Protagonist v. Nemesis: Key to Conflict

April 24th, 2015 by

Your choice of a Protagonist is easily one of the most critical decisions you make because of the character’s dominant influence on a story:

  • The Protagonist usually goes on some sort of physical and/or emotional journey.
  • That journey creates the spine of the plot.
  • That journey shapes the contours of the character’s psychological arc.
  • The Protagonist’s goal almost always dictates the story’s end point.
  • All the other major characters are linked to the Protagonist and his/her journey.
  • Of all the story’s characters, the Protagonist generally undergoes the most significant personal metamorphosis.

Plus there’s this: The Protagonist almost always serves as the primary conduit into the story for a script reader or moviegoer. Symbolically the Protagonist functions as you, often imbued with ‘everyman’ qualities to maximize the character’s reach to the widest possible audience.

But Protagonists do not exist by themselves. Indeed, if conflict is the stuff of great drama, there is perhaps no conflict more compelling than that of a Protagonist versus a Nemesis.

A Protagonist almost always has a conscious goal, what we may call Want, and an unconscious goal, what we may call Need, but there is no conflict, no drama, indeed no story unless someone or something actively strives to block the Protagonist from achieving their goals.

Enter the Nemesis. This character not only functions as a Protagonist’s foe, the Nemesis is capable of generating within the script reader tension, anxiety, disgust, even fear. While we may try to avoid these feelings in our daily lives, we are lured to them in our stories, a safe place in which to experience the ‘darker’ side of existence. Plus the simple fact is most of us find this type of stuff damned entertaining.

Therefore it stands to reason if you can zero in on the core essence of both your Protagonist and Nemesis characters, grasping what binds them together both in terms of plot as well as their psychological connection, you will have discovered the centerpiece of your story at almost every level.

To that end, I have created two companion courses at Screenwriting Master Class: Create a Compelling Protagonist (begins April 27) and Write a Worthy Nemesis (begins May 11). If you are just beginning the process of wrangling a story or you’re stuck in your writing, this is a great opportunity not only to workshop your story by immersing yourself in these pivotal characters, but also learn a process you can use for character development in all of your future writing projects.

For example, I’m sure we’ve all heard these buzzwords about how to craft a Protagonist character: Give them a flaw… Make them sympathetic. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but in practice how that often gets translated is an Outside-In approach to writing, whereby the writer, standing ‘outside’ the story, forces some sort of sympathetic element or flaw ‘into’ a character. In Create a Compelling Protagonist, you learn an Inside-Out approach where the you go into the Protagonist, immersing yourself in that character’s psyche and personal history so a whole spectrum of Disunity elements emerge.

In Write a Worthy Nemesis, you will learn a process to surface three important qualities in your story’s key oppositional figures:

  • Powerful Opposition: More than just obstructing the Protagonist’s path toward their goal, a Nemesis should create an active, crafty and formidable resistance.
  • Significant Opposition: The resistance a Nemesis provides should not be a general one, but rather something tied to the Protagonist’s specific psyche and journey.
  • Entertaining Opposition: The efforts and actions of a Nemesis should not only be powerful and significant, they should also be interesting and compelling.

By the way, the Nemesis can be a psychological dynamic within the Protagonist. It can be a physical object such as the ocean in Cast Away or the boulder in 127 Hours.

Which is to say there is a lot of territory to cover with regard to these two critical characters and in this pair classes, we cover a lion’s share of that terrain.

Each class offers seven lectures (written by me), 24/7 forum feedback, insider tips, 90-minute teleconferences, and the opportunity to workshop your story’s Protagonist (or Protagonists) and Nemesis (or Nemeses). In my view, these courses are a great value.

So consider joining me for either or both of these exciting 1-week online classes. For more information on Create a Compelling Protagonist, which begins Monday, go here. For Write a Worthy Nemesis, which begins Monday, May 11, go here.

Twitter Rant: Brian Koppelman on Fear and Writing

April 23rd, 2015 by

Brian Koppelman is a writer, director and producer whose movie credits include Rounders, Ocean’s 13, and Runaway Jury. He is also known for his excellent podcast “The Moment” and a popular Vine series on writing and the creative life.

Recently Brian went on a Twitter rant about fear and writing. It is reprinted here in its entirety by permission.

2) talking to anybody else. I was determined to live it exactly as I was saying it. By writing on spec, Dave, Andrew and I were giving

3) ourselves the freedom to fail, to lose or to write exactly what we wanted on our own terms. that the show got ordered to series today

4) reaffirms for me that this freedom is essential for writers, as scary as it is. And I want you to know that it was fucking scary…

5) for me too But also thrilling and rewarding in a way that writing for hire rarely, if ever, is.

6) I know it can seem that once a writer reaches a certain ‘level’ there’s not much he/she is risking. But for the 4 months we wrote first

7) draft, I wasn’t making any money at all. We had just had a movie crash and burn at the box office, and I wasn’t sure how to recapture

8) the fire inside that made me a writer in the first place. The only way was to write, use the fear as fuel. Which, when channeled, it is.

9) I started the podcast–which I have done for free for 14 months–because I wanted people as diverse as @edward_burns and @JasonIsbell

10) to tell me, and you, how they faced that fear. How they defied ‘experts’ and found new ways to do their art, new ways to power through.

11) I hope that their stories would reaffirm that you don’t need permission from anyone but yourself to work your ass off chasing the dream

12) the truth is, the most frightened people of all have to be the gatekeepers, the ‘teachers,’ the ‘experts.’. B/c they cannot DO anything.

13) They are all Salieri. Courtiers. And honestly, that’s not fair to Sallari. At least he could play a mean harpsichord.

14) finally: the next time you’re tempted to believe that there are immutable laws of screenwriting only experts can unlock for you, find…

15) the Scriptshadow review of this year’s best picture/screenplay winner, Birdman, Catch the condescending tone he employs, the confidence

16) and know that he is exactly like all the other self proclaimed experts. They are bottom feeders.

You may follow Brian on Twitter: @briankoppelman.

Feature (Part 2): Michael Harden – Winner, Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship

April 22nd, 2015 by

Back in 2013, the Black List and longtime independent movie producer Cassian Elwes (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club) launched a screenwriting fellowship. A major part of the experience was for a screenwriter to accompany Elwes to the Sundance Film Festival which is precisely what happened with the first fellowship winner Matthew Hickman (you may read about his time at the Festival here and here).

That led to a second year for the fellowship and the winner was Michael Harden. Yesterday we got to hear from Mike in the form of a Q&A re his background. Today a first-person report of his experiences at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival:

My Trip To Sundance

By Mike Harden

So it’s been over a week since I’ve been back from my trip to the Sundance Film Festival, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that it actually happened. I mean, how do you describe one of, if not the greatest experience of your life? I guess for a writer, that shouldn’t sound like such an insurmountable task, but even after being home for a week and still trying to process the whole ordeal, I still can’t quite find the words that do it justice. What Cassian Elwes and The Blacklist have done for me, by choosing me for this year’s fellowship, is one of those life-changing stories that you only hear about in the movies. One day I was just another warehouse worker with a crazy dream of being a filmmaker, the next I’m walking around Sundance, going to movies and parties with people I’ve only read about or seen on TV. Not only that, but Cassian told me repeatedly how much he loved my screenplay and spoke, in detail, about getting it made. I mean, seriously…? Honestly, it still blows my mind every time I think about it. But for the sake of this blog, and anyone who’s bothered to read this far, I will try to string enough coherent thoughts together and give you some of the highlights.

The Festival

It’s hard to describe the energy you feel as you walk through the festival, between the celebrities walking the streets, the filmmakers in competition, the dealmakers and even the normal-folk like myself just excited to be there, you could really feel the excitement in the air. It is something I wish every film lover could get to experience, at least once. I was a little surprised on how concentrated the festival was, even though the theaters were spread out, the festival itself seemed to take place on one long street, which makes it a more intimate experience. Also, it helps that Park City seems to have been carved out of the mountains, surrounded by picturesque scenery everywhere you look. You can see why people flock there year- round, just for the skiing alone.

The Films

Anyone who has ever dreamed of becoming a filmmaker knows the mystique of the Sundance Film Festival. Getting your film into the festival is the goal of most(if not all) independent films. So I was really excited to see the types of films that made this year’s cut. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed. THE BRONZE was probably the funniest film I got to see; even at a 9am showing it played great and had some of the most outrageous scenes I’ve seen in a long time. KNOCK KNOCK was both unnerving, yet hilarious at times–definitely a great movie to watch with a group of friends. But my favorite film was ’71, which if my flight home wasn’t cancelled due to weather, I never would’ve had the chance to see. But I’m sure glad I did, it was the type of film I had hoped to see while at the festival, so much so that I sought out the director afterwards and told him how much I enjoyed it. That was definitely one of the best parts of the festival, being able to talk with the filmmakers about their work, and just being around people who love to make great films.

Parties and Events

This was definitely my first taste of the Hollywood-type parties you always hear about. One that stands out the most was setup in a garish mansion that looked over all of Park City. It was the epitome of exclusive; so much so that you had to take special shuttle rides to it because no one was giving out the address. We drove up through several sets of gates and security checkpoints—it had shades of EYES WIDE SHUT (minus the orgies…well, at least not that I saw…) and filled to the brim with Hollywood heavyweights. At one point I remember staring out over the city, thinking that only a couple months ago I thought my chances of becoming a filmmaker where all but pipe dreams, and now I’m partying inside a mansion at the top of Sundance. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The People

At first I was a little intimidated to meet so many powerful people in the industry, but everyone I met couldn’t have been nicer. I met a lot of really cool people and a lot of them gave me some really great advice. I loved hearing the stories of how they got started in the business, and I picked their brains any chance I could get. It was really encouraging to be around so many people who started out with dreams like mine, and actually went out and achieved them. One of my favorite memories was getting to have lunch with the cast and crew of KNOCK KNOCK, on the day of their premiere. Even with such a busy night ahead of them, they all took the time to give me some great tips on breaking into the business. Plus, director Eli Roth and I talked at length about being from Boston, his accent in Inglourious Basterds, and how awesome Tom Brady is. It was a pretty good day.

Black List Crew

I cannot say enough about Franklin Leonard and the Black List team, and how fortunate I am to have met them. For a Hollywood-outsider like myself, the Black List has provided me, and many other aspiring screenwriters, with a chance to get our material out there and read by people in the industry. I can honestly say that without it, I don’t know if my screenplay ever would have seen the light of day. Along with Franklin, I would like to also thank Terry, Kate, Megan, Scott and everyone at the Black List for all their hard work and for making the trip as exciting and enjoyable as possible.

Cassian Elwes

Really, what can I say? The night Cassian called me on the phone and told me I had won the fellowship will probably go down as the single biggest turning point in my entire life. I just wish I could remember it a little more clearly. Once he told me I had won, I was so elated that I probably heard every third word he said after that. But the one thing I do remember him saying was, “Mike, I’m going to change your life.” And boy has he ever. I was fortunate enough to be able to shadow him around the festival, from panels and business meetings, to the most exclusive parties at Sundance—it was quite the crash course on the business of filmmaking. Now I knew a little bit about Cassian before I got there, but once I got to know him, and to see the respect he has from his peers, I quickly realized what an absolute honor it is to have someone like him in my corner. And I will be forever grateful.

So all and all, it was an amazing trip, one that I know I will never forget. After trying for so long to get a break in this business, with very limited success, I’m still afraid I’m going to wake up and find out this was all just a dream. As a writer, you are constantly looking for some type of confirmation or validation—always wondering if your work is “good enough.” Well by winning this fellowship, it feels like the sky just opened up and the film gods reached down and extended their hand to me, welcoming me to the club. Now I know, by no means have I made it yet, but it’s definitely a pretty big shot in the arm, and I’m ready for whatever happens next. The one thing Cassian and Franklin both told me, repeatedly, is that this is just the beginning. So I know I still have a long journey ahead of me…and I can’t wait.

Congratulations to Mike and best of luck with the writing!

For a list of Black List initiatives, go here.

Wanted: Your input about the blog

April 21st, 2015 by

In May, this humble little blog will celebrate its 7th birthday. That means over the course of 2,532 consecutive days, I have rolled out over 17,000 posts. To which I say…


[exaggerated backhand across sweaty brow]

I will reserve most of my reflections on this journey for May 16th when we do our official birthday soiree — complete with virtual champagne — but what I wanted to lay out for you here are a couple of thoughts, a few suggestions, then a question.

First this simple fact: My life has been a whirlwind the last year or two. Busy on all fronts: writing, teaching, and increasingly interfacing with writers via email and Twitter. I must spend 1-2 hours per day answering questions that come my way, mostly from writers outside the business trying to break in. I’m happy to provide that type of conduit — after all, I was a complete Hollywood outsider when I sold a spec script in 1987 and I’ve never forgotten what it was like to be in that position. However with everything going on in my life, I simply don’t have the time to blog as leisurely as I did when I first started GITS. And this is not a paying gig. Indeed, I haven’t made one dime off this site since I launched it in 2008.

I have thought about scaling back the amount of content that flows through the site, currently averaging 6 posts per day, but I know from the number of emails I receive and the success stories I hear about, like this one, at least a considerable percentage of GITS followers want that recurring feed of information and inspiration: 6AM, 10AM, Noon, 1PM, 2PM, 4PM, 6PM (Eastern).

But perhaps there are GITS followers who do not need all of that content. Trust me, I’m not looking for an out re the amount of posts I do each day, rather simply trying to get more of a sense of what people want.

So Item Numero Uno: I’d appreciate your thoughts on the general flow of information on the blog. More? Less? Different?

Second, one thing I’m super proud of is the amount of content I have aggregated here. I believe the GITS archives offer some of the best content related to screenwriting anywhere on the Internet. And it’s all free which has been part of my vision for this site from the very beginning in part to counteract the many outfits online who are quick to pitch their products in an attempt to pry cash from your wallet with dubious methods, content and results. I honestly believe it’s possible to learn the craft using free sites like GITS combined with my mantra: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write Pages.

That said, I am a Writer Guy, not a Web Guy. So I have zero idea if the way the archives are organized provides maximum benefit for writers or even if they/you know about the boatload of great resources available here. So any thoughts on that front, please send them my way.

Third, if you’re not following me on Twitter (@GoIntoTheStory), you should: 31K+ followers. Besides you ought to be on Twitter anyway as there are tons of pro writers whiling away their time on that social media platform. Great way to track the business, learn something about the craft, and even make connections.

Now onto suggestions. I have two of them, but let me preface them by noting this: I love monthly blog series. Perhaps it’s because I’m a military brat, but knowing as I head into this month or that, the blog will be focusing one daily time slot on 60s Movies, Dialogue Writing Exercises, A Story Idea Each Day for a Month and the like just makes sense to my circadian rhythms.

I have a couple of series in mind for the near future: 50s Movies in which I invite members of the GITS community to provide a post on one of their favorite films from that decade; Screenwriters on the craft in which I aggregate observations from writers I’ve interviewed on specific aspects of the craft such as Story Prep, Dialogue, Theme, and so on; and a new Scene-Writing Challenge where once again, I will offer free Screenwriting Master Class courses for participants, my way of getting people to practice their writing.

Which leads me to my suggestions.

Do any of you remember the live TweetCast? That’s where I set a time, generally 10PM Eastern / 7PM Pacific where at the top of the hour, we all push Play on the same movie and comment on it on Twitter while it plays? Here are a few examples: (500) Days of Summer, Juno, and Michael Clayton. Someone on Twitter asked if we could do that again and I thought, “Let’s take that up with the GITS crew.”

So what do you think: Maybe start doing a monthly TweetCast? We could tie it into the bi-weekly Script Read and Analysis series.

Another suggestion. I am always trying to figure out ways to energize my own writing as well as that of GITS followers. The other day, I was talking with a student, recommending that for a half-hour each day, they turn off their damn cellphone, unplug from their iTunes, and take in the world around them. Listen to conversations and imagine it as dialogue on a page.

Which led me to this: Do you think we’d get any traction whatsoever if one day a week, I challenged people — myself included — to upload a conversation we recently heard? Write it as sides of dialogue. I could create a Word Cloud from each week’s collective conversation, perhaps providing a weird take on our cultural zeitgeist. Again, just trying to inspire people to write.

Your thoughts appreciated.

Finally, my question: Is there something I could be doing on the blog you’d want to see? Something different. Something more. Something less. I am totally open to your suggestions.

Here’s the thing: GITS is pretty much me and you. I have a staff of one. Lil’ ol’ moi. And there are the people who drop by here to the tune of 1.5M unique visits per year.

I am eager to hear your ideas on how to make this site work the best it can for you and other writers. As I say, I am incredibly busy, thus would appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

Beyond all that, let me say I could never have imagined what this blog has become. I have worked to keep it a beacon of quality information, grounded in decades of experience as a pro screenwriter, TV producer, and teacher, as well as inspiration, not hype-driven, but based in reality. Despite the long odds against financial and professional success, dozens of writers have contacted me over the years to tell me how valuable the site has been in contributing to their breakthroughs. Beyond that, the hundreds of writers with whom I’ve interfaced whose writing and lives have been enriched by content they have connected with here.

And there’s this: I’ve never been more well-connected in Hollywood than I am now. Never. Not even when I was living in L.A. and had 4 studio assignments on my docket at a time.

So where does that leave us? I guess I’m just touching base with those of you who find this blog a useful resource. Let me know what you think. Suggestions. Reflections. Whatever.

Every blog post I create is something I send off into Virtual Reality. I hope each one provides meaning to at least a handful of writers. But since I don’t traffic in content that generates flame wars, sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Bottom line: I thank you for your support. I am being totally and 100% honest when I say this: I get up each day and do my blogging as a commitment to aspiring writers everywhere. I know that experience. I want to provide access to The Biz, even if it’s a tiny little access point.

It’s part of the fabric of who I am to encourage writers to get in touch with their Creativity, find their Voice, and write Stories that can lead to Movies we both want and need to see.

There is no greater narrative form than Movies. I applaud any and all of you who love Movies as much as I do. If there is something more I can be doing here to support people in their creative ambitions, let me know.

As always…


Feature (Part 1): Michael Harden – Winner, Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship

April 21st, 2015 by

Back in 2013, the Black List and longtime independent movie producer Cassian Elwes (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club) launched a screenwriting fellowship. A major part of the experience was for a screenwriter to accompany Elwes to the Sundance Film Festival which is precisely what happened with the first fellowship winner Matthew Hickman (you may read about his time at the Festival here and here).

That led to a second year for the fellowship and the winner was Michael Harden. Today and tomorrow, we get to hear from Michael. First, some questions I sent to him about his background:

Scott: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Michael: Growing up, I always had an intense fascination with movies, along with a pretty wild imagination. I remember as a kid, playing with my GI-Joes for hours on end, coming up with all sorts of elaborate stories and adventures. And one time, after watching me for a while, my mother told me I should be a filmmaker when I grew up. And for some reason that always stuck with me. But even though it was always my dream, I never knew that it was something you could actually do. I mean, growing up in Massachusetts, I never knew anyone that had anything to do with the movies, so it never really entered my mind that it was an actual possibility. Then when I was in High School, Good Will Hunting came out, and I remember thinking, “guys from here can write movies?” So that year I took some creative writing classes, and it turned out I was pretty good at it. Actually, my stories would always win awards, but were never allowed in the school magazines because the teachers always said they were too violent, or just plain unsuitable for a school publication– which I always took as a point of pride (and I still do). But once I graduated, I kind of put it on the back burner while I tried my hand at an assortment of different jobs and career paths. But I still dreamed of being a filmmaker, and would always tell my friends that someday I was going to write a movie. Finally, when I was 29 years old, I decided to either put up or shut up and I moved to NYC and enrolled at the New York Film Academy, where I absolutely fell in love with filmmaking. I knew instantly, that that’s what I was meant to do. And I haven’t looked back since.

Scott: What movies from your youth influenced you?

Michael: I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, so the action films of that era were definitely a big influence on my early years, films like: First Blood, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, Bloodsport, Out for Justice, and Big Trouble in Little China, among countless others. Jaws made a huge impact with me. My cousins made me watch it when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, and I was scarred for life—not only is it probably a perfect movie, but it has kept me out of the ocean for my entire life. What’s more influential than that? Also, the first time I saw Goodfellas was the first time I said, “man, I wanna do that.” And for me, it’s by far and away the most influential movie of all time. One reason in particular is when Ray Liotta introduces Robert DeNiro’s character, through voice-over, and says “…Jimmy was the type of guy who used to root for the bad guys in the movies…” and that just blew me away, because it made me look at the villains in films in a totally different point of view. Before that I had always rooted for the hero in the story, but for some reason when I heard that line, it made me realize how the bad guys are usually the coolest/more interesting characters in the movie. And ever since then, my favorite films are the ones with characters that are a little more complicated, or not necessarily what you would consider “good people” if you met them in real life. And stories that are darker and more complex, but can still make you laugh with sharp, witty dialog. Some of my biggest influences are: The Godfather part 1&2, Heat, Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Cool Hand Luke, Death Wish, Boogie Nights, Breathless, Apocalypse Now and The Big Lebowski, as well as some of the great TV shows that have been on over the past decade or so, like The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, to name just a few.

Scott: How have you gone about learning the craft of screenwriting?

Michael: As a kid, I had a rabid obsession with movies and television (and still do for the most part) and I some of my earliest memories are going to the local video store and checking out the VHS covers to see which movie I wanted to rent—usually the rule of thumb was the sleazier the covers or posters were, the better chance that I was going to rent it. Then, when the stores put up new posters, they’d give them/or sell them to me, so the walls in my bedroom were always lined with trashy movie posters. But anyway–the point is, I watched a lot of movies growing up, and I learned immeasurably from them. As far as any formal schooling, I wouldn’t say I took the most traditional path to a screenwriting/filmmaking career. For a while, all I had were the How to Write a Screenplay books that my girlfriend would buy me every year for Christmas (and she still does). They actually were a big help, as far as teaching me the basics like formatting and story structure. Also, most of the books would breakdown different films and/or screenplays, and explain what worked and what didn’t work, which was a big help in understanding what made a good story. But when I finally did take real film courses, at NYFA, it was then that I realized just how little I actually knew. And the reason for that is because other than a few Star Wars re-enactments I shot when I was a kid (see: George Michael in Arrested Development—seriously, I still have the VHS tapes somewhere) I had never written or filmed anything, ever. I had written some short stories, and took some multi-media classes in high school, but those were screw-off classes that we used to ditch all the time. So when I went to NYFA, not only did I get to write a number of short films, but I also got to shoot, direct and edit them. And I think learning all the stages of filmmaking, at least a little bit, makes you a better writer because you’ll have a better understanding of how the whole process works. Also, one more thing that has been instrumental in my filmmaking education is the Internet. I have watched hours and hours of documentaries and interviews of my favorite writers and directors, always looking for any advice or tips I can pick up. I couldn’t tell you how many interviews I’ve watched of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, William Goldman, John Milius, Paul Schrader, David Chase, Matthew Weiner and anyone and everyone who’s work I admire.

Scott: What is the backstory on how you wrote your original screenplay “A Good Man”?

Michael: I completed my one-year filmmaking program at NYFA in 2011, and then moved back home to Massachusetts for four or five months before I headed back to New York to live for another year. But in those four or five months that I was home, I wrote the first draft of my screenplay, A Good Man. Then when I got back to NYC, I took a great night class at The Gotham Writer’s Workshop, where I learned the finer points of screenwriting, and wrote a second draft of the script. After that, a few of my fellow students and I formed a writing group, and as we progressed on our screenplays, we would meet up and discuss them–giving each other notes and feedback. I also wrote and shot a couple more short films during that time, and after each one I felt like I learned more and more, so I would go back and revise the script until I had written a number of new drafts, and got it to where I thought it was pretty good. After that, I started to send out query letters to any actors, agents, managers, producers, and anyone and everyone who might be willing to read it. But after months of sending out letters, I didn’t get any responses. Needless to say it was pretty discouraging. But luckily, that’s around the time I first learned about the Black List, and I eventually I uploaded my screenplay onto it. I got some good reviews and a few notes on how to make it better, but I kept the script as it was for about a year just to see what would happen. I had quite a few people download it at first, but no one ever contacted me about it. So I decided to take some of the notes from the reviews, and I wrote one more draft. I uploaded that version about a year ago, and although it placed pretty high in a couple other contests hosted on the site, nothing was really happening with it. I just hoped maybe someday the right person might stumble across it and fall in love with it. And then one day I saw the call for entries for the Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship, and I said “hey, what the hell.” So I entered it, and the rest is history.

Scott: What’s your logline for the script?

Michael: When someone close to him is brutalized, a guilt-ridden drug addict goes out for revenge, partially to bring justice to the girl, and partly to ease his guilt from his own past. Set in Brockton, MA, this story deals with regret, revenge and most importantly, redemption.

Scott: What made you decide to host the script on the Black List site?

Michael: Well, like I said before, once I had the screenplay to where I thought it was pretty good, I started sending out query letters to agents, managers, producers, etc. And as you can imagine, I didn’t have much luck with that. So, fed up and frustrated that I couldn’t get anyone to read it, and started looking for alternative ways to get it out there and into the right hands. That’s when I stumbled across an article on, talking about this new screenplay hosting service called The Black List. So I did some additional research on it, and everything I read made it seem like a no-brainer. Instead of me sending out mass query letters in hopes that maybe one of them would get a response, I could put my script on this website and have it available to a couple thousand industry professionals. Also, I liked the fact that I could have it reviewed by professional readers, so I could get an idea if I was at least on the right track. And once I did upload it onto the website, and I did get a few good reviews, it really helped to keep my confidence up. As an aspiring writer, you need those little moments of encouragement to get you through the dark days of waiting for that phone to ring. It took a couple years, but it definitely paid off. I can honestly say, that putting my script on the Black List was the best decision of my screenwriting career. Without it, my script would probably just be sitting on my bookshelf, underneath that stack of How to Write a Screenplay books. Like I said, it was a no-brainer.

Scott: What was the process like going from uploading your script to the Black List site to receiving a call from Cassian Elwes informing you that you were the recipient of the 2015 Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship?

Michael: It was definitely a very long, arduous journey from the time I originally uploaded the script to the night Cassian called me on the phone and told me I had won. I’m not sure exactly how long the screenplay’s been on the website, but I’d say it’s been at least a couple years since I first put it on there. I was really at the point where I figured it was still just my first screenplay, and I got some good reviews, and hopefully the next one would be better. When I saw the post for this contest, I almost didn’t even bother to enter; I just figured I didn’t have a chance. Thank God for my girlfriend, Jenn, who gave me a swift kick in the butt and told me a better enter it, or else. So I entered the screenplay, thinking that would be the end of it, but a couple months later I found out I was in the top ten and had to submit a personal essay. And being the hardcore pessimist that I am, I figured I still didn’t have a snowball’s chance. But again, thankfully, my girlfriend threatened me with physical harm (she’s small, but she’s mean) if I didn’t submit the essay. So I wrote it out the night before the deadline and sent it in. And about a week later, my phone rang and the caller ID said: Cassian Elwes, Beverly Hills, CA. I’m sure you can imagine my reaction. I answered the phone and the first thing he said was that I had won the contest, and after that I probably heard every third word he said, I just couldn’t believe it. I actually kept thinking that there must’ve been a mistake, and he called the wrong person, but then he started talking about what he loved about the screenplay and the characters, and that’s when I knew–I actually won the (bleeping) thing! It really was one of those moments you only see in the movies–truly unbelievable.

Scott: What were your expectations before you went to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival?

Michael: I really didn’t know what to expect going into it. I kept telling myself that if nothing else, at least I was getting a free trip to Sundance–and anything else was just gravy. But inside, I was really hoping that it would lead to me seeing my screenplay get made, and the start to a career as a filmmaker. And now that I’m back, it’s safe to say that the trip far exceeded my expectations. The festival was unbelievable and I got to meet some amazing people, hear some crazy stories and watched some great movies. As for my screenplay and a filmmaking career, it’s still a little early to tell, but all signs are looking up. And one thing I know for sure, it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t taken the chance and uploaded my screenplay to the Black List.

One of the nicest aspects about being the official screenwriting blog of the Black List is to interface with writers like Michael and share in their excitement deriving from a worthy initiative such as this one. Tomorrow Michael’s impressions of his time at the Sundance Film Festival.

For a list of Black List initiatives, go here.

Go Into The Story Week In Review: April 13-April 19, 2015

April 19th, 2015 by

Links to this week’s most notable posts:

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 13

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 14

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 15

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 16

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 17

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 18

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 19

Daily Dialogue Theme for Next Week: Betrayal

Everything Is Changing: Reflections on the Movie Business

Go Into The Story Interview: David Guggenheim

Great Character: Sally Albright (When Harry Met Sally)

Hollywood Tales: Mike Nichols and the ending of The Graduate

Interview (Video): Alex Garland (Ex Machina)

Interview (Written): Bruce Wagner (Map to the Stars)

On Writing: Paul Valery

Saturday Hot Links

Screenwriting 101: Geoff LaTulippe

Screenwriting News (April 13-April 19, 2015)

Script Analysis: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Part 1: Scene By Scene Breakdown

Script Analysis: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Part 2: Major Plot Points

Script Analysis: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Part 3: Sequences

Script Analysis: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Part 4: Psychological Journey

Script Analysis: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Part 5: Takeaways

Script To Screen: The Lost Boys

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything You Wanted To Know About Specs (Part 4)

Tom Benedek (Guest Post): Writer as Pioneer

Twitter Rant: Craig Mazin on Script Consultants

Wrangling Your Story

Twitter Rant: Craig Mazin on Script Consultants

April 17th, 2015 by

Last night screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover 2, Identity Theft) responded to a recent post online from a script ‘consultant’. Here is Craig’s response reprinted in its entirety by permission.

He implies that because I went to Princeton, and Princeton is really expensive, I must have had a wealthy background, ergo an advantage.

Incorrect. I attended Princeton on a combination of financial aid, scholarships, student loans and work study.

My folks were public school teachers.

He then implies that because I went to Princeton, I slid easily into a job at Disney. I wish. I did not.

My first job was through a temp agency. $20K a year to type up purchase orders at an ad agency. I didn’t know what purchase orders were.

I worked my way up from that to copywriter over the course of two years. My portfolio was what got me the job at Disney.

If his point is that I was possibly smart or something, and maybe being a little smart helps you be a screenwriter, well… Okay? And? Duh?

Look, if I were a ripoff artist, I’d tell you that you NEEDED me. Why? Because you didn’t go to the right school. Or have the right daddy.

You’d need me because you didn’t know the right people (BTW, I knew NO ONE in Los Angeles), or because you didn’t know the secret handshake.

You’d need me because people who succeeded without me were the exceptions, see? They had magic/circumstance/privileges you don’t.

Good night, and good luck to you all!

It’s like I say: You don’t need to spend a dime to learn the craft of screenwriting.

Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. If you are diligent and persistent, that’s all you need to do.

Thanks, Craig!

Follow Craig on Twitter: @clmazin.

For the archives of all the Screenwriting Twitter Rants, go here.

Wrangling your story

April 16th, 2015 by

Some call it breaking a story. Others cracking a story. I prefer wrangling a story. Whatever you call it, you have to do it… figure out the story. What goes where. Who does what to whom. And for most writers, the ideal time to do that work is before you type FADE IN.

What we call prep-writing.

Of the many things that can go wrong with a screenplay, perhaps the most frequent contributor to a project’s crash-and-burn is the writer not spending enough time in prep wrangling their story.

Conversely if you do spend sufficient time in the prep-writing phase of the process, you significantly increase the chances you’ll not only finish your script, but produce a draft that will be much closer to realizing your goals.


When Tom Benedek and I launched Screenwriting Master Class nearly four years ago, the very first class we offered was Prep: From Concept To Outline. I created the workshop precisely because I believe so strongly in the value of prep-writing combined with the fact there is nothing out there remotely close to the approach I had in mind.

Prep: From Concept To Outline is a 6-week online workshop in which you start with your basic idea and your story’s Protagonist, then through a series of weekly writing exercises, you develop and build your story’s structure. Not just the plot, but also what’s going on in the emotional and psychological world of your story universe, the foundation of Character Based Screenwriting.

Character work. Brainstorming. Plotting. Subplots. Connecting the dots. Mapping your narrative. Weekly teleconferences where we workshop your story. In the end, you have a detailed outline providing you a foundation upon which you can craft a first draft.

What’s more, you can adopt this approach — and adapt it to your own unique skills — for every future writing project.

Tom will be leading the next session of Prep beginning Monday, April 20. So if you have a good idea for a movie and want to learn a professional approach to wrangle it, sign up now for Prep: From Concept To Outline.

If you have any questions about the workshop or what we offer online through SMC, please post in comments or email me.

Black List Table Reads podcast debuts tomorrow!

April 15th, 2015 by

Black List Table Reads? Yep. For background, there’s this. And this. There’s also this Bloomberg Business article:

Malcolm Spellman and Tim Talbott, a screenwriting duo known as the Robotard 8000, sit on canary-yellow chairs in a Hollywood studio discussing their darker days. “Both of us were dead,” Spellman says. Back in 2008, after a few decent years in the industry, work had dried up. “Our reaction was to flex our s— to the max,” recalls Spellman, now a writer on Empire, the hit Fox TV show. The two friends are being interviewed by Franklin Leonard, host of a new weekly podcast, The Black List Table Reads, which features dramatic readings of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. Leonard, who’s become a patron saint for movie writers over the past decade, is partly responsible for reviving the Robotard 8000.

Film development executives are always searching for new material, but it’s tough to trust unvetted talent with multimillion-dollar projects or gauge the potential of more offbeat stories. So in 2005, Leonard started his Annual Black List, which highlights the year’s best-liked unproduced scripts, as nominated by more than 300 industry insiders. “We’re just as interested in identifying scripts that are tiny but well-written as we are in box office material,” he says. Sometimes his discoveries are both: Ben Affleck found the script for Argo on the list; it went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

At first, Leonard’s hobby occupied him for three weeks each December. Now he’s made it a business that employs five people. In addition to the survey, which earns nothing, he’s introduced to connect screenwriters with and without agents to producers looking to make films. Writers pay $25 a month to have a script hosted and $50 for a professional evaluation. (Leonard’s company keeps half; the rest goes to the evaluators.) So far, more than 20,000 scripts have been uploaded.

“It used to be a closed-loop system where, if you didn’t have an agent, you were pretty much screwed, because nobody would read your material,” says Scott Myers, author of the screenwriting blog Go Into the Story. “Franklin’s created an alternate to the old, very narrow, confined way of getting in.”

The podcast is yet another example of Franklin Leonard’s forward thinking. The podcast goes live tomorrow. You can sign up here.

I talked with Franklin about the podcast and inquired about whether the scripts would be made available for listeners to download. His response: “We can’t make any absolute promises and we’re not making it a precondition of doing a podcast, but we’re going to make every effort to make every script available.”

That would be a great exercise: Read the script while listening to the table read.

Once again, the small, dedicated Black List community with whom I am partnered launches an initiative to uplift and promote talented screenwriters and great stories.

To support the effort, subscribe to the Black List Table Reads podcast by going here.

UPDATE: You can hear a preview of tomorrow’s podcast and read the featured script “Balls out” by going here.

Or you can listen to it here:

Tom Benedek (Guest Post): Writer as Pioneer

April 14th, 2015 by

A guest post from screenwriter Tom Benedek (Cocoon) and co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class:

Stories have endings. Characters may have inevitable emotional destinations. They may start with an internal dissonance – a psychological itch they cannot scratch – something which they need to understand, come to terms with which they may not even know about. Writing teacher Lisa Cron, calls this “the live wire” in her book Wired for Story.

Some writers cannot start a project until they know what their theme is. Others ignore the T word entirely, never it even if readers or audience may eventually see great meanings in the work.

But this “live wire” — a character’s internal dissonance — may be at the heart of why we start to write anything. Even though it is not about the writer, it’s about the characters. Who they think they are? vs. Who they really are? What they really know about themselves? vs. What they think they know about themselves?

As plot moves forward, our characters often do grand battle within themselves. Identifying this “live wire” helps the writer understand how the protagonist will deal with the obstacles you throw at them in the story. So throw the compass and road map into the hands of your main character or characters, but be clear about what is disturbing their inner peace, making them tick in the here and now of the plot. And fascinating things may unfold.

You are a pioneer when you start making notes for a new writing project. A number of things may have popped into your head already. An idea, a place, a situation has grabbed you. No one has told your story before so you probably can’t just tell it. You must discover it. As you edge forward, you build your characters. You learn about their “live wires” — their internal dissonances. Plot and story will unfold uniquely through their unique world views.

We’re starting a new 6-week Prep story outline class this Monday, April 20. Pioneer your new script project. Uncover the “live wires” of your characters.

The Prep workshop is one of the most popular classes we offer at Screenwriting Master Class. Easy to understand why as it offers a dual benefit: Not only do you take one of your original stories from concept to outline, you also learn a prep-writing process you can adopt and adapt for all of your future writing projects. Having an efficient, effective way of breaking a story is a critical capability for any writer who hopes to work in Hollywood, either as a screenwriter or TV  writer.

For more information on the upcoming Prep workshop with Tom Benedek, go here.