created so other people other than you can experience them. They’re personal intuitive expiration, and there’s a reason for that dream and it’s affecting you in a way that you might not even consciously even understand. So that’s how intuitives generally like to write. They’re really bad at making smart clear decisions. They can’t defend their decisions so they’ll come in and say they have an impulse to go this way, but they can’t defend it; they can’t understand it. It’s fuzzy. Their story structure is always fuzzy. You try to have conversations with them; it’s very hard to fully understand why they did what they did because they don’t even fully understand it. It’s all very instinctive, impulsive, and intuitive. So what I’ve found is for someone like that—and this is how most intuitive writers are—what they can be trained up to do in fairly short order is let’s say there’s an assignment—everyone’s doing the same assignment—they read everyone else in the workshop’s work, and they have to evaluate it on pure conceptual parameters. They get really good at looking at other people’s work from a pure conceptual space because they have no intuitive attachment to other people’s work. So they can learn how to evaluate other people’s work from a real clear smart story sense and be able to know if it’s hitting them or not and yet they cannot do that with their own work. So we’ll stay there for several weeks and keep getting them stronger and stronger at evaluating other people’s work, and eventually they’ll get so strong at evaluating other people’s work that they can start to be able to do that with their own work. It’s an interesting slippery journey, but it absolutely can be done. I have worked with people who have been written off by managers—because most managers are at a place where if you write great characters and dialog, but you have issues with story structure, we can work with you. There are things that you can do, but most managers I know are like you’ve got great story sense but your characters and dialogs just aren’t strong enough. They won’t work with you because they don’t know how to improve that. I’ve seen teachers basically tell people you just need to be writing chick flicks because you’re just not a story person. People get written off that way, and unfortunately they believe that. I’ve worked with those people, and I’ve seen people develop so that they can write amazing stories and amazing characters. So this training isn’t easy. It takes a long time, but it can be transformative.
Ashley: Do you have any sense after working with students after many years about just the percentages? Are more people who go into screenwriting conceptual or are more people who go into screenwriting intuitive? Is it an even break?
Corey: That’s a great question, and so I’ve been doing this kind of training for about four to five years now, and I’ve worked with thousands of writers in various forms. I find it to be pretty 50/50. The stereotype that I thought going into it was that men would be more conceptual and most women would be mostly on the intuitive side. That was completely wrong. I have an equal number of male conceptual writers and intuitive writers and female conceptual and intuitive writers. I haven’t kept hard stats but if it’s not 50/50, it’s pretty darned close to 50/50.
Ashley: One of the things I’ve noticed with myself, if I were to take a guess and someone asked me that question, I would have guessed that it seems like most people who go into screenwriting are more of the intuitive bent. One of the things I’ve found since my sellingyourscreenplay.com is so pragmatic and straightforward, what I’ve found is that most of the people who gravitate towards my material are definitely more conceptual. So I wonder how much of—you have a pretty pragmatic approach as well—and I wonder if you don’t attract more conceptual writers than the average population just because you have sort of a pragmatic approach. I base this on like my writers group, for instance, I mean there have been dozens of writers who come and go. In my writers group it’s got to be like an 80/20 split where 80 percent are more intuitive and 20 percent are more conceptual.
Corey: I could only talk about the people I work with, and sure, if there’s a bias to people who pick me that could be there. So I just recently was up at Toronto for their screenwriting convention. I spoke in front of about 400 people. I talked about creative integration as one of the topics. Afterwards there were about 80 people who came up and were talking throughout the day, and half of them were like yes, I know that my characters and dialog aren’t strong enough; that’s the note I always get, and the other half were saying I always fall short on the story front; that’s the note I always get. Maybe there’s a bias that I—at least from my strength—has been pretty 50/50. Now, of course, it’s different genres so if you’re looking at low-budget horror films, I think you’re going to see a lot more conceptual writers. I think if you’re looking at studio- rich-concept comedies, you’re going to see a lot more conceptual writers. If you’re looking at coming-of-age character-driven films, you’re going to see a lot more intuitive writers and TV shows. I certainly would say within writing genres, you’re going to see clusters of certain kinds of writers. Conceptual writers tend to gravitate toward certain kinds of genres that play to their strengths and hide their weaknesses. If you’re writing a big budget comedy or low-budget horror film, it’s not that characters don’t matter but you’ve got a great concept and a lot of quick funny or a lot of scare-the-heck-out-of-you horror stuff, that script can be successful even if the characters aren’t that strong. Whereas, if that writer were trying to write The King’s Speech or American Beauty, they’re going to obviously fall short. The thing is, in either of those examples, there are a lot of really smart people who can write really good high-concept comedies; there are a lot of people who are really good at writing low-budget horror films, and if you’re one of those people and you’re trying to break in, there’s a lot of luck. It’s a lottery. You just kind of have the right idea, the right time, with the right person, and the gods all have to smile on you. Now if you’re writing a low-budget horror film or you’re writing a big high-concept comedy or a big science fiction script or one of these conceptual genres and your characters and dialog are significantly better than almost anyone who’s working in that genre, then A has a better chance that that script would sell and get made, but even if that doesn’t happen, you might cross over and someday be a writer that people want to work with and are willing to hire you for an assignment, whereas the conceptual writers who don’t develop intuitive skills, they can certainly sell something or option something if they’re really lucky. They can get something made; they might even be able to string together a career, but it’s a really hard—dogs are really stacked against them and the reason is they’re able to do something that a lot of people are able to do and so, again, luck becomes a big part of it. Another way of looking at it is if I’m working with a conceptual writer, and they have a great idea for a horror film or a great idea for a comedy or a great idea for a thriller and the characters don’t suck but they’re not that great. But they do a really good job at the plotting, there’s only one thing positive that can happen for them and that is that the right sites, at the right time, that someone buys or options that script. That’s basically the only thing that’s going to happen for that person. Now take someone who’s done intuitive training—and I’m not saying that their low-budget thriller or their high-concept comedy has characters of the caliber of The King’s Speech—but for a low-budget horror film or for a high-concept comedy, these are some of the best characters and dialogs anyone’s seen for that genre. An example of a script that really got a lot of buzz—this is going back a ways—was Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day was a big high-concept romantic comedy, but it had heart and soul and characters and dialogs that were quite elevated for that genre. So at the end of the day, they’ve still got to be at the right place at the right time and get really lucky to sell that thing. But if that doesn’t happen, that now becomes a writing sample that people suddenly want to meet that writer, and they can suddenly get assignment work. The thing is—as I’m sure you know—ninety or ninety-one percent of all money that writers earn comes from paid writing jobs not from the selling of original material. So I have a former student, Nick, and he has directed—the film is coming out actually in a few weeks for Paramount called Drunk Wedding—and it’s testing through the roof, and so we won’t know until it opens—but like right now he might be the next young great comedy director because it’s testing through the roof. So he’s getting all those scripts, and he’s looking for his next project to direct, and the complaint that he made to me—and I hear this all the time—is I keep reading these comedy scripts that have great concepts, really funny, really well-structured, but the characters are flat or derivative. What he meant by derivative is like it’s almost like this character is this big version of The Big Grabowski or this character is their version of [inaudible 0:49:42.2] or whoever. It’s like these writers are smart and they’re funny, and they can construct good structure but there’s no heart to it, and these characters and dialogs are somewhat flat. My next draft is the most important film I do, and I’m not going to chain my career to that. I’m looking for someone who can do that, but also can execute on character and dialog. So the thing is a conceptual writer who does that training to elevate that part of them, even if their script doesn’t sell— which it probably won’t—I don’t care how great your script is, it’s a numbers game and it’s hard to sell a script. Even if your script doesn’t sell, it now serves as a writing sample. So Nick actually found a writer—I believe a younger writer, I’m not actually sure what their age is—who was able to execute a funny, structured, but also on the character front, and he’s just like I want to work with you. What do you have? That guy had an idea; he marched him into Paramount and said this is what I want to do for my next project. This writer had a nice deal within a few days. And the reason is it wasn’t because his script was necessarily funnier than other people. It’s really hard to say I’m going to write a horror script, and my script is going to be scarier or more thrilling that anybody else’s or I’m going to write a comedy script, and my script’s going to be funnier than anyone else. It’s like there are incredibly funny and great horror writers out there; that’s a hard game to win, but look at a script like Silence of the Lambs, I don’t know that it’s more thrilling—now, of course, it’s based on a novel so that’s a little bit unfair—but it certainly had elevated characters and dialogs and that’s why it performed so much. That was a spec script. Someone had written Silence of the Lambs as a spec script. Even if that script didn’t sell, that script could launch a career. By the same point if someone writes coming-of-age or emotion character-based scripts, if you can do that and then have really good story structure a la American Beauty, the thing is there are so few of those writers that can do both. It’s really exciting to the market and especially on the TV roles because there is so much opportunity in a TV role, but what happens is if you get staffed on a TV show which is a good sort of entry-level position, your job is to support the show-runner’s vision. Your job is to see what they’re trying to achieve and know how to solve their story problem. So what I see a lot are these intuitive writers who write great characters and great dialog, and they get staffed on to a show and their TV career is pretty short because they don’t have the conceptual skills set to say okay, what is the story problem that the show-runners are trying to solve that they’re having trouble solving? I don’t see it, or I don’t know how to solve it. That’s not my thing; I’m a character-dialog person. Look around the room. There are a lot of character-dialog people, but if you’re really great at character and dialog and you can go to the show-runner and say look, I know you’re really struggling with the story problem, I’ve got three ideas I think might work, and you pitch the three and one of them solves the problem, and you do that another time, that show-runner is going to keep you on their staff forever. You’re going to work your way up the food chain where you can become a show-runner. The thing is if you’re sitting in the TV room, and you’re really good at one half of the equation without the other half, it’s going to be really hard to have a career because there is a ton of people who are good at what you are; you’ve got to be good at both sides.
Ashley: Do you have a sense of which one—if you are intuitive or conceptual—which one is harder to overcome. Is one of the two more likely to be able to get better at the other side? I mean, just by definition the conceptual people are more pragmatic so it seems like they might be more open to trying to work on their weaknesses, whereas an intuitive person might not see the value.
Corey: I love you, Ashley. You’re conceptual and you have a conceptual value system.
Ashley: It’s funny you say that because truthfully when you say the word intuitive, to me that has a lot of negative connotations. It’s undisciplined. There are a whole bunch of negative connotations that go along with intuitive. And I’m curious, that would be my next question. Has there ever been any push-back on just using that term?
Corey: No. I never got push-back on using that term, but I do get what happens. I did this training so I’m very conceptual, and so when I started doing this intuitive writing exercise, and I thought most of it was a colossal waste of time, I thought of intuitive either as–I don’t know why this was my vision—but it was these women in cabins with lots of sweaters and caps. I don’t know why that was my association, or I remember reading from books about just write from your heart; write from what you are and it will be beautiful and everyone will like it. At the time I was doing studio work and under assignment for Warner Brothers and I’m like yeah, right. I’m just going to write from my heart and intuitively and write what I want. I’m going to turn it into Warner Brothers and they’re going to think it’s beautiful. And if they don’t, and they start criticizing me, I’m going to be like dude! I wrote that from my heart so don’t give me any criticism for it. I just remember thinking intuitive writing is indulgent; it’s masturbation. It feels good, but at the end of the day there’s work to be done, and if you want to have a career, you’d better understand structure and you’d better understand the marketplace and blah, blah, blah. That is someone who has an unbalanced value system. So the reality is like here’s a metaphor. Let’s say that there’s a writing team, and one person is just amazing with characters and dialog and they know what’s at every point. They know what really will emotionally organically land, but they suck at structure and at stakes and goals and pace. They suck at that. The other writer is great at all that stuff, but they’re not very good on the character front. Let’s just say that one of the writers was more dominant, but they’re the more conceptual one on that writing team. And they would write scripts, and they would consistently get dinged. Michael Lombardo who was on HBO was talking about a writer and a script. They really loved the concept, but they eventually passed because in key places it just felt forced. It didn’t feel authentic. It felt like at certain places certain characters were doing certain things because that was what was required for the story and the story structure and not because that character authentically would have done it. So they’re getting dinged for that, and let’s just say many years later this writing team has really come to the following place where the more conceptual-minded writer at every point in the process wound up making decisions about what to do with the script. They get really excited about the decision. This would be a good escalation; this would be a great set piece. This would be a great wrap-around to where whatever it is they get excited about. Then they turn to their writing partner, and they want to see if their writing partner is one hundred percent excited. If they’re not, they know that if they go down that road, it’s not going to be a successful script. So if their writing partner is intuitive, is one hundred percent excited, okay, that’s awesome. They go down that road, but if they’re not, then there’s a conversation about why not? What would get you real excited so that if the intuitive is like this is what gets me really excited, is going down this path, then the more storied person tries to figure out if that is a different way and an equal or even more exciting way of telling the story. Now let’s say it is—and this is where integration comes in—so let’s say the story person at this point, this is what makes the best story choice, and the other person’s like this is the best authentic character place going this way. They’re on opposite sides. So what a really high-level writing partnership would do is let’s keep working on this; let’s come up with other ideas, other possibilities. At the end of the day, I don’t want to go down a path that you are not one hundred percent excited about and that I’m not one hundred percent excited about because I know from experience if we do something and you’re not all that excited about it, you the intuitive side but me, the conceptual side is, that’s going to be where readers disengage. It’s a great story choice, but it just didn’t feel authentic. It ceased to feel like real characters, but the same time I know from experience that if we go down the road that you really want to go down, you, the intuitive side that I’m not excited about, that’s going to be where readers disengage. What I realized is we’ve got to find something that we both one hundred percent are excited about, and that might take some time in certain situations. But that’s the respect that we have for each other and that kind of writing team is going to be creating their best possible work. That, in a sense, is what creative integration is. It’s about making our internal writing team the best possible. But the thing is if you were at value and balance like I was, then what happens is it would be like a conceptual writer partnering up with an intuitive writer but the conceptual writer runs the show. The conceptual writer makes the decisions. The conceptual writer sees some value in the intuitive writer, but at the end of the day the intuitive contribution is not as important as the conceptual contribution. That writer is going to write better work than when they were just working from a conceptual place, the fact that they invited the intuitive to the table, the fact that they’re willing to let the intuitive writer actually play for a certain period of time and bring a contribution to the table, their work will increase, but they have not yet gotten to their full potential. They’ve not yet gotten to the place where the chance of writing American Beauty or writing Groundhog Day or writing Madman. When you look at the Madman pilot, and it’s just so pitch-perfect structure and such amazing characters and here’s a script that no one bought because it’s so different and so challenging, but David Chase who’s running Sopranos which is the biggest show in the universe at that time, he reads that pilot and he’s like I want to hire that guy. So Matthew Wiener gets hired on the Sopranos off that script. Then the staff writer on the Sopranos for many years wins a couple of Emmys and then when the show opens, Sopranos ends, leverage is back to get Madman made which becomes a huge show, now Matthew Wiener is at the center of the universe. He has a very nice life both financially and creatively. But that was all based on writing a script of that caliber because David Chase said during a hiatus; I read hundreds if not thousands of scripts. This is the one script I couldn’t stop thinking about. So that’s a really high bar, and there’s no way anybody can write that bar unless their story is pitch-perfect but their characters are completely authentic and it’s all working together. So you kind of put your hand on something that’s very important about creative integration is it’s really value-balanced. It’s really getting someone to see the value in the intuitive and the conceptual—and I agree with you it’s undisciplined, and that’s a good thing because through undisciplined exploration you will find things that you can never find on your conceptual side and some of those things are gold. And a lot of those things are fool’s gold. The intuitive gets really excited about it, but it really doesn’t help the story, but in a very real way you’re only writing from half or maybe a little bit more than half of your potential. Within certain genres you’re obviously a very smart guy—let’s assume you’re a really strong conceptual writer—come up with a really good topic, a really good concept, some good plotting, and if you’re prolific and you’re writing a bunch of those and you network and you hustle, absolutely you could sell or option some of that. That’s exciting. That’s awesome. I’m just saying—and I haven’t read your writing, Ashley—but I work with lots of writers who are like you, and I know there’s a whole other gear; there’s a whole other level that’s possible.
Ashley: As a conceptual writer, I look at the people who are the top screenwriters, the Kahn brothers, Woody Allen, and I would say all those guys are very much intuitive. So I know that there is value in—
Corey: I think that the Cohen brothers are incredibly intuitive and incredibly conceptual. They’ve got the whole package, and that’s why they’re so amazing. Alan Ball would be another one.
Ashley: I don’t know, I mean, the big Labowski. I remember the first time I saw it, and frankly, the Cohen Brothers I think are like this for me. The first time I see one of their movies, it bothers me because the stories usually feel somewhat forced. They’re great characters. The Big Labowski is one of those movies. The first time I saw it it was like this really doesn’t make any sense because I’m really examining the story elements, and then over the years as you go back and watch it, especially watch the Big Labowski where you see a couple minutes on cable TV, you’re like man, this is a great scene. Then you start to see little bits of it over the years. Then I went back and watched it and said this is a great movie, but the story is kind of contrived, kind of really doesn’t make sense. There are plot holes.
Corey: But the big Labowski is the real exception. They have that character; they love that character but couldn’t find the story for it so they actually used Raymond Chandler’s story and sort of shoehorned it in, and they were also kind of working in a more sort of fantastical approach. You look at a movie like Fargo, that movie is structurally tight, talked about, and has amazing characters and is an excellent masterpiece. So I hear what you’re saying about The Big Labowski was they were going for something different where I think Fargo they were trying to have great characters and a great story. Fargo’s a great example. That script from a story point of view and from a character point of view is flawless.
Ashley: I think this is actually a nice segue into kind of a next topic, and this is something I think we talked about before. But I think the podcast interview was actually over when we started to get into nurture vs. nature. This is something that I have wrestled with myself. When I was in college I played tennis; I was in high school I played tennis. It was always a question in the sports world because talent plays just such a significant role in your ultimate success in sports. There was always something that was in the forefront of my mind. We talked about it a little bit, and I know from reading your blog and your webpage, you’re very much of the mind that people really can learn the necessary skills to be a writer. So let’s just go down that road and discuss some of this stuff a little bit because one of the things that occurred to me after we talked last is that the bottom line is even after people take your class; they take other people’s classes. They work hard for years; the majority of the people won’t succeed. So it’s like at the end of the day what is it? If it’s not talent that you’re born with, what is it that separates the winners from the losers? Is it just luck? I mean, there’s got to be something at some point that does separate the people who succeed and the people who don’t, and no matter what anybody does, most people are still going to fail.
Corey: I have a different perspective. The only book that I make everyone who takes my class read is a book called Mindset by Carol Dweck, and she studied people who were top writers, top athletes, top politicians, top in any field and what separates them from other people. There are obviously certain factors, but the most important factor was mindset. There is a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, and the fixed mindset believes that we’re born with certain talents and yes, we need to develop them. Just because I was born with the talent to be a great writer doesn’t mean they just sit down there naturally and write. They’re going to have to work really hard to develop the skill set, but if someone isn’t born with all of the skill sets required to be a great writer doesn’t really matter how hard they work, they can get better, but they’re not going to get there. There is a certain amount of talent that’s required to be a world-class football player, a world-class writer, and so it’s the intersection of talent and dedication. That’s the fixed mindset, and the industry is very fixed mindset. Most people in the industry would adhere to that philosophy, and the growth mindset says that everything can be broken down to skill sets. And one can learn those skill sets through dedicated practice. So one can consistently get better and better and better at anything if they understand dedicated practice and that process. Now if we’re talking about the NBA, there’s a physical element. No matter how much dedicated practice I did, I’m never going to be a center for the LA Lakers. I’m never going to be any position for the LA Lakers. I’m never going to be an NFL quarterback no matter how much dedicated practice that I have, but that is a physical constraint. To be a world-class ballerina you have to start at a certain age and has to do with the body and growth plates. But there’s no physical component to writing, and so there’s none of that limitation. So I have literally worked with writers who were some of the worst writers you could imagine. I mean, it was painful to read their writing, and they now have amazing careers. I’m not going to out people without their permission so I’m not going to out this gentleman but there’s a writer that if I were to say his name, almost everybody would have said oh my god, he’s amazing, and I have the coverage reports from some of his early work and it was just abysmal and terrible. So a big problem, Ashley, is that in this industry, when someone breaks in, they smartly pretend that was the first script they wrote, and if they don’t do that, their manager will do that for them. I know a lot of managers, and they just create this total BS. But there’s someone who’s written a script, and it got made. This guy’s career is blowing up, and he was developing a skill set for seven years, but if you hear him talk, the seven years don’t exist. He just started writing three weeks ago or three months ago. Writers are smart to do this because it is a fixed mind industry, and so everybody’s looking for natural talent. So if you’re a stripper who just writes a script or you’re whatever and you just sort of write a script, that’s the first script you ever wrote, that’s sexy; it’s a good story. It’s a good story for the movies; it’s a good story for you, and managers will create those stories. The reality is these writers were mentored, lots of classes, worked years and years and years to keep getting better. I work with writers who don’t seem that far from where they need to get, and three or four years later they’re no closer. I work with writers who are the worst writers you’ve ever seen and three years later they’re amazing writers. Here’s what I know actually. I know that anyone if they train in the right way—and most people don’t—and you practice dedicated practice and you execute on that—which most people don’t and we can talk a little bit about that. Here’s what I know. Anybody can improve and most people can improve significantly. Now does that mean at the end of the day that they’re definitely going to have careers as writers? No. But it does mean they’re going to have their best possible chance or a much better chance than if they don’t do that work. S I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t matter where someone starts out; it matters where they end, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know writers in an arena where people will be honest. I know a lot of incredibly successful writers and writer-producers and writer-directors, and I know how many years of development and dedicated practice they went through before they were pretty good and before they were good and before they were great. Is it possible that someone could just sit down and just start writing and right out of the gate be great? It’s possible. I’ve never met that person, but I’ve met a lot of people that that’s their story but it’s not their truth. The way I look at it as a teacher is I never look at someone and say I think this person’s going to make it; I think this person isn’t going to make it. I never promised anyone that if you take these workshops and do this work, they’re going to have a career. I just promise people that if you do this work, you’re going to improve and you’re probably going to improve significantly. That’s all that I can promise someone. I don’t really believe in luck. Here’s what I think about luck. I think that luck can determine how quickly your career starts and maybe even luck can play a role in the kind of career you end up having. But I don’t know a single person who can write pitch-perfect authentic who doesn’t have a career. To use myself as an example, I wrote this script and I got A-list people attached; it was in the process of selling and then something happened and A-list people were no longer attached and suddenly no one wanted to buy my script. I got really lucky, and I got really unlucky and at the end of the day I didn’t sell that script. But I got an agent, and I had a good writing sample, and more importantly, I had proven to the industry that my writing was at least that a lot of A-list people were interested. Okay, so now I go on a round of meetings, put up for jobs and pitch projects. The very first meeting I have, it’s to pitch an original idea with [inaudible 1:14:10.9] Company and that person thinks it’s great. Ridley brings me up to the next person in the food chain, and that person brought me in with Ridley. Ridley bought the pitch in the room. Now there were writers who were in my shoes, had written a single script, didn’t sell it, were going on a round of meetings, who were as talented or more talented than me, who didn’t end up launching a career through that round of meetings. I did because I’d had the credibility to be in that room, and then I was in the right place at the right time with the right idea. Rigley was looking for something like that. I didn’t know that. So I got lucky. So my career launched very early, and there was certainly a good amount of luck in that. But let’s take myself out of the mix. So let’s say it’s a different writer. They go through this round of meetings, and it didn’t line up for them and they didn’t get a sell. Then they write another great script to see if they can sell that script and go on another round of meetings. If that doesn’t work out they’re going to write another great script and another round of meetings, and as my agent says if you go to three rounds of meetings after three great scripts, and you haven’t launched a career, there’s something wrong with you. You really don’t play well with others and you’re turning people off. I would say if somebody writes three great scripts, goes on three rounds of meetings, and they don’t launch your career and there’s not something wrong with them, then they’re just really unlucky. So I was really lucky. That person might be really unlucky; they might need a fourth script. My point is if you can write at this level and you play well with others and you have lots of ideas, you’re going to launch a career. Luck will just determine how quickly. It’s like a two or three-year window, same thing on the TV front. I’m working with a woman right now, and she wrote this great script that almost sold but it didn’t. She wrote another great script; it almost sold but it didn’t. She almost got staffed two different places but didn’t work out. She went out to pitch. It almost landed, but it didn’t. She just finished her third script. It sold and she got staffed. If she were a little bit luckier, it would have happened a year earlier for her. So when she got to the point to write at this level, it took her about three years to launch her career. If she were luckier, she could have launched in year one or year two. So I think luck has a lot to do with how quickly you get into the game but not if you get into the game. At the same time if you’re [inaudible 1:16:55.8] not only do you sell that script, but it got made. Not only did it get made, it got made with the right constellation of people so that it turned out really, really good. I’m working with a writer who sold a script at the exact same time that [inaudible 1:17:10.1] did, they were both on some list of the new hot writers in town, his movie got made, but he wasn’t so lucky in terms of the constellation of people who made his movie. This movie kind of came and went, and nobody really remembers it. His script was just as good as [inaudible 1:17:30.5] Yabla Cody becomes a big a-list writer, not because she’s lucky, because she wrote that script and she got lucky, but the thing is if you look at a writer like Eric Singer, he breaks into the business with a pitch-perfect authentic script, it doesn’t sell; it doesn’t get made, but he’s getting writing assignments and is making nice money and that’s his day job. At night he keeps writing these original scripts, and it takes many, many years until one of those scripts gets made and that is American Hustle. But for the last eight years he’s made a nice living doing assignment work, not a bad day job to make a couple hundred thousand dollars for three, four, five, six months. But now that script puts him in the upper echelon just like Juno put Yabla Cody. Yabla Cody was luckier; it happened to her earlier. Eric Singer may have taken eight or nine years to get there, but again, he was making a living as a writer. So I think if someone can consistently write to this level and they keep playing the game the right way, it’s going to happen for them. I think luck just determines how quickly it happens and how successful any particular project is. But for me I had a lot of near misses. I’ve written scripts for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen and a bunch of big names—I’ll spare you the details—but they all got so close to getting made, and there’s always some really stupid factor comes in at the end and derails it. Then I’m involved with Battle for Earth which—I don’t know if it’s the worst movie of all time—but it’s got to be in the conversation for the worst movie of all time, and it may be the worst movie of all time. I can sit here and say how unlucky I was. I was hired by Fox in 2000 and Laura Susskind who I really respect, and I have her assurances of what this was going to be or not be, and I knew that the Church of Scientology was not going to be involved from a development point of view, and then right before I turned the script in, Laura left Fox 2000. Fox 2000 jettisoned the project. They went somewhere else where there was no development infrastructure. I don’t know for a fact what happened, but I know what I wrote and I know what was made. So yes, it’s easy to say I was just really, really unlucky. There’s some truth to that, but at the same time as a writer I was very fear-based. I had a fixed mindset at the time. I knew on some level I shouldn’t have taken that project, but I got so close on things that he made and they weren’t getting made. Here’s John Travolta at the time, a huge star; he really wants to do it, and so this is going to get made. I was able to convince myself it’s going to actually be a good fun movie. It might have been if Fox 2000 had stayed in it or maybe not, I don’t know. I’ll never know, but the point is I think luck is a terrible way of thinking about things because you surrender your control. So if I walked away after [inaudible 1:20:53.8] Earth and said oh, my God, I’m so unlucky and felt like a victim and everything, it would have been really hard to persevere and keep going as opposed to this is a terrible experience. I got so close on stuff I was proud of, and now my name is forever connected with [inaudible 1:21:10.4] that’s not something anyone aspires to; it’s embarrassing. But you know what? I’ve learned a lot from that. I wouldn’t be teaching and certainly wouldn’t be teaching the way I’m teaching and here’s the other thing, I kept working because I had a body of ideas that have worked for people. I kept working for six years after that at my full credit like working title which is one of the hardest places to work. The head of Disney hired me for reading scripts back to back to back. So that’s the other thing, at the end of the day, it comes down to what you can do as a writer, and it comes down to what you can demonstrate at the script level. That’s more important than that. I think that too many people get in trouble because they put too much into luck. I mean, going back in time, to be honest with you, when I got hired by Ridley Scott to write Metropolis, I didn’t process that as I was really lucky. No, I processed that as I’m the best writer in the room. My ego really swelled—fixed mindset. I obviously have amazing talent because film school and Ridley Scott just hired me. And if you or someone else had come to me and said hey, this is really great class or really great book and you could get better as a writer, you should take this class or read this book, I would have laughed at you. Dude, I got hired by Ridley Scott. I mean, I should be teaching classes. I shouldn’t be taking classes. As I said, I put this thing up on Toronto at the screenwriting convention and the TV was off. Unlike in LA where it’s almost all aspiring writers and these conventions are just all about making money and selling hope, the Toronto Screenwriting Convention is amazing. Almost all of the people who go to it are working writers and show runners. They’re just trying to get that. They know how hard it is. They’re just looking for anything that can make them better. So I was sitting in on those panels with a very successful show runner, high-caliber people, top of the game, they’re talking and answering questions. It’s an amazing thing. So then I do my thing. I have a two-hour talk on how to create engines for a TV show, and I see these people in the audience, these people who are at the top of their game, and they’re in my class taking notes. That’s not saying because it was me because I see them going to other classes during the day, and they’re just taking notes. That’s why they’re so successful because they’re top of the mountain, competitive, and they’re always looking to get better. That’s what the growth mindset is, where the fixed mindset really traps you in this sort of stasis. So really recommend to your listeners to get the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. The last thing I’ll say on that is when we give our material to people and we get feedback, the fixed mindset wants an outcome. It wants people to praise us and say how great our writing is, and when that doesn’t happen, we get criticized. The fixed mindset only has two options which are what’s wrong with them or what’s wrong with me. And I constantly—part of the reason I got out of doing consults with nonworking writers is it’s just such a battle, and I hear people talk all the time like I gave this script to this person and they said my characters weren’t developed enough or it didn’t feel organic or it felt like it was all in a formula so obviously that person doesn’t know what they’re talking about; there’s something wrong with them. I once had someone email me and say I got the coverage back from Fox. They tore my script apart. They said it was formulaic; they said it wasn’t interesting so here’s my question. How do you write scripts when you know that there are idiots who are doing coverage? How do you write an idiot-proof script? That person wasn’t an idiot. It’s just your script’s not as good as you think it is, but that fixed mindset is always blaming other people or blaming themselves like yea, I suck at this. I’m no good at this. The growth mindset when you get feedback and it’s not the kind of feedback you were hoping for, the growth mindset says there’s nothing wrong with them and there’s nothing wrong with me. There’s something wrong with the script. What is it? What skill set am I missing that I need to learn and get better at or what skill set do I need to improve upon? Where were the mistakes made in the script? Why did I make those mistakes? What can I learn from it? How can I fail forward and get better because at the end of the day, every day as writers we’re getting better or we’re not. And if you just keep getting a little better every day, just a little better, you won’t see a difference until one day you’ll see a huge difference.
Ashley: I want to go back and I want to touch on something you mentioned. You kind of went in and you talked about the writer from American Hustle and how much luck plays into something like that, and one of the things that I totally agree with is that at sort of the highest levels, obviously the most talented people who need the least amount of luck in the equation, and one of the things that I’ve tried to do with sellingyourscreenplay.com—and I’d be curious to get your take on this, but one of the things I try to do with Selling Your Screenplay is—and I’ve sold some mediocre scripts—and so it’s like one of the things that I think to sell a really great script or to launch a career when you’re really talented, that’s not that impressive. What’s really impressive is to launch a career when you’re not that talented. That’s kind of what I’ve tried to do with Selling Your Screenplay. This leads sort of into our next topic, getting to that studio level. It’s like I totally agree, your script has to be great, and one of the things that you went through on the last interview was writing the totally unique, totally original script that’s completely your voice. I totally get that, and I totally think if you want to be a studio writer, that’s the best way to do it. But one of the things I fear a little bit is telling people to do that without maybe necessarily offering an alternative. The alternative is writing something that may be a little bit derivative for these genre films, the lower budget genre films—and I interview a lot of these people on my podcasts. So if you ever listen to these podcasts you’re sort of well-versed in what some of these films are. They may not be wholly original, but you can make a career. I’ve had several screenwriters on that they have made a career writing these movies that are, let’s say, two million dollars in budget and less. Those scripts, if you write this screenplay that’s just totally original and it’s not very good, you have nowhere to go with it. If you write a screenplay that’s a little bit formulaic, a little bit derivative, is very concisely written for a specific genre and it’s not that good, you still might be able to sell it and that still might actually be able to launch a career to bigger and better things in the sense that every movie, every credit you get is something that’s out in the world and you never know the life these things are going to take on after they’re made.
Corey: We might disagree on that or maybe we don’t. What I would say is if we were to look at people who are consistently making nice six to seven-figure incomes that are writing in TV or feature films on a regular basis, making a really good living at it, that’s what most people aspire to. Let’s look at all of those people and let’s divide them into two categories. So one category is they wrote a couple of amazing pitch-perfect authentic scripts like I talked about last time, and that’s what was their entrée into this life that they now have and that’s one group of people. And the second group of people didn’t write pitch-perfect authentic scripts. They wrote more sort of derivative genre predictable scripts, low-budget, got them made and somehow one of two of those movies somehow hit and hit big, and they were able to use that to parlay them into this lifestyle. It’s going to be 98 percent, 99 percent of the people come from the first category and like one or two percent come from the second category.
Ashley: Don’t you think with TV writers—and you would certainly know better than I—but don’t you think that with TV writers like the single biggest group of TV writers are the people who get in as the low-level assistant, the low-level PA, they work up on a show so I don’t know that those people and to me that’s like almost all the TV writers I know, that’s like the stock way of becoming a TV writer, maybe getting into one of the fellowships. So I don’t know that in either of those camps—
Corey: I think you just switched on me because I thought you were talking about features.
Ashley: No, I am, but you said that the TV—
Corey: No, you’re right. Feature writers, people who are being routinely being chased by the studios or at least can get the right kinds of meetings and can make a good income as a feature film writer, the majority of those guys and gals broke in with really great scripts. Often if they’re really lucky, that script gets made and it’s done well and there’s an a-list writer, if they’re not so lucky, the script doesn’t get sold or it doesn’t get made or doesn’t get made well, they’ll parlay that into writing the thing. They might be writing on derivative formulaic summer movies, and if those movies are successful and that’s the game they want to be playing—and that was the game that I was playing—that can be a very lucrative career. But that script that launches their career with something that showed that they are of an elevated level. The guys or gals who can write a formulaic genre film but in a smart way and can get those things made which is impressive and using that as an access point to a studio-level job, that’s rare. It’s not impossible but it’s really rare because at the end of the day, nobody really cares if somebody can write a derivative script because there are a million people who can follow a formula and write a derivative script. And some of those people have impressive credits. Some of those people have written scripts or movies that have made a lot of money. So those would obviously be your first, if you are looking to hire someone, you want to hire someone who wrote Guardians of the Galaxy. Your second tier would be the higher seller like me. I never wrote a movie that made a lot of money so obviously I’m in second position to those people. But here’s what I have done, I’ve written movies for Ridley Scott, Wesley Peterson, and all these places. I’ve done under deadlines. I’ve done it where they’ve called me three weeks before I turned a script in, and they said we’ve got to change this dramatically, and by and large, people have been very happy with what I’ve turned in. So I have a reputation for someone who, give me a deadline; give me a concept. Even if you start changing it, I’ll get it done. I have and trusted people who will vouch for that. So that puts me in the second tier. Obviously you’d rather have the person, who wrote Guardians of the Galaxy than me, but you might not be able to afford the Guardian of the Galaxy person and they may not be available. There’s a lot of me’s floating around there. So for someone to get into the business and get studio jobs and they’ve never delivered. Here’s the thing, a lot of writers you give them a studio job and there’s a compressed deadline and there are a lot of variables get thrown, they can’t execute. So if you’re writing something and you can follow a formula, your competition with other writers who can follow a formula, you have a lot more credibility than you do. That’s why the managers and agents that I know especially in this marketplace, they’re just not interested in those kinds of writers. Maybe five or ten years ago they were. They’re just not interested. What they want is someone who can write a script that everybody’s buzzing about, a script that everybody’s talking about. It could be a horror script, but it’s got to be a horror script we’ve never seen before with really great characters because that’s the person who everyone wants to meet. That’s the person that says look; we’re going to give you a shot. If I’m looking for just someone who can follow a formula, why am I hiring that person? There’s somebody who I can hire has a track record and has credibility I can feel safer about. So the way to get your butt in the door and get your first opportunity is to write something that blows people, and if you’re really lucky and that script sells, it gets made; you literally can be a nameless writer. You literally can be an overnight success and if you’re less lucky, it’s going to get you a lot of meetings and it’s going to get you opportunities to pitch to Ridley Scott of whoever it is and launch your career that way. So can somebody write more derivative formulaic genre low-budget things, get enough of them done to string together enough money to have a career? Sure. That’s possible, and there are some people that do that. They are the tip of the iceberg. Most of them aren’t able to do that. It’s a very competitive game, and there is very limited win potential. Can any of those people use that to parlay themselves into the big leagues? Sure. It’s been done, but it’s rare. Most of the writers in the big league, that’s not how they came into it. Most of the writers came into the big league writing a pitch-perfect authentic big league script. That’s what I think.
Ashley: I don’t think we actually disagree, I think it’s just I’m starting from kind of a different place. Most people, to say that 98 percent of the people at that top group can write a pitch-perfect—I don’t know that I necessarily disagree with it. I think the fundamental difference is I don’t believe—and I’ll use myself as an example—I don’t believe I can write that. There are people that are at that top level. They’re either supremely talented or got supremely lucky or some combination of the two, and so what I’m trying to do is actually have a career without the benefit of luck or frankly without the benefit of being supremely talented.
Corey: The writers that I work with, my approach is I agree with you on talent, but I think we’re defining talent differently. The way I define talent is—and this is another [inaudible 1:36:09.8] the talent code which really talks about how Michael Jordan became Michael Jordan. The way that they define talent in that book is talent is repeatable skill sets. Now those skill sets could be genetic; they could be given to you by your parents and your upbringing. They could be given to you by God, and they also could be learned through dedicated practice. So Michael Jordan is on his high school basketball team. He gets kicked off. Michael Jordan wasn’t good enough to play high school basketball and the reason was he wasn’t good defensively. He was very good offensively but he was so bad defensively. He didn’t get to play. They kicked him off the team, and he spent two years repetitively drilling defensive exercises to develop his defensive skill set. The guy goes on to be a three or four-time NBA defensive player of the year. There was not God-given talent, this is something that he worked—and he talked a lot about those two years and what he did during those two years. We could go on and on with examples. For those of you who are interested, I would read Mindset and The Talent Code.
Ashley: I want to interject—this is something I heard from Tim Ferris; he was famous for the Four-Hour Work Week and the Four-Hour Body. One of the things I heard him on a podcast—I don’t think it’s an original thought from him, but he was repeating it. This is precisely my point, guys like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, those are precisely not the people that we should be looking at because if you want to get better at golf, to look at Tiger Woods is not the person you should be looking at because the fact of the matter is he can just do things that you will never be able to do. He can do things with his body that the average person will never be able to do, and I’m in total agreement with that mindset. I hope I’ve made that clear. I’m all about getting better, and I’m not implying that you should write some schlocky cheese ball script. You need to write something that’s as good as you can possibly write it, but taking in some of these other considerations were important. But back to sort of my original point about Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, it’s like if you’re supremely talented and you write that great script, I have no doubt that you’re going to be able to become especially in this day and age where access has never been easier, and producers and managers are clamoring to find those great scripts. Precisely what you said, most people look at this and say I want to create a studio-level career. That’s totally great, but what I’m sort of getting at is that realistically are all these people going to be able to do that?
Corey: Here is what I would say and I say this to all my students, I think that what one has to do is the goal should not be to get an agent or a manager, and the goal should not be to have a career. Eighty percent of people who launch careers don’t have a career within one to two years. The goal should be to have a sustained career, and it should be the career that you want. So think about what career you want and then work backwards to know the skill sets and what would be the right sample script. If somebody writes I love [inaudible 1:39:36.6] and I would just love to this kind of stuff and see it get made, I know that’s not going to be a lot of money. I know I’ll probably have to have a day job, but that’s the career I most want, then obviously that’s the career I should go for. But most of the people who come to me want to be writing features at the studio level; they want to be working in TV. They want to do things for HBO, AMC, or they want to be staffed on a really great sitcom. Almost every writer that I work with, that’s what they want.
Ashley: But I do think that there’s an element that (1) Most of these people are never going to be able to achieve that and (2) I also think there’s an element of they want that because that’s what they see, and that’s what most people think of when they think of screenwriting and a lot of these other things that maybe I’m championing are just things that they don’t necessarily know about. I hope most people understand. Like if you want to make a lot of money, screenwriting is not the profession for you. So ultimately it’s about being an artist and trying to express oneself. I hope people come at this from that standpoint.
Corey: There’s a lot of money in TV right now, and I think if someone wants to be a writer and they want to make a lot of money, that TV is the fish you are looking at.
Ashley: But your odds are far better if you want to make a lot of money, TV is not the profession because the odds are far longer, do a startup, go to Wall Street, there are much easier ways that are less competitive.
Corey: But my point is most people I work with, they want to be totally fulfilled, and they want to be expressing and playing the characters that are meaningful and telling stories that mean a lot to them. For most people the sort of low-budget genre field is not where that is the case. You keep saying the odds are against you; you’re probably not going to make it. What I would tell someone is you’re going to spend a lot of time developing skill sets, dedicated practice to become the best writer you can be to become a significantly better writer. It’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of dedication, and a lot of practice. The time and energy you spent doing that is time and energy that you could have been spending doing a startup or being with your family or friends. You’re going to sacrifice a lot to develop yourself as a writer. So if you’re going to make that sacrifice, you should ask yourself what kind of career do you want, and for some people it is about money, not just about money but about doing something creative and about money. For other people I want creative control. For some people, I want to see my stuff made. For some people they want to get to creatively fulfill their characters or whatever it is for that person. Figure out what it is, figure out the career you would most want, then set your sites on training yourself for that and work your ass off and write pitch-perfect scripts or as close as you can. Put in that investment and see what happens. Now if it isn’t happening and you objectively realize even though I worked so hard for the last three years or four years, the feedback I’m getting from people I trust is that my scripts are just not at that level. Okay, so one option at that point is I’m going to put three or more years in to see if I can—you know, in two or three years it will get better. Can I get to that level? I don’t know, but I’m going to do everything I can to get there because this is the career I want. Or another option might be you know what? Maybe what I’ll do is I’ll start setting my sites lower. Maybe what I’ll do is I will start looking for a plan B or a plan C. What I would tell people is don’t start out with plan B or plan C. So what I would say is don’t write low-budget genre films because you think that’s going to be an easier marketplace. Do it because you love horror or you love that genre, whatever that genre is and nothing would make you happier than getting to write a low budget horror film that totally floats your boat then do it, but if that’s not what’s exciting to you, then that’s your plan B or plan C. Go for what you most want and train yourself to be able to do it. Here is the thing, let’s say you spend three years training yourself up to be a studio writer or a top TV writer and for whatever reason you don’t get there, and you’re not willing to spend another three years to see if you can get there—and by the way, I know a lot of top studio and feature writers who took eight years, nine years, ten years of constant development to get there. So this is a big investment for a lot of writers to get there. So let’s say someone puts in a certain amount of time and they’re not where they need to get to. Here’s the thing; I could put in three more years into this, but there’s no guarantee I’ll ever get there. And just let’s say at that point I’m like you know what? I gave this a good shot. I’m not willing to put three more years into this. Maybe I will drop down to maybe a more derivative genre-type thing. You’re going to be a much better writer because as you know it’s not like getting a two-million-dollar horror films may be easy. It’s not like there’s a whole boatload of writers who are trying to accomplish that. It isn’t like there is enormous competition. Maybe it’s an easier benchmark to hit than a top studio or TV script, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So if you spent two, three, four years and try to train yourself to write to a studio level or top TV level, and then you decide let’s drop down a bit to other things because at this point I’d like to see something get made. I’d like to make a little bit of money. You’re going to be a better writer and have a better shot at it. I just think writers—I don’t care who you are, you’re going to sacrifice a lot to get to where you need to get to. So it’s really important that you love writing and you love this process. I just think that if you’re going to make this kind of sacrifice, you ought to do it toward the thing that you most love. And if that does not ultimately happen for you and you want to change to plan B or maybe even plan C, I know a writer who did this, and eventually they got a job basically working for a soap in a different country, but it’s paying the bills—and that was like their plan C—they planned to do that for a couple of years, bank the money, come back and take a re-assault at it. Don’t start out doing that; don’t start out selling yourself short. I have worked with people who, when they start out, they’re not that great. They really practice; they really focus on dedicated practice and they get there. They launch really interesting careers because you’re right. There are so many managers—I was in a UCLA class with [inaudible 1:47:21.3] HBO this year has been about two hundred pilots. HBO alone has been has been about more spec scripts than all of CBS combined, and that’s just HBO. Now you add in Showtime, AMC, FX, Netflix, Amazon, Stars, ABC, NBC, CBS, it’s a staggering amount of scripts that are going to be back. Now here’s the thing. HBO’s going to buy two hundred pilots. They’re not looking to buy formulaic pilots. They’re not looking to do someone derivative version of The Good Wife or Great Sinbad. They’re looking to do elevated material that nobody has seen before. Now five years ago their only competition for those kinds of projects really was Showtime. So all HBO had to do was convince the creative community we’re cooler than Showtime, come to us. If we pass, then go to Showtime. Now their competition is Showtime, Cinemax, Stars, AMC, FX, Amazon, Netflix and a lot of broadcast networks because what’s happened in TV is because video-on-demand platforms like Netflix, audiences are so much more sophisticated. We know what’s fresh and unique vs. what’s derivative, and people are demanding new original programming or they’re tuning out. So we’re seeing the broad cast network like The Last Man On Earth five years ago that would have been an HBO show if anything, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much stuff in development. In the next couple of years we’re going to see ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox doing shows that only HBO would have done. We won’t have the nudity; we won’t have the profanity, and so HBO now is in such competition to find new fresh original voices and writers, that they’ve hired executives. They’ve hired two executives, I believe is what he says, whose principal job is to find new writers. How exciting is that? Vince Gilligan walks in there; Alan Ball walks in there. They’re going to drop everything, the whole HBO team is going to assemble, what are you thinking about doing? They’re starting to get a wannabe in the Vince Gilligan and the Aaron Sorkin gang, but there aren’t two hundred of those people. Those people are being courted heavily by Netflix and Amazon and such. And in addition, they want new original stuff. We talked about that, and other executives talked about that. We really want to find writers who haven’t been on TV before, who have a fresh original voice, but who can execute it in a pitch-perfect way. So there’s never been a better time to try to break into the industry. It’s just that the industry is moving further and further away from paradigms and formulas and trying to find new fresh ways of telling the story. Five years ago no one’s doing [inaudible 1:50:44.2] No one’s doing a ten-episode self-contained show. Now we see people buying four-episode-contained shows like Olive and Kittredge, and we see people buying two-year shows, shows that are only going to last two years. It’s at a point now where what they’re looking for is whether they are unique, freshly telling the story and whatever that is as opposed to this is our economic model; we do twenty-six episodes, you must do twenty-six episodes every year. It’s a wild bust out there, and this is exciting because what it means is those writers who’ve invested the kind of energy to be really great at storytelling, really great at characters and doing authentic work. There’s never been more of a demand for them. I mean, what we see now on TV is what we still see in features. It’s all about option. So now what’s happening is these writers–often unknown writers–are putting together projects, and they’re going out to the TV players and it’s like this is the price, you have 24 hours to say yes or no. Forget developing. Forget considering, yes or no. Option! Now the only time you can successfully view that strategy is there’s not enough material for the buyers. So right now the shortage is not on buyers, it’s on fresh original material. No one’s going to option out a derivative of something we’ve seen a million times before and obviously the networks are still going to do procedurals. They’re also going to do formulaic sitcoms, but there’s more and more of a demand to move away from that.
Ashley: I think we basically agree. I mean, precisely as you said, I’m not suggesting that this is your first option, hey man, just write a bunch of schlocky things. What I’m suggesting is that if you’re getting to that B-plus level studio script, that’s probably good enough for this two-million-dollar independent film even though it’s got to be an A at the studio level. Here’s a real concrete example of what I’m talking about, my cousin moved out here to be a screenwriter. I had already been here for a few years so typical thing, he slept on my couch for a few days. He eventually got a job teaching English to people who had just arrived here and wrote a bunch of scripts. He wrote a bunch of TV stuff. He wrote a feature film called Go Jingle. It was like the spoof on Godzilla. I thought it was really funny. I thought he had a lot of talent. He was out here for two or three years. He got absolutely no traction, and he went back to law school and now he is a lawyer. I think one of the hopes is that he’s a really smart guy. He went to Dartmouth and went to Columbia Law School. As I said, he was a smart guy. I read one of his scripts. I thought it was really, really funny. I think he’s a really talented writer. He was here for three years, didn’t get any traction. He went back to law school, and I feel like if he had instead of writing those studio-level scripts, he might have been able to get some traction at this and just getting a win is so important. Getting something produced is so important just for your morale, for your family, for your friends saying what have you been working as a screenwriter for five years? What have you got to show for it? Well, I did this million-dollar film and it stars this actor who you might have heard of. Just getting those wins can keep you at the table. I mean, ultimately it’s a matter of sitting at that table long enough, rolling your dice and improving your skill set. So that’s really I think the hope of what I’m offering is that. I had dinner with another writer whose I’d say about at my level, and he’s doing the same thing. He’s doing the same thing. He’s sort of lowered these two-million-dollar and less scripts, and he made the comment to me the expectations of these scripts, they’re not that great. You don’t have to have that great of a script, and it is hard to get one of these movies into production, but it’s not usually the script, it’s the whole other getting a cast becomes hard. When you don’t have a great script, it becomes harder to get a cast. There are a whole series of things, but it’s also not that hard. If you’re diligent—I’ve said this on my podcast—if you write a limited location action or thriller screenplay with only four or five actors, takes place in only one or two locations, and it’s even a C-plus and you use my blast service, you use Inktip; you use some of these other services out there, it’s like your chances of selling it are pretty good. It just has to be competent; it doesn’t have to be an A or a B-plus, just a c-plus. It has to make sense, and if it’s a low budget, you can find someone. They may shoot it on a budget of a hundred dollars or fifty thousand dollars, but you’ll get a credit on IMDB. Just getting that first credit and sort of getting into the game is just so important. You get to go to some film festivals. You get to go to some meetings, and all of a sudden, and as I said, my cousin is such a prime example. He got zero traction. It was the typical thing. He applied to be at the CA, mail room, he didn’t get that job. It was the typical thing, and he didn’t have the salesmanship and the other sort of stuff. He was, I thought, a good writer and a smart guy but—
Corey: I get that and I would totally say is—and I don’t know him, and I don’t know his writing, but I could tell stories about someone who, three years their scripts were like B-plus. By the way a B-plus script is not easy to write, and it’s a lot better than most of the scripts out there. Maybe he was even flirting at an A-minus, and in that three or four years, if he’s lucky enough to meet someone who says you’re a B-plus/A-minus writer, you’re not an A-plus writer and can help that person see the difference and help that person maybe spend two more years going from B-plus/A-minus to A/A-plus, and now that writer has a really strong feature or TV career. What I would say is so it’s over that three-year mark if they’re in that situation, one option is figure out what it is or have someone help you figure out what it is that’s keeping you from that A-plus and what can you do to develop the skill set and continue on that path to get there. That’s one option. The other option is what you’re describing. And they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. Someone could certainly say let me drop down and try to sell something even if it’s not for a lot of money and get a win and get something made and then go back and work on getting myself up to A-plus level. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive decisions, but what I see is that a lot of people are like your cousin—let’s take your cousin out because I don’t know his writing—but I see a lot of people who work really hard to get up to that B-plus level which is really impressive. So at the B-plus level you’re probably the best writer in your writing group. You’re probably the best writer amongst your friends. Your writing is really good; it just has some weaknesses. It just can’t measure up against the best of the best. But it’s better than most people’s scripts. But in their heads, they think they’re A-plus. So they stay at that level. They don’t develop, and they maybe get meetings, maybe even get a manager briefly. It just all looks like it’s going to happen for them but nothing ever happens. At the end of the day it’s like I just got unlucky. I wasn’t lucky enough, but the reality was if they had spent a couple of years in the right way going from a B-plus/A-minus to an A-minus/A or A/A-plus, that wouldn’t have guaranteed them success, but it would have given them a much greater chance of success. What I hate is seeing the people who think they’re at the A/A-plus level and they’re not, and they just stay static in their abilities. They just keep taking meetings, and they keep writing scripts. They just figure well, I’ll get lucky one of these days. The reality is they need more development.
Ashley: That’s the thing. There’s got to be a lot of people—and again, I know you don’t know my cousin. You never read any of his material—but just as sort of an example of a type of person that moves to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting. There has got to be some people out there who come to Hollywood; they smart. They are talented. They work for two or three years trying to get better; they don’t see any success. It becomes very difficult to sort of stand—I mean essentially he was kind of in this little dark room by himself. He wasn’t getting meetings, and so it became difficult for him to look down. There was no light at the end of the tunnel for him. It was difficult. It’s like I could go to law school and pretty much know I’m going to be reasonably successful in life or I can stick it out for another three years. So there have got to be a lot of those people that just don’t stick it out.
Corey: You know what, if things hadn’t worked out the way they worked out for me, I could have been that person, and I would have gone to law school at that point in my life. I get it. I think that the best thing for someone like that is to find a teacher or if they can get a manager, if they can get someone in their life who understands look this is where you’re at, this is where you need to get to. You can get there or you have some chance of getting there, I can help you along the way, again, a teacher or a manager, I think that becomes a lifesaver because I definitely agree, if you’re sitting alone in a room writing script after script, even if you have a sense that your scripts aren’t quite at the level where they need to be, you don’t know what to do about it. This creative integration thing we’re talking about, that’s a really big thing. I don’t think you sit in a room and you figure that out and you start doing that. So I think that most everybody that I know who have careers and you talk about this, they came in through TV; they were writers’ assistants. They were in a room. They watched the process, and they got mentored by experienced writers or they found the right teacher or they got a manager—and it’s the right manager because there are so many managers out there who actually aren’t that good at developing writers. But there are some managers who are exceptional at it. So it’s finding someone who knows where you’re at, knows where you need to get to and can help you at least show the way if not give you exercises to get there. I think that’s absolutely critical. I think if you’re sitting in a room doing this by yourself, it’s much less likely. It’s less likely because at some point you get discouraged and you don’t know what to do, and it’s also much less likely because here’s the thing, it’s not about how much time you spend trying to improve yourself, it’s what you do with that time. That’s what dedicated practice is. It’s the right kind of practicing that gets you better so most people just keep writing scripts making the same mistakes over and over again, that’s not helping them get better as a writer. I get it, and there but for the grace of God go I because I was still fixed mindset, so insecure. If things didn’t work out the way they worked out for me when I was in your cousin’s situation after about three years, I probably would have gone to law school. That was my fall-back plan was law school.
Ashley: I mean, it’s a difficult balance. When I first got to LA, I lived in one of these classic North Hollywood apartments filled with aspiring writers and actors and stuff, and I remember getting here. I had this long conversation with this actor who was in his mid-40 then. This was in the mid 90’s so he had worked a lot in the 80’s and had been sort of the guest starring role on all these TV shows, and he was one of those guys who almost made it but never did. Now he was in his mid to late 40’s, and it was a sad thing because he said he really wasn’t working very much. I point-blank asked him what do you do for money? He was kind of like anything I can. It is a very difficult—
Corey: It is but on the flip side there are people who after three or four years didn’t want to end up being that person so left and went to law school or whatever it is, and often look back and regrets it. They see a great movie; they watch a great TV show and are like man, I wonder if I stuck with it and developed it, it’s hard and that’s why my approach is always look, if you’re going to make these sacrifices then you’re going to do whatever is required to keep getting better and better knowing that there are no guarantees. I think that if you’re going to do that, it should be in service of the kind of career that you most want. Start with that. Figure out what career you want, not what script you can sell or where you think you might make some money because you want a career. You want to keep working consistently, and ideally you want a career that’s exciting and meaningful to you. So figure out what that career is. And if it’s doing low-budget horror films, awesome! You’re lucky because not that that’s easy but that’s going to be an easier one to get into. If it’s being a staff writer or is it being a creator of TV shows. Figure out the career that you want and then figure out what kinds of scripts do you need to write to launch that career and then what skill sets you need to write those scripts. I say just put your head down and do that and learn the skill sets and find the people who can help you be it a teacher, be it managers, be it other experienced writers. Be a little careful of writers groups because sometimes it’s the blind leading the blind. I also think that one should up front give themselves a commitment to how many years they’re willing to put into it as opposed to I’ll do it for a couple years and see what happens. My recommendation is that you’re going to want to give yourself a minimum of five years because it’s probably going to take you three years if you’re doing it the right way to train these skill sets, and then that’s at least two years now of writing scripts at a higher level. Some people take longer than five years. I work with people that they have given themselves seven years. I’ve worked with some people who said I’m going to write the rest of my life even if I live in poverty. I work with some people who said I’m giving myself to readers and that’s it. I’ve seen people say I’ll write one more script and if that doesn’t sell, that’s it. I mean everyone makes their own decisions. I’ll just say I personally think five years—that’s what they told us film school. When you get out of film school, you just have five years. That’s a realistic time. If you really can spend two or three years, develop the skill sets that you need to—most people don’t do that—if you can do that and get a couple years of writing scripts, I think at that point you’ll at least have a realistic idea where you’re at and if you’re not there how far away you are and then you can make a decision. It’s not to say that you should say five years, if I don’t make it in five years, I’ll leave. I would just recommend someone say put five years into it, really spend two or three years developing myself as a writer and a couple of years writing scripts that I am now capable of writing. Hopefully something will break for me at that point. That would be awesome. If not then after five years, I’ll reassess where I’m at, where I need to get to, and maybe I spend more time developing myself to get there. Maybe I feel like I’m already there. I just need to keep writing scripts and trying to be at the right place at the right time. Maybe I’ll shift to an easier arena to write in. Maybe I’ll leave writing, and I’ll do something else. For your listeners obviously it’s how much time you pick is a personal thing. Five years is just my recommendation, but what I really do suggest is that you pick some amount of time, and what I would suggest you do is be accountable because that’s what a manager would do for you. So before you have a manager, let’s say someone picks four years just as an example, I would sit down—if you don’t have a manager, sit down with a friend, a spouse, a parent—someone you really trust and lay out a plan. Where do I want to be in four years? What do I need in order to accomplish that? Break it down by yearly goal. So now I know that I need to accomplish this next year. Maybe it’s to learn to get better at these skill sets; maybe it’s to write to these kinds of scripts, whatever it i. Then every week basically ask yourself and be accountable to how am I going to spend my time as a writer this week? Most people I work with, they have families and careers so they don’t have eight hours a day to write so how much time do I have to write this week? How am I going to spend that time in service of this goal for this one year which is in service of the four-year goal? And be accountable because at the end of the day, it’s not just how much time you put into this, it’s what you do with that time. So if you’re attacking weaknesses and turning them into strengths, you’re increasing your chances so much more than if you’re just writing the formula or just writing from your instincts and writing similarly flawed scripts. So it’s really about dedicated practice and doing the right things with your time. I feel sorry for the people who say I’ll write a script [inaudible 2:08:27.8] It also puts too much pressure on each script. The first couple of scripts people write are practice scripts usually. They’re going to make a lot of dumb mistakes, and the key is to learn from those mistakes. The next couple of scripts you write, you’re not making those mistakes; you’re making different mistakes and you learn from that. Eventually you start writing scripts where you’re not making mistakes or you’re not making many mistakes. You catch them in your rewriting, but if you don’t do that, people put so much pressure on their first couple of scripts and that works against you.
Ashley: Well, on that note I think we do definitely agree. Let’s just talk briefly about your classes and your website. Maybe you can tell us about what upcoming classes you have and how people can maybe get in touch with you.
Corey: I do the professional screenwriting workshop and it teaches the essential skill set required to write at a professional level, its conceptual and intuitive skill set, and it’s designed for writers at all levels we’ve had. In the one that just ended we had a couple of staff writers. We had a feature guy who has a movie coming out. We had a couple of complete newbies who didn’t even know what final draft was and most everyone in between. I get a lot of MFA students. I get a lot of people who have a lot of education and are writing the paradigms and have been told by people in the industry that that’s not such a great idea. It’s an eight-week workshop. I do them live in Santa Monica, and I do them online using web access. So if you ever take an online class, it’s like a brick and mortar class done on line. So instead of Skype, I’ll use Web-ex. We can all see each other. We can all hear each other. The next one—and I think the online ones are sold out—but if someone’s interested they can email. I’ll give you the email in a second, but it starts in June, Thursday, June 25, and then they’ll be one more round in September and that will be it for this year. So if anyone’s interested they should email either me, [email protected] which is my website or you can email my assistant, Lisa at [email protected]. If they just want to be put on a list to be notified every time there’s a new workshop, go ahead and email Lisa. If you’re listening to this and you want to take the June class, the sooner you reach out probably the better. I don’t know when this will air, and I don’t know if there will be spots or not.
Ashley: And is there a specific type of person in terms of time commitments—I know a lot of my listeners have a full-time job. I mean what sort of time do you need to be able to [inaudible 2:11:17.0]
Corey: The class can meet once a week for three hours and then in terms of homework, it’s usually a minimum of two hours a week, but there is always optional homework so the more the better. If you always put two hours of homework in a week, then you’ll get a lot out of it, and you should develop. Now if you spend more time you’ll get even more out of it; the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. I have students, who have eight hours a day to write, and so all they want to do are these exercises over and over and over and just really want to turn their weaknesses into strengths. I have other people where outside of class finding two hours is doable but it’s a struggle. So there is always a minimum of two hours’ worth of work, but for those who can put in more time, they’ll get more out of it.
Ashley: Well, Corey, you’ve been even more generous with your time. This is the longest podcast session I’ve ever recorded. So I appreciate it. I was afraid when I came in I didn’t have enough stuff to cover it, but we definitely went into some great topics. I got a lot out of it. As I said, I really enjoyed talking to you back in December. So I’m thankful that you came back on here, and I’ve learned even more. So I know that a lot of the listeners will as well. So thank you very much for coming on.
Corey: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Ashley: A quick plug for the Sys Screenwriting Analysis Service. It’s a really economical way to get a high-quality professional evaluation of your screenplay. When you buy our three-pack you get evaluations at just 67 dollars per script for feature films and just fifty-five dollars per teleplays. All the readers have professional experience reading for studios, production companies, contests, and agencies. You can read a short bio on each reader on our website and then you can pick the one whom you think is the best fit for your script. Turnaround time is usually just a few days but rarely more than a week. The readers will evaluate your script on six key factors: concept, characters, structure, marketability, tone, and overall craft which includes formatting, spelling, and grammar. Every script we get will get a grade of pass, consider, or recommend which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We provide analysis on feature films and television scripts, and we also do proofreading so if you don’t want an analysis but would like someone to proofread your script, we now offer that as well. As a bonus if your script gets a recommend from a reader, you get a free email and fax blast to my list of industry contacts. This is the exact same blast service I use myself to promote my own 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 for material. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
In the next episode of the podcast I’m going to be interviewing Jan Ardo. Jan is a screenwriter from the east coast who recently used my email and fax blast service to producers. She got some interest from a producer and had a bunch of questions about the option agreement that the producer presented to her. So I thought it might be interesting to answer her questions in a podcast episode as I’m sure there are a lot of people who probably have the same questions about options. So keep an eye out for that episode next week.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.