Post-MFA Book Review: Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career

Now that I have finished my M.F.A. in Screenwriting, I have been trying to take some time to think about my future and wrap my head around the many opportunities in the film industry. I had a wonderful experience in the graduate program. I emerged with a portfolio of work of which I am very proud. It was incredible to be surrounded by professors and classmates who are equally as passionate about writing. Despite all this, however, I feel that my knowledge of the ins and outs of the film industry, the “business side” if you will, is still lacking. To this end, I recently finished a book called Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career by Lee Zahavi Jessup.

I was very excited to receive this book, and I dove right in and took notes. I accompanied my reading with some great podcasts featuring Lee Jessup: the June 13, 2016 episode of the Creative Writing Career podcast, as well as Episode 340 of On the Page with Pilar Alessandra (from March 14, 2014). These really complemented my reading. (I have never fully explored podcasts, but now I am getting more into them.) In Getting It Write, I learned many new things about how to position myself to best make a go of a screenwriting career.

It was helpful to first identity what kind of writer you are. Jessup identifies many different types, including writers who are full of ideas but have trouble getting things down on the page, and writers who lack ideas but are superb when it comes to fulfilling assignments. I discovered that, in terms of a label, I am probably a “Reliable Content Creator” (Jessup 29). For this type of writer, the advice she gave was to keep doing whatever you’ve been doing that allows you to consistently create high-quality content. For me, that would be using a step-outline and then later copying and pasting it into Final Draft, which is a sort of psychological trick to make you feel like you have already written a lot. If my goal is to write a 60-page TV pilot and I already have a 15-page detailed step outline in Final Draft form, I feel like I’m already a quarter of the way there!

This book is full of encouraging pieces of advice; at the same time, Jessup does not talk down to the writer. She makes a distinction between those who only have one passion project and just want to “sell a movie” versus those who truly want to “craft a screenwriting career.” Her book is tailored to those who are serious about building a screenwriting career through hard work. I found her approach to be refreshing, and I actually felt empowered to keep pushing ahead as I try to forge a career.

This book was full of great advice, and I can’t possibly cover it all in one blog post (nor would I, as you should read the book to find out!). I found a few lines, however, to be particularly helpful, and thus have chosen to highlight several standout pieces of advice:

  1. “Your screenwriting career goals should be short-term objectives, ones that fall within your control…aspirations [are] desired results that you have little to no control over,” (Jessup 52). This was helpful advice because I’ll admit that I had been conflating the two. I thought that my goal was to find a manager, but it turns out that that is an aspiration, and that my goal for the next six months is really to polish the scripts that I have completed in the graduate program so that they will be totally ready to send to managers, as I have consistently heard that material must be “100% there” before you send anything out. You only have one shot to impress the people that matter. Of course it’s hard to figure out when material is “ready,” but I have received notes and feedback from my cohort and professors, as well as from the various competitions that I have entered, and so I feel prepared to take on the challenge of revising my material. I may not do it within the timeframe I’ve set, but I’m setting a goal, and that’s the first step to accomplishing it.
  2. Aspiring screenwriters should have “two polished similar-genre screenplays”; otherwise, a manager or other representation may not even consider taking them on. Similarly, aspiring television writers should have “at least one outstanding TV pilot, accompanied by a complete six-to-twelve episode bible,” (Jessup 66). While I have three similar-genre screenplays, as well as two similar-genre pilots, and so I feel good about this advice, this also reminded me that I have to write a bible for my thesis script, COLOR OF LAW.
  3. “Both representation and development executives are looking to build relationships with prolific brands,” (Jessup 131). There was quite a bit of discussion about building a “brand,” which I enjoy reading about because I’m trying to build my brand. This had been something that I had been thinking about for a while: as someone who works primarily in realist drama, am I pigeonholing myself by only doing that? Should I branch out into other avenues? I realized, however, that it is not a bad thing to have a niche, and that once you have a niche, you can always branch out later. So I’m satisfied that I made the right decision to continue on the path (genre-wise) that I have been going. Another aspect to this idea of a “brand” is social media presence, and I have recently expanded mine, and so I am excited to see where that takes me.
  4. “…[Y]ou build a screenwriting career on the strength of the brand, not the merit of one script,” and so you should start and finish a new script every six months (Jessup 140). This is both a discouraging and an empowering thought. On the one hand, we cannot rest on our laurels just because one script did well in completions, for example. On the other hand, it takes a little bit of the pressure off because, if you are always creating new material, there are always new opportunities to improve and make the next script even better!

Of course, I wish there would have been even more material included (166 pages is a little thin), and the use of a pun in the title belies the fact that this book pulls no punches, but overall, I found this book to be a very helpful read. I even found it fun to go through because the author is so encouraging and makes it sound like we, as writers, have the power to determine our future. Of course it is not a simple as that, and the machinations of the industry sometimes get in the way, but, with the right attitude and the right tools, we are one step closer to achieving our personal, artistic, and professional goals. I would recommend this book to anyone who is serious about pursuing a screenwriting or television writing career, but who is unsure of where to start. I hope that you get a lot out of this book and that you would emerge feel invigorated and empowered, just as I did.

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“Love and hate need no translation”: THE TRIBE Preview Screening

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As I hope many of you know, I have been fascinated by sign language and Deaf culture for more than ten years now, and often attend Deaf events.

On Saturday, I was able to see a special preview screening at the Alamo Drafthouse of the Ukranian film THE TRIBE, which takes place at a school for the deaf in the Ukraine and which features a cast of phenomenally talented deaf actors–and the story is told entirely in Ukranian Sign Language without subtitles or voice-over.

Here is the trailer:

It was a powerful movie, and I loved it, as I knew I would. It reminded me of one of my favorite French films, Jacques Audiard’s UN PROPHETE, which follows a young man who rises in the ranks of a prison to become a leader in a Corsican gang. THE TRIBE follows a new student who ultimately rises in the ranks of the school’s “deaf mafia” –which is involved in running a prostitution ring, among other criminal activities. The movie was an inside look into a world that most people will never experience–a residential school for the deaf, in the Ukraine no less, and then it explored an even more secret world, that of a underground criminal enterprise run by teenagers!

I thought it was interesting that the film was called THE TRIBE, as the hit play ‘Tribes’ also explored different modes of Deaf empowerment. There is so much more to talk about when it comes to this topic, which I believe relates to the greater issue of diversity in film, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

Here is a trailer #withcaptions for ‘Tribes,’ which I saw at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.

Anyway, after the screening of THE TRIBE, there was a Q&A with the lead actress, Yana Novikova.

Unfortunately, many of the questions got lost in translation because there were two interpreters, as Yana (who uses Ukranian Sign Language) was using Gestuno (International Sign Language, an invented language used in gatherings of deaf people from different countries), and her words needed to be interpreted into American Sign Language and then voiced, and vice versa. But it was still a nice Q&A, and she is a lovely girl. Here’s a pic (video clips are forthcoming):

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Many people had questions, though I was the only hearing person to ask a question (why don’t more hearing people go to events like these??)

My question: “What do you think this movie does for the Deaf community? On the one hand it proves that ‘Deaf people can do anything but hear’ but on the other hand, some might say it perpetuates certain stereotypes about Deaf people, such as about morality. What are your thoughts?”

If you have thoughts, post them below. Otherwise, let me know if you are planning on seeing the movie/have seen it/what you thought about it.

Here is the actress we saw, Yana Novikov, in one of many interviews.

And check out an article from IndieWIRE that examines certain issues: from the film’a Foreign Oscar snub to the casting process to recruit Eastern European #Deaftalent!

We also had a great time at the Deaf-friendly dance party afterwards, featuring awesome ASL music videos. People were making ASL music videos long before the video of the interpreter rapping to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” went viral. So, on a lighter note than teen prostitution rings, I’ll leave you with one of the videos #withcaptions we watched at the party. This one’s a gem. Enjoy!

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s Creative Process

All too often, people think that you don’t have to be a good writer to write for the movies, and that could not be further from the truth. But don’t take my word for it: the proof is in this incredible video about the creative process of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who wrote MILK and J. EDGAR. He talks about the importance of research, how specificity of character leads to universal, “relatable” characters, and how an author or filmmaker’s stamp on a story makes it original even if it’s “all been done.” He shares my own sensibility that writing can be used to “change the culture” and make progress as a society, so I will definitely be checking out his work soon (it’s long overdue).

In Dustin Lance Black’s Words:

“Why are you telling that story? What is the purpose of that story? For me, it’s always, How do I move the needle? How do I change the culture?”

“I love and hate what I do. It’s like an addiction. I want to solve the problems. I want to make it work. If someone believes that the world is good as is, that this is it, we’ve reached the pinnacle of human existence, then you know what? Don’t write.”

Enjoy this amazing video #withcaptions and think it over.

Japan Cuts/Japan Cats: An Informal Photo Essay

Photos from Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema and the Japan CATS Party (a cat-themed reception celebrating the International Premiere of NEKO SAMURAI). More info here: http://www.japansociety.org/event/cat-samurai

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And to finish off…more adorable pictures from NEKO SAMURA, a fun film (apparently based on a manga) for cat-lovers and others alike:

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A Great Night for Film: HAN GONG-JU and SNOWPIERCER

Saw HAN GONG-JU at a last-minute trip to the New York Asian Film Festival and then saw SNOWPIERCER at Film Society of Lincoln Center. It was a great night of film because it was planned out, like my other trips to film festivals (like the Maryland FF, Nantucket FF, or Provincetown FF.)

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But both films did not disappoint. Both were brutal in their own way; HAN GONG-JU, a debut feature out of South Korea written and directed by Su-jin Lee is more of a quiet character study about a remarkably resilient teenage girl dealing with the aftermath of a horrific trauma while navigating South Korean culture’s treatment of trauma survivors.

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For more information of the NYAFF, visit http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2014

There has been a lot of hype about SNOWPIERCER, directed by Bong Joon-ho and written by Bong and Kelly Masterson, and it certainly delivered: a whirlwind of action and that also had its quiet moments of social critique that will certainly stay with me for a while.

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SNOWPIERCER s based on a French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. I’ve been meaning to read some French graphic novels (or BDs) to keep up with my French skills, so may have to check out this one. Here is a page I found from the graphic novel en français: