Screenwriters Roundtable, Part 4: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John Swetnam

February 7th, 2013 by

A special treat this week as each day I will be posting excerpts from a screenwriter’s roundtable I did with a group of talented Hollywood screenwriters: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. How good are they? Between them, they have sold more than a dozen spec scripts and have multiple original screenplays on the Black List.

This is the second screenwriters roundtable, following up on one we did last year [which you can read here]. Hopefully this will become an annual event as it’s a great way to take the pulse of what’s happening in the screenwriting universe, as well as benefit from the many insights into the craft these writers share.

I will be running the series all week long. Here is Part 4 with some advice on how to approach writing in a specific genre:

Scott:  That actually provides a segue to a question from one of the blog readers. They asked, “I’ve been curious what the writers think of the visual impact of the script should be, what writing techniques they know to make a script more visually interesting?” I think that’s a really critical thing for a lot of aspiring writers, they don’t necessarily grasp that movies are primarily a visual medium, and tend to rely on dialogue more.

In terms of writing those paragraphs, Scott, like that, each is a shot. Are there other things you do to heighten the visual impact? What are the ways that you think about your scripts visually?

John Swetnam:  What I do is, since I’m a hack, is I read people’s scripts that are really awesome, and I’ve read so many of these scripts, where I read them and I go, “God, that’s such a cool shot,” or, “I love the way he wrote that.” Then I’ll find myself kind of mimicking that, in a weird way, when I start writing my script. Then it’ll become my own thing, but I think by reading scripts, that when you read them, you saw visuals in your head.

Keep those scripts near you. Those are the ones that, certain writers that I look at, and I go, “Jesus, I wish I could write like that. I wish I could explain my visuals the way he does.” Normally it’s a Scott Frazier script, but then I’m like, “How does he do it?” I just find a way to take from a lot of different people I respect, and make it my own.

Chris Borrelli:  We all have our own style, and so will that writer. You can teach, and learn, all these rules, and things like that. It’s important to learn them, but everybody approaches the art of it in their own way.

Greg Russo:  Yeah, if you read a script from every one of us, each would read differently.

Chris Borrelli:  Yeah, same scene. Give us all the same scene to write, and it would read differently.

John Swetnam:  It’s like learning anything though. You go through life, and you consume, like we’ve all watched a shitload of movies. We’ve all read a shitload of scripts, and we’ve all written a shitload of scripts, and at a certain point, you just kind of pull from all of that knowledge. As you continue to practice it yourself, it becomes your own. It’s hard to explain it, it just becomes you.

F. Scott Frazier:  I mean to me, that’s what people are always talking about when they say voice, honestly. Like that one paragraph equals one‑shot thing, that’s just something that, whatever it was, a year and a half ago, two years ago, I thought to myself, that’s how I write. Every paragraph is a shot. If you go back and read my scripts, basically every single paragraph is its own shot, and its own thing. I have five or six other rules like that, of how I write a script.

They’re just in the back of my head, and I think that I would assume that we all have those rules. I think it’s really about coming up with your own rules. What does a paragraph equal in your script? What does dialogue look like and sound like in your kind of movie? I think it’s coming up with your rules, and how you define the script for yourself that’s important.

Justin Rhodes:  I think this is kind of an unanswerable question. How do you write visually? That would be sort of like saying, “How do you tell a joke that’s funny?” It’s funny or it’s not, or it’s visual or it’s not. It’s kind of like an intuitive thing, kind of like some of the guys were saying earlier, from absorbing it again, and again, and again, in terms of how to convey what you’re saying.

Scott:  I think Swetnam’s right. That’s what I would tell people. Just read these scripts. You read scripts by great action writers, or writers who write visually, and you do. You absorb those things, you pick up on those patterns, and it gets you thinking like that. That’s a good suggestion.

Here’s another question for you. “If you had to pick one route for an aspiring screenwriter, is it better to be skilled at multiple diverse genres, or be a master of only one genre?”

F. Scott Frazier:  Master of one genre.

Justin Rhodes:  One genre.

Chris McCoy:   One.

Chris Borrelli:  One genre that you love, that you can have love for. That love comes out in the script. It becomes special, and it’s different. You’re not just imitating other people. No, I don’t think you should, even career wise, I think managers and such would tell you, be specifically in one genre. I like to think I have maybe two or three genres I really like to write in, but they’re all things I love.

F. Scott Frazier:  But your genre is still very much definable, right? Your movies tend from horror to action, but they all have the same kind of tone, and special sauce to them, right?

Chris Borrelli:  Right.

F. Scott Frazier:  Your kind of action movies are not, it’s not Taken, right? It’s very much your own kind of action movie. For me, I always come at it; I always say I can come at things from any direction, as long as there’s a heartbeat of action or adventure to it. I’d never try my hand at horror, I’d never try my hand at comedy. It’s just the big set pieces and the fun characters are what gets me up in the morning.

Chris McCoy:  For a young writer or someone just breaking in, if you’re sending stuff to reps its best not to confuse them. One way or another, you’re going to end up on a list. Maybe eventually you can move from comedy, to dramedy and then make a graceful transition to drama, or vice-versa, but at least at the beginning have a couple of samples in one genre.

John Swetnam:  Also, if we’re talking about somebody who’s trying to break in, and have that first bit of success, it just makes sense to practice that one thing, to become really good at that thing, so you can sell that thing.

If you want to be a basketball player, you don’t spend 10 years practicing volleyball, and tennis, and all these other fucking things, you spent all your time learning how to play basketball.

As long as you get that first one off, if you want to try your hand at other genres later on, that’s fantastic. But you’re already in the system. You have a defined genre because whatever your first script sells, that’s your genre. You can have a living, and you can continue to do those. If you want to go off and try something different, do it then. Don’t do it at the very beginning.

Find the one thing that you like to do the most, and that you think you’re the best at, and become really, really good at that so you can have that bit of success. When you have success you can diversify. Try whatever the hell you want to because you’ve got money in the bank.

Scott:  Even on a pragmatic level, John, they’re competing against the top, top pros in the world and so they’ve got to know their stuff in that genre. They’ve got to know the scripts, they’ve got to know the writers, they’ve got to know the tropes, the memes. How could they expect to necessarily excel in one genre if they’re focusing on multiple genres?

John Swetnam:  Absolutely. For me, I’ve told this story before, but I wrote 20 scripts before I sold the first one. But in the very beginning, I was always chasing the market, chasing the money.

When I started, everyone was selling these big, high‑concept comedies, it was like, OK, it’s fucking, it’s, “Mini Golf with Jack Black.” OK, sold. Or it’s, “Bass Fishing with Will Ferrell.” You could sell anything with a big‑comedy concept. So, I chased that for years and I wrote these big‑concept comedies.

Then I tried some romantic comedies. I did all these things. I look back at that, and the reason it took me 20 scripts is because the first 10 of them I was just all over the place.

Until I found the one genre I liked, which was sort of the thriller‑action‑horror kind of thing, that’s when things started taking off for me because I really focused in and tried to learn from the people that do that really, really well and really focused my studies.

Because you’re right, Scott, you’re going up against people that have spent 10 years studying that specific genre. So, if you want to better than them, or as good as them, you’d better put in the work.

Unless you’ve got 20 years and you can study everything, you have to sort of focus yourself and be the best at that one thing.

I would like to one day when I learn how to be funny try to write comedy. But, not right now. Not until a few more years. But, I’m going to try and do something else if I feel like it, but not at the beginning. I think that really kind of slowed me down when I look back.

Scott:  Borrelli I think made a really good point. It’s got to be a genre that you’re really interested in, that you’ve got a lot of passion for. Not only to help drive you through the process of learning it and writing it, but also too, because you’re going to be put on these lists, like Chris said.

So, your agents and managers are going to be putting you out for assignments in that genre. You’d better damn well love that genre because that’s what you’re going to be seeing for five, six, seven years.

Greg Russo:  The establishment of a brand as a screenwriter is the easiest way to go out and get jobs. The ability for someone to categorize you is not a negative. That’s actually a big positive, in terms of getting work.

John Swetnam:  That’s such a great point. I always hear this. This might just be me, but people always say to me, “Aren’t you afraid of being pigeonholed?” I’m like, “Fuck you. I want to be pigeonholed.” Put me in a pigeonhole because that means I’m getting those jobs. I’m up for that specific thing.

I think it’s an amazing problem to have. I want to have a brand. I want to have a certain thing that I do really, really well.

Again, if I can expand that over the course of my career, that’s fantastic, but having a pigeonhole in the beginning, people talk about it so negatively. For me, personally, I think that’s like you hope for that. You hope to be pigeonholed.

Scott:  Because then the execs and the producers will default, like Found Footage, for example. You’ve had two projects with Found Footage. They have something come up, they need a rewrite. It’s Found Footage. They would probably default to you. You’d be on that list.

John Swetnam:  Absolutely. I sold two Found Footage things and I get a lot of Found Footage stuff. Because of that pigeonhole, I use that to expand the pigeonhole. I was doing Found Footage stuff, and then I did a Found Footage movie, but I made it bigger. I added more action and more adventure.

So, then it was, “Oh, well maybe he can do action as well.” Then I would get a job doing action and adventure. Then it’s, “Oh, well he might be able to do this next thing.”

At first it was the pigeonhole, it was Found Footage. I’m so grateful for that every single day because that got me in the door, and I could expand that pigeonhole because I was already in there. For me it was fantastic, I’m so glad that happened.

Scott:  That’s very helpful because I think for those writers out there who are afraid to commit to a certain genre, to know that there is some freedom, and that in fact you’re building a brand, that does open up a lot of opportunities for work, but that you always can expand that. You can expand it out either through certain assignments that may be a little bit different, but like what Frazier was saying, play to your strengths. But then you also could just run a spec script of whatever genre you want, down the road, and have the freedom to do that.

John Swetnam: Absolutely.

Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: Greg Russo.

Russo sold thriller spec “Down” to Relativity in 2010,  and has twice optioned action/thriller spec “Autobahn” formerly “I-95” – He sold an action/thriller pitch to Alloy Entertainment in 2011 and wrote the most recent draft of “Heatseekers” at Paramount for producers Michael Bay, Chris Morgan, and director Timur Bekmambetov. In 2012, he was hired to write an original action project for the Bandito Brothers (Act of Valor) and director Scott Waugh (Need for Speed) – He’s currently in negotiations for two action/sci fi projects at Relativity and Sony and has signed on to develop a one-hour action procedural for Alcon TV. He’s repped by ICM Partners and Madhouse.

For my interview with Greg, go here.

Please take time to leave a reply with your observations and follow-up questions, 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.

On Twitter:

F. Scott Frazier: @ScreenWritten

Chris McCoy: @thatthere

Justin Rhodes: @twopointfour

John Swetnam: @JohnSwetnam

Many thanks to Laura Stoltz (@LeStoltz) for logistical help with the roundtable. Laura is one of my UNC former students, currently an assistant at Haven Entertainment, and a talented writer in her own right.

For Part 1 of the roundtable, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

Tomorrow: Part 5 of this exclusive screenwriter’s roundtable.

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