This is the transcript from SYS Podcast Episode 009: Producer Mark Heidelberger talks about Rush, Prisoners, Gravity, and The Dallas Buyers Club.
In this episode I talk with producer and long time friend Mark Heidelberger about some screenwriting lessons from recent films like Rush, Prisoners, Gravity, and The Dallas Buyers Club.
Ashley: Welcome to the first episode of 2014 of the Selling Your Screenplay
Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at
sellingyourscreenplay.com. I hope everyone had a nice holiday. In this
episodes main segment, I’m going to be interviewing producer and long time
friend and collaborator, Mark Heidelberger.
He was my literary manager for many years and helped me develop several
projects. He produced a film I wrote in 2008 called Man Overboard. Today,
he’s going to be talking about rush, prisoners, gravity and the Dallas
Buyer’s Club and the lessons we can learn from them as screenwriters. 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 comment.
I want to improve this podcast, so some honest, constructive feedback is
very much appreciated. I want to thank Ginger Shine, Shawn Speak, Clint
Williams and Penn Works Media for leaving me some nice comments over at
YouTube. To try and generate some iTunes reviews I’m going to be giving
away one free email fax blast to someone who leaves me a review on iTunes
from now until the end of January 2014.
This fax email blast is the same blast that I use for my own screenplays
and it’s the same blast that I sell on my blog. So just leave me an honest
review on iTunes and then during the first episode in February, 2014, I’ll
randomly pick one person who has left a comment on iTunes and they’ll have
their choice of either a free agents manager’s blast or a free producer’s
blast. Also, I’ll be picking a name from everyone who has posted a comment
including the people who have already posted. So, if you’ve already left a
comment, you’re already entered to win.
To be eligible you must post your comment through the iTunes interface.
iTunes makes it pretty hard to dig through the comments from other
countries. I’ll be checking the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada but if
you don’t live in one of those countries just drop me an email telling me
which country you live in, so I’ll remember to check the comments in that
country. Thank you.
A couple of quick notes. Any websites or links that I mention in the
podcast can be found on my blog in the Show Notes. For instance, in the
interview today, Mark mentions his 12 story questions to help writers focus
their screenplays. I’ll be posting a link to those questions in the show
notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather
read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast
show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts.
Also, if you want my free guide, How to Sell Your Screenplay in Five Weeks,
you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s
completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new
lesson, once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I
teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how
to write a professional log line, inquiry letter, how to find agents,
managers and producers who are looking for material. It really is
everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. So, just go to
sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide to pick that up.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. As I mentioned in the last
episode, I recently did an email fax blast for my sci-fi thriller a couple
of weeks ago. It looks like I’m going to option it to a producer who I met
this past week. I had to think long and hard about this option. He doesn’t
want to pay me any money for the option. I went back and tried to count up
all the options I’ve had over the years and I can remember like 20 of them
and there’s probably a bunch that I don’t remember.
With all the scripts that I’ve sold that had an option first, the producers
always paid me a little bit of money for the options. So, giving a free
option always makes me nervous. I’ve done it a lot over the years and I’m
sure I’ll do it again, but so far I’ve never had a free option actually
turn into a produced movie. I was able to compress the time frame a bit so
he only gets a free option for six months and then after that he has to pay
me a little bit of money if he wants to renew the option. So, at least at
that point I’ll know if he’s serious or not.
Unfortunately, this is the world we live in and free options are a part of
the business. He’s produced several films just in the last couple of years.
So, he has a decent track record and that was a key factor in my
willingness to give him a free option. When I was looking at all the
scripts I’ve optioned, in all cases when the option turned into a sale it
was with a producer who had a legitimate track record producing a few
films. Everyone of them had at least a film or two under their belt before
they bought my script.
Really though, once I met him I got a good vibe from him. He actually
seemed interested in a few of my other scripts too. So, I think even if
this doesn’t work out there’s a good chance that we’ll work on other
projects down the road. In any event, I have high hopes for this script.
It’s a sort of a social commentary sci-fi thriller. Something like Brave
New World or Fahrenheit 451 and both the producer and the director who was
also at the meeting really seemed to get the material. They don’t really
want to make a lot of changes at least at this point. So, hopefully this
one will turn out well. We’ll see. I always seem to have high hopes at the
beginning of the process.
Anyway, I’m meeting with the director later today to read over the script.
He seems genuinely interested in my vision of the material, so I’m taking
that as a good sign too. So now, let’s get into the main segment. Today,
I’m going to be interviewing producer Mark Heidelberger. Mark is a wealth
of knowledge on screenwriting and I know I always learn something when we
talk about movies. Hopefully you will too. Here’s the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Mark to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really
appreciate your taking the time to talk with me. How are you doing today?
Mark: I’m doing great, Ash. Thanks for having me on, man.
Ashley: Yeah, thanks. I really appreciate it. So, why don’t you just give
the listeners a brief background sort of about your career in the
entertainment industry, how you got started, some of the highlights, some
of the projects you’ve worked and in what capacity your worked on those
Mark: Sure, yeah. I got started in the business about 14 or 15 years ago,
fresh faced and I came down from Santa Barbara where I went to school. I
got a Bachelor’s in Film Studies and sort of working for Bobby Newmyer who
was a producer. He produced Training Day, produced the Santa Clause movies.
He was a great mentor.
I learned a lot about production and screenplay development through working
for Bobby and some of the writers so that would cycle through. At the same
time I was working for Bobby, I was also kind of trying to hit the streets
and was doing my own thing trying to raise money to shoot music videos and
kind of low budget stuff like that. Running around Sunset Boulevard with my
former producing partner just hitting up bands who might need some music
videos or something done and it’s sort of at the same time I was working
for Bobby, I was on the street doing my own thing and I used that, both of
those experiences to build my own company, Treasure Entertainment which I
ran for over ten years.
At that same time I also earned a master’s degree in producing from UCLA.
Had a great screenplay development professor at UCLA, Jodie Foster’s
producing partner, Meg Lafoe who is just extraordinary. I was doing that
concurrently while I was building my company, Treasure Entertainment and
Treasure really focused on production and development. We also managed
writers and directors.
I personally managed them for about a year and this took me until about
2011 and I eventually left the company to try some things and to go
freelance and work in a lot of other different areas both as a line
producer and production manager as well as a development consultant. So,
it’s really taking all of the skills that I gained in Treasure
Entertainment over that decade and being able to apply it to independent
film makers that might not otherwise have had access to the studio world or
As a freelancer, I made myself available to any film makers who needed that
guidance and help and had put some capital together and were able to pay to
either get the development process going or production process going. So,
that was actually the Reader’s Digest version.
Ashley: Sure, so you and I met probably five, six years ago and at that
time you were running Treasure Entertainment. You were running the literary
branch. How did you get into script development? What was your background
in that? The strength of our relationship really, you helped me as a writer
develop a lot of material, so where did you develop those skills?
Mark: Well, I think really the underpinnings of my story development
experience and a lot of people in the industry will pooh pooh the academic
world. But I got to be honest, at UC Santa Barbara, there was a lot of
great professors there who helped me formulate the underpinnings of what
good story and screenplay development was all about. They had a lot of
working entertainment industry professionals that taught at Santa Barbara
was not just academics. I took the class with John Carpenter. There was a
number of screenwriters that taught screenwriting classes there that had
So, that was sort of the foundation and got me really excited about
crafting powerful stories and not just sort of run of the mill media, but
how can I make these stories as powerful as possible. I really created that
first inkling of what was possible. I never really thought about structure.
I never really thought about when I first going into school whenever it
was, 17 years ago. I never really though about those things and these
professionals made me kind of aware that they even existed.
Some of them I knew if only on the subconscious level, but kind of going
through this process and we’re deconstructing screenplays, we’re
deconstructing movies, we’re really talking about those elements of what
makes them, what makes them not work. Then at UCLA we took it even a step
further. Again, Meg LaFoe having produced with Jodie Foster and having
developed most of the stuff that Jodie was starring in and producing was
Learning the nuts and bolts of character development, of story structure,
of dialogue, of each piece that there’s so many moving parts it’s like a
golf swing. It’s like if once piece isn’t there, you’re going to shank the
ball. It’s like all these pieces that really have to fit together and have
to be tight and moving properly. So, the academic world was a big part of
it, but the real world was also a big part of it.
I think with Bobby Newmyer, I remember sitting in a [inaudible 00:11:20]
screenwriting meeting with two writers who did a movie called National
Security. It was Jay Scherick and David Ronn I believe their names were. It
was so long ago. My apologies if I got their wrong, but they wrote a movie
called National Security for Martin Lawrence and Steve Zahn which went
through this sort of extensive development process especially with the
comedy set pieces and figuring out what was going to play best not just
from a sort of a generic sort of angle but specifically for those actors
and trying to pull out the freshest, funniest lines.
Running through lines and running through moments and trying to figure out
where they’re going to fit best in the story and it was a practical hands
on. It’s like okay, I know the nuts and bolts of it now I’m seeing the
application of it and I got to sit on those meetings. I got to answer
questions and I got to throw out suggestions. That was really between all
of those fears, it was this great sort of dynamic that gave me the
confidence then to start working with writers and taking that knowledge
that I was gaining and applying it in the production and management sectors
of my own company.
Ashley: Perfect. So, what was the class that John Carpenter taught? Was it
one class or was it like a whole semester class?
Mark: It was one. In the UC system it’s a quarter system, so it’s one
Ashley: Oh, wow.
Mark: Yeah, he was deconstructing films and not necessarily his films, but
sort of deconstructing films and talking about the processes and what makes
them work, what makes them not work. It’s just so long I can’t remember the
actual movies we discussed, but I do remember thinking how valuable it was
to learn about the art of storytelling from one of the great niche genre
masters. This guy understands sort of his niche and his genre which is
something that I think maybe not enough independent film makers think about
when they’re crafting movies.
They have a story they want to tell, but you have to think about your
audience. You have to think about the genre and you have to think about how
you’re going to market it, how you’re going to put buts and [inaudible
00:13:41]. A lot of people say, well, let the producers figure that out but
the problem is as a writer is if you’re not thinking about that, the
producers that look at it they’re going to say well, I can’t do anything
with this. I can’t. The market is not baring this type of story. This is
too over saturated right now or all of the sort of rejections that you
hear, but the more you’re thinking like a producer when you’re writer and
okay, what’s marketable right now? Can a producer take my story and run
with it? I think that’s a valuable asset.
Ashley: Sure, yeah it definitely is. So, what’s just sort of your strategy?
When we met, what was your strategy with writers? How do you typically help
Mark: Well, that’s a very good question. There’s a lot of ways. I think one
of the things and Ash, I know you definitely remember this that I really
started doing a couple years in and found it to be very effective is all my
writers knew about the 12 questions. Every time we started developing a new
story and it could apply to scripts that had already been written and were
several drafts into the rewrite phase as well, but the 12 questions were
sort of a guideline of if you’re putting together a story is okay, can you
answer all of these questions and do they all make sense? Do they all fit
together? I swear, nine times out of ten when something wasn’t working in
the synopsis or treatment phase of the development process, you could go
back to those questions and see where something isn’t jiving.
I’ll just give you a couple examples. Some of the examples of the 12
questions are you know, is it studio, is it a studio film or is it an
independent film, what’s the genre of the film, who’s the main character,
what’s the main character’s goal, what’s the main character’s flaw. Who is
the main relationship and you wouldn’t believe how many even professional
level writers, when I say professional I’m not using that term to refer to
quality. Just people that get paid regularly to write.
Those kind of writers that still in those early phases would miss something
that might seem obvious but it’s once you get sort of caught up in the
story sometimes you miss some of those nuts and bolts that make the script
work. So, for example and kind of give more of a obvious example but a
question would be, who’s your main character? Well, Jim is my main
character. What’s Jim’s goal? Jim’s goal is to get the banana, okay? Who is
the antagonist? Tom is the antagonist. Okay, so Jim’s the protagonist. He
wants to get them mad. Tom is the antagonist. What’s Tom’s goal? Tom’s goal
is to get the orange.
Then we look at it and we say, okay and that’s also the main relationship,
Jim and Tom. That’s what’s supposed to be driving the story forward. We’re
looking at the synopsis and we’re saying, well, why is there no conflict?
Why isn’t the story driving forward? What’s the issue we’re having with the
narrative? Why isn’t it interesting? Why isn’t there this cause and effect
. . .
Mark: . . . from scene to scene. Why isn’t every scene an arrow into the
next scene like it should be and then you look at that and you go, wait a
second. It’s so obvious looking at the answer to the question because Jim
and Tom are in different movies. Jim’s trying to get a banana. Tom is
trying to get an orange. If we want conflict, Tom’s goal better be to stop
Jim from getting that banana.
That’s sort of an over simplified way to explain it but those using the 12
questions, a lot of those fundamental problems in the blueprint stage could
get ironed out so that once we actually start getting to the script stage
we could focus on now the details. As like the foundation is solid, now we
can focus on details. You know, like pacing and the dialogue and writing
clever action blocks and making it sound good and naming characters and fun
details and things because those fundamental underpinnings were solid.
Ashley: Yeah. Now, I remember the 12 questions. I still use them and if you
wouldn’t mind maybe we’ll share those with the listeners. We can post those
on the actual blog post that goes with this podcast because those are
invaluable and if you can’t answer those 12 questions as you say, there’s
almost certainly some sort of fundamental problems with the script.
Mark: Absolutely, no feel free. Please.
Ashley: So, okay. Well, you had mentioned before that maybe you had done a
couple . . . just had some thoughts on some recent films and what writers
could learn from those films.
Mark: Yeah and just being award season right now you have a lot of great
films that are out in the marketplace and a lot of great writers and
producers and directors that have created that and by no means am I
intending to pooh pooh any of them because I think all of them have their
positives, but there’s always also some areas where just because it’s a
critical darling doesn’t mean that there’s no criticism that could be
levied upon it. I think in a case of a lot of these films coming out, it
seems like they’re getting stronger and stronger year after year. I think
we could also use them as a lesson as well. This is how to do some of these
So, for example, a couple of films I’ve seen recently, Prisoner’s which I
thought was . . . being from the East Coast where they shot it, it looked
so real to me. They set up a very believable world and I think about the
one things that writers often have to try to balance is setting up that
believability, but also making it dramatic and a lot of times you take so
much dramatic license that you lose that believability. So, finding that
kind of balance especially with Prisoner’s, what was great was that they
were able to escalate the tension and always reveal some new layers and
some new layer of tension and drama while keeping that believable world.
The main characters were so well developed in that film because the writers
made sure that they crafted each character in a very unique . . . there’s
four parents and they’re dealing with the loss, their children were
kidnapped. Each of those parents deal with that loss in a very different
way and I think that really took . . . I think a lot of writers might not
even realize that a lot of the characters often sound the same.
The voice sounds the same and having an outside person to be able to pay
attention to that in the development process say, well, you know, how can
we make maybe each of these characters voices unique through their actions,
through their. . . voice doesn’t just mean dialogue. It’s also interactions
with other characters. It has a very smart twist as well and I think that’s
something that writers often struggle with especially in the thriller genre
is trying to come up with how to create that twist.
You have to plant the red herring. You have to plant those clues to lead
you away. That’s one part of it to lead you away from the truth but the
other part is planning clues that’s also when looked at later after the
ending has been revealed, you go, oh, clues actually told the truth through
there all along. They’re just hidden amongst the more obvious clues taking
them in the wrong direction. So, seems that this . . . I thought this one
was a little bit long. I think it could have been trimmed a little bit.
Yeah and there was a few places where maybe the film’s strayed from its
tone with some car chasing stuff where I think that’s something that
writers always want to be aware is am I keeping the tone of the piece or is
it something dissolving into a slightly different movie. Overall, those
elements, those typical thriller elements that you see is the writer and
the producers did exceptionally well.
Another movie I absolutely just loved. A lot of movies at award season, I
watch them once and yeah, okay they were really good, but I’ll never watch
One movie I loved. I could probably just watch over and over is Rush. The
world of 1970s formula one racing right off the bat like, okay wow, that’s
a really cool interesting world. I think a lot of the films coming out now,
the writers were able to craft a very interesting world. They were able to
show us something that we haven’t seen before. Gravity’s another example.
My issue with gravity was that I didn’t think the characters were developed
well enough and all the people that loved Gravity might be up in arms about
that but it was beautiful to watch. It was an amazing, unique story.
Something unlike we’ve never seen and they really played on, I think they
really played on our fears of hopelessness and isolation which again too
when you’re coming up with a theme you want to try to think about things
that maybe haven’t been tapped into a lot.
I think the way they presented the themes of hopelessness and isolation in
Gravity were amazing. I would have liked to see a little bit more character
development on the Bullock and Clooney characters especially the Clooney
character had even less. I think that could have made it even stronger. I
think that a lot of the people just get captivated with the images. And
remember that . . .
Ashley: The thing that . . . I have not seen Rush or Prisoner’s but the
thing about Gravity to me was they just kept . . . I mean there was some
sort of lulls where there were some low points, some slow points but it was
just like a roller coaster ride and it’s a great movie to watch as a writer
about just keeping the tension, rising tension. Giving a little bit of a
break, rising more tension, giving a break. For the 90 minutes you’re just
totally and thoroughly captivated and I agree with your basic assessment
that maybe that character development wasn’t there, but man, was it a ride.
Mark: It was a great ride. Yeah and that’s why I say by no means am I pooh
poohing what the film makers did. If I’m being critical, I’m isolating just
a few key . . . because I think the Danny Devito line . . . I guess, Danny
Devito gets attributed to it for saying it but films are never finished.
They’re only abandoned.
Mark: So, there’s always some piece that you can keep working on or what
have you and I agree. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time so a lot
of times which is a good lesson as well and sometimes if something’s done
really well, it can make up for some shortcomings. I think part of what a
lot of new writers have to understand though and I think this leaves a
really good point is just because an established writer can do something
that sort of breaks the rules doesn’t mean a new writer should do it.
I learned this lesson actually when I was . . . it was an English class
that I was taking when I was in undergrad and I remember writing some sort
of long piece of paper or something. I used all sort of creative linguistic
something and I remember the professor docked me points for it and I said,
“Why are you docking me points for this?” I said, “It’s really creative and
Vonnegut writes this same way,” or whoever. I referenced somebody. I will
just say Vonagit and the professor said, “Well, Vonnegut can do it, you
Mark: Meaning, Vonagit showed he knows the rules first. He’s established
himself. So, when he breaks the rules people know when he’s intentionally
breaking the rules because he set a base line.
New writers who break the rules [inaudible 00:25:13] certainly know them it
looks amateur. So, while you say, well, look. They didn’t develop
characters in this, they didn’t do . . . Rush is a good example. It was
such a witty . . . the main characters are witty and charismatic. It was
this great intense rivalry between the protagonist and the antagonist.
There’s some really intense . . . it was structured well, there was some
really great . . . especially at the mid point. Some great intense action.
Main characters were so well developed they weren’t the typical stock, good
guy, bad guy and they had those mutual respects for one another but
sometimes it was just because who the main character was. Like, which one
am I rooting for. It very much starts where you’re rooting for one
character and then oscillates the other one. I’m just [inaudible 00:25:59]
Now, for a new writer I might say, listen. You probably shouldn’t do this
because executives are very short sided a lot of times.
They’ll wait. Well, I don’t understand. Who’s the main character. They
won’t necessarily know every little . . . the executive won’t necessarily
know that, that first half break happened too late or that the second half
low point wasn’t low enough or they won’t say that but they just know it
doesn’t feel right.
If they don’t know who they’re following, they’re going to say, “Well, you
know I wasn’t and we don’t really you know, get it. I didn’t know who I was
supposed to be following.” You’re kind of wishy washy about it. Ron Howard
and Peter Morgan, Peter Morgan the writer of Rush, they could get away with
it because they’re Ron Howard and Peter Morgan.
So, I think there was that sort of 12 questions and especially when you’re
early in your career figuring out who your main character is, figuring out
what your narrative . . . the narrative question driving the story,
figuring out your thematic question, all of these things are really
important. So, yeah, use these award caliber movies as guidelines for what
they do well but at the same time I wouldn’t rely so much on mimicking the
weaker parts just because they did it. If that makes sense.
Ashley: I had a conversation about Gravity with another writer a couple
weeks ago and one of his points and I kind of agreed. Maybe I won’t explain
it as well as he did, but Gravity is such a visual film that it would be
hard for a new writer to write that script and for somebody to just see
that vision because it was just so much visual stuff and I’m not sure that
would all translate to the page quite as well as it actually turned out.
So, a new writer might have a difficult time just trying to get some
traction with a script like that because it was different from anything
we’ve really ever seen.
Executives might not see what that vision really is, but the director did
have a track record and he wrote the script. So, he might have gone to
pitch that with some actual art work or some visual piece that he had
created . . .
Mark: That’s right.
Ashley: . . . to try to help that pitch.
Mark: That’s right, yeah and that could be a risk as well. When you go into
visual aids I get a lot of writers that say it’s part of the development
process and I want to create some key art or I want to create a trailer or
shoot a scene as part of the pitch. That could be helpful or it might not
be. Again remember, like I said we’ll have executives that are not very
visionary. So, if you show them something that doesn’t look high quality,
the acting’s not very good or it’s not shot very well, they’re going to
say, “oh, well, okay is this what it was supposed to look like?”
Mark: A lot of them say, “oh, I get it.” But sometimes though the poor
visuals can do you more harm than good. So, Alfonso Coran probably had not
only the track record but he probably he had the resources to do very good
Mark: Another film I want to reference a little bit, Dallas Buyer’s Club.
In terms of creating a world and choosing that world if you wanted the
negatives. When I had that one of the negatives, I felt when I watched that
was, wow. This movie feels really dated. It’s about the AIDS epidemic and
people coming to terms with it and trying to find a cure and you know,
picking material that feels relevant and timely I think is really
I went to a PGA screening of that and they had the producers of the picture
talk about it afterwards. Then one of the first things he says, “Yeah, this
script has been bandied about. We tried to make this in 1992.” I’m like,
okay, there it is. That’s why.
Ashley: Right, yeah.
Mark: At a certain point sometimes makes you a big [inaudible 00:29:34]
that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, those amazing performances side. I
think those really carried the story. What I really loved about it, these
characters were completely unique and interesting and engrossing. So, it’s
sort of the anti Gravity, right? You have Gravity which is carrying the
story by the . . . it’s really very plot driven. It’s not character driven.
You don’t know very much about the character. It’s just like you said, this
roller coaster ride.
Well, Dallas Buyer’s Club is very character driven and more over the main
character undergoes a very believable change that you’re rooting for this
guy. This guy is very much a bigot. He’s prejudice. He’s very much . . .
he’s sort of anti homosexual. He’s got all of these things that sort of at
the beginning kind of make him an unlikable person. He’s a kind of a thief
and through this . . . him coming to terms with this disease, through this
experience in his relationship with the Leto character and some other
characters; Leto’s like a transvestite, but through his relationship he
becomes more tolerant of different people.
I think they also, the other people he comes in contact with become sort of
more tolerant of him and the world he comes from and he winds up doing all
kinds of good for people. The kind of person he didn’t even think had the
capacity for that kind of good. love stories like that. I think executives
love stories like that when a character goes through this palpable change
that you can really feel for the better. It’s that idealism that we want to
see. It’s just like making the world a better place, so.
Ashley: I’ll be curious to see how the movie sort of runs its course with
audiences because I think what you’re saying is a good point and I’ll be
curious to see if that subject matter resonates. Tom Hanks basically did
that movie in one Oscar for it back in 1994 or ’95, so . . .
Ashley: With Philadelphia. So . . .
Mark: Philadelphia, yeah.
Ashley: So, I’ll be curious to see how the box office numbers turn out and
even the critical acclaim turns out because you’re right it is. The
subject matter is so dated.
Mark: Right, yeah. So, I just caution writers on that especially when
you’re starting out. Try to find something timely and I’m not even saying
this is a good . . . I want to just differentiate. I’m not even saying the
. . . if you’re doing like a period piece that story has to be present day
but the themes, the message, what are the elements driving the story. Like
I said, Rush takes place in 1976 but it didn’t feel dated to me.
So, I think sometimes the subject matter can feel dated if the themes are
dated and the message that sort of thing. So, I just want to make that
differentiation. I think as a writer you want to come up with story lines
that if in some way speak to people today.
Ashley: Just on a practical matter too. You just mentioned two sort of
period pieces and I get a lot of new writers emailing me and they’ll have a
Civil War epic or something and as a rule, I don’t even recommend a new
writer try a period piece because that in it of itself is a whole another
ball of wax. It’s difficult to find funding for those types of movies.
Mark: It’s so difficult. It really is. It’s not just a challenge either for
Mark: It’s a challenge even for established producers and a lot of that
just speaks to again, going back to one of the 12 questions, who’s your
audience? There’s a difference between big epic, Ron Howard, Tom Cruise
period piece which can draw people in because of star power and somebody
who’s you know, the chances of you getting your script made on that level’s
Mark: There’s not the same audience for that kind of thing on a smaller
level let alone the sort of investors willing to put in the budget to make
that realistic. So, I agree with you. I usually try to get writers to focus
on mid genre pictures at least when they’re starting their career. Meaning,
thriller, horror, action, broad comedy, romantic comedy. Some of these are
like a very teen comedy, very identifiable target market and moreover
pictures that are getting made on the Indie level.
Ashley: Yeah, sure. So, just as we wrap things up maybe you have a couple
of just random tips that writers can kind of take away from this session.
You’ve read a ton of scripts in your life and maybe there’s just a couple
of tip or two that you can leave our audience with.
Mark: Well, first I want to say after all of this, I do agree with the
write what you know school. The problem, I think a lot of writers don’t
really know much unfortunately outside of their encore. They don’t have a
lot they know. They write. Writing what you know is okay, watch a bunch of
movies and they write movies that are just derivative of other movies.
If you had some real experiences, like a buddy of mine, Dave Ayer. He wrote
Training Day and he wrote Fast and the Furious. He wrote S.W.A.T. He wrote
U-571. He was in the Navy.
He grew up in East L.A. as a white guy where it’s like 3 percent white, 97
percent hispanic or other and he’s used to experiences that was unique
experiences to craft his stories. So, I say tap into that, what you know
outside of movie making. What else do you know?
Ashley: Years ago, this is more than a decade ago. I actually went to the
Newport Beach Film Festival and I just went down there one Saturday morning
and I stayed the whole day and watched films. I think I ended up watching
five films that day and literally four out of the five films were about the
entertainment industry. The entertainment industry was somehow the main
plot of those films and I left there thinking I just can never make a film
that is involved in the entertainment industry because it is just so
Mark: It is and Hollywood hates movies about Hollywood.
Mark: They really do.
Ashley: And for good reason, with good reason.
Ashley: Because most of them are God awful.
Mark: I would also say, I know it’s your baby especially in the early
stages. Sometimes it’s hard to be collaborative but when you work with a
really good development person, somebody who has been doing it for a while
I think the hallmarks of a good relationship between a development person
and a writer is trust and being able to communicate in a way between the
two people especially from the development person or the writer that we’re
in this together. We want this to be a win, win. That we want to get this
made so that as a writer learning to trust not just anybody but finding a
good person that you can tell is on their game and knows their stuff, that
you’re willing to let go a little bit and trust them because that
development person, they want to create a win, win situation.
And get your picture made. Even if it’s not the iteration you have, the
draft you have, it’s going to go through many, many drafts before it ever
gets made. It’s going to be read by thousands of people before it ever gets
made. So, just I think learning to sometimes to let go and trust others I
think is a big part of becoming a mid term professional writer.
Ashley: Sure, just to take a step back. How would you recommend a writer
find a development person that is willing to work with a newer writer?
Mark: Well, I think there are plenty of resources online. I think your site
is a great one. I know you have maybe several other guys that you featured
on there that have different strengths and talents. I think there are other
websites out there. I think word of mouth and if you spend any significant
time in Los Angeles . . .
Mark: . . . you know it’s not as big as a college campus. It’s not even a
small type of college campus like, you know, oh, that guy? You know him?
Yeah, I just ran into him on the way to English class. So, I guess that
makes you feel like that small.
But through word of mouth, there’s writer groups out there that you can
join where I think some of those writers have experience in development or
they might know somebody. So, yeah. This is really relationship business
but I think those are kind of a lot of the typical methods that people go
about finding somebody.
Ashley: Sure. Okay, well, I appreciate your time Mark. We’ll go ahead and
wrap it up. I really appreciate your coming on and I know I learned
something. So, thanks a lot.
Mark: No problem. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: I always enjoy talking about films with Mark because he’s got such
a good understanding of how stories work and he’s also got that practical
producer insight. Mark has graciously agreed to review screenplays for
listeners and readers of Selling Your Screenplay. He gives great notes and
he still continues to help me with my screenplays. To learn more about this
service just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
In this episode’s Writing Words section I want to build a bit on some of
the things that Mark talked about and some of the things that I took away
from my meeting with a producer this past week. I have two daughters and
they got a lot of Christmas presents so I spent quite a bit of time on
Christmas opening these toys and getting them out of the packaging. My
three year old daughter got this Buzz Lightyear toy and it literally took
me like ten minutes to get it out of the box. It had all these twist ties
holding it in the package and what I noticed is that the twist ties went
through little loops on the actual toy and it appeared that the only
purpose of the loops was for the twist ties to hold the toy in the package.
So, it occurred to me that the design of the packaging is actually a part
of the design of the toy and vice versa. Packaging is considered when
designing the toy. This is what I preach with screenwriting. It’s not just
about coming up with a cool or interesting idea. So often you hear
successful screenwriters give the advice write what you’re most passionate
about, but I’m not so sure that’s sound advice. My guess is that these
successful screenwriters wrote what they were most passionate about without
considering much else and it worked out for them so that’s why they’re
giving this advice.
First, my guess is that most of these writers have a much more intuitive
feel for what’s marketable than they realize but secondly it’s easy for the
person who’s holding the winning lottery ticket to look back and think they
somehow contributed to their own success. It may or may not be true. I
haven’t seen the Dallas Buyer’s Club but it sounds like it was a great
script. But listen to what Mark said about it. It feels very dated and so
that might not be a great spec script for a new writer to write.
It’s going to be tough to get someone excited about a social issue that’s
20 years old. It’s not going to feel relevant and it’s probably not even
going to get read very widely because the concept is so dated. So, it’s not
even going to matter how well written it is because not very many people
will even read it.
In my meeting this past week with a producer I specifically asked him why
he responded to my query letter. Mostly what it was, was simply that he
liked the concept and was looking for sci-fi scripts. It’s a genre he
thinks he can get funded and ultimately sell the movies. I asked him why he
didn’t respond to my baseball comedy. He’s been on my list for awhile, so
I’ve sent him all my recent query letters and he’s actually into baseball.
He collected baseball cards as a kid, but he didn’t think a baseball film
was something that he could get funded and sell. So, again it really
doesn’t matter how good my baseball comedy is. If the producers won’t read
it, it ain’t going anywhere.
I think James Cameron is a great example of this point. His scripts aren’t
great. They’re a little on the nose, a little melodramatic but here’s the
thing. They fit perfectly into his overall vision for the film he’s making.
He understands the world of special effects and he knows how to write a
script that organically incorporates all of these great new effects into
his movies. The screenplays end up being just one small piece in a very
complex, sophisticated puzzle which end up creating these massively
Here’s one thing that I would like to make clear. So much screenwriting
advice is out there, it’s for beginners. This advice I’m giving is not for
beginners. If you’re a beginner, by all means just write what you’re most
passionate about. It’s probably not going to sell anyways and the most
important thing you can do when you’re just starting out is to just write.
Write often and write a lot. Get a bunch of scripts under your belt.
The first script I sold in option, Dish Dog, was actually the ninth
screenplay that I wrote, so it can take some time. You just got to get
these first screenplays out and on paper and just learn as much as you can
from the writing process. But if you’re someone who’s written a bunch of
scripts and has never sold or optioned anything, I would really urge you to
take a hard look at your concepts and before you begin writing another
script really try and place the concept in a much broader context. Who are
you going to sell this screenplay to? Do you have any real way of
connecting with those people? Is there a market for this story?
Just like those little loops were manufactured into the toy specifically
for the packaging, so too should the marketing of your screenplay be
organically woven into the story and concept. The first class I did through
the SYS Select Program covers this exact topic and it’s available for
replay through SYS Select. So, if you need help that’s the potential
resource but really the most important thing you can do is try and talk
with producers and really understand what they’re looking for and why
they’re looking for these types of scripts that they want. Then try and
navigate your own writing accordingly.
So that’s it for the first episode of 2014. Hopefully this year will be the
best year of your writing career. I wish everyone good luck. As always,
thank you for listening.