(Sometimes) You Need a Montage

Scriptnotes: Ep. 268
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John and Craig come to the defense of montages in screenwriting, giving examples of how and when the much-maligned device can be employed to benefit the story.

We also share our thoughts on the latest incarnation of Final Draft, plus new listener questions on sex scenes and resuscitating old scripts.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.


Starting a screenwriting career outside of LA (or New York, or London)

In a recent episode of Scriptnotes, we shared stories from screenwriters who managed to build careers while living outside of Los Angeles, New York or London.

We had more contributors than we could feature in the episode, so here are a few more tales from the trenches.


Chad from Nashville, TN: After studying film in college, I moved from NY back to Tennessee to get better at writing screenplays. It took eight years of writing to win Slamdance’s competition. I had been a finalist in others and even won a smaller festival, but they didn’t really matter besides being a barometer for my writing progression. But with the Slamdance win for my horror screenplay JUG FACE, I was able to get most anyone to read it.

I contacted a producer who had made other horror films that I felt my movie fit in with. At the same time, I had been in preproduction on a horror short and was about to shoot it the very next weekend after speaking with that producer. Three weeks later, I sent him the completed short and he called me that night and said we were going to make the movie with me directing it. Five months after that, we shot JUG FACE and it premiered at Slamdance the very next year. The film went on to get world wide distribution and did pretty good for an indy horror film.

Since then I’ve gotten management and have had a number of projects fizzle but have finally made the move to LA to make things happen. My family and I landed here six weeks ago.


Alan from Connecticut: I am a produced screenwriter with screen credits for two Lifetime movies. I have lived in Connecticut my whole life and attended an online college program through the Academy of Art based in San Francisco.

After graduating, I worked on several spec scripts and began the long process of manual queries. I placed in a few screenwriting competitions, but they led no where. I finished a MOW Thriller and used IMDB Pro to get production contacts for niche low-budget companies. After getting a few hits, I used my spec to get my first assignment and it was produced into the film “Her Infidelity”.

All of my meetings, contracts, and contact has been done through phones, email, and faxing. It has worked out fairly well. I have other projects in development, but have not reached a point where I am screenwriting full-time yet. I also edit wedding videos and do a lot of freelance writing to help supplement my screenwriting career.

I may not be a traditional screenwriter, but I am happy and proud of my credits and hope to have more in the future. I just wanted to let you guys know that I have had screenwriting success without stepping foot in California and am still in continual development on projects.


Chris in Arizona: I live in Arizona and recently got hired for my first feature. I had done a few episodes of TV prior to this and as all aspiring writers do, submitted many scripts for competitions and what not.

Unfortunately the show I was originally hired to do never made the light of day (due to the writers strike a few years back), but I have to always assume it’s the norm.

Regardless of that I worked as an exhibitor, a fancy way of saying I worked for a movie theater company. The way things really began is I started building relationships with people in the industry when our theaters would do research screenings and I was assigned to coordination and handling the “talent”. An easy job for me. I started out speaking with many post production supervisors and would ask for introductions to producers, editors, and directors during screenings. Not to pitch or be annoying but the chance to say my name, them to see my face, and do what I was supposed to do for my job.

Over time many of these industry professionals would use our locations consistently and began calling me directly on my cell phone for scheduling changes, requests, etc.. Eventually relationships became more and more relaxed and I was able to have more casual conversations which eventually led into THEIR inquiry of my enjoyment of my job. I never approached anyone myself but allowed the conversations to flow naturally. I didn’t want to be the norm of what I assumed they were used to.

Basically it was a right place, right time, situation for a lot of things but it happened outside of the traditional locations.


JJ in Chicago: I’ve managed to make some money screenwriting from out here in Chicago. So far it has only been in independent films.

It started when I sent a spec to a producer friend in LA. He passed it to another producer who happened to be looking for someone to do a rewrite on his script. He asked for more samples and I was hired a few days later.

After forming a relationship with that producer I’ve been hired for a few more projects since that first one.

That said, I still have a day job and am finishing up another spec with hopes of making it into the big leagues one day.


Isaac in Portland, OR: I graduated long ago with an MA in Film Studies but decided soon after that what I really wanted was to become was a novelist. I pursued that for a number of years, getting five books published, but none that were successful enough to keep me from simultaneously working various day jobs. My first real exposure to the movie industry came when one of my books, Tokyo Suckerpunch, was optioned, first by Fox Searchlight and later by Sony. Talking to folks who worked on it and reading various scripts that emerged from its long development process de-mystified screenwriting a bit for me. I started reading every script I could get my hands on, thinking maybe this was something I could do one day.

I wrote the requisite terrible first script that I showed to maybe two people before burying it. The next script I finished I uploaded to the Black List site. That one attracted the attention of a manager. The next one went out and won a few fans around town. I flew to LA for some generals. The script after that was eventually optioned by an independent production company.

My manager encouraged me to come up with some TV ideas. I was wrestling with a sci-fi pilot for months when I decided to take a break and from that and write this crazy idea that had been germinating in my head for a long time — a Michael Jackson biopic told from the perspective of his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles.

That script blew up in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Within a couple weeks of BUBBLES hitting the town, I was back in LA for a whirlwind water bottle tour — meetings with execs, producers, agents, directors (the experience underscored what you often tell listeners about finding an agent — when you’re ready for one, they will find you). The script ended up atop the 2015 Black List and eventually sold.

I’ve been steadily working since, though given that I’m less than two years into my career as a professional screenwriter, it remains to be seen whether I can maintain any kind of career longevity living outside LA. Moving there is not really an option for me at the moment — I have two young children and love living in Portland. But I spend a week in LA about every three months and my reps understand that if something comes up and I have to hop on a plane tomorrow, I’ll be there. I spend a lot of time on Skype and on the phone, but so far being at a geographic remove hasn’t hurt me in any way that I’m aware of (major caveat: all my work so far has been in features rather than TV). I’ve been told by more than one exec that I’m lucky because writing features is maybe the one job in the industry where you can live pretty much anywhere.


Raj in Toronto: I myself am not a working screenwriter, but I am a producer and have had a successful and busy career in film and tv living exclusively in Toronto, and producing only original content. I work with and engage with scores of screenwriters who live locally and earn a living through domestic (i.e. Canadian) work. Some writers (and producers and directors too) split their time between the US and Canada — either on a calendar basis (e.g. several months here, several State-side) or on a per project basis. Even more stay and work here 100% of the time.

Toronto is replete with the head offices of broadcasters, production companies and distributors, all of which can and do trigger millions of dollars of original production.

One issue we share with the US is that if you want a career in film and tv in Canada, and you live outside of Toronto or Vancouver, it’s possible but very difficult to stay where you are. If you decide not to move to either city, you do have to spend much of your time travelling to pitch and take meetings.

One major difference in Canada is that we have no studio system. Instead, we have a vibrant community of smaller independent producers and prodcos.


Ryan in Vancouver: I am a thirty-four-year-old working screenwriter, living in Vancouver, Canada. I have a literary agent here, and have somehow cobbled together a living writing for Canadian broadcasters, and for TV movies. I wrote for a couple of tween sitcoms that were shot and created in Vancouver and later sold to Disney and Netflix. I’ve also picked up the odd independent feature writing gig.

That being said, I do still aim to head to LA (this is the year, I’m thinking), and I have started making more use of the screenwriting competition circuit (at least the bigger festivals, etc.). On that note, I actually just learned that a feature I wrote is a Semifinalist in the Austin Film Festival’s Best Dramatic Screenplay category. #NotSoHumbleBrag. I’m hoping it will help in my quest for a US agent. Time will tell.


These stories follow a pattern we discussed on the podcast. It’s more challenging to get your foot in the door when the door is thousands of miles away. But it’s not impossible.

Some writers have found competitions to be a good way of attracting the interest of managers. But we have yet to find one that got started based on a query letter, unless writers are eliding that detail.

While some working screenwriters are staying out of LA — often flying in regularly for meetings — quite a few pack up and move here. I call this the Nashville effect: moving to where the business is.

Thanks to all the writers (and producers) who wrote in to share their stories. We may feature more in the future.


Dig Two Graves

Scriptnotes: Ep. 267
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John and Craig reprise their roles as development execs in “How Would This Be a Movie?” Looking at four true crime stories, the duo discuss what makes a great screenplay idea, and conversely, which stories work better as a serialized TV drama.

We also attempt to brighten the spirits of aspiring writers living outside of LA, New York and London, sharing the experiences of Scriptnotes listeners across the globe who have found their way into the Hollywood system from abroad.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 9-22-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


Stranger Things and Other Things

Scriptnotes: Ep. 266
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John and Craig dive into Netflix’s Stranger Things, discussing how macro writing decisions contributed to the show’s success. (There are inevitably some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you can skip from the start of that segment to the next one, which begins at 41:22.)

We also look at the upcoming WGA election and the candidates.

Next week, we will be doing a new installment of How Would This Be a Movie, so follow the links below to read ahead.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 9-09-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


There are no black beans in France

Before I moved here, I knew that some common American foods were rare in France. Plain Cheerios, for example, can only be found in specialty import stores where they sell for €12. Same with boxed macaroni and cheese.

I’d read that kale was only recently re-introduced to France. While I love kale, I can live without it for a year. France has plenty of other delicious green vegetables.

But France doesn’t have black beans. And this is a problem.

I love black beans. I eat them almost every day,1 as does my daughter. For years of her life, most of her calories came from black beans and rice, lovingly prepared by her Honduran nanny.

In Los Angeles, black beans are ubiquitous. Any given supermarket will offer six brands of canned beans in a variety of sodium levels. My favorite is from Whole Foods, where you get a discount when you buy a case of 24. That’s every month for us.

So our first week in Paris, we went looking for black beans.

The stereotype of France is that it’s a bunch of tiny little shops. A butcher here, a baker there. And while those definitely exist, there are also a ton of supermarkets. There are at least ten in easy walking distance of our apartment, each of them bigger than your average Trader Joe’s.

Inside you’ll find aisles of candy and cookies, including American brands like Oreos. Head over to the refrigerator case to marvel at more varieties of yogurt than anyone could ever sample. In one corner, you’ll find Chinese and Thai foods. Near the pasta and rice, you’ll find quinoa grown in Ethiopia.

But you won’t find black beans.

We looked in expat forums and food sites where we found others struggling to find black beans, and other foods from Latin America.

Ultimately, we were able to find dried black beans (haricots noir) at two stores: a Peruvian market in the 15th, and a chain of organic groceries called Bio c’Bon. They cost about €4 per pound — considerably more than the U.S., but hardly a deal-breaker.

Dried black beans aren’t nearly as convenient as canned, but it’s not that much work to cook them. Just follow any recipe you find online or, if you want maximum flavor with minimum effort, invest in a pressure cooker.

Back in Los Angeles, we use an Instant Pot IP-DUO50. I was happy to find Amazon has a 220-volt version for Europe and the UK. They look like crock pots or rice cookers, but with lids that lock on tight. Pressure cookers seem intimidating, but trust me, they’re easy.

And suddenly, it’s a food blog

Here’s my recipe for making a big batch of black beans in a pressure cooker:

  1. Dump one pound of dried beans out on a tray, or a wide bowl. Pick through them, tossing out anything that doesn’t look like a perfect black bean. Sometimes tiny stones end up in the bag. I don’t know why, but it happens. So don’t skip this step. It takes two minutes.
  2. Rinse them in a bowl or a colander. Can’t hurt. Plus it makes them look all glossy rather than dry and dusty.
  3. Dump the beans in the cooker. Add one small yellow onion, cut in half. (Or half of a larger onion.) Add 3/4ths of a teaspon of salt. This seems like too little, but really, it’s fine. Add one dried bay leaf. (They’re called “laurel” in French, which is awesome.) Then add six cups of water. That’s 1.5 liters.
  4. Attach the lid and turn on the machine. Set the timer for 37 minutes. Let it start. The little valve in back should be set for “pressure” not “vent.”
  5. Walk away. Return in about an hour for delicious black beans.

You don’t need to release the pressure valve. It will come back to normal by itself, at which point the lid will unlock. The beans inside will be hot and steamy, so keep your face away when you first open it.

With a spoon, retrieve and discard the onion and bay leaf. You’re done.

This recipe produces way too many black beans to eat at once. Fortunately, they freeze well. And they’re significantly tastier than even the best canned black beans.

You American monster

I suspect that about ten paragraphs back, several readers rolled their eyes and asked, “Why don’t you just eat something else, something French?” or “Why live in a foreign country if you’re just going to make it like Los Angeles?”

These people have a point. I suspect they also don’t have kids.

Also, living abroad is about cultural immersion, not assimilation. If we insisted immigrants only eat the dominant foods of the U.S., we wouldn’t have Tex-Mex or pizza or Chinese take-out, all things we now take for granted.

Black beans are the food of my So-Cal culture. It’s great to have them back.

In my next installment, I’ll be teaching you how to make Cheerios from scratch.2

  1. I’m the one person you know who still eats Tim Ferriss’s “slow carb” diet.
  2. Step one: gather sawdust.

I live in Paris now

Two weeks ago, my family and I moved to Paris. We’ll be here for about a year.

I’m not here for work, or to escape this nightmare of an election. Rather, this sojourn has been in the planning stages for several years, going all the way to back to a screenwriters trip organized by Film France back in 2009. My daughter is attending sixth grade here. We’ll head back to Los Angeles for seventh.

While I’m here, I’ll be writing Arlo Finch. And we’ll still be doing Scriptnotes. We recorded a new episode this week. I think we’ll be able to keep up with our normal weekly schedule.

The biggest adjustment so far has been learning how to navigate Paris as an inhabitant rather than a visitor. For example, setting up a French checking account is a nightmare, but it’s a prerequisite for almost everything else (phone plans, electricity, transit passes). Paris busses are remarkably handy in ways I never considered as a tourist. We don’t have a car, but so far that’s been a plus.

Ex-pat American writers living in Paris is a complete cliché, so I won’t be blogging or tweeting about it much. If you want to see what I’m doing during my days, I’m an active user of Instagram stories. So follow me on Instagram if you want to see lots of pictures of kids carrying baguettes and dogs in restaurants.