Monday, July 13, 2009

Q&A with Alex Epstein - Award winning Writer of Bon Cop / Bad Cop and the Book Crafty TV Writing

I'd like to welcome Alex Epstein and thank him for taking the time to speak with us. Alex Epstein is a writer for television and movies, and author of the books Crafty Screenwriting and Crafty TV Writing. He co-created the comic drama television series Naked Josh for the Oxygen Network (U.S.A.) and Showcase (in Canada); it ran for three seasons. He's been nominated twice for a Canadian Screenwriting Award for his work on the show and, he was Head Writer for a science fiction TV series, Charlie Jade. His insightful blog Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog can be found here.

TGL: Tell me a little about yourself? What is your background?

Alex: I started my career in L.A. as an assistant to an independent producer, co-dependent producer might be a better term, then moved up to vice-president of development, which meant that I read scripts and recommended which ones we should to try to option, and worked with agents, and tried to figure out how we could put together a pretty good script with an actor that would give us good foreign sales. We would then take the foreign sales to the bank and get the money for the movie that way. I did that for awhile for a series of producers and pretty much all of them were trying to make movies in Quebec. We were trying to take advantage of some pretty strong cultural support that the Canadian government gives to movies shot in Canada with Canadian scripts. I became aware of the warm fuzzy feeling you get writing in Canada opposed to the hostility you experience writing in L.A. So I moved up here and that turned out to be the best decision I have made, because I had been writing all along but it really took off at that point.

TGL: You went to school at UCLA?

Alex: Well oddly enough I was a Computer Science major at Yale, but have an MFA from UCLA.

TGL: What made you make the switch from Computer Science at Yale to UCLA?

Alex: Well, first of all, dating myself a bit, at the time computer games were nearly as much fun. I’m not saying Pong, but games did not have the AI’s that they have today, and the other things that you can do with computers were even less fun. So I won’t say I was bored, but it was not ringing my bell.

TGL: So you were more interested in Tron the movie than the game?

Alex: Well I always wrote. I wrote back in high school and just kept writing. Everyone always told me that I was a very visual writer so it seemed like a good thing to do. Also a pretty girl in Paris told me that I should go into film and when pretty girls tell you that you should do things, you should listen.

TGL: So writing and being a visual writer just kind of lent itself to writing for T.V. and movies?

Alex: I think so. It took quite a long time to turn that into reality. I would say the first 10 years of my career was less than spectacularly successful. I got paid to write some things, but I certainly wasn’t supporting myself.

TGL: Which medium do you prefer writing for? Do you enjoy writing for television or movies?

Alex: I prefer television. The comparison I like to make is writing a movie is like a one night stand. You put all of this work into it and then when it’s over, it’s done. Then you don’t see those characters again and you don’t revisit that world again. Maybe there’s a sequel, if you are very lucky, but very often you write the script and it doesn’t get made. With T.V., if you can get a T.V. show going, you get to play with those characters much more. If you get picked up for one season, say for an hour drama show, so that’s 40 minutes a show, for say 20 episodes, that’s 800 minutes instead of 120 minutes. So you are spending a lot more time with your characters, you’re learning a lot more about them, just a lot more time. So it’s like a marriage compared to a one night stand. It also doesn’t hurt that you get a whack more money.

TGL: So there is that difference as well?

Alex: When I was coming up, there was still this thing that T.V. writers all wanted to be movie writers, but they couldn’t afford it, because they couldn’t take the salary cut. T.V. writers no longer want to be movie writers because most of the interesting work is being done in TV these days.

TGL: Is that a global shift across the industry?

Alex: Yes. HBO really opened up story telling possibilities. So you can do a lot more things in T.V. now. Another thing about T.V. is the audience is older and more sophisticated. The movie audience, by large, are boys that want to see things go boomie. The pay cable audience is really quite sophisticated, and even the prime time audience is older and more demanding. So you can do much more interesting things with characters, and you can tell more interesting and rich, than you can with movies. It’s a bigger palate.

TGL: To go along with that, coming up with fresh ideas every week, and I have struggled with this, and I’m sure the people reading my blog have struggled with, writers block. I was watching an interview with Bob Moresco, who wrote Crash. He said that was absolute baloney, writers block is just an inability to sit down at a desk and write. What do you think about writer’s block?

Alex: I don’t believe in it. I don’t have it; I don’t know any professional writers that have it. If you’re a professional writer, you can always write. The writing may be crap, but you just don’t allow yourself to go “oh this is crap, I’m not going to write.” you just go “oh, this is crap, oh well, I’ll fix it later.” You know, a bricklayer can have a day when the bricks aren’t coming out right. But he doesn’t get to go, “oh, I’m just not going to work today because the bricks are coming out a little bit bad”. You know, show up for work, it’s a job. So you take that as seriously as any other job, you know, every other worker goes into the office, and you feel like crap and you feel like you’re not getting anything done, but you do the work and let other people decide if you are doing crappy work. They may even decide that, in fact, you are not doing crappy work. It is possible to be too critical of yourself. You may even write yourself out of your slump.

TGL: So you’re saying just sit down and get to work?

Alex: Yeah, you know, ass in chair, fingers on keyboard. ... But also, you develop tools for writing. You develop tools for looking at what you are writing and why does this suck? Or, how do I get an idea? Or, you have friends that you can bounce ideas off of. Because you have tools you can be a craftsman and you can respond if you are having a bad day, you’re not waiting for inspiration to strike. So a bricklayer isn’t just going into work hoping for inspiration, he has his level, and his trowel, and he knows the consistency that the mortar is supposed to be.

TGL: So if you have a good solid foundation and you know your plot outline and you know your characters, environment and things like that, and you invest time in those that the writing will just come?

Alex: Yeah. You develop ways to break down each problem until it’s small enough that you are not overwhelmed. What is the theme of this scene, what is the character working towards in this scene, why can’t he get it? If you answer those questions, you will be able to write the scene. So you don’t just go and write a movie, you write a 2-page pitch and then you write a 5-page pitch, then you write a beat sheet, then you turn that into a step outline, and then once it’s a step outline you only have to worry about the scene you are writing. You don’t have to worry about “what will I write.” You just have to worry about how do I get into this scene, how do I get out of this scene? Where do I want this scene to end up? You can start by figuring out where you want the scene to end up and then work back from there. Or you can place the scene that will get you into it. In my book, CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, I have a bunch of different things that you can do to start off to get into a scene.

TGL: CRAFTY SCREENWRITING that you wrote in 2002?

Alex: Yes. And also CRAFTY TV WRITING in 2006. So there are tools. So you develop your tools and they help you and you are not relying on talent to get you through the day. You’re relying on craft.

TGL: You offer a screenplay consultation service through your website

Alex: Why yes I do, thank you for mentioning it. It’s not cheap, but I think I get down to what’s really not working in a script, rather than just the symptoms of what’s not working, and I can often offer a way to fix what’s not working.

TGL: What are the most common problems that you see with a script?

Alex: Almost all the scripts that fail, fail with the elements of the story. The elements of story are, #1, you have the character that we care about. #2, that character has an opportunity, problem, or goal. #3, he or she faces obstacles and/or an antagonist. #4, he or she stands to win something they didn’t have before, which is what we call stakes. #5, stands to lose something they cherish, which is what we call jeopardy.

Almost all scripts that fail, fail because those elements are not strong enough. If I asked you what does the character want and you say you don’t know, then you don’t have a story. Or if you don’t know what the character is risking, or what he stands to gain, then you don’t have a story. A story is these five elements, and it fails if they’re not strong. I’m not saying that nothing is going on, I’m saying that there could be a whole screenplay full of things happening, but it still doesn’t have a story.

TGL: So what you are saying is the foundation of any real screenplay is going to be the story? If it doesn’t have those elements, then it won’t involve the reader or an audience?

Alex: You can have bad dialog, sure. But if you have a strong story, we can fix the dialog. And in fact, if the story is good, it almost forces you to have at least competent dialog. Whereas if you don’t have a story, it’s going to look like your dialog doesn’t work. And then you can spend a year working on the dialog and the dialog still won’t seem to work.

TGL: One of the other things that I have been told is also very important is that once you have a your screenplay, you’ve spent the money and got the coverage, worked with a story analyst and polished and, polished and, polished until you just don’t want to look at it anymore, you have to have a good query letter?

Alex: Now I go back and forth on this. I don’t know how many scripts have been picked up by querying something out of the blue. It’s a very high hurdle if you’re sending in a query letter from Kansas City. If you possibly can, try to find a friend in showbiz who can tell an agent or a producer, “Hey, this guy doesn’t suck, read him”. With this, I think, you’re going to have much better results then send out a whole bunch of queries. So when someone says you have to have a great query letter, I don’t know, does having a great query letter make it happen? I got my first few agents by querying them, and you may actually be in Kansas City, so you’re sort of stuck with sending query letters.

And by letters, these days, I really mean emails.

Certainly, though, a bad query letter dooms your query. And more importantly, if you’re having trouble coming up with a good query letter, then dollars to donuts your story isn’t working, either. Part of my evaluation service is a query letter evaluation service. I almost always wind up making more comments on what the hook actually is than how it’s phrased.

A great query should really spell out all the five elements of story. This kind of guy has this kind of opportunity, problem or goal, but he faces these obstacles or this antagonist. And if he succeeds he’ll win these stakes but he faces this jeopardy. Sometimes the stakes or jeopardy are implicit, but all the elements should be clear from the query.

TGL: So if a good query letter isn’t going to land you a job...

Alex: Now are you talking about T.V. or film now?

TGL: That’s a good question.

Alex: Because you don’t really get a job in features. You sell a script. If you can sell a pretty high profile script you might get on “the list” for rewriting other people’s features, but short of knowing a lot of people in the biz, you’re not going to just get a writing job in features.

TGL: Ok, let me rephrase it. If it’s not going to get you a job writing for a T.V. show...

Alex: What’s going to get you a job on a T.V. show is really awesome spec scripts and maybe a spec pilot. You get those to an agent, when they’re not too busy, they read you, they like you, and they start sending you out for staff jobs.

TGL: How important is an agent in this business?

Alex: You can’t do anything without an agent. Theoretically around the edges you can get a non-union gig, but only if you have a lot of contacts. And this would be a low-budget feature, maybe, but really not without an agent. It is extremely difficult to do anything without an agent. Why would a producer have anything to do with someone without an agent when they can get someone that has an agent? An agent means that someone is vouching for you, someone is depending on you to make money. There are plenty of people that are just as starving as everybody else who have agents, so why not start with them? Why hire people who can’t get an agent?

That’s why you don’t really query a TV spec in the way you query a feature spec. I mean a feature starts with a hook, to get someone to read your feature. With a T.V. spec it’s not going to be about the hook, it’s going to be about the...”I have a “HOUSE” spec in which House has a brain transplant, and a “CRIMINAL MINDS” about an evil clown, wanna read them?” If an agent is looking for clients, and the episodes sound reasonable at all, they want to read them. Because they aren’t looking for a great hook, they are looking for great writing.

With TV, they want to see great writing because they’re trying to sell you as a writer. With features, they want a great hook, because they’re trying to sell your script.

TGL: If you could travel back in time to the beginning of your career what would you tell yourself?

Alex: Don’t waste your time on features Alex, you’re a T.V. writer.

TGL: Is that because you have tried features? You co-wrote BON COP / BAD COP, which broke Canadian Box Office records.

Alex: I got the BON COP / BAD COP gig because the director and I had worked together on a TV show. I met Erik Canuel while we were both working on CHARLIE JADE down in Cape Town. So when he was looking for a quick re-write on BON COP / BAD COP, he told the producer, I want that guy from Charlie Jade, he can write fast and well.

TGL: So is that the key to T.V. writing, is writing really fast?

Alex: If you can’t write really fast you’re not a T.V. writer. You also want to be, you know, good. But if you’re good but slow, then you’re a feature writer.

TGL: What’s the turnaround on a T.V. script?

Alex: You have, at most, a week per draft. Say a week for the beat sheet, a week for the first draft, a week to rewrite it. There will be a writing staff, so you may have three weeks for the whole script, that’s multiple drafts that you’re dealing with. The fastest I’ve ever written a production script, from conception to FADE OUT, was 24 hours. There were three of us banging it out. I’m not saying it’s the best thing I ever wrote on, but they shot it.

TGL: Is there any advice you could give someone that is starting out?

Alex: I don’t think people need to go to film school, I think people need to work in the business. I think you learn more from working in the business than film school. I don’t think that you need to work on a set; I don’t think that is necessarily helpful. Working for a producer, working for an agent, that will get you the experience you need. The thing that I really recommend is working for an agency. Nothing makes you aware of what people are looking for and what they aren’t looking for. How precious they’re not being. How little time they take to look at the material. People who put all these precious things into their script, they’re just going to throw your stuff away. I don’t think people realize how little time they have to impress people or how much competition there is. Back when I was reading scripts, you had about five pages to convince me that I should read the rest of it. And I wasn’t being sloppy: in my experience scripts that failed to convince me in the first 5 pages never got good enough to pass along.

TGL: I heard ten pages.

Alex: Honestly, if it didn’t rock in five, it wouldn’t rock in ten, or twenty. I mean, why shouldn’t it grab you in three pages, or two pages. Or look at it this way: if the writer doesn’t know to create exciting drama, tension, mood, mystery, something, in three pages, then they don’t really know their craft.

TGL: Looking back over your career, are you excited where you have come from and where you are headed?

Alex: I have a lot of very good things in the works. Will they get picked up or not? I don’t know. So I am somewhere between excited and terrified.

TGL: Would you suggest screenwriting to anyone as a career?

Alex: No, because what I would say is, if you need to do it, you’ll do it. If I tell you not to do it, and you need to do it, then you’ll do it. If you need me to tell you to do it, you shouldn’t do it.

I mean, I have no idea what I would do if I couldn’t get paid to write. Every now and then my friends and I will play “What Else Could You Do for a Living?”, and the answer for most of us is, frakked if I know. It’s like acting, if you have to be an actor, if it’s as important to you as breathing, then you will find a way to be an actor. You may not be a rich actor, but you’ll work. If you don’t have to be an actor, for God’s sakes don’t be an actor, because it’s a really crappy life if you don’t absolutely need it. I mean it took me ten years to get to a point that I could support myself writing and that’s not at all uncommon.

Also, if you don’t have to do it, why not save room for the rest of us that do? If you need to do it, you’ll find a way to make it work. And if you don’t need to do it, that’s going to come across, and you’re not going to get the job. And if you do get the job, sooner or later someone who needs it more will kill you and eat you.

TGL: So it’s the passion and drive that makes it work.

Alex: Yeah, whatever I have to write, I’ll write. Whatever I have to do I’ll do. That’s what gets you through. When people reject you, if you don’t have to do it, you’re going to think, frak them, who needs the stress? But if you need to do it, you’ll think, oh my God I have to fix this, how how how?

TGL: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.

Alex: You’re welcome.

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