Friday, June 13, 2008

The Savvy Screenwriter - Susan Kougell Interview

Good interview with Susan Kougell.



Susan Kouguell, author of THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER:
How to Sell Your Screenplay (and yourself) Without Selling Out!

Neela Sakaria: Thank you for your time Ms. Kouguell. Can you tell our readers a bit about your background as a screenwriter, filmmaker, producer, businessperson, teacher and more?

Susan Kouguell: I founded Su-City Pictures East, a motion picture consulting company in 1990. My international clients include over 1,000 independent writers, filmmakers, and production companies, as well as the major studios, including Miramax, Warner Bros., and Fine Line Features. I co-wrote with Carl Capotorto "The Suicide Club" (Anjelica Films), wrote voice-over narrations for "Murder One" and "Dakota" (Miramax), and have written over a dozen features for independent production companies. A two-time finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Laboratory, I have received fifteen screenwriting and film production grants and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Edward Albee Foundation, and others.

Six of my short internationally award-winning films (made in collaboration with Ernest Marrero) are in the archives and permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and were included in the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial. I had the great privilege to work with director Louis Malle on his documentary "And the Pursuit of Happiness," and was the screenplay doctor and associate producer of the features "Rum & Coke," directed by Maria Escobedo, and Jay Craven's "Where the Rivers Flow North."

Currently I teach screenwriting at Tufts University, and have taught at the Harvard University Extension School and School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. For the last two years I have taught screenwriting and film industry classes for Screenwriters Online. I have presented numerous film industry seminars to organizations and universities, including the Writers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America, Independent Feature Project, New York Women in Film & Television, Atlantic Film & Video Producers Conference in Canada, New England Screenwriters Conference, NYU, Temple University, The New School, The Reel School, Emerson, Hunter, and Purchase Colleges.

As a librettist I've collaborated on two works for chorus and orchestra with composer Alvin Singleton. "Praisemaker" premiered at the 1997 Cincinnati May Festival and was performed at the 2003 Festival both under the direction of James Conlon, and in 2002 under the direction of Richard Spano with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. "The World Is Here With Me" premiered at Spelman College in 1990. I am a classically trained violist and played with several orchestras including concert tours to South America and the Far East.

Neela: What made you decide to write this book? Did it come out of a need among your students, that you noticed as an instructor?

SK: In 1999 almost simultaneously, several of my clients, my students from Harvard and at the seminars I presented, wanted to take me home with them. (They literally articulated this to me!) They wanted round-the-clock advice and information about screenwriting, but more than that - they wanted reassurance that they could survive the business of trying to sell their work. Obviously, I couldn't go home with them - so that's when I started seriously considering sitting down and writing this book.

I thought back to when I was starting out in the film business making experimental narrative films. Hollywood was changing due to the emergence of independent films. During this time I managed through bumps and bruises, and trial and error to figure out how things worked in the industry. At the time there wasn't a book out in the market like this, a book that would empower and guide me through this often difficult maze. Since that time, I continued reading the newer screenwriting and marketing books, and noticed that that were important elements missing including: hands-on points on what to do and not to do when writing scripts, what executives expect from the screenwriter, and basic tools about surviving the film industry. Additionally, many of these books were - well, frankly, just dull. I wanted to write a book that included first-hand experience, definitive screenwriting and business pointers, and I wanted it to be an enjoyable and accessible read. I wanted aspiring screenwriters to have an easy guide to not only educate them, but to have fun learning the film industry ropes.

Neela: Your book THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER is more than just a set of instructions on how to write a screenplay. You include various insights into the film industry as well as personal anecdotes. Can you tell us what makes the book different from others meant to help beginners in this industry?

SK: There are hundreds maybe thousands of books out there in the world about how to write a screenplay. This is not one of them. The Savvy Screenwriter demystifies the film business and tells screenwriters what they really want and need to know… how to sell their screenplay and their selves without selling out. Forewarned is forearmed.

Whether the screenwriter's goal is to write for independent or Hollywood films, The Savvy Screenwriter helps the screenwriter gain an understanding of how the industry works and what is expected of the screenwriter and his/her screenplay. The Savvy Screenwriter is about empowerment. Being savvy in the business of screenwriting is imperative if one is going to succeed in the film industry.

When I was brainstorming with my family and friends for a sub-title of this book, one idea I came up with (but was quickly shot down due to its incredible length) was: "Everything you always wanted to know about selling your script, finding and working with agents and entertainment attorneys, writing queries and synopsis, pitching, learning the psychology of story analysts and movie executives, understanding option agreements and development deals, tackling writing assignments and collaborations, learning the film lingo and resources … but didn't know whom to ask." Well, in this book I got the last word - or words.

Neela: What are some key things that story analysts look for in a good screenplay?

SK: Story analysts are looking for talent, not just the winning property. They may pass on a script because it's not the type of project their company is looking to produce at that time, but will hold onto to it as a writing sample for other projects they currently may have in development or for future assignments. Or, the production company, studio or agency may contact the writer to see his or her other work.

Story analysts read countless scripts per week, so they must feel the screenwriter's commitment and passion to his/her script.

The following are some key points:

• Be sure your genre is consistent! Combining too many genres is a sign of an amateur.
• Do your research! Whether your script involves medical or legal information, etc., be accurate and use correct terminology.
• Each character must be unique, have a distinctive personality, and serve a purpose in the story.
• If it's not on the page, there is no way of knowing what's in the writer's head and what the writer intended.
• The first ten pages must grab their attention; otherwise it will be difficult if not impossible to be redeemed later.
• Don't throw in the kitchen sink. Story analysts know when a writer lacks confidence about their story when extraneous plots and characters are included.
• Even superheroes' actions need to be plausible! Action scenes must be realistic and well executed.
• Film, unlike plays or novels, is a visual medium. Endless dialogue and too much description will lead to a rejection.
• In your description/action paragraphs, don't telegraph what is about to be seen and/or heard in the dialogue and/or action.
• Don't direct your script with camera angles. Using camera directions is absolutely frowned upon. Directors and producers do not want to be told how to shoot their movie!
• A script is not a novel. Dense paragraphs of descriptions are a turn off. Make each word count. Most story analysts are overworked and these paragraphs become a blur of black lines and consequently, important details may be overlooked.
• Avoid heavy-handed exposition at all costs. Don't over explain information about back-story in dialogue.
• No rambling scenes! Generally, one script page equals one minute of screen time. Story analysts are looking for a well-paced screenplay.
• Watch out for voice-overs. Avoid spoon-feeding information. Don't repeat the same information in voice-over that will soon be revealed in dialogue.
• Avoid flashbacks. They are generally frowned upon since flashbacks rarely work on film. If the screenwriter really feels it's important to use them, know that they will be scrutinized.
• Incorrect format will get a quick PASS! Don't cheat and use a smaller font or change the margins.
• Don't submit your script unless it looks perfect! No typos. No coffee stains. No photocopying lines. No missing or extra blank pages within the script.

Neela: What are the most common mistakes that beginning screenwriters make?

SK: The biggest mistake is sending their scripts out too soon. Either they're tired of it and think it's fine as is, or they think, "Bad movies get made - this is good enough." Screenwriters must seek feedback from several people who will be honest; preferably someone working in the industry. They need to face the tough critiques now; otherwise the chances of having their script rejected by an agent, production company and/or studio are greatly increased.

Beginning screenwriters often feel that a production company or studio will "buy my idea and fix it." Screenwriters must realize that their script is their calling card for the future. If a screenwriter hasn't done a good job, he/she will be quickly replaced with another writer, and companies do not want to invest development money to hire someone else to do a rewrite. Most importantly, the screenwriter should not be replaced. The goal is to be the only writer of the project and to receive screen credit.

Story analysts and executives want to like what they read. Screenwriters must be passionate about their scripts, because if they're not, that passion will not come through in their work and this will result in a rejection.

Another mistake is causing any unnecessary stumbling blocks. Scripts must be properly formatted and adhere to the industry page count. They should not send a screenplay without registering it with the Writers Guild of America, and then only submit their work when an executive has requested it, otherwise it will be tossed in the trash.

Neela: Is this your first book? How would you describe the process of creating this book? How does it compare to the creation of a screenplay?

SK: Yes, this is my first book. The process was quite a journey for me. I had written numerous articles for screenwriting and film magazines, and had given screenwriting seminars and lectures for major film institutions and universities for many years, in addition to my years of teaching. I knew the questions my students needed answered. I also knew from my experience working as a screenwriter-for-hire, writing spec scripts, and through my work as an associate producer and story analyst for companies, all the inside 'secrets' on how the business really worked. I had a unique insight because I had worked on 'both sides' - as an independent screenwriter and for the major studios. I then knew that was going to my angle - that illustrating both sides was going to make this book distinct.

After compiling and organizing volumes of pages of notes from my lectures, I started writing this book. I interviewed industry colleagues, researched films and published scripts. Additionally, it was critical to me that the book be accessible and fun, so I worked closely with my book designer, Craig Lowy, to create a distinctive look for the anecdotes.

In a sense, writing the book was very liberating in comparison to writing screenplays. There were no specific formatting guidelines, no page length requirements, and no basic screenwriting rules to follow. I also knew that the book would be my own - I wouldn't have to deal with countless executives, producers and a director with whom I had to work and revise my writing accordingly. I wrote what I felt was important to write without having to compromise in any way.

Neela: In your opinion, what are the top 5 screenplays you have read?

SK: This is such a tough question to answer because there are quite a few and I couldn't limit it to five. My top choices are: "Atlantic City" by John Guare; "Lacombe Lucien," "Au Revoir Les Enfants," and "Murmur of the Heart" by Louis Malle; "Thelma and Louise" by Callie Khourie; "The Hours," by David Hare; "Wings of Desire" and "Alice in the Cities" by Wim Wenders; "Usual Suspects," by Christopher McQuarrie; and Preston Struges' screenplays are wonderful and a great tool for learning to write quick-witted dialogue and well-paced scripts.

Neela: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

SK: Screenwriting is a unique form because essentially it's a blueprint from which executives, producers and directors then apply their own creative ideas. This is a very difficult concept for writers who are creating their work to grasp. And I, and my book, speak from this experience. (Most of us just want to be left alone to write!) It's a huge challenge because generally screenwriters want to completely focus on their scripts and not be bothered or 'tainted' by the film industry. However, in order to succeed in the business, and yes, it is a business, it's essential that writers equip themselves with both the knowledge of what the industry demands of the screenwriter, and writing the best script they can possibly write. Screenwriters must continue to be creative and unique with their screenplays, but they also must learn to be savvy when it comes to the business of screenwriting.


Brian M Logan

Never miss out on a great article or blog post by joining the 'Blog Up-Date Notification List' by sending an email with the word SUBSCRIBE in the 'comments' field!


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home