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Friday, May 16, 2008

Getting to Know Me

Call it heat-induced narcolepsy, call it end-of-week laziness, but the Wave-inatrix just couldn't seem to motivate today. But I owe something to my Wavers today, do I not? Who else provides mildly entertaining sort-of-education while you are at work? So here is an interview Christina Hamlett (Could it be a Movie: How to Get Your Ideas From Out of Your Head and Up on the Screen) did of me for American Chronicle this last April. I think you will find it scintillating. Or at least way better than that report due today by 5pm. By that measure, almost anything is scintillating, isn't it?


There´s a funny scene in Shakespeare in Love in which a boatman – upon recognizing the young Bard as his passenger – eagerly tries to foist a new script on him. As anyone who has lived in Los Angeles for more than 10 minutes can attest, it´s an accurate send-up of the fact that almost every valet, waiter and clerk you encounter will just happen to have an extra copy of his or her latest project if they overhear you have any connection to Tinseltown. ("Here´s the Cobb salad you ordered, Ms. Hamlett, along with 10 side pages of my horror script about mutant lamprey eels.")

While no one can fault their unabashed enthusiasm (the writers, that is, not the eels), many of them could benefit from a session of insider knowledge on how today´s script-selling game really works. Julie Gray, founder of The Script Department, serves up her views on how to break in to this elusive market.

Let´s start out with some background on your love of movies and how you came to launch The Script Department.

I have loved movies since I was a little girl and The Wizard of Oz was on television once a year. I don´t know if it´s an odd gene or something, but I fell in love with movies like South Pacific, Oliver! and Pillow Talk. I loved the glamour, the stars, the way everything was dramatized and larger than life. (I lived in a very rural community which might have had something to do with it.) My grandmother was a stage actress in Boston and I think I inherited my love of film and theater from her. When I was in high school, my best friend and I wrote, directed, starred in, produced, edited and exhibited many fine films using our Super 8 camera and allowance money. We did everything from horror to game shows to a sci-fi fantasy with fake little Styrofoam jet fighters.

After graduating from The Writer´s Boot Camp in Santa Monica, I began working as a reader for several high-profile production companies here in town. Over time, it began to break my heart to be so brutal to the scripts. There´s just not a lot of nuance in a "pass". So often I saw scripts that had great intentions but that just didn´t deliver, particularly on the premise. I know just how hard it is to be writing feature scripts in such a tough spec market. Writers need encouragement and inspiration as much as they need the cold, hard truth about what is not working. I came to realize that how you work with a writer can either open the creative doors or shut them down. I decided to start a company that not only provided great notes but provided those notes in such a way that each writer was respected as a unique individual, no matter where they were on the curve. I wanted to really interact with writers and help them not only become better writers but to also feel empowered in the process. You don´t see a lot of that in a town that historically doesn´t have much respect for writers.

How many people work with you in analyzing new projects?

Gosh, we have grown so much I have to take a minute to answer that. There are two Script Department partners, Andrew and Margaux, and I have three other readers who work pretty much full time. Then I have a few go-to readers if I have overflow beyond that. And we also have some "boutique" services offered by such giants as Christopher Keane. I´m very careful about who I choose to work with. I have always held a very clear vision of our objectives and every story analyst who works with me holds the same vision of integrity, kindness, honesty and encouragement because we are all writers and we´ve weathered the slings and arrows.

What is the breakdown of charges and what can clients expect to get for their money?

We offer everything from Story Notes, which is $400 and you get an hour phone consultation after you´ve received 5 pages of notes, down to logline and query letter evaluation which is $75 and everything in-between. We try to tailor our services to the unique needs of writers. Probably our most popular service is the 3-reader package where three of us read your script and get you 1.5 pages of notes. So the writer gets three opinions and three takes. That one flies off the virtual shelf!

We launched a screenwriting competition this year, called The Silver Screenwriting Competition. We´re doing this competition in the same spirit as The Script Department, holding that vision of writers really benefiting from their relationship with us. The Grand Prize is pretty generous and my favorite part of it - beyond the $2500 in cash, beyond the free trip to LA, beyond the day of meetings with 3 managers - is cocktails with Blake Snyder at the Chateau Marmont. How incredible is that? I´m tagging along, for sure!

The Rouge Wave is a hilarious component of your website! Tell us how this flirtation with silliness and mirth came about.

Oh, thank you. The Rouge Wave is definitely a labor of love. I don´t flirt with silliness, I am silliness. My business partners really have so much patience! What can I say, I´m a Scotch/Irish redhead and we like to laugh.

And again, returning to something that I said earlier and the motto that Mary Poppins lived by, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. When we can laugh and be silly, we open ourselves up to learning. So the Rouge Wave is a very silly and yet very informative place. I run little short scene competitions a few times a year and gosh, let me tell you, I´ve gotten some good stuff!

What do you feel is the most unique about what The Script Department has to offer its clients?

Our attitude and intention. We take our time with each client and we pour ourselves into it, heart and soul. You wouldn´t believe the gifts and cards we get each month. It makes me choke up sometimes; wine, candy, chocolate – I even got a boomerang from an Australian client! I have clients offer me their homes for vacation – I mean, who does that? I like to think that we receive what we put out there to our clients. Working with The Script Department is like working with friends who get you feeling comfortable and relaxed and then tell you the truth about your work so that you can raise your potential as a writer.

On average, how many projects do you receive per month and, of these, how many sparkle with potential?

We get between 20 and 50 scripts per month. Sometimes more. Of that number, I´d honestly say maybe every couple of months we see a script that really blows us away and those we do submit to various managers. In terms of potential, we probably see perhaps 3 or 5 a month that, while in need of work, do have potential because of a unique premise and/or because the writer really has a great "voice".

What are the three biggest mistakes you see in the submissions you review?

Soft premise – meaning, there´s simply not enough story to tell, and poor character work. Characters who are two rather than three-dimensional. Writing great characters takes time and experience, there´s no two ways about it. Oh, and typos – people forget to proofread and those simple mistakes can really encumber a script.

Which genre would you like to see more of/less of?

It´s not really a genre, but scripts that are essentially autobiographies with the names changed. We see, very often, young writers who are writing their first or second scripts and they forget to test the premise to make sure that the time they went to Florida and their cousin Bobby got lost in the petting zoo is as entertaining to others as it was to them. It´s not. I would like to see less fantasy/epics because, honestly, with the box office domination of Harry Potter, for a new writer to break in with an expensive spec like that is next to impossible. Writers should write what they love and what fascinates and motivates them but also keep an eye on the market. Judd Apatow has put a new spin on comedy in the past few years so don´t write another Judd Apatow comedy; try to foresee the next wave of comedy in terms of zeitgeist.

The $64,000 question: why is Hollywood turning out so many bad movies (including remakes and sequels)?

Because box office is slipping and television is taking a big bite. Studios are very risk-averse. It´s getting harder and harder to get audiences into the movie theaters and executives are making decisions based on the lowest common denominator. Teen boys are a very lucrative part of the box office and shock/horror and violent movies appeal to them very much. But the slow-grade success of The Bucket List is an example of a movie for a different age range that, while it didn´t do box office gold on its opening or any other weekend, has proven to have legs over time. I think audiences like intelligent, provocative movies and that sooner or later, the decision-makers in Hollywood are going to have to acknowledge our aging population and widen the net.

What´s your best advice to someone who wants to write his/her first screenplay?

Take a class. There are online classes available through UCLA that are quite valuable and many other programs, from weekend workshops at Gotham to 12-week programs at The Writer´s Boot Camp. You learn by doing – buying 12 books on screenwriting is very overwhelming. I can´t recommend taking a class enough – and then another class. And another. Educate yourself and get the peer and academic support you need so that you don´t waste four years writing pointless scripts and feeling totally defeated. Some are real self-learners, sure, but in any case, all aspiring screenwriters should also read as many produced scripts as possible. If there is one faster track to learning, it is reading produced scripts. There you can see, right in front of you, what is working. Beyond that, there are message boards like Done Deal and of course Absolute Write that offer a lot of inspiration and instruction and I like to think The Rouge Wave is a good resource, too.

The most recent writers strike was not the first – nor will it be the last – experienced by the film industry. Do you envision that more screenwriters will start following similar trends provoked by the publishing world (i.e., the emergence/escalation of ebooks/downloads, self-publishing, small presses) and embrace alternative venues that are at less risk to disruptions of income stream, intellectual property rights, and residuals?

Yes. I think a whole new world is dawning in entertainment and that we have only just begun to see its effects. This is the You Tube generation and the success of websites like "Funny or Die" prove that there is a plethora of new venues out there for entertainment and writers. I think it´s an extraordinarily exciting time for writers because a system which was exclusive and entrenched is beginning to crack around the edges.

What are your three favorite movies of all time and why?

Without question, Singin´ In The Rain because I love the music, I´m a huge Gene Kelly fan and I just love the optimism of those MGM musicals in the 1950´s. I think I´ve seen Singin´ over a hundred times!

Another all time favorite is Harold and Maude. The premise is perfect, the character arcs beautifully wrought, the theme is life-affirming and, of course, it has a great soundtrack. The first time I saw it, I was a teenager and I really didn´t know what to make of it but over time, I discovered a new layer with every viewing. Great writing and truly heartfelt material.

More recently, I loved Away From Her and 3:10 to Yuma. Loving the latter surprised me because I don´t think of myself as a fan of westerns, but the writing and performances were spectacular. That scene where Christian Bale whispers fervently to his wife why he has got to take this on brought tears to my eyes. My god, every word was just golden.

Oh and I can´t leave out Ordinary People. That has to be up there in my all time favorites. It doesn´t matter how many times I see it. I love that movie top-to-bottom; performances, writing, direction – everything.

If a movie were made of your life, who would you most like to portray you?

Carrie Fisher.

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This Space Left Intentionally _________. said...

If a movie were made of your life, who would you most like to portray you?

Carrie Fisher.

Carrie Fisher???


Carrie-I'm -borderline-psychotic-Fisher?

That Carrie Fisher?

Carrie freaking Fisher?!

Geeez. What are you trying to tell us, Julie?

And your response begs the question, which Carrie Fisher is your alter ego? The one from Star Wars, The Post Cards from the Edge Carrie Fisher, the good friend from Harry Met Sally? Or some other Carrie Fisher alter-ego?

Oh, god, don't let it be The Post cards from the Edge Carrie Fisher...

Julie Gray said...


When Harry Met Sally Fisher. Definitely. She is one funny, talented lady. Drug use and mental health issues nonwithstanding. And hey, you think you know the W? Man, I've done a good job :)

This Space Left Intentionally _________. said...

Gender aside, I think a better choice would've been Albert Brooks.

PJ McIlvaine said...


Benjamin Ray said...

Hi Linda,

This is a treasure of an interview.

You're really winning us over.

In your article you said this.

"Of that number, I´d honestly say maybe every couple of months we see a script that really blows us away and those we do submit to various managers."

Is it possible to give a sample of these scripts. Or maybe post an interview of these promising screenwriters.

When a script blows you away, are you saying its on the level of Night Shamalayan "The Six Sense" or Christopher McQuarrie's "The Unusual Suspects" or even Steven Zaillian's "American Gangster" or even like In The Bedroom

Could you let us know why the style of the above scripts are loved by producers in Hollywood?

Would you say "THE SIX SENSE" is a100% page turner.

We look forward to using your services soon.

Finally a coverage provider company to look forward to.

Benjamin Ray

Julie Gray said...

Hi Benjamin - it's actually JULIE but you know, that happens all the time. I get confused with Linda Blair. Awkward! I'm so glad you liked that interview; it was fun to do. We have had scripts that blew us away because of the sheer talent on the page. There's no other way to put it. That sounds like a great idea; I'd be happy to talk to the writers I am referring to and post a short interview on the RW. I'm sure they'd be pleased as punch!

Laura Reyna said...

Good interview!