This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 117: Screenwriter Steve Cuden On Beating Hollywood.
Welcome to episode 117 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger, over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Steve Cuden who is a TV writer. He’s written dozens of episodes for different TV shows. He has a book out right now called “Beating Hollywood”. We talked of the early part of his career and how he got his first couple of gigs and then we talked about his book and some of the lessons that he teaches in it so stay tuned for that.
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A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts and then just look for episode 117.
If you want my guide “How to Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
A quick few words about what I’m working on, not a lot has changed since last week. The main thing I’m still working on is my rewrite of my script called The Pinch which I’m going to be shooting in July. I’m just working through the first act. I’d say I’ve almost done the first act rewrite. That might not sound like a lot but actually I would say more than half of the rewriting I’m doing to the script probably comes in the first act, and then most of the other rewriting comes in the first half of act two. Then they’ll be a little bit of scattered rewriting in the back half of the script. So I’d say I’m probably halfway done with the rewriter somewhere thereabouts. Hopefully this will only take me another week or two. I’m recording this podcast episode March 21 so my goal is to get the rewrite done by April 1. So I have a little over a week or a week and a half. This episode will be aired a week later from when I record it. So the dates might seem a little strange when I say I want to be done in April since when this airs it will only be three days from now, but as I record this I have about ten or eleven days before March is up. So that’s my goal is to get it done before March is up, and then I’ve got to ramp up pre-production. I haven’t done a lot since last time. I put a couple of ads in various film schools just trying to get some people that will come out and potentially work on the project. So that’s kind of my first step. I am working with a producer. I’ve talked about that a bit, and he’s kind of guiding me through some of these steps in terms of crewing up. Really once I get the rewrite done, that’s when we’re going to really start trying to get this thing, get pre-production rolling and start to really crew up and start to probably look for locations and stuff. So not a lot really other than the rewrites since the last podcast episode. So that’s what I’m working on.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer Steve Cuden. Here is the interview.
Ashley Meyers: Welcome, Steve, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show and talking with me.
Steve Cuden: Well, Ashley, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you could just give us a quick overview of your background, how you got into the entertainment industry.
Steve: Sure. Getting into the industry was from a very early age, I had been involved in the theatre since I was in my early teens. I did a lot of theatre in high school and eventually went off to school and got a degree in theatre. I started at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin but transferred and graduated from USC in Southern California, and from that day on I spent many, many years in Los Angeles working my way up through the industry. It was about twelve or thirteen years out of college before I actually sold my first script though I was writing, and writing, and writing like crazy. It was during that period of time that I was also working with Frank [Inaudible 0:04:31.8] developing the musical that I’m sort of well-known for which is Jekyll and Hyde that was on Broadway twice. Getting into the industry was from a very early age has been in my blood for my entire life.
Ashley: So when you say you were doing theatre at an early age, was that like high school theatre or were you doing professional theatre in your area?
Steve: I was actually involved for two years, my last two years of high school with a—I want to say semi-professional because we’d get paid, but we’d get paid ten dollars so it wasn’t a lot of money, but I was involved in a children’s theatre company here in Pittsburgh where I live now because I grew up in Pittsburgh and was gone from here for a long time. I moved back five years ago to teach. I was involved in about 13 or 14 different shows that were done by this small theatre company that is no longer in existence doing exclusively children’s theatre. It was very much focused on theatre for kids.
Ashley: So when you said out of college you got what sounds like the normal type of starting out jobs working your way up, I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that. Exactly what were these jobs and did they influence your writing or help you actually get that first writing assignment or paid job?
Steve: Sure. You know I think that there isn’t anything that we do as writers, nothing that we do that doesn’t impact our writing in some way. Ultimately I wrote so many episodes of [inaudible 0:06:00.7] and little bits and pieces of your life drift through it. The jobs that I did, I did all kinds of jobs. I worked in a boiler room for awhile. If you know what that is, it’s where you’re selling stuff on telephones back then where you’re a salesman basically. I was a waiter; I did that typical job for awhile. I was the master electrician for the theatre department at USC for a couple of years out of school. I was a lighting designer for a really long time in the theatre for about 12 years. I had a fairly decent reputation as a theatre lighting designer. I worked with some reasonably famous people. I did three shows for John Casavettis and spent some time around him and worked with people like Monte Markham and Donna [Inaudible 0:06:48.2] some fairly decent and well-known people in the industry, and I just did whatever I could to stay alive. That was really the key. It was never easy for a long time. It was ten to twelve years of struggle.
Ashley: During these twelve years of struggle did you know you wanted to be a writer so you were kind of writing on the side or were you still trying to find out where you thought you might fit in?
Steve: My first foray into knowing that I would be a writer was when I was [inaudible 0:07:19.1] I was very fortunate to take two semesters’ worth of play writing classes from a very famous screenwriter/playwright, really most famous as a radio playwright, a gentleman named Norman Corwin. Within the industry if you talk to some of the old-timers in the industry, Norman Corwin was legendary, and I took two semesters of play writing with him at SC and that’s when I knew this was something that I was going to give it my all to do. Did I know I was going to have a career at it, of course not, but that’s what I really focused on at that point? When I first got out there I was thinking I was going to be an actor because I’d done a lot of acting in my early life, and I also had a dream of being a director which is a fairly common dream for a lot of people trying to get into the industry. Ultimately I’ve done a little directing but mostly it’s been writing. I was back then with the two semesters with Normal where I really understood hey, this is something that I like. I’m fairly decent at it, and I’m going to go hard at it.
Ashley: So then let’s talk about sort of your transition then into professional writing. You mentioned Jekyll and Hyde, the musical. Was that something like maybe you could kind of just give us the story of how you got that going and ultimately how you got that produced.
Steve: Sure. It’s a very long story; I’ll do it real briefly for you. Frank Weil, Norman, and I met, Frank Weil who is a fairly well-known at this point, composer for Broadway. He’s had seven or eight shows open on Broadway in the last twenty years, he and I met while I was working as the master electrician at USC, and he had come in as a student and convinced John Hausman who was the artistic director of the school at the time to produce a show that he had written, and because I was the master electrician, I had been out to know Frank a little bit, and we were talking about what it is I wanted to do. I had expressed my desire to be a writer, and we got together and started to work on trying to figure out what to do. He had nothing of any fame at that time obviously; neither did I and we wound up working together for about nine years. We wrote two entirely separate versions of Jekyll and Hyde over the course of about eight years from 1980 to 1988 or so. That was a very important experience for me because I learned an awful lot about how you tell a story, how you adapt a story. Adaptation is a very curious beast in and of itself and so that period of time I wasn’t making a lot of money but I was learning a lot.
Ashley: So then what did you guys do with this script once you had this thing developed? How did you actually go about getting it into production?
Steve: We were fortunate enough to meet [inaudible 0:10:17.9] is retired now but was the owner of the very powerful independent music publishing company called Cherry Lane Music Publishing, and Milt took a shine to what we were doing because we had written the whole show so you could hear the whole thing. Frank and I used to play the whole show. He would play the piano and both of us would sing and perform the parts. Milt started the ball rolling in the late 80’s toward getting us onto Broadway because he thought that there was something there that was worth pursuing. It was in the late 80’s that the show was almost on Broadway in 1988, but unfortunately a few months before we were set to get all of our funding, we had that big stock market crash in October of 1987, and the funding backed away several months shy of us being funded. At that point there was a lot of discussion about how do you take this show forward, and at that time the way that it went is that I was replaced by a very famous person named Wesley Bricas who used to be [inaudible 0:11:28.4] writing partner. They moved forward with the show without me which was something that happens very commonly in the business. We know of lots of writers that get rewritten every day and that’s what happened for me in that particular show. The good news for me was that I still have credits on the show, and I still have a royalty interest in the show. So for me it’s been a great godsend.
Ashley: So let’s talk about then your transition back to TV and film. When you were working in theatre did you ever move out to New York or did you always stay in LA?
Steve: No, I never moved to New York. I always stayed in LA, and Frank and I basically stopped working together in the late 80’s. I then found other things to do pretty rapidly. Fortunately for me I had lots of good friends and still do in the industry, and one of them, a very fine writer named Steve Cistarsik, was working at the time at Disney TV Animation on Winnie the Pooh, and he knew that they were looking for a writer to work on a new show called Bonkers. So he asked was I interested in doing so. I said of course, and that’s when I got my first taste of TV animation writing in the late 80’s or early 90’s, and things grew from there. I spent a good 20 years or more or really 20 to 25 years writing a whole lot of episodes of TV animation. So the transition from theatre to screenwriting was relatively easy once I got there. I took a long time to get there, but the transition was not complicated at all.
Ashley: It almost doesn’t even sound like a transition in that even if Jekyll and Hyde was not going on, you still had these connections and were still pursuing writing so that’s still might have taken off even without Jekyll and Hyde.
Steve: Absolutely correct and Jekyll and Hyde is science fiction and a lot of animation is science fiction-based and so it wasn’t a real challenge for me psychologically to move over into that kind of writing that kind of genre and that sort of topic. Again, all the way back from my high school days when I was working for children’s theatre, there I was writing for children. I had been well-prepared for it.
Ashley: So let’s go ahead and let’s dig into your new book “Beating Hollywood”. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch of the book, kind of the log line if you will for the book.
Steve: Sure. This is a book that’s in two parts. The first half of the book is 150 tips because the subtitle of the book is Tips for Creating Unforgettable Screenplays, Beating Hollywood: Tips for Unforgettable Screenplays. The first half of the book is 150 tips that are really designed to help new writers and professional writers to take their writing to a higher level. It’s everything from character to plot to how to master the craft to making unforgettable scenes, writing unforgettable scenes etc. and 150 fairly easy-to-swallow tips. Then the second half of the book which I think is truly the unique part of the book, I’ve broken down forty classic movies, famous movies from both of The Godfathers, Chinatown, French Connection, Wizard of Oz, and Some Like It Hot, and there are forty very famous movies that I’ve broken down all the way down into their narrative details and plot points that are what I call movements instead of acts because I always think of acts as something that has a curtain, but movies tend not to have curtains. So I’ve put the word movement on acts so that it has more of a symphonic feel to it which is what I think the movie should be felt like as a writer. The thing that I’ve read over 50 books on screenwriting, I never found one that broke a story all the way down to their elemental beats. I’ve seen great books like Save the Cat where you get fifteen beats to look at, but I’ve never seen one that breaks the whole movie down into its elemental beats. So because of that, I decided to write this book because I wanted to see it myself. I think it’s much easier to see the structure of how a whole movie works when you can see the whole movie reflected back in some form of structural breakdown.
Ashley: I’m someone who really learns by example so now I think that’s a great part of your book. So you have your book divided up into sections, and I thought it might be interesting just to run through some of the sections and maybe just give us some of the highlight tips from each section and then people can potentially get the book and learn more. So the first part 1 is mastering the fundamentals. Maybe you can just kind of tell us what are some of these fundamentals that we need to master before writing our script?
Steve: Certainly you need to be able to figure out what it is that you want to write, who you are, what you’re all about. In mastering fundamentals you need to understand what it is to the craft of writing. So you need to understand what a screenplay is. What is a story, that you need conflict, that you need unique characters in relationship to other unique characters in conflict with one another? Those are the kinds of fundamentals that you must master or you’re going to just foil around and not get very far.
Ashley: Do you think that’s a function of reading a lot of scripts, doing a lot of writing on your own or all of the above?
Steve: I think it is a matter of all of the above though I am a firm believer and say in the book mastering the craft is read, read, read. You’ve got to continue to read whether it’s novels or nonfiction, but in particular screenplays. It’s very important for a screenwriter to understand screenwriting. What I have noticed in the last few years is that it’s not the last few years; it’s the whole history of screenwriting. Screenplays have gone from a certain style in the way that they’re written and the way that they look on the page, the actual craft of writing the screenplay to where it’s changed and transitioned, and there has never been a set of rules. There has never been written down anywhere a set of rules. So what you have to master are all the different ways that people conceive of and write screenplays. What I was alluding to a moment ago is I’ve noticed in the last five years that screenplays have transitioned to a simpler style than was there 25-30 years ago where there was sort of a more, almost a rigorous way to write a screenplay. Today there is a looser feel to it, and if you start reading modern screenplays, many of them don’t follow what we think of as traditional screenwriting forms. I’m talking about the craft part of it, the way that the mechanics of the screenplay sets up. Storytelling, that’s been around for 2700 years. That’s also part of the fundamentals. It’s interesting to me as a teacher when I get young students who think they can just abandon the fundamentals of storytelling that have been around since Aristotle talked about [inaudible 0:19:28.5] and that’s a big mistake. We have to Honor and admire and know what a story is. Part of it is that people, audience members I should say, know what a story is. Audience members are master story watchers. You, and me, and everyone who’s watched the hundreds of hours of stories that we’ve all watched are master watchers of stories. We’re a master audience. We don’t necessarily know why something works or doesn’t work and for an audience, they don’t need to know. It’s not important that they know, but it’s important that we as writers know what they will recognize as story. That goes all the way back to Aristotle and the notion of a solid beginning and not starting a story prior to where it begins, not ending it afterwards, and that’s so simple sounding and so hard to get to. That’s part of what young up-and-coming writers sometimes don’t understand at all is that here’s all this stuff that’s gone on for thousands of years, and the movie industry’s been around for over a hundred. This is what they should be studying. This is what they should know so that when they start to write their own thing, they’re not suddenly reinventing the wheel that we already know about. I think that’s the one failing that I see a lot of in young writers is that they haven’t studied what’s come before them.
Ashley: Let’s move into part 3, create unforgettable characters. Maybe you can give us some—I mean that was a great summation of the fundamentals. Maybe you can give us a great couple of tips for creating unforgettable characters. Obviously all of us writers have got to have top-notch characters.
Steve: So I think the key is developing three-dimensional characters so let me hark back to it, another master from the 20th century and that was Lyas Egree who wrote “The Art of Dramatic Writing.” If you, the viewer of this, had never read The Art of Dramatic Writing, I highly recommend you do. It’s a little bit dense to read. It was really written about playwriting. It wasn’t written about screenplays, but those same things apply wholeheartedly. What Egree talked about in the first third of his book which is absolutely essential are the three dimensions of character. So you’ve got physiology, sociology, and psychology, and when you can figure out your characters, especially your protagonist and your antagonist. Then you make your secondary characters. When you understand who those people are—because that’s the way you should think of them as—people. They are characters, and I use the word character frequently, but it really is people you’re developing. When you understand what they look like, what their flaws are, physical flaws, when you understand how they think and when you understand where they come from, you stand a real chance of having a unique three-dimensional character that doesn’t feel cardboard like you’ve ripped a character from somewhere else. When young writers are writing, frequently they will look at modern movies that they admire or whatever, and they’ll look at television shows and they will sort of emulate the characters they see. I think that’s really fine if you’re developing. We’ve seen all the great stories that are ever going to be told. What we really see as audience members, what we really want are really unique three-dimensional characters really having a tussle [inaudible 0:23:18.5] three-dimensional characters, and when you have that you really stand a chance of really having that tension needed in the screenplay so the audience will remain compelled to watch on and on. Without it we get bored real fast. That’s just the way it is. We’ve seen every story that’s ever going to be told; what we look for are sort of the unique settings. We look for unique characters, and they’re still playing unique characters [inaudible 0:23:45.9]
Ashley: Okay, so let’s move into part 6, and that’s where you break the screenplays into your eight chapters. Maybe we can talk about that a little bit. It’s a kind of unique spin. As you mentioned Blake Snyder has his beat sheet, and so you’ve kind of broken it down, but maybe you can kind of just give us an overview of sort of your eight chapters and how that fits into a screenplay.
Steve: The history of movies starts back in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and at that time they barely had enough film stock to make little tiny shorts. Then as time went on and people realized they could make money with these things, they developed multiple one-reelers. Then as both [inaudible 0:24:53.7] and filmmakers started to tell longer stories. They were still writing in these sequences, these blocks. So a movie if you think of them 115 per 120-minute movie, you can break that down fairly easily into eight blocks. So 8 x 15 is 120 minutes. A curious sidebar, most people don’t know that the reason why movies are approximately 120 minutes long is because that’s the approximate length of an average bladder to withstand pressure. If you notice you go to see a three-hour long movie, at some point people start to get up to go to the restroom. They’re not getting popcorn; they’re going to the bathroom, and so movies settled into this 100-120-minute arena. We would have stories that went on for hours and hours and hours. One of the nice things to think about—because I also talk about the seven plot points in my book, and I think the seven plot points are absolutely essential to telling the story, but the seven plot points fit in nicely with these eight sequences. Now they’re never going to be in eight nice neat blocks; they never should be because that’s not what storytelling is. There is no formula to this. There’s only a form. It’s a form I go back and say that we all recognize when we watch a movie and TV show. We recognize that a story goes through a certain gyration from beginning to end that it has ups and downs and highs and lows and that it ultimately winds up in a big climax at the end. So there isn’t this thing called sequencing which I’ve never seen explained in a way that students could truly understand what mean when I say sequences. There are these eight blocks. What are these eight blocks? The eight blocks really you can see them in every single movie that’s in the book in Beating Hollywood, and you can see it pretty much in every successful movie you’ve ever watched, and it starts off where the first sequence is called the rules of the road. This is what I read it, the rules of the road. So it’s like the normal world in plot points. Let’s talk about the seven plot points first because it’s easier to see it that way. So you have in seven plot points a normal world where you set up your story. At some point fairly early on your protagonist needs to have the goal of the movie established and that happens in what we refer to as the inciting incident. So that’s what triggers the protagonist to go after some kind of an objective throughout the whole story. They start to figure out whether they can actually achieve this objective or not, and while they’re doing that, they finally realize yes, he/she must go after their goal. They pass a point of no return, what Joseph Campbell called crossing the threshold, and at that point the character is committed. They can’t go back home again. They have to go forward to try and solve or resolve the goal that was set up in the inciting incident. As they’re moving along, they will get to the fourth plot point which is the midpoint. Many people think that this is the midpoint reversal. I don’t think of it as a midpoint reversal. In my training I learned from some absolutely outstanding teachers at the University of California Los Angeles. I have a degree in screenwriting from UCLA, and they teach at UCLA that it’s not a midpoint reversal per se; it is when the protagonist takes charge of his destiny. So destiny being the protagonist has been beaten up by conflict at every step of the way. They get to the midpoint, and at that juncture, they say to heck with all this stuff I know how to solve my problem. I’m going forward, and it’s right at that moment that the worst of the worst starts to happen for them as the story starts to devolve down to a morass where they can’t get out of it. They get to a point which is the end of the second movement where the first movement was the normal world, the inciting incident, the point of no return, begins your second movement; the midpoint is in the middle of your second movement. The end of your second movement is the big gloom. It’s the low point; it’s the dark night of the soul and the audience recognizes the character, cannot go forward, they’re done; they’re finished, but the protagonist figures one more way to go they know. They think they’ve got one more way to resolve their issue, and off we race into the third movement and the climax of your story. They all know what a climax is; they’re easy to see even if it’s in a drama that has no real great action in it. We all recognize that it’s the big powerful boiling point of the movie, and the protagonist is either able to resolve their goal or not because we don’t have to get to a happy ending in order to get to a resolution. We simply have to resolve what we set up in the inciting incident. That happens after the climax which should result in what I think of as the one-and-only reason why we actually go to movies and that’s to receive a catharsis, a cathartic moment so we sense some kind of emotional release or relief in this catharsis, and that will result in a normal world that’s new, so the new norm. That’s where you get at the very end. So from normal world to new normal you could end in the exact same location but the characters will have grown in some way or changed in some way. That’s the character arc. So I’ve just given you a whole movie in a couple of minutes.
Let’s talk about sequencing and how that fits in. In sequencing you’re now taking these plot points and looking at them slightly differently in these blocks. So in the beginning you have what I call the rules of the road. You’re setting up what the rules of this story are. I like to use an example from the theatre which I always find amusing. If you’re going to go see The Phantom of the Opera and you’re settled in your seat and you’re watching the Phantom of the Opera which takes place in the 1800’s, and suddenly some alien arrives in a space ship, you’re going to be taken out of your story. That violated the rules of the road. So we set up stories in all kinds of different ways, and we must, we’re obliged as writers to stick to the rules that we establish, what I call the sandbox. We’ve all played in sandboxes, and you know that the sand is supposed to be in whatever is the parameters of that box. If you go outside the box there should be no sand out there so you’re no longer in the sandbox. Once we set up the rules of the road, we’ve built our sandbox, and we must stay and adhere to whatever that is. The sandbox can be quite large, and we can go off in lots of places but we have to stay within it. Those are the guidelines.
Television series established sandboxes that goes on for dozens and dozens of episodes; that’s the sandbox of the show. The character must get to a sequence where they have a grand goal established, an inciting incident. It is the grand goal, the overarching goal, the super objective if you will, a phrase coined by Constantine Stanislavsky of the overall goal, the super objective, and as your character, your protagonist establishes how they’re working on this thing, how they’re actually thinking about achieving it, they will eventually walk through into the third sequence which is through a one-way door. So once you’re through that one-way door, much like the point of no return, you cannot go back, and that’s the sequence this one-way door takes you into a new aspect, a new phase, and you’re into the journey for sure. Prior to that point the character could have returned and gone home. Up to that point there are lots of opportunities to turn around, but once they go through the one-way door, there is no turning back. Soon after they pass through the one-way door, your protagonist is going to go seeking how they can get to their goal. So they discover things, what I call the fourth sequence which is great discoveries. They begin to discover this is not possible; this is possible. I can go down this road; I can’t go down this road. They hit all kinds of obstacles and roadblocks. I was trained—and I believe that you must as a writer establish nonstop obstacles to overcome. The definition of conflict is desire plus and obstacle. Conflict equals desire plus and obstacle, and if you continue to establish that from the first moment of your movie all the way through your resolution, you’re going to stand a real good chance of maybe influencing a director, a star to get involved because that has that kind of tension to it. As your protagonist is discovering this, they’re continuing to battle these conflicts; they will ultimately get to a point where they will take charge of their destiny like they say at the midpoint so the fifth sequence is called destiny beckons. So your destiny is on the horizon. I know what I’m going to do; I’m going to take care of this, and I’m going to go very hard down toward what I need to achieve. But they spiral out of control or they don’t always work out the way you want them to, and you go down a rabbit hole with no way out. So that’s the sixth sequence, down a rabbit hole with no apparent way out at all. You’re stuck; you’ve got a problem. Whoops! How am I going to survive this? Then the protagonist realizes that they have a way out so they’re going to go for it hard one last time. So that’s the seven points which I call climb back out of the hole. You can sense that they’re struggling, clawing and working very diligently to get back to where they need to go and ultimately the eighth sequence which takes you into the last sequence which is to find a new home at last. So to me it was easier for me to see the sequences with those titles on them because—it’s like I call them chapters—and it feels more like writing a book than a movie which I find useful when I think about how do I get from point A to point Z.
Ashley: Now I just want to play devil’s advocate. I’m big on structure and so this isn’t necessarily my criticism but you definitely—and I’m sure you hear this. Blake Snyder certainly got a lot of this—what do you say to the people that kind of think these sorts of formulas are kind of too rigid or too formulaic, and how would you respond to somebody that kind of comes at it with that?
Steven: I’m so glad you asked me to address that. There is no formula. This is not rigid at all. This is very malleable. What I will say to you is when you look at any of the forty movies in the book including which I thought was not going to follow it but does, Citizen Kane. I didn’t think Citizen Kane would have this structure to it at all because Citizen Kane goes backwards and forwards in time and does all kinds of fascinating things that keeps it eminently watchable. This is a structure; this is not a rigid formula. What I talk about and what I lecture at school and when I talk about in the book, formula is something that people need in certain instances. So, for instance, if you were an architect and you design a tract housing location, a place for tract houses, you’re going to develop a formula for how those houses look, and you’re going to replicate them. If formula is once you’ve made a movie and you press it into thousands of DVD’s and people watch it thousands of times and it’s the same movie, that’s now a formula. That movie is now a formula; it’s stuck in what it is. This is not a formula. This is a form. This is what I believe in, if you’re a screenwriter, and you ignore the forming that’s been around forever, how audiences recognize how stories are told, if you ignore it you’re going to run a real risk of audiences either being confused, bored—which is to me the number one cardinal sin of screenwriting. Don’t bore them; you can do all kinds of stuff as long as you’re being entertaining, but if you are ignoring this form, you are doing so I believe at your own peril.
There are no rules; I don’t believe there are rules. I think a master storyteller can play with this form pretty hard so you can get a Quentin Terantino to come along and come up with a pulp fiction that really screws around with the form. You can get a Terry Malik to come around and play with the form, but these are masters and they’ve mastered the art. The Cohen Brothers sometimes play with the form though they stick to it pretty hard most of the time. If you look at all these masters, what I find really curious, if you look at every master that we talk about—you can talk about Scorcetti; you can talk about Spielberg. You can talk about all the masters, you can talk about Stanley Cubert, doesn’t matter, you can go anywhere. When you look at the masters, every one of them when they started out, they made movies that followed the form rigidly. Why: Because that’s how we tell stories. Once they understood it, then they started to meld. I think it was Picasso who said when he sculpts in marble—the question was raised to Picasso—when you have a hunk of marble, a plain block of marble, how do you know what to sculpt, and the answer was “I take away everything that doesn’t belong.” Wow! That blows my mind when I read that, and that’s what it is. You’re still telling a story and everything that’s in it must belong. It must be integrated, but there is no formula to it; it’s a form. There’s another way to think of it. We tell each other stories all day long in the same form. We tell each other stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end do we not? If I said to you right now, “Ashley, car, cup, paper, house, you’d go “there’s no format. He’s just giving me a bunch of words, the form is random words, but if I start to tell you a story with those words with a beginning, middle, and an end, you will recognize that I’ve told you a story. That’s what I mean by form. I believe that the eight chapters, the seven plot points, I believe all of these things are tools to help writers understand oh, I see, here’s how we tell stories; here’s how we communicate. Here’s how successfully these have communicated to us and so that you can use the form, not copy it slavishly, use it as a tool to understand how to tell your story in a sequential way that audiences get. Does that seem fair?
Ashley: Absolutely! No, I’m glad we stopped and talked about this. So what was your motivation for writing this book?
Steve: I alluded to sort of my motivation which is I was looking for some book out there that would give me breakdowns of all the movies. That was my main motivation, but I’ve been teaching now for five years. I’ve been a professional screenwriter for more years than I want to tell you, way more than twenty. I’ve been teaching for these five years, and to me I was noticing in the various books that we use—and we used some excellent books at school—that they were sometimes a little dense to get through or sometimes hard to understand. I wanted to give writers something that was—I don’t want to use the word simple but simpler, a little easier to get a handle on. I think that books like Robert [inaudible 0:41:53.7] story is an excellent book. I find it a little academic. I find it a little dense to get through, and students sometimes are not all that interested in that rigor. They want something that’s a little easier to grasp and that was my goal. My goal is to set up a book in which students could just jump in there and start looking at ways to do this. Are there lots of things not in the book? I guess so. You know I don’t really take writers through the virtual mechanics of writing a screenplay. I think that that’s something you can learn as a craft pretty much on your own just by doing it. I think it’s the art part of it. We’re in an art anticraft; the craft is I’ve got a story. How do I put it on paper so that it looks like a script, read like a script, smells like a script so that our story reader looks at it and goes yep, this is a script, and then that’s the writing part of it? I think the art part of it is in the rewriting. I think as artists we become artists, we actually take away the stuff that doesn’t belong in the rewriting. That’s the art. So artists can develop their talent. I don’t think you can buy, rent, or be taught talent. I think you can develop it, and I think a lot of people have talent and they can make it better. The book was designed to take both novices and professionals and give them tools to use while thinking about it. At the end of the tips there are 30 essential questions that I think everybody should follow when they finish writing their script or even while they’re in the middle of writing it and ask themselves those questions because it’s all about character development, about sequencing and plotting, and if you ask yourself those 30 questions as you get to the end of your writing, you are assuredly going to make your story much more readable. After all what are screenwriters writing for? Screenwriters are not writing for an audience are they? Screenwriters are writing for readers. We write to be read. Though we’re not writing to publish, we’re writing for someone to read that will then hopefully envision what we write so that they’ll buy it and make a movie out of it. The ultimate end product is that movie, but as a writer you’re not writing a movie; you’re writing a script. So hopefully that was my goal, to give people tools to improve their work so that hopefully they can sell their own.
Ashley: How can people buy “Beating Hollywood?” It’s available in all of the normal places—Amazon and that kind of stuff. You can buy it paperback and Kindle at Amazon. You can get it at barnesandnoble.com. If you’re in Los Angeles it’s available at The Writers’ Store online and also at Samuel French in Hollywood. It’s also available in New York at the [inaudible 0:45:00.2] Bookshop which is one of my favourite places to go if you’ve never been to the Drama Bookshop in New York, I highly urge you to stop by. It’s a real institution, and so yes, those are the main places that you can find “Beating Hollywood”.
Ashley: I’ll have a link to it in the show notes as well. I just want to mention too, you’re doing a book signing and talk at the writers store on Saturday, May 21 so anybody who’s in the LA area, that is in Burbank, and that is from 3:00 to 5:00 PM and it also says wine and cheese. So if you’re into wine and cheese and screenwriting it sounds like a perfect fit.
Steven: I think we’re going to have a little beer and hopefully a good time so please, if you’re in LA on the 21st of May stop by; we’d love to see you.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect! I always like to just end the interviews by asking how people can kind of keep up with what you’re doing. If you’re on Twitter, mention your Twitter handle, really anything you feel comfortable sharing—Facebook or a blog or anything.
Steve: I’m @stevecuden on Twitter. You can find me, just search Steve Cuden on Facebook and also I have www.beatinghollywood.com. You can also look at what I’ve done at stevecuden.com as well. So there are lots of ways to get in touch with me, and if you have a question as you’re reading the book or if you’re looking for any kind of consultation I am available for that too. You can reach me through either of those websites or any of those ways to get hold of me.
Ashley: Perfect. I will round up all those links; I’ll put those in the show notes so people have those as well, and I really appreciate you coming on the show, an excellent interview. I really learned a lot so I know the audience will as well.
Steve: Thank you. It was really a great pleasure, and write well out there. That’s what I say, write well.
Ashley: For sure. Thank you, Steve; we’ll talk to you later.
Steve: Thanks so much.
I just want to mention two things I’m doing at Selling Your Screenplay to help screenwriters find producers who are looking for material. First, I’ve created a monthly newsletter that will be sent directly to producers. Every member of Sys Select can submit one log line per newsletter. I went and emailed my large database of producers and asked them if they would like to receive this monthly newsletter of pitches. So far I’ve well over 250 producers who have signed up to receive it. These producers are hungry for material and happy to read scripts from new writers. So if you want to participate in this pitch newsletter and get your script into the hands of lots of producers, sign up at sellingyourscreenplay.com/select or you can go to sellingyourscreenplayselect.com. I also have that domain name, sellingyourscreenplayselect.com or you can go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
Secondarily, I have partnered with one of the premiere 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 I’ve been getting ten to twelve high-quality leads per week. These are producers and production companies who are actively looking to buy material or are looking to hire a screenwriter for a specific project. You sign up for Sys Select, you will get these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. These leads run the gamut from production companies looking for a specific type of spec script to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas. There are shorts, features, there are producers looking for TV series and web series. It’s a huge array of different types of projects that these producers are looking for, and these leads are exclusive to our partner and Sys Select members. Again, to sign up go to sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
I recently set up a success stories page for people who have had success through the various Sys Select services. So if you want to check out what other people are saying about some of our services, just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/success.
In the next episode of the podcast, I’m going to be interviewing Anna Axter who wrote and directed a film called A Country Called Home. She raised—and her production team raised over a hundred thousand dollars on Kick-Starter so we talk through how she did that, and we also talk about her career starting out as a writer/director and kind of how she worked her way up. So keep an eye out for that episode next week.
So to wrap things up, I just want to touch on one small point from today’s interview with Steve. This podcast is called Selling Your Screenplay so that’s usually where I try and spend a lot of my time with these interviews and the content that I produce for Selling Your Screenplay. I really think there’s a ton of great material out there on how to write, and Steve’s book is part of that cannon of work. There is a lot of stuff out there on the craft of screenwriting, and so I tried to make my blog and podcast sort of more about the sales and marketing, but I do think it is good to just stop and take some time to think about craft. Ultimately what I’m trying to do is help screenwriters market and sell their screenplays. The better your screenplay is, the more time you spend on craft, the better off you’re going to be, the more chance of any of these methods I talk about on my podcast, the better chance you’re going to have with any of them if your screenplay is better. So hopefully you got a little bit of value. I hope you got some valuable information out of this. I really like screenwriting books. I know there’s sort of a whole group of people that don’t like screenwriting books. They kind of bash them; they kind of think they’re a waste of time and money, but most of these screenwriting books—I include Steve’s in this. Save the Cat is another one that I mentioned often, [inaudible 0:50:30.0] I mean these are books that most screenwriters have read, and you should probably be educated on as well, Robert McKee’s I think is called Story. You know I went to one of his seminars, and he just has a lot of interesting things to say. I mean these are really smart people that have really studied the craft of screenwriting and storytelling. I think there is something to be gained from them. They’re not usually difficult to read. They’re usually pretty quick reads. So if you like some of the stuff that Steve was talking about in this definitely check out his book. I recommend it; it’s a great approach and exactly what he says, he kind of shows you sort of his methodology and then he actually takes and applies it to some movies that most of us will be very familiar with. So to me that’s a great way of teaching.
Blake Snyder does something similar, but his is in two different books. He has Save the Cat and has Save The Cat goes to the movies which is sort of similar but it’s obviously in two books, not just one book but it’s the same kind of thing. Again, if you thought Steve has some interesting things to say, definitely do check out this book. Again, you can’t underestimate the value of having a really good screenplay and how much easier it’s going to make it to actually sell it.
So anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.