On the weekend of September 11-13, four writers gathered in Toronto for an exciting event: The second Black List Mini-Lab. The writers — Erin Cardiff, Stephen Davis, Mary Goldman, and Tim Visentin — had been selected on the basis of scripts they had uploaded to the Black List website and a personal statement about the story they were writing and their creative aspirations.
Over the weekend, they hung out with the Black List team — Franklin Leonard, Megan Halpern, and Kate Hagen — met one on one with Franklin, myself, and Toronto-based filmmakers Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart to discuss their scripts, then participated in two workshop sessions with me as group leader.
Here are some reflections about their individual and collective experience from the weekend they spent together. Their observations are both illuminating and inspiring.
I have been trying to explain to folks what, exactly, I spent the first half of TIFF ’15 doing. I go off onto a wild tangent of mentors and sessions and workshops, and I can see eyes glaze over. But, mention The Black List, and watch the person in front of you snap to attention.
The Black List had already made a fundamental difference in my career trajectory as a screenwriter. They offer a service that’s unparalleled in our line of work. Constructive feedback from professional readers is difficult to find, especially for those new to the industry and without contacts, but The Black List takes the guesswork out of that process. It’s a one-stop shop that functions as the best barometer of a particular script.
I also feel compelled to mention that a Black List lab at TIFF is truly the best of all worlds. I cannot imagine doing this lab anywhere else. TIFF celebrated their 40th year as a festival in 2015, and they are truly the people’s festival. Plus, they offer a mind-boggling array of industry programming. This year, multiple panels concerned the promotion of diversity in film and it was beyond joyful to see that discussion brought to the forefront of industry discussions. And the movies! Every minute of TIFF that wasn’t spent in the lab was spent in a theatre absorbing the best of 2015 cinema from around the world. The badge to access everything TIFF had to offer was a very generous gift from TIFF and The Black List, and one I will never forget.
The mentoring sessions were unbelievably informative. It was amazing to literally be handed a full spectrum of feedback over the course of only three extremely in-depth sessions. Franklin represented the development side of things, Dane and Linsey gave us the perspective of successful Canadian filmmakers dedicated to Canadian film and Scott literally helped us Go Into The Story! Each mentor had a deep understanding of my script, bringing out elements and story possibilities I hadn’t considered, with thoughtful questions and insightful ideas on a myriad of directions my workshopped script could take. By the end of the lab, I had a dozen variations on my script and where it could be headed. Those variants didn’t even cross my mind, and without the insight of the mentors and participants in this lab, I cannot imagine arrive at any of these options on my own.
Speaking of my fellow lab participants, the three people I was lucky enough to participate in the lab with came to the table with such diverse backgrounds and opinions that it did nothing but enhance the joy of the experience. Connecting with a group of talented and smart writers in a similar place in their career was an unbelievable value all on its own. I’m excited to see what those lovely people produce, and I really want to start working on ways for us to collaborate as we move forward.
Everyone from The Black List who came out to meet us – including Dino, Kate and Megan – was lovely. Everything ran smoothly, and everything felt… serene is the only word that comes to mind. I came into the lab experience feeling nothing but anxiety – How did I get here? Did I deserve such a massive opportunity? Was I going to screw this up massively? I tried not to be a complete basket case, at least outwardly, but within minutes of meeting The Black List team, the anxiety melted away completely and the entire experience felt like the warm embrace of a family. This was not an accident. Those who work to facilitate the Black List really are a family, and they really did welcome us with open arms into their fold.
How did the lab help me as a writer? Honestly, I don’t have enough of a concept of that yet. It switched on my brain in a way I could not have ever fathomed. It’s asked me to reexamine how I attack a rewrite. It made me consider much more intensely how I consider which notes I incorporate and why. It very much felt like my first professional experience in a writer’s room-type environment, and in turn make me feel like I’m far more prepared to move into full-time collaborative filmmaking.
Basically, I started TIFF ’15 as a scared screenwriter and ended it as an emerging filmmaker. 100% of the credit for that shift, in both status and mindset, goes to The Black List, this lab, and their generosity toward me and my career.
Stephen, Erin, Mary, Tim
I’m so grateful to Franklin and the Black List team for putting on such an inspiring event and for inviting me to be one its main beneficiaries. As soon as I saw the schedule for the weekend it was clear that the folks at the Black List really ‘get’ writers. This wasn’t going to be a quick pat on the back and a few general pointers; this was going to be a full-body immersion in story and craft. Engaging. Challenging. Hugely rewarding.
The Black List Mini Labs have three key strengths: the amount of time they dedicate to feedback, mentoring and workshopping; the quality and experience of the lab mentors; and the sheer range of perspectives your get on your screenplay in the course of one weekend. Between mentors and fellows, at least seven people read my script. What’s more, they read it with enough commitment to be able to talk in depth about individual scenes and even specific beats within those scenes. It’s rare that you find a group of people so willing to invest so much time in new writers that are unproven and still developing.
The great thing about having so many smart people engage with your script is that it increases the chances of some kind of consensus emerging. For example, if a note about a certain character or certain scene recurs consistently, you immediately know that’s something you’ll want to address in the next draft. This is why it’s so valuable that the mentor sessions are one-on-one. It feels like each mentor is speaking independently, giving you their personal response and then it’s up to you to go away and put all those points of view together into some kind of actionable rewrite plan. Except the great thing is, the folks at the Black List stick around to help! The final session with Scott is all about processing the feedback you’ve received. Ordering it. Structuring it. Decoding it.
The other thing I want to acknowledge is how well the mentors listened. The operating principle for the whole event seemed to be ‘Who is this writer?’ and ‘What are they trying to achieve with this story/screenplay?’ As a result, feedback was always delivered in the context of the writer’s goals. This is such a smart approach and it’s why, even when I was being challenged with tough questions, I always felt supported. After all, would you really want to take directions from someone who doesn’t first ask you where you’re trying to get to? But once the mentors are equipped with this information they’re expert guides able to suggest multiple different routes to your intended destination.
A quick word about Scott. I’ve long-appreciated the work he does on GoIntoTheStory, especially his 1, 2, 7, 14 technique and his Definitive Spec Script Deals List. And that passion that fuels the blog is so totally evident when you meet him in person. Being around Scott reminds you that telling stories is one of the most wondrous and life-enhancing things human beings do. It’s an infectious enthusiasm that set the perfect tone for our in-depth workshop sessions. And he didn’t just focus on our current scripts but the next idea, the next story, the next step on your journey towards an actual writing career. Had his passport mysteriously disappeared on the final evening, thereby prolonging his stay in Canada for a few more days years, I can think of four writers who would have been very, very happy.
As screenwriting analogies go, I’m partial to the image of the old-school miner who, day after day, descends underground, alone, in search of something precious that he believes is there but yet may never be found. One day that miner receives a visit from a group of people who bring lamps and set them up around him. They sift through his little pile of rocks, the stuff he’s not sure has any value up above ground, and with their expert eyes they point to these tiny glistening fragments and they say ‘Look here, you’ve found something.’ And they pick up his tools and they show him how to sharpen them so they cut better. And then they step back and tell him to keep digging. Because ultimately he has to do the work, he has to swing that pick. Only now, he can see where he’s going. And that thing he’s searching for, it doesn’t feel so far away anymore.
To everyone at the Black List: thanks for visiting. And thanks for the lamps.
Stephen, Dane, Tim
Two days spent with supportive, insightful and knowledgeable mentors and fellow writers—what could be more gratifying?
After a lovely dinner hosted by The Black List at a local Toronto restaurant where I met my fellow writers, I awoke the next morning excited, but also somewhat apprehensive—is my writing up to snuff? Is my screenplay really crap, and I got this opportunity by some weird stroke of luck? Or will nerves get the better of me, leaving me an inarticulate mess?
All this anxiety was for naught, as right away the Black List team put us all at ease. After a minor mix-up trying to locate our conference room, Scott Myers gave us the space to chat a little, breaking the ice before opening with an initial peer feedback session. My fellow writers all offered valuable, honest insights in a constructive manner. Next, one-on-one time with the smart, witty and charming Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart who gave me practical notes from a working writer’s perspective. Then time with Scott, who got me to think about my characters and conflicts on a much deeper level. The next morning I got Franklin Leonard to myself. He challenged me to revisit my voiceover, giving me suggestions on how to elevate its power in my story, all the while assuring me I had the skills to do it.
Finally, Scott had us all back for our final full peer feedback session, masterfully synthesizing all the critiques/ideas we’d received from our peers and mentors.
The Black List team put together an agenda that makes so much sense: peer feedback, one-on-one mentorship from four different mentors (each from a slightly different perspective), wrapped up with an impressive synthesis of ideas by Scott Myers. I’ve gratefully come away with a clear sense of direction for my next rewrite and feel confident that, thanks to this inspiring group, I will be elevating my screenplay to the next level.
Erin, Stephen, Scott, Tim, Mary
I must have read the email over about five times before I was sure I had in fact been chosen as the Martin Katz Fellow and would be attending the Black List Lab. It was such an amazing opportunity and fantastic experience that I think some of it is still just sinking in.
From my craft to my career focus, there’s not a single part of me as a screenwriter that isn’t far stronger for having gone through the Black List lab.
The opportunity to learn from such passionate and knowledgeable professionals is something I am extremely grateful for. The Black List crew is such a great group of people who truly do care about great stories, and helping those stories (and writers) be heard. The Black List (Franklin in particular) have been instrumental in my career thus far and I can’t thank them enough. There’s a reason the Black List is held in such high regard, and it’s because of the amazing people behind the scenes.
Whether it be over drinks or in the middle of intense notes sessions, I’ve never felt more inspired to hammer out pages. I left every session buzzing with ideas and found myself racing off to the TIFF industry lounge to frantically scribble down notes like a madman. I wanted to make sure that I absorbed it all and made the most of each session. Didn’t want to let any of it slip away.
Each one of the mentors brought with them their own takes on the same goal — improving my screenplay. Some with page by page notes, others with deep discussions about motivations and theme. They have all pushed me to be the best writer I can be and to always challenge myself to make sure I hold every page to that standard.
I can’t speak highly enough about Scott’s methods. The sessions with him were intense and riveting. Both one-on-one and in the workshops. I could easily discuss story and screenwriting with that man all day. In just a few hours over the course of two days, he’s helped me advanced exponentially as a screenwriter.
I saw just how many emails were left unread over the three days so that he could give his full attention to us and our screenplays. The mind bogglingly high notification count on his phone haunts me to this day. It’s a result of the level of thought and care that went into each of the sessions he held with us.
(…seriously though, it’s a number so big the iPhone can’t even display it properly…)
Scott started off the Sunday by digging into notes we’d received from Franklin, Dane, Linsey, and himself. He wanted to make sure we got the most out of every note by weighing each suggestion against the story we truly wanted to tell. In the end you need to be sure of what your trying to convey, and commit to it fully.
A running theme of the day was forcing yourself to remember got you excited about the idea in the first place. About each character. Each scene. Screenwriting is like walking blindly into a storm, so you occasionally need to stop and remind yourself where you’re suppose to be going and why you ever left the comfort of your bed in the first place.
We then dove head first into peer discussions. Scott pushed us to evaluate every angle and possibly with generous amounts of time devoted to each one of our screenplays. Looking to make sure that moment of conflict was utilized to it’s fullest. He again reminded us to listen carefully to each note. To never ignore any suggestions. There is value in any idea that helps you get where your going. You never know what idea will spark the fire that leads the way.
This lab has helped me approach the breaking and development of my stories in far more polished and professional manor. Which has in turn allowed me to be that much more confident and concise in the decisions I make on the page and the comfort in which I put my work out there.
It’s also taught me that I should probably be writing pages right now…
Speaking for myself, this is the 4th Black List screenwriters lab I’ve been involved with, and each has had its own unique feel. This group – Erin, Mary, Stephen, and Tim – exhibited the very best in writer qualities: talent, passion, curiosity, flexibility, honesty, commitment, openness, and most of all creativity. As with all of our labs, both Franklin and I emphasize the value of them continuing on as a writers group. I have no doubt this quartet will follow through on that.
And Toronto? What a wonderful city! So inspiring to see thousands of movie fans filling the streets from 9AM to midnight, lining up to see dozens of featured films. Between the one-on-one sessions, the workshops, and access to all those screenings, I can understand the glowing reviews each of the Toronto mini-lab writers offered above.
Each represents an opportunity for you to work on your original script with me and other professional writers as your mentors in an intensive weekend, as well as become part of the Black List family. For more information, go here.