On the weekend of October 2-4, 2015, four writers gathered in Chicago for an exciting event: The third Black List Mini-Lab. The writers — Maggie Clancy, Mark Fleming, Anna Hozian, and Brian Trapp — 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 including Franklin Leonard and met one on one with mentors Derek Haas and Brad Riddell, as well as Franklin, 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.
It has been a little over a week since I left the Chicago Black List mini-lab. I stood outside of O’Hare at six in the morning, trying to make sense of the surreal weekend I just had.
Friends have been asking me how the lab went and I can’t really put it into words. I usually settle for “Fucking amazing. I fell in love again.”
When I first moved to Los Angeles to pursue writing, I was young and sparkly. I thought that if I worked hard, I could have my writing career within a year. When you love something so much, it can’t be wrong, right? Four years later, I was juggling odd jobs, trying to make time to write. I didn’t enjoy it, though. Everything felt like a struggle. With screenwriting, there is no tangible progress. You work your ass off for years, and then all of a sudden you are an “overnight success.” I didn’t foresee my overnight success coming any time soon. I kept trudging along, but my optimism had waned significantly.
The Chicago Black List Mini-lab proved that all of the trudging is worth it. When I received the email that I was selected, I had to reread it at least five times to make sure it was real. After all the rejections over the past four years, it seemed like this had to be a cruel joke. Even when I arrived to the first introductory dinner at Publican, I felt like an imposter. Here I was, surrounded by creative, thoughtful, supportive people. And, for whatever reason, the team at Black List decided I belonged there as well.
Over the weekend, I met with three mentors one-on-one (Franklin Leonard, Derek Haas, and Brad Riddell) and received in-depth, thought-provoking feedback. These mentors didn’t just casually breeze through my script. They analyzed it from every angle. Franklin took me back to the beginning, asking why I wanted to tell this story. Derek gave me an intense page by page critique along with some tips about entering the realm of TV. Brad helped me shape my characters and regain enthusiasm for the project. Of course, that is oversimplifying it, but it’s hard to cram four and a half hours of one-on-ones into one paragraph. It was brutal. It was beautiful. It made me feel like I do belong in this industry. And, more importantly, it made me fall back in love with my script.
The peer sessions only solidified that belief. Mark, Anna, and Brian are fun, fantastic writers. During our peer session with Scott, each fellow provided thoughtful, constructive criticism. I fully intend on staying in touch with them as our writing journey continues.
Scott brought up Jung and the idea of a dark impulses, or truths about yourself you are hiding. “If you suppress your dark impulses the universe will bring you to places where you have to face it. The universe will create circumstances to compel the character to change,” he said. I don’t think Scott realized how much that rocked my world. The universe had created a circumstance for me to change. To take my writing seriously and to the next level. It gave me this opportunity with the Black List. To be around people who truly understand writers and want to do everything in their power to help them grow.
Thank you, Black List, for bringing back the spark with my writing. Thank you for helping me fall back in love. Fellow writers who are trudging along, keep trudging.
Talk about impostor syndrome — for one surreal weekend, I found myself surrounded by this crazy concentration of writing talent, from the mentors to the peers to the Black List team. And since then I’ve been struggling to even describe to people how… just…wow…
It all got kicked off with an email from Megan containing scripts from the other aspiring writers in the lab and an itinerary for the week. This itinerary was so thoughtfully designed and well planned that If I ever get chosen for The Amazing Race, I’m kidnapping Megan for my team (assuming that show entails planning, teams, and kidnapping — I’ve never actually watched it).
As for the scripts, they were so different from each other, but all brilliant. They were bullet reads with unique voices that I could envision on screen as I read them. We were able to dive into the scripts in our first workshop with Scott, who challenged and guided us in discovering the core elements of our own stories. He had this zen master ability to get us to look at our script from different angles, which led to us being honest with ourselves on what we felt were the strengths and weaknesses in the scripts, as well as “why?” we were writing these stories. This is a fundamental question that often gets sidelined when a writer gets multiple drafts into their script.
He then prepped us for our mentor sessions…
Like Scott, the other mentors were remarkably generous with their time and support. It ranged from getting top level notes on the commercial prospects of the story, down to the actual word choice in a line of dialogue and how it would impact the actor. I was able to whiteboard a new outline with one mentor, get page-by-page feedback from the other, and learn significantly better character (and drama) development from another. Punches definitely weren’t pulled by anyone, but I can’t think of one instance where a critical note was given that wasn’t accompanied with a suggestion to improve it or take a different approach. Everything was constructive.
Then after the sessions, Scott led another workshop that helped us process the hours of feedback we’d received up to that point, and he and the other Mini-Lab participants all served as a support group to each other (a group that will continue to stay connected long after the weekend). We helped turn all the notes, strategies, and feedback into something we could take home with us — a heightened self-awareness about our writing.
All this is exactly what my script and I needed. After many drafts and injecting it with years of feedback and trying to please so many different readers and viewpoints, these focused sessions laid a path to return to what it was supposed to be, yet better.
Though out of all the valuable lessons and guidance I received, one element struck me the most — how hard these folks worked, and they worked because they loved what they were doing and they were disciplined. These are some of the hardest working people I know in any profession. Pages didn’t come to them, they got their butts in their seats, and in some cases behind the camera. I picked up a ton of practical advice on how to be more disciplined, and it’s helped make writing a priority for me again.
Thanks to The Black List team, the mentors, and the fellow participants for the inspiration and generosity.
The Black List Mini-Lab in Chicago offered not only feedback on my script from four fantastic mentors, but it also connected me to three extremely talented writers whom I now call friends. Having read one another’s screenplays prior to the labs, we were able to peer into one another’s private worlds, creating instant connections to one another.
The opening dinner at Publican quickly removed any separation of mentor/mentee as we all laughed and talked over chicken liver pate and family-style entrees of pork bellies and pulled pork bruschetta.
Then on Saturday morning, Scott Myers kicked off the weekend, having us focus on the strengths and weaknesses of our scripts and guiding us back to the heart of why we wrote our screenplays in the first place — this first session grounding us for the next two days.
The following one-on-one sessions with screenwriters and development executives validated my current writing while pushing me to go to the next level, not only with my chosen screenplay, but with my writing overall. Each of the mentors approached the work in very different ways and allowed me to see my screenplay from various angles; they also offered advice on where to take my future writing to further my career in the industry.
Scott then finished the weekend with a recapping peer workshop and by offering us tools to incorporate the notes we had been given into our work, setting us off in pointed directions once we left the lab.
And finally, at the farewell dinner, as we all crammed into a booth at The Little Goat, the mentors regaled stories about the business and their personal lives, making my idolized world of “Hollywood” less nebulous; it is simply a place where working screenwriters work. And they all started right where I am — creating stories that they hope will make an impact on the world in some way.
I cannot thank the entire team at The Black List — Franklin, Megan, Kate, and Scott — for providing opportunities to emerging writers that cannot be found elsewhere. And for the other mentors, Brad Riddell and Derek Haas, for taking the time to read and consider our work. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
General Thoughts on the Minilab Experience
The Chicago Minilab was an absolutely remarkable experience. It’s one thing to get feedback from mentors or readers through a computer screen, but getting live feedback from your peers and professional mentors is quite another! The experience was often enlightening, challenging, and ultimately invaluable. What the Black List is doing for new writers is absolutely phenomenal, and from the moment I left Chicago I knew I had grown as a writer.
Franklin, Megan, Kate, and Scott make a great team, and I can’t express my gratitude enough for their hospitality and generosity toward me and my fellow lab participants. It’s clear that they’re truly committed to investing time and resources into developing young screenwriters. Over just a few days, I truly feel like my screenwriting process was transformed. The Black List folks and the mentors made me better!
The one-on-one mentoring sessions with Franklin Leonard, Brad Riddell, and Derek Haas were eye-opening experiences. What I appreciated about all three of them was their willingness to offer generous praise and criticism in equal measure. They weren’t there to coddle our feelings; they were there to help us improve our writing! When the producer of three NBC shows reads your stuff and specifically points out where your dialogue sucks, you take notice. You also take notice when your mentors all give you the same note about your script. With that kind of agreement, you start to see where your own storytelling process went off the rails, or where certain elements of the script just don’t land with the reader like you intended them to land.
Both Franklin and Brad were quick to point out that certain elements of my script just didn’t seem necessary, and both offered constructive alternatives to achieve the desired arcs for my characters. Derek marked up a hard copy of my script like a teacher grading a paper, and was quick to point out all the little things that seemed amateurish or wouldn’t translate well on the screen.
It was interesting to see where the three mentors agreed about my script, but also where they disagreed. It’s fascinating to experience when one pro screenwriter tells you a particular creative decision doesn’t make any sense, while the next one tells you it’s one of the stronger points of the script. This must be what filmmakers feel like when their work inspires a wide variety of viewpoints from critics and viewers! But this was also enlightening, because it showed that art can inspire different, even opposite, reactions, and that part of the task of the artist is an attempt to manage the perceptions of the audience while knowing that those perceptions may be very diverse.
The two workshop sessions led by Scott Myers provided a wealth of new strategies and approaches for my script. It felt like drinking from a fire hose at times, but Scott’s insights into story and character are so deep I can honestly say those few hours will inform my screenwriting process from here on out.
Scott’s emphasis is on character motivations, and his repeated insistence that you must know what your characters want is a simple but profound way to assess the character work in your scripts. Drama stems from conflict and unfulfilled desire, and in every great film the characters have a burning desire for something. That desire fuels their actions, their interactions with other characters, and (if you’ve got a properly active protagonist) the plot itself.
The workshop time was also invaluable because it allowed all four Minilab participants to critique and offer notes on each other’s scripts. My three co-participants offered notes and insights into my script that were just as helpful as the insights offered by some of the mentors!
If I could describe the Chicago Black List Minilab in one word, it would be invaluable. That’s because it provides the closest approximation to the experience that pro screenwriters get on a regular basis: the experience of sitting around in a room of experienced screenwriters and studio execs hashing out script notes. Thanks to everyone at the Black List for an amazing weekend!
Speaking personally, I struggled through this weekend as valiantly as I could, felled by a nasty head cold, so I appreciate reading these comments that evidently, at least something of what I said made sense! It was a great group experience and 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.
More Black List screenwriter labs and workshops on the horizon. Stay tuned for news on that front!