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SYS Podcast Episode 245: Screenwriter Erik Bork Talks About His New Screenwriting Book And The Lessons He Teaches In It (transcript)

This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 245: Screenwriter Erik Bork Talks About His New Screenwriting Book And The Lessons He Teaches In It.


Ashley: Welcome to Episode #245 of the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger of the www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing screenwriter Erik Bork. He was a writer and creator of the HPO show Band Of Brothers. I had him on in Episode Number #82, so check that episode out if you wanna get a feel for his background and how he broke into the industry. He just wrote a book on screenwriting, so on today’s interview we’re really gonna dig into some of the concepts that he proposes in this new book. A lot of really screenwriting fundamentals are things that we’re gonna cover. Stay tuned for that interview.

If you find this episode viable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode incase you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #245. If you want my free guide- How to Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks you can pick that up by going to www.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. I’ll teach you how to write a professional log line and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.

A quick few words about what I’m working on, once again on The Pinch, my crime-thriller feature film which I’m just finishing up. I’m still waiting to hear back from the aggregator about when my release date will be. Hopefully that will be fairly soon. I need to email them this week and just make sure things are still moving along, but once I have that release date I’ll really start to rump up the marketing and start to make some announcements. So, I’m just kind of in a holding pattern on that. And as mentioned last week, the big thing I’m trying to do is put together this mystery thriller project which I’m hoping to direct early next year. So I’m working with another producer on that project who actually is someone I met through Selling Your Screenplay.

So we’re getting all the logistical stuff worked out, we’re getting our LLC set up, we’re getting the investor agreement figured out, and that’s gonna be very important. Just all this sort of logistical back end stuff lays the foundation for getting this movie produced. So I’ve also got to get the script ready to shoot and so that’s been my big in terms of the writing front. That’s what I’ve been concentrating on writing. For me anyways, this is the fun part of the process. I have the bones of the story in place. I mean, the basic structure or the basic story, the basic characters, those are all in place. Now it’s just a matter of filling in some minor logicals that might exist. It’s a mystery thriller, so all the logic has to make sense.

And there’s definitely some little things there to tweak, but then it’s just a matter of going through each scene and trying to figure out, “Hey, how can we make this scene better, how can we make this scene a little more thrilling, a little more edge of your seat, chills and thrills.” And as I said, to me this is the fun part, really going through and tweaking the script. It’s not…like there’s days where you feel like you didn’t accomplish much because you’re kind of just reworking what you have, and some days you don’t come up with any great ideas and you don’t make a lot of changes to the script. It can get a little demoralizing just in terms you don’t feel like you’re moving forward quickly as opposed to when you’re actually writing new pages.

You can kind of start with let’s say 25 pages and then you finish and you have 30 pages, you really feel like you’ve accomplished a lot. So there’s that little issue to deal with as I said. Just sometimes it gets demoralizing because you don’t feel like you’re moving fast enough, but for the most part I find this part of the process really fun. It’s kind of the icing on the cake. You go through, you tweak the dialogue, maybe you change a character here, you change a character there, rewrite a scene here, rewrite a scene there. But as I said it’s really hopefully elevating the script, really taking the script to the next level. Anyway, so that’s what I’m working on. Now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer Erik Bork, here is the interview.

Ashley: Welcome Erik to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate your coming back on the show today.

Erik: My pleasure to be here, thanks for having me Ashley.

Ashley: So, I’m gonna refer people back to the Episode Number #82 of the podcast. That was the first interview that I did with you. We go into a lot of sort of your origin story, how you got into the industry, where you’re from and all of that. So if people are curious to that I will link to that in the show notes but they can check that out. Again, that’s Episode Number #82. Let’s talk about your new book. Maybe to start you can just tell us what it’s called and what it’s all about, kind of a logline for the book.

Erik: Yeah, for sure. The book is called The Idea, the seven elements of a viable story for screen, stage or fiction. It’s based on my years as first a professional screenwriter and then also as someone who’s teaching screenwriting and mentoring and coaching screenwriters on a one-on-one basis, which I’ve been doing for the past like 10 years. Reading a lot of scripts and kind of coming to the conclusion that the biggest missing piece for screenwriters in terms of their moving forward or for any given script moving forward is that the idea, the process of choosing the idea is so important and is so kind of quickly bypassed sometimes by writers including myself and by books about writing.

There’s always that chapter about what a good idea looks like and then you jump in to how to structure a script and how to write a script and how to navigate the business and all that kind of stuff, which is all important information. But to me when I give notes on a script 90% of the notes I have, the most important, significant notes I have always are notes I would have had on the logline or the kind of one-paged synopsis or like one minute pitch if I [inaudible 00:06:09] at the beginning. So nowadays in the coaching and consulting I do a lot of what it is as I’m working with people as they have an idea and they’re gonna build the idea into a script, as opposed to just getting a finished script and giving my feedback on it.

So in noticing this phenomenon and realizing the importance of what makes a viable idea, but people not necessarily knowing that or giving it the amount of time or attention necessary, I’ve started to codify what I felt were like the key elements that every great idea has, whether it’s film, television or other media across genres. So this book became my sort of fun way and informative way to present here’s what those things are. I used an acronym for the word PROBLEM because I think every great story is about a problem that needs to be solved. Really every story. Even on the episode of television even if it’s like a [inaudible 00:07:02] on a sitcom there’s a problem that needs to be solved basically.

And so I have the seven elements each start with one of the letters of the word “Problem”. Your next question will probably be what they are, but I’ll let you ask that when you’re ready [laughs].

Ashley: Perfect, we’ll get to that. So you mentioned in the preamble of the book how important the idea is. But you also mentioned that it’s sort of a given that your screenplay is up to industry standards, sort of professional level execution I think are the words you used. I get emails all the time, I’m sure you do too from people who basically say, “Hey, can you just read my script to tell me if it’s up to industry standards?” Like they’re a newbie and that’s a very understandable thing. I totally get where they’re coming from. They just wanna know if they’re up to industry standards. I usually tell them, “Listen, if you can’t tell if it’s up to industry standards it means it’s probably not.”

But I’d be curious to get your…because that’s a piece of this equation and I wrote a blogpost many years ago called The Single Biggest Mistake That I See New Screenwriters Make and it was precisely what you’re saying. It was the idea lacks just the professionalism to get it over the hump. But there’s this other end where…I think man, people need to spend a little more time on the execution too. Let’s start with that, but how do you answer people when they just wanna know, “Is my script up to industry standards?” How would a writer know that? I mean, you’re telling them that’s a given. But how do they know that their script is up to industry standards and they just need a better premise?

Erik: I think you’re right. It is one of those things that if you don’t know it probably isn’t because industry standards isn’t just like it’s formatted correctly and you don’t have like jargon and blocks of dialogue to open or whatever. It’s more that when someone reads those first five or ten pages they feel like they’re in the hands of a master who’s leading them through an entertaining, compelling and vivid kind of story and character world that makes them really notice and start to care. That is not at all easy to do and I don’t mean to make it seem like that is like a side issue. It’s more that if you don’t have an idea that is something…it’s not just industry professional idea, it’s like a winning, compelling worth writing idea which is not easy to come up with.

If you don’t have that the execution isn’t gonna matter. If you do have that then yes, execution also super matters both in terms of story structure and in terms of scene writing. I just said that the story structure and the scene writing is kind of like less than 50% of the job. More than 50% of the job is what that idea was in the first place. So I think if your actual scene writing is “up to industry standards” or is the kind of level of talent or ability that’s gonna just wow people in the industry, the only way that happens is if you’re probably studying a lot of professionally written screenplays and you’re probably learning a lot over the years through lots of scripts and lots of feedback and lots of honest self-analysis.

What they do and how they do it well and make it seem effortless and just fun to read and trying to get that perspective on your own works you don’t need to ask somebody else, “Is this up to industry standards or not.” It probably isn’t. It’s probably not something that could sell in terms of the writing quality putting the idea aside if you’re asking that question. And I’ve been there and I in some ways am still there.

Ashley: And I have too, I’ve been there too so I really I’m not sure what to tell people on that because I’ve totally been there too. It’s completely understandable like why people are asking that question, but it’s a very difficult question I guess ultimately to answer, because all those things that you mentioned, even some of those are very subjective, making people care about a character. Some people like Tony Soprano, some people couldn’t give two hoots about Tony Soprano. So it’s not like these thigs are completely objective.

Erik: That’s true. People talk about The Sopranos and they say, “Oh, it’s a show [inaudible 00:11:06] who’s like an unlikable person and so you can do shows and movies about unlikable people, it’s no problem, The Sopranos proves that. What I was pointing out is when we open on The Sopranos in the pilot, the guy is having panic attacks, his mother is trying to have him killed, he’s embarrassed that he has to go to therapy and nobody in his family will respect him and treat him the way he wants to be treated, almost like sort of an average American husband and father. So if all those elements are carefully put there to make him someone that we can sort of bond with. Same thing about Breaking Bad.

People often say, “Well, Breaking Bad he’s like an anti-hero, he’s just dark figured.” Yeah, in season five. In the pilot he is the most sympathetic character you could ever possibly imagine if you really look at who Walter White is that get the audience caring. So while I agree that it is subjective and not everyone is gonna wanna watch Breaking Bad or Sopranos even when they’re careful about making the characters sympathetic, I don’t think that that means that you don’t have to care about that. You don’t have to try to make them care. It’s only that even when you’re really trying to succeed at making people care, you’re still gonna only make a certain percentage of people care. You’re not gonna make everybody in the entire world wanna watch or read your thing.

That’s never the goal but the goal is a significant number of people would care including professional level readers. So to me that’s what all those opening pages are all about. You want it to sparkle in terms of the dialogue and description and I’d say a very kind of unclear, intangible thing. How do you make something sparkle, but what you’re really trying to do is make people invest in the character and the situation and someway relate to be intrigued by, wanna see more of…to me that’s the main thing. It’s not about a big, splashy opening that has lots of gun play necessarily or action of some kind. It’s not about just like crazily wild big attention getting spectacle necessarily.

It’s about bring us into the world of these people and make it palpable and make it appealing and intriguing and make us wanna stay with them. To me that’s what it comes down to.

Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So the flip side of this…and I’m gonna be curious to see as this book gets out there if you don’t start to get more and more of these mails. As I said, I wrote this post years ago, the biggest problem that I see is people not spending the time on their initial concept. I get a lot of emails from people that say, “I’m an idea guy, I just wanna sell my ideas to Hollywood, I don’t wanna be a screenwriter.” And then I find myself in sort of the opposite position of having to tell them, “Well, that’s not really gonna work.” On the one hand I’m telling them the ideas, what’s so important but on the other hand I’m telling them, “You’re probably not gonna be able to just be the idea man and sell the ideas.”

I wonder if you can speak to that a little bit because I don’t think…I think these two things that we’re talking about are in sync. Like I don’t think there’s anything budding heads there. I don’t think you’re gonna be able to be the idea guy that just sells raw ideas but by the same token that idea is still super, super important.

Erik: Yeah, unfortunately the industry is not set up that way that people that are just looking for ideas and then they’ll write them; someone in the industry will write them once they buy your golden idea. The only way ideas get transmitted in the industry is through a great script typically. Now if you’re already a really established writer you maybe can just do it with a pitch, but either way that’s a writer who’s gonna write that idea as opposed to someone who has an idea that someone will buy. If you’re a big time producer then maybe you have ideas and you hire writers to write them. But borrowing that I agree with you, there’s no mechanism for that.

I will also say that probably most of the time people that say, “I’m an idea guy, I have great ideas.” If I looked at their ideas and kind of like ran them past the criteria that are in the book, I might disagree with them that these ideas actually are like sellable ideas if someone could just execute them well because it really takes an education and understanding of what makes something a viable idea that most writers or people that aren’t even trying to be writers but say, “Well I’m an idea person,” generally don’t have that. Usually you’re only gonna have an understanding by trying to be a writer for many years and grappling with this kind of stuff the way you and I have for decades as writers who sometimes succeed and sometimes struggle on any given project, grapple with, “Is this idea compelling enough, is this gonna work on not?”

Ashley: I think you hit the nail on the head. And that’s awful and what I feel is there’s a sort of intellectual laziness to the people that just wanna be the idea guys. They think that they’re gonna be able to just wake up in the morning and spout off 15 ideas and those are gonna be good enough to go, but it’s that process of writing the scripts and understanding why those ideas didn’t work, going through that torturous process. It’s all a part of it. So let’s dig into your book and some of the specifics. You mentioned the acronym PROBLEM. Maybe we can dig into that a little bit. What does that stand for and what are those sections all about?

Erik: Yeah, so there’s seven…and this is the bulk of the book, is kind of like the Seven Spiritual Laws of Success or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s like these seven elements are basically the bulk of the book as you know, a chapter for each element. So it’s PROBLEMS. So P is for Punishing, R is for Relatable, O is for Original, B is for Believable, L is for Life Altering, E is for Entertaining and M is for Meaningful. And so…

Ashley: Maybe we can dig in to like Punishing specifically. What is just sort of the gist of punishing?

Erik: So if a story is about a problem, if we can accept that premise that any story is about a problem that needs to be solved, what we’re mainly focusing on in any story is the main character of that story trying to solve that problem, and in the effort to solve that problem it doesn’t go their way, right? It generally gets worse, it gets more complicated, it escalates over the course of the middle of the story and is only resolved at the end of the story, right? So that long middle of the story the main character’s trying to solve that problem but they’re unable to and they’re basically getting beaten up by the forces that oppose them, whatever those might be. So it’s a punishing situation. The character is kind of under seas, they’re kind of in hell.

Even in comedy television if you look at the characters on…pick a show…Everybody Loves Raymond, Veep, Silicon Valley, you name it. These characters are in hell. They’re miserable through 30 minutes. We are having a lot of fun watching them go through their misery but they are in misery because they have some kind of problem that really needs to be solved and to be able to solve it [inaudible 00:17:42]. They try to solve it, each step trying to solve it usually leads to some sort of reaction from the universe that like makes things even worse and more complicated. Eventually they find an answer but over the long middle of the story it’s mostly a fight that isn’t going well or according to plan and it ends with a sense of everything’s failed and all is lost.

And then finally there’s one last opportunity in the end with all that they’ve learned and experienced up to that point where they finally find a way to solve the problem. So it’s to me probably one of the most common issues with scripts is the problem isn’t big enough, it’s not hard enough to solve, the main character is not active enough trying to solve it and I’m not being punished enough, in other words, I’m not experiencing enough difficulty and complications along the way of trying to resolve it.

Ashley: Yeah, perfect. What’s Relatable?

Erik: Well, Relatable means the audience cares, the audience connects with the character, identifies with what they’re trying to do and what they’re going through. It’s not just punishing to them but who cares? It’s punishing and we do care because we feel some sense of connection. We feel like it’s almost happening to us. We feel like it’s become our problem, like we’re standing in the shoes of the main character because the writer has somehow gotten us to form that connection. A lot of it has to do with point of view, choosing a main character and sticking with them and telling the story through their eyes and through their perspective, not jumping around to other characters unless you’re jumping around to other characters who have their own story that does this same thing.

Some movies and practically all TV episodes have multiple stories going on at once in a row but each of which has a different main character. But most movies only have one main character and you pretty much wanna be with them in every scene. That helps make the audience feel like they’re that character because we’re just kind of like riding on their back. It’s like a video game or something. We’re moving through the world with them and we can’t help but start to feel like it’s us going through all this.

Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk about Original. What does it mean to be original?

Erik: Well, Original is kind of an obvious one in the sense that you don’t wanna do things that have been done before. But one of the things I say in that chapter is that sometimes originality can be a trap, that writers try so hard to be original that they come up with things that maybe aren’t believable or aren’t understandable or aren’t punishing or aren’t these other things because their only goal is to do something no one’s ever seen before. But there might be a reason no one’s ever seen it before, because it kind of doesn’t work. Like the elements that you’re putting into your very original concept have sort of problems to them. So the caveat is originality…you can’t go for originality at the expense of everything else. Originality is not the only grail.

You can only be so original because pretty much every story has been done in some form and you’re just doing a fresh variation on a familiar type of story most of the time and that’s okay. However, having an original voice, which means what you’re writing is so specific to you and feels so vivid and well observed and so real, which gets into the believable aspect, can make your writing just jump off the page and feel like, “Wow, this person has a fresh voice,” which of course is what the industry is looking for, a fresh voice. Somebody who’s got…you read their script and someone’s like, “Wow, no one else could have written it but that person,” because their approach to it, their way of executing these other elements of Punishing, Relatable et cetera was very original to them. But the idea itself, while not exactly the same as anything that’s come before, it has to have some fresh twist that’s marketable that’s kind of hooky.

It’s probably going to feel similar to some things that have come before but just with a new element that kind of puts it over the top.

Ashley: Perfect, and how about Believable? There’re certainly some good films that probably are not that believable.

Erik: Well, Believable to me is a very common issue that writers can be unaware that situations happening in their stories aren’t necessarily just gonna be so believable to audiences and they don’t realize it, because I think we tend to assume that you can have anything happen in a story because we’ve all seen like really fantastical premises. We’ve also seen characters like in comedies behaving in very exaggerated manner for laughs, so we tend to think, “Oh, you can sort of like anything goes.” But actually anything doesn’t go. You really have to present a situation in my view that the audience…you have to earn their buy in to what your concept is. So if it’s a fantastical concept in some way you have to kind of show them the rules of what the fantasy is very early on, make it very clear.

Then once they’ve accepted, okay, this is a movie where there’s like vampire teenagers that you can fall in love with or whatever. Once they accept that the whole rest of it has to be very believable human beings acting and saying and doing the things that we would probably most of us do if we that person in that situation. So being very like well observed to human nature and psychology and why people do what they do is super important I think. So you can cross that line and not know you’ve crossed it and the audience goes, “Oh, I’m just not buying this anymore. I’m not believing he would do or say that and so now I hate the writer. Kind of like now I don’t wanna watch it any more.

That really can be a problem with comedy too because you have to exaggerate things to be funny. But if you exaggerate them too much or in the wrong way people don’t buy that it would really happen. So the comedy somehow has to spring from absolutely believable and a real kind of human reactions to things, but the humans that are reacting can be exaggerated in certain ways but still feel like those are real people that we can relate to and if we were them I can see us doing and saying what they’re doing and saying.

Ashley: How about Life Altering? Maybe let’s talk about that one a little bit.

Erik: Life altering just refers to mainly the stakes. That the stakes of the story have to be super high, that if the main character doesn’t resolve whatever it is they’re trying to resolve it feels like that will be unthinkable. That life will be sort of unlivable or miserable or terrible or much worse than it is if they don’t resolve it and often much better if they do. Although I think that negative stakes tend to be more important than positive stakes. In other words it’s more compelling to watch someone try to not be killed by a monster than it is to watch someone try to like win a million dollars or something. Usually negative stakes are I think more powerful. But a combination of both is good.

But this as probably you would agree is a very common thing in scripts that people just go like, why should I care because I don’t really see why it matters if this person achieved what they’re trying to achieve or not. I’m not connected to it because it’s not big enough. It’s not a powerfully life changing enough situation they’re in. That’s definitely true in movies, it’s true in dramatic television. You might say, well in comedies, like in a sitcom how big are the stakes really in a sitcom? And I would say the stakes have to be super big commensurate with whatever the genre is. So the stakes in a comedy are not gonna be life and death stakes but they’re gonna be stakes of like the character feeling like I have to get this person to accept me, or I have to win this argument with my spouse. I have to be proven right.

It means a lot to them and their ego and their sense of themselves right now. So it feels very high stakes to them and they treat it as if it’s really high stakes which is part of why it’s funny to us. So if whatever the problem at the heart of the story isn’t like…doesn’t feel like it really, really super matters to the main character and possibly the world at large to the point where we also go, “Wow, they’ve got to resolve this. This really matters,” then the audience tends to not be as engaged with the material I think.

Ashley: Yeah, for sure. How about entertaining, maybe we could take a look at that one.

Erik: So Entertaining just briefly is that this is the entertainment business and what we’re ultimately paid for as writers is to entertain. It’s important to understand what kind of like pleasurable emotional experience am I trying to give my audience, which is kind of a way of saying, what genre am I trying to do? Am I trying to do horror that’s really scary or action that’s really like thrilling or a comedy that’s really funny et cetera? A love story that’s really got those romantic elements that make an audience feel the love and be part of that movie or that desire to experience that love and have these two characters. It’s like you have to sort of know what you’re trying to provide the audience and to some extent be all about providing it.

I think a lot of writers earlier on and certainly I’ve done this, write scripts that are kind of dramas, that are kind of slice of life that aren’t really larger than life. They aren’t really funny and they can sort of fall flat and be hard to sell or hard to get a big audience to wanna watch because they’re not sort of like sweeping the audience away into some escapist emotional experience. You go to a horror movie because you wanna feel a certain kind of emotion, you go to a comedy because you wanna feel a certain kind of emotion. So if you don’t get that it can be problematic. So with dramas, I talk about this in the chapter. There’re specific things that writers tend to add to straight drama to elevate it and make it “entertaining” and there’s like different ways to do it.

But if you aren’t trying to entertain or you don’t see that as part of your mission as a writer you may have a really hard time having commercial prospects because that’s really what the agents and the managers and the producers are kind of all looking for. They’re looking at the genre and they’re looking at, “Is this gonna entertain millions of people? Is it like candy for the audience? Are they gonna so enjoy this? Are they gonna wanna binge watch this, are they gonna keep coming back for this because they’ve fallen in love with the characters and situations and it feels so good to watch it.” We sometimes forget that we’re watching things as viewers because it feels so good to watch them.

So we write something, we’re trying to create that feeling good for the audience. There’re some other things that we have to do well as a writer that we can easily put that aside but if we’re not doing that it makes it very hard to succeed.

Ashley: Yeah, for sure. How about Meaningful, the last one?

Erik: The last one is just Meaningful how to do with the theme, how to do what’s the story really about. What do people take home with them? How does it impact and affect their own personal lives or sense of life and people in the world? Does it stick to your ribs in some way? And I say that this one in some ways is more optional because there are movies that do the other six things in a big way, like let’s say Transformers or something may not be so meaningful but it can be huge success if it’s so entertaining and so punishing and so these other things. But I would say that if you’re a writer starting out and you’re trying to establish, “Look I can write something powerful and meaningful that you’ll remember, that has an original voice to it,” you probably do want it to be really about something beneath its surface plot which people usually talk about as theme and sometimes that’s embedded in like the character akin and that kind of stuff.

That feels like we’re exploring something about the human condition even while we’re being entertained and all these other things there’s something being kind of argued or explored here that is meaningful, that makes us feel like, “Yeah, this is a value. This isn’t just an amusement park ride and we forget about it instantly, although some movies are that but for the most part we’re looking to give our work meaning. Now this is another tricky one in that some people start with theme and they start with what they’re trying to say and the message they’re trying to deliver and what it’s really about and that can really make it hard to do the other things well if you let the theme drive the ship. I think theme tends to emerge later in the process after you’ve already kind of have the story figured out.

Maybe there’s inklings of the theme early on but I try to not get too worked into, “Here’s what it’s about, here’s what I’m trying to say.” It’s more like you let it emerge over time and then you sort of adjust and massage so that the theme gets explored in a way that feels believable, that feels real but is also compelling on that kind of underneath the surface plot level.

Ashley: Yeah. You know, as you say that I wonder if there’s any of those the Faulkners and the Hemmingways of the world. I wonder how they approached it. Did they go in not worrying about theme and then when they finished their first draft they start tweaking it or are those…the heavy weights, the literally heavy weights. I mean, did Shakespeare go into Romeo and Juliet with some ideas for themes or did he write the play and then the themes emerged?

Erik: That’s a good question. You certainly can, I think you can have theme first. And if you’re a master you know how to embed theme while you’re writing a great story. But for a lot of writers starting out and trying to break in theme can tend to get in the way and make you think, “I don’t care about the other elements of the story or I don’t necessarily embrace them as much because all I care about is this is about the cost of such and such or about the best way to do such and such,” and it’s like you’re trying to like give the audience medicine. Like you’re trying to give them…you’re trying to like say that if you wanna send a message use Western Union, was that the message like some movie mogul said? If you have too much about the message it can be problematic.

Ashley: Yeah. I wonder if we can run a couple of movies or TV shows just through this paradigm real quick and kind of talk about it. One that you mentioned and I’ll kick it off with this. One that you mentioned in the book 40 Year Old Virgin…I’ll take that back. Something like Get Out, as you were going through this, I was just thinking about, what’s a film that’s easily fits into this? Like the movie Get Out that came out a couple of years ago, it’s very easy to just look at these seven things and see that it pretty much hits all these notes. But a movie that you mentioned as an example 40 Year Old Virgin, like I would say the last six of these I can definitely see how it’s very easy to see how it hits it.

But like for punishing, like the problem in 40 Year Old Virgin seems very…it doesn’t seem like a huge problem. Like if I knew a 40 year old guy who wanted to get laid I don’t think I’d need two hours. It would be a fairly easy problem to solve, let’s put it to you like that.

Erik: Well, I’m glad you used that example because it’s one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years. I think that that character is in hell. He’s in absolute hell. He’s under siege by this situation. If you kind of study it from his point of view, right? So they find out he’s a virgin during this Poker game and the next day it’s the most mortifying, terrible thing that could ever have happened to him, that everyone knows he’s a virgin, right? So that’s very punishing. Then they decide, we’re gonna take you under our wing and we’re gonna help you learn how to like get laid. And so the experience he has doing that are totally terrible and punishing. At least some of them, like when he goes with Leslie Mann and she’s driving and she’s drank, it’s a complete nightmare.

He goes with the speed dating and everything he says and does doesn’t work out well. And everything’s just…it’s all like too much for him. Then he meets this nice woman who he wants to get with but the friends are saying, “No, no, you can’t do that yet because you’re not gonna be good at sex, so you have to like chase down the drunk hoes first or whatever, right? So then she’s trying to have sex, it’s like, “Why do you not wanna have sex?” That’s very difficult for him because he does but he’s super afraid of what’s gonna happen if he does. A lot of the stuff the guys put him through like the waxing is very punishing. I know you can say waxing is trivial, it’s sort of like a one off scene. But I think when he goes to see the [inaudible 00:32:57] prostitute and it’s like humiliating ad terrible.

Like this guy is really suffering throughout the movie. And then building up to the climax when we are at the crisis which is he has the big fight with her girlfriend because, “Why aren’t you trying to have sex with me, what’s the problem?” And they get mad at each other and then he’s about to have sex with Elizabeth Banks but that’s terrible too because he’s totally freaked out by how sexual she is and he’s feeling terrible because he really loves Trish, he doesn’t wanna be with this girl, but he’s blown it with Trish. So I think if you really watch it from an emotional perspective, the guy’s in a terrible emotional state, pretty much throughout the movie. He has certain moments of, “Oh, this went well,” like when he talks to Elizabeth Banks in the bookstore.

That went well. There’s certain bright spots, but for the most part this whole situation of, “I have to lose my virginity, I have to figure out a way to be with a woman, I don’t know what I’m doing, everything is scary and terrible, everything is going wrong, and even with the woman that I like, it’s all gonna blow up when she finds out my terrible secret.” That’s what it feels like to be Andy. Only at the very end when she finds out and says, “That’s okay, it’s a good thing,” is the problem finally resolved and he’s no longer in hell.

Ashley: Yeah. And I wonder if there’s a TV show that we can kind of just run through some of these beats to for examples. Are there any TV shows that you think would be good to use?

Erik: Every single one [laughs].

Ashley: Okay, like The Sopranos. We talked about The Sopranos. I think the TV is interesting. I haven’t done a lot of TV writing and so I always get people asking me about like loglines for television and I’m always like, well, is it a pilot logline or is it a series logline? It always get a little bit more complicated and you know, certainly the pilot…well, I guess the pilot, is that your premise that the pilot definitely should hit all these seven things even if by season five maybe you’re not hitting all of them quite so much?

Erik: I think the pilot and the series both hit all seven things. I think a logline for a series should be first and foremost a logline for the series because you’re selling a series, not a pilot. The pilot should just sail into it. The pilot also should have like its own logline but really when you’re trying to present a series to someone you’re saying, “Here’s the hook. Here’s the big kind of problematic situation that affects all these characters. Here are the key character we’re focused on and what their difficulty and struggle is. Why things are terrible and hard for them, right? And here’s how that’s gonna continue to be terrible and hard for many, many episodes over many seasons typically. That’s really what a pitch is or a logline is, is here’s the problem, why it’s so hard and important and why we care about this character or these characters as they’re trying to solve it. So some of it is easier to see in drama series especially ones with life or death stakes liken Stranger Things we could talk about and how…

Ashley: Yeah, like give me…let’s talk about the meaningful part of Stranger Days, because for me that show worked as sort of nostalgia, as someone who grew up in the ‘80s and was sort of well-versed on those movies and TV shows that they were paying homage to. That was I guess the meaning for me, but I wouldn’t say that there was a lot of like story meaning or theme or something to that. At least not that I took away from it.

Erik: I think there is. I think it’s something I haven’t fully thought through so I’d have to like speak off the cuff. Theme is sometimes like there’s a lot of themes. There’s not always like just one big theme like, “Here’s the moral of this story.” It’s not necessarily that. It’s that there’s things going on that we can all relate to on some level that might seem like smaller elements but like for instance explores the theme of like 11 situations. Let’s just talk about the first season because once this show is ahead and goes into other seasons it sometimes changes and evolves in some ways. But like 11 has this like outsider that is…it explores what it’s like to be an outsider, to be misunderstood, to be special, to be different, to be kind of like abused and not have a home and not know who your kind of like family is.

Certainly it has a lot of stuff about the adults being stupid [laughs] like Nancy’s parents and how the kids can’t trust the adults because it’s a world kind of like some of the movies. It’s inspired by the Spielberg ‘80s movie and stuff like ET or whatever where the kids still have some sort of level of values and wisdom that they’re able to see what’s right and wrong where his parents are blinded by that stuff, blinded to those things. You have one a writer’s character who’s like a total outsider and a freak who everyone treats as a loser but she’s actually the only adult other than the sheriff who’s actually I think, who’s actually doing the right thing and is gonna get to the bottom of this, so she’s like this unlikely hero and we can all relate to being an outsider but sort of trying to do the right thing

There’s probably bigger themes that I’m not thinking off because it’s just a complete like put me on the spot situation.

Ashley: No, I think you’re hitting a lot of them and I agree. I totally agree with you. So let’s talk about the process of all of this. So we’re gonna get to…in a minute I’m just gonna say how can you find the book. People can go and buy the book read the book and hopefully execute on some of the things that you’re talking about. But let’s talk about that process a little bit. Once they’ve come up with a bunch of ideas, executed a bunch of scripts, they start querying agents, hopefully they get an agent and then let’s talk about this process that you talk about in the book of going to your agent with a bunch of ideas and then getting most of those rejected. How many of those…well, but I think that it’s important for everybody here because…and especially these so called idea people because I don’t think they realize sort of the work that’s involved.

Even if you were gonna set out on a career as an idea person it would be a lot more work than I think most people anticipate. And so let’s just talk about that process sort of you come up with a bunch of ideas and then just take us all through the process of then ultimately selling that idea. Maybe you can even talk about the numbers. How many ideas are you coming up with so people kind of understand the scope of what you’re doing?

Erik: Yeah, I mean, I think I use the example in my book If I didn’t and this is what really happened to me. I at a certain point was coming up with ideas for series and pitching series to the networks. That was my job basically. I was with CAA, they were the biggest agency at that time in television and overall and so I had these agents whose whole purpose in life was to get their clients to sell ideas for series and then write the pilot and then hopefully the show becomes a big hit. That’s like their entire purpose. They don’t deal with features, they don’t deal with actors or directors for the most part, they don’t deal with staffing writers on shows, they only deal with TV packaging as they called it.

So I had a team of agents, one or two especially that I was basically running ideas past. This is once I’d sort of made it. I had won two Amys, I had worked on Band Of Brothers, I was sort of like a hot commodity, I had been on staff, I had multiple shows wanting to hire me on staff during this one season after Band Of Brothers and so I was kind of like somebody who was on the rise at that point. And so they sort of said, “Okay, we’ll now come up with ideas and we’ll start sending you out to pitch those ideas. But as I would come with ideas, they would shoot down 99% of them and they wouldn’t put their name on an idea even though I’m their client and they supposedly worked for me, right? They don’t put their name on an idea, they don’t call up their contacts and say, “Will you take a meeting, you have to hear this pitch,” unless they really believe it’s a sellable idea.

So it’s hard to please your agents. Nowadays generally as a writer you have to get a manager first. You can’t even get an agent without a manager. And so you have these two, but they’re both doing the same thing, which is they’re listening to your ideas, and this is what I do with clients a lot of times when they haven’t written something yet, they just want me to coach them, “Here’s a bunch of ideas, what do you think of these ideas?” and we work together to find their best idea and then they’ll start to develop that idea with me giving feedback along the way. That’s what managers do for their clients. Agents usually don’t have time to do too much of that or the ability often or the interest, but managers that’s like their whole selling point.

It’s we have fewer clients and we’re gonna look at all your ideas, we’re gonna talk through them in depth. I had a manager tell me it’s like deep tissue representation, right? We’re really involved and so everything that you wanna do they’re gonna completely like wanna shoot out the idea stage unless they love it. They’re not gonna want you to write anything unless they think the idea is really viable. And so basically what I’m saying to writers who don’t yet have a manager or an agent, because once you have one they’re gonna lead you somewhat in that process. Once you have them you’re in a much better place than most writers who haven’t gotten a manager or agent yet and don’t know how to get one or if they’re ever going to get one.

What I would say is you wanna be doing the same thing before you have one that you’ve been doing when you had one which is not spending a lot of time writing ideas that aren’t viable, understanding what makes one viable and making sure that you’re only writing those. And so how you understand that, well, you have my book and other books, but it’s like ideally you will be running your ideas past people. Really running them past them in some depth, not just here’s a two sentence logline and you ask your friends and they say, “I like it.” And you go, “Okay, I’m gonna go write it.” But like the things we would do with the screenplay if we were trying to break in.

All the people we would show it to, the people that are really serious about the craft, we might hire professionals, we might take classes, all that kind of stuff. I can get feedback on a work, it’s like do that with the ideas. Blake Snyder in Save The Cats talked about how he would actually go up to strangers in a coffee shop. Most of us introvert screenwriters would never do that but he would say, “What do you think about this idea for a movie?” And he’d give them the two sentence to three sentence logline or whatever and he would watch their expression. Do their eyes glaze over…it’s not just what do they say like, “Oh yeah, good idea.” That’s not as meaningful as what you glean from how are they really processing it, how are they connecting, how are they engaged? Do they wanna go see that movie?

My main point is it’s not easy to come up with an idea that sort of checks off all the boxes and could be something that would excite a manager, an agent, a producer that you could sell. And so understanding what makes a viable idea and you’re probably gonna go through a lot of ones that don’t quite work to find one that does.

Ashley: Yeah, for sure. So recently I’ve been wrapping up the interviews just by asking the guest to talk about some of the cool things that they’ve been watching.TV…we’re in this golden age of TV, so maybe there’s something on Netflix or Hulu that you’ve seen recently, a movie, anything you’ve watched recently, just maybe a recommendation for our listeners.

Erik: Well, I mean, they’re not gonna be cutting edge recommendations that people haven’t already seen probably but the shows that I’ve been really enjoying on Netflix, Glow and [inaudible 00:43:35] I think both them had really strong second seasons. A lot of times I will find the first season of a show I like and the second season I’m disappointed by. I certainly felt that way with stranger things. It’s a common thing. It’s hard to maintain that level of quality even for a full season but especially if a lot gets kind of resolved in a season, and maybe you’re going onto the next one, it’s not easy to do well. But my wife and I actually stood up and clapped at the end of the [inaudible 00:44:00] second season finale.

It was just so inventive and to me they built on the first season really well. I thought Glow also had a very strong second season which I just finished watching. I’m trying to think what else…Those are the two that come to mind right away.

Ashley: Yeah, those are good recommendations. Me and my wife started watching [inaudible 00:44:25] we’ll have to get back to it based on you recommendation. So how can people buy the new book, do you know when it’s gonna be published and where’s a good place for them to go and find it?

Erik: So it will be out in sometime around mid to late September. It will be on Amazon and probably every other place you can buy books. So obviously Amazon but the place most people go to nowadays there will be a paper bag version and a kindle version. So that’s about the quickest way, so just google my name Erik Bork or The Idea under screenwriting on Amazon.

Ashley: Okay, perfect. And just one final question as kind of an aside. The title is The Idea and it’s this long thing about writing the idea for screen and stage and fiction and storytelling and stuff. And several times in the book you kind of seem to…you were very clear that, “Hey, I’m a screenwriter, I don’t necessarily know that much about fiction.” And I’m curious, was there some marketing intent there that your editor or publisher told you, “Listen, make it a little broader than just screenwriting and you might pick up market attention? And I’m just curious because this kind of goes to sort of what you were talking about is that there is some thinking about just the idea for the book, The Idea. I’m wondering about was it part of it?

Erik: Well, I mean, I have worked with some novelists and some playwrights but mostly screenwriters as a consultant and certainly in my own work as a writer. So I wrote it primarily using screenwriting examples film and TV and thinking about it as a screenwriter, but I firmly believe because this isn’t about…this book is not about scene writing. It’s not about the things that are unique to screenwriting that make it different from playwriting or commercial fiction. It’s about the things that all story media share I believe, which is the essentials of what makes a compelling, viable idea for a story and what makes great characters and what makes something entertaining.

So I’m sure like serious literally novelists might take issue with it kind of thing, but for commercial fiction I just think as a viewer I don’t see anything in the world of commercial fiction or mainstream theater that contradicts any of this and doesn’t have the exact same basic things at its core. So to me I just wanted to…I don’t talk a lot about those media in the book but it was my own idea. I just thought if people are writing fiction or are writing theater and they’re looking for…there aren’t as many books necessarily for those people as there are for screenwriters and they’re looking for things that are helping them with their ideas and their writing, I think it’s viable for those media as well. They may disagree but I think it is [laughs].

Ashley: Perfect. So how can people keep up with what you’re doing, Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll round up for the show notes, so you can mention that.

Erick: Yeah, I have all of those. My blog is called Flying Wrestler, so the website URL is www.flyingwrestler.com. And so I blog on there with all kinds of free tips and stuff about screenwriting. I also offer consulting and coaching services that you can read about on there. I also have a Facebook…I think it’s Writing Consultant Erik Bork, my Twitter is Flying Wrestler. Instagram I’m working on, but I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on Google Plus, all those places.  I don’t have a lot of YouTube stuff but I recently did an interview with Film Courage, I’m gonna be on their YouTube channel shortly.

Ashley: Perfect. So Erik, I appreciate this again taking some time out of your busy day to come and talk with me. Again, I think this is excellent information, especially the TV stuff which I know nothing about, and I know there’s a lot of people out there that have a lot of questions about television. So thank you very much.

Erik: Thank you Ashley, really a pleasure to be here. Bye everyone.

 

Ashley: Thank you, will talk to you later, bye.

I just wanna talk quickly about SYS Select. It’s a service for screenwriters to help them sell their screenplays and get writing assignments. The first part of the service is the SYS Select screenplay database. Screenwriters upload their screenplays along with a log line, synopsis and other pertinent information like budget and genre and then producers search for and hopefully find screenplays that they wanna produce. Dozens of producers are in the system looking for screenplays right now. I launched this service at the beginning of this year and we’ve already started to see some success stories. You can check out SYS Podcast Episode #222 with Steve Deering. He was the first official success story to come out of the SYS Select database. You can learn about all of this by going to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.

When you join SYS Select you get access to the screenplay database that I just mentioned along with all the other services that we’re providing to SYS Select members. Those services include the monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of 400 producers who are actively seeking writers and screenplays. Each SYS Select member can pitch one screenplay in this monthly newsletter. We also have partnered with one of the premier paid screenwriting leads sites so I can syndicate their leads to SYS Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner. Recently we’ve been getting five to ten high quality paid leads per week. These leads run the game, there’s producers looking for specific types of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas or properties.

They’re are looking for shots, they’re looking for features, TVs and web series pilots, all types of different projects. If you sign up for SYS Select you’ll get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. Also you can get access to the SYS Select forum where we will help you with your log line and query letter and answer any screen writing related questions that you might have. Also in the forum are all the recorded screenwriting classes that I’ve done over the years, so you’ll have access to all of those as well. The classes cover every part of the writing process from concept to outlining to the first act, second act, third act as well as other topics like writing short films and pitching your projects in person. Once again, if this sounds like something you would like to learn more about please go to www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.

On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing producer Jeffrey Giles. Jeffrey is one of the producers who hired me to write an early draft of the film that they’re actually finishing up right now called Snake Outta Compton, which is a sort of a spoof of Straight Outta Compton obviously. I know Jeffrey pretty well, I’ve known him for a number of years. So we’re able to dig pretty deeply into this film specifically the Straight Outta Compton script, but we’re also talking sort of a general sense to just low budget independent film making, what screenwriters should be doing, how they can write these scripts and ultimately get these scripts produced.

So it’s a real deep dive and as I said I know Jeffrey pretty well, so I have a little bit of a rapport with him just because I’m familiar with him and have talked with him before. So I feel like this interview it’s definitely not screenwriting 101, it’s probably a pretty advanced lesson. We really go deep on a lot of the concepts. A lot of the things that I talk about on the podcast I really bring those to him and ask him some of those direct questions that I talk about often here. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. Anyway, that’s the show, thank you for listening.