Mark Dark: Scriptcat, great to have you here. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Your blog posts are brilliant, very inspirational and educational.
Scriptcat: Ah, you are too kind! It’s really nice to hear my articles can inspire and maybe teach a bit of wisdom. It makes it all worth it.
Mark Dark: It can be time consuming to blog, especially the detail and quality of your posts. How much time do you dedicate and how do you choose what to write about?
Scriptcat: A year ago I decided to set up the blog and start writing articles every week. The only plan was to write about every aspect of screenwriting—from the art and craft, living a writer’s life, carving out a career, and the business side of screenwriting. I recalled the years of crazy meetings and my adventures with development and production. I really wanted to get those experiences down somewhere to share.
Mark Dark: I love reading them. You cover some fascinating subjects. Are you picky about what you post?
Scriptcat: I’m very picky about what I post, so it can take me longer to decide if an idea for an article is good enough to share. I don’t want to start posting articles I feel are sub-standard to what I’ve written before. I continually raise the bar on myself and I think it keeps the articles at certain level of integrity. Now after 89 articles, I’ve slowed down a bit, but as I’ve gained new followers who may not dig deep into the site, I’ve re-posted some of the early articles to draw attention. Then just when I think I’m written out suddenly I lock into a new topic and find myself writing four monster articles in a week—and they were some of my best ever.
Mark Dark: Do you have a set schedule for blogging?
Scriptcat: I have no set schedule but something always comes up in my adventures that becomes a great topic to share. The fact I just hit 17,000 all-time views this week motivates me to continue.
Mark Dark: Wow that’s awesome. Oh, and, how long do you spend on Twitter?
Scriptcat: Twitter? I’m on it daily, and multiple times daily, as it’s been a great way to share and connect. Example being this interview, connecting with you, and getting to read your terrific short fiction “Man or Mouse.” That was my shameless plug, not his!
Mark Dark: Haha! Thanks dude! But back to you! You’re a full time working screenwriter and script consultant. How long did it take you to break into the industry?
Scriptcat: That day happened seven years out of college. There were a few small gigs here and there, but when it came it was like being in a dream. I was hired to be a staff writer on a hugely successful cable network game show, but six weeks later I was fired! I hung on and three months later my spec screenplay (my fifth spec at the time) was optioned and a year later went into production.
Mark Dark: So when did you give up the day job?
Scriptcat: I’ve never really had a “day job” and really only once—and for two years, while I was going through UCLA Film School. I waited tables at night and did that for years after I graduated. It meant having the time to take meetings, pitch and everything that goes into getting out there.
I was able to write and perform in a sketch comedy show once a month for nearly four years, shoot a pilot, and have a number one parody song on nationwide comedy radio. I’m sure much of that would not have ever happened if I worked a 9-5 job and could only do my own thing at night or the weekends.
Mark Dark: Wow, sounds like you’ve done a lot of different things! Is that good for a writer?
Scriptcat: I’ve had so many odd jobs over the years. I believe that’s a great place for a writer’s observations and just to have real-world experiences of survival.
Mark Dark: So when did you get your big break?
Scriptcat: I never had one big break into the film industry, it’s been a series of little breaks, steady breaks that were not always in quick succession—like if you were swinging from a vine and the next vine didn’t come as quickly as you expected. I may have been out there swinging freely, but I always kept swinging and moving forward, and most importantly doing the work—even when I was beaten down and there seemed to be no hope.
Mark Dark: If writers need to take a day job, for security, isn’t that OK?
Scriptcat: These are the dangerous times for screenwriters when many give up their dream and take that secure day job, or it’s when their significant other tells them “you can always write on the weekends” as my ex-girlfriend did with me. Aspiring writers become so busy with their lives and the lives of others, they see their dream of being a working screenwriter slowly slipping away.
Mark Dark: What about writing a little bit every day?
Scriptcat: You can peck away a few pages a day, but there’s nothing like writing full time with the hunger burning in your soul. You’d be surprised how quickly a dream becomes a distant memory unless you stay in the game and live a writer’s life.
Mark Dark: Do you think getting a job in production is a good idea for a writer?
Scriptcat: I always believe Hollywood is all about image, and the image you project is the one they will believe. I decided to work a job that paid good money but more importantly had flexible hours. This allowed me to focus on writing and becoming a better screenwriter.
If I was working 12 hours a day on a TV show or movie as an assistant, I didn’t see how that would help my screenwriting. I already knew the nuts and bolts of film-making, I had been making films since I was 12 years old with friends, and my focus was becoming the best screenwriting I could be. That takes precious time. I made a pact with myself, I would not go from a waiter to being a restaurant manager or something, and it had to be a vertical move into the film business.
Mark Dark: Waiting tables is tough. I’ve done it myself. Did you ever feel like giving in and getting a ‘proper’ job ?
Scriptcat: During one period, my business really slowed down and I gave in and took a job at a law firm, as my buddy was partner there and I was immediately hired, but it was a 9-5 grind and I’d come home and write all night until bed, get up, do my job at the firm, come home and write, and write on weekends. I had a girlfriend at the time, so I slowly found my precious writing time, my focus and discipline starting to wane.
I was making great money, but got soft, as I wasn’t as hungry for it. Suddenly, two years went past in a blink. Now, I have to add, during this time I was hired to write a movie and I was able to get that done, and something I had written went into production (and I had to get the time off to visit the set), but I started to hate living two lives. I was thankful for the opportunity, but by the end of the two years, I started to take longer lunches and dread going to work. The routine of two jobs was killing me.
Mark Dark: So what did you do?
Scriptcat: I finally quit when I received a call from the head of a production company I had worked with before and they had a new script for me to write. That was the sign I needed. It was the universe telling me it was time to take the leap and trust everything would be okay. This was my chance to get back into the writer’s life with no looking back. Money wasn’t my driving force, as I’ve never lived above my means and that’s so important, otherwise you can become a slave to a job because you can never quit.
My fourth spec screenplay made some noise and got meetings and all of that, but it was a huge action film and we were unknowns and eventually hit a wall. My fifth spec was the magic number script and it went on to be produced and to date was my only spec that has sold. That was a long seven-year journey from first draft to first day of production. All of my other work has been screenplay assignment jobs, and I’m totally okay with that. Assignment jobs are the bread and butter of working screenwriters.
Mark Dark: So, is it good to write specs?
Scriptcat: We always need our specs, but it’s nice to actually get paid to write and have it end up being produced and distributed. My assignment jobs mostly have an output deal already in place with a network and foreign sales, so it’s nice to know if it’s made, it will end up being seen by a global audience. I’ve written twenty-six screenplays to date, eleven have been assignments, six have been produced into films and distributed, and five projects are in development. It’s been a long journey!
Mark Dark: From your posts you seem like a pretty meticulous organizer. Is that right? How do you organize your time between screenwriting, consulting and blogging? Do you keep to a specific schedule? Are you disciplined?
Scriptcat: Discipline? It’s my middle name! It’s one of the primary attributes a writer needs to master to find any type of success in this business. I’ve always been disciplined and it was never hard for me to keep focus on my ultimate goals. It’s like Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon:
“It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
I always focus on the project at hand, but I’m very aware of how it fits into the bigger picture of my career.
Mark Dark: Discipline’s tough. How can we master it?
Scriptcat: I think my mastery of discipline came from my assignment work with producers and having to write on a deadline and know I’m contracted to turn in material under strict deadlines. It’s helped me to juggle the various writing I actually do.
Mark Dark: What are you juggling at the moment?
Scriptcat: The screenwriting is ongoing with various projects in various stages of development. I just completed the final pass of my TV pilot with my manager and we’re preparing for early reads before the next pilot cycle before summer.
I’ve been working with a director on pitches for a network, doing a polish of another script I co-wrote with another director that’s going out to investors, and developing a new pitch for an actress that she may develop. There’s always something going on with as many plates spinning as possible. It takes tremendous discipline and I always hear excuses from people of why they can’t do it—just do it.
Mark Dark: So how do you organize your time?
Scriptcat: Firstly, I organize it by the importance—the contracted screenwriting jobs come first in the pipeline as they pay the rent and put food in the icebox. Unless you work as a staff writer on a TV series and have a steady job, the indy screenwriter’s life is much like that of a gypsy—going from job to job and looking for your next gig. The reality is there are down times and it gets slow, so it’s nice during those times to have the consulting service and the blog—and now my new workshop.
The blog has been a great place for me to share my years of zany adventures in the screen trade and to offer real-world advice that might help others avoid many of the pitfalls on their journey.
Mark Dark: What’s your view of the development process?
Scriptcat: I am a huge believer in doing a detailed outline or better yet, a treatment, before you dive into writing the script. After being hired for eleven script assignments, it’s just a natural process for me and no producer I work for would ever let me start a script without a solid, detailed treatment or step outline.
I believe writers should start getting into the habit of crafting a treatment/step outline or beat sheet before they start the script, as they’ll need that experience if they ever want to get an assignment job. I hear writers say, “I have this idea and I just want to start writing and see where it takes me.” That’s a recipe for disaster and definite way to get stuck in that barren wasteland called “ACT 2.”
Mark Dark: So, you think we shouldn’t just write something without planning?
Scriptcat: No architect of anything would ever just start building without detailed plans. It’s foolish for writers to do the same and it shows a lack of respect for the craft of screenwriting. I try to instill in aspiring writers a treatment/step outline or beat sheet is their friend, not the enemy of improvisation. Writers have plenty of breathing room within the actual scenes to come up with brilliant stuff as they plot along toward “FADE OUT—THE END” but using a road map.
Mark Dark: How soon should a writer get involved and pay for feedback from a pro like yourself?
Scriptcat: I would suggest a writer get a few drafts completed and when they get to a point where they feel they can’t answer the important questions of, “does this story work?” or “does this suck?” — it’s time to hire a consultant. I find some consultants make promises to know what the studios are buying and other lofty hooks, but in reality “nobody knows anything” as William Goldman so eloquently stated.
Mark Dark: Well if nobody knows anything is consultancy useful then or not?
Scriptcat: Hiring a good consultant can really help with a completely objective opinion, rather than having friends or your mother read the script. It’s also a safe place to expose the flaws of your script and not suffer the wrath of horrible coverage that gets logged into some Hollywood database. There’s no going back when this coverage is in the system and you are fu*ked as everyone knows your script is a stinker.
Mark Dark: Could we send you a treatment for feedback? Tell us if the story will sell or not?
Scriptcat: I’ve actually never consulted on someone’s treatment, usually it’s the finished script they come to me with and want analysis, editing and notes. I believe it’s not my place to crush anyone’s dream and say their idea will never sell. Who knows? I can’t see into the future. Even my own ideas may not sell. Many have not sold. As a consultant, it’s my place to analyze if the writer was effective in what they tried to do. If not — I give constructive feedback on how to fix it and other creative insights that can bring it to the next level.
Mark Dark: Film is often called a visual medium, and we are told to write visually. But, although starting visually as silent ‘moving pictures’, haven’t films become audio + visual? Doesn’t dialogue play a huge role in story telling these days?
Scriptcat: I still believe movies are a visual medium first and foremost. You can tell more by one single image than any line of dialogue. The marriage of both visual images and dialogue are important, but many times a film with too many talking heads starts to feel for me like a stage play. Here’s what playwright/screenwriter David Mamet has to say about this subject:
“A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue.”
Mark Dark: OK, so what about Tarantino? What would his films be like without dialogue?
Scriptcat: I understand and love the whole Tarantino style, but if you or I turned in a script with ten pages of dialogue at the beginning as in Inglorious Bastards, they’d toss it into the dumpster. He can get away with this because of who he is as a filmmaker. I had a friend ask me once to borrow my copy of Pulp Fiction because he wanted to “study how scripts were written.” I told him to forget it, that ship sailed with Tarantino and his imprint and voice on cinema is locked. I told my friend to find his own voice.
Mark Dark: What about Woody Allen?
Scriptcat: Woody Allen is a huge influence on me, but I’d never try and turn in a screenplay with his amount of dialogue. Again, the scripts they write will always be produced, as they are writer/directors. I see this in my consulting work, beginning writers being influenced and trying to emulate a known filmmaker’s style and failing miserably. The scripts are overwritten and every character has loads of dialogue and the scenes go on way too long. Again, it takes years of writing to master this technique and not have it come off as huge amounts of exposition. As Norma Desmond said in one of my favorite films, Sunset Boulevard:
“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! Talk!”
Mark Dark: But some screenplay’s rely heavily on dialogue, right?
Scriptcat: It takes a master to rely heavily on dialogue in a screenplay. I would not tell an aspiring screenwriter to try and emulate either one of the masters you’ve mentioned. Us mere mortals should stick to our own style until we have mastered screenwriting.
Mark Dark: What are your favorite films ? Do you have a favorite genre?
Scriptcat: I basically love movies—period. I’ve been trying to watch a movie a night for the past year and catch up on ones I’ve missed and continue my ongoing studies. I’m still a wide-eyed kid when the lights come down in the theater and I hope to be taken on a magical adventure. When I was twelve-years-old and started making films with friends, I was hugely influenced by Spielberg and Lucas—Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET and Close Encounters were seminal films that inspired us to make movies.
Mark Dark: You said you used to be a comedy performer. Do you have comic influences in film?
Scriptcat: Some of my comedic influences come from writer/directors Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitch, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and Mel Brooks. Woody’s Annie Hall and Broadway Danny Rose, everything by Jerry Lewis, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment, Lubitch’s To Be or Not to Be and Ninotchka, Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, and Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety. These are just a small list of some of my all time favorites.
Mark Dark: Are you a fan of Film Noir?
Scriptcat: I’ve been enjoying Noir for years since we studied the genre in film school and also the French New Wave. The style, characters and hard-boiled worlds appeal to me and they’ve become one of my favorite genres. Some of my favorite directors are the great Orson Welles, John Huston, Jules Dassin, Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, and Jean-Luc Godard. I’ve also enjoyed the many low-budget noirs from RKO when Howard Hughes owned the studio. I love discovering films I’ve never seen and they turn out to be a gem.
Mark Dark: What about the heist genre? Which are your favorite films there?
Scriptcat: I love the heist genre. The great Rififi, The Italian Job, Seven Thieves, Topkopi, The League of Gentlemen, The Getaway, and even the WWII heist film Kelley’s Heroes are some favorites.
Mark Dark: What about action movies and war films?
Scriptcat: I love good WWII action movies of the 60s like The Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, The Train, The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare.
Mark Dark: What about westerns?
Scriptcat: I went on a Western genre tear recently and have a new appreciation for the genre. Great directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, and films like Rio Bravo, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Red River, and The Wild Bunch.
Mark Dark: Are you a horror film fan?
Scriptcat: I don’t gravitate toward the slasher/horror genre or thrillers, but I do enjoy classic horror of the 30s/40s like The Black Cat and The Bride of Frankenstein and also the Hammer horror films of the 60s and early 70s, and I’ve recently discovered the work of Italian horror director Mario Bava and his Black Sunday and Twitch of the Death Nerve.
I also enjoy studying movies of a particular genre when I’m hired to write a genre screenplay. When I tell friends I’m busy working and have to watch a stack of movies for research, they think it’s not work. It’s all part of the process. I had to research submarine action films when I was hired to write a submarine naval drama and used many films as influences including Run Silent, Run Deep, The Enemy Below, Crimson Tide, U-571, Das Boot, The Hunt for Red October, and K-19 The Widowmaker.
Mark Dark: In your script consultancy service what do you notice are the most common problems with scripts you analyze?
Scriptcat: I find many aspiring writers have a serious lack of knowledge about screenplay format. So many scripts are overwritten. Many new screenwriters feel the need to micromanage every scene and will even explain the color of the wallpaper. I kid, but it’s not a joke, I’ve read detailed descriptions that belong in novels. Producers and executives hate to read—funny in a business where the script is so important, but they like to see a lot of “white” on the page.
Mark Dark: What does that mean?
Scriptcat: This means the fewer words the better and it’s the job of the screenwriter to stay the hell out of the way of the story. One script I read literally had exclamation points on every other line of dialogue. The bar is very high in dialogue to use an exclamation point. The death of your screenplay can be from 1,000 little format issues. It’s all about the attention to the little details. I can start reading a script and by the second page know it’s from an amateur. The producers and executives will notice too.
I also find a lack of respect for the treatment/step outline/beat sheet and how it related to the screenplay structure. This arrogance will get a writer into trouble when they end up with a hundred and fifty-page script and have no idea where to cut.
Also, the understanding and acceptance that screenwriting is rewriting. Many believe their first draft is perfect and they’ll fall out of bed the next morning and stumble ass backwards into a three-picture studio deal. Reality check ahead! After I read someone’s magnum opus and they tell me it took six months to write it without a treatment or even a step outline, I grimace and realized they just don’t understand. A reader or producer will STOP reading after the first five pages.
Mark Dark: How can we iron out the mistakes before they get to you?
Scriptcat: LEARN THE CRAFT OF SCREENWRITING. There are about twenty good books out there on the craft of screenwriting. Every town has screenwriting lectures, classes or workshops. Also become a voracious screenplay reader. So many scripts are available online now, there really is no excuse, but being lazy or arrogant—that is a blatant disregard for the craft.
Mark Dark: Is correct formatting important? Surely that doesn’t matter, it’s just an editing thing. The story is still there.
Scriptcat: If a screenwriter doesn’t care enough to even know basics of proper format, the producer or executive (most likely their reader or assistant) will think, “Why should I waste my precious time on this garbage when the writer didn’t even take the time to get it right? Obviously an amateur.” It’s what separates the aspiring amateur from the professional. If you always act as a professional in all matters of your screenwriting career, you’ll do just fine and you’ll be prepared for the day when you really do get your professional chance up to the plate. You won’t have wasted your opportunity by not being ready. Always go above and beyond to make it good.
Mark Dark: Brilliant interview, Scriptcat. Thanks!
Mark Sanderson (aka Scriptcat) is a veteran of the screenwriting game with over fifteen years of experience and blessed to be living his childhood dream of being a filmmaker. From his start in sketch comedy writing and performing live with The Amazing Onionheads and writing for MTV, to his eleven writing assignments that have garnered six produced films—the emotionally compelling I’ll Remember April, An Accidental Christmas, and Deck the Halls, the stylish indie noir Stingers, and action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below and Silent Venom—Mark’s films have premiered on television networks Lifetime, Syfy, Fox Family, and HereTV and have received worldwide distribution.
His long association with Hollywood veterans and award-winning filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay, and has since worked with Producer’s Guild of America nominees, legendary genre directors, and Academy Award, Emmy and Golden Globe acting nominees. Mark’s films have also been recognized around the world and have opened and premiered at major festivals.
His popular screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE has developed into an Internet sensation with over 15,000 readers. Check it out for a wealth of industry insight, wisdom and knowledge.
Great interview! I agree completely on having your freshly completed script reviewed by a consultant. I sent the very first script I completed off to be analyzed. It was my intention to enter into one of the big contests and I definitely wanted to start out with the best script I could. The consultant sent back my script with a number of notes. Some were positive while other items needed to be addressed. The most important to me was the reassurance that the story concept was good and formatted correctly. The consultant also prepared me to the fact that this would be a very expensive movie to produce. I took every bit of his advice whether I agreed or not and corrected the script. I sent my baby off to mingle with the other 3000 scripts entered in the contest and was pleased as pickles when it made it through to the semi-finals. The judges comments were awesome. “Lots of potential here.” It was a nice start in this new adventure of screenwriting. I do credit the consultant for helping me to improve the story and I will definately go that route again when I’ve finished the re-writes on my current script.