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Questions for screenwriters roundtable

This Friday, I will be conducting a third annual roundtable with 6 top young Hollywood screenwriters: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. Between them, they have sold over a dozen spec scripts, have multiple Black List scripts, and are involved with numerous film projects.

The 2011 roundtable is here.

The 2012 roundtable is here.

Do you know Michael Apted’s fantastic “7 Up” documentary series wherein he visits with the same group of 12 participants every 7 years? I see this in a similar light, a chance to see how this group of young screenwriters makes their way through life in Hollywood, observations they have, lessons they’ve learned. It’s great they take the time to do this and it’s proven to be a really popular series.

If you have questions you would like me to consider raising in the discussion with this group of talented writers, please post in comments.

Screenwriting 101: John Swetnam

screenplay“Story concept is like the foundation to a house. It has to be strong or everything else may come tumbling down. If you want to write ‘Hollywood’ movies, then the biggest question you have to ask yourself when you come up with an idea is, can you really see this opening at your local theater next weekend? I mean, really? What does the trailer look like when it comes on TV? You have to be brutally honest with yourself and most people just aren’t.”

– John Swetnam [GITS interview, March 1, 2011]

Spec Script Sale: “Spinback”

Lionsgate/Summit acquires action thriller spec script “Spinback” written by John Swetnam. From Deadline:

A soldier returns from Afghanistan. When his brother, a prominent DJ on the electronic dance music circuit, is murdered, he must infiltrate that world in order to figure out the killer.

I believe this is the third spec script sale by Swetnam whose name you may recall from the recent screenwriters roundtable.

By my count, this is the 8th spec script sale of 2013.

Last year at this time, there were 10 spec sales.

Congratulations, John. I run your screenwriters roundtable one week. You sell a script the next week. Coincidence? I think not!

Screenwriters Roundtable, Part 6: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John Swetnam

A special treat this week as each day I will be posting excerpts from a screenwriter’s roundtable I did with a group of talented Hollywood screenwriters: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. How good are they? Between them, they have sold more than a dozen spec scripts and have multiple original screenplays on the Black List.

This is the second screenwriters roundtable, following up on one we did last year [which you can read here]. Hopefully this will become an annual event as it’s a great way to take the pulse of what’s happening in the screenwriting universe, as well as benefit from the many insights into the craft these writers share.

I will be running the series all week long. Here is Part 6, the final installment:

Scott:  Speaking of movies, I think we’d all agree that 2012 was a really good year for films. We had the usual slate of sequels and remakes and tent-pole titles, some of them were better than others. But also a lot of good original movies, Ted, Wreck-It Ralph, Magic Mike, Looper, some great adult dramas like Lincoln, Argo, independent films like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

So you look at the movies that came out this year, were there any one in particular that you said, “Wow. I wish I’d written that” or one that you just really super admired?

Justin Rhodes: Zero Dark Thirty.

Chris Borrelli:  Looper. I loved Looper.

Scott:  OK. Let’s start with Looper.

Chris Borrelli:  Yeah. I just was so impressed, I honestly, I didn’t really know what it was going to be going in. The post treatment trailer hadn’t really drawn me in. I was told word‑of‑mouth that it was really good.

I went in and I loved the darkness of it. I loved that it went somewhere different that surprised me in several ways. That it had everything from genre moments, where the guy in the future, his digits are disappearing, the old stuff. You’ve seen the movie, this makes sense.

Everything like genre moments to something deeper, more interesting and yet great character work. That was a big surprise for me. That was a movie that, even though I was told it was good, I didn’t know where it was going every moment.

John Swetnam:  Yeah, I loved that movie. I saw it with Frazier and some other people. A lot of the people I saw it with had read the script before they went and saw the movie and I had not read the script.

All I remember thinking when I was watching the movie, was that I never knew what was going to happen next.

That doesn’t happen a lot for me anymore. I was like, “I have no fucking clue what’s about to happen,” and I loved it. That’s such a refreshing thing for a screenwriter because most of the time, you kind of can figure it out. With that movie, I had no clue what was going to happen next. I loved the hell out of it.

Scott:  Justin, you mentioned Zero Dark Thirty? What about that movie worked for you?

Justin Rhodes:  One, it’s very much in the genre space I’ve been working these days. What I really liked about that film, and maybe this is something you could only get away with  given what it was based upon, is that the movie doesn’t need to go into explicit character arcs or explicit motivations or explain anything. It allows everybody to do what they do, and that’s engaging in that level.

It’s really a movie for grownups and there are not a lot of those that come out that way. To me, it’s an amazingly tense film that for most of the two hours, its people standing around computers and talking, and everybody already knows the outcome.

John Swetnam:  Justin, did you go to the screening with Mark Boal?

Justin Rhodes:  Yeah, I did.

John Swetnam:  That was so cool to me when he was doing a Q and A at the end. He kept talking about that, with the characters, how there’s no backstory. He just comes in and you have no idea who this person is and you’re intrigued.

When I watch movies like that, I look at them and I admire the shit out of them because I know I’ll never be able to write like that. I love watching that stuff, but I wouldn’t even attempt to think about attempting to write something like that. I loved it.

Greg Russo:  Of the stuff I’ve seen this year, my vote goes to Argo. It’s the kind of nuanced, entertaining, and mature thriller that I aspire to write one day.

It’s everything I want out of a film. It taught me something that I didn’t know about, so the entire time I was absolutely riveted. It was entertaining. Every single one of those characters, I could have watching in their own movie. Competition’s tough this year, but I think Terrio will be celebrating on Oscar night.

F. Scott Frazier:  I just watched Zero Dark Thirty last night and I’m still trying to process it. And I also just watched Lincoln, and that was fantastic. But for me, my pick of the year, and I don’t think anything is going to eclipse it is Flight.

I don’t know. Denzel is just like… I don’t think we’ve ever seen an actor as good as Denzel. Just the raw nature of the movie, it’s just this unflinching look at this guy, it’s just so well defined. His character is basically perfect, and he acts it so well. I was just blown away by that entire movie.

Chris Borrelli:  I didn’t know where it was going. And I know it’s a drama, it seems simple. I went in purposely knowing very little about Flight, but I was really impressed with it. And even though in retrospect it’s a very simple structure, while I was watching it, I didn’t always know where it was going to go, and as we were talking about earlier, that’s a real thrill for me, because as we know, all of us studying film and being so structure‑heavy and disciplined in our work, it’s just exciting when that happens nowadays.

F. Scott Frazier:  I think, you’re absolutely right, Scott. This was a crazy good year for movies. We got Cloud Atlas. How the hell did that even get made? It blows my mind how good movies were this year.

Chris McCoy:  The one that I came out and it just blew me away, and I laughed from start to finish, and I loved it, but it was Magic Mike. I just thought it was such a great take on the death of the American Dream. I thought it was terrific.

Scott:  Every single one of these movies, just outstanding. Did anybody like “Moonrise Kingdom” or was it just me?

Chris McCoy:  I loved that too. I’m a massive fan of Wes Anderson. Every one of those movies is interesting to me even if some of them aren’t considered structurally perfect, though a lot of them are.

John Swetnam:  Did you guys see Perks of Being A Wallflower?

F. Scott Frazier:  I haven’t watched it yet.

John:  I really liked that. I was watching it and, as a screenwriter, I was sitting there picking it apart structurally. There were just things about it that seemed very rough. I don’t know. I was just tearing it apart and then by the end of it I’m crying. I don’t know. There was something about it that just hit a chord and I thought it just snuck up on me and I thought that was a really good movie. You guys should check that out.

F. Scott Frazier:  Even our big blockbusters this year, The Avengers was awesome. I think it was a rare year for movies. But I’m the only one holding my hand up in the air saying I liked John Carter. That scratches a very specific itch for me.

John Swetnam:  I know what itch that is.

Greg Russo:  I don’t have that itch.

F. Scott Frazier:  As it turned out, few people do.

Scott:   How about this to end: What did you learn this year? Did you learn something about writing or being a writer that really made sense to you, that really impacted you, something that you feel is worth sharing with people?

John Swetnam:  For me, and I don’t know everybody’s timeline, this is only my second year of being a professional writer, of really being in the trenches. For 10 years, for me, I spent so much time trying to figure out how to break in, how to sell the first script. I always thought when you sold that one script, somehow everything was just going to be easy.

What I learned is making it is one thing. Staying here is another. Having a career that actually lasts a long time is something that I’m just trying to figure out. I think the one thing that I learned the most this year was that this business is a personality business. A lot of  the jobs that I’ve gotten came from getting to meet people or going in to pitch people and really trying to have a good personality, and be passionate, respectful, humble, and energetic.

That person would remember me three months later and then they would say something to somebody else like, “He seems like a pretty good dude,” and they would call me in for something.  This is a very small town and at the end of the day, we all want to work with people we like. I never thought about it like that, but it’s very true.  So don’t be a douche, unless you’re really, really talented, which I’m not.  So I try to be a hard worker, who collaborates with an open mind, and can deliver on time, in a professional, yet fun way..

Because this job is so much fun.  It is a grind, but it’s a fun one.  I like to go out, and I don’t like to call it networking, because I’m just at bars getting drunk, but you end up hanging out with cool people, and opportunities present themselves.  There could be a way for you to help someone, or them to help you.  It’s not devious, or subversive, it’s hanging with friends,  helping each other, while making movies, and money.  I mean, how can you not love this fucking town?

Scott: Anybody else?

Chris McCoy:  Every year I realize there are so many talented writers in this town, and that I have to push myself harder than the year before. Look at the crop of movies this year. There was such good stuff out there. You take it as an inspiration.

Scott:  Laura, you have a question for these fine folks?

Laura:  Mine was the genre question. I want to write everything. I think it’s good to know that you need to set out in one particular genre and then maybe fuck ‘em in 10 years and then go off on your own.

F. Scott Frazier:  The nice thing is, if you have that urge to write everything, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with finding two genres that you really like and mashing them together.

I don’t think anybody had thought of doing a comedy zombie movie before. Then they wrote Zombieland and now they’re two of the biggest writers in Hollywood.

You could actually see that as strength, as fuck it, I’m going to write a musical comedy about 19th century oligarchs.

Chris Borrelli:  Gave away my idea again, Frasier.

[laughter]

F. Scott Frazier:  I don’t think you should necessarily see that as being stuck in a box, but is there a way that you can leverage your love of multiple genres to write something completely new?

Scott:  Isn’t it true too that depending upon how old the writer is and how far they are along in their writing experience, that it’s important for them to test out different genres to find what they’re interested in, or where their talents lie.

Chris Borrelli:  Absolutely. I would say we started to stop talking from screenwriting books that seem to give these hard and fast rules. I don’t mean in any way to say that you should find one genre, pick it and go on that one and you’re stuck on that one until you try.

I think if you start now and you want to write everything, write everything, but actually do it, as opposed to starting seven scripts and not finishing any of them, etc. etc.

As you go, find, again, what you love. That’s it. You find what you love. You have your own voice come out of it. It’s honest. Your writing is honest. People reading it know that you believe in the words on the page. They can see it visually because it’s a real thing to you. It’s a real movie in your mind. And that’s communicated to the reader, so, by no means, don’t limit yourself.

You can spend some time finding what that genre is and then at that point, when you find your love or a couple genres you love, then you can be more targeted.

Remember, you have to write scripts anyway to learn how to really write. I don’t have one thing I learned this year I could just put into a couple of sentences, I feel, but I learned a lot and I honed things down. I feel I made some good progress in my actual craft.

Greg Russo:  ”Never stop learning.” If every day I’m learning something new as a writer… If every day I’m getting a little bit better at this… that’s all I can ask for from myself. Never stop learning. It’s as simple as that.

Scott:  That’s a good note to end it on.

Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: F. Scott Frazier

Scott Frazier’s first movie, THE NUMBERS STATION, just finished filming with John Cusack and Malin Ackerman starring, Kasper Barfoed directing, and the Furst Brothers producing. His spec script AUTOBAHN was sold to Between the Eyes Productions, and set to go into production later this year. He sold his spec script LINE OF SIGHT to Warner Bros. with Ben Affleck attached to star, direct, and produce along with Joel Silver. He recently sold a pitch for an Untitled Alien Invasion to Universal, with Chris Morgan and Strike Entertainment producing. He lives with his wife as far north as you can possibly get while still remaining within the Los Angeles county limit.

For my interview with Scott, go here.

Please take time to leave a reply with your observations and follow-up questions, and while you’re there thank these writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this roundtable for GITS readers and the wider online screenwriting community.

On Twitter:

F. Scott Frazier: @ScreenWritten

Chris McCoy: @thatthere

Justin Rhodes: @twopointfour

John Swetnam: @JohnSwetnam

Many thanks to Laura Stoltz (@LeStoltz) for logistical help with the roundtable. Laura is one of my UNC former students, currently an assistant at Haven Entertainment, and a talented writer in her own right.

For Part 1 of the roundtable, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.