Screenwriter’s Roundtable, Part 3: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Jeremiah Friedman, Nick Palmer, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John Swetnam

March 7th, 2012 by

A special treat this week on GITS as each day I will be posting excerpts from a screenwriter’s roundtable I did with some of the best and hottest young screenwriters in Hollywood: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John Swetnam and the writing duo Jeremiah Friedman & Nick Palmer. How good are they? Over the last 2 years, they have combined to sell 12 spec scripts, and that doesn’t include the numerous writing assignments they have landed or original pitches they have set up.

Here are the 12 spec scripts they have sold:

Chris Borrelli: “The Vatican Tapes” [Black List 2009], “Wake”, “Sad Jack”.

F. Scott Frazier: “The Numbers Station”, “Line of Sight” [Black List 2011], “Autobahn”, and a fourth project as yet unannounced.

Jeremiah Friedman & Nick Palmer: “Family Getaway” [Black List 2010].

Justin Rhodes: “Second Sun”.

Greg Russo: “Down”, “Autobahn”.

John Swetnam: “Evidence”, “Category Six”.

Our conversation covered many topics and is a unique opportunity to learn what it’s like to go from aspiring to professional screenwriter. Beyond their insights into the craft, I’m sure you will be inspired by their passion for what they do, their love of movies, and just in general how much fun they are.

Screenwriter’s Roundtable: Part 3

Scott: For me, it’s one of these things where you don’t really teach… I’m not a big fan of screenwriting books because you read them and they tell you what your process should be. And I think that figuring out your own processes is one of the cornerstones of turning this into a career… and actually learning what you personally need to do to get a script from page 1 to page 110. It’s different for every single person, so when you read one of these books that tells you have to hit an act break at 28, 58, and there has to be a whammo and all this junk, you lose your own sense of process and you start writing for I don’t know who. You completely miss the boat of what it means to write.

John: I agree with that. Because it’s your specific process that will end up helping accentuate your own voice, so I think it’s important to have your own process and embrace it and not try to pick up somebody else’s process or some book’s process, like Scott’s saying.

Chris: Right. I would say that if you look at great directors like Scorsese and Tarantino, there are directing rules, right? Don’t break the 180 degree rule, don’t break other rules. They break them because they know the rules already. So it’s good to know all the processes first. You have to do your own thing though. This is just a theory of mine but in the next few years, I think we’re going to stop getting so close to this act structure of page 75, this happens, page 90, this happens. And I think it’s going to come from movie-goers, not from people in our business. This is just one of my crack-pot theories, but the reason is I don’t think I can see any more romantic comedies where Act III winds up with someone professing their love to someone else in a train station or an airport. And I don’t think I can see too many more action movies where the coach type of character dies end of Act II, or the best friend. I think it just gets a little bit old. So I think we’re going to start seeing a little bit of change in the process itself.

Scott: And you almost are starting to see it already. The Paranormal Activity movies basically don’t have a typical act structure. Almost at all. I guess you could go in and figure out… but it’s not immediately apparent.

Jeremiah: Right. It’s hidden. So I think the process will keep developing. Hopefully.

SM: There’s a question from one of my blog readers that dovetails into this. “As a professional writer, did you ever want to kill a professional reader? Meant to be funny but seriously, the inexperience of some of these kids who read and the checklist, predominantly Save the Cat mentality that so many specs these days are being funneled through in my humble opinion is a problem. It’s a one size fits all approach that audiences are tired of. Or at least the people I talk to are, and some of these folks were huge movie buffs four or five years ago. So again, as a writer, did you ever want to kill a reader?”

Scott: I actually think the readers are unfairly put upon, and just in my complete anecdotal experience, to me it always seems like, if the script is bad, but they’re trying to be nice. They come back with these Save the Cat, Syd Field kind of beats with what’s wrong with the script. This is what’s wrong with the script! Because you didn’t have your end act point on page 30. But if a script is great, I don’t think they care about that sort of thing.

Chris: I’ll tell you, building off of what Scott said. First off, short answer: yes, I have. And there is a bitterness that comes to people who read and read and read, and think that they can do a better script and they get mad when scripts sell, and they think their scripts are better than that. But that said, if you got asked in life why you don’t like something, you kept getting asked this about all these different things, at some point, you run out of things to say. Sometimes you just don’t like things. And these readers are doing at least two scripts a day and they didn’t like your script and they have to give a reason to fill out their three or four page coverage, sometimes they just go to templates or some basic things. So I don’t read too much into reasons why people pass unless I hear it over and over again. Because sometimes — and I’ve been on the other side of the desk — you have to say something, but a lot of times you just don’t connect to it.

Scott: And I think not connecting to it goes right back to that emotion we were just talking about.

John: A lot of these readers, though, they work for somebody, and they’re also filtering their own opinion through the opinion of the person they’re working for. So they know their boss’s sensibility and to me, that’s really their job. To know what their boss likes. A lot of the time, they’re the first bit of the filtering process and you can’t really blame them because their boss told them to look for romantic comedies.

Greg: I’ll throw something out there to the person who asked the question, who I’m assuming is trying to break in as a screenwriter. Don’t worry so much about readers passing on your script. Be careful not to give them any easy ways to pass on your script. If they’re not going to like your concept, they’re not going to like it. Everyone’s different and everyone has their own taste. The best thing you can do is nail the things you can control: make it professional, make it read smoothly, have your beats where they should be. Probably the most important rule… don’t take it personally. It’s a hard thing to do. Screenwriting is an art form and whenever there’s a judgment of art you’re going to take it personally. This is our way of expressing our creativity and when someone says it’s wrong, well, fuck ‘em.

John: I had a script a couple of years ago that I had written that my agent at the time… I don’t know why he did this, but he slipped me the coverage that the guy wrote and it tore me to shreds. It said I might as well be a fourth grader, blind, three fingers typing… it really destroyed me. And I tried to find him because I was going to fucking kill him, but I never found the guy unfortunately. If he reads this blog, I think he was at Paramount. So tell him I’m going to find his ass.

[Laughter]

Jeremiah: It’s tricky because you have to walk that line between staying open to feedback, to criticism, to all the things that are going to make you a better writer and make the material better, but you also have to come into everything, not with an arrogance, but with a confidence in your skillset and your craft and what you’re bringing to a project. It’s a brutal job. You’re constantly writing things to give to people, whether it’s a reader, an executive, an agent or an actor, people are constantly coming back with feedback and criticism, and a lot of the time it is negative, or it is critical and you have to toughen your exterior. Take your ego out of it. Otherwise you’re going to get eaten alive by it. Because that’s what the job is: you write stuff, you turn it in, and then people tell you what they think of it. And a lot of the  time it isn’t what you think of it. You can’t let it get to you.

Chris: When I was on the other side of the desk there, I was writing on the side and I had a coverage woman I’d pay to do coverage of my scripts for my company. But I slipped her one of mine, actually a couple. And she liked the first two, and I didn’t put my name on them, and the third one I slipped her, she called me up before she sent the coverage: “I really hated this one. I know you’ve been sending mostly good stuff…” And I had to sit there on the phone with her and pretend that it was someone else who did the script. I did a lot of nodding on the phone, like a glazed over look, but yeah. That was extra painful. After that, I can pretty much take anything and not have to change my name like I did back then.

Scott: Another anecdote: The script I used to get representation went out and I had a friend of a friend get coverage at CAA. This was before I knew anyone in town. The friend of the friend sent me the coverage and it was the worst coverage ever. They basically said that the script was confusing and that it made no sense and it stung me. Three weeks later, without changing a single word in that script, I got a manager, I got an agent, and we sold it four months later. So again, it is just somebody’s opinion.

Greg: Here’s an anecdote that’s always stuck with me. A buddy of mine, great writer, Scott Neustadter who wrote (500) Days of Summer. He took his script to an agency meeting and the agent took the actual draft — you’ve seen the film so you know it’s written in a very stylistic and very interesting way — this agent took the script and walked to the other side of the room and held it up. Showed it to Scott, his own script, and said “Come back when you figure out how to write one of these.” That was his first meeting with an agent. The lesson? Everyone gets shit on when they first start.

SM: That is really low. And it raises a question: How do you incorporate a bad note into a screenplay? If you can’t ignore it, how do you handle that situation?

Greg: That’s a hard question.

Scott: Heavy drinking.

[Laughter]

Jeremiah: I think you have a responsibility, if you can, to fight the note. Not in an antagonistic way, but we always try to… we think you’re paying us to do a service. So if we think the note is bad, we will express that and tell you why we think the note doesn’t serve the script.

Nick: We found that this has worked for us on a number of really bad notes we’ve gotten that we’ve ended up convincing the execs around. If you’re very clear about why it doesn’t work and you offer a few other alternatives, then usually we’ve been able to diffuse most of the really bad notes. There are some notes you get that you have to just make the best of it, which there’s no one way, there’s no secret to dealing with that. You just find your own way into it and accept the fact that you have to take the script in a different direction than you’d like, but you find the best version of that script.

Greg: I’ll just say this: Pick your battles. You’re going to get a lot of notes and there are going to be some that are more damaging or hurtful or some that piss you off more… fight for the stuff you think you can get and then give in on everything else.

Chris: And in a more subtle way than just a straight bad note, sometimes if you get a bad suggestion, which is slightly different than a bad note, or a note they want you to do, sometimes you can look at the root of why they feel that way and come up with a different solution. The exec could even be correct in what is “wrong” with the script, but their solution is wrong. You mentioned a service they pay us for: It is important to not just be a note-taker. Not be someone who just goes and gives them back exactly what they want. We’re supposed to add our creativity to it. But again, sometimes you’re just screwed.

Jeremiah: Yeah, they’re recognizing something that doesn’t work, they’re just misdiagnosing it. They say they want more action in the second act, but it’s not really about more action in the second act. It’s about something else and it’s your job, using your knowledge of the mechanics and about how to actually make a story work, what’s not clicking together for them. Because you do ultimately want it to work for them. You want the project to go forward, you want it to move to the next level, whatever that is.

SM: It’s an interesting little dance we do. Greg, what you said: Pick your battles. I’ve heard that quite a bit over the years. You do an assessment of what the important ones are and sometimes you’ll fight for the ones that are more important, then give in on some of the ones that are less important.

Greg: But really enthusiastically give in on those lesser ones. “You don’t want his eye color to be blue? Awesome!”

[Laughter]

How classic are these comments? Answers to one of your questions, great advice about how to handle script notes, and some fantastic anecdotes. I have nothing more to add and will leave you all to join in the conversation in comments.

By the way, Scott Frazier has been kind enough to drop by each of the past two days to respond to your questions, so why not go to the well again and see if we can lure him back.

Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: The writing duo of Jeremiah Friedman and Nick Palmer.

Jeremiah and Nick met in the MFA directing program at the American Film Institute and began writing together shortly after graduating in 2008. Two years later, they sold their spec, “Family Getaway”, to Warner Brothers. The action-comedy was ranked number 11 on the 2010 Black List. They are currently writing the remake of The Bodyguard for Warner Brothers and producer Dan Lin. Jeremiah and Nick are repped by Dawn Saltzman and Emily Rose at Mosaic and Jason Burns, Geoff Morley, David Kramer and Rebecca Ewing at UTA.

You may follow Nick on Twitter: @HouseOfPalmer.

For Part 1 of the roundtable discussion, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

Tomorrow: Part 4 of this exclusive screenwriter’s roundtable.

Please take time to leave a reply with your thoughts and observations, and while you’re there thank these writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this roundtable for GITS readers and the wider online screenwriting community.

Special thanks to Nate Winslow: Future Super Producer for his creative support with this project. Follow Nate on Twitter: @nate_winslow.

UPDATE: In a post on his blog, The Bitter Script Reader weighs in on a subject raised in today’s roundtable discussion: Are Script Readers misunderstood and unfairly maligned?

10 thoughts on “Screenwriter’s Roundtable, Part 3: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Jeremiah Friedman, Nick Palmer, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John Swetnam

  1. I’ve been following this whole roundtable and it’s been awesome throughout. Really getting the vibe of how young and fresh these guys are, and how grateful they are to be where they are now which is fantastic to see. Looking forward to Part 4!

    Question for Scott (or if anyone else drops by) – Did you have a moment where you thought you were ready before you actually were? Where you wrote a script, thought it was great, got notes back – “nah, not so great”. If so, how did you come back from that?

  2. Nick Oleksiw says:

    Some really disheartening (and encouraging) stories here! Thanks again and keep them coming!

  3. At the beginning of today’s roundtable there was discussion of story beats. Do you feel it’s completely wrong to use formulaic storytelling? Because I believe the general movie-going audience like the familiar. Most of those romantic comedies are just a rehash of ‘take XYZ aspect of a wedding or getting married’ and there’s your romantic comedy. As long as you hit the story beats, you’ll draw that audience and do fairly well at the box office.

    1. In my view, genre and structure are the places where you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. The tropes are there because they provide a grammar the audience speaks and can use to understand your story. What hopefully isn’t cliché is the unique perspective, handed down in the voice of your character, on whatever situation your structure demands of your protagonist. It’s fine to have a meet cute in a romantic comedy, because, after all, they do have to meet. But what transmutes you from someone going through the plot motions to someone who’s creating a genuine emotional experience in your audience is the choice to experience these moments from a singular point of view. For me, that’s how I’d define voice, and that’s actually what people pay you for. They don’t pay you for structure; they can buy that for $15 from Syd Field.

      It’s also unfortunately the miserably hard part to find, which is why writers drink. I don’t know if I helped, but I got to pretend I was Ernest Hemingway for the last five seconds there, so at least there’s that.

      1. $15!!! I borrow from the library. Anyway, great advice and I appreciate you taking the time. I’m glad you said structure was important.

        I think finding a winning concept is perhaps the hardest part. You guys hit that point home in the first part of the series. I think we have to write one of those passion pieces that is a MFNO (movie for no one), in order to learn that hard lesson.

        1. MFNO? I’ve got a couple of those.

  4. Hi. I’m apparently the guy who doesn’t talk much. But I had a thought re: your question Ned.

    There’s this great story about Michelangelo that’s probably apocryphal. But it goes like this: the sculptor was commissioned by a secular noble to create a statue for the noble’s garden. So Michelangelo took the job, went to his workshop, toiling away alone until he’d finished the thing. The guy shows up to collect it, is happy with the work, loads it on a cart and takes it away. A few weeks later, however, he wakes up in the middle of the night to this horrible tinking sound coming from outside. He goes to his window, and there’s Michelangelo, in the renaissance equivalent of his bathrobe, chipping away at the statue. The noble yells at him to leave it alone. The work is done, and now it belongs to him. But Michelangelo ignores him, having woken in a cold sweat to the realization that the damn thing wasn’t finished. He could have done so much more…

    With every project I write, there’s a wonderful moment of euphoria that comes shortly after writing Fade Out. For a couple of days I walk around happy, safely smug within the comfort of my own genius. I attach it as a PDF and send it to people to read. And then, like clockwork, the realization strikes that what I’ve written is actually the worst thing anyone has ever written in the history of bad writing. And now I’m ready to sell a kidney to get those emails back. But it’s too late, and the thing is out there. And this happens every single time.

    The frustrating paradox of writing is that the greater your skill becomes, the greater your ability to spot your own weaknesses becomes as well. So, unfortunately, that feeling of having written something you thought was great only to learn that it wasn’t never goes away.

    Neither do the notes. I’m in the middle of developing a couple of projects with some big name writers. People who you’d think were immune to being told your stuff wasn’t ready, or that you had farther to grow. And the notes and critiques they get are just as brutal as the ones we do.

    What I’ve found is that I’ve had to actually readjust what my definition of “ready” actually means. There’s never a moment where you can put the cherry on top and everyone is satisfied. Even if the studio buys it, and someone has to love it for that to happen, the moment you’re in the room with them they’re already heaping their perceived flaws on you to motivate you to do whatever you’ve done differently.

    For me, then, ready simply means “Have I honored the intentions that we believed would cause this thing to be worthy of becoming a movie?” That’s all you can really control. Whatever talent you have, whatever opinions your collaborators hold, however hot or cold you are as a writer, these are all things beyond your scope of influence.

    If you know you cheated, if you know there’s a scene or a moment that you didn’t murder every brain cell you had to try and make better, then you’re not ready. But if you did, then you attach the PDF, hit send, and leave the rest of it up to fate.

    1. Justin, thanks for taking the time to answer, interested to hear you think there’s a grey area of between ready and not ready. Also perversely reassuring to hear everyone gets negative notes from time to time!

  5. the only reason I dropped by to this was the word, ROUNDTABLE… so, where’s the pizza? havn’t had lunch yet. (Roundtable pizza is a chain store, how big exactly, I don’t know) :-)

  6. rrysty says:

    Totally agree with y’all on structure. So much of this ‘gatekeeper advice’ from these books is about imposing a limiting structure on your story, tends to make films bland and samey. I watched a Studio Ghibli film last night, ‘Arrietty’. For the first 20 mins I couldn’t shake the feeling that something utterly terrible was going to happen. Received conditioning by all these mainstream western movies – “something pivotal must happen in the first 10 pages!”

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