Monday, March 26, 2012

Interview with Rebecca Kirsch

This week's interview is with TV writer Rebecca Kirsch.

In 2005, Rebecca Kirsch won the Austin Film Festival Drama Teleplay competition for her spec episode of “Lost”. That script and a "Deadwood" spec also placed in the Scriptapalooza, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Fade In Magazine, American Accolades, Write Network, Talent Scout AND American Gem writing competitions! (Will take this moment to remind readers that you can't place, much less win if you don't enter...)

Rebecca worked as Writers' Assistant for "Leverage" series Creators and Executive Producers John Rogers and Chris Downey from Seasons 1-3, writing two freelance episodes during that time, and was promoted to Staff Writer in Season 4. She is represented by ICM and we're excited to have her on board as a speaker for the 2012 Austin Film Festival & Conference.

Our interview questions come from Austin Film Festival Conference Director Maya Perez and Amanda Keach Martin, Austin Film Festival's "On-Story" Development Director.

AFF: Are there real life vigilantes, like the characters in “Leverage”, that help the innocent that have been wronged? Where do the show's writers get such great material to write about?

Kirsch: “Leverage” is about a team of modern day Robin Hoods who right the wrongs inflicted by the rich and powerful on the common man. Unfortunately, in the era of Bernie Madoff, the global recession, bank bailouts and predatory lending, our writing staff doesn’t need to look very far in the real world to find story inspiration, or villains for our five heroes to tackle. Additionally, our “Leverage” writers bring multi-varied backgrounds and life experiences to the room, which greatly influence our episodes. Co-creators, co-showrunners and executive producers John Rogers and Chris Downey encourage our writing staff to pitch story ideas freely, and for us each to support and encourage the pitches of our fellow writers with the aim of making the very best show we possibly can together. With that positive and open vibe to the Writers’ Room, our writing team has a great deal of fun coming up with different and unique ways for our five heroes to take down our villains.

AFF: What’s your writing routine and process?

Kirsch: My home office is decorated mad-scientist-chic with floor-to-ceiling index cards, flow charts, mind maps and research photos for the various projects I’m working on; I’m a very visual learner, and find that having a layout of the story in front of me while I write is essential. When outlining a new project, I use multi-colored index cards to break out the story beats, a technique I first learned at Chapman University from a great mentor of mine, professor James Macak (AFF moderator and pitch competition winner). The “Leverage” writers’ room uses a similar but more elaborate technique with different colored cards used to break the story in a specific progression of steps, from general concept to more specific arenas and keynote moments, all the way to individual slug-lined scenes.

Outlining tends to be the hardest part of the process for me, but a very necessary one. Before I allow myself to tackle script pages, I make sure that I have a solid game plan set in stone in the outline. At script stage, I’m always eager to skip ahead and write favored scenes I’ve been looking forward to, but for the first “hack draft” (a phrase borrowed from 2004 AFF winner and former “Leverage” writer Christine Boylan), I aim to just get everything down on paper chronologically, and will only then revise once I’m past the initial daunting hurdle of the blank page.

AFF: How did you break into television, and what advice do you have for others trying to do the same?

Kirsch: I left school with the advice and drive to land a TV Writers’ Assistant gig. After a few internships, I was offered a Development Assistant position at Dean Devlin’s independent studio, Electric Entertainment. I worked for two years with Director of Development Marc Roskin to bring in new material to the studio, and to develop their current slate of film and television projects. It was a fantastic opportunity to discuss story on a daily basis, to read the works of other writers, and to work with and learn from an amazing group of talented producers.

Two years later, when “Leverage” was picked up to series, I was promoted to the Writers’ Assistant position, thanks to the support of my bosses. Having been a part of the series since its very start, I’ve been lucky enough to learn everything about working in television from John Rogers and Chris Downey, and I am so privileged to work with them and the rest of our amazing writing staff. With their support and encouragement, I wrote two episodes during my three years as Writers’ Assistant, and was promoted to Staff Writer in our fourth season.

Leaving film school in search of a television writing career felt daunting because there appeared to be no exact and precise path to my particular goal -- each success story I heard was wholly unique. During the day, I tried to fight the good fight as an assistant, and on nights and weekends I focused on sharpening my skills by writing and rewriting spec scripts. No matter how busy your day job keeps you, be it industry-related or not, my advice would be to always keep challenging your skills as a writer. Don’t just talk about what you want to write; write it.

Thanks, Becky, and we'll see you in October!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

3D: Dim, Dull, and Drained?

Let me start this post by saying that I am a huge Star Wars fan. As a child, I wore out more than a few VHS copies of the original trilogy, and if I hadn’t fallen in love with the magic of the movies through George Lucas’s work, I don’t believe I’d be doing this job today. This being said, I couldn’t help but head back to the theaters for the 3D redux of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

Why would I do this? Even as a 14-year-old, I recognized in 1999 that The Phantom Menace was not quite up to snuff with the earlier films. Sure, the fantastical worlds and sense of adventure was still there, but the performances were mostly leaden and the characters fairly uninteresting. Why would I want to go through two hours of trade blockade confusion and midichlorian mumbo jumbo again? Simple answer: I wanted to see that awesome podracing sequence in 3D.

That’s right. Against all the odds, I’m trying desperately to be a fan of the new 3D experience. But some studios aren’t making it easy, as they continue to drown the marketplace in faded, uninspired 3D conversions. All the arguments against 3D were in full force at the screening of The Phantom Menace I attended. The bright color palette and visual splendor of the film, really its greatest strength, were drained through the filter of the 3D glasses. Not to mention the fact that the three-dimensional effect was almost unrecognizable, which is no surprise considering that the film wasn’t shot with 3D in mind.

So why do I keep going back to 3D movies when experiences like this leave me disappointed? Because, believe or not, there are occasional glimpses into the wonderment that 3D can provide. What about Coraline, the staggeringly beautiful animated film from stop-motion master Henry Selick? That film displayed remarkable depth and clarity in the 3D format, and when I watch it at home, I find myself wishing I were back in the theater experiencing all three dimensions.

That is the feeling that 3D should leave us with. If it’s done right, 3D can keep us going back to the cinema despite the wealth of home-viewing options at our fingertips. Before The Phantom Menace, I saw a 3D trailer for the upcoming Focus Features release ParaNorman. The film was created by many of the same animators and crew members that worked on Coraline, and it appears to have the same charm that Coraline had. But, even more importantly to the future of moviegoing, it looks amazing in 3D. Glasses on.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Transmedia and Screenwriting

Last week, I attended the world premiere screening of Tom Hanks’ upcoming webisode series Electric City at South By Southwest.  The first 10 episodes were presented of this series which follows a group of resistance fighters in a dystopian society where resources and communication are controlled.  Tom Hanks chose to tell this story in the webisode format because he felt the commercial constraints of movies and television wouldn’t allow him to tell this type of story.  In an age of pre-branded content, sequels, and remakes, it has been increasingly difficult for original feature film content to be produced (apparently even for Mr. Hanks).  More filmmakers are now focusing their attention to more cost-effective outlets to present their original material especially with media becoming increasingly more sophisticated and accessible.  So what does this mean for the future of storytelling?  Transmedia isn’t anything new but it is definitely something screenwriters should pay attention to.

 What is transmedia?  In 2010, the Producers Guild of America officially sanctioned the title “Transmedia Producer”.and defined transmedia as “a narrative that consists of three (or more) storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-Ray/CD-Rom, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist.”  The landscape for storytelling has changed and now screenwriters may feel increased pressured to write stories that present greater marketing potential across different media platforms.  The debate over “artistic integrity” vs. “marketing potential” between writers and producers has always existed.  It may seem that transmedia further complicates this situation but for the savvy screenwriter, it doesn’t have to. 

Writers don’t have to sacrifice the artistic integrity of their work but they should still think about the bigger picture and ask themselves: “Are the characters and world of my story developed enough to present further possibilities?”  Screenwriting is just one form of creative expression that can be extended to other forms (i.e. a novel, graphic novel, webisode series, stage play, etc).  Every character has a back story.  Every storyline has a prologue and epilogue.  These are already inherent to a well-developed story and can be used as a basis for developing further promotional material.  This is why all writers should save all treatments, character analyses, outlines, and early versions of their script to comb through for additional material to use.  Writers should not think about how their story can be profitable (i.e. sequels, product placements, toy lines, etc.) but they should think about how various forms of media can further enhance the experience of the story.  If writers can focus on telling a quality story while being mindful of its possibilities, the outcome could present great rewards.  Obviously, not every writer/filmmaker needs to follow the transmedia model but it is definitely something to consider as the landscape of the industry continues to change. 

--Matt Dy, Screenplay & Teleplay Competition Director

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Interview with Marti Noxon

This week's interview is with writer/producer Marti Noxon.

A versatile writer/producer who works fluidly through genres and mediums, Marti Noxon's feature film credits include I am Number Four, Dreamworks/Disney’s Fright Night, The Defenders with filmmaker Jon Hamburg for Kurtzman Orci Paper Products and Masi Oka. She is also adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for Lionsgate, Ouija for Platinum Dunes and Hasbro, and writing Tink for Disney and Elizabeth Banks.

Noxon has written and executive produced for many critically acclaimed shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Brothers & Sisters, Point Pleasant, and Still Life. She has also acted as consulting producer for Mad Men, Prison Break, and Angel. She is a consulting writer/producer on the third season of the hit Fox series Glee

Under her Grady Twins Productions banner that she co-runs with longtime collaborator and friend Dawn Olmstead, Noxon proves to be an all-around talent building a thriving production company. She is currently producing projects for Lifetime, FX, the CW, and NBC.

Our interview questions come from Austin Film Festival Office Manager Marcie Mayhorn and Amanda Keach Martin, Austin Film Festival's "On-Story" Development Director.

AFF: What is the biggest difference between writing for film and writing for television?

Marti: Television is a collaborative medium. You work out story with other writers and sometimes write scripts together. Writing features is more solitary. But it can also be very gratifying because I'm not as much of a slave to demands of ongoing production. I get to take more time with it and really disappear into another world. Also, I can tell a complete story from start to finish. A TV show can get cancelled mid-story and you never get closure with your characters. One big upside of TV, however, when you're on a show that's on the air, is that you get to MAKE what you write. That's less often the case in the movie world. I've written way more scripts that never see the light of day, no matter how well the material was received.

AFF: Glee and Mad Men are two totally different story lines. Do you find it challenging to jump back and forth between concepts (i.e. going from music/teenage issues to 1960’s adult drama)

Marti: That's what's so fun about being a writer. I get to explore different worlds, tones and parts of myself. I think it's really exciting to move from genre to genre, and I believe every experience keeps me more fluid -- I don't get "stuck" writing just one way. I almost always have a few projects going at once that are very different. Personally, I like the challenge of doing things outside of my comfort zone and actively seek those kinds of projects out.

AFF: For shows like Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy, how much outside research did you have to do (particularly in medicine)?

Marti: We had doctors who were on the writing staffs of both shows. They helped us enormously with medical research. We also had people come and speak to the writers from different specialties. And, of course, there was lots of time spent on the internet, although it's limited in how much you can trust the information and there's always more nuance when you speak to a real person or visit a real place. I do a fair amount of research on the things I write that are based on any kind of fact. Then there are projects that are more personal, and the "research" is just dumb things I've done and said in my life... Lots of material available there.

AFF: In it's 8 year of airing Grey's Anatomy is facing the possibility of losing its two main character, Meredith Grey played Ellen Pompeo and Derek Shepherd played by Patrick Dempsey. As a past writer for the show what is the thought process that goes into writing this large transition without losing audience appeal?

It's always hard for an audience to let go of a character they love. Some shows get through it, and some shows kind of die on the vine. I think the key is casting and preparation. If you know somebody is leaving the show, you lay the groundwork by developing the supporting characters, bringing in some new blood and great storylines. And you try to find a really exciting piece of casting to replace the outgoing person. That softens the blow. Sometimes.

Do you contribute to the song writing (or song suggestions) for Glee?

Marti: We all pitch song ideas all the time. Ryan Murphy has the final say on what goes in the show. I've had a few suggestions get through and it is really exciting to see "your" number come to life. I feel a bit of ownership, even though I've done absolutely none of the hard work. Like the arranging, the clearances, the choreography, the recording, the performing. I just said "hey, what about -- XX?" So that sense of ownership is completely unearned. But you take what you can get.

Thanks, Marti!

As we gear up for the 2012 Festival & Conference, we're posting interviews with our incoming panelists here, on our blog. The questions come from our registrants, fellow panelists, facebook fans, etc., so if you have questions for any of our incoming (or past) speakers, just send them to our Conference Director Maya Perez at you just might see your interview on here!

The Hollywood Games

The current state of Hollywood could not be more clear this month, with two bright, shining examples of why certain films get made and others get bypassed. JOHN CARTER, a film based on a short story so old and obscure that it’s just about the closest Hollywood comes to “original idea,” opened with disappointing numbers despite a shimmering cast/crew (Andrew Stanton! Michael Chabon! Bryan Cranston! Willem Dafoe!) and the marketing reach of the Walt Disney Company. Meanwhile, THE HUNGER GAMES, based on the mega-best-selling young adult novels proclaimed as the new TWILIGHT or HARRY POTTER, is already selling out screenings nationwide despite a cast of young no-names. 

These results are essentially foregone conclusions. CARTER had been tracking poorly for weeks, with journalists and industry veterans writing it off as a legendary flop before it even had its first public screening. THE HUNGER GAMES, on the other hand, was destined for glory, as it has been in the hearts and minds of the all important teen and 18-25 demographics for months now. 

What has emerged from the stories of these two films is not simply a battle for box office but a war for the future of Hollywood filmmaking. When people involved with JOHN CARTER took to Twitter to beg people to go see their film, they weren’t asking simply to improve their profit margins or avoid embarrassment. They truly felt that CARTER’s success at the box office could prove to the industry at large that an original (or quasi-original) idea could sell tickets, which would open doors for more original ideas. Instead, CARTER proved to be the disappointment that everyone expected, which communicated to studio execs that working off of already popular brands and franchises is still the way to go. 

Does this mean we will see fewer and fewer original films? I’m not that pessimistic. There will always be a place for thoughtful, new ideas. But they will become harder and harder to make, and studios like Walt Disney will be less likely to throw $250 million at them when they can make TWILIGHTs and HUNGER GAMEs for much less. 

Which isn’t such a bad thing. Looking back on the history of filmmaking, there have always been ebbs and flows. From the New American Cinema of the 70s to the indie craze of the late 80s/early 90s, filmmakers like Coppola, Scorsese, Cassavetes, Soderbergh, Tarantino, etc. have always found ways to bring original ideas back into the public eye in a big way. So, let’s not be discouraged by JOHN CARTER but instead look forward to what the next wave of new ideas will bring us. In the meantime, let’s also admit that not all unoriginal ideas result in bad movies. See you on Friday for 21 JUMP STREET?

Monday, March 05, 2012

Interview with Alec Berg

As we gear up for the 2012 Festival & Conference, we're posting interviews with our incoming panelists here, on our blog. The questions come from our registrants, fellow panelists, facebook fans, etc., so if you have questions for any of our incoming (or past) speakers, just send them to our Conference Director Maya Perez at you just might see your interview on here!

Alec Berg at the 2011 Austin Film Festival

This week's interview is with Alec Berg. Alec Berg’s television credits include Seinfeld where he was a writer and executive producer, and Curb Your Enthusiasm where he currently serves as a writer, executive producer and director.

His feature film work includes writing the screenplays for The Cat in the Hat (which was made into a terrible film) and Eurotrip (which he produced and co-directed and is excellent.) He recently wrote and produced "The Dictator" for Sacha Baron Cohen. He has also done extensive rewriting, having worked on films for Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Will Smith, Ivan Reitman and Robert Zemeckis.

Alec has been nominated for numerous Emmy awards, a WGA Award, a DGA award and a Razzie (yes, for The Cat in the Hat, it’s that bad.)

Aspiring television writer Christopher Levi is our interviewer.

Chris: Sacha Baron Cohen seems to love controversy, so when you wrote for The Dictator, was there a sense of nothing being off limits topic or joke wise? If so, did that free your writing process?

Alec: Obviously Sacha's sense of humor runs toward the edgy and the extreme. He likes political and satirical and he enjoys punishing hypocrisy. My partners and I have similar comedic tastes so when we hatched the idea for The Dictator we knew it was perfect for Sacha. It checked all of the boxes I just listed, and I think that's why he sparked to it and agreed to do it.

From the beginning the process was pretty natural. For the most part when something worked it was pretty obvious to all of us, and when it didn't it was equally obvious. It's a completely subjective process so obviously there are a lot of things you fight over along the way, but for the most part the things that made the cut were things that we all agreed worked.

And in terms of things being off-limits, we always assumed this was going to be an aggressive R-rated film. Sacha's audience expects that, and everyone at Paramount knew that's what we were going to deliver when they bought it from us. Because of that the limits were almost all self-imposed. Just because you can do anything doesn't mean you should. It can be in questionable taste but it's got to be funny enough to merit it. And you can be savage to people as long as they deserve savaging. Like on Borat and BrĂ¼no, we had a lot of conversations on Dictator about the targets of the humor: are the people we're bashing deserving of that treatment?

Continue reading after the jump...

Friday, March 02, 2012

Toto, I don’t think we’re in film school anymore…

Marcie Mayhorn
As a film school alum, no cinema question phases me in the slightest.  “What’s your favorite Billy Wilder film?”  SOME LIKE IT HOT.  “Who is your favorite foreign director?”  Easy – Pedro Almodovar. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  Please – writer/director and probably a producer, especially if I want to have my own production company.

I can shoot off answers to questions like these all day long.  But sometimes, questions come along that require a little more thought.  One of the interns here at the office asked me one day what I’d like to do in the future.  Again, no hesitation whatsoever: “I’d like to write and direct my own films, and essentially own my own production company.”  I didn’t even stutter.  “Oh wow,” she replied, “well, what type of stories do you want to write?” “I –…” I paused.  The immediate answer didn’t come to me.  So many options ran through my head: good stories, of course, but not cheesy good, really feel-good stories, ones that make you feel your heart in your throat.  But not leave a theater sobbing…

What type of stories do I want to write?  I had to tell her I would get back to her because I didn’t honestly know.  Ever since she asked me, I have thought long and hard about this.  I finally realized I should examine a few of my favorite films for this answer.  The one that truly stuck out in my mind was THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Do I want to write a story about a rural girl who gets whacked in the head and dreams she’s in a magical land?  Not exactly.  So what is it about this film that makes it one of my favorites?

It was the first time I had really ever dissected a story, really got into the cracks to see what makes it so appealing to me.  And there, I discovered my answer: I used to watch this film all the time as a child.  I would sing all of the songs, and make believe that I, too, could travel somewhere magical.  I used this story as a basis for wanting to dream, for wanting to explore places that I could only imagine, and maybe even go there someday.  But like Dorothy, I remembered the importance of home and how much family means to me.  I vividly remember watching this film the night before I left for college and crying my eyes out, because I knew that my life was about to change.

And it hit me: those are the types of stories I want to write.  The ones that evoke memories, that trigger that deep feeling and emotion within us that only we know.  I want to write stories that make someone remember the importance of all the people in their life, and how taking a risk can be worthwhile.  I want to write stories that make someone realize that it is perfectly alright to be exactly the type of person that they are.

I’ll have to tell that intern that I finally know the answer to her question!  But for today, I also challenge you to answer the question of: what kind of stories do you want to tell?

-- Marcie Mayhorn, Austin Film Festival Office Manager