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Screenwriting 101: Carter Blanchard

screenplay“I might have been generous before, saying that they’re going to read the first act. I would hope most of them do, and I’m sure no one’s going to want to hear me say that they might not, but just the volume of scripts that come through, a lot of the younger executives have to read all of them. And if you know something isn’t working early on, you know it. So it’s really important to start off well. If you grab people that early in a script, they’re going to keep reading. That’s the main thing.”

– Carter Blanchard [GITS Interview, March 23, 2013]

Interview: Carter Blanchard (2012 Black List)

Carter Blanchard is a great example of talent meeting persistence. His first writing credit is a short film he directed in 1989. Since that time, he has landed numerous writing assignments and sold multiple spec scripts including “Virus” (1994), “Frigid & Impotent” (1995), ”Bedbugs” aka “Dead Asleep” (2004), and “Near Death” (2007). For anyone working in the entertainment industry, that is a long stretch of time. However it is with his most recent spec script “Glimmer” that Carter’s fortunes took a quantum leap, the script selling in a bidding war and making the 2012 Black List and Hit List.

Blanchard

Here are links to the six installments of the entire interview:

Part 1: “I think I was reading 15 to 20 scripts a week and doing coverage on them, while also working as his assistant. But that was the best way to learn how to not write.”

Part 2: “I was in a place of desperation. I hadn’t landed a job in the 16 months since I changed my representation. I hadn’t given my new agent anything that he could sell yet. I  was feeling a lot of pressure.”

Part 3: “The next day I went in and met Mr. Spielberg.  He was incredibly nice and really complimentary about the script. I kept thinking maybe he wasn’t really there and I was talking to a hologram because it was so surreal.”

Part 4: “When you’re starting out, you’ve got to put in the hours, you’ve got to put in the time.  Part of sustaining a career is sheer persistence. Just writing and writing and writing and not giving up.”

Part 5: “I try and come up with something familiar that is done in a way I haven’t seen before.  That’s a big aspect of how I think when I’m trying to generate new ideas.”

Part 6: “Most of the time, I would say, it’s terrible. You wince your way to the finish line.”

Since my interview with Carter, he landed a gig adapting the video game “Spy Hunter” into a movie. Carter was kind enough to answer a couple of follow-up questions about that project:

Scott: How did you get involved with Spy Hunter?

Carter: It came to me as an open writing assignment in December. I had a lot of other projects brought my way but had been on Glimmer 24/7 until the winter holidays. Spy Hunter was one of the first projects I could seriously consider. It had actually been run by me back in 2004 when it was set up at Universal, but I couldn’t crack a take on it then. It was an old video game that I’d played in arcades when I was a teenager and had no story to speak of.

But this time, Ruben Fleischer was attached to direct and he’d put together a very compelling document that piqued my interest. I also wanted to do a spy movie, but not one we’ve seen before, like the Bourne/Bond films. Ruben wanted to make Spy Hunter distinctly American, with a tone of grounded comedy, a la the first “Lethal Weapon” movie. Comedy out of circumstance, not a string of deliberate jokes. So the action is real, but funny situations arise naturally out of character conflict.

I took a meeting with the producers and had some ideas they liked. My biggest idea – the villain’s plot – was straight from an unfinished spec I worked on in 2011. Which just goes to show that you’re never really wasting time if you keep writing… even when things aren’t gelling in the moment.

From there, Dan Lin and Ruben were instrumental in shaping my take before I pitched the studio. They had some great notes of their own, particularly about the main character. So I worked their changes in, re-pitched a few weeks later got the job.

Scott: What are some of the challenges you’re facing in adapting a video game into a movie?

Carter: I only just started writing it, but as far as putting the story together goes, it was building from the ground up because the video game really has no story to speak of. I know there were subsequent versions of the game after the arcade version, but I didn’t play them and don’t know anyone who did. So the awareness, at least for my generation, is based on the game with the 1983 Camaro. When the project was announced I read a lot of negative comments because of that very aspect. I’m kind of taking that sentiment as a personal challenge, because the very thing people were criticizing is what we’re using to our advantage in the story. Besides that, there are lots of insane chase scenes with super-fast weaponized sports cars. I’m going to have a blast writing this.

Please stop by comments to thank Carter and ask any questions you may have.

Carter is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.

You can follow Carter on Twitter: @CartBlanch.

Interview: Carter Blanchard (2012 Black List) — Part 6

Carter Blanchard is a great example of talent meeting persistence. His first writing credit is a short film he directed in 1989. Since that time, he has landed numerous writing assignments and sold multiple spec scripts including “Virus” (1994), “Frigid & Impotent” (1995), ”Bedbugs” aka “Dead Asleep” (2004), and “Near Death” (2007). For anyone working in the entertainment industry, that is a long stretch of time. However it is with his most recent spec script “Glimmer” that Carter’s fortunes took a quantum leap, the script selling in a bidding war and making the 2012 Black List and Hit List.

Today in Part 6, Carter shares more insights into his approach to the craft of screenwriting:

Scott:  How about dialogue? Writing dialogue, is that something that a writer is born with, or is that something you think that they can develop?

Carter:  I don’t know. I think you can develop that. I think it’s a matter of listening.  You hear people talking and you pick up little mannerisms… the way people talk. You obviously don’t always want to write all the pauses and the stuttering as people do in real life, but you can get an idea for character through dialogue, or vice versa. You want to come up with characters who go well together, whether in harmony or in conflict. You usually want a little of both. I think dialogue for me just is another way of informing who the character is.

But I really just write what’s in my head, and then as the script gets further down the road, I start to define character more distinctly. That’s when some of the dialogue mannerisms come up, like Ben in “Glimmer,” who is just a little bit more from the wrong side of the tracks.  I can be guilty in the early stages of writing just a little too… not phonetically, but just obvious, I guess.  It’s bad dialogue, just because I’m trying to force this character into existence by hearing him talk in my head.  For Ben in the early stages; he kept saying, “Hey, yo, what up, yo?” Everything was “yo, yo, yo.” I kept seeing him in my head as Jesse on “Breaking Bad” who talked like that.  That’s already a dated way of talking, but it helped me get him there.  Then later we took all the “yo’s” out. I think there might be a couple left.  I don’t know, it’s hard for me to define this stuff.  I don’t really know how I do it. [laughs]

Scott:  You just do it.

Carter:  Yeah, and half the time it’s terrible. Most of the time, I would say, it’s terrible. You wince your way to the finish line.

Scott:  How about theme?

Carter:  It’s another thing that comes to me later.  I think people who tell the best stories or make the best movies probably think about that from the beginning. I’m always impressed when I meet writers who… I hate pitching. I’m probably better at it than I give myself credit for, but I’m just always so impressed when I talk to a writer, they pitch me their story, and it’s 10 minutes long and sounds amazing. Or they’re thinking in terms of theme first.  Or they’re thinking in terms of what demographic they’re targeting.  All that stuff to me is like, “What?” [laughs]  I always feel I just wandered into this business and got lucky.

But theme‑wise, it’s something that Adam was pushing me toward once we got much further down the road. “What is this about?” That helped inform the conflict between the two friends and the love story a little bit more. I don’t know. I feel like an idiot when I talk about stuff like this, because I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about it.  I was on a writing panel last year. I broke into a sweat, like, “What am I doing here? I don’t know how to tell people anything about writing.” That was one of the things, when I did start to think about teaching, I told my friend, “I don’t know what the hell to say!” [laughs]

Scott:  Then maybe it’s a good thing that one of the bonus points of selling “Glimmer” is it kept you out of having to teach 18 and 19 year-old kids.

Carter:  [laughs] Yeah. I went to speak to this high school film group once at Fairfax High.  I just started talking to them about how studio development works.  They were staring at me for 10 minutes… and as you can tell, I can talk fast… and they were all looking at me with their mouths hanging open at one point.  One girl finally raised her hand and said, “We’re just high school kids.”  I was like, “Oh, yeah, right. Well, here’s a camera…” [laughter]

Scott:  I want to pick up on another craft question here. You mentioned this earlier, having the experience of reading all those scripts that you did when you were first out in LA, how important it was to convey something entertaining about the story in the first Act. But I was struck when I was reading “Glimmer” how efficiently you introduced your core cast of characters and established that story world. How important do you think the first 10 pages of a script is?

Carter:  They’re critical, for sure. I might have been generous before, saying that they’re going to read the first act. I would hope most of them do, and I’m sure no one’s going to want to hear me say that they might not, but just the volume of scripts that come through, a lot of the younger executives have to read all of them.  And if you know something isn’t working early on, you know it.  So it’s really important to start off well.  If you grab people that early in a script, they’re going to keep reading. That’s the main thing.

Scott:  What’s your actual writing process?

Carter:   I get up, make coffee, check the news, start writing. I take a hike in the middle of the day or go to the gym, come back, have lunch, write some more. That’s basically it.

I always work at home.  For a while I was going to The Writer’s Guild, but too many people start talking to you there. Being in control of my writing environment is important to me.  Except for the occasional cat ambush that I can’t ever control.  But it’s good to be home and not have to deal with going anywhere.  When I want a break, I hike, do errands, meet a friend.  There are always general meetings to break up the week.

Once I’m in the writing stage, I really like listening to music while I work.  Once I’m in the flow and I know where the story is going and I’m feeling good about it.  The right music really helps me write action… good heavy music. I get physical with the writing when I’m writing action, I guess, sometimes, like listening to loud music and then really hammering the keys. I’ll catch myself with all this tension in my shoulders and then be exhausted after.

Scott:  What do you do if you get stuck?

Carter:  I’ll take a hike.  That’s always good.  Just being outside is really good.  Anything to distract me… if I was still in a place with a big yard like where I grew up back east, I’d probably mow the lawn, something repetitive, something focused.

There are some trails in Griffith Park where you’ve got to pay attention to where you’re going. It puts you in the present and takes you out of spinning everything in your head for a while. Usually I come back and have answers unless it’s a bigger problem, and then maybe it’s just a case of the story not working.  That’s the case usually if you’re banging your head against the wall for two or three days, talk to your guys about it… if they don’t have answers, they don’t pull you out of it, then usually within a week it’s a good indication that it’s time to move on for me.  Though if it’s an assignment you can’t… then you just fake it. [laughter]

Scott:  It’s interesting hearing you talk about your process, your relationship with your agents at Paradigm and managers at Madhouse Entertainment. You talk about them being intimately involved in the creative process. Could you unpack that a little bit?

Carter:  They have the long view and the short view. The short view is literally like when I was developing this new idea and talking to them about it, my lead character is 15 years old.  Adam said, “Age him up a little. Make him 17 or 18 if you can.  It’s not going to hurt the story.  It’s just going to be easier to cast that role and help sell the movie and help get the movie made.”  Things like that are part of the strategy from the beginning, thinking in terms of how to make this movie… make the spec script appeal to as many people as possible and make the biggest impact possible.  There are times I’ll disagree and say, I see your point, but I want to do it this way anyway.  Like the original situation with “Glimmer” structurally, we went through a bit of that.

The long view, career‑wise, they’ve all had some talks with me about where they see me going and what I can do from here given what I’ve done already and then if “Glimmer” gets made, what the best approach is.

We contemplated television because it sold right at the height of selling season for TV. I’ve dabbled in TV before, and I just went through that and came out of it thinking, this isn’t really what I feel comfortable with right now.  So there’s that to consider, too.   And they’re all very flexible in terms of strategizing based on what motivates me.

Scott:  I have one last question for you. It’s always the one that I’m sure you get hit up with whenever people talk to you about this stuff. What advice would you offer aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft? When they ask, “How am I going to break into Hollywood?” what advice do you have?

Carter:  Just write because you want to write, first of all because there will be a lot of times when you’re not making any money at it and you’re struggling and you’re trying to figure out how to do it.  So you’d better love it to start with. You’ll find that out pretty quickly, when funds are running low.  You’ll either keep going and find a way to make it work or not.

If you do love it, don’t make excuses for yourself.  You’ve got to live the life and write every single day.  It would be better to write an hour every day of the week than six hours on Monday and then not again until next Monday. There’s something about getting up every day and writing.  If you don’t have any ideas on a given day, keep a journal and write about your life instead.  Keep a little morning notebook or something. Write about what happened to you yesterday.  Just get in the practice of writing as a routine, that’s the most important thing.

Once you have something that you’re proud of, show it to friends and get feedback. Be gracious and show appreciation to the people who are taking time to read your script and give you notes. If they don’t like it, it’s not because they don’t like you, so separate your personal feelings from a solid critique.  There are few things more valuable to a writer.  Sometimes people who have not liked my scripts have given me notes that I’ve used and the script later ends up selling. You can get very valuable feedback from negative comments. Negative’s the wrong word… critical comments.

Always thank people for their time. The quickest way to get someone to stop reading your scripts is to be an asshole if you don’t like their notes.  Being defensive and arguing with someone who’s trying to help you is a bad idea.  That person has just given you their time.  You want to keep that relationship strong so they’ll read your next one.  Take them to lunch, send a follow-up email or a hand-written thank you card.  But learn how to take notes well, because your whole career is going to involve getting notes from people.

Don’t just force in every note you get, because nobody is always right.  People don’t want you to put in their bad notes because they’re going to get it back and read it and say, “This doesn’t work.” They’re not going to remember if they gave you that bad note or not and they won’t care.  Learn how to separate good notes from bad ones… and learn how to execute the good ones, because that’s what going to make your script better in the end.

Once you’ve gone through that process and have a decent script, then getting representation is very hard these days.  If you can swing working in the industry on some level as well as writing on the side, do it.  Because then you’ll have a direct pipeline to get your script to somebody who’s in position to help in a far more concrete way, like getting you read by an agent or a manager… or their boss. It makes the process of finding a rep much easier.  But you still have to write a good script.

Carter has parlayed his success with that script into a high profile writing assignment, adapting the best-selling video game “Spy Hunter” into a movie for Warner Bros.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

Please stop by comments to thank Carter and ask any questions you may have.

Carter is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.

You can follow Carter on Twitter: @CartBlanch.

Interview: Carter Blanchard (2012 Black List) — Part 5

Carter Blanchard is a great example of talent meeting persistence. His first writing credit is a short film he directed in 1989. Since that time, he has landed numerous writing assignments and sold multiple spec scripts including “Virus” (1994), “Frigid & Impotent” (1995), ”Bedbugs” aka “Dead Asleep” (2004), and “Near Death” (2007). For anyone working in the entertainment industry, that is a long stretch of time. However it is with his most recent spec script “Glimmer” that Carter’s fortunes took a quantum leap, the script selling in a bidding war and making the 2012 Black List and Hit List.

Today in Part 5, Carter shares his thoughts about some aspects of the screenwriting craft.

Scott:  How do you come up with story ideas?

Carter:  I think I covered some of this before, I write down ideas and file them away. I read the news every morning. I look for ideas in there. I listen to people talking about life when I’m out… like hiking Runyon Canyon when you hear someone bitching about their relationship or something.  Little seeds can come out of overhearing people. Even if it doesn’t launch an idea for you, it can launch or shape a character.

When I came up with “Glimmer,” I don’t think I would have tried a time travel movie without the found footage element. Everybody wanted to do found footage, but time travel was something they hadn’t done in that genre yet.  That made it compelling for me.  When you mix genres up or you put an unlikely character into a familiar construct, sometimes that creates a whole new mechanism.  I try to do that a lot.  I try and come up with something familiar that is done in a way I haven’t seen before.  That’s a big aspect of how I think when I’m trying to generate new ideas.

Scott:  One thing I hear you are saying to yourself, “I need to feel some passion for the idea. I need to feel like this would be something that would be entertaining to me.”

Carter:  Yeah, and that’s what I learned… a good metaphor is, I played high school football.  In practice, I’d always try to implement exactly what the coach would tell us to do instead of just going with the flow of what would’ve been more effective, after getting that initial blueprint on how to run through a play. The same thing goes for screenwriting. When I went out pitching after “Bedbugs,” I was delivering what I thought they wanted from me, instead of making it my own and coming in with some real fire in my belly about telling a story that they weren’t expecting to hear.

They’re hearing pitches all day, all week long. Depending on the situation, they may have heard 30, 40, 50 pitches already on a certain project.  And now they’ve got to sit through another one, and even a fairly brief pitch is going to last 15-20 minutes.  Then there are people who pitch for 30-40 minutes, as I sometimes did. [laughs] It’s a great cure for insomnia.

But if you are not excited and you’re going through the motions and simply giving them a blueprint for a movie that we’ve all seen before… it can be well-executed and you hit all the right points along the way… but if it’s not exciting to you, then it’s not going to excite anybody.

Scott:  I’m also hearing don’t be satisfied with just an idea. To look for something that makes it unusual and distinctive. You hit on a core concept, then you say, “Okay, so how can I take that and elevate it to something that makes it more attractive in a distinctive way?”

Carter:  Yeah, and even looking back at “Frigid and Impotent” is a good example. It was just a lovers-on-the-run movie, but it was this totally weird black comedy about serial killers who killed out of sexual frustration and then they meet each other and finally have great sex for the first time in their lives. That’s when the cops catch up to them and they hit the road.  Then they have to deal with being two completely broken people in a new relationship for the first time in their lives.  That script served me as a great sample for a long, long time. People really responded to it.  As a young writer, I had no idea why the story worked, I just got lucky.  I tried to write even weirder darker stories after that and they all fell flat.

Scott:  How about prep writing, brainstorming, character development, plotting, outlining? How much time do you spend prepping a story?

Carter:  It depends.  For “Glimmer,” probably three days, but normally I would say two to four weeks. The idea I’m working on now I’ve been at for a couple of weeks. It’s coming together in stages.  I’ll get broadstrokes and run ‘em by Madhouse. They’re like, “Great, but you need to get things moving faster and find a better device to propel act two.” Then I go back and do more work. It will probably take a little longer on this one just because when I’m ready to go I really want to be ready to sit down and blaze through the script. I think the more time you spend developing a story the less time you’re going to spend writing it, which is a great way to write because then you don’t stop to figure out the next plot turn.  Although I have some writer friends who don’t work that way, and they do fine.

Scott:  Yeah, everybody is different. Right?

Carter:  Yeah, but I think most writers work that way.

Scott:  With young writers and students, I always tell them you at least owe it to yourself to work up an outline once. At least go through that process where you’re getting a scene‑by‑scene comprehensive outline. You may not end up working that way, but most professional writers, when the turnaround is eight to twelve weeks, you’ve got to have the chops down and the confidence that you know how to break a story.

Carter:  Yeah, I’ve come to the point where I write a pretty detailed treatment. The thing I’m working now, it’ll probably be 15 pages long, the treatment I’m going off of.  I usually start with a conceptual image or scene idea… “Glimmer” is a great example.  The videotape in the safe deposit box.  I put that down on a card, stuck it on my board and that’s going to be the beginning of act two.  You build around that.

Next, what immediately pops into my head for this story?  Introducing the characters, having some of them go back in the past and some of them staying here. Who are the two main characters to stay here? It’s going to be a boy and a girl. Okay, so they’re going to fall in love… That all goes on cards. Then come up with some wish fulfillment stuff.  It would be cool if they go to Yankee Stadium in 1977, etc.   Just start writing down all that kind of stuff… and the plot points that come out of necessity… and a structure starts to evolve.  At the end of the day I can fill up half the board and get the rest of it down in another day or two and then go over it and make sure that it works. Then I’ll write it in long form, read the treatment.  There will be lots of obvious flaws. Then I usually go back and start a new board with fresh cards, post all the stuff that I know works and pull the rest so there are new blank cards to fill.  I might go through that process two or three times.

Sometimes you lose interest during this process or find you don’t have the solutions yet.  When I was younger, I plowed ahead no matter what.  But now it’s just like, eh, if I really want to do this I’ll come back later.  But right now, I’ve got to come up with something new.  There’s that part of it too, knowing when to cut bait on an idea that isn’t there yet.

Scott:  How about developing your characters, any specific tools or techniques that you use to develop them?

Carter:  It’s funny, because sometimes you write a script and people say, “Who do you see in this role?” It’s like, “I have no idea.” I’ll have images of people in my head, very vivid to me, but they aren’t anybody in particular. They’re just beings who have manifested in my imagination and they look a certain way. I can see them clearly when I’m writing. For me the story forms the character.

Say you’re going to be stuck in a car for a thousand-mile drive with three people. You want the driver to be the world’s worst driver who refuses to give up the wheel. It makes the other two nervous throughout the trip. So that character starts to take on qualities based on that first situation you came up with, which is also a story point.  So as I pull the story together, the characters start coming to life and each informs the other.

But usually, the way I work, characters come to me later in the process.  And then I get help. I get an awful lot of help from some really talented people who are always harping on character.  So sometimes I’m forced into it. [laughs]

Carter has parlayed his success with that script into a high profile writing assignment, adapting the best-selling video game “Spy Hunter” into a movie for Warner Bros.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Carter shares more insights into his approach to the craft of screenwriting.

Please stop by comments to thank Carter and ask any questions you may have.

Carter is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.

You can follow Carter on Twitter: @CartBlanch.