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.
What’s the second best thing you can do without pants? Play this short video to find out!
Don’t worry–it’s literary and PG.
Our live online classes are so convenient, you don’t have to wear pants to take them! The webcam only shows your top half. All you need is a strong internet connection and a Mac, PC, or iPad that has a webcam. For a full listing of our live online classes, click here.
By Lauren E. Smith
When it comes to fiction, award-winning author, J Ryan Stradal, infuses his tales with charm and depth. His short stories are just the right mix of fantasy-reality, have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, named a finalist for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize, and have been featured in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and The Rattling Wall, amongst other places. Recently, he’s cooked up his first novel, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” which received first prize in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Competition and has been acquired for publication overseas in seven countries. When he isn’t wearing his writer’s cap, he’s using his editor’s eye to sift through works of fiction for online culture magazine, The Nervous Breakdown.
Editor by day, writer by night, we snagged a few moments with J Ryan to talk craft and about what he’s serving at his 1 Day Short Story class on March 9th and 5 Week Short Story class that starts on March 16th.
1) If you had to pin your writing down to a genre and style, how would you describe it?
I attempt to write fiction that I consider humorous and humane. I don’t like obvious heroes or anti-heroes. We’ve all been both a hero and villain to ourselves and to other people at some point in our lives. I try to capture both extremes within the stories of a few of the significant characters in my book.
2) Your short stories have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Many writers dream of accomplishing this. How did it happen for you, and did it change things for you as a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until my late 20’s. It was ten years between my first adult writing class and finishing and selling a novel. I think it would’ve taken less time had I started taking classes earlier; I met a lot of important peers in those classes, including the people who alerted me to these publications. And there were a lot of rejections. I got my first story published in 2006, and I didn’t get another one published until 2010. Yet I never quit writing those four years. I look back on a lot of the stories I wrote during that period, and reading them now, I feel that they’re pretty bad — one of them I must’ve submitted over forty times, and man, I’m glad no one ever accepted it, although you couldn’t have told me so at the time when I was banging down doors with it, trying to get that elusive second publication credit. That said, I’m extremely grateful these stories exist. Every one of them made me a little bit better.
3) You’re on the advisory board for 826LA, a non-profit writing and tutoring organization. Tell us a little about what 826LA does and how you got involved.
826LA started ten years ago in Venice, and I leapt on board immediately. I was at home writing an embarrassing first novel that will never see the light of day, and my mom was dying of cancer, and I needed something constructive to get me out of the house. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.
826LA provides free educational and creative programs and workshops for local school kids — everything from after-school tutoring to SAT and college essay prep. It’s full of great people, and working with kids in Los Angeles is a pretty incredible experience.
4) What ingredients go into making a compelling story?
What I most often look for in a story are empathy, voice, and detail. I like plot — I love a good ending — but without those three things, plot is pure tedium. I think the biggest favor a writer can do for themselves is understand and feel for their characters, even the ones they disagree with. The most common issues I see among emerging writers are characters they don’t know or care about and lack of sensual detail.
5) You currently work as a fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. How does your role as editor influence your own writing?
Seeing what’s being published every week has definitely kept me up on what readers and publishers are responding to. I don’t think it’s directly affected my fiction, but besides actually writing, I can’t think of a better thing for a writer to do than to read constantly, and reading new fiction every week for work has been wonderful and stimulating.
6) Your first novel, Kitchen of the Great Midwest, has already received an award and tons of recognition. Tell us a little about your book and when can we get our hands on a copy?
It’s the story of young orphan in the Midwest who grows up to become the chef behind the most exclusive pop-up dinner party in the world. Each chapter is centered around an ingredient she’s introduced to at a different time in her life, and all of those ingredients, save one crucial one, are served in a meal at the end of the book. It comes out on July 28th, but you can pre-order one here. Thank you in advance, if you do that.
7) Did the writing process for your novel differ from the way you approach short story writing?
No, in each case I wake up in the morning and I write exactly what I want to write most that day, and I put it all together later on. With the novel there was simply a lot more post-first draft construction. Before I start writing, I know what my endings are almost all the time, and I just start at a point somewhat distant from those endings. With the novel, I started twenty-six years before my ending. That was one way of ensuring I’d write three hundred pages.
8) What can students expect to learn in your class?
Whenever I lead a class, I just want students to leave with something new or something they hadn’t thought about going in. I liked to do a lot of in-class writing as a student, and as an instructor, my Writing Pad classes will probably follow suit. As a writer, challenging your narrative comfort zone is essential, and while you can always return there, it doesn’t hurt to return wiser. I’m looking forward to seeing what the students unlock in themselves.
By Lauren E. Smith
Breaking into the business of TV Writing is difficult but not impossible. Drama Scribe Pat Charles can help you create the most important item in gaining entrance into that world – A great spec pilot. Pat has produced and written for the hit series Bones on FOX, FX’s Sons of Anarchy and ABC’s Resurrection. Pat was also accepted into the prestigious ABC/ Disney Television Fellowship in 2008 as well as several other screenwriting fellowships. To date he has sold original cable pilots to HBO and Showtime where he is currently developing. Be on the lookout for his brand new show, The Right Mistake, a drama series that’s being produced by Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Prods and Fox.
What does it take to craft a solid pilot that’s irresistible to viewers and executives? We were lucky enough to sit down with the writer in advance of his class, From Network to Cable: Writing The TV Drama Pilot, (5 Wk) starting March 25th.
1) How did you make your debut into television writing?
I had a Soprano spec and an original that were both well received by friends who were also aspiring screenwriters. I entered a lot of contests and those samples came to the attention of people in the industry. Those specs got passed around by several studio, network and production executives, which got me a lot of meetings and resulted in my first job.
2) You were a Disney ABC Television Fellow. What shows did you spec for your application and what was the fellowship process like?
I had a House spec and an original. There were several interviews and networking functions where the execs got to see you interact with people in different settings. I was only in the fellowship for a short time because I got my first offer as a staff writer two months after starting the fellowship. My situation was a bit different in that I got staffed on Sons of Anarchy, which was an FX show two months after entering the fellowship. My understanding is that the fellows that get staffed now can only work on ABC shows while they’re in the fellowship.
3) How did the job on Sons of Anarchy come about and what was it like working on that show?
An executive – I’m still not sure who – passed my specs to the Showrunner and the EP of SOA and they read it and responded to it. They brought me in for an interview and I spoke about the type of stories I liked to tell. They thought I was a good match for them and they offered me the job.
4) Selling a pilot is hard, let alone selling one to prestigious networks like HBO and Showtime. What advice can you give aspiring writers who are ready to pitch?
Find a story that you’re really passionate about and make sure you know that world and the characters in that world inside and out. You need to be able to be able to paint a vivid picture of your characters, the season arcs and the world where your show occurs.
5) How do you come up with ideas?
I read voraciously – newspapers, books, magazines – and I try to meet and talk to a lot of different people. You never know where a great story is going to come from.
6) You’ve written for Cable and Network. What are some of the differences you’ve experienced?
On cable shows you obviously have more freedom to push the envelope and tell a wider variety of stories while the networks often have to crank out so many episodes that you often need a procedural engine to generate many stores in a short amount of time.
7) You’re a Dad now. How do you balance being a father and a successful TV Writer?
With the help of a very understanding wife. It’s difficult but you find a way to make time for the things that are important.
8) Drama seems to be really popular now, by viewers and writers alike. Why do you think so and why did you select the Drama route?
I think it goes in cycles and I believe that in a few years comedies will be popular again. I’ve just always preferred drama to comedy. It was just a personal preference.
9) What are the essential ingredients that Dramas need to make it an engaging, binge-worthy show?
Compelling characters in interesting situations.
10) You were a producer on Bones. What are some of the differences between being a staff writer and a writer with producing responsibilities? Which do you prefer?
Producer levels writers are usually expected to be more involved in the actual producing of a show in terms of casting, addressing notes from the studio and network, overseeing the shooting of their episodes and editing. It’s different from show to show but in short as you get to the producer level you’re responsible not only for delivering a good script but for helping that script become a solid episode.
11) What are you currently working on? What’s in store for you next?
I’m working on a pilot for Showtime, a feature for a small production company, a spec feature and a spec pilot.
12) What can students expect to learn in your class?
I hope that the students will get an understanding of how to craft a solid story with compelling characters.
We can’t wait to binge watch your new show, Pat! Inspired to develop the next hit drama? Look no further and take Pat’s upcoming class, From Network to Cable: Writing The TV Drama Pilot, (5 Wk) starting March 25th.