In this 5 On interview, Heather Hale discusses the top five mistakes screenwriters make, the usefulness (or not) of online script databases, how to approach a first screenwriting contract, and more.
Heather Hale is an independent film and television director, screenwriter, and producer. Her fifty hours of award-winning television productions include Absolute Killers (2001) starring Edward Furlong, Meat Loaf Aday, and Ed Asner; The Courage to Love (2000), the Lifetime Original Movie she sold off of a spec screenplay after attaching Vanessa L. Williams to star opposite Diahann Carroll, Gil Bellows, and Stacy Keach; and two Emmy-winning PBS edutainment series. Focal Press will publish her book How to Work the Film & TV Markets in June 2016. Heather teaches online classes and webinars and will be leading a screenwriting/acting retreat in Turin, Italy, in the summer of 2016.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: What movie or movies ignited your interest in screenwriting, and what was your very first (even if it ended up in a drawer) screenplay about?
HEATHER HALE: Movies—I answered this in Script: Star Wars, Night of the Living Dead (as a kid in reruns on free TV), Elephant Man, and of course, the John Hughes movies that punctuated growing up in the ’80s—but I’m not sure if they are what ignited my interest in screenwriting.
First script—It’s also hard to say what my first screenplay was. It’s a toss-up between what I was first inspired to write and the opportunity I first recognized. The latter’s been written about extensively, so I’ll focus on the former, which I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about much publicly.
I discovered I wanted to be a writer literally as I learned how to write (at four). When I was coming of age, I don’t think we necessarily even knew what screenwriting was, per se. I went to college to become a novelist. Maybe I’d write short stories or become a playwright, essayist, political cartoonist, stringer, or embedded reporter—or a children’s storybook writer—but the visual, spectacle, adventure, humor, and dramatic performance elements were always parts of storytelling to me. I directed a play as a kid, was in musical theater, etc.
I was perhaps first compelled to write a screenplay by my older brother’s heartbreak. It was the whole family’s heartbreak, actually. We all thought he was happily married in a Norman Rockwell-esque marriage complete with the Gerber baby when it all came crashing down around him when his wife came out of the closet. Her living a lie and shocking infidelity ripped three generations of two families apart. This is much more common now, but at the time it was really rare. Way pre-Ross on Friends. It was like the rug was pulled out from underneath all of us who had been cluelessly caught up in her charade. The lowest level of hell, according to Dante, is reserved for those who betray those who love them (their families).
The script was called Bait & Switch. It was a profoundly personal, therapeutic process and I learned a lot about love, identities, family—and expressing the nuances of what you really mean on the page through rewriting that from divergent points of view and experimenting with different genres and storytelling techniques. I never quite nailed it (and my two-year-old nephew has since graduated from high school). But I have two interesting stories to share about cutting my teeth on this first script that I hope can be edifying to other writers.
I took lots of great classes getting my screenwriting certificate at UCLA (after my BA in creative writing from SDSU). One was with the great Neill D. Hicks, who wrote Writing the Thriller Film. He assigned us an in-class writing exercise to have one character respond to the other, who’s asking “What do you want?” I had my protagonist (my brother) ask his closeted wife who had to finally come clean (on the page, at least) responding with “I want a divorce”—and the imagined dialogue that poured out of me in the aftermath.
I was asked to share mine aloud. I struggled not to cry, as it was so emotional for me, but this became infinitely more critical to mask as the whole class was in stitches. Howling. They found it hysterical.
My instructor checked in with me in the midst of the best stand-up routine I had ever inadvertently given, making sure: “That was meant as a comedy, right?” I gulped. Looked around at the reveling faces and could do nothing more than nod to belie my humiliation—and finish. I learned a powerful lesson that day: that old adage that what can be truly tragic to you can be pure comedy to others.
Through too many classes and writers groups, I tried and tried to make it funny—but it was never funny to me. I was “forced” by one “teacher” to write it from the wife’s point of view, to make her the rootworthy heroine to my brother as some sort of feminazi straw man. And while I’m the first to write strong, empowered female stories and am blessed with the full spectrum of LGBT friends, this never felt truthful to me either. This wasn’t her story. At least not from my perspective. This was the other side of the closet. The silent, tiny, forgotten minority lost in the midst of gay pride parades. Making her the hero (for a pass), however, did enrich and deepen my understanding of the fictionalized character. By walking in my antagonist’s shoes, I imagined some of the scenarios from her (very Catholic) side.
This can be an exhaustive and revelatory exercise if you’re struggling to empathize with—and flesh out—an otherwise one-dimensional character you simply can’t relate to. This has proven to be a powerful tool for my clients writing environmentalist or animal rights activist scripts. Sometimes it’s hard to even imagine the challenge from the other side, but there are always at least three sides to every story, each distorting the perceived truth. Movies like The Rock, Extreme Measures, Little Children, and American History X allow you to have a glimpse into the minds of characters making otherwise unconscionable choices.
Others suggested I try to make it a thriller, where it was intentional on her part (to get pregnant and secure eighteen years of support), but I’m not so sure she was that cognizant (initially, at least). This is all before you racked up the marketability strikes against it: it felt like a Lifetime movie—but with a male lead. (Lifetime doesn’t even make those movies). And what male actor would attach to a project where he is presented with a problem he simply can’t solve? And it wasn’t going to appeal to the LGBT audience particularly, either. So, who was its core audience?
It flip-flopped all over the place with too many mostly well-intentioned cooks wanting to shove their own spices into the mix as I strove to keep it authentic. It was a dramedy before anyone understood what that genre even was (and that they could actually be successful). People laugh at funerals, cry at inopportune times. The drama masks have shown tragedy and comedy side by side—as in life—since the Greeks.
I finally brought it to another terrific UCLA extension instructor, Thomas Szollosi, who wrote Three O’Clock High, among other things. I sheepishly handed him the script, admitting “I have a tonal problem.” The next week in class, he threw the script across my desk and pronounced, “You don’t have a problem! You have a style!” He went on to praise my writing, saying that it had “the bittersweet sardonic poignancy of As Good As It Gets and the complicated family relationships of a Neil Simon play. There’s truth on every page.”
Wow. Just wow. I stopped trying to please everyone. And stuck to my guns.
Jeff Arch, the brilliant writer of Sleepless in Seattle, later told me I had to “find the satisfying ending.” And bless his heart, I tried and I tried. It might take me another decade or two, because I haven’t figured out how to twist it into a happy—or even a satisfying—ending.
But it inspired me to write. To at least try to get it right. Some writing is therapy. And probably doesn’t ever need to be read by anyone but you.
So, in a drawer it stays.
How much voice freedom does a screenwriter have, and how important (or not) is vivid, beautiful writing if the story itself is good?
Wow. Tough questions!
The story has to be great. Period. Full stop.
I hope the experience I shared above is evidence for how important it is to honor your voice among the noise we must endure as artists—even as groups of well-meaning writer friends cut their teeth on your back or terrific mentors try to help shape your writing. You need to know how to pick and choose feedback that serves your vision for your story, not how anyone else would write it.
Beautiful writing—or, rather, effective, tonally appropriate writing—is critical. I’m always amazed when “writers” don’t seem to care about spelling errors, typos, or formatting errors. They won’t “fix it in post”! This is your job. (Or at least the job you profess to want). The better you write, the more successful you’ll be. Maybe. At least you’ll have a better shot. But if you’re trying to present yourself as a professional writer, write professionally.
Succinctly. Candidly. Beautifully’d be a bonus.
Outside of formatting issues, what are the five most common mistakes new screenwriters make in the writing of the script?
- Not knowing what their story is. I mean, what it really is, underneath. What’s the theme? What kind of a journey is it? What genre? How can it deliver on the promise of the premise?
- Not knowing why they are writing it. What’s their intention? What do they want the audience to get from the story? How do you want viewers to feel when they walk out of the theater or turn off the TV? How do you want readers feeling when they finish your script? What was the point of watching or reading this project?
- Not knowing (or remembering to point out and use) why they are the perfect writer to write this script. What unique perspective or point of view or life experiences do you bring to this specific project that no other writer could? Why should I hire you versus the thousand other able scribes? What subject matter expertise and unique empathy can you imbue the pages, images, and moments with?
- Forgetting (or never having learned or not yet having mastered the skill) to emulate the viewing experience on the page. Screenplays are not scratch and sniff. “The room smells of patchouli.” It might, yes; indeed, it might. In your mind’s eye. But how do I capture that with a camera? There are lots of ways. But you must write it the best way. We can’t shoot what’s inside someone’s head or in their backstory. It’s your job, as a writer of what will go up on that screen in moving pictures, to bring that subtext to life, to unfurl the story in action before our viewing (or reading) eyes. Make me envision it in the screen inside my head if I’m reading your pages. Make me see your story. Feel it.
- Disparaging the entire industry, having zero concept of how hard it is to get a film or television show on any kind of screen and derisively thinking they can get away with writing “crap as bad as that” while ignoring the layers of mastery that go into even the most marginal efforts. It’s far harder than the magic makes it look. This is a particularly foolhardy mistake to make when pitching to someone in the industry! You’re essentially insulting their life’s work—and everyone they know. I’m forever amazed at the rookies who come into the biz already jaded and cynical from stories they’ve heard (fifth hand)—but haven’t even earned the right to give it a fair shot.
Loglines seem like they should be easy to write. Why aren’t they, and what advice can you offer that will make them easier?
Wow. I’m doing a whole webinar on them! And a chapter in my upcoming book $toryselling: How to Pitch Film & TV Projects! I also talked about them briefly in my How to Work the Film & TV Markets (coming out in June through Focal Press).
Loglines are the hardest, most important things you’ll ever write. And rewrite. And rewrite. Maybe after vows and eulogies. And professionally, after titles. But you might not even get to have a say in your title (but keep a running list!)—or it’ll get changed time and time again beyond your control. But the logline usually starts with you and has to carry the football a really long way—from query letter to pitch all the way up the ladder and across the desks to the various powers that be.
Why are they so hard to write? Because they are the reduction sauce of writing. You have to condense 120 pages into about thirty-five words. Not even a word per page! But less than one word for every four pages! Talk about streamlined! And every word is changed a hundred times to test every conceivable nuance until you nail it. Which you never do—but you keep on trying!
One iteration might be to start with the title, kick off with the genre (so your listeners or readers don’t go down any rabbit holes on their own!):
[Title] is a [genre] about [an interesting, proactive Protagonist] who wants to/must [P’s goal] but [conflict = obstacles that get in the way/stakes if Protagonist fails].
When [the inciting event happens], [our Hero] must [pursue the goal/drive the plot].
Always look for the source of conflict in the story. In an action-driven piece, it will be in the triangulation of the goal versus the stakes against the ticking clock. If your protagonist is not proactively pursuing a plot-driven goal (i.e., a feature or contained episode), then maybe you have more of a character-driven or situational story. If you have created circumstances that accentuate a clearly defined central problem, perpetuating it from every angle but never actually solving it, then you might have written something that lends itself to serial television programming.
If you have written a transformational character arc, make sure you point out your hero’s flaw in your logline, as it is key to your theme. In a character-driven piece, the conflict will come from the situation she finds herself confronted by (i.e., the outer conflict catalyzing her inner growth). An ironic twist at the end of a logline is always good for extra credit—especially for comedies and thrillers.
Is there a screenplay you can point to that screenwriters writing today should read simply as a fine example of screenwriting? Not necessarily to emulate (each person is his or her own writer), but to learn from and appreciate?
Oh wow, there are so many! Just line up all the Academy-nominated ones, the ones nominated by the WGA, the Indie Spirit Awards, the AFI, Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, critics around the world (the Golden Globes), the Black List. Maybe read one in each genre you write in. Or others you don’t. To see what you’re missing or could repurpose in a unique way. Read your favorites. Read your project’s comps, especially. The classics of your genre. Read the underlying source novel or article. Read, read, read, read, read!
If Shawkshank Redemption is your favorite movie, read everything Frank Darabont has adapted from Stephen King (The Green Mile, The Mist). If you’re an Elmore Leonard fan, check out Scott Frank’s adaptations of Out of Sight and Get Shorty. If you’re wanting to write modern, empowered female role models, study the career trajectories of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, The Hunger Games franchise) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent franchise). Read animation.
Many up-and-coming writers try to sustain themselves financially by reading for contests and to support their craft addiction via writers groups—all of which is fine, but they then run the risk of being inundated with bad scripts. You just gotta balance out the derivative drivel with the sublime scripts that are actually getting made—and blowing away the competition. Read some of these and you are instantly humbled but simultaneously inspired.
5 on Publishing/Selling
You advise people with brilliant screenplay ideas to “Write one. Sell one.”
Advice on how to sell a screenplay ranges from (1) attend conferences and trade shows, to (2) upload a manuscript to a database like The Black List, Amazon Studios, or Virtual Pitchfest and get discovered!, to (3) send blind queries to agents or producers, to (4) know somebody (this is the one most emphasized).
What’s the truth about selling a screenplay? Do directors and producers really comb the online databases for new material? Can someone who doesn’t know anyone and who can’t afford to attend the critical trade shows ever hope to sell a script? Where do the new screenplays you personally see come from? (People you know? Online databases? Blind queries? Etc.)
No. I don’t! LOL! Not at all!
I have a folder for the hundreds—literally—of queries that get email blasted to me incessantly. I don’t know of anyone who actually combs through these emails or databases looking for anything. We’re all battling off swarms of pitches and queries. We don’t have to proactively look anywhere—we have to swat them away to see the sun!
Stage32 and the Happy Writers does a good job with their Skype pitches. They are well curated and managed, affordable, and accessible. I’ve heard nothing but good things about them. It’s one-on-one, face-to-face (albeit screen-to-screen, but that saves you airfare, hotel, and missed days of work!). You’ll see a lot of these services popping up, but just as many are as suspect as the real-world (in-person) pitch fests. There are a few good ones out there. You just have to do your due diligence on everyone, every event and entity.
I don’t think you should ever send a blind query to anyone.
The tools you have at your disposal these days are mindboggling. Google is your best friend. IMDbPro. Variety Insight. The Wrap. Be targeted. Be specific. Hone your pitch and your target list. And hone ’em both some more.
I teach a whole PowerNetworking series on this and recently taught a webinar for Stage 32 on this topic, and a related one on how to get managers for The Writers Store, specifically, and even one for filmmakers attaching talent. I also wrote an article that might be helpful (if you’re pitching TV shows): “How (and Where) Should I Pitch MY TV Show?”
Screenwriter Alex Epstein, author of Crafty Screenwriting, writes in a blog post, “Some writers (Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, for example) claim you shouldn’t state your hook [in your query letter], for fear of someone stealing it.” Epstein also writes of sending a query letter that it’s “a step you may not want to take just yet if you’re anxious that people will steal your idea.” Realistically, how afraid should screenwriters be of having an idea stolen?
Well, if it’s really that high concept, good for you! I think you have to use your noggin at all times. This is a business. Treat it as such. Protect yourself. Copyright your screenplays. Register your treatments and formats with the WGA. Do your due diligence on the people you’re pitching to. But you can’t be so precious with your concept that you never utter a word about it. If you want to sell it, you’re gonna have to breathe it to someone, somewhere, somehow. So much of screenwriting is the execution of the idea. Ten writers could write ten very different screenplays off the same logline. So just be sure to papertrail who you’ve pitched to (who was in the room or on the call, etc.). Part of the value of having a query letter or one sheet might be to follow up with it to time/date stamp and establish your provenance with that material with that identifiable lead.
What are the five most common mistakes screenwriters make when trying to sell a script?
You keep sneaking in five questions in one!
- Pitching to people who aren’t buyers.
- Pitching to buyers who don’t do that kind of material (i.e., pitching a slasher film to a Disney exec, or an epic period romance to Adult Swim).
- Pitching material to buyers that the buyers already own (i.e., pitching your great take on their graphic novel franchise, then being pissed when they steal that idea!).
- Pitching a script you either don’t own the underlying rights to (based on a novel or life rights you haven’t optioned) or with a co-writer you can’t get along with—leaving a messy deal that can never get made.
- Holding out for an unrealistic figure or terms (i.e., a rookie writer demanding a million dollars for an indie, or final script approval on a studio project—both unlikely).
Are screenwriter contracts concrete as received, or is there ever room for negotiation?
There’s always room for negotiation! Everything is subject to negotiation!
The first contract you get will be the worst deal you’ll ever be offered. It’ll be boilerplate. Now, they may not budge from that if you’re a first-time writer, because they think they don’t have to (and maybe they don’t). But he who writes the contract controls the deal. He who utters the first figure loses. If you reveal the cards you’re holding prematurely, you might set the bar lower than they’d’ve even dared.
Take a look at the WGA minimums, do your best to figure out where your project might end up (which budget range, what distribution platform), and ask to be treated as if you were in the WGA and have them honor those minimums and terms. That’s a pretty good baseline across the board for the industry and not an unreasonable or uncommon position to take. You might not be able to pull it off on a micro-budgeted film, but it’s a good gauge. Maybe you can negotiate a percentage of the film’s budget and the balance deferred or with box office bumps—but best to get as much up front as possible, as Hollywood’s bookkeeping is notoriously squirrely.
Authors are often told to get out on social media to help sell their books. What kind of self-promotion, if any, is expected of screenwriters?
The answer to all things Hollywood: it depends. It’s always helpful to have a following—fans and champions who want to see you succeed. If you win a contest or a festival award, definitely share it. Having a professional shingle (website) is good. Let us get a sense of who you are. But if you write brilliantly and have no intention of directing or independently producing, there’s less need for you to bang a social media drum. Writers can often be introverts, but there are so many outlets now—Facebook, Twitter, Stage 32, Slated, IMDb, etc.—having some sort of presence is just another tool in your arsenal. And you don’t even have to use photos of you, and your writing skills can help you shine.
If you’re a subject matter expert (on law or medical issues or something unique—parkour, storyboarding, etc.) why not use that to raise your profile so they can find you for those assignments?
Thank you, Heather.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, Pretty Much True, and, under the pen name Chris Jane, The Year of Dan Palace. She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.