Monday, June 22, 2009

An Interview with Writer\Script Coach\Story Analyst Xandy Sussan

TGL - Today we have the pleasure of interviewing Xandy Sussan - Writer, producer, story analyst. Xandy tell us a little about yourself, how you got started and what has kept you working in the industry over the years?

XS - I’m Xandy Sussan, a produced writer and script coach / story analyst with I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was 10, I saw Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” and I was hooked! I grew up surrounded by movies (my parents are both huge movie buffs) and I was a self-confessed TV junkie by the time I could speak (I think that was my third word… eek), so there was really only the one direction to go in. I would say, if anything keeps me going it is that I continue to write movies and television I would want to see made. It’s really as simple as that.

TGL - As a professional reader I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to read some really good material over the years (in between the nightmares I’ve sent your way). What makes a good story stick out? Can you identify a few commonalities between one good script and another?

XS - Well, a good story has compelling characters, solid structure and leaves you satisfied at the end, making sure to use everything. Most new writers think it’s okay to just have a notion “a single mom balances her job against her kids” and that’s enough to rest a whole project on. Well, it’s not. They say “God is in the details,” and never more so than in screenwriting. It’s not necessarily the freshness of the story (although that helps a ton) but it’s also the execution. If you can’t figure out how to craft this single mom so that she’s gripping, likable and worth rooting for, if your structure doesn’t flow, and if you mention details that don’t pay off, no matter how excellent your premise is, your script will never be a success.

TGL - There are a bunch of myths and legends about making it in Hollywood. Is it true that 98% of the scripts that make it to Hollywood end up in the trash before they even make it to a readers hands? What are some of the common pitfalls a newbie writer will make that will guarantee their material will end up being filed under “G” for garbage? Are all Studio Readers really Film School Interns unwilling to risk their reputations on a new writers work?

XS - This is really a two part question. It’s more like Studio Readers are frustrated writers who hate you and your work, just because it’s yet another script they have to read. They’re tired, they’re blind, they’re poverty stricken, and they’re having just as hard a time getting their agent on the phone as it took you to get your script past the door. It’s harsh to say, but mostly true. There are many production companies and talent agencies that use interns to do coverage. These kids are usually still in college or recent college grads and wouldn’t know a good story from their elbow, but they’re cheap labor and that’s what makes Hollywood go ‘round.

Part two: Okay, so how does someone with no connections get past the lions at the gate? I’ve just relearned this recently, it’s amazing what happens when you cold call. Most times, 97 times out of 100, you’ll get rejected and hung up on, but those other 3 times, someone might be interested in checking out your work.

Rule #1, don’t contact anyone about anything, until such time as you have the script perfect (I don’t mean that your mom liked it, I mean that there’s no typos, it’s in the correct font, it’s been checked out by an independent professional etc.) There’s nothing worse than getting someone on the phone willing to look at your work, but the script isn’t finished. Then you have to rush it through and it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Make sure the work is ready to go and you should have no problems.

Rule # 2 You should have a solid query to go along with your script already prepared before you call anyone. Same rules as above apply. You don’t want to get caught with your pants down. A friend told me there’s a simple rule to writing a query… short, short, short. Your logline should be no more than 2 sentences and 55 scintillating words making your story seem so sexy and exciting that how could they refuse. I know that sounds impossible, and trust me, it ain’t easy, but it’s doable. And you should keep at it until it’s perfect.

Rule #3 Always charm the assistant of whomever you’re trying to reach. The assistants are the gate keepers and they decide what gets through and what doesn’t. The first time you call, get their names and keep good records. If when you call, you say “Hi Jill, it’s Xandy Sussan, we spoke a few weeks ago about my script” you’ll get a better response than “Hi it’s Xandy Sussan, I’m calling about my script.” People love to be addressed by name, and it makes them think they should know you, since you know them. It puts you in the power position.

Rule #4 There is a fine line between stalking and following up. Stalking is calling every day. Following up is every 2 weeks. Don’t be a stalker. But that being said, you should always ask when would be convenient for them for you to follow up, then do as they say. Patient yet persistent, but don’t be a stalker.

And the rest is luck and tenacity. If you’re a quitter, don’t bother. Show your script to your friends and family and let them pat you on the back for being a genius. If you are a rabid dog, who never quits and always perseveres, keep at it. You’ll eventually make enough connections to get through to someone.

My one last pearl of wisdom for newbies, never get off the phone with someone who said “no” without asking them who else you should call. You never know what will happen. This is where being both pushy and charming comes into play. Best case scenario, you get another contact, worst case, they say, “bye” and you’re no worse off than when you started.

TGL - A lot of my readers probably don’t know the importance and usefulness of script coverage, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to get an EXPERT’S opinion of why getting coverage will benefit ANY writer, new or veteran, but also to get some clarity about some of the terminology.

XS - What is script coverage and why is it a good tool? Script coverage is, usually, a two page (or so) report about your script and is largely used by agents, managers, prodcos to manage and evaluate their script submissions. For screenwriters, it’s a tool to help you asses where you are with your work. It will contain the basic information, writer’s name, reader’s name, date, logline, a synopsis and comments.

The logline is a quick sentence that describes your script. For example the logline for “Tootsie” might be “When an unemployed actor needs to raise money, he poses as female in order to get a job on a soap.” It’s just the basic essence of your story. Don’t worry if the reader doesn’t address your multi-leveled pathos in the logline. It’s really just the gist of the story.

The synopsis can be helpful to new writers because often times they’re unable to see a better way to tell their story. They’re too close to it and can no longer see what’s really on the page. A synopsis will provide the chance for the writer to see how another person views their story, thusly illuminating a path to salvation.

The comments section is the bitter pill to swallow for most writers. Everyone is very sensitive about their work, even me, because it’s so personal. You spend 100’s of hours working on something, only to have someone shit all over it for what feels like no reason. Here’s the deal with comments, and I say this all the time when people have several opinions and they’re trying to reconcile them: take what feels right to you. You know in your gut if something’s not right with your script. You know it, even if you don’t want to admit it. So, when the reader suggests that there is a problem, listen to what they have to say and take the comments that feel organic to you. The others, you can ignore. But that’s why having a reader you can trust is so important. You want someone who sees scripts non-stop and knows their stuff. Your friends will tell you your script is great because they love you. And while that’s sweet, it doesn’t help you get your script sold. You want tough harsh critics who will push you to your limits.

So, while Script coverage is a useful tool, you also have to pick your story analyst very carefully. Anyone with $10 and an internet connection can set up a script coverage / story analysis website and claim to be a “professional.” Always check out your reader before you hire them. See what they’re charging. This isn’t one of those instances where cheaper is better (and I’m a bargain hunter through and through). What you’re looking for is someone who can inspire you, has inspired others, has a track record of success and someone with whom you feel simpatico. Your relationship with your reader is going to become, best case informative and speedy. Worst case, it’s gonna be co-dependant. You need someone who understands your goals, your script, and knows how to get you there. Think of your reader as a personal trainer for your writing muscles. If they don’t, or you don’t get a good vibe, or they seem slim shady, whatever, don’t go with them. Keep hunting until you find the right person for you. In most cases, your reader is going to become your confidant, teacher, and someone more emotionally intimate with you than your mate. You want someone you want to spend time with and someone who knows their stuff.

Also, try not to argue with your reader about their notes. I know it’s very personal but, if you’ve done your homework and you’ve found your reader soulmate, you should trust that they have your best interest at heart. I, personally, never lie and I never couch my words. It does my clients a disservice if I kiss their asses and tell them their scripts are great. It doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help me. However, when I’m brutally honest, and tell them it sucks, once they finally get it right and hear from me “I loved it!” they know they’ve really got something then. Honesty is what you want, even if you’re sensitive and have easily hurt feelings. Otherwise you’ll never grow or reach your writing goals.

Last thing you want to look for is someone willing to do a call with you after you’ve read the report. You’ll have questions and you’ll want access to the reader to discuss. Usually an hour is standard and included. If they don’t include a call, or they charge extra, beware. They’re just out to take your money. So choose wisely and you’ll go far.

TGL - Pass\Recommend\Consider... These words seem relatively self explanatory, but they hold a little more weight on a coverage report. Can you give us a little detail on their significance?

XS - Pass means it sucks and it shouldn’t be made or passed along to anyone until the corrections are made. Depending on the reader, and the situation, pass can mean two things. For me and my writer clients, when I “pass” I mean they need to work out their script issues before anyone else should ever see it. For a production company, when I say “pass” I mean “Throw out this piece of trash, I want my two hours back.”

Consider means that there are some positive elements. The story could have a good premise but fail to deliver in certain places. The characters could be great, but the story needs some work. It’s really a middle of the road sort of comment and normally just ends up being a pass, unless it was written by a celebrity, in which case, it’s a greenlight. But a consider could also mean they would be willing to see something else by you in the future, because you don’t totally suck.

Recommend, and that’s a rare one, means this script is so excellent, so wonderful, that if someone else higher up doesn’t read it, they’re missing out. I would say, in my 10 year career, I’ve recommended 7 scripts, 5 of which got made. The other two won at festivals. So, getting a recommend is a coup, to say the least.

TGL - Being a writer\producer and professional reader, what do you look for in a good coverage report?

XS - The comments mostly. If the comments are thoughtful, make sense and are helpful (offering suggestions or alternatives) that to me is the best sort of coverage. It differs between production companies and writers. Prodcos are just looking mostly for a “yes” or a “no”. Writers need more help and guidance. Indie producers are looking for a mixture of both. They often work with the writer and it becomes a team effort, in which each member has a say and they collaborate to make it great.

TGL - Loglines... What makes a good one great? What do you think the key to writing a great logline is?

XS - Quick and to the point. My example above is the perfect logline. It gives the gist of the plot without focusing in too much on the details of the script. The details come later in the synopsis and comments section.

TGL - Why is a coverage report a good idea? What can a professional reader offer that your best friend or mother haven’t already told you?

XS - The truth! Ha! Your best friend and mother love you. They’re so proud of you that you decided to do this creative thing, and while they might know all the lines to “Gone With The Wind” that doesn’t make them industry professionals. Now, if your mother or best friend is a story analyst, professional writer or development exec, (as mine are) then listen to them. They probably know what they’re talking about, but even then, take from their comments what feels right to you.

I don’t think my mother has ever said she loved anything I wrote. No, I take that back. I wrote a nighttime soap in college she liked a lot, but I didn’t care for it. It’s been downhill since then. She doesn’t even like the stuff I’ve had produced, so of course, she’s my go to gal for notes because she always tells the truth, harsh as it may seem. But again, I have to take what she says with a grain of salt. As a professional writer, she understands story, structure, and character development, but her taste is wildly different from mine, so that’s where we clash. I’m young and write with slang and a patois that makes her cranky. So, when she says she doesn’t like a line because the grammar is bad or the slang is incomprehensible to her, I always have to explain, that’s how that character speaks. But when she has a solid note about my end of act two dark moment, I have to listen because she’s right.

Most people don’t have so many writers in one family. My husband is a produced screenwriter and my mother is a novelist and magazine contributor. One of my best friends works in development at Warner Bros., so he’s my go to guy for notes as well. So, if this isn’t your story, seek out a professional if you want the truth about your writing. If you want hugs and cookies for writing a movie, regardless of its merit, go see your mom. She’ll kiss you and then post your script on the fridge and you’ll get the love you’re looking for. If you want to achieve your goals, seek out professional help from someone you trust.

TGL - Where do you see most new writers losing their way in a script? Is it the second act slump? Is it in the first ten pages? What can they do to avoid making those mistakes?

XS - As of today, I’ve read 1779 scripts. That includes the 300 rewrites I’ve read of the same script over and over… I kid, but you get the point. But no, really, 1779. I can tell by page 1 if the script is going to be worthwhile. That being said, I find that most writers lose their way with structure. They have good ideas but poor execution, and that is always their downfall. The three act structure is there because it works. I don’t want to hear “waa waa waa, three act structure is a formula and I’m so creative I’m doing alternative structure.” I don’t want to hear it because there’s one David Lynch and one Tarantino. When you become the third guy or gal in that group, do what you want. The thing about the three act structure is that, even in alternative structure stories, they’re still told using three acts. They’re just better writers and are able to disguise that so you can’t tell. And if you want to really look down the rabbit hole, each act should have three acts, but that’s another story for another day. Don’t be fooled by bells and whistles. All scripts have a flow and if you fail to use it or can’t get it right, you’re done. And any reader worth their fee will know it right off the bat.

TGL - Formatting? Is it as important as the internet makes it out to be? Will they burn you in effigy if you aren’t using ACCO 1 ¼” Brads?

XS - Uh, it’s the MOST important thing. I know that seems dumb and superficial, but it’s Hollywood. It’s all dumb and superficial. My first agent almost fired me when my partner and I sent over materials and all we had were the super long brads. I cut the brad down so it would be the right length. Well, she cut her finger on it and called me screaming. Her point was, imagine if she was not her but someone I was trying to sell to and my idiocy had maimed them. My career would be over before it began. I kissed her ass and apologized to her, but it was a lesson well learned.

Formatting is the most important thing you’ll never realize you’ve done wrong, until you fail and get called out for it. No clever fonts ever! Courier 12 or Courier Final Draft 12, and that’s it. No colored cover pages. 1 ¼ brads, always. 2, not 3, 2 brads. The center is left empty… why I don’t know, but that’s how it’s done.

The thing is, there’s a 100 reasons for them to say no before they even crack open the script. If you get as far as someone willing to read it, and they open it and find the whole script is in 30pt circus font, you know the person is an amateur and you’re done with them. My feeling has always been, if the writer has typos or weird fonts or other formatting faux pas on the first page, then they’re not worth my time. And their script could be the next “Citizen Kane” but I would never know, because I’d pass immediately. Don’t ever give anyone a stupid reason to pass on your script. There’s plenty of valid reasons coming down the pike.

TGL - Looking back over your career, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself if you could go back in time to when you first got the spark for the Movie Industry? What gems of insight would you give yourself?

XS - Well, huh, that’s a tough one. I’ve always marched to my own drummer. I’ve always done what I wanted. I’ve always been intrepid and adventurous with my life. I mean, seriously, choosing this as a career was deranged, but it’s worked out so far to some degree. Apart from not being a millionaire yet, I’ve hit my major goals. I made it into the WGA before I was 30. I’m sold, produced and continue to work as a paid screenwriter, so there’s that. I love my business and helping other writers achieve their goals.

But, I would tell myself not to take everything so seriously. I would tell myself to work out my issues with my parents 10 years ago, when normal people did it and not measure my success based on their yard stick. I would tell myself that being able to write a significant piece of material takes time, dedication and patience and that to rush because I have an opportunity never served me well in the long run.

Honestly, I would do most of it, my career stuff, the same way, only I would’ve been more tenacious and less afraid of repercussions. I would have written more and tried harder to get noticed (half the battle in Hollywood). It’s been my experience that story editors, prodcos and the like, are attracted to a healthy sense of moxie and determination. I would make better use of that, as my moxie and determination are my greatest skills.

And I would tell myself that no matter how much I fail, there’s no other life out there for me that would be nearly as satisfying or rewarding, no matter how much I have to starve or suffer to have it. It’s always worthwhile, the second someone says “yes.” And they do say “yes” sometimes. The trick is not allowing yourself to go nuts in between the yeses and doubt yourself and abilities.

TGL - Thank you so much for taking part in this interview... What can we look forward to from Xandy Sussan? What are you currently working on?

XS - Well, thanks for having me. This has been a challenging set of questions! I just finished a 30 minute dramedy pilot for cable that we’re shopping, I’m writing a feature film based on a Poe poem, and I’m writing my own passion project: a super secret comedy that I’ll talk all about once it’s done! Plus, I’m always available to help other writers achieve what they want out of their own writing. It helps, on the days when I’m blocked, to focus on somebody else’s story problems!

TGL - Cheers! And thank you again.

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