Craig Chester is a screenwriter, author and TV writer. His first book, “Why The Long Face?” was published by St. Martins Press. He has written screenplays for Fox Searchlight and wrote and directed the comedy “Adam & Steve”. In television, he has sold 4 pilots pilots to Showtime, NBC, E! and recently wrote on HBO’s “True Blood”.
Wayne Powers is no stranger to success in the film and television industry with 11 sold TV pilots, 8 movie scripts and 3 rewritten films. He wrote the blockbuster hits The Italian Job and Deep Blue Sea. He is also a creator, director, writer and executive producer for the Emmy-Nominated mini-series Out of Order on Showtime. Wayne Powers got his start from the show Cagney & Lacey which won multiple Primetime Emmys.
We were lucky enough to get an interview with Wayne Powers who took time out of his busy schedule to share how he broke intothe industry and give aspiring screenwriters some heartfelt advice. Even better, Wayne is teaching three classes that will give you the knowledge to help you write the perfect scene (Scene Writing Clinic), use action to further your story (Action Scenes) and develop an amazing movie script with Wayne’s help and learn something new about screenwriting craft every session through film clips and lectures in his Screenwriting Bootcamp. For now, let’s have a chat with Wayne…
1. Tell us a bit about yourself, how you became a writer, and how you got into the industry.
I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire not knowing anybody in the business, but knowing that I would go to California and go to film school. I went to USC from school, getting in after four tries and worked very hard earning a student Emmy. I took a year to complete a screenplay that I started in college. That screenplay got me a lawyer, an agent, and then my first job writing a TV movie for ABC.
2. Do you find that it’s harder to write a project along with other writers? Does it serve as an ego check at times? Or does it limit your creative process?
It’s easier to collaborate if it’s with the right people. I enjoy working with people that are upbeat and don’t just come up with problems, but rather solutions.
3. You have written the blockbuster The Italian Job and have sold multiple movies and TV pilots. What do you think the key is to writing a script that the studios or networks want to buy? Is your approach to writing blockbusters such as The Italian Job different than writing smaller projects?
I see about 100 movies a year which is important. It’s important that you listen to your executives and not consider them the enemy. They all want the same thing: to get the movie made.
In a smaller film, you have to be realistic about how many sets and the overall budget can handle. On a smaller budget, keep the length shorter, but make sure every scene is essential. You take more chances in smaller films than you need to with more mainstream with bigger. In bigger films you can hide your themes, but they can still be there.
4. For The Italian Job, you not only had to reintroduce the movie, you had to make the heist genre fresh again. How did you approach the genre as a whole? Did you have to do research prior to writing?
I studied every important heist movie going back to Kubrick. I wanted the script to be breezy and fun. I did research into the Mini Coopers, which had not been reintroduced in America yet. I also researched safecracking, the weight of gold, The Venice Canals, etc.
5. Do you have any advice for new screenwriters?
Spend a lot of time on your spec script. Work until you are sick of it and can no longer work on it. This is a much better idea than having five screenplays that are not fully put together. Write to your own voice and don’t try to copy whatever is currently in vogue; by the time you finish your script, it’s likely not to be anyway.
6. You are teaching a Scene Writing, Action Scene and a Screenwriting Bootcamp class. What can students expect to learn in your class?
In the scene writing class, we will go over what needs to go into a scene, with its relationship to the sequence it needs to fill, plus how to find an approach to that scene that makes it different from your typical one.
In the actions scene class, we will go over how action is character, how an action scene fits into an overall sequence, then into the overall act. We will also go over the style of writing that is so important in action scenes.
In the Screenwriting Bootcamp, we’ll go over ingredients of a theme, the pieces that go into sequences, structure, what makes a strong main character. The different types of supporting characters, paradoxes, style and more.
7. What is your favorite TV show that you are currently watching and why is it your favorite?
My favorite TV shows of all time were Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere because they made me want to write television and made it not feel inferior to film writing.
Shows that I watch that come out of that tradition include The Sopranos, Deadwood, Veep, Mad Men, Transparent, etc. There is simply too much excellent TV out there to watch it all.
Thanks, Wayne. That was fascinating!
Thinking of writing flash fiction? Writing Padder and Flash Fiction Writer Tammy Delatorre recently wrote and workshopped her flash fiction piece, “Scar Girl,” at the Writing Pad. A few weeks later, she got this piece published on The Molotov Cocktail. Read an interview with Tammy below, conducted by Rutgers University student Nikhila Manchikanti. Nikhila asks Tammy about her inspiration for “Scar Girl” and why she writes flash fiction.
You too can hone your short story chops like Tammy by taking Matthew Specktor’s Flash Fiction Workshop at Writing Pad on June 23.
What was your inspiration for writing this story?
I actually included the inspiration for “Scar Girl” in the story. I was watching Shark Week, an episode called the “Great White Highway” on Discovery Channel. I learned about a female shark the marine biologists had digitally tagged off the coast of California, and whom they called Scar Girl. The image of her stuck in my mind, as well as the idea that a shark’s sexual nature is violent. I imagined what the male sharks did to her in order for her to earn that moniker. The scientists tracked her, and it seemed she went back every year to the same place to mate. It struck a primal place in me. Then I imagined a woman who might see herself as Scar Girl, and I wondered what that woman would be like.
Describe the process of getting it published.
I actually saw that documentary in 2013. I wrote about it in my journal, but I immediately saw the potential for a story, because I was infatuated with her. I input the journal entry into my computer and continued to tinker with it for a couple years until I could imagine a woman who might see herself as Scar Girl. I knew what she did on the weekends, how she liked water. I was having trouble with it, so I brought it to DC Pierson’s workshop at the Writing Pad. After that, I felt pretty happy with it and sent it out to a couple publications. The Molotov Cocktail was the first to get back to me, and I personally love the work they publish so I was thrilled to have it published there.
How did you first get interested in writing flash fiction, and is it your preferred form?
I love reading flash fiction, and so it followed that I wanted to give it a try. I had spent several years writing a draft of a novel, which didn’t get published and I didn’t know how to fix it, so I thought if I kept writing, I’d eventually figure out what I needed to do. But at the time, I wanted to do something different, not a novel, the antithesis of a novel. So I started writing micro-fiction, challenging myself to write a 250-word story each week for about 10 weeks. I guess I had a knack for it because around that time, I wrote a flash fiction called, “Gifts from My Mother,” which won the River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest. I was awarded $1500 and a case of beer. I was amazed that I could earn so much money for such a short story.
What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of flash fiction as a form?
The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson had this idea of a “decisive moment,” which he tried to capture in his photographs, when the organization of forms create and express what I think of as the story in his photos. I try to think of flash fiction as having a decisive moment, and try to use the form to flash upon a moment that reflects a rather complex character and emotional life. That’s the beautiful advantage of the form. The disadvantage is it’s deceptively hard to do. There have been many pieces, like “Scar Girl,” that I’ve worked on for a couple years, while there’ve been other pieces that I’ve written pretty much in full form in one sitting. “Gifts from My Mother” was written in about 20 minutes, during a class taught by Judy Reeves, who was also a teacher at the Writing Pad.
Do you think that the growing popularity of flash fiction has any correlation with the shift from print to digital media?
Yes, I love the evolving nature of storytelling. Some people try to write stories the length of a text message. Other people write books on their cell phones. I’ve also seen the use of Facebook posts in stories, so sure, I think the two—digital media and storytelling—are evolving and continue to influence one another. They say our attention spans are decreasing and all that; but in the end, the concept of storytelling endures no matter the form. Long form still persists. Think about petroglyphs. Those storytellers had rock surfaces and some type of instrument to scratch out stories. They might have wondered, do you think this paper thing is going to change things? Sure, it did. Things shift, and that’s exciting.
What are the challenges of writing flash fiction?
As I said before, the challenge is it’s harder than it looks. I’ve read a lot of flash fiction, and to me, my favorite stories focus in on a moment, which reflects a broader understanding of the character. Flash fiction should have sensory detail. It should include as many of the elements of storytelling as possible.
If you’re writing a novel, it’s intuitive that you’re going to have to spend some time creating and getting to know a character. But because flash fiction has fewer words, it seems as if it should be easier to write. I think there are times when writers might sit down and blast out a flash fiction in almost complete form in their first attempt. I’ve done it, but those instances have only been successful for me, when I’ve been carrying those characters around for a long time, perhaps in my memory or in association with another story I worked on.
I personally love sharks, which is why this piece appealed to me. Why did you choose sharks and how did it relate to the story?
I’m originally from Hawaii, so sharks have been a real—and ongoing fear—for me. My family spent a lot of time in the water, swimming and fishing. We saw sharks, and I definitely have contemplated how unfortunate it would be to fall victim to the food chain, and wouldn’t it hurt to be bitten and torn apart. Today, I live in Hermosa Beach. There was a recent shark attack not far from here, which I mentioned in the story. I paddleboard. I snorkel and scuba dive. I worry about running into sharks. They get hungry.
Don’t forget to check out Writing Pad’s Flash Fiction Workshop with Mark Specktor on June 23
By Marilyn Friedman
When it comes to screenwriting, Mike Ellis has done it all. He has sold five pilots to ABC, FOX and the CW, including two this year: AMERICAN MARRIAGE, a drama with Ellen Pompeo (ABC) and a comedy, MARSHA GOES TO JAIL, with FOX’s Adam Shankman. He also co-wrote THE WEDDING PLANNER, starring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey and has sold movies and projects to Disney, DreamWorks, Working Title, Revolution Studios, Warner Brothers, Sky Dance Pictures and Universal, amongst others. He also was a consulting producer on the ABC show JAKE IN PROGRESS.
Mike took some time out of his busy schedule to share how he broke into the business and give you aspiring screenwriters some great advice. Lucky for us, he will be teaching a “So You Want To Be A TV Writer” (7 Wk) workshop at Writing Pad that will teach you everything you need to know about TV writing fundamentals and crafting a great TV series. In his class, he will also help you work on one of your pilot ideas. But until then, here’s a little bit about Mike.
1) Tell us a little about your background, how you became a writer, and how you broke into the industry.
When I was six, my dad took me to see City Lights at a revival house. It hit me at a very gut level. I loved that it was so funny and also made me cry. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I was able to really take so much of the emotions and drama in. When we walked out, I told my dad I wanted to write silent movies. He told me they didn’t make silent movies anymore, so I settled on writing talkies. And that set me on the road – I never wavered from that dream.
I got my film degree at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and that’s where I first met my writing partner, Pam Falk. She couldn’t figure out how to make the class schedule, so she copied mine and we ended up in all the same classes together. We became best friends. After I got into AFI for grad school, we drove cross country together and that’s when we started to write our first script together. We landed our first agent with that script and we thought we had it made. Little did we know, having agent was only a baby step to achieving our goal – the next five years was an odyssey of us trying to figure out how to navigate working together and how to knock down the the Hollywood gate.
During those five years, we wrote in every genre – horror, mob comedy, family comedy, animation, fantasy, talking pickle movie – you name it. We kept getting different agents and when our specs didn’t sell, they would drop us. Finally, we were about to quit when we said, lets write one more script. We really thought about what are favorite movies were and at the time we were obsessed with MOONSTRUCK and WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING. So we wrote a romantic comedy set in an Italian restaurant where one of the lead characters has a big secret. We asked a friend at a production company to help us. She read it and loved it, gave it to her boss, who loved it and gave it to an agent. Very quickly that agent sold it to Disney. That was our first sale. It’s very important to never be afraid to ask for help.
2) You wrote the box office success THE WEDDING PLANNER with Jennifer Lopez and Mathew McConaughey and have sold multiple movie pitches and TV pilots to almost every major studio. What do you think the key is to writing a script that the studios or networks want to buy?
Two things. Write things that you would pay money to see and write things that have a hook. Meaning, if you can’t figure out an elevator pitch (you can describe your story in the time it takes an elevator to go down 10 floors) for your project, then it’s probably not something the studios or networks would be interested in at first blanch. Which means this particular story is either a non-studio idea, an execution piece or isn’t really a solid idea.
3) And how do you write a script that is appealing to big stars?
All the projects I’ve worked on that have attracted big stars like Sandra Bullock, Vin Diesel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Alba to name a few, had two things in common – big movie star roles and stories with clear, emotional character arcs. This means you have to give them scenes that let them show off their acting chops and perhaps lets them do something they haven’t done in any other role yet. Then, you have to find a great journey for them to go on. How do they change from the start to finish? What is your character missing at the start that they try to get by the end? Is there a satisfying or heartbreaking end to the story you have set up? Nothing gets actors excited more than going on a wild, emotional ride.
4) What are your thoughts on the state of TV and film, and where do you see each going?
Film is going into two very distinct directions. The studios really just want to find tentpoles and huge event movies. Outside the studio system is where you can get your more quirky stories told. But this is a much harder and longer journey. The Imitation Game, as great as it is, could not get made within the studio system. That’s pretty crazy – even though they had huge actors in the lead role, WB was nervous to pull the trigger on it. Getting movies financed can be a very tricky needle to thread. If you want to take real chances with your stories, you may want to turn your attention to TV.
TV is really where most of interesting storytelling is being done right now. And on top of that, there are more and more outlets to sell your material. It’s really the second golden age of TV right now. Pay cable channels, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are all examples of places that are not afraid to take huge risks on their shows. TRANSPARENT on Amazon is a true game changer on every level. It has opened the floodgates for every possible story to be told. If you can write it, it could get made. But make no mistake, you still have to have a solid concept, great characters and a good storytelling instincts. For every TRANSPARENT there are 100 scripts where the writer thinks they are being bold, but they’re actually just being bad – unclear concept, characters with no goals, inconsistent tone and no plot progression.
5) How does your relationship with your writing partner, Pam Falk, work? Do you split up a
script and each write half? Do you rewrite each other’s work? Are there perks to collaborating with someone as well as challenges? Would you recommend getting a writing partner to newbies?
Pam and I spend half of our time fighting and the other half deciding where to go to lunch. That leaves little time for the actual writing, but we manage to figure it out. We are very big believers in the outline. It’s our roadmap. Without one, it’s like taking a trip without a destination. How does that make sense? So we do the most detailed outline we can together and then we split up the outline to do scenes. We then exchange scenes – rip each other’s work to pieces – rewrite the scenes and then come together to do the rest of the work together. We used to write every single word together and it would take us six months to finish one script – it was like being sent to a prison work camp (not really, but you get the point).
It’s so great to have someone to bounce ideas off of, especially in comedy. What you think is funny, can very often not be funny at all once you tell another person the line or action. On the other hand, in working with another person you are already compromising your creative vision at the start. That can, at times, be frustrating and humbling. But, at the end of the day, writing can be a very lonely endeavor, so having something there with you can be mentally and emotionally important – you won’t go out of your mind with isolation. For newbies, I think it’s important to try writing yourself AND with a partner. Some people are just built to have partners and others are built to slug it out alone. But it’s important to at least attempt to see what the pros and cons are before a new writer decides how they will attack the profession.
6) What is the process of selling a project from concept to sale, and what has been the most important lesson you have learned about pitching?
Each process is different. Just like no two people have broken into the business the same way, no two script sales have sold in the exact same way. But generally it’s about generating a really sellable idea and then finding the right element (actor, producer, director) for the idea that you cam up with. For example, Pam and I had this movie idea – MY FAIR LADY meets ANY GIVEN SUNDAY – about a football player who was such a jerk that he was forced to go to charm school to keep his job. XXX had just come out and we thought Vin Diesel would be the perfect person to play the part. We pitched our agents the one liner, they loved it and got us in a room with Vin’s producing partner. A week later Vin signed on as an actor and producer. Two weeks after that, we sold the idea in the room to the first studio we pitched to. But that’s just one way.
The most important things about pitching are: High concept and trailer moments. A high concept is an idea you can convey to anyone in a few sentences. Then, if a buyer can see the trailer, they can see the movie. And if they can see the movie, they can sell it to their bosses. And if they can sell it to their bosses, YOU’VE got a sale. It’s like a high-stakes game of telephone.
7) You’ve been at it for a while and have taught screenwriting for many years at the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI). What are the biggest mistakes that you see rookie writers making and what advice do you have for them?
Not being open to notes is, by far, the biggest problem. Whenever a student says, “You don’t understand what I’m trying to do here,” the only thing for THEM to understand is that’s it’s clear they are in real writing trouble and their chances of making it in this business are slim to none. In almost every case where I’ve heard those words, the answer back is either, “I do understand and I understand it’s just not working” or “I don’t understand because you wrote something totally confusing.” Being able to take a note with dignity and grace is the key to surviving and thriving in this business.
8) You are married to Lauren Gussis (Dexter). Is it challenging or rewarding being married to another writer? Do you have some tips for ways that spouses can help each other without creating stress in their relationship?
Being married to a writer is the most amazing thing in the world for me. No one understands the pressures, the highs and lows of this profession than another writer. We don’t really work together for a couple reasons – the kinds of stories we tell are a bit different and working together is a recipe for a divorce. However, we do give each other notes on just about everything. It’s so helpful to have a spouse who can help you with that second act drag or the act out in the fourth act of your pilot. The biggest tip to keep the peace with your writing spouse is to give notes with love and to take notes with humility. It’s never good to say, “Why is this good?” to your wife about her new script. And it’s never good to hear, “Your notes are so stupid, you’re not getting sex for the next twenty-seven days.”
9) You are teaching a TV writing class at the Pad. What are the essential ingredients of a great pilot?
All you need is a great, original concept combined with three-dimensional characters who have clear goals and interesting, yet focused scenes that all build to a fantastic finish that will make viewers unable to resist tuning in next week. Not that hard, right?
10) What can students expect to learn in your class?
They will learn what makes an viable idea, how to find stories that can sustain over a long haul and how to find the most unusual way into the story you’ve come up with. And perhaps most importantly, how to listen with an open heart. It is key to learn how to have an honest dialogue about ideas not only with me but with the others in class. Being rigid or holding onto your ideas with white knuckles are things that can really kill the creative process. There is usually a better solution or a better way to make your story live at a higher level if you are open to exploring. And sometimes, it takes going half-way around the world to figure out the first idea was actually the best, but it’s always worth going down those roads. If nothing else, if people can come away from my class with the idea of how important it is to collaborate, then I have done my job.
Thank you so much, Mike! That was really interesting.
We can’t wait for your So You Want To Be A TV Writer class. Sign up before it’s sold out!
By Jeff Bernstein
Writer Melissa Chadburn is a star in LA’s literary fiction scene. She’s been published in McSweeney’s, Tin House, the Rumpus, amongst other places, and her novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is being published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and will released in 2016.
Melissa was kind enough to give us a peek into her creative process. She will be teaching a “Get Your Story Published Workshop” (1 Day) on May 17th at Writing Pad that will teach you everything you need to know about the submission process, help you craft pitch letters that will impress editors, as well as manage your submissions to literary magazines. She will also be teaching a five week Short Story Fiction starting June 15 where she will share secrets for writing an irresistible short story and help you get one published.
1) You have an amazing story: growing up in poverty, being shuttled between group homes and foster parents and enduring physical abuse. Despite all this, you found your voice as a writer and were able to hone your craft. Tell us about your journey as a writer.
I’ve always written. Mostly because I’ve always read. One way my mother was generous was that she allowed me to read whatever I wanted. The beginning of my writing life was the same as the beginning of my lying life. I was in the second grade, and we were given a book report assignment. At the time I was reading Jackie Collins novels and could not do a report on a book called The Bitch. So I made up an age-appropriate book with an age-appropriate theme. I called it Suzy Wins The Big Race. I went on to make up a half dozen more bootstrap-themed children’s stories to report on. The main ingredient missing in these fictitious stories was the rampant bodice-ripping passion.
2) You’ve had several short stories published in many of the top literary magazines. Do you have a strategy for approaching submissions (managing the process, honing stories for specific publications, researching editors)?
I’m a labor organizer by trade as well as a writer. So I implement the same strategies I use in organizing a worksite or a group of people to take some form of action. I map out the marketplace and make sure I submit to places my work is best suited for. I set publication goals for myself. I use a tiered approach and ultimately I’m cognizant of what a numbers game this is. Which really means submit, submit, submit. I balance my time between being generative and submitting.
3) What advice can you give aspiring writers for pitching stories to magazines? Can you take us through the pitch to sale process?
I hope folks take my class to get the skinny, I will share my submission chart, as well as some specific query letters. But honestly, the best advice I can give others is to never give up and to read their little fannies off and to submit their work. One hot tip: always refer to a specific story or essay featured in the publication you are querying.
4) Revision is one of the hardest parts of writing, particularly on a longer form project. You take it very seriously. Do you have way of approaching this stage of the writing process that makes it easier for you to stick with it?
I enjoy revision. It uses a different part of my brain though one a little more pragmatic and less magical. When I’m revising, I need more silence. Structure is my Achilles heel so what I will often do is find a story or essay that accomplishes what I’m trying to accomplish structurally and then I outline that piece and use it’s bones as the scaffolding for my own project.
I think all fiction writers have the capacity for empathy, and I think it’s hard to experience empathy without doing one thing or another that works toward creating the change in the world you want to see.
6) What can students expect to learn in your short story class and publishing clinic?
For the short story class, this course explores ways to develop compelling antagonists—with playful, conflicted, and imaginative results. We will also explore ways to move your narrative forward and how to stay within the emotional bewilderments of the present. Students will learn how to give and receive constructive feedback through examining other works in class. I will also show my students how to engage in “active reading” and apply techniques derived from this process into their own writing practice.
Thanks, Melissa! That was really informative.
If you want to take your short fiction to the next level and get a leg up in the publishing world check out Melissa’s “Get Published Workshop” (1 Day) on May 17th at Writing Pad and her five week “Short Story Workshop” starting June 15.