This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 006: Screenwriter / Producer Alan Katz Talks About Breaking Bad and the Lessons Writers Can Learn From It. Click here to listen or watch the original Podcast.
Ashley: Welcome to the “Selling Your Screenplay” podcast. I’m Ashley
Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com.
In this episode’s main segment, I’m going to be talking with writer and
producer, Alan Katz. He has a lot of credits in both television and
features, including being a co-producer and writer on the groundbreaking
HBO series, “Tales from the Crypt.”
We’re going to be talking about “Breaking Bad” and some of the
lessons that writers can learn from this very well-written show.
He’s been in the business for years and really has some great
information to share with us. If you find this episode valuable,
please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or if you’re
watching this on YouTube, please give it a Like and leave a
I want to improve this podcast and some honest, constructive
feedback is very much appreciated. Please also share this
podcast episode with anyone who you think could get some value
out of it. I’d like to thank a few people who posted some nice
comments on YouTube, so thank you StephanSE9, Eric Joyce, Max
Kaye, Ginger Shine, Ronnie Uberath, and the Old Family Movies
Max asked about the quality of the sound in the interview from
last episode. I’m still working on figuring out the best way to
record an interview. Hopefully, this week’s will be a little bit
better. These sorts of comments are very important to me as they
help me make this podcast better. So, really, don’t hesitate to
tell me if you see any problems.
A couple of quick notes: any websites or links that I mention in
the podcast can be found in 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. You can find all the
podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts.
Also, if you want to get my free guide, “How to Sell a
Screenplay in Five Weeks” you can pick that up by going to
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 and query 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
Also, in the last episode of the podcast, I mentioned that I
would be interviewing producer, Mark Heidelberger. Mark has been
busy working on a project and we couldn’t quite connect this
past week. But I will have him on in a future episode, which is
hopefully the next episode. Mark has a lot of experience in both
producing and script development, so I think we’ll all learn a
lot from him. So keep an eye out for that.
A quick note about what I’m working on this week. A few episodes
ago, I mentioned that I was blasting out my one location, sexy
thriller with a female protagonist. Well, I did find a good
producer who liked it and she has optioned it from me. The
budget will be well less than $1.0 million, so I’m not going to
make a ton of money from this. But I knew when I wrote this
script it probably wasn’t going to be a huge studio film.
She mentioned the SAG low-budget agreement, which I think is
around $625,000 right now and it sounds like she’s going to try
and keep the budget right under that amount. This is something
to think about. That SAG low-budget agreement is kind of a real
threshold for where producers might want to be for a film and as
I said, I think it’s around $625,000 now. So if you can write a
script that could easily be shot for less than $600,000, it
opens up some markets for you.
I think this is a pretty good option, because the producer is
actually the person who goes out and raises the money. Most of
the time when I’ve optioned a script to a director or producer,
they don’t have a lot of experience raising the money to shoot a
film, and raising the money is the hardest part.
So with these sorts of independent films, having someone on
board who’s actually gone out there and raised money before is a
great asset. So in any event, a couple of takeaways from this: I
specifically wrote this script thinking there was a market for
I thought long and hard about the marketing of this screenplay
and it seems like my hunch was basically correct, that there is
a market for a one location, sexy thriller with a female
protagonist. However, just one measly option doesn’t really
prove anything. It’s certainly not statistically significant.
I’m planning on writing another similar screenplay once I get a
few things off my plate.
I will say that, overall, I did get some good interest in this
script. I actually have a few other people who liked it as well,
and might have optioned it if I hadn’t already optioned it to
her. I can say that compared to my baseball comedy, this script
got a ton more interest and I honestly don’t think that it’s a
better screenplay. I think it’s just that the market for a sexy
thriller is much greater than the market for a baseball comedy.
One other thing I want to point out. I probably had 30 options
similar to this one over the course of my career and you can
just go look at my IMDB credits to see how many produced films
30 options has yielded. Suffice it to say, in the vast majority
of the cases the options never amount to anything. So just
getting an option really is just a first step. While it’s nice,
it’s nothing to celebrate. I’m not waiting around even for a
second for this movie to take off.
If it does, great; but in the meantime I’m working on another
spec script and polishing up a script that I wrote a few years
ago. So I’ll be blasting those two out over the next few months
and continuing to try and keep things moving ahead.
I also just want to point out that I’ve had a bit of a lucky
streak these past six months in optioning a few things and
selling one script last month. I’m not going to be able to keep
this up. I’ve certainly had a lot of years where I didn’t option
anything and I’m sure I’ll have many more wane years in the
So I just want to make it clear that these results that I’ve had
in the last few months are certainly not typical for me. I do
also want to mention that the email and fax blasts that I do for
myself and produce this screenplay option is a service that I
offer through my website. Just go to
sellingyourscreenplayselect.com to learn more about this
So now let’s get into the main segment, which is an interview
with producer and writer, Alan Katz. Here’s the interview.
Welcome to your “Selling Your Screenplay” Podcast. Alan, it’s
great to have you on. I really appreciate you’re taking some
time and coming on and doing this interview.
Alan: It’s a pleasure to do it, Ashley. It’s great to talk to you.
Ashley: So I guess first, let’s just give the listeners sort of a quick
overview of your background, how you got into the business and
some of the highlights, some of the things you’ve worked on
during your long career.
Alan: Sure. Well, I grew up on the East Coast. After college, I was living
in New York not doing much of anything. But I had a friend from
high school who’d become an agent at William Morris and she
said, “You know, you should try writing a screenplay.” So I
said, “Okay, I’ll try that.”
So I wrote one and she liked it. She said, “You know, you should
try coming out to LA and meet people, see if you like it.” I
thought, “Ugh, what a horrible thought.” LA was the land of the
avocado-heads. It was just the worst possible place to go to.
But I did and I came out and people were really, really nice to
me and I went to a bunch of screenings and a premier or two and
I found myself very quickly getting seduced and by the third day
I was here it was done. Suddenly I couldn’t imagine living in
anywhere other than LA. I got rather lucky very quickly. I sent
up one screenplay that a small company put into development. I
got hired to do a rewrite on another comedy. I originally
started in comedy.
I partnered with a guy who is a very strong producer and we
became a team and for about 11 to 12 years we were a team and
between the two of us we got Tales from the Crypt at HBO and we
ran that for a lot of years. While doing Tales, while being
involved with the Crypt partners who were Joel Silver, Dick
Donner, and Bob Zemeckis. They were our bosses.
We did a couple of feature films, Tales feature films. We did a
couple of additional pilots. We did a TV movie for FOX, so it
was a great place to be for the five-six years that we were
working with the Crypt partners and I decided to go do something
Shortly thereafter, I got involved with the Outer Limits and
spent two years as a co-executive producer there. Then after
that I’ve been heading into projects that have been rather
different and diverse. Right now I’ve been working on a project
called the Gen-X, which is about the Armenian genocide in 1915.
Really enjoying the fact that I’m able to go and play in all the
different areas where my interests lie, and of course, I’m
enjoying working with you at present and helping other writers.
One of the things that I’ve always done along the way is I’ve
always mentored other writers, younger writers and helped get
them to that place where they could take their talent and, you
know, the screenwriting business or the TV writing business is a
very particular thing. If you can be a terrific writer, but a
screenplay really has to have two lives, and especially as
you’re coming into the business, you have to appreciate that
it’s a sales tool first and foremost.
You have to get it into the hands of the people who will be able
to move it forward and to possibly even get you paid for the
screenplay or to do additional work on the screenplay, or if
they like what you’ve done to hire you to do other things.
Part of how you have to approach the writing of your screenplay
is to see that that first line of defense, all those readers you
have to go through, the readers who work for the producers, the
readers who work for the studios, the readers that work for the
These people are all gatekeepers; these are people who read
dozens of screenplays every week. There’s very little that they
haven’t seen and they’re a very tough, cynical, prickly group of
people and rightfully so, because they see a lot of screenplays.
The last thing that they want to do is push for a screenplay
that their boss is going to read and say, “Why did you make me
spend an hour and a half reading this piece of garbage? This is
horrible. I don’t trust you anymore.”
So to get those people to say yes, so that your screenplay can
move past the gatekeeper to the person who could possibly make a
decision requires a certain amount of appreciation for the how
you have to write your screenplay, how you have to approach the
whole screenwriting process. As I said, it’s you have to worry
that not only the technical aspects of what that particular
document is a screenplay, but how to make that the possible
sales tool it can be.
Ashley: One of the things that I really like to do on selling a
screenplay is break down that sort of process, especially of the
selling of the script early on. I’m curious, did the agent that
you were friends with did she end up being your agent? Did she
end up helping you break into the business?
Ashley: She did. So and then you said this first script you got into
development. How many scripts had you written when you got his
first script into development?
Alan: One, it was my first script.
Ashley: Okay. And you got that through her and she liked it enough, she
sent it out and it garnered enough interest to kind of get
Alan: Well, that one actually didn’t go anywhere, but it opened the
door. I had another couple of ideas and what that script did was
people read it. They liked it and what they would say is, “We
just like it. We like the writing. It’s not strictly what we
want to do, but what else have you got?” So then I would pitch
another idea that I had and that’s really the one that got into
development was the next idea.
But it was the first script that got me in the door, and you
know, the other thing as a beginning writer, as a writer that
you have to learn how to do is when you walk into the room is
you have to take over the room.
It’s hard if you’re not an outgoing personality that can be
challenging, but the more you can walk into the room and be a
performer for that, 15 minutes, half an hour, the more energy
and even the way that you sit in a chair is important.
If you sit back in a chair the energy is different, which is why
I was mentor the writers I talk to when you go into, whether
you’re pitching something or even just having a meet and greet,
don’t sit back. Sit towards the edge of the chair so that really
there’s a certain feeling in the room that at any moment you
could spring, like a jungle cat, across the table and it’s a
Unfortunately, the perception of writers in this business in the
feature world is very different in the TV world, but in the
feature world it’s that a writer is a necessary evil, and so you
know, there was that. What is it?
That Jack Warner used to walk around the Warner Brothers lot
listening at the writer’s building. He wanted to make sure that
all the Underwood typewriters were being used. He referred to
screenwriters as schmucks with Underwood’s. To a degree I don’t
think that that attitude towards writers has changed all that
much. We’re incredibly expendable.
Ashley: How did you make your sort of leap into horror, you said your
first script was a comedy. Then how did you kind of because it
seems like a good number of your credits are sort of more in the
horror genre. How did you get into that genre?
Alan: Horror was where the money was and I always saw Tales from the
Crypt as dark comedy and I was always a big fan of the IC Comics
when I was growing up. I was very lucky in that my partner was a
very strong producer. He had worked another show for HBO called
The Hitchhiker and this goes back a long, long time. And HBO
really wanted Gil, a guy name Gil Adler was my partner, they
really wanted Gil and Gil and I had been working together and
Gil really wanted to bring me in.
And Gil said when they wanted us to do Tales from the Crypt I’d
written episodes for a show called Freddy’s Nightmares. I had
done an interesting reality show pilot called Haunted Lives. You
know, HBO was ambivalent about me, but Gil fortunately, again
his relationships and Gil was “Trust me. You’ve got to have this
guy. He’s really smart. You’re going to be happy with him.”
Ashley: How did he get onto Freddy’s Nightmares? Was that again writing
like a horror spec TV pilot?
Alan: In that case, again, because the first script that I put into
development was with Gil, Gil had read the first script that I
ever wrote and said that it was great. He approached me while we
were working on the script that he got the financing for. He
said, “You know, we should write together,” and I having never
really written with anyone before, but I was open to it.
It didn’t seem like a bad thing to do and one of the first
lessons that I learned that actually to write with a partner is
great, because first of all especially if it’s a good
relationship, the sum is greater than the parts. There’s a
strange thing that goes on where first of all, you feel
obligated to always bring your best, because you don’t want to
let that other person down. That’s the way that I always was.
So I liked having Gil as a partner and it seemed to be just a
good way to go. So Gil was hired to produce Freddy’s Nightmares
and one of the things he said was, “Well, I want my partner as
part of my deal. I want my partner to write a couple of
scripts.” And they said, “Well, okay.” So again, it was a degree
a good fortune.
Ashley: So I guess the question is how did you meet Gil? That would
maybe be an interesting story, because it sounds like he was
certainly instrumental in kind of getting you into the business?
Alan: I’d written this screenplay called Down to Earth, which is
about a cynical kid who calls a late night Art Bell kind of talk
show just to make fun of some guy who’s talking about his
encounter with aliens and somehow he manages to say just enough
stuff that sounds right, that he suddenly attracts a lot of
attention to himself. And lo and behold, he has stumbled into a
world where all kinds of bizarre things are happening to him and
it was a comedy.
Gil read it and liked it and he wasn’t really that into doing
that, but I pitched him another idea about a guy who he helps
this young Frenchwoman get her green card and they have this
relationship all of a sudden. This was before there was a movie
called Green Card, which came out. I had done my version.
I think it was called French Kiss. I had done it about five
years before Green Card came out and we just never managed to
get it produced before then. But Gil set French Kiss into
He had heard my pitch for that, liked my first script, liked the
pitch for that, and said, “We’ve got to work together.” So to a
degree that’s where a screenplay is like I said a sales tool.
Not just for the thing it sells, but ideally, you’ve got to
think about a screenplay as a sales tool for you.
Ashley: Just in terms of getting you other work, not just in terms of
selling that script.
Alan: Exactly right, so the more that you can make that screenplay
not just a great piece of work, but a great calling card, a
great sales tool, it’s very, very important so that they can see
that one, you know how to tell a story. You know how to write
characters that are memorable and compelling and fun and leap
off the page.
That you not only know how to tell a story but that you know how
to tell a story within the idiom of film. That you understand
storytelling from a cinematic point of view and that’s makes a
huge difference in either getting the screenplay sold or
optioned and in getting additional work from the screenplay.
As I said, if it gets you into a room where someone says, “You
know, this is good. I don’t know if I want to do that, but what
else you got?” First of all that you’ve got to have some other
things, some other arrows in your quiver, and you’ve got to have
the ability to then walk in and sell them or pitch them quickly,
elegantly, entertainingly. You have to also, part of how to
succeed, how to make it, how to begin.
Ashley: Sure. So let’s take a step back and you know, we had mentioned
before the interview possibly talking about Breaking Bad. Let’s
kind of you know, what are some common mistakes you see with
screenwriters and you know, what are some lessons we can learn
from something like Breaking Bad?
I mean, certainly, Breaking Bad got a lot of critical acclaim.
The writing is considered excellent. So maybe you can just give
us a quick little lesson on some of the things you saw Breaking
Bad do that you felt were really, really good.
Alan: Breaking Bad epitomizes great characters and great characters
make great storytelling. The thing that TV in terms of as a
learning tool, a successful TV show is all about characters and
characters that people will want to bring into their living room
or back in the old days, whatever the viewing device is, people
are going to spend a considerable amount of time with, who
they’re going to care about over the course of dozens of
episodes one hopes.
So the key is investing everything into great, conflicted,
compelling characters. One of the things that it takes a while
to figure out how to do and I think a lot of starting writers
they don’t go deeply enough into the meat and the gristle and
everything below the surface of their characters. So therefore
the conflicts between the characters are always up on the
In Breaking Bad you had first of all a phenomenal character in
Walter White and Walter was an angry man who felt he had been
cheated. He had the company that he should have been part of,
that should have made his fortune, that should have really
validated him as not just a scientist, but also as a man it
never happens, and this festering wound just sits inside of him.
Of course, then he gets cancer and in a way the cancer is
somewhat metaphorical for the thing that is inside of him. But
again, it’s important to have that bit of inner anger and then
you’ve got to find all the different ways for that to play out.
Now when Walter then, in an act of sheer desperation turns to
making meth, again he’s a proud character and he’s not just out
to make meth. He’s out to make the best meth. As contradictory
as that should be he’s doing really a terrible thing, but he’s
not approaching that way.
And in part there’s a little bit of a sociopath inside of him,
because he’s so angry. But it is the depth of that anger and the
righteousness of that anger that makes everything else work and
allows him to be…even though he’s doing this terrible thing.
The remarkable thing about Walter White is that he did a lot of
terrible things and yet we still wanted to know what was going
to happen to Walter. Now then of course, you have to surround
him with characters, with which there are going to be natural,
compelling, real conflicts.
And of course, there was his partner in Jesse and Jesse was so
antithetical initially, and yet one of the keys to making the
Jesse character work and making the conflicts with Walter become
more and more compelling was that Jesse for all of his
inadequacies and he’s a failure.
He’s tremendously innocent, down deep there was a goodness to
Jesse, that ultimately as Breaking Bad went on especially in the
last couple seasons, his natural goodness and Walter’s
cravenness became a great counterpoint.
Then of course against that, you have Walter’s brother-in-law
who’s a DEA agent and a good, as straight an arrow as there
could possibly be, for whom the world is black and it’s white
and that is just how it is. And he sees anyone who does what he
ultimately learns his brother-in-law is doing is deserving of
nothing less than total destruction, at all costs, and
everything else be damned.
Then of course, you surround Walter with characters who like in
the grey world. His wife who is willing to compromise when she
suddenly realizes what this is about, and it’s a terrible,
You also have the wife’s sister who goes to a grey place when
she accepts money for when the brother-in-law, Hank, gets
wounded, and she accepts money for his healthcare, a terrible
But again, this is where the great, realistic, compelling drama
comes from, great characters, and great character depth. Then
when you push them up against each other, you know you can twist
it and turn it any number of ways and it’s incredibly believable
and it’s compelling.
That’s really from the first moment you first type fade in;
you’ve got to have a lot of that character work already figured
out. You have to know and really what that involves it’s the
hardest thing for any writer, experience or inexperienced, you
sit down and you begin to ask yourself a series of questions and
it really is why? Why are they like that? Why would they do
that? You know, writers and we tend to be lazy. “Well, because
of this simple reason.”
Alright, it was easy enough to select that though, because to
ask “Well, but why?” requires an awful lot of hard work to get
to the bottom of and that’s really where the hardest work in the
writing process is. It is to dig as deeply as you possibly can
so that you know everything.
It might be a simple reason, but no one does anything for simple
reasons, where good dramatic characters need to be complex and
compelling. And in order to make that work, they have to have
all kinds of problems and issues and doubts and flaws and
faults, because that’s what makes them interesting characters.
Ashley: I’ve never heard anybody say this, but did you ever think that
they went a little bit too far? I mean it was pretty early on in
the series, but he effectively killed Jesse’s girlfriend.
Remember when they were doing drugs, I mean he effectively
Alan: Yeah, and Jesse did but…
Ashley: And there were some moments like that that I felt “Geez, this
is even for him, I don’t have any sympathy.” I felt like too, I
mean I totally agree with you that as a foundation of that are
great characters. I also found some of the episodes a little
uneven. There was one episode where they were trying to kill a
fly inside their little meth lab and I found that very tedious
and so there were some other episodes that I thought were just,
aside from the great character writing, they were just well-
The scene where the brother-in-law gets shot, I mean it was an
incredibly cinematic episode where the bad guys come in. They’re
chasing down Walt. They get put onto this other guy. There’s the
setup the bullets, you know the guy flips the bullet in the
truck, and the bad guy catches it and then drops it.
Then the brother-in-law’s able to put the one bullet back into
the chamber to effectively save his life. There were some others
that were some episodes that I just found incredibly riveting
and even late in the series where the characters were already
Alan: Yeah, right but that’s what great characters will do. It’s in
the details and it’s in those details that are absolutely spot
on to who they are. You know where Walter was concerned in
killing the girlfriend, he was very clear on where his
priorities were, and no one was going to screw with his
And so, a terrible dark moment and yet, it’s not that you didn’t
believe him. Did it make him less empathetic, well, yeah, but it
didn’t make you turn off from the show. I think if anything it
made him even more compelling because he just became more and
more real, and his reality was my situation, I will preserve it
at all costs. Don’t screw with what I have.
You know the scene when Hank gets killed out in the desert? I
thought that episode was just breathtaking. I mean, just again,
it was not what Walt intended to happen, but it was at times out
of his control, because he was playing in a world where, you
know, it’s hard.
Yet the scene out in the desert when he meets up with those
people who are going be his partner and he says, “Say my name.”
I think really spoke to the arrogance. From his point of view,
the righteous arrogance of what he had accomplished and how far
he was willing to go. This was a moment of absolute success. He
had taken down a drug lord and he had done it because he was
smarter, a really smart guy.
Ashley: So are there any tips that we could maybe take a step back and
get some concrete tips that writers could kind of takeaway? I
mean I totally agree with sort of your assessment of how great
these characters were. I mean another character you didn’t
mention, which was great was the lawyer, you know was humorous.
I mean this was just riddled with great moments and great
characters, but is there some way new writers can…Just some
sort of method that you know of that maybe could help them
create these sorts of you know dimensional characters. And as
you said, another point which I think is very, very important is
not just creating these characters, it’s creating them, and then
each character brings out sort of the best or worst depending on
your point of view.
But each character is in sort of conflict with the other one. I
mean if the Aaron Paul character had been more ambitious, then
he would have been too much like Walter and you would have lost
a lot of the conflict between them.
And as you say, if the brother-in-law had not been such a black
and white, you would have lost a lot of the potential conflict
between Walt. So it’s not just a matter of creating those
characters. You create just one main character, but then you
have to create the proper characters to play against them.
Again, are there some tips or some ways that maybe writers could
figure that out or work on that?
Alan: You know, sometimes if you really just observe reality, because
we’re surrounded with these things all the time, even if you
just read the newspaper…The conflict that goes on at present
in Washington D. C. between Obama and Mitch McConnell, John
Boehner, and a guy like John Boehner who is trying to navigate
his way through his own. Every other year he’s got to get
reelected. He’s got to deal with the Tea Party crowd who are
extremely right wing and if he pisses them off, you know,
they’re going to screw him over.
And yet he’s trying to navigate these very difficult waters. You
know, here in reality is a great template for how great drama
works, because really it’s just look at how reality is and even
in your own life. We walk through situations where look, we just
want to go along to get along, but there’s always something
that’s going to be interfering with a peaceful, easy existence.
And if you really just give a good, solid look you can see all
the conflicts that’s in your own daily life. Take note of it.
Look at how it works. Understand the mechanisms for how
frequently we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and
that’s drama. What are you going to do when you’ve got to get
money to pay the rent or the mortgage and you don’t have enough?
What are you going to do? How are you going to solve that
That’s really where, you know, that’s also the nature of drama.
It’s a problem that must get solved. Find the most compelling
problem and two characters with competing needs in terms of that
problem and now you’ve got a story. So you have to look deeper
than you think you have to look, because really there’s more
going on. It’s getting down to the finer points, to the details.
It’s just be willing to go deeper into what is causing the
conflict that interested you in the story to begin with.
Ashley: So okay, that’s excellent advice, and I think people, all
writers should be really observing what they’re seeing in their
everyday lives and trying to implement that and put that into
I wonder if we could just kind of close on just some maybe
general tips for people that are trying to break in the
business. I mean, business tips, maybe just a few tips, writing
tips. Just anything really to kind of help people get started. I
hear from a lot of writers, especially writers now with the
internet. You know there are so many people that are not in LA
trying to break in and they can listen to the podcast and they
can read my blog and get in touch with me.
You know, what kinds of things should they be doing if you’re
not in LA you’re not in the scene? How can we help those people
improve their writing and as I said, maybe even some business
advice, how they can actually get their script read?
Alan: You know, one of the ways that as they approach script writing
especially, they’ve got to find their inner Hemingway.
Screenplay writing really has got to be as stripped down as you
can possibly make it. Think of each page, you’ve got to try to
approximate the movie watching process as you write. It is
It’s almost like the equivalent of staff singing where you’re
just hitting the notes. You’re creating the sound. Really,
you’re stringing together in terms of the images, you know it
really is the less is more. You know, try to pare down not only
the language and the way that you use the language, find the
most effective ways to communicate the tension in a scene, just
the essentials of what we need to see.
What a lot of young writers, what a lot of starting writers do
is they fill up the page with too many words, in essence, and so
from the point of view of the reader, as you look at the page,
you see these big, gloppy, action paragraphs that are five, six,
seven, lines long and it doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels
like, um, I’m reading a novel here. The more you can make that —
Ashley: And reading especially in this day and age, reading other
screenplays it’s easy to find screenplays online, so that’s my
first… I totally agree. You’d be real wise just to read a lot
of screenplays to see sort of the fundamentals and just exactly
what you’re saying.
After you’ve been around the business a while, you can kind of
just leaf through a screenplay and I bet 98% of the time, you
can tell if that screenplay’s going to be good literally just by
leafing through it, and seeing how the words are laid out on the
Alan: Really and you know it in the first two, three pages. You just
know it and it’s the very, very, very rare screenplay that
upends your expectations.
Ashley: How did you get some of these fundamentals down? You said you
just wrote this first script and gave it to your friend at
William Morris. How did you get some of these fundamentals? Had
you read a script? Did you read a book on screenwriting?
Alan: The book that opened my eyes and okay, I think I get this was William
Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, which included in the
book the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Now,
again, yes, structure is very important and I believe very
deeply in structure in general.
But you don’t have to be a prisoner to structure, because
sometimes if you go and you break the rules and you do it
elegantly and you do it smartly, you will succeed for having
broken the rules. Wow, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as a
great piece of writing breaks every last rule. Is not a three-
act structure and it’s just a two characters discovering how out
of place in their world they are. And because it’s a chase
through really half the movie, is a chase.
Ashley: In terms of formatting and stuff though, that’s literally what
you did, you looked at that screenplay and then just wrote your
screenplay in a similar format?
Alan: Yeah, and just you know I was also very lucky. When I was in
college I had a great dramatic literature professor who did a
lecture on Ibsen’s Ghosts which was magnificent, and that really
was an introduction to how to tell a dramatic story, it was
phenomenal. That had a great impact on me and again, it had to
do with characters.
In Ghosts, it’s this woman, Mrs. Alving, has a son. She’s
divorced from her husband. Her son Oswald is in his early 20’s.
He’s coming home to die. He has syphilis. Now he acquired
syphilis through his father and again, one of the themes in the
play is the sins of the father and Oswald has come home to die.
It’s an incredibly heart wrenching, tragic, and you know, the
conflict that Mrs. Alving had that she begins to realize that in
fact her son is dying, it’s just a great character rich story.
You get to the ending and he’s dying and he says, “Oh, mother
look. The sun is setting. Isn’t it beautiful?” And of course,
the son is literally and figuratively setting, he’s dying right
there in front of her and it just rips your heart out. It’s
brilliant storytelling. So that also helped again, characters.
Ashley: And I think that would be wise advice too, going for newer
writers or really any writers. I read a lot of Ibsen back when I
was first starting out, but I had forgotten but everybody should
go back and read them, those classics. I mean it’s not only
Shakespeare, but Ibsen is very easy to read, because it is it’s
all about sort of this structure and his characters.
Shakespeare’s a little more difficult.
Alan: It’s denser language, but there are a couple of Ibsen’s plays,
Ghosts, The Dollhouse.
Ashley: The Wild Duck is one that I’ve read and liked.
Alan: Wow, yeah, deep. And there’s a lot to be taken, because these things
there’s a reason why they’re still performed today and not just
because they’re old and respected, but because they did
something remarkable. And again, it comes down to great
characters, great conflict, and therefore a great story.
Ashley: So well, let’s end on that note. I think that’s a good way to
go out. Alan, I really appreciate your time. This has been very
helpful and hopefully people that are listening can get a lot
out of it.
Alan: I hope so too, and part of the goal is to make everyone great
storytellers, because everyone’s got a great story in them. Some
people have several great stories in them and it’s just a matter
of teaching them how to tell those stories the best way
Ashley: Perfect. Well, thank you again, Alan.
Alan: The pleasure was mine, Ashley.
Ashley: A couple of quick notes, one of the things that impresses me
about Alan is his deep understanding of how screenplays work and
that comes from working in the business for years, but also
reading great plays like Ibsen’s Ghosts. If you haven’t read any
Ibsen plays I highly recommend you do so.
Anyway, I know I learned a lot talking to him, so hopefully you
did too. Alan has been gracious enough to offer his services to
the “Selling Your Screenplay” community as a screenplay
consultant. So if you’d like to get some feedback on your
screenplay from Alan, just check out
sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultant. You’ll see Alan’s bio and
his current prices on that page.
In this week’s Writing Words section I want to continue on with
some of the things I talked about in Episode 3. In Episode 3 I
asked listeners to email me if they felt they had done all of
the steps that I talked about and still hadn’t found any
success. There were some very specific criteria that I laid out,
so please go back and listen to that episode if you haven’t
But in any event, I got an email from a guy who had been pretty
aggressive with his marketing efforts, but was still struggling.
But when I drilled into exactly what he was doing it did appear
as though he was making a few mistakes, which I’ll talk about in
a minute. He’s got the persistence down and that’s very, very
important to be persistent. It counts for a lot. So if he can
make some subtle adjustments, I think he can break through. His
actual story concept was pretty good too, so he’s got quite a
bit going for him.
But here’s the main takeaways from the email exchange that I had
with him. There’s that famous Einstein quote, “Insanity is doing
the same thing over and over again and expecting different
results.” If you keep doing something over and over again and
it’s not working, you’ve got to adjust and try other things.
On the very first podcast episode, I talked about a story of the
kid in the karate class. He was trying to karate chop through
some boards with his bare hands, but he couldn’t do it. When the
instructor came over he saw the problem. The instructor simply
turned the boards 90 degrees so that he could chop with the
grain and sure enough on the next chop he punched right through.
Being smart and adjusting is definitely a part of this process.
If things aren’t working you can’t just keep doing the same
thing over and over again and expect different results. So
here’s some good news. When you’re submitting cold query letters
there’s really only two variables.
First, you need to have enough volume to really know if what
you’re doing is working or not and the second variable is of
course, your actual query letter. So let’s talk about volume for
a second. I would say you need a list of at least 1,000
That’s 1,000 different production companies or 1000 different
producers. I’m not saying to send out the same letter to the
same 100 companies 10 times. You need a list with 1,000 unique
producers on it. Keep in mind, my list has over 5,000 producers
in it and I’m sure that I don’t have every producer in the world
in my database.
So there’s almost no limit to how big a list you can create and
the bigger the better. So what you want to do is just start
testing out your query letter to 200 producers. I would say if
you don’t get at least a script request or two from those 200
producers, you probably need to go back and rewrite your query
letter and log line.
Just keep doing this over and over again, changing your log line
and query letter, and then blasting it out to another 200
producers. You’ve really got to rewrite the hell out of it, not
just make a few small tweaks.
I’ve seen some pretty unmarketable concepts get some script
requests so at this stage even a terrible concept can work if
the log line and query letter are well-written. And when I say
it can work I mean you can get script requests. It may not end
up in a script sale or a script option if your concept is
terrible, but you can get some script requests even with an
Once you’ve got things working and you’re getting a few script
requests then you can scale things up and hit your entire list
with your query letter, and even better, you can go out and
really try to build an even bigger list. It really is that
simple, but as I said, if things aren’t working, you really need
to take a step back and make adjustments and sometimes this
means huge adjustments.
Now the next big question of course is once you get this cold
query letter part of the process down, what happens when no one
is optioning your screenplays? Now you’re getting the script
requests but you’re not getting any true interest in the
material. I think it’s basically the same problem.
It’s time to make adjustments. Maybe your scripts aren’t quite
up to professional standards or maybe if you’re writing quirky
comedies it’s time to write a thriller. Don’t be too proud to
take a real hard look at your material. When you think your
material is good enough, that’s when you stop improving and
that’s the death of any writer, at any level. If things aren’t
working don’t be afraid of making huge, sweeping adjustments.
As always, if you have any questions about how to write a good
query letter and log line or how to go about building an email
list like the one I’m talking about in this podcast, please do
sign up for my free guide at sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It
explains all of this in great detail. Anyway, that’s this week’s