This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 385: With Writer/Author Erik Bork.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #385 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer and producer Erik Bork. He’s been on the show before on episodes #82 and #245, so do check out those episodes if you wanna learn a bit more about his background. Erik was a writer on the HBO series Band of Brothers, and he’s worked, has been involved in a number of other TV and film projects. He wrote a book that focuses on the premise and concept of the screenplay, and he’s created a course to go along with that book. So he’s coming on today to talk about this new screenwriting course, and of course he’s got a number of great tips for us to help us make sure that our concepts are stronger.
So stay tuned for that interview. Just a quick reminder, SYS’s six figure screenplay contest is open for submissions. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. The final deadline is July 31st, so if you have a script ready, definitely submit as soon as possible. We are defining low budget screenplays as less than $1 million, in other words, six figures or less. For the short films that we’re accepting, we’re kind of defining those as something that can be produced for $10,000 or less. This year, we have a number of industry judges that we’ve added to our panel. Definitely check those out. You can go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest, and we listed all of our industry judges there. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, or perhaps even enter, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest.
If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast. So they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode 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/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #385. If you want my free guide, How to Sell a Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by gonna www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks, along with a whole bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter, and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer, Erik Bork. Here’s the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Erik, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Erik: It’s always a pleasure to be with you, Ashley. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: So, you’ve been on the show twice before, Episode #82 and Episode #245. Episode #82, we talked a lot about the early stages of your career, kind of how you got into the business, some of your first credits, and then on Episode #245, we talked a lot about your book. So I would encourage people to check those episodes out if they kind of wanna get a little backstory about you. But today we’re gonna talk about this new screenwriting course that you’re launching, and I guess it’s kind of based on your book. So maybe we kind of set the stage for that. Maybe give us a pitch or a log line. What is your book all about, and then how did you ultimately sort of turn that into a screenwriting course?
Erik: Yeah, so the book came out like two and a half years ago. It’s called The Idea. The subtitle is, The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen Stage or Fiction. Hey, I have a copy right here.
Ashley: There you go.
Erik: So it’s set on paperback, Kindle, audio book, et cetera. And it’s been, it’s successful. I’ve been very happy with it. And it’s unique proposition I guess is that, is the thing that I’ve found in my career, both as a professional writer and as a coach and a mentor and a professor of writing, the big thing I feel, is that writers tend to jump too quickly into writing a story or even structuring a story before making sure the idea is really solid and viable to begin with. It’s harder than it looks. It takes more work than it’s seems like it should, and it doesn’t feel like real writing. But getting the idea right, in my view is like 60 percent of what’s gonna determine if a project is gonna be successful or not. And when I read a script, 95 percent of my most important notes are notes I would have had on the original pitch. If they’d given me a single page synopsis or a logline, five minute pitch before they spend all those months and years writing the script.
And so, my big thing is all of us writers should slow down and really work on getting the idea right to begin with. And I’ve kind of codified what I think are the elements of a viable idea. And in the book, it’s this fun acronym of problem, because every story idea is really about a problem that needs to be solved, right? So P-R-O-B-L-E-M. Each of those seven things stand for something- Punishing, Relatable, Original, Believable, Life-altering, Entertaining, and Meaningful. In the book I take you through what I mean by all that, and so the new course is basically a way to help writers immerse themselves more deeply in this material. And I’ve broken down each of those seven, into five lessons, where I give a five minute video on the lesson and there’s these activities I take you through, where I’m really asking you to really ask yourself honestly, does my idea or my project that I’m writing or rewriting, does it kind of meet that criteria?
So those are big 35 things, five times seven, right? So with each one of those, you’re asked to look at movies on a master movie list and sort of analyze a little bit, well, how do those movies handle this thing he’s talking about? And then how does my idea handle it? So there’s like some rigorous self-assessment involved using like very specific criteria, the goal being at the end, if you’ve really worked your idea so that if you felt you were falling short on any of these, you work to make it better, by the end, you’re gonna have something that’s much more solid and you’ll have this document we call The Idea document, where you’ve kind of answered these questions in prose form, and you have a bit of a pitch for your movie right there in front of you, that kind of handles all of these seven elements.
Ashley: Okay, and we’ll jump back to that because I’ve got some follow-up questions on some of the stuff you said there. I’d be curious just to run through some of the logistics, just so people understand how it works. You said it was online, you’ve got a bunch of video modules. So anybody in the world can potentially take this as long as they have a computer internet connection. Is there some sort of a timeframe, like one lesson per week, so you use it like a 30 day course? Is there… and what sort of time commitment do people need to sign up for this? How much time are they gonna have to commit to it?
Erik: So it’s a self-paced thing and it depends on the individual, how much time they’re gonna spend on it. If you decide to watch movies fresh, movies from the movie list in order to really analyze them, to answer the questions about existing movies, that would add to the time that it might take, because how many movies can you watch fresh in a given week? The material itself, it could take, I mean, I think we’re gonna give students a one-year access. And then there’s a workbook, it’s like a hundred page plus workbook that they’ll have permanently. That’s just like a Google doc that they’re gonna fill stuff in on. But the access to the videos would be like cut through the year, I believe. And these… the time it would take to get through it, I mean, you could spend a week on each lesson, that’d be 35 weeks. That’s like eight months.
Or you could probably do it much faster, especially if you weren’t trying to watch each of these movies fresh, and you were just going by your own memory or even if you like skipped that part of the activity and just jump right into, well, here’s my own idea, and how does my own idea handle this. If someone was really ambitious, they could probably do one of these lessons a day or even a couple of day and get through it in a month, although I would probably suggest taking a bit more time than that. There will also be an option for group coaching, where people actively taking the class… because I’m gonna do the classic in cohorts. It’s not gonna be just a constantly available thing. There’s gonna be a launch in June. By the time people hear this, the launch may have already happened.
We’ll see where people can sign up for a limited amount of time, and then they have access for a year from there, and there’ll be a monthly group coaching call, where I’ll be live and students can come in with their ideas, their questions, loglines et cetera, and I’ll answer and give feedback.
Ashley: Got you. Who do you think this is designed mostly for? Experienced writers, intermediate, beginning writers, who could get the most value out of this?
Erik: I mean, it might sound like a cop out, but I really do believe it’s kind of all of the above. I mean, the clients that I have as a consultant, people I’ve worked with are at all levels. And I have writers who have sold scripts and have big managers and agents. I have clients who it’s the first thing they’ve ever tried to write and everywhere in between. Graham Yost, who was a friend who was the creator of Justified, and worked on The Americans as an executive producer, et cetera. He did a quote for the back of the book and said that he was working on something when he read the book to give a quote for me, and he found it helped him with his thing he was writing [laughs]. So if Graham feels that way, then I guess it’s helpful for anyone at any level. And because it’s kind of the basics of what makes a good idea, but it really goes into depth on each of those basics.
I think it’s easy for anyone to understand these things when they’re taught them or when they read the book, but not so easy to execute effectively and to really internalize. And it’s kind of something to come back to and be reminded of, I think, as you’re generating an idea for anything, what those elements are.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. I wonder if we could get into that a little bit and talk some real specifics with some examples. Is there a recent movie or TV show that you thought really had an excellent premise and you can kind of point to some things that are really strong about the premise? And then the flip side, was there a TV show or movie that’s come out in the last year or two that you thought you kind of looked at it through this lens and said, they actually have some premise problems?
Erik: That’s a good question. I mean, I have a list of sixty-some movie examples I use in the course, and I come back to each of those over and over again. They’re titles that are very familiar to pretty much everyone. Most of them aren’t from the last couple of years. So I’m a little hard-pressed, maybe something will come to me as we talk, but to come with something very recent. But if you go back over the last like 20 years, then there’s a lot of titles. I mean, one title that keeps coming up a lot, couple Erin Brockovich and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, come up a lot in that they handle a lot of these things in a very clear way. And most people have seen them and you can point to very easily how they, punishing, relatable, original, all these things, these seven elements. I think most successful well-regarded movies pretty much do.
But the same thing, I’m gonna punt a little bit on the one that doesn’t as well. Again, I might think of something, but different movies emphasize more of these elements more than the others.
Ashley: Yeah. And are there any examples of shows or movies that have been successful where the premise wasn’t all that great? Does it ever happen the other way? And I ask this because as screenwriters, we always, there’s always that thing, oh, you can never make a good movie without a good script. And I don’t know that that’s true. And I do think there are some examples, that movie, I actually don’t think that’s a screenplay that you could submit anywhere and anybody would really look and think, “Oh, this is a fantastic script.” I think the movie was better than the script. And every now and then I’ll see a movie like that, where I think the script was okay, but the movie was actually excellent. And sometimes there’re things but are there examples?
Erik: I mean, it sounds like you could point to some examples better than I can. I don’t know that I’m of the same mindset about that. I mean, maybe because I’m a writer, I’m biased. I was not a fan of Drive, like on a script level and it made me not wanna stay with the movie. So for me, I don’t care what all the other elements are that are being done at a high level. If I’m not engaged by the story and characters on a script level, usually I’m out. Not everybody’s like me, I recognize that. But there is a saying I would hear in the industry sometimes, which was… what was it? It was “Good script, bad director, good movie. Bad script, good director, bad movie”. Meaning the script was more important than the director. I’m biased in favor of that. And this was from a producer, this wasn’t from a writer who said that. A producer that I work with on a lot of big stuff.
And so, it depends on what you think makes something good. What is in the entertainment experience for you? I mean, spectacle can go a long way for some viewers, and if you’re watching like Transformers or something, you may not care about the script. I mean, it may… I mean, I haven’t read the script or even probably seen the movie, but I think there are some that get away with, like one of my seven elements being really over-index like entertainment, for instance, in that one. It may not be so meaningful, it may not be so some of the other things, but if it’s super entertaining for instance, you can get by. So a slightly different question from is the premise important, to is the script important? Those are kind of two different things, right?
Because you can have a great script with a premise that’s maybe a little bit hard to pitch, or wouldn’t be obvious from a log line or a short statement, how great that is, but the script executes it really well. Then you can have a movie like you’re saying, that doesn’t have a great script, but it’s still a quality movie in other ways. So I don’t wanna conflate those two. I kind of answered the second version of that. The first version is a slightly different thing, I think. I’m not so much someone who’s saying every good movie ever had a killer log line, but if you just read the log line, you’d be like, “Oh my God!” I’m not saying that at all. But I’m saying the elements underlying an idea that would be in your one-page synopsis or your pitch of the movie are probably very solid. And that’s really what I’m looking at teaching more than just like the quick logline.
Although that is something I’m also teaching, log lines and what goes into those. In fact, I have a free mini course on log lines. It gives people a sample. Log lines and the basic elements that should be in one, that gives people a sample of lessons from the course that if they watch that, then they’ll kind of see what the course is like, and of course is a much bigger thing beyond that.
Ashley: Yeah. And I’m curious, you’re sort of touching up against it, the idea of high concept. If you have a high concept premise, does it always meet all of these criteria? And the reverse question to that is, if it’s not at least a little bit high concept, can it ever meet all of these seven criteria?
Erik: For me, the seven criteria don’t require “high concept”. I mean, high concept to me is like something you could pitch in a couple of sentences, that has such kind of a cool, intriguing, sometimes a little bit fantastical idea that you’re just like, “Oh my God, that’s a great idea for a movie.” It stretches things a little and it just feels like pregnant with possibilities and clearly entertaining. So I think that the best high concept movies generally do, or high concept premises generally do cover the seven elements I talk about, but you can cover the seven elements and not be something people would look at and say, “Oh, that’s so high concept.” High concept is a lot about originality I think, and having a kind of unique twist or unique circumstance or situation at the center of the movie that’s really attention getting, and the best movies don’t necessarily have that, although it doesn’t hurt.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. So let’s just talk a minute about sort of this cottage industry that has sprouted up over the years for aspiring screenwriters and you and I are both a part of it. Certainly Selling Your Screenplay is not ashamed of selling services. I sell tons of services to screenwriters. And maybe you can give us your thoughts a little bit about that. I know there’s always a little bit of pushback, courses, books, contests. Anything screenwriters have to pay money for, there’s always a little bit of pushback, like, oh, you can get that free on the internet or do you have to pay for access and stuff? And just, what are some of your thoughts on, should screen writers spend money, and what should screenwriters spend money on, if you think that they should?
Erik: I mean, I think there’s a few different things people can spend money on. One is on access to the industry, which isn’t something I really do at all. One is kind of feedback, just plain old feedback or feedback slash rankings like you’d have in contests. The other would be more of the kind of the educational side. And that’s I guess what I see myself as doing. I mean, I teach in an MFA program in screenwriting, I was a film student. I’m always, been a searcher of knowledge about this craft that I’ve been doing for like 30 years now. I always feel like there’s more to grow and more to learn. And so to me, it’s hard to do it really well. It’s hard to do it at a professional level, right? We all know it’s rare the number of people that do it at a professional level. So I see it as something that requires quite a bit of education and training and feedback and study and devotion.
And so how do you do that? Is it possible to do it completely on your own where all you’re doing is reading articles online and watching movies and reverse engineering and reading scripts? I think it is possible. Do I think you tend to learn and progress faster if you have help and actual teaching as opposed to, I’m just reading articles? I think, yes. I mean, I certainly benefited from teachers and courses that I took over the years. So to me it’s mainly educational. Like when someone hires me to read their script and give feedback, most of my feedback is really an educational communication, where I’m sort of communicating what I think you need for something to work, and here’s how I felt yours did or didn’t do that. And so a lot of times the writer’s like, “Oh, that thing you communicated that was educational, I wasn’t aware of, or I wasn’t necessarily trying to do, because I wasn’t aware that you should do that.”
So a lot of it is about learning what makes something work. That’s my big thing. What makes things that are good and successful work? Sort of tearing that apart and being able to apply that knowledge. So I guess if people are paying, they’re paying for an education like they would pay if they were in an MFA program, or it’s kind of like having an independent study with a professor in a way of like, here’s work, what do you think. Teach me some things about this. I’ll learn them and try to apply them to what I’m writing. And my best clients these days, most of my clients are people that I have an ongoing thing with, where I’m helping them as they develop their story, as opposed to just reading a script and giving them feedback and then it’s done. As for contests, I think contests… kind of it’s gonna be helpful to see like where you’re at. Like how is your work stacking up?
I also think coverage services like Spec Scout, I kind of like for that, where people kind of evaluate your script and you can kind of put a numerical ranking to that, or I’m in the quarter-finals or semi-finals or whatever. The feedback you get from such places, I don’t know how valuable that is on the kind of educational side, but certainly, we all want encouragement. We all want a sense of, “Hey, I got this far with this script or this draft and I did the last one, so great.” But how much do contests really help somebody’s career? I would say you have to finish really highly in one of the like 10 or so ones that really matter for it to really significantly help your chances. So beyond that, one could argue, how much is it worth the money? I’m not against them, but I think there’s so many of them and it depends on what you’re getting.
Are you getting feedback that’s really helpful? And if you do really well, what’s gonna happen? Obviously, you have to always look at what are the prizes, how much am I spending? What do I get out of it? If I don’t finish that well, will I feel like I’ve wasted money? I mean, it’s always gonna be a question anyone’s gonna have on any given contest.
Ashley: Yeah. Sound advice for sure. For sure. So what’s next for you? As you wrap this course up, what are you working on?
Erik: Well, I’ve got a bunch of scripts that I’m… I’m basically raising money to make indie features to write and direct. That’s kind of like the next act in my career as a writer. So I’ve been for the last few years, kind of generating a lot of material. I have several kind of micro budget features that I’m kind of circling which one to do first, and financing options and stuff for those continuing to teach and continuing to do kind of consulting and coaching for writers through my website and blog that people can look at to find out more.
Ashley: Perfect. Perfect. And you said the course launches in June, although it sounds like there’s still some debate on when the actual date will be?
Erik: Yeah. By the time this comes out to the world, I imagine it will already be launched, but we’re in the kind of final throws right now. It’s like mid-May as we record this, of finishing up. So we haven’t finalized the launch date of it yet.
Ashley: Got you. And how can people find the course when it is available?
Erik: So my website, which is called www.flyingwrestler.com, I know it’s a weird title- Flying Wrestler, or if you could just google my name, Erik Bork, you’ll find that site right away. It will be very obvious on the homepage there what the course is, and how to learn more.
Ashley: Perfect. And we’ll link to it in the show notes, so people can just find this page and just click on over to it. And that’s a good question. What is the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Do you use Twitter, Facebook? Obviously we’ll include Flying Wrestler in there, but anything else you use, we’ll round up for the show notes too.
Erik: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, some Instagram, but really the other web, the website addresses is probably the main way, because that links to all my social media as well.
Ashley: Got you. Well, good luck with this, Erik. I appreciate you coming on the show with me today. Good luck with this launch and good luck with the course.
Erik: Thanks Ashley. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: Thank you.
Erik: Bye, everybody.
Ashley: A quick plug for the SYS Screenwriting Analysis Service. It’s a really economical way to get a high-quality professional evaluation on your screenplay. When you buy our three pack, you get evaluations at just $67 per script for feature films and just $55 for teleplays. All the readers have professional experience reading for studios, production companies, contests and agencies. You can read a short bio on each reader on our website and you can pick the reader who you think is the best fit for your script. Turnaround time is usually just a few days but rarely more than a week. The readers will evaluate your script on six key factors- concept, character, structure and marketability, tone and overall craft, which includes formatting, spelling and grammar.
Every script will get a grade of pass, consider or recommend, which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We can provide an analysis on features or television scripts. We also do proofreading without any analysis. We will also look at a treatment or outline and give you the same analysis on it. So if you’re looking to vet some of your project ideas, this is a great way to do it. We will also write your logline and synopsis for you. You can add this logline and synopsis writing service to an analysis or you can simply purchase this service as a standalone product.
As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers, you get to list the screenplay in the SYS Select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS Select program. Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis, so it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly Best Of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service.
This is monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material, so again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants. On the next episode of podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing writer and director Marcelo Grion, who just completed a Sci-Fi film called Prototype. It’s a big Sci-Fi film with lots of special effects, and he did it all without a background in special effects. It took him I think, close to 20 years to complete this project. It’s really an incredible story of just hard work and determination. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s our show. Thank you for listening.