Scott: Some craft questions for you. Let’s say you’re going to write a feature spec or you’re going to spec a TV pilot. How do you come up with story ideas?
Jeff: In spec development, it’s all about concept. Spec films…let me step back here to the spec films. There’s the kind I wrote to get noticed which were small independent quirky world and they were all about character and I’d just stuck to things I was passionate about. In one case, it was a story about a kid whose father passes away, who creates for himself, an imaginary version of a superhero to replace his father. It was actually a really dark script so it sounds like a teen comedy, but it wasn’t. The other was this story about his college friend comes back. It was attractive and what people liked about them was that my voice was pretty specific and they bought it.
If you’re writing spec film to sell, the big way, it’s really about presence. You just pitch, you say, “This is the poster.” The clearer the poster is, you have people to get to page five. After that, it’s up to writing. In TV, it’s all about the world.
I think the one thing that people mistake when they’re writing a TV pilot is it’s aimed at the plot of the pilot. When I go to pitch an idea with somebody, I pitch them the world, I pitch them the characters, I pitch them the long arc. As I’m walking out the door, someone says, “What’s the pilot about?” The pilot is the least important piece when compared to just getting arcs for the show.
For example, if I were pitching “Breaking Bad” – and it’s one of the best pilot scripts out there, you’ve got to read it – I would talk about, “There’s this guy and he’s the most overworked person in the world. He’s a math teacher at a high school that nobody gives a shit about. His marriage is going south. His kids are annoying and so and so forth. Then, he gets cancer and he decides to get something for himself. And while he’s going to get something himself, he decides to cook meth.”
Now, I say, “This is the show about a guy that starts to dip into cooking meth and he’s the least likely character out there.” Then you pitch around character and you say, “That’s the show and we’re going to watch him over a five season arc. The long arc is about he goes from your least powerful person to one of the most powerful, and he does it through cooking meth. None of that requires you to know too much about the pilot. It’s all about the large arc to the series. Then someone says, “Cool! Well, how in the hell did he get involved in cooking meth?” And you go, “OK. Now I’m going to tell you the pilot.” You’re selling the world and you’re selling characters, and then, at the end, somebody says to you, “OK, what’s the first episode about?”
Scott: Let’s say you’re writing a spec feature film. How much time do you spend in prep writing, and what do you do in terms of brainstorming, and character development, and plotting and outlining?
Jeff: I’d say you’re going to spend three‑quarters of your time doing that and a quarter of it actually writing because you’re going to spend your time ‑‑ I work on note cards. I buy a bunch of note cards. I’ve got one for my pilot right here. I write cards and I move them around, and I write more cards and I rip them up. For a film, I will go from 100 cards, to a 40‑page outline to a script. For a TV show, I’ll go from 40 cards, to a 25‑page outline to a script. If you nail parts one and two, part three should be fairly easy. Then you’re going to rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite, but the hardest part is really getting to the first draft, I think.
What separates, in my opinion, good writers from great writers is you do need to dynamically look at your own material and figure out what’s wrong with it. I think a lot of people finish a draft of a script and they go, “It’s done.” They read it and they think, “It’s great!” I think, really good writers look at it and go, “That doesn’t work,” and then is willing to go back and fix it and refine it.
The ability just to see what the problem is is the first great hurdle, and then to have the elasticity to come up with another way around it, and to be willing to tear it up and put it back together again is where the great talent lies. It’s why, frankly, studios and networks want to hire people who’ve done it before because writing one script is…Everyone’s got one script in them, right?
The question is, do you have the ability to look at what’s there and solve the problems as you go? That is something that takes time and learning, and there’s some people who just know how to do it and they rise up. But otherwise, you have to have some ability to learn how to do that, otherwise…
You know, people always complain, and I’m sure I did too before I got the job, “Why do they go to the same writers?” Well, the reason they go to the same writers is they’ve gone through this particular task of being able to diagnose problems by themselves and then figure out ways to solve them.
Scott: I always thought there are three groups of people in Hollywood. There’s people who really don’t understand story very well at all. There are people who can tell you what’s wrong with the story, but they don’t really know how to fix it. Then there’s that third group, who can tell you what’s wrong, but also know how to fix it. That’s that last group that you want to be in as a writer.
Jeff: Right. That’s correct. And the ability to hear when various people give you the same basic idea even in different form, and to be able to say, “Ah.” A lot of times, you’ll get notes that are specific, like “I don’t think that character should die here,” right? And the trick is to be able to say, “That’s actually not the problem. The problem is not that the character dies here. The problem is that there’s no one else in the script to jump into the void to become the menace once that character dies.” So you have to be able to both hear the note and then say, “OK, well, hang on.” Some of it, the note is the problem, but a lot of times the note is pointing at something which is not the thing they’re actually pointing at.
Scott: Do you have any tips on how you go about developing characters when you’re writing a spec script? Any tools you use regularly?
Jeff: I used to be against cheating, but now I’m sort of for it. Which is, there’s all this stuff that’s in the screenplay that never will see the light of day. There’s sort of two scripts you write. There’s the one you write for people to read, and then there’s the one you write for people to shoot. They’re very different materials. The first draft I write to get greenlit is the reader’s draft, and I’m all for cheating in that. Which is the ability to say this character is like that person. This character is like Jim Carrey on a bad day if he weren’t funny so that you instantly connote an idea that somebody can latch onto and take with them in scenes going forward. Now, that’s never going to get shot. It doesn’t even have an actor. When you go to the shooting version, you pare all that back and just give them what they need to move forward. I think you have to be able to impart…
Again, the most important part of any script is the first ten pages. It is the thing that you can write, and rewrite, and show someone, and wordsmith, and adjust and readjust. There’s no amount that you can do that to because it’s really the hump you’ve got to get everyone over.
They have to trust you as a writer. They have to trust the story, and they have to buy into the characters. If you can do that in ten pages they’ll read forward. That’s why I say, once I’ve decided that there’s someone out there who I find interesting, I’ll read ten pages of anything they’ve written and give them a shot.
All I’ve got to read is ten pages. If they’ve lost me after ten pages then it’s gone, and if not, I’ll read to page eleven. Then maybe, I’ll make it to page 50. If I’ve made it to page 55, I’m in.
Scott: Interesting you use that word “trust.” Most of the time people will say, “Oh, yeah, the first 10 pages, that’s to get a reader’s interest.” But it’s also about building a connection with the reader where they feel, “Wow, I can really trust that this writer is going to go some place special with this.”
Jeff: Yeah. I think the reality is we all read…I’m a writer so I’m not an agent or I’m not a manager. I read hundreds, and thousands and tens of thousands of pages a year. There is a moment with a lot of scripts where you just throw it against the wall and say, and sort of scream out, “Why did you make me do this? Why did you send me down this road if you didn’t know what you were doing or if you didn’t recognize that this doesn’t work?” It really is about building to a point where the reader says, “OK, I can trust that this writer knows enough of what they’re doing that…” I can agree with things, I can disagree with things, I would do them differently, but as a writer I know I’m the hands of someone who has thought this through well.
Now, from a buyers’ standpoint, maybe, there’s just something more craft and commercial. Which I think, again, for them the first hurdle you have to do is, “Is this a world I want to be in?”
There’s a movie out there which is “Robot Versus Aliens.” It does it in the title, Pacific Rim. You can just see what the screenplay was, which was, “In order to stop the aliens we built robots.” You can see the marketing and all that sort of play out.
On that level, maybe, even if the writing isn’t any good they just buy into the concept. Then if you’re that writer, and some people are, who pitch concepts and they’re great, you won’t be around when the film gets made. But you may have made a fair amount of money on the way up there.
I never wanted to be that writer, and I’m probably just not that writer who has the ability to pitch concept after concept. I, much, will have to do the work to get there.
In tomorrow’s final installment, Jeff talks more about the craft and keys to success as a writer in Hollywood.
Please stop by comments to thank Jeff and ask any questions you may have.
Jeff is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.