Writer and graphic designer Jonathan Westbrook discusses what it’s like to win an extraordinary screenwriting contest, what it’s like to have that win fall through, screenwriting vs. novel writing, and more in this 5 On interview.
Jonathan Westbrook (@JonWestbrook) lives in Connecticut with his wife, two daughters, and three fur babies. He holds a degree in graphic design, is a member of the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA), and is a fair-weather golfer. For more information, visit his website.
5 On Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: What’s the first thing you remember writing creatively?
JONATHAN WESTBROOK: I wrote a Conan-like fantasy with two enemies becoming friends in the end while fighting off a common foe. Unfortunately, one of them died and the other carried him home to enemy territories. When asked why he did it, he said, “Because I fight with my friends,” meaning alongside and not against. It was such a short piece, but my two characters did go through a growth arc. I remember it fondly because it was my first.
The story was written for creative writing class, junior year in high school, so I was about 16. It was only four pages long (handwritten), but I enjoyed the concept of bringing a new world to life, albeit a small one. I don’t remember the grade it received, but it must have been pretty good because my teacher told me she could see me writing a book one day. I didn’t believe her at the time, because this was just another assignment in the doldrums of high school and I had no aspirations back then of becoming a writer. The writing “bug” hadn’t hit me yet, but to this day I often wonder how my own growth arc would have been different had I listened to her.
How similar to or different from that subject matter or area of interest is the material you write now? What has held your attraction/drawn you in a different direction over the years?
During my teens I read a lot of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs as I was drawn to the lonesome, heroic tales of Conan and Tarzan. And on television, I loved sci-fi shows like Star Trek, The Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone. I love the strange, the unexplained, the weird tales that spell out the human condition.
My writing is definitely influenced by my past interests; I still love sci-fi and weird tales, which my books reflect. My trilogy: A Legend in Time, Onboard the Marauder, and Future Dark all deal with James Sutherland and his experiences as a time-traveler. My fourth book, Eat My Shorts is a tasty collection of short and flash science fiction, but I believe they all speak of survival. We’re only here for a short time, so let’s make the most of it while we’re here.
My (unproduced) screenplays take on a lighter tone, as four out of seven of them are comedies. I’m not a comedian, but I’m sort of drawn to comedy in my screenplays. Go figure. I guess we all need a laugh once in a while, including myself. I’ve been pitching two of the seven to Hollywood execs; one is a rom-com (think The Wedding Ringer meets Hitch), and the second is a family comedy (think National Lampoon’s Vacation meets Captain Fantastic).
You’re a graphic designer, a writer of screenplays, plays (“coming soon,” your website says), and novels, and you also carve wood. As someone who’s also a husband and father, how and when do you find or make the time for all the creativity ?
By day I also work full-time as a technical illustrator for Pratt & Whitney, an aircraft engine manufacturer in Connecticut. I’m proud to say that my drawings fly all over the world. There aren’t a lot of people who can say this.
In an introduction article written in the CAPA zine, I was called a “Renaissance Man.” I liked that. I like to draw, paint, carve, and write. I get an idea stuck in my head, and I need to express it in one form or another, else I get grumpy.
I was 10 years old when I was first published. It was a drawing of three seagulls in the Kid’s Corner magazine of the Hartford Courant, and I’ve been hooked since. Creating is in my blood, now, but technical illustrating doesn’t always placate my creative needs, so I write whenever I get inspired, at night after everyone has gone to bed (an hour of writing is better than no writing at all, but sometimes I’m just too tired) and on the weekends, where I try to fit it in around family and pets, the chores, and playtime.
I would love to become a quondam illustrator and write full-time some day, but I don’t think that will happen until after I retire. Unless you’ve made a big name for yourself, writing doesn’t always pay the bills.
Your screenplay Language of Love is the one that won the screenplay competition alluded to in this interview’s intro. What is the story about and what inspired it?
Language of Love is a comedy of miscommunication between a man and a woman. It’s a funny look at barriers surrounding love: getting it, understanding it, revealing it, losing it, and finding it all over again. The logline is “A couple discovers the differences in their relationship after an Italian man learns to speak English.”
The story originated from a screenwriting prompt I received from an online class: “Write a story about a relationship where one person no longer wants to be in the relationship.” We had to keep it to four pages, which is very short in screenplay format compared to manuscripts. In screenplays, one page roughly equates to one minute of screen time.
I took the class when I first became interested in screenwriting. I had purchased the correct screenwriting software, but after attempting to convert A Legend in Time into a screenplay, I found that screenwriting is nothing like writing a novel. Think about it–when you’re watching a movie, there are only two things to stimulate your senses: sight and sound. That is all there should be in a screenplay.
When I entered Language of Love into the contest, it was nothing more than, “Oh, hey, I have a one-setting short I could use.” I wasn’t looking for a vehicle for the screenplay. I just happened across the contest online and figured I’d give it a try. Sometimes lightning strikes and sometimes it doesn’t. The trick is to keep trying.
If you had to choose a favorite movie based on the writing alone–you’re selecting from a stack of scripts–what would it be, and why? Would your favorite be different if you were choosing a produced film?
Before I started writing screenplays, I took the time to read a lot of them. If you wish to be a writer, you must first read, yes?
There are tons of screenplays available on the internet, and I’ve found that screenwriters have their own style, just like novelists do. Some can be prosy, and others are bare-boned and straight to the point. Some have a defined subtext while others veer off in distracting tangents, or they’re so subtle that the subtext is almost missed.
I have favorites just like I do with the books–Silence of the Lambs, Die Hard, and A Few Good Men to name a few.
But to answer the question, if I had to choose just one screenplay based on the writing alone, I’d pick The Princess Bride by William Goldman because he knew the subject matter better than anyone because he had also written the novel.
My favorite movie is quite different. Can you guess it from this quote: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”
The Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston is my most watched movie, but it’s not my favorite screenplay because it took the actors and scenery to bring it to life for me. Sometimes the movie is better than the book (or the way a screenplay is written).
5 On Publishing
In a March 6 public Facebook post, you shared a screenshot of a message informing you that your screenplay, Language of Love, was the grand prize winner of the short-form screenplay competition you’d entered. What were your feelings going into the contest about whether you would win, and what were the first few weeks like for you after the win, including the hours after you found out you won?
My script, albeit short, was going to be made into a movie! I was over the moon!
On March 6, my daughter and I flew home from Florida after spending a few days there celebrating her 10th birthday. She and I were telling her mother all about our trip when I looked at my phone to see that I had won. To my family’s surprise, as well as my own, I jumped up and yelled, “No way!”
The email said, “Your script is imaginative, funny and wildly entertaining.” Wow! What a thrill! But the excitement didn’t stop there.
I was told they wanted to include me in everything, from choosing locations to casting. They invited me to fly out to LA to be on the production set as the script supervisor “overseeing every part of the process and offering input at every turn.”
Holy moly! I couldn’t believe it. When I had entered the contest, I’d hoped that my script would do well, but even when I was told I made the Top 100, I shrugged and said, “That’s nice,” never thinking I would be the winner.
After the initial contact, they told me, “Before we even get into production, though, we need to lock down the script.” They asked me to “punch up” the ending.
You see, my original submission of Language of Love was only four pages, yet I was allowed five pages in the contest. They said I could write that last page as a revision, with complete artistic license to make it “pop.”
“We trust your skillset,” I was told.
So, I sent in four very different revisions, with one of them being my favorite. Everything was going great. We just had to pick one, but which one would they choose?
On March 16, you posted on Facebook, “Everything is happening at once! I’ve sent off my 4 revised endings tonight for my winning screenplay to the film producer to choose from.” Then, on March 28, you wrote, “Everything is upside down in my world now. 3 weeks ago I won a screenwriting contest and now I’m being threatened with a law suit! Welcome to Hollywood!”
I understand there’s not much you can legally say about this, but what can you say about what happened?
How quickly things can change. I went from elation to disappointment to concern seemingly overnight, and I never made it out to LA.
I got stuck in the middle over a contract issue between the sponsor and the owner of the contest, and, unfortunately, I had to decline the prize due to the changed atmosphere surrounding it.
I was hurt. My pride had taken a hit, and my ego became deflated. I thought I had finally opened the door to Hollywood only to have it slammed shut in my face! I wanted to see my name in lights. I wanted the promised IMDb.com writer’s credit. But I wasn’t comfortable signing anything over to anyone and was forced to back away from the whole thing.
Ultimately though, at the end of the day, I’m taking my win as a tally mark in the positive column of storytelling and will continue on.
What are your options with the script now? Can you continue to try to sell it or enter it into other competitions? I imagine the fact that it won the contest has to be a persuasive selling point.
I still own the rights to my script, and I have since entered it into a few more contests. Unfortunately, no one will care if it has won previously. New contests mean new readers/judges, so I’m back where I was before . . . still trying to crack open the door to Hollywood. With any luck, that lightning will strike again.
If not, maybe in the future I’ll rewrite my screenplays into novels.
Why don’t I just do that now? Well, novel writing takes a long time when you’re a part-time writer. At this point in my life, I’m not willing to commit to that lengthy of a project. I started my trilogy when I was first divorced and living alone, so it was a lot easier to become engrossed by it. It was like having a second job, and you need that commitment to make your writing good enough for publication.
Now that I have more balls to juggle, I have chosen screenplays as my creative output. They’re still a lot of “work,” but the time commitment is shorter, 90 pages versus 300.
Having them produced would be icing on the cake, but it’s not a deal breaker to me if they aren’t. I write for me. I tell the stories I want to hear. But it would be a little upsetting if no one besides me ever got to read or see them, so maybe when I retire I’ll convert them into manuscripts. Then I’ll have two sidewalks to hawk my wares on.
Considering the amount of control afforded to a fiction writer—really, the 100% control you have over a majority of your creative pursuits—what has sharing control of/collaborating on a project like a screenplay taught you, either about the process or about yourself as an artist, that you might not have anticipated?
Even though the sponsors gave me “complete artistic license,” they ended up asking me to tweak one of my revisions to create better audience “buzz.” It was fine, I rolled with it because it was only a small tweak of my idea, and it really did make what I had written better.
Screenplays are always going to be a collaboration; it’s the nature of the business. If a production company options your screenplay, don’t think for a minute that it’s not going to change either by your hand or someone else’s, especially when it’s not your money being used to make the film.
And if they suggest to change the story into something you don’t like, well, it’s up to you whether you want to be paid to make those changes. If it were up to me, and I’ve already been paid for the original and they want to pay me more for a rewrite, then I’ll write their story. In this scenario, that’s what writers are paid to do. I wouldn’t have a problem with it.
What advice would you give screenwriters entering their work into competitions for the first time?
Enter your work into as many legitimate contests with written feedback as you can afford (yes, unlike in the literary world, emerging screenwriters have to pay to play).
If interested, I recommend (in no order of preference):
- Austin Film Festival
- HollyShorts Film Festival
- ISA Fast Track Fellowship
- Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting
- PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
- Table Read My Screenplay
Put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to get bruised. Remember that a writer isn’t a writer until someone else has read their words. All that’s left after that is to cross your fingers and hope your words are liked. Being a writer is like parenting. Once they’re out in the world, you hope your children do well wherever they may end up.
Thank you, Jonathan.
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.