BPS 093: The Art of Creating Memorable Characters with John Winston Rainey

Today on the show we have screenwriter and script doctor, John Winston Rainey. John is the co-author, along with legendary script consultant Linda Seger, of the book You Talkin’ to Me?: How to Write Great Dialogue. John has written 25 screenplays of which 3 have been produced and 10 have been optioned. He has been a script consultant since 1989 and is the author of Screenwriting Style That Sizzles: A Primer For Polishing.

John had been a writer in the film industry for 35 years and won the Writers’ Guild award for best script. He had also been head of the creative department for three different studios. He is the author of the best-selling book, “The Perfect Pitch.” He tutored John on how to write screenplays that sell, and all of John’s acting and directing experience gave him the ability to analyze dramatic writing with a fine eye and ear.

In the March/April 2003 issue of Creative Screenwriting (vol.10; #2), John’s deeply closeted script analysis service was outed when he was rated the # 1 analyst in the country. Overnight, he was flooded with work. What an astounding experience! Instead of screwing up his courage to call producers, they were calling him! And there is nothing better for learning the craft of screenwriting than to analyze lots and lots of scripts and explore ways of fixing the distractions. John started getting a reputation as a great script doctor.

As a result, he not only became a script consultant in high demand, but he has also taken numerous options (deals) on many of his own spec screenplays. He is told frequently that his scripts are easy reads and he attributes that to the writing style that he has developed, which he shares with his clients, as well as his stories. Even if producers turn down one of his scripts, they frequently ask for other scripts that he has written. He has been through many development (rewriting with the producer) processes. Taking assignments and doing rewrites have been exciting creative measures of his craft.

Enjoy my conversation with John Winston Rainey.

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Alex Ferrari 0:03
I'd like to welcome the show John Winston Rainey. How you doing, John?

John Winston Rainey 2:16
Doing well, how are you doing Alex

Alex Ferrari 2:18
As good as we can be in this crazy upside down world that we live in today?

John Winston Rainey 2:22
Upside down, upside down

Alex Ferrari 2:25
I feel like we are in the upside down like Stranger Things like I keep telling people that I feel like we honestly are in Back to the Future to in the alternative timeline. Were a bit awkward. Yes, we're Biff. Biff runs the world. Yes. It's just insane world. I mean, there's a meteor coming now and

John Winston Rainey 2:49
Night before the election

Alex Ferrari 2:51
Yes, obviously, because the universe has a sense of irony.

John Winston Rainey 2:57
Well, we're we are going through a massive transition from the third dimension through the fourth dimension to the fifth dimension. So everything is becoming energy, less matter and more energy. We have to become acclimated to that. That's why we are quarantining ourselves so that we can become self sufficient, mentally and emotionally without having to go out and grab and push and shove.

Alex Ferrari 3:25
Well, well, man, I there's definitely something happening. There's no question about it. I've never seen anything like this in my lifetime.

John Winston Rainey 3:34
It is very quantum. It's very quantum very, very

Alex Ferrari 3:38
So um, so let's talk a little bit about screenwriting and that process, but before we do, how did you get into the business?

John Winston Rainey 3:48
Well, okay, so it was late at some time. And this young lady told me she didn't want to see me again. And instead of this was over a Thanksgiving weekend, and I thought, instead of crying in my beer, I'm just going to sit down this weekend, write a screenplay. I did. And I wrote, I wrote it longhand on on legal pads, because I didn't. I didn't have a computer back then. And of course, I have a huge background in acting and directing. And so you know, like, I kind of knew what dramatic fire was all about. And a friend of a friend of mine, new Ken, Rod cop, and we got the script to him. He read it. He said, Yeah, john, come on down. And so I was in his workshop for four years. I wasn't in there. Six weeks when he asked me to be his associate, which means the gopher, you know, but he's but I mean, he loved my writing and did all the way up to the day died actually passed away this past year, unfortunately. But anyway, yeah, so I wrote that script. Play that first green play got option, actually. And by Bill Duke.

Alex Ferrari 5:05
I now know Bill. Bill's a good guy.

John Winston Rainey 5:08
Yeah. Very good guy and really, really super intelligent. Very smart guy.

Alex Ferrari 5:13
Very smart.

John Winston Rainey 5:14
Yeah. Yeah. And so I went through a development process with him on that very first screenplay. And boy went to school their school there. And yeah, but before then I had been I'd been a big fan of love The Dramatic Arts, but also Joseph Campbell. The first time I read here with 1000 faces back and God I don't want to tell you, Ben because you know exactly how old I am. But, but it was, it was a long time ago. And it was extra curricular reading, you know, I didn't I just read it. Because it was there.

Alex Ferrari 5:54
It sounded interesting.

John Winston Rainey 5:56
Well, a professor that I knew, recommended it and, and so he wanted me to read it so we could discuss it. And so I knew about here 1000 paces before George Lucas started touting it.

Alex Ferrari 6:12
Well, now you give me a little bit of your age there just by saying that. Now I wanted to, I wanted to ask you in regards to the hero's journey, because the hero's journey has been, I mean, abused in Hollywood now for a very, very, very abused for four decades now. And it has been kind of set up as like that is the only way to tell a story. And that is the only story and everything falls into that story. Where I know by my own experiences and and working in speaking to other other people on the show that that the hero's journey isn't the end all be all it is one and it has a lot of elements to it. But can you talk a little bit about that? Because I always use the example of like, if you throw the hero's journey on the detective story generally does not work.

John Winston Rainey 7:06
Hey, it doesn't because the detect unless the detective has some inner issue that that needs to be resolved before you can solve the case. Because your theme really comes from Well, I mean, caffeine has two aspects to it. And I'm getting a little off subject because you have the your conceptual thematic things like racism, people call that a theme. What it's not really a theme as much as its subject matter. You know, the theme would be how does a racist you know, like take the defiant when the black band white band chained together trying to escape the law. And they hate each other primarily because they're conditioned to hate by virtue of skin color, and that's it period. And over the course of the movie, the story, they realize they have to depend on each other and they come to respect each other. So that inner journey is really the theme, coming to respect. You know, all things all life or what is considered the other. The subject matter is racism. So it's really two different aspects. But back to the hero's journey, you know, Aristotle said, you know, he said, You know, there's every story has a beginning, middle and an end. And then Gianluca dog comes along and says, Well, yeah, every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order. And so you take a look at momentum, and you say, Okay, so how is that structured? Where's the beginning, middle and end up? It's there is there but you it or you take a look at traffic. There are five different stories to traffic. Each one has their own structure. It's Pulp Fiction, and Pulp Fiction, same thing. Pulp Fiction has three different structures, but the stories are just intertwined. And as yanaka dog says, you know, the the end is sometimes the beginning. There's another great movie that I like even more than Pulp Fiction is called before the rain. It's a Macedonian film written and directed by a photographer, and I can't pronounce his name mucho something or other. But it's a brilliant, brilliant movie that came out a year before Pulp Fiction, and it doesn't same thing. The theme to that is, the circle is not round. I mean, it's just so beautiful because and he does that structurally. He shows that structurally as well as thematically, I mean, as well as the character arc. So anyway, I don't know. So yeah. I don't think I'm answering your story.

Alex Ferrari 10:01
So I mean, so like, I just I just wanted to kind of, you know, bring it to to the audience the question because a lot of a lot of specially young filmmaker or young screenwriters, when they're starting out, you know, they read the hero's journey or Chris Vogler book the writers journey, which are amazing books, but not every story needs to fit in. So if you take a standard Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes story, which Sherlock generally doesn't, it's he's not about changes, he never changes it.

John Winston Rainey 10:29
He's a James Bond type character, James Ryan doesn't change. Ethan Hawke and Mission Hospital, they don't change. The only James Bond movie that actually worked for me, in that way was Casino Royale.

Alex Ferrari 10:44
Yeah, but he changed it he changes in that movie.

John Winston Rainey 10:46
Well, that's what I'm saying. He's got an arc, he has a character arc. The rest of them, you know, they get boring after a while. Yeah, it's

Alex Ferrari 10:53
just a guy, you know, weaponized?

John Winston Rainey 10:57
You know, I think for me, actually, and this is going to shock a lot of people, one of the most boring films that I've ever watched was the hangover. Because not, you know, a lot happens and nothing changes. You know, in that in that movie, the cannabis market now there's no they don't they, they have a really nice Mercedes going to Las Vegas, they come back with a beat to shit Mercedes. And you know, and they find the guy, you know, so they succeed in their quest. But what do they learn? Now, I've had to come to terms of this, Alex, I, you know, because for me, there's no real point in telling a story, unless you have something to say in that story. And that you That's what I'm saying is really not about the plot, the plot is the vehicle, or the change that the character has to make in order to achieve whatever goal that they set out to achieve. And that goal that they set out to achieve is something that they originally were afraid to go after, but some compelling new information comes to them. And this is basic, Joseph Campbell stuff, you know, that the mentor, the boom, whatever, you know, I call it new information. And they say, oh, as strange as I am, I do have to make this emotionally challenging decision to go after it anyway. You know, and so then they do, and they get into the river, the unknown, and an act two, and, you know, and shit happens. And they have to make adjustment, inner adjustments, internal adjustments, until they finally reach some paradigm shift. And they go into Act Three. And, you know, that's the basic structure. Now, let me just say you're talking about new writers. I think that a new writer needs to learn that basic capability and structure before they try to do something really fancy when they do Pulp Fiction, or any power, or you and I think they should stick. This is for new writers. Now I think they should stick with a single protagonist. I generally separate protagonists, which is an archetypal story function story driver from main character, main character is the one that from whose perspective we see the story. And main characters, one who actually carries the emotional theme, thematic arc. They are often in Hollywood, the same character. But they are at times like a Million Dollar Baby where they are different. Right? I'm just saying Maggie drove that story in a Million Dollar Baby. But the Frankie character was the change character. He's the one that carried the emotional arc. He's the one that had to make the emotionally challenging decisions. Maggie, there was no emotionally challenging decision. I want to be a boxer. And by God, I'm going to be the best. And that was it throughout the story until she was hurt. But Frankie, all the way through. Yeah, and there are many reasons we won't get into analyzing that story. But there are many reasons why he was afraid to take her on as a boxer why he was afraid to take Iran again at the midpoint, etc, etc. Am I talking too much?

Alex Ferrari 14:20
No, no, keep going. Keep one It's fantastic.

John Winston Rainey 14:22
But But generally, I think a new writer is to combine those two aspects of character protagonist, which is the story driver, main character, which carries the emotional art makes him a singular character like Danny Kathy and a few good men. He's both protagonists he drives a story. He also has the emotional arc, he has to resolve his situation with his fear of being being compared to his very famous father litigating father and he has to resolve that And, and so he has an ally in what's his name that

Alex Ferrari 15:08
Kevin Pollak?

John Winston Rainey 15:09
Yeah, I think is it Kevin Pollak?

Alex Ferrari 15:11
Yeah. Kevin is or no Demi Moore the Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak?

John Winston Rainey 15:14
No, no, no, no Demi Moore is a conscious character. Right? He's the one yes forces him compels him to make the right choice. But the Kevin Pollak character, he's the one that corrects his his mindset about his father.

Alex Ferrari 15:31
Right, exactly.

John Winston Rainey 15:33
So really, right, what I'm saying there is the protagonist and the main character are the same. You can have in different, I'm a new writer, or someone who's you know, and there's first second third script, they need to, like, make sure they have the basic craft down the fundamentals down, then they can start, you know, playing games with it.

Alex Ferrari 15:57
Yes, the equivalent of a building a shack in your backyard before you go after a mansion or an office building.

John Winston Rainey 16:03
Well, yeah, and also, if you get it from IKEA, you want to follow the directions.

Alex Ferrari 16:08
Yeah, before you get before you start getting fancy, you should probably follow the directions. And then once you follow directions a lot and you understand the basic Yeah,

John Winston Rainey 16:16
you know, I You see, Robin, you see all these bookshelves, right? Well, I actually ordered 12 of those building Bob bookshelves or whatever, building bookcases from IKEA. And so I built one I followed the directions assiduously did I did the same thing with the second one. By the time I got to the third one, I knew what it was, by the time I got to the 12th. One, I could build those things in 20 minutes.

Alex Ferrari 16:42
Right? Cuz you have to have experience

John Winston Rainey 16:44
already. And that's exactly it. It's a craft, it's a craft. And you cannot become the artist until you first of all, have got the craft in hand. That's true of anything. You know, you go to play the piano, you start, you know, you learn your basic chords and scales and, and how to sight read in later on, you know, you start getting fancy,

Alex Ferrari 17:10
yes, get fancy. So So I wanted to ask you in regards to a specific genre film, The Revenge film, let's, I was going to use that as an example. And the revenge film, generally speaking, there is no refusal of Germany, generally speaking, like if you look at the Count of Monte Cristo, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but if you look at kind of Monte Cristo, he, it's not that he doesn't want to go is a he's afraid to go or doesn't believe he could go. But the want it's

John Winston Rainey 17:43
by going by talking about going going to break down break out of this

Alex Ferrari 17:47
event, just generally revenge and going after that, that mission. And because once he gets into jail, it's about not about his revenge sits in the background, but it's about survival. It's about trying to get and then when the moment when the moment appears that he can actually break out even if as miniscule of an idea that might be great. And then that he sees that the the old man can actually teach him all these things. And then revenge starts getting a little bit a little bit more coherent. But it's still a dream until he gets out. And then he finally go, there's no refusal there. I don't think

John Winston Rainey 18:22
well, I, I I understand your point. And, hey, you could argue that he's a, he's a, he's a victim of that circumstance. And he could be giving up, you know, like, there's no hope there's no, right that could be that could be considered as a refusal. But I'm glad you brought this point up, though, because, for me, generally, the refusal of the call is the beginning of the thematic journey. The refusal of the call bridge, you get a call to adventure, we're talking cam cam belly and structure here. For anyone who's not aware of that, me because a lot of people talk about inciting incident this and that inciting incident call to adventure can be the same, but they can also be different, right? And the refusal of the call, for me is the beginning of the thematic journey, because why would we refuse to go after something we want, except for some underlying, perhaps unconscious, like in a few good men unconscious fear, or an emotional armor that we're protecting ourselves from? And then some new information comes along, and then we said, Oh, damn, I've got to go after that. You know, I've got to take that decision. And there are there are places Yeah, I agree with you that there are Successful movies that have no refusal of the call, and I think that's a missing beat that would have enhanced the story even more. Had they had that.

Alex Ferrari 20:13
So what is the theme of a Monte Cristo? Then? Obviously revenge is the theme, but that's not a

John Winston Rainey 20:19
revenge is a Yeah, it's,

Alex Ferrari 20:21
it's the subject matter. But the thing that how does Dante change from I mean, he obviously changes a lot from before he gets, you know, you know, thrown into jail and all that stuff and to the end, but the thirst of revenge is like, towards the end, he realizes, you know, it's not worth it until he's drawn into the final

John Winston Rainey 20:42
battle. Well, and that would be if he I mean, Hamlet, the same way, right? Yeah, Hamlet, you know, he has that speech. In, in Act five, scene one with a ratio, you know, where, you know, just let it be, you know, whatever will be will be case or restaurant, you know, he's watching, you know, they take up your skull, and then they bury over you. Yeah. And, and, and he's shocked. And he, you know, he comes to, you know, there's a Providence is part of the sparrow. And then you're in So, in a sense, it's the same thing. There's another movie too. Oh, yeah.

Alex Ferrari 21:30
The graduate. Yeah.

John Winston Rainey 21:32
You have you have Dustin Hoffman going after Katharine Ross. And you know, he's banging on the windows. You know, any finding you and they run out of the church together they now this is a this is actually a Mike Nichols, Mike Nichols touch, because they rehearse that last bit where they're in the back of a bus. Yeah, of course, of course, is that iconic scene, and the actors were so tired. You know, they they completely beat it was supposed to be a happy ending. But the actors are so tired, got the shot was over. And they just kind of let go, and they start looking at each other. Mike Nichols left that in because it's like, What now? Right? What now? Yeah. What's the point of all of this? What now? And I think it's the same thing and counter Monte Cristo. And what's the other one that I mentioned? Yeah, yeah.

Alex Ferrari 22:33
Well, I forgot the other one. But Kill Bill. Let's use it because that's a very famous revenge film. Yeah. You know, how does? How does kiddo change? From the moment when she starts to where she is? Is that the bride? The bride? Yeah. I think they called her kids and her name was kiddo. I think, arguably, but the bride Yes. The bride. The bride.

John Winston Rainey 22:58
Let's just call it

Alex Ferrari 22:59
Uma. Uma. Let's go Uma

John Winston Rainey 23:01
oh my God. He never did that again. Never did

Alex Ferrari 23:08
that again. So um, so basically, at the end, I mean, that's just such a straight revenge film. There's no Yeah, I don't even remember towards the end if she actually I think she regretted it a little bit. At the end, like she was crying and this and that, that she had to go. I can't I can't. I can't remember. Yeah, she

John Winston Rainey 23:30
you know, I mean, she'd love this guy.

Alex Ferrari 23:32
Right. And she had to kill him because of that. Sorry. Spoiler alert, everybody. It's called Kill Bill. So I mean, sorry. But um, but she did love them but yet still had to to do it. And she didn't, I think towards the end. She didn't want what she got to that moment. I think she didn't want to do it anymore. But I don't even remember if she

John Winston Rainey 23:55
says yeah, but she had to watch it. Again. This brings up Hamlet again, you know, he's not really interested in killing anymore. But he's forced into this into this short bite, kind of short bite fitting thing. charities. And so you know, and everyone winds up dying. And and you know, and it's not his fault, because he's already resolved his issue, you know, with with Claudius. So yeah, and you know, like I said, Bring up hangover again. There are if you are adept, as a storyteller as Tarantino is, some movies aside. I never got through The Hateful Eight.

Alex Ferrari 24:39
I you know what, I'll go on record stating that's my least favorite of his films. Yeah, it was it was I think it was just a lot of talkie talkie but like once upon a time in Hollywood, I thought was well. Brilliant. That was brilliant. Yeah. Well, I

John Winston Rainey 24:52
there are a lot of, you know, Pulp Fiction.

Alex Ferrari 24:54
I mean, he's he he's generally has a really good batting average

John Winston Rainey 24:58
in his career in Glorious bastards I love doing that. Matter of fact, in our book, I'm gonna quote him. But the book that we wrote the dialogue you taught that

Alex Ferrari 25:10
Yeah, the dialogue books he wrote with

John Winston Rainey 25:13
us that I use that open. Thank you. I use that opening scene of the Nazi got into the bathtub. Really? Oh, you seem

Alex Ferrari 25:25
to match. It's a masterwork that that those seven or 10 minutes is a masterwork of cinema. It's Yeah, it is so good on so many levels. it's astounding how good it is. And he has those throughout his career. I mean, he is just such a unique voice in in cinema, there is never been someone like him nor I think will ever be anyone like him.

John Winston Rainey 25:46
Well, he does pay homage to a lot of people that he would that were in the heat that influenced him, or that he was influenced by

Alex Ferrari 25:54
which which is a good it's, which is really interesting, because which kind of brings me to another point, paying homage so if you watch the movie Point Break, which is a classic 90s 80s 90s but I I don't remember because it was during my generations time, like when I woke I was I was a teenager, there was a there was a

John Winston Rainey 26:18
fight in a bar somewhere, right? There was no

Alex Ferrari 26:21
bar fight, there was no bar fight in that movie. There was fights with alcohol around but there was no bar fight. But that movie essentially was taken and re completely paid homage to and fast and furious. So fast and furious is literally a blueprint from Point Break. Yeah, yeah. I feel that's a little heavy handed as far as like if you look at like it's the same other than you just switched out surfing for

John Winston Rainey 26:50
fast cars car.

Alex Ferrari 26:51
Yeah, for car racing, and then Fast and Furious turned into james bond with cars. I mean, it's ridiculous now. But fun. So but paying Oh, Mize how careful Do you have to be because I think as a screenwriter as storytellers we're all taking from everything and everybody. Yes, you know, Tarantino as much as they might be criticized for it. Everything he does is original. He might take from other people, but he just mixes it. He's like a giant mixtape. You know, he samples from everything and create something completely new.

John Winston Rainey 27:24
And and all artists do that. There. There's some famous quotes that I don't that I forgot. But paraphrase. It's like we're, we're all thieves. You're good artists,

Alex Ferrari 27:34
good artists copy great artists steal. There you go.

John Winston Rainey 27:37
Yeah. And yeah, and, you know, I've watched tons and tons and tons of movies in my time. And you know, you don't know. Like, for instance, I don't think George Harrison was consciously copying. He said fine was with his song, My Sweet Lord. But they won the copyright thing, because I think there was like, four notes that were the same. But I don't think he was consciously. But you know, he was such a sponge from using that.

Alex Ferrari 28:14
Something's gonna pop out. Something's gonna pop out.

John Winston Rainey 28:16
Exactly. It will. You know, Dylan used to take old folk songs and just rewrite them. Yeah, just rewrite the lyrics, you know, keep the melody and, you know, that's been done since time immemorial.

Alex Ferrari 28:31
I mean, shit. So as screenwriters, especially young screenwriters starting out, I mean, obviously, read as many screenplays as you can watch as many movies as you can as as a young screenwriter. Could you take structures from older films, and kind of start using them as a starting point to and start? Yeah, I mean, start using them as a starting point to get because it's not even if you start with like, I'm going to take, do the right thing. And I'm going to take its structure, and I'm going to translate it to another language or another set of circumstances or another thing like that. But at the end, by the time you're done with it, it's changed. It just naturally changes unless you're literally ripping off dialogue. And

John Winston Rainey 29:16
you can't you can't do that structurally. I mean, yeah, I mean, songs do this all the time. You have a you have a basic chord structure. And, you know, you've got your basic 1625 chord structure, which in the 50s and 60s was used. ubiquitously. You know, as a matter of fact, I was just doing a song. Oh, I was playing the theme to the apartment. Just yesterday, I think. And it is in the key of F. And it goes f D minor. What was it F. Jose. Oh, yeah. EP D minor, and then what's up with a poor boy didn't have See no see seven a back to app. So it's basic. It's a basic structure but it's got this elaborate harmonies to it and melody to it. Yeah. And you can do the same thing with screenplays I did it with North by Northwest. I took North by Northwest beat by beat and I just totally rewrote the whole thing. different characters, different situations, different locations. Certainly different dialogue. Because, yeah, I know August funnier than

Alex Ferrari 30:31

John Winston Rainey 30:34
Yeah. And yeah, that's it. That's a good place to start. And otherwise, I started just sit down, start writing, and then structure it after that.

Alex Ferrari 30:46
Do you outline first or do you just go?

John Winston Rainey 30:50
Mostly I just go. I just started like, and I have a, something, some impulse hits me. I can. I can tell you two quick stories about screenplays I've written. JOHN Denver, you know, bought the farm back in 1997, I think and my wife and I, a few weeks later, we drove up to IOC. She was a choreographer, and she was looking for music for her next gig. And so I was touring around in the store, and I looked up at the billboards, top 10, top 100, whatever. And john Denver's three Greatest Hits albums. Were in the top 10. And his Christmas album was number 12. I turned to my wife, I said, Why this guy had to die because he couldn't have he couldn't give his songs away the last 10 years of his life, primarily because of marital issues. You know, he married after and he married somebody that was not support anyway. So I said this guy had to die in order to make his, you know, become famous again. And she looked at me, she said, that's a screenplay. So I mean, she just said that I said, What? And so on the way home, we were talking about all kinds of Elvis sightings and things like that. And I wound up writing a story about it over the hill country western star, who was Uber famous living in bel air, and they repossess his house, any he goes up in the mountains to talk to his manager, and everyone thinks he's dead. And he can't get back to LA for a reason I got to get into and winds up on a dude ranch Chevalier horseshit for a living. You know, because no one recognizes him, I'm not gonna get into why he has a major car accident. He's out for six weeks, and they have to shave his head and

Alex Ferrari 32:49
right, and then his music starts

John Winston Rainey 32:51
blowing up again, plays movie stars blowing up. And yeah, and so he has to get back to LA and cash in. But in the meantime, he's finding out who he really is, instead of this facade. Another one was, we owned some land in Iowa. And I was walking back through and 30 acres, all forests and fields and lots of Briar patches, lots of berry bushes. And so I'm out there one day, and there's this huge briar patch, instead of going around it. I said, I'm just going to go through it until I've gotten in the middle of it. And I started getting hung up on the briars, you know, as well dressed. And, and all of a sudden, I couldn't move. And this little bit of panic went through my body. And instant I had this whole story about a briar patch that eats people. And so I wrote that that's, you know, become really popular, you know, in the option world. So,

Alex Ferrari 33:48
yeah, and that I wanted also to touch on that because this is something that a lot of screenwriters don't understand about professional screenwriters in Hollywood, is that I know guys who have, you know, made one or two massive movies like they were big, you know, giant films. And yet, when you go to their IMDb, they might have not had anything else produced with the next 10 or 15 years of their life. But they've been non stop working for all of those times and and their scripts have been optioned left and right and it gets optimal once and then it gets optioned again, and it gets moved over to another studio. And they make a living off of things that never get produced. And can you talk a little bit about that kind of like, underground world that nobody talks about?

John Winston Rainey 34:36
I actually I actually make most of my money, or a lot of my money doing what I call vanity projects. You know, people come to me and they want their life story and on film and all that and your mind is so unique and everything no one lives a unique life. I mean, you talk about structure, our lives are structured similarly. Right. But anyway, yeah, people can They want a screenplay written or you know, a producer will come to me and want a screenplay written. And my spec scripts I've had numerous options on I've got about 15 spec scripts, 1500 ami. And I've had numerous options on them because my writing is very contagious. You know, you start reading my scripting you you can't I there was a story. I was in Morocco, doing a script for a producer, actually. And he was good friends with Ridley Scott. And he read one of my samples. I'll actually the one that I just talked to you about the budget over the hill country western star, which is a basically a rom com. And so he was sitting here on the on the, on the table, and Ridley Scott was hanging with his guy over in Morocco, and not Bangladesh. What's the Marrakesh marriage? Yeah. And he was gonna go to bed and he says, Can I take this to bear with me? You know, he just needed some reading material, something to put him to sleep.

Alex Ferrari 36:13
That's all what you want to hear is like, really, Scott took my script just to go.

John Winston Rainey 36:17
Well, interestingly, he comes down the next morning, he slams my script down on the table, and he says, this damn thing kept me awake till one o'clock in the morning. And he says, Is he fast? And my producer said, Yeah, well, I'm still waiting for that phone call. But nevertheless, the point is that your writing style has to be contagious. It has to be you've got don't get it in the way of your story with your writing style. And I mean, that has to do with structure, character development, and also how you put the words on the page period. So all of those things have to come together. What was the question? Oh, what do I do I just sit down and write or do I? No,

Alex Ferrari 37:01
no, the question was just to talk a little bit about the the the whole optioning and making

John Winston Rainey 37:07
Oh, yeah, yeah, well, yeah. So you can make a whole living without ever being on IMDB

Alex Ferrari 37:13
which, which I've met. I've met so many of those screenwriters, some, some of them literally have no IMDb credits, or like one or two little ones. And then there's other guys or gals who actually have one big credit one monster credit. And then silence nothing. Yeah, but there but in town. They're known as they're doing script doctoring there. And that's a whole other script doctoring. And in that kind of world that dude make a living doing that.

John Winston Rainey 37:44
Yeah, john sales, john sales. Oh, he makes a living doctoring scripts, rewriting scripts. He makes, you know, a ton of money from the studios doing that we're used to I don't know where he is now. And then he'll take that money and he'll go and make his own indie films, you know, on you know, you know, you basically Well, now he doesn't have to find that his own films, but yeah, and melius used to do that as well. back then. He

Alex Ferrari 38:11
was he was he was amazing. Screaming he's amazing script doctor.

John Winston Rainey 38:15

Alex Ferrari 38:16
he wrote, I don't know if you knew this. He wrote the scene. The scene in jaws when they're drunk, right before that whole scene was on the boat in

John Winston Rainey 38:26
the boat. Getting where they get out. That's Milly's.

Alex Ferrari 38:30
Yeah Spielberg Spielberg called him it's like can you do me a favor? And he's like sure. All right, that's he for he wrote that scene like the night before.

John Winston Rainey 38:37
fingerprints all over that.

Alex Ferrari 38:40
Millie's has his fingerprints all over it all the movie brats stuff he touched at one point or another

John Winston Rainey 38:46
well and the thing is is guys like that. You know, if you give them a thank you, you know they're fine with it. Just pay me basically that's what it really is. You know, just I I've got some skill. I've got the craft and you know, I got it down. Just you know, pay me

Alex Ferrari 39:03
is like gunslingers basically you're like, yeah, you're exactly. You're good. You're a gunslinger. Like, how do you how do you clear out this? Do you need me to clear out this outlaw for you in this town for me? I just I'm I'm a mercenary.

John Winston Rainey 39:17
Yeah. IBG pieces are a few dollars more exact have gotten out of Gun Will Travel.

Alex Ferrari 39:25
Yes, no, I remember those. I remember those.

John Winston Rainey 39:28
You remember, Paladin? The Richard Boone character? No,

Alex Ferrari 39:31
I didn't remember that one. I've read. I've seen so much stuff. And especially I worked in a video store. So I saw a lot of stuff when I was very young Jared, you know, I was five years in a video store for all through like before High School and after high school and then maybe a little bit after high school before I went to college. I worked at a video store. So I watched. I watched it. I was watching films at a time or I could literally watch everything released that week. Can you remember like it was like, because they would release five movies? Six movies a week? Yeah, I would watch all of that. That was a moment in time where you could actually do that. Now that's absolutely. I need multiple lifetimes just to catch up with what's right. Now, I mean, you've worked with a lot of screenwriters in your time, what is the biggest mistake you see screenwriter, especially young screenwriters make?

John Winston Rainey 40:23
Other than writing style?

Alex Ferrari 40:25

John Winston Rainey 40:26
Other than using too many adverbs, too many passive verbs and that sort of thing. Would you guys be crazy? Or overdoing your dialogue? Another one, I'm listening a bunch of go for. And first of all, a screenplay is a lot like a short story. And people have to absorb that is not a novel. Short Story. Yes. You know, you you have to get in under two hours, because that's about as long as the bladder lasts for your audience member. Yeah, seriously. Yeah. And, and they need to sell more salt and sugar. Yep. In the

Alex Ferrari 41:06
backend? Well, back when, when we used to be able to go to the movie theaters, not so much anymore. So we'll see what we're at.

John Winston Rainey 41:14
I mean, there, there are a bunch of them. And I actually, and I talked about writing style, because I used to say the same things over and over and over again. And I finally just wrote a book. And when somebody wants me to consult with him, I just send them to book, you know, but the other thing is not setting up the emotionally challenging decision that drives the story. I, I don't know if this is proprietary or not. But I talk about emotionally challenging decisions are dilemmas and decisions and decisions of the main character are what drive the story basically. And then you have a reaction from the antagonist. And so they have to reconsider and revise. And so the intention changes, but the object, the objective remains the same. And those decisions are not well set up. And often people will put those major emotionally challenging just decisions off screen somewhere. And you can't do that. You got to put it on the page. And also overriding shame. That's another one. You know, that's a technical issue. So

Alex Ferrari 42:38
you mean to tell me this should be as little whitespace on this on the page as possible?

John Winston Rainey 42:44
As much?

Alex Ferrari 42:45

John Winston Rainey 42:47
Yeah, this is a case in screenwriting. This is a case where less is definitely more but you have to have the you have to have the correct less. In the right words. Choose every single word.

Alex Ferrari 43:02
I mean, I'll tell you when I wrote I mean, I've written screenplays in my career. But uh, but I've written I read I read a both I read two nonfiction books. One was based on a story of my life because my life was very interesting, sir, thank you very much. And it, but I found it so freeing writing a book. Because I did not have to be so easy. I found it's so much easier writing 60,000 words than it is writing whatever the amount of words is in a 90 minute screenplay. Because in the screenplay, you have to be so surgical, so surgical with your words, but in a novel, you could just and that he floated across the screen, and he did this. And you could just, you could just like, paint the picture. You could take a paragraph just to discuss how the wall looked if the wall is really important, but in the screenplay, you've got three words to explain the wall.

John Winston Rainey 44:00
Yeah, no, that's a designer's job.

Alex Ferrari 44:04

John Winston Rainey 44:05
but how can we make this wall important? There's a character in the story. So how can Yeah, yeah, so yeah, that and the way to do that Alex is you know, I'm a big one for avoiding adverbs at all costs. And if you choose the correct action verb, you will not need an adverb do not need the modifier. Also, never, ever I've written entire screenplays with not a single adverb, passive verb helping verb or passive present tense. And I challenged myself all the time there time. There are times when, you know, I'll spend an hour on a sentence on a single sentence, you know, and and I'm Believe me I'm, I'm not shy about going to thesauruses dictionaries and I'll look all around. So yeah, next to songwriting and writing poetry within a particular form, screenwriting is right up there with those guys.

It's like the Haiku of writing. It is Haiku. If you approach it like it's Haiku, yes, you will get you will get better. Absolutely. No, you cannot you cannot just sit there and, and splashing on the page, you have to, you know, maybe that's good for you to get your story out, then go back and rework that damn thing. So yeah,

Alex Ferrari 45:32
like if you I remember reading Shane Black's early screenplays and the the way he describes the scene, his descriptions were so vivid and so beautifully written, and so concise. It was wonderful. Then I read other scripts like that, literally, it's three or four paragraphs just to talk about like the alley. I'm like, dude, like, you need to move along here guys like I did the alleys. Not that. But in the writers I like the alley is. So

John Winston Rainey 46:00
the alley, the alley is for the location manager location scout.

Alex Ferrari 46:04
And that's something else I feel that a lot of young screenwriters make a mistake in is that they feel that they're almost proxy directing. When the writing I mean, worst thing you could do is put a camera move in, don't ever put a camera move in.

John Winston Rainey 46:17
I just took that note this morning, actually, I was working, I was consulting on it on the script. And I said leave the directing to the director, I said, you got you, you must acknowledge that you've got co creators here, you must lend them the space to do their work. Just all you do with a word is Be as specific as possible. And then you let them expand upon it.

Alex Ferrari 46:44
I mean, it's very similar like to an architect, the architect lays out the blueprint but blueprint. The blueprint is the foundation of everything as you're building the building. There's going to be a couple of shifts here and there. And there's going to be in the in the guy who's paying for it. This isn't Isn't this the way it is in Hollywood, the guy who's putting up the money that the finance this building is going to go You know what, I want to move that wall over there. I want to paint the pink cuz my girlfriend wants or the orange or

John Winston Rainey 47:12
what have you probably do is say, instead of making these, these studs 16 inches, what can we make them 19 inches apart? right? Exactly. It's it's all the time. And then a lot Yes, building code, but nevertheless,

Alex Ferrari 47:26
right? And they'll start doing that. And then that's when the building just doesn't if it all comes crashing down. But that's what happens in Hollywood,

John Winston Rainey 47:34
all the time. Where the structure just absolutely sucks. Now, I'm not a big one to talk about structure up front. Because I want because everything for me comes from character, right? Even structure comes from character because you have this symbiotic relationship between plot and theme. But if all of these elements together don't co here, because a producer wants to throw in because his girlfriend is acting as though she can't do that. Can she do it this way? No, no, we can. No it because it screws up your story. And I'm I'm actually amending my words here. But it yeah, it messes with the story. You can't do that, you know, write another screenplay. Don't use this one.

Alex Ferrari 48:20
Yeah, it happens.

John Winston Rainey 48:22
That's what happens in Hollywood, is they'll buy a property, and then they'll totally jacking around and rewrite them bringing theirtheir own kitchen sink for writers. And no one's communicating with anybody else. It's like, you know, well, I

Alex Ferrari 48:38
mean, it depends on I think the smart. I mean, look what Marvel did it the best as far as like they understand their properties, and they have complete control and this and when they went away from their model early on, and you can see that in I'm not sure how verse you are in the MCU. But the first film, I remember when Hulk came out angley did a Hulk years ago with Eric Bana. And oh, yeah, remember that one? It was a while ago when when the visual visual effects really not know. It didn't work out. Hulk was horrible. But they let the director and the creatives force rewrite the mythology of the Hulk. And it was this hodgepodge of craziness. He really was angry because of what his dad did to him and all this like supercycle, it was like, that's not the Hulk. We, we want to see Hulk Smash. That's what we wanted to see. We want to see Hulk Smash. I don't understand Hulk Smash. It's not complicated, but because all these other people came in. But then from that point on, they took control of their properties and and kept going. But

John Winston Rainey 49:50
yeah, but this goes back to our original topic of is there are there other stories other than the hero's journey, right? In this case, yeah, you know, and you know, I mentioned the hangover and other things like that, where you tell a story purely for entertainment, you know. And I, I had trouble getting on board with that. But

Alex Ferrari 50:17
apparently, a lot of other people didn't because it did very, very well and sponsored

John Winston Rainey 50:23
a lot a lot of movies, a lot of people just want like my brothers. I asked my brother, I said, Why do you go to the movie? She says to escape? And, okay, that's, you know, and that's what I think that's with a large a large demographic is I just wanted to go and let go of my life. What I mean?

Alex Ferrari 50:41
Yeah, absolutely. But if you look at hangover, hangover, I agree with you. They don't really change at all. I mean, there's not a change in the characters. They just don't

John Winston Rainey 50:52
they go on an adventure, essentially. But not only that, a lot of it wasn't funny to me. I mean, I could tear that thing apart, you know, but the funniest part to me actually was when the the naked Vietnamese guy. And that guy was funny.

Alex Ferrari 51:11
He's so great. Ciao. Ciao was great. There it looks so I mean, comedy is always relative. Some people will look at an airplane and go and be Blazing Saddles and get offended,

John Winston Rainey 51:20
like, Well, no, no. Okay, guy you just mentioned two of my favorite, which they're amazing.

Alex Ferrari 51:27
I mean, the airplane is is an absolute classic and so is Blazing Saddles. But there's a lot of people who look like my wife will watch airplanes. She's like, this is ridiculous. Why would I watch that? She's she does not get it. And there's so comedy is also relative. But on a structural standpoint,

John Winston Rainey 51:42
I'm so lucky. I'm still looking for the whacking material.

Alex Ferrari 51:49
Or the the the chanting or non chanting section, which is which is great, but they are Christians. But if you look at hangover, hangover one hangover two and a half or three are essentially the same.

John Winston Rainey 52:01
I don't I quit.

Alex Ferrari 52:03
When I went to see hangover two, which was basically hangover one. But in Thailand, it was all it was. It's just the exact same story.

John Winston Rainey 52:10
But just a bit Alex's because the audience loved hangover one. They love that structure. So let's give it to him again.

Alex Ferrari 52:19
Absolutely. But that same director then wrote directed Joker, which was arguably one of the better films in the comic book genre. In my opinion, I don't know what you felt about Joker, I haven't I haven't seen it. So Joker is basically a taxi driver. It's taxi driver, but with a comic book villain. And he's Travis Travis critical to the point where they hired Travis Brickell to be in the movie. So Robert De Niro is in the movie. And Scorsese was gonna originally produce it, he had to walk away from other products, because he had other projects. But I mean, it was it was so involved. So if you haven't seen Joker yet, you should watch Joker purely because it's taxi driver. That's why people were losing their mind. People were like this is because if you if you released taxi driver today, Peter wasn't that disguised? Oh, I mean, to anybody who's ever seen taxi driver could go, Oh, this takes place in the 70s. It's really I mean, he's not literally a taxi driver. But the themes, the everything. The aesthetics,

John Winston Rainey 53:26
it's like the psychotic.

Alex Ferrari 53:28
Yeah, the, the break the psychology, the psychotic breakdown, the the aesthetics of how its shot. It is so clearly taxi driver, and they make no bones about it. They're like, Oh, yeah, we weren't completely inspired by it was it was a combination of Kingdom Kingdom comedy and taxi driver. It's a mesh of those. Okay. Oh, go watch.

John Winston Rainey 53:48
You've got a lightweight. Speaking of taxi driver. You know, our title of our book is you're talking to me. The thing is, is it's a book about dialogue, how to write dialogue. Yes. I'm being revealed here. That line was improvised. Yeah, I know. It wasn't written.

Alex Ferrari 54:07
The funny thing is I one of my friends who passed away he was the first date. I think it was the first ad or the UPM on taxi driver, and he was in the room when they showed me that. Okay, so you know, he told me the solar He's like, yeah, that was just like the kind of Marty just gonna

John Winston Rainey 54:27
read it. No, no, Scorsese asked De Niro. He says, We need something with the mirror. Can you? Can you improvise something? And change? Oh, yeah, exactly. Did it once. And the gun mechanism didn't work. Right. So they had to do it again. Yeah,

Alex Ferrari 54:41
it was nuts. But those are the things that people also a lot of screenwriters also think that like, Oh, that was a genius writing like no, a lot of times they do come up with it on the set.

John Winston Rainey 54:51
Now here's, here's the thing. If I were directing something that I had written, we would first of all have a lot of table reads and I would make sure The script is ironed out. See, because I'm from the theater now. Yeah. And I've done Shakespeare and I've done Sam Shepard, and I've done all of these, you know, things in between. and I would want them to nail down the dialogue. Before we get in front of the camera. I don't want people you know, let's make sure that we have it. And we know what our beats are. We know what our our motives and intentions are. And let's, let's do it right, if you're good actors. I've worked with those actors who say, Oh, I don't want to mess up my creative thing when I would just say go back to acting school.

Alex Ferrari 55:38
Agreed. Actors need but like, like structure and understanding the craft, you need to understand the basics first, but have to have some leeway to play.

John Winston Rainey 55:47
Okay, I'll tell you that I watched, interestingly enough, I don't know how well, Jennifer Aniston is. But I saw some outtakes of her doing the same scene over and over and over again. She stuck to the script. Exactly. But every single take was different.

Alex Ferrari 56:06
Yeah, she just presented it.

John Winston Rainey 56:08
That's that's great skill. No, I think that she's in the moment. I think she's right there in that moment, and that's what what was it? Is it Sanford miser, or somebody who says that? a great actor. No, is Antonin Artaud is, the French crazy guy wrote a theater in his double. He said, a great actor is one who is able to repeat a moment as it for the first time. And that's what I'm getting at. If if the line doesn't work, let's fix the line. But then when you're in front of the camera by God deliver,

Alex Ferrari 56:51
right, exactly. But But with that said, there's also those magical moments that you can't write like in like a Midnight Cowboy in Midnight Cowboy crossing the street. I'm walking,

John Winston Rainey 57:01
walking here, yeah,

Alex Ferrari 57:03
that you can't write that you can't write. And then there was a taxi. He's like waving his hands like so.

John Winston Rainey 57:09
We actually had the same Bible on that. That that was absolutely a lot of people don't know that. That was an ad. And that taxi driver was real real.

Alex Ferrari 57:21
He almost almost ran over Dustin Hoffman.

John Winston Rainey 57:26
Writing character, though. I mean, it was brilliant. It was absolutely brilliant. Yeah.

Alex Ferrari 57:31
I know. We could keep talking for at least another two or three hours. So but I'm going to I'm going to ask you a few questions. I ask all my guests. What are three screenplays every screenwriter should read? Oh, God,

John Winston Rainey 57:43
I had no idea. I

Alex Ferrari 57:50
I I don't think three of your favorite screenplays any of them? Boy.

John Winston Rainey 57:58
Chinatown is a good one for me.

Alex Ferrari 58:03
And hang over obviously.

John Winston Rainey 58:06
You got that one? Yeah. China's chown

Alex Ferrari 58:19
if you can't come up with any other ones, that's fine.

John Winston Rainey 58:21
I mean, I I've got so many of them that I don't want to like

Alex Ferrari 58:26
me, it's not gonna be on your gravestone. You could just throw it out three names. It's fine.

John Winston Rainey 58:32
Okay, you know what? Butch Cassidy and back in the day, you know, William Goldman was the go to guy. And, and I constantly quote one of his or explain one of his scenes about, you know, Sundance, not wanting to jump off that cliff, but he has to make the emotionally challenging decision not because he's afraid of dying, because he's afraid of humiliating himself, which I think is just a brilliant, brilliant choice. You know, you know, for an actor to me. You know, that was emotionally that's what when I talk about emotionally challenging decisions. That's one of the things I talk about is fear of death. Is is less than the fear of public speaking or Yeah, or humiliation. Yeah, humiliating yourself. Yeah. So. Oh, god. What? I think you're good, man. It's a good

Alex Ferrari 59:31
it's such a crazy Sorkin Yeah. Sorkin Yeah.

John Winston Rainey 59:36
I wouldn't recommend godfather only because Coppola did his own thing. And I think for a new writer would be you know, it would take them off in a track they can't quite

Alex Ferrari 59:48
well. It's kind of like it's kind of like studying, you know, Beethoven and Mozart at the start at the start.

John Winston Rainey 59:56
Before Yeah, let's let's start with the baby stuff.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:02
Let's Yeah, exactly. Let's start reading hang over first and then we'll go into the Godfather

John Winston Rainey 1:00:08
would be would would be a distraction.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:13
Well, no, no, no, we got him. We got it. We got it.

John Winston Rainey 1:00:16
Well, no, I gave it to you know, I did copy North by Northwest but I totally changed the content, right? Well, my agent at the time he said take an old classic and then contemporize it and disguise it. And then so I had another very close friend say Oh, do North by Northwest. And so I did. And so I think that's a

Alex Ferrari 1:00:44
that's those are those are three. Great. Those are three great starting points.

John Winston Rainey 1:00:47
All right. Okay, so I'll leave that at that.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:49
Now. What advice would you give a screenwriter wanting to break into the business today?

John Winston Rainey 1:00:54
What advice when I give them? Yes. Well, what you just said read lots of screenplays, watch lots of movies, but read all the beginning books you know and read. I would suggest other than for the first two books I suggest for new writers is Bulger's book. And David tried two years book and read Linda's book to read Linda's making a good script. Great. Yep, read those three you can read the Sinfield book in the in the Michael Hague book. But also in conjunction with those books. Also study Darren Mark's book inside story because it's all about character character character character, DERA and I feel the same, that everything in a in a story comes from character, you name me something and I will take it I will track it all the way back to carry the only thing that doesn't is the outside the story genre. So the mood, the tone, the pace. And a good example of that is,you know who? Well you know who Dr. Anton Chekhov was? Yeah. And he wrote four great plays, you know, a seagull cherry orchard, three sisters and Uncle Vanya, and a bunch of one acts. And he wrote them as social satires. They were social satires and standard philosophy read them. And Constantine Stanislavski. But he says, No, no, no, these are not satire. These are tragedies. And so, and the rest is history. He produced them as tragedies instead of a social, but what I would love to do is take those plays and direct them as social satires. Okay, but anyway, the point I'm making is that everything comes from character except that except possibly genre.

Alex Ferrari 1:02:43
Now, what lesson took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?

John Winston Rainey 1:02:50
Letting go

Alex Ferrari 1:02:53

John Winston Rainey 1:02:55
Yes. Realizing that you cannot. And I actually, my father said this when I was 11 or 12 years old. But I didn't get it until many years of actually teaching piano and also consulting on screenplays that you cannot teach anything. You can facilitate another person's learning when they are ready to learn it. That's good. And, and even then you have to be able to I think the true gift of a teacher is understanding what doors are open that you can enter, and what knowledge can be dispensed as a result that will build upon what's already known. But you cannot teach and you cannot impose knowledge on anybody. That's the biggest thing I had to learn. That's great. In my obsessive compulsive manner, I had to learn to let go of needing to get other people to get something.

Alex Ferrari 1:04:06
Fair enough. And where can people find you and your work and your new book with that you wrote with Linda

John Winston Rainey 1:04:13
Well, the book is on Amazon,

Alex Ferrari 1:04:15
And the name of the book again.

John Winston Rainey 1:04:18
You talking to me? How to write great dialogue. And they can find me at john Winston rainy.com. And what else?

Alex Ferrari 1:04:29
That's pretty much covers and you do swip Consulting, and

John Winston Rainey 1:04:34
I do Yeah, I do. I I yeah, consulting analysis, but those are not the real fun things. The fun thing is just writing a good screenplay. And I do that on, you know, people hire me all the time to write a screenplay, and I'm pretty fast. Alright, and I actually am still not in the Union by design by choice. Because I can charge whatever I want to charge.

Alex Ferrari 1:05:02
Fair enough. JOHN, thank you so much for being on the show and dropping the knowledge bombs on the tribe today. I appreciate it, my friend.

John Winston Rainey 1:05:11
Well, it was it was a joy. It is absolute joy. I hope it works for you.

Alex Ferrari 1:05:16
I want to thank john for coming on the show and dropping those knowledge bombs on the tribe. Thank you so much, john. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, including links to his books, you talking to me how to write great dialogue and screenwriting style that sizzles. Head over to the show notes at bulletproofscreenwriting.tv/093. And if you haven't already, please head over to screenwriting podcast.com and leave a good review for the show. It really helps us out a lot. Thank you so much for listening. And as always, keep on writing no matter what. Stay safe out there. And I'll talk to you soon.

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BPS 058: Confessions of a Hollywood Script Doctor with Peter Douglas Russell

Today’s guest is screenwriter and Hollywood script doctor Peter Douglas Russell. I wanted to go deep into the back alleys of what Hollywood script doctors actually do in the business. Peter’s conversation was eye-opening, to say the least.

Peter Russell sold two television pilots in 2017. He enjoys working on projects both as a ghostwriter and as a consultant.  And he can both write and teach what he knows. So many successful screenwriters and producers have no idea how to teach what they do, and so many teachers can’t actually sell stories. But Peter does both.

Peter was UCLA’s Teacher of the Year in 2009. He invented (along with his then partner Cecilia Najar) a process called The Storymaker which you can use to quickly develop an original, complex, vivid story from a single idea — and the Storymaker is helping scores of his students shape wonderful stories.

Peter started as a story analyst in the 1990s and has read over 6,000+ screenplays for major film and television giants including Imagine Entertainment, Participant Productions, HBO, CBS, Walden Entertainment and dozens of others.

As he read these scripts, he started seeing deep, hidden patterns in the best stories. He wrote these down and started getting jobs FIXING writer’s stories. He got good at it — really good.

Peter was invited to teach at UCLA in 2004, and it became a passion, too.  He has now been invited to teach television pilot and film story creation at Pepperdine University’s Seaver College Screenwriting MFA program, at Story Expo in LA and New York, and many others. Meanwhile, Peter has turned The Storymaker into the most powerful tool for helping storytellers create original vivid stories. Simply and quickly.

Enjoy my conversation with Peter Douglas Russell.

Right-click here to download the MP3



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Alex Ferrari 0:36
I'd like to welcome to the show Peter Russell. Man, thank you so much for being on the show my friend.

Peter Douglas Russell 3:55
Thank you, Alex. Big fan. I think that you've got the whole Joe Rogan thing going. I really think I see great things ahead.

Alex Ferrari 4:05
I appreciate it, sir. I appreciate it. Now, how did you get started in the business?

Peter Douglas Russell 4:11
Well, I was a theater director in New York, in New York City. And I was doing really well. And then I went to a Broadway show and I saw what the directors were making even though they were on Broadway but they didn't have hits and I realized I was going to be poor my whole life and so and I was getting married and my wife wanted to move to LA she's from LA I said well let's let's go out to LA because I don't think theater is gonna ever make I'm never gonna be able to buy a house

Alex Ferrari 4:43
so then so then you said screenwriting that's that's where the money is.

Peter Douglas Russell 4:49
To get rich quick scheme is screenwriting yet rich in 30 years. Yeah, exactly. Or get rich never and live off security. Yeah, that's You know that but yes, you're right. But that but of course, and then I'm an idiot like every other idiot and decided to go out here and then I I lied my way into a job for CBS working closer into into Kupo, who was a brilliant, brilliant producer of what back in the 90s was what was saving CVS, which were the movies of the week that they had, which was the thing that and CBS was completely in the toilet. And this suit was she's an amazing genius of music. We made 80 movies a year close to it. And which is more than all the studios made? Granted, they were $3 million movies. And still, yeah, it may take six weeks. But I learned from her what commercial story was and how powerful commercial cinematic story is. And of course, it was a genre who was called the it's called the men are no damn good. Movie. That's that's what we call those stories. Men are no damn good movies. So like,

Alex Ferrari 6:05
it's a lifetime, basically. So lifetime. Yeah,

Peter Douglas Russell 6:07
yeah, it was, in fact, lifetime. They took away the business eventually. And a lot of the execs hopped from CBS to lifetime. But by then, Les Moonves was there. And CBS is really coming back. But I learned just how to quickly I was a script reader. And I learned how to quickly assess story. And I learned a lot about what makes great film story, because movies were everything then. And then I started doing these notes. And then these notes, I did script coverage, and then people would read it. And then the people were making a movie would read it, the director and they say, Hey, you know, this is really good. These notes are great. So what we got this problem you said and third acts, so what should we do? And I just started calmly, confidently telling them what to do. I didn't know. But I sort of got a knack for it. So then I started getting paid for my notes. And then I decided this is better than working at Costco. And if I can get paid for these notes, Damn, that's fantastic. And so I started doing notes for directors and writers. I'm doing film. And within about me, it wasn't quick. It took me like five years. And I worked as a script reader while I was doing this too. So I worked as a script reader for imagine, I worked for Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard. They were amazing, amazing teachers, an amazing just geniuses at what they do. And I worked for Brian doing Pete and Brian was an amazing guy. He, he if he's interested in something, he'll just buy all the books on it. You want to Einstein series, and eventually he did, right. But one of the things he decided he wanted to learn about was was quantum physics. So he got me to read several books on quantum physics now I'm an English major, right? So, you know, I'm basic math at Ralph's. You know, that's it, I can't even do that. So but I had to boil down these quantum physics books into into coverage. And I learned a lot. But he would, he would commission, and I learned a lot about movie story from him and TV surfing, remember he, he was an omnivore he would he would learn everything about a subject that he was interested in. And he had a Ron bass was going to do the movie script on onset. And eventually his thing became what's now on, I think, National Geographic, which is a series of television series, Einstein. But it was a long process. And I just got to watch, and also participate in his creation machine, which is an amazing thing to see. Because he was just, he's a, he wants to learn everything about anything that interests him. And then it eventually comes out in the story. So it was a great lesson in how you want to how your story gets informed by every piece of information about it that you can find. And I think it's why later on I got interested in historical stories in this miniseries that I just did on jack Johnson was also a historical figure, jack Johnson was the first African American heavyweight champion of the world. And I read everything I could get my hands on about him. Because, you know, Brian Grazer was sort of the guy who showed me, this is what you do, and your story will be so much more interesting if you know, all this information. So anyway, so long story even way longer. I started doing that and then eventually about, I guess, 12 years ago, I started going Writing for film for screenwriters, and I no credit and, and that's often still how I work. I get paid, I get money, I don't get credit. I'm not even in the W GA, although I want to be. And that's going to be a stipulation, I think of a couple of jobs I have coming up. I'd like to actually get in the W ga instead. And there's no real easy way to do that if you don't have your name on the scripts. But so for the last 10 or 12 years, I've done a lot of ghosting for a lot of screenwriters want help?

Alex Ferrari 10:38
So let me let me stop there for a second that I I've heard of, I mean, obviously ghost writers in novels. And I've heard of, you know, script doctors, which we're going to go a little bit deeper into script codes in a second. But I've never actually heard of a script doctor screenwriters script, a ghostwriter script, a screenwriter, like, like, are you writing full blown scripts? Or are you just taking other people's scripts and then really doing the bulk of the writing and then they get to put their name on it?

Peter Douglas Russell 11:06
It's all all of that. Sometimes. Yeah, sometimes it's someone who's gotten three drafts of a big screenplay or television now, which is, obviously a lot of my work now is TV. But they haven't, they'll have three drafts, they've done a lot of work on it, but they want it to be better. So I'll come in, and I'm essentially in those situations. I'm giving a lot of notes. And I'm actually helping them realize their vision. I don't go Okay. Well, I think this character ought to do this, this, this and this, and he's not getting I think we need storyline here. That's something I've learned that often, screenwriters, especially fairly successful ones don't really want you to do. They've got their own vision and use or you sort of, are there to, to deepen their vision and to really understand what they want. Now at the same time, often what happens is, I'll say, Well, what if we had them do this? And then they'll say, Yeah, that's great. And I love that idea for a scene. And I love this idea for a scene. And then sometimes you find yourself writing complete new storylines, but it's always in service to their vision. And if you lose that idea, you can run into trouble because they don't want you to create a whole nother story. It's not like you guys are writing partners, they want their vision, but better. But then there's also and this happens a lot with beginning writers and I work with beginning writers to, especially if they if they hire me, I'm you know, I'm, I will work for money. And often, people that are beginning, they do want to really sort of be shown what works. And they they really want my ideas. But there's all sorts of variations in that as well. Sometimes. They really want their vision still on the screen, but then I'm teaching them because I am a teacher. You know, I've been a teacher at UCLA since 2003. So I do and I'm a very good teacher, I'm probably a better teacher than writer To tell you the truth. I'm still feel like my writing is, it's certainly not the equal of great screenwriters. I have sold projects in the last several years under my own name. But and that's a great advance for me, but I don't feel like I'm anywhere near the kind of writer that, you know, like, Craig Mazin just did this Chernobyl. I mean, you watch Chernobyl, and you just go, Wow, I you know, that guy's on a different level. He's just, he's just amazing. So I, I'm very humble about my writing talents. It's taken me a very long time to sell. And I, I also, I also know, and it's always difficult to to tell people this or not, this is always a dance I do when I've got a, someone who's interested in doing this. What do you tell them? You tell them? do you encourage them? Or do you tell them the Absolute Truth? It's, it's a dance, because, you know, I've done this for 20 years, and I'm only now really getting some success as a writer myself. You know, john wells said that he wished when he started out and of course, john was probably one of the greatest show runners of all time. You know, does all kinds of fantastic stuff. Just I just saw his last season of animal kingdom, which he just pinned a lot of episodes himself. She's unbelievable. Uh, he taught he said he wished somebody told him when he started out how long it was going to take. Yeah, because I get people and you don't really want when you got total newbies, and they said, Well, you know, I'm gonna in six months I'm going to have this done. So I would go Yeah, that's fantastic. Yes, yes, you got to aim for that. You got to go for that. But the truth is that most of the time, it takes many, many years. before you're any good. And obviously, if you're a super Shakespeare genius, that's not true. But I only know one guy who sat down in a coffee shop, he was a comic. He sat down in a coffee shop and the first thing he wrote got sold. I know one guy who did that. And I don't know, and then I know a lot of writers and none of them did that.

Alex Ferrari 15:35
Okay, so it's rare on both sides of the camera like it's you know, it's on on for for actors to be a blowout success right away or for a director to be a blowout success or producer. It's those are called lottery tickets. It happens once in a while, like I had john August on the show the other day, and john doesn't look so how was it? Were you know, was it really tough? It was, you know, it was lucky my first script got sold. And it but it doesn't happen. It just generally doesn't happen. I think you're completely right. I I fall into the same world with independent filmmakers and even screenwriters would where I tell them this is a long game, you cannot think this is gonna, I've got a five year plan. I'm like, you're done. Like that. That's not enough time.

Peter Douglas Russell 16:20
Yeah, that's a five year plan to get me one place, but not all the way. Well, yeah. I mean, it's mean, you mentioned john August. I mean, he's, you know, he and Craig Mazin have an amazing podcast. And, um, yeah, he's super talented. I mean, I direct my students to him for just last week for some of his dialogue lessons. I mean, so yeah, a guy like that, you know, I don't put myself in that league. at all, as a writer, it was a painful, long process for me to even get where I am now, as a writer, and I just think I'm still a baby. I really am. Especially when it comes to TV. Because TV is a complex beast. And it's, it's where so much of my work is now it's so much more most of Hollywood's work is now although movies are coming back. But um, so when you're doing television, and you're handling four or five, six storylines. Yeah, I just my head explodes. It's such a complex form. So I yeah, it's, it's, I guess, if you're a super genius, like john Auguste, or this guy that I'm not going to mention, because I have, he hasn't told me I could tell him anybody about this, this comic guy who sold this, and he's very successful. And he just sat down and wrote it, but 99% of the very successful writers that I know, took a long time to do it. But yeah, there's exceptions. You know, Nancy pimental, who's an amazing writer on shameless. You know, Nancy was a comic and, and she just, you know, she heard her rise, you know, she doesn't sweat it, she just sort of writes it out. And the other thing I've noticed about people and I don't think Nancy would mind me telling the story about her. Nancy was a comic and but she's a stand up comic. And those guys always are super talented, super genius people they're just to do that requires so much. But she she got she sold a movie off of I think it was off of a pitch. And it was and it sold for an astonishing amount of money. This is before the big crash in 2008. And and sold for like a lot of money because that's when movie specs were just flying off the shelf people would enormous amount. And then these three brilliant actresses top named actresses, you know them all. They all they even moved into Nancy's house because they were all going to be in the script. And they hung out with her and they did and, and the script had insanely great buzz. And when they were filming, it was like, This is the next thing and you know, fantastic is going to be amazing. And all these actresses were talking about interviewing about and then the movie came out. And it was a huge bomb. And, and the critics were were just vicious about it. Now me I would have crawled into my bathroom with you know, with a bunch of heroin I wouldn't have come out for you.

Unknown Speaker 19:19

Peter Douglas Russell 19:20
Nancy had a party. And she invited everybody over to her house and the end to read these reviews and to watch movies and she just laughed about them. And and then she went and you know and then she she just started writing her next thing the next day

Alex Ferrari 19:35
because she's a stand up comic. She stand up comics has a diff they have a different resiliency. to that because it day and I know a lot of stand up comics. I've worked with a lot of high high profile stand up comics in my career. And they, they there's a there's a special kind of animal like to get up on stage with a microphone and basically have to you're very voice, your ability is the only thing that's going to make them laugh. And things even the biggest, most successful comics of all time. All have bomb nights. They've all had bomb situations that day. But they get used to it because it's day in day out every night and that made that makes perfect sense makes perfect. That's a great,

Peter Douglas Russell 20:20
you're absolutely right. I hadn't thought about that. But you're right. They they're in the fire. They're in the fire every night. And yes, they get they get humiliated horribly where Yeah, actors, writers, and we think humiliation to second hand or whatever, they don't really get scalded?

Alex Ferrari 20:35
It's not in their face. It's not in their face, like like a crack. Right?

Peter Douglas Russell 20:38
That's right. I have never done stand up. And you know, I think everybody who hasn't done stand up who thinks they're funny? They have that fantasy that Yeah, they say it's really hard. But I know if I got up there, I know. And I think that I that is the siren song of disaster. Right? And I still have that in my head. I gotta secretly admit I do. It's like, Well, you know what, I'd be different. I'd get up there. I'd be the one guy who I've never done before I would kill I just know I would kill. And you know, what would happen if I got out? It would be the biggest fucking sorry, the biggest disaster in history. It would be I'd be humiliated. Oh, yeah, my face would be made fun of like, all my secret horrible embarrassments. People would shout them out, you know, you know, that's what would happen. But you

Alex Ferrari 21:25
know, the funny thing is, I was directing a comedy special for a comic friend of mine. And we were doing rehearsals before the audience came in. And I stood up on stage and grabbed the mic so we can get some lighting. You know, I was doing a stand in. And I was I was looking out at empty seats, empty seats. And I'm like, Oh, hell no, like this. This is terrifying. Like, and I'm a I'm an outgoing guy. I can I can spit ball. I'm great. In a room, you get me in front, you know, at a party, get me a corner with five or 10 people. I'll have them on the floor crying. But this is I've worked with enough stand up to understand the technical aspects of their storytelling, how they do it, how they deliver the timing of it. It is it is such a brutal, brutal, and you've got to be kind of nuts to do it as a general statement.

Peter Douglas Russell 22:18
Oh, I think I'm fascinated by them. I think they're great. And I'm going to have to do it someday, just so I get that full, horrible experience that I know is coming to me that I dare to have the secret tiny little snuggery hope you know, the

Alex Ferrari 22:32
audacity Sir,

Peter Douglas Russell 22:33
you have the audacity, I know I'd be punished horribly for it. You know, I've always thought it'd be fun to just have 20 guys like me, these arrogant twits who think they can do it. Just get up there and give them three minutes and film it. I think the humiliation level might be compelling to watch. But you know, no.

Alex Ferrari 22:52
Do you know how much three minutes is that? Oh,

Peter Douglas Russell 22:57
yeah, one minute, you know, and yeah, I think that would be all you'd need. Yeah, maybe all you could stand me add to stay out three minutes that might be part of the horrible fun of it is they had to stay out there even if you were being eviscerated. But yeah, I think that comics. And the thing about Nancy is that she's so funny, and she's such a brilliant writer, and she's done so much great stuff on shameless. But she just didn't. I mean, I admired the balls of someone who, who could just get those kinds of horrible reviews and go forward I don't even like I can't even stand table reads I have to take tranquilizers to have somebody you know I I'm even when I've got the final draft, you know, voice up where they do the dog. I don't even want to hear that. So I can't stand being having my stuff bomb. I can't even stand watching it at a table read. So I've got some work to do on myself.

Alex Ferrari 23:57
Now, you obviously are a script doctor and you've done a lot of script doctoring. Can you kind of really explain to the audience specifically what a script doctor does and and in China kind of shine a light on the whole sub like this not sub genre. But the the, the there's a there's a very cultural subculture of script doctors that run throughout Hollywood that do a lot of a lot of heavy lifting that people just don't really know about. I know personally, multiple big names screenwriters, who have big scripts under their belt, but they have maybe three that been pop that have been produced, but they never stopped working. Like they're always script doctoring or taking this assignment constantly. So can you kind of touch upon that a little bit so people understand.

Peter Douglas Russell 24:49
Yeah, underworld. Yeah, the best way to describe it as I talked to the can't think of his name, but he's really good guy over at the W GA. About a year ago, I ran into any and we taught. And he goes, Oh, yeah, I said, he said, we don't, you know, we don't really have an official category for you guys. And he was kind of laughing. And I said, Well, you should I mean, if you want more dues, you know, we should be able to be in the WETA story doctors. And he goes, the problem he says, is that the writers wouldn't like it. He says, because you know that and they don't want. Sometimes they don't want to acknowledge that, you know, they didn't write the script. And even if just a story by credit it you know, it can rankle them. And so we there aren't enough for you guys to to put up that new category, compared to the source we'd get from the writers about it. Now, most a lot of writers aren't antagonistic about it, but they can be insecure about it and not wanting to share credit. So what they tend not to shocking, sir

Alex Ferrari 25:51

Peter Douglas Russell 25:52
Yeah, shocking. insecurity in Hollywood, but what they tend to want to do then is pay you. And so what you get into is a bit of a Faustian bargain. Well, it's not really bostian, because it's actually pleasurable. And I don't think you sell your soul, maybe you do, maybe it is fosston, because it does delay your development as a as a screenwriter yourself, because you don't get credit, but they pay it tend to pay you a good amount of money to help them. And then but you don't get a credit, you don't get your name on the thing. So

Alex Ferrari 26:25
any, any residuals or any benefits or any of the spotlight,

Peter Douglas Russell 26:29
you don't even have, you know, no health insurance, because none of the W GA. So what I'm going to do in the next couple of years is I am going to take less money for what I do, just so I can get a credit so I can actually get on the books somewhere. So there isn't sort of a surreptitious, furtive quality to script doctoring. It's a little bit shameful in a way.

Alex Ferrari 26:53
It's like a dirty, it's like Hollywood's dirty little secret in a lot of ways. Well, it's

Peter Douglas Russell 26:57
it's one of the cleanest dirty secrets.

Alex Ferrari 26:59
Very true, sir. Very true.

Peter Douglas Russell 27:01
But yeah, but yes, in a sense, we are kind of a horse in that sense. Come in, you get a and we leave, and we leave. And you know, no strings attached. No acknowledgement May, which I think keeps it underground. But it scores, doctors are fine with that, again, because the money can be very good. But it is when you if you want me to talk about what I actually do. It's really as varied as let's say you have a regular doctor, and he sees 10 people in a day. Well, he's going to do something different for every one of those persons, because they're all sick. But they all have different things wrong with them. But then of course, you can begin to see patterns there too. So there are things that are usually wrong with scripts. And you do look for symptoms. It's almost like you are a doctor, you can sometimes someone just walks in and the way they walk, you know, okay, well, I think I know what that is. or then you have to do X rays or CAT scans. And I have several tools for that as well. So I will, I will, I often asked, I often put the screenplay into a synopsis form, because I like to see the bone structure of the story. And often the bone structure of the story is wrong. And if the bone structure is wrong, then everything else is wrong. But bone structure, I mean, things like

storyline structure, what the characters do, it's often not right. So how do I know that? It's not right? What am I comparing this cat scan to? What's the ideal script? ideal story? Well, there are wonderful, wonderful scripts, and I've read probably 5000 to 6000 features. I counted it up last year, I think about 6500 features I've read in synopsize because I was just I was a script reader for 10 years, which is way longer than you should do it. Most people do it for a year or two and then they go into the business. Well, I was too stupid to do that. I just just kept reading more scripts. And then I've read several 1000 television scripts two of those. I've sort of distilled what what is what's good and what's bad. And believe it that the best scripts share certain traits almost always, no matter what the genre, no matter what the subject, and I'm not talking about French movies that don't follow Hollywood structure. Those are obviously out of my purview. You know, I love Godard, but he's doesn't follow commercial structure. You know, and and though that's great that he doesn't, but Hollywood does. Because Hollywood has to sell Hollywood has to sell to people all around the world. Hollywood doesn't have to ingratiate itself with film festivals, or have political connections like so many European countries have so that it isn't real whether or not you can sell tickets that gets you your movie. It's You know, on a film commission or who, or who you can get the money from politically, you know, those are, those are great models for filmmaking. But Hollywood is commercial. And so you have to sell tickets. So there, there are models that help you sell tickets. And by the way, I think selling tickets is the ultimate test of a great story. I mean, Shakespeare had to sell tickets. I think the reason Hollywood is so great, frankly, and I think Hollywood is great, the best movies are great. The best in the world is that we have to sell tickets, we are not just trying to please a group of judges or a literary committee or a political committee, we have to sell tickets. And yes, you can say, Well, that makes you a whore of China, whatever. And it does, but it also creates the very best movies, I think, the very best movies in the world. A lot of them are Hollywood, commercial films. So I've studied what those structures are. And they're fascinating, because they're not things that amateurs understand. These structures are actually really cool. And when I was just a professor at UCLA, starting 2003, I started showing these structures in class. And, and, and I became pretty successful. I was teacher a year there, I'm really proud of that, because I had these, I would. And that's all I really did is I showed these patterns that I'd found in film and television. Now, I thought that was really cool back then. But I was still approaching things academically. When I started applying all these patterns to my work, or to the work that I've started to get hired to do. I found that some of them were brilliant, and helped me a lot to actually create story. Some of them were more film theory and academic. So that was fascinating to see as well. So anyway, as a story, Doctor, I've got these ideas of what makes a healthy, great body of story. And then I take an X ray of your body or story, and I go, Oh, you know, your bones out of alignment, you know, your femur doesn't hook up with your buba you know, and that can be you know, if you don't have a core wound for your hero, you don't have proper reflector characters in your story. You don't have a good theme, you don't know where you're going in two of your storylines. They don't pay off, you know, 1000s of things like that, where I diagnosed those.

Alex Ferrari 32:24
Can you actually can you actually put to rest because I think a lot of variable especially first time screenwriters and even people who've been trying to get their stuff made for a long time, they fall into this camp of like, well, structure is going to take all the creativity out of this and it's going to be very formulaic, and I'm not gonna write like that. And I've yelled at screenwriters, often I'm like, Dude, it's just, it's like a frame of a house. All houses have frames, but not all houses are the same. But you still need framing, you still need a structure.

Peter Douglas Russell 33:02
I like the frame metaphor. I have one too, which is that Hollywood commercial structure is like a vanity license plate. Okay. When when you see a vanity license plate. The reason it's funny is that it's a limited form. It's a limited Canvas, right. But the canvas actually dictates the humor. In other words, you see a guy driving a Porsche around and his license plate. I think you get a words

Alex Ferrari 33:33
in letters. Yeah.

Peter Douglas Russell 33:35
And his license plate says three inches. Okay. So that's, that's funny, right?

Unknown Speaker 33:41
That's hilarious.

Peter Douglas Russell 33:42
It's funny. Now imagine that the license plate could be 10 feet long. And it says instead of three inches, it says, I'm driving this portion because I don't have a large penis. Right? That's not funny. Right? So you actually had more room to write something? But there's no entertainment to it. Yeah. Commercial form is a limiting form. You must in a movie. It's got can't be longer than two hours unless you James Cameron or Scorsese, or Peter Jackson. Yeah, right, Peter Jackson. But the exceptions prove the rule. And it can't be. It's got to have three acts. It's got to please the audience at certain points. It has to do those things. The genius of it really is figuring out how to write within that very limited form. Something that delights people almost precisely because it's limited.

Alex Ferrari 34:40
Like a high school like almost like a haiku.

Peter Douglas Russell 34:41
Yes, just like a hike. So commercial form is necessarily limited. But within those limits is where you show your genius. It's like I made a ship in a bottle, right? Well, if you made the ship out of the bottle, big deal, you know, anybody can do that. So you've got to follow This commercial form, but I find that sort of a delightful puzzle. Now having said that, you know, I used to be friends with Blake Snyder, who wrote save the cat and Blake was a genius. But Blake knew God bless him that his book save the cat was not sufficient to make to write a great movie, because he didn't have any say about character. He didn't have anything to say about huge portions of what it takes to make a great movie. He had a structure. Yeah, and you can follow a structure exactly, I have something called the bmrc structure, which all my students know about. But it's it's sort of like the 30 6090. But but I think it's cool. But anyway, you can do all that you can follow a structure and, and like your folks say, Oh, my God, you can make such a boring movie, you can have a perfect VMO you can have a perfect structure and make a terrible, terrible movie, you see it all the time. But most of the time, you don't. If you eat most of the time, you have a lousy structure, and it makes a lousy movie. But I tell people if they're starting to write, don't worry too much about structure at all. Do a vomit draft, right exactly out what you think you want your story to be about. Just write it all out. Write it out, don't worry about Oh my God, I've got 30 pages for the end of the first act, I've got to have a cliffhanger here. I've got to do this. write it all out. Write it a couple of times, I'll forget about anything. Don't write from a rulebook, you'll kill yourself. And then when you're sort of run out of steam, and your your movie or your TV show is on the page, one or two things will happen. One, you'll be that one in a million. Who goes oh, well, it's perfect. Here I go. You'll be john August, or you'll be this guy. I was talking about Craig Wright, but 99.9% of you. And by the way, these are the people that are going to make it these are these are really smart, talented people. 99.9% of them will be like, Oh, well, this is really just a heap of shit. And I've gone now I've got to make it better. And that's when you start looking at it and going okay, well, I'm going to ask you some questions. And the question is going to lead you to maybe make get excited about this guy, or get excited about this setting or get excited about this portion of it? Well, you did a really good job. These people are really funny in this scene, so let's explore who they were and what they are. And then you'll start going okay, yeah, yeah, then, and you'll get really excited about the story by my questions, or by the questions of anybody, you collaborate with her the reactions you get from them, and then you start going, Okay, wow, well, I want this to happen here. And that's going to have consequences here. And by the way, then you're doing structure, then you're then you're working on structure. And but here's, here's the truth, you're going to be rewriting this thing 4050 6070 times. And that's another sort of hard truth that it can be hard to tell the beginner about, because every beginner me included wanted to be john August, we all want to be the guy who just sits down, writes it out, you know, you buy a book, like one of those great books you can get in the bookstore on Amazon. Now it says things like, you know, write your screenplay, you know, while you masturbate, you know, write

Alex Ferrari 38:31
a screenplay in 30 days, or something like that.

Peter Douglas Russell 38:33
Yeah. Or you're in 15 minutes, I saw one that said something that you can write your they implied, you can write your script, while you are on a break at the office, right? Get get getting a drink from a cooler. And it's very attractive. And some of these people have a lot of really valuable things to tell you once you get that book. But the book title is bullshit. I'm sorry. Sorry. The book title is Bs, right? It's it just, you know, unless you're the one and literally 20 million, you're gonna have to work hard to get your script in shape. And you're gonna have to write it a whole bunch of times. And that's when structure comes in. That's when storyline when character when premise when all this stuff that I make a living doing comes into play. But yes, start from inspiration. Don't start from a rulebook, I think you'd kill yourself, and it doesn't work. So many of the tools I use won't work for you. You have to, I've got like 50 tools, and I see people come in and pick them up, and they'll go, Okay, I really love this one. I think this will happen and that doesn't really help. And then there'll be another one that they pick up like, Oh my God, this has helped me so much. So everybody's different, but you are gonna have to eventually structure your story whether it's instinctive or not. You will have to structure your story because it is a commercial art form.

Alex Ferrari 40:00
Now what is the biggest mistake? You see first time screenwriters make? I mean, you have read 6500 screenplays, I'm assuming you've seen a couple of patterns of mistakes.

Peter Douglas Russell 40:11
Well, the beginning script writer has a completely different problem than the professional. The biggest problem beginning screenwriters have doesn't have anything to do with what's what's on the page, it has to do what's in their head. And it is what we just said, they, they, I often feel like I'm more of a psychotherapist, than I am a writing guide for sometimes people that start out, because when they get that crushing realization that this is not going to happen in two months. That the story that they are, we're pretty sure And believe me, I sympathize with this enormously. I had it too when I was a young guy. The idea that in two months, I'm going to sell this and I'm going to be in Malibu, you know, and that and that motivates you. And I love that it motivates you. And you know, maybe that one in 20 million, you're gonna win that lottery ticket, and you're gonna be that guy or that girl. But it's managing the disappointment of my clients or students. learning that this process will take years that I find is the biggest mistake that beginning screenwriters make. They don't they underestimate how long it's going to take. And then when they get a glimpse of how long it's going to take. They crumble. Oh, and maybe they and by the way, that can be a really wise move. Okay, they're like, you know what, I don't want to spend the next 10 years of my life, you know, with four roommates, who are all you know, doing Chinese gone at four in the morning, and, you know, and I'm here, because I got to work my messenger job, I don't want to do that. I'm going to go be a CPA, I'm going to have a nice life. I'm gonna have a house in Toronto. And and, you know,

Alex Ferrari 41:59
there'll be but there'll be miserable, I promise you.

Peter Douglas Russell 42:02
Yeah, well, you know, maybe they will I always open to wanting people to take the right path. But they gotta know that it's a warrior path. It's a path of Machito it is. It's tough. This is not, yeah, this is a path of Bushido, this is not your standard issue. This is like going to med school. This is like, this is like particle physics. You know, and people say people in Hollywood. And it's a cliche, that they're that they're there's a lot of dumb people in Hollywood who lucked into their success, and they just do a few lines and they have a meeting and then, you know, then they go to their house, and they're done for the day. I never run into smarter people than I have. And they're just as smart. As you know, I was in academia for a little while. They're very much smart as university professors are very much as smart as Wall Street guys. They're very much as smart as all the typical stud occupations that brag about how smart they are around the world. Hollywood is full of insanely smart people that to succeed. So it's its path of Bushido. Yeah, you're you're committing to a path where some of the most competitive people in the world are trying to do exactly what you're doing. And you've got to compete with them, and you got to compete with their product.

Alex Ferrari 43:24
Now, what I find funny too, is that unlike the doctors, the lawyers, the CPAs, you can go down a certain path and and when you graduate, most of the time you'll be able to find a job, you know, your doctors are pretty much set up to get a job, lawyers, you know, it might be a little harder, but generally speaking, if you're even halfway decent, you're gonna get you're gonna get a job somewhere. CPAs there's, God knows we need more CPAs in the world. So there's always always I mean, we always work but you can go to you can get a PhD in screenwriting story and mythology. It means absolutely nothing in this business.

Peter Douglas Russell 44:04
Because it's a commercial business look, right? Hollywood doesn't give a shit. I just sorry, doesn't give a crap about your credentials. Right, right. Is it not a crap. And when people say because I teach at UCLA and I love UCLA, where I teach because the school I teach at, you've got to be working in your field right now to teach screenwriting or story development. You have to be working now. You know, you can't have done it. 10 years ago, you can't just have an MFA from film school and you decided you're going to teach at UCLA entertainment division Extension School, you've got to be working in your field right now to teach how to make a movie or television show and for me, that is great. That's why I love UCLA. Because you're actually getting it from people who have to do it. And so I think it's a people that is often asked me Should I go to film school and that That's, of course, a loaded question. Sometimes you should, if you've got rich parents or you're wealthy, and you want to learn a lot about film and maybe meet some people you're going to work with in the future. Absolutely, you can go to film school, it's going to cost you probably a couple $100,000. To do so, unless you're very lucky and give us a full scholarship. And that can be extraordinary. And I know that USC is great, UCLA is great. Right? If you are ordinary, middle class person, it's, it's a tougher question to answer, because so much of what you do is gonna be what you've learned, just doing it. And it's easy, do you want to be $200,000 in debt, and then coming out, and then you're still in the same place, or a similar place to somebody who hasn't gone to school at all, but who's really hustling it as a as a assistant, you know, in Hollywood. And obviously, if you've got, you know, hollywood parents and all bets are off, you've got a, you've got a smooth ticket in but most of us, you know, you gotta you got to think about that are is school really going to give you that much of an edge, I get a lot of people at my school, that have gone to film school, and they didn't learn what they thought they were gonna learn. And I think, I think if it's a third or fourth rate film school, that costs a lot of money, and there are a lot of them out there. I'd be very careful about going to a school like that,

Alex Ferrari 46:35
for screenwriting or for filmmaking there and but I do feel truly that there is so much information that you can self educate, you can take workshops, you can take extension classes, you can you can do what you need to do to learn the basics, and no matter all that stuff that they teach you until you're in the fire, when you're in the fire when you're when the bullets are swinging by with flying by your head. That is when you learn in my right.

Peter Douglas Russell 47:04
Eye. Most of the people I work with, a lot of them didn't go to film school, and they're very successful. I mean, the classic example everyone's faces. Spielberg, you know, didn't didn't get into USC, although they claim him as one now, but I was confused about that. But I really realized he didn't he didn't go they turned him down.

Alex Ferrari 47:22
No, he didn't. He went to a community college for a little bit dropped out of that.

Peter Douglas Russell 47:25
And by the way, community colleges are fantastic ways to learn your craft.

Alex Ferrari 47:30

Peter Douglas Russell 47:31
I you know, I went to an Ivy League school. And, and I gotta say, it was no better than for actually what you're learning practically. I think community colleges are often better.

Alex Ferrari 47:46
So better ROI, better ROI without question.

Peter Douglas Russell 47:49
I think they are. And I think the apprentice system, by the way, is a system that worked well for 1000 years. And I think being an apprentice, if you can get a gig in Hollywood, in an actual production company, I think that is just as valuable as going to film school or more. The other thing that I'd realized about film school is that I don't know if it's because it's just the nature of institutions. But they took a long time to pivot to television story. They were teaching film story exclusively up till just, you know, a few years ago, even when the industry had really pivoted to television after 2007. The bottom fell out of my business. By the way, when we had that big crash in 2007, all the independent film companies went away because the financing wasn't there anymore. We all had to pivot to television story.

Alex Ferrari 48:45
So yeah, I was gonna I was gonna ask you about that there has been an absolute explosion in long format streaming series, and there's such a need for content. Do you really believe that that is where a lot of screenwriters and writers in general can actually there's a lot more opportunity in those areas than trying to be a feature film screenwriter in Hollywood.

Peter Douglas Russell 49:05
Well, I'm sort of going to be a contrarian because yes, I agree with all of that. But having said all that, Apple is buying movies, Amazon's buying movies again. So these guys, these IPS, these internet platforms, they're pivoting and buying movies again, but yes, of course you're right. For the last six years, I think we've gone from like 200 scripted shows, and Hollywood delays.

Alex Ferrari 49:29
It's it's a lot. It's a logical,

Peter Douglas Russell 49:31
it's a ton of them. And but yes, so a television story has exploded. And it's kind of like the Russian novel I mean, as the longer they get, it's a sign of the of the absolute. The, the, the the the the idealization of the form, right, the television, long form television has become really a Russian novel and it's I'm so amazed and happy to be able to To be in a business at a time when there's such a boom, in that store, and then that stuff I've sold under my own name, they both been television story. So yes, obviously the market is way bigger than it used to be.

Alex Ferrari 50:16
But do you think but do you think there's that this is a bubble? Like, do you? I mean, you know

Peter Douglas Russell 50:21
what everybody says, No, it's not a bubble. And that means it's a bubble. But I'll say it too. Because I think television is just getting started. And it is because the means of distribution, right? It's just, it's just all internet now. And so those, those classical distribution channels of the networks and theater, they're over. So people have an enormous thirst for story. I've got students all over the world. Now, because i a lot of my I teach international students as much as national now because, because hell because the zoom because I, I can let her anywhere. And in fact, most of the work I do is at my laptop. Now even when I'm contracted for story doctoring, you know, I sit in my house, and I do the work, I don't even come in to, to Hollywood much anymore. So and that sort of reflects what I think has happened to the entertainment business. It's a pipeline now that's infinite. It's is it has no, you know, the old pipes were like, let's say the three inch pipes that carry so much water per hour, you know, those of your networks that your movie theaters? Well, the pipes now can be 800 feet wide, because that's the internet. It's just how much data you can pack in. So people's appetite for entertainment is insane. And it's getting bigger, and we've barely scratched the surface. I've got a Nigerian client now who's they're starting a new television network in Nigeria. So Africa is almost untouched. I have a client coming up a film client that's in South Africa doing a show and they're and they're they're building a studio in, in a in a city in Africa that that has never had production before. I don't think obviously things are going to crash and there'll be a crash. Obviously, this bubble will pop, probably because our financial markets will pop. And they're the ones that that fund a lot of Hollywood now. And that's what happened in 2007, I think, is when the stock market crashed, all the indie money fell out of film development, that'll probably happen again, you know, but it'll come back because we are thirsty for entertainment in our world. And so yeah, I think I think it's going to get bigger and bigger. Having said that, just let me caution. Again, this is an insanely difficult business to get your story even in front of people who matter. It's if anything, Hollywood's gotten more closed off in the last few years than ever, I used to tell my students Hey, you know, when you want because I teach a class on how to become a script reader. On Peter Russell script doctor.com it's one of my most popular classes. And I used to tell people at the end Okay, so now here's how you get in script reader job. You know, you go on IMDB Pro, you get a it's 20 bucks a month. And then you look, you look up all the production companies, you see what they've got greenlit. So that means they've got money. If they're making movies, they can't lie about it. They're making movies, that means they've got money, and they're the people are going to hire. So just find those companies. And then you look and you say, Okay, how are they going to direct your development? Here's the email. Well, guess what, a couple of years ago, they stopped putting their emails up on IMDB. And now either not even phone numbers there. I tried. I was trying to pitch a an exec I used to work for and I couldn't even find out what building he was in anymore. And I couldn't find his email, his old email. And I couldn't I still haven't gotten a hold of Arturo because I don't know what buildings I don't know, the company he works for. I know, I know where the building is physically. I can't I literally can't contact Dr. O. Because I don't have any way to do it. So they they sort of shut down. And I don't know why this is. But they've sort of even more recently shut down always to get in touch with them. So you've got a lot of frustrated creators out there that I have to tell every day like I'm sorry, it's really tough.

Alex Ferrari 54:34
would you would you recommend that? You know, like I always tell people that if you're a screenwriter, you should try to start, you know, developing your own projects and producing your own work. Because that's a great way to get seen because you're stepping yourself out of the crowd because not everybody does that. Yes. Yeah, yes and yes, right.

Peter Douglas Russell 54:57
Yeah, look, I was in a big film. Recently, and I noticed that the way people sold their work if they're new, they have a three minute trailer on their iPad and they go up to the sales agent or the manager or the agent. And they shove it under their nose and go look, here's here's what we did. They don't even give them a logline that even pitch them a script, they thrust this image under their nose. And so for two minutes, this guy will watch their sample reel. And it isn't a sizzle deck. It's an actual excerpt of their show. Let's say it's for women, they want to make the new friends. They shot it in their apartment in New York City, they're in Bed Stuy and they, they spent maybe five grand total on a on an eight minute webisode, which is a great way to, to pitch now to Netflix and stuff. And then they take it to the sales agent, and they just thrust it under their nose of the managers to go here. Here's what we did. Here's, we've already got it on, we've already got it down in the can. That's how people were selling at this mark. That's how that's who that's who Netflix was interested in. And they weren't interested in many of those, but they were in some of them. But if that's the way people are doing it now, not Oh, I'm going to take my logline and my script sample and I'm going to do a pitch, a verbal pitch for you know, four minutes in front of a manager an agent, they want to see that trailer, they want to see it. And it otherwise you're and that's if you can get a hold of them. I mean, just getting in front of a Netflix person. We were we did that a few months ago for them. For this jack Johnson mini series that we sold and the guy listen to the pitch. And he said, Well, where's your trailer? He's not we don't have a trailer. I've got this little picture of jack Johnson you want to see it? And then he any? And then he said, Okay, so how much are you going to ask? What do you want to um, how much are you going to ask for? If I was going to buy this? What What would you What would you tell me the price was, and we were so done. We hadn't even thought of that. And so finally, my partner is a sweet, wonderful guide. You said, Well, what do you think? And the guy gave us the finger. And he said, here's what you here's what Jasper never asked for less than that. So it but it's it was just it was fascinating to see, you know, the selling end of this? How how difficult it is just get in front of one of the people that can that can get your project done. It's very tough.

Alex Ferrari 57:31
I'll tell I'll tell you, I'll tell you what I actually got. I was reached out by Amazon Studios reached out to me about a project like out of the blue. Which is, which is insane, right? So I get a call out of the blue. And they're like, it's Amazon Studios. We'd like to set up an appointment all this stuff. And I'm like, great. This is insane. Right? Wow. And the project never happened. But, but I did have multiple calls with them. And then I spoke to some high level executives at Amazon. But every time they called me the phone number was different. Every I'm not kidding. Every time I got called their phone numbers were different. And I and then to the point was when this whole you know, we went through this whole pap project and it didn't go through. I can't get anybody back on the phone. Yeah, exactly.

Unknown Speaker 58:15

Unknown Speaker 58:16
I you know, I can't it's always

Peter Douglas Russell 58:18
the way it is a it they're very super paranoid. I'm sure they have to be

Alex Ferrari 58:22
Yeah, because everybody's trying to pitch them and even if they approach you they still like you're still not part of the team yet.

Peter Douglas Russell 58:29
Yeah, you know, Hey, watch out Be careful. Don't Don't get too close to me. I'm standing here but I could go away at any moment.

Alex Ferrari 58:36
It's It's, it's, it's hilarious. But you know, but what I find that, that i a lot of a lot of people are still teaching the old ways of doing things, which is that logline the elevator pitch and and that's fine, and there's still pitch fests and all of that kind of good stuff. But what sets people apart is what you just said, if you have a trailer, if you have a reel, a sizzle reel, something that a producer or a production company or somebody can see. And you have a good story, and you have a good script. That's almost I feel that that is the new norm. And that's where we're all going like if you don't have a sizzle reel, if you don't have four minutes of a scene, if you don't have a trailer, you won't even walk in the door, even if you can find the door.

Peter Douglas Russell 59:25
Yeah, and I've got a class in how to make a webisode. And I always urge people to take this class because the webisode form is an ideal way to show off your skills to a TV producer. It's a very short form, you've got to do a lot of things in it, you got to do what I call a BM OC, a sequence set. There's all these things you need to do in your webinar. And you really should study it. Because as you said, this is how you get the job. Now you don't do it with a pitch off a three by five card and maybe next year. That'll Change again. But this is the current market. And yes, you, you, you. And by the way, you only learn that by going to these markets and seeing how it actually works. I don't think too many people are teaching that because just the nature of the beast is that they are there behind the times. The other things you can do is, is obviously, you can put your shit up on YouTube. And I have to say that the one of the main reasons I have that I get my jobs is word of mouth. But also, I've done a lot of interviews now, up, and I get people contacting me, I go, I got my current manager, because she saw me on on YouTube. And, and of course, she hates me, I hate her. You know, she tells me I'm horrible. I tell her she's horrible. We have a classic dysfunctional manager relationship. It's just, you know, it, that's just kind of what it is. I mean, if this business is so full of, I don't mean, she really hates me, and I don't really hate her. But there's an antagonistic relationship you have with the people that that are supposed to help you sell. Because their job is so difficult, because you don't know so many things they know about the business, and you don't want to know. So you've you've, you're always, it's always an interesting day. This is never there's never a dull day. I've never had a dull day in Hollywood. always exciting. It's full of shouting and anger. And, and but also greatness. So I don't have great advice on how to get a manager an agent. It, it seems, it's almost like you almost have to it's like a real estate agent. You almost have to have a beautiful big house and they'll come knocking, right? It's

Alex Ferrari 1:01:47
exactly it. That's exactly it. Because if if you don't it's like that's a great analogy. Imagine if you're gonna go get a real estate agent, like I need a real estate agent or a real estate agent. When you finally get one. They're like, Well, what do you have? I'm like, I have this idea for a house. Yeah,

Peter Douglas Russell 1:02:02
exactly. And, you know, I often people always say, you know, to me, when I do seminars and stuff, they go well, you know, okay, just assume I've got a great script, how do I get an agent or manager? And I said, That's like saying, Okay, look, let's assume I'm a great brain surgeon. So am I going to do your surgery on you? How am I going to you that that assumption is insane? I mean, I have a great project. If you Why not be why not have a great project before you think about an agent or manager? Because I think some people think that Hollywood is a place where once you get in the door, everybody's the same and I okay, I love your project, all you need to see it, Here's your money. But the first thing I will tell you is what, what, okay, I'm a big agent, you're meeting me, what do you have to sell me? And people don't want to think about that. Sometimes they just want to think, Well, once I get that agent, I'll be able to write something great. We gotta write something great. You really do. And it can take you years before you even ought to think about an agent or manager. I know people don't want to hear that. They want to shortcut it. And there's some people in Hollywood, by the way, who will help you with that delusion, they'll say, well, we're gonna get you in a room with a bunch of famous agents and managers, that's, that's what we offer we offer access to you. And and people will pay money to get into that room. But then they don't have anything to sell. They're just, they're not gonna just like the person the agents not gonna go, you know what I like the cut of your jib Boy, you know.

Alex Ferrari 1:03:33
But that's the myth that Hollywood has been selling since you know, what's her name was found at that, at that ice cream bar back in the 30s?

Peter Douglas Russell 1:03:41
Actually, by the way, and yes, actors do advertise themselves on their bodies. I mean, if you're gorgeous, then that's sometimes all you need to be for an agent or fascinating looking, because that's a product that's a product that they can sell the product right there. And they'll take you, a writers that don't have that most writers aren't gorgeous. A few of them are actually my friend, Nancy Gordon, how

Alex Ferrari 1:04:04
dare you, sir? How dare

Peter Douglas Russell 1:04:06
you, oh, believe me, I'm not going to. But even if we were, then we might want to be actors. And that's fine. But our product is internal, or it's on a page. So we, we have to have that product, our equivalent of a beautiful face is our story. And and you got to realize you're not going to get an agent or a manager on the short run a force of your personality or your charm, or even your hustle. You know, I had a I had a manager telling me the other day, she said, Look, she said, I don't ever accept any manuscripts from anybody, unless they're a friend of a client. And she said, The reason is, if you're talented, you have talented friends. And you're and so that's, that's the only that's my filter is if I've already employed you, if you're already an actor or writer who's working for me, then if you Got a Friend, they'll be talented too. So that is, I guess the good news for someone who's a networker. Maybe Don't try to meet major managers or agents, but maybe try to meet talented people and befriend them. That can be a way to use networking to your advantage in Hollywood if you're a writer, have talented friends

Alex Ferrari 1:05:22
now, would you would you? would you suggest and I know this is a very out there concept. But how about spending instead of spending the time chasing a manager agent? How about spending that time on the craft and becoming a better craftsmen?

Peter Douglas Russell 1:05:37
Oh, yeah, that's the obvious answer. I always give that and that's correct. Yeah. People are thirsty for so many jobs are about who you know, they really are. And Hollywood can be of course, too. If you're a rich kid and your dad's the head of a studio, then your your, your path is, is smooth. It won't be easy, but it will be smooth. But for people who really want to say, Well, I'm a hustler, I want to be able to hustle. How do I hustle in Hollywood? I would say yeah, don't try to hustle and hustle up some friends, some talented friends you think are going places? If they get representation, then you can say hey, Dale, you know, here's my script, give it to her. And this manager told me that the other day, she said, I do believe if you're talented, you've got talented friends. So I just I'll read a script. If If one of my existing clients has a friend that has a good script, and they say it's good to read the script. But yeah, otherwise, it's very difficult to come into this town as a writer and network your way into

Alex Ferrari 1:06:39
gig. It doesn't, it doesn't work. Because at the end of the day, you have to have the goods, you have to have the goods, whether it's a product that you've already created, or multiple products you've already created to prove that you have the goods, they're not going to take you on the word that just because you're a nice guy, then I gotta go, you know, I'm going to give you that first shot on the next Marvel movie, because you were able to get to me and I like you that doesn't work that way.

Peter Douglas Russell 1:07:02
Doesn't work. And by the way, there is a slot for those people. But it's your it's your brother or it's your cousin or it's your son or daughter. I mean, nepotism in Hollywood is huge. So you're not going to get in there anyway, even if they do like you there that slots already full. It's the nepotism slot, you know, and and yes, that that's that's not going to work either. But hey, having said all that, you know, the business is bigger than it used to be. It's a really actually a really good time to to be entering as a writer. You just have to realize that it's also still insanely hard. It's the doors slightly ajar. But actually the door is not ajar anymore. It's just inside the roof. The house is bigger, but the door is still really hard to open.

Alex Ferrari 1:07:51
More people are trying to go through that door to

Peter Douglas Russell 1:07:54
I am maybe Yeah, maybe Yeah, you're right. I think I think you're right. You know what, I'm at UCLA in the coffee shop. And I'm sitting there and the entire university is all there, right? It isn't just filming. Everybody's talking about their television show or their screenplay. They're all you know, even if they're pre med or pre law. Everyone's got a show. And yeah, I think entertainment has become just overwhelming. It's exciting. I mean, I love it. I love I love what the business we're in. I think it's an amazing, fun, wonderful business. And yeah, it's so a lot of people want to do it for sure. But 90% of those 90% of those people won't really be your competitors because they'll they'll either stop when it gets really hard. Or they're too sane to take the take the notion that they're going to do something for five or six or 10 years that may completely not pay off. No, you sane people who think about their IRAs and retirement and you know and kids you know, sane people don't really enter this business. We're all insane. Without question,

Alex Ferrari 1:09:11
you have to have a little work carnies as I always say we're carnies. Yes,

Peter Douglas Russell 1:09:14
that's exactly what I say do yeah, we're comfortable. You know where those guys you saw you know, smoking next to the tilta world you know, when you were in high school would pop I tattoo on their arm it looks like they take your wallet. That's

Alex Ferrari 1:09:28
us. That's basically what we are. And and you've got to be a little insane to be in this business. There's no way I mean, I've been in it 25 years. And I've seen a lot and the one thing that's common is that everyone's nuts and diverse. There's very smart nuts, but you've got to have a little bit of insanity to to do this because like you just said, if you just sell the pitch of you're going to work for 10 years on something that you have absolutely no guarantee that you'll ever be successful at It has nothing to do particularly with you possibly, you might be a genius. But the breaks might not happen.

Peter Douglas Russell 1:10:07
Yeah, but chances are that the genius parts important. But look, I deal with this as a professor all the time, I have to tell, and I don't tell people this, but I should tell people this, I wrestled with it all the time. And in any fine art, this is probably the case. But one to 2% of you are going to succeed one to 2%, right? of a class, maybe not even that. Now, how do you palpably tell people that it's very difficult, but the fine arts have always been that way. They're very demanding, there's not many jobs. So you have to go into it with the idea that it's going to make you a better person. And also, you couldn't not do it. You know, and this is cliched advice that everybody Gibbs but it's true. If you cannot do it, don't do it. If you can, if you can avoid a career in show business, avoid it. Because you'll you'll probably be more content, at least in the short run. But if you can avoid it, those are the people who should do it. Because you're you're never going to be happy. Being a CPA. And if you've got that burning desire, you're just not you'd rather be, you'd rather wonder, hey, I might end up being an Uber driver. I mean, I don't know. You know, I've sold some stuff but but only in the last couple years. I did this for 20 years, without really having my name on anything that's sold. And, you know, I made enough money to live on thank God and most people don't even do that. But you because you do need a side hustle, usually. But and that's why screen. That's why script writing by the way can be a good good thing because you can do it at home in your jammies and eat but you can't you got to live a really small life. And by the way, why all your friends are having their kids in there. And they're by their driving the Mercedes and they got their big homes and they're and they're going to France in the summer and and they're doing this and doing that you're going to be in your rent controlled apartment in West Hollywood eating peanut butter. You know, I just always like to lay out the most dire so

Alex Ferrari 1:12:15
so peanut butter, what do we what are we? What are we the rock the raw Rockefellers peanut butter? Exactly. It's ramen, sir. It is ramen,

Peter Douglas Russell 1:12:23
Top Ramen, whatever. Yeah, it's that's what it is. But, you know, a Jerry Seinfeld said, you know, he was interviewing the South African comic. Oh,

Alex Ferrari 1:12:35
yeah. Real Africans? Yeah.

Peter Douglas Russell 1:12:37
Yeah. And, and in the guy said, he said when you get up and, and he said, I get up at, I get up around 11pm. And then I go to clubs, I go to five clubs. And then I get home at eight in the morning. And Seinfeld said to him, oh, you're you're you're a classic, you're going to be just fine. You're gonna This is going to be your, your your life, and you're going to do really well. And of course he has. But that's the sort of pure dedication that this sort of thing requires. Did you?

Alex Ferrari 1:13:14
Did you ever see the documentary Jiro dreams of sushi? No, but I heard of it. It's a fantastic documentary about this master sushi chef, who's whose restaurants in a subway. He's the only sushi chef ever to get a Michelin star. That's how good he is. Wow. And when he got away in Japan, he's like in a subway somewhere in Japan and like takes three months to get a get get a reservation. And basically you walk in you don't you say nothing. And whatever JIRA gives you you eat, and that's basically it. But But your life will change once you do it. But what the reason I'm saying is if you want to be an apprentice with him, it's a seven year apprenticeship. And you have to agree to seven years. I think it's seven or 10 years. I'm not sure. I don't remember exactly. But what I found really fascinating is because you know, this is exactly what happens with screenwriters and filmmakers. is they want to jump in. They're like, Oh, I want to I want to jump on that techno crane and let's let's start moving the camera. I want to be like Scorsese and everything like I gotta calm down. Calm down. Sorkin just calm down for a second there apprentice in order to touch fish. Because if you're a sushi apprentice, you you're assuming that you're going to touch a fish, right?

Unknown Speaker 1:14:29

Alex Ferrari 1:14:31
You don't touch fish for three years.

You're all you're No, no, no,

you're cooking rice.

Peter Douglas Russell 1:14:38
Oh my god.

Alex Ferrari 1:14:39
You have to cook the rice you have to master rice first, before you're ever allowed to touch a fish. And that is what we hear in our business need more of and the more understanding of that. You're going to have to write and write a lot A lot. That's true. And you

Peter Douglas Russell 1:15:03
know that my, what I see a lot, and I did this myself is, I would think about writing more than I wrote. And I think they're, they're six months or a year I'd go by I, you know, that's a fantastic idea. I just have to write it down. And there's a lot of that in the biz, which is that, you know, you don't actually get to the on the page, you don't do that much writing. And that's a really bad thing. And a lot of, I think a lot of people when they feel I haven't gotten anywhere, you say, Well, how much have you actually written? Do you write every day? No, I write once a week I write when the spirit moves me. Then, you know, it's they're not cooking that rice, right? They're just not cooking the rice. And, and, and so Yeah, and I think I also had a person that a lot of money that I trust fund, and they'd wanted to be a screenwriter for like, 20 years, but they actually only written one script in that entire 20 years. So there wasn't that urgency. Yes, you got to write you got to do your thing. And that's why I think it's great to apprentice with someone, and really just start doing scenes and start and pick up the camera and make something, you know, make a tic tock, you know, even even these commercial forms, that are, are are now prevalent in social media where you have 30 seconds to make your movie, or 45 seconds to make your movie, or Tick Tock I don't think that's 15 or 20. Those impose discipline on you and they make you need to tell a story in that form. And it's all about that discipline. So yeah, cook the rice man. that's a that's a good metaphor.

Alex Ferrari 1:16:41
Now, I'm gonna ask you a few questions. Ask all my guests. What are three screenplays every screenwriter should read?

Peter Douglas Russell 1:16:48
Oh, wow. Um, well,


okay. Are we talking film? Are we talking television?

Alex Ferrari 1:16:56
I mean, give me give me a couple of film and one television one.

Peter Douglas Russell 1:17:00

Unknown Speaker 1:17:02

Peter Douglas Russell 1:17:03
I think one of the greatest Okay, so so there's I have to go to with TV. That's one is the wire. And I I think you should read the wires entire first season, which I guess is cheating because yes, one script but and also read the wire story Bible. Because Simon is and I don't know if you've seen the deuce the his newest one on the deuce. Simon is one of the most brilliant journalistic writers there are, he creates worlds and his dialogue is extraordinary. It's so naturalistic, it almost feels like a document, documentary. And that's true of all of his work. But if you want the most sort of brilliant, naturalistic storytelling, you can find around I think he and and then also, Chase. So in television, I really think there are three great guys you want to you want to want to study? Yes, one of them is, is Simon the other one's David Chase and the sopranos. Because again, the writing is extraordinary. And then I think that Matthew whiner also is a brilliant teller of television story. I think that I'm sorry, I'm going to go to Vince Gilligan course, if you want to study the our form to television form. Vince Gilligan is just the greatest at what he does, I still teach the pilot of

Unknown Speaker 1:18:57
Breaking Bad,

Peter Douglas Russell 1:18:58
breaking bad because it just, it just shows you what an amazing writer was. Now, I will also tell you that I think for network television. I think you can study john wells, I think the way that wells writes is amazing. And it's a sort of a different kind of, of storytelling on network. So so those are the guys that I would, I would really recommend. They're the sort of the classics, okay. And then I think, by the way, Phoebe Waller bridge. Also television writer of fleabag Phoebe bridge is an extraordinary writer. She's just she's probably the best new television writer we've got comes out of playwriting as a lot of these guys do.

Unknown Speaker 1:19:51
And then for

Peter Douglas Russell 1:19:55
for screenplays, gosh there's

Unknown Speaker 1:19:59
almost no To

Alex Ferrari 1:20:00
three to come to mind three to come to mind.

Peter Douglas Russell 1:20:02
Okay, well, I this is one that I don't know how much he's gonna help you. It's Charlie Kaufman. I love Charlie. Love. But she's he's so he's such a singular genius. He doesn't follow structure really, although we really kind of does. But it's difficult. But I love him. I can read his stuff all the time. And, and so I also Well, I think that so many I think that probably Yeah, that's really true. Okay, so in I think that Robert Towne I do think that the the the mystery thriller is such a potent vision so I would, I would say town as classic. And and then I would I think the cones I think Joel and Ethan Coen are probably the greatest filmmakers that we have right now to write television to. And if you like action, I think Christopher McQuarrie I often use his stuff for modeling action, Allen ball, anything. I almost go more by writers than by by word. Sure, because it's what helps me an Allen bolt has been enormous help for me in a drama that I'm I'm writing right now. Steven Zaillian is amazing. I'm sort of a classic. I've been I've been reading William Goldman's scripts, who was a 60 screenwriter, and he's his world building and his, his cinematic style is, is just amazing. I love Brian Helgeland.

Alex Ferrari 1:21:56
There was 33 sir three, there's three.

Peter Douglas Russell 1:22:01
I went nuts. I was thought that way. That's there's like 40 more that are just about as good so bad. But yes. But you know, I think that Yeah, that'll do. Okay, so

Alex Ferrari 1:22:12
Okay, good. Now, what is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?

Peter Douglas Russell 1:22:22
How hard I have to work. I I'm kind of lazy. And I think it's probably the reason that took me so long to succeed. I'm kind of lazy. And I have delusions of grandeur. So I kind of, I kind of want to be a big deal. But I when I see the work involved, I'm like, Oh, God, damn, let's just, let's have a, let's have a join. I think learning how to work super hard. Was was the toughest lesson for me in life. And also, as a writer, you know, the first thing I ever wrote, won a big prize. And I thought that was really cool. I was 20 years old. And I thought that I was home free man, my life was going to be fantastic. And, and it was the worst thing that could have ever happened to me because I didn't have a good work ethic. And I thought I was a genius. And I see a lot of people with that who want to go into Hollywood. They they think they're a genius. And that's gonna be more important than their work ethic. And the appalling truth is it's not. And and a work ethic is everything that your boy scout master and all those nasty adults that were so boring with all the things they told you about. That life was about that you sneered at if you were a little rebel like me. Turns out they were right. That that hard work is an enormous important part of success. And yeah,

Alex Ferrari 1:23:52
now what is what did you learn from your biggest failure? Oh,

Unknown Speaker 1:23:57

Peter Douglas Russell 1:23:58
Well, I wrote a book that I wrote three quarters of a book, when I wanted to be a novelist, because that was my first big love. And it was picked up by probably the most prestigious publisher in New York, even when it was even just halfway done. I got a big agent. I just sent her the first chapter. And she was, oh my god, you're the next whatever. And then she sent it to this press, and they said, Oh, my God, you're amazing. We had a meeting about you. We want it we want you to come to New York, blah, blah, all this wet dream crap that you never imagined going to happen to you happened to me. And then I couldn't finish the book. Even though the publisher flew me out to New York and said, Hey, we're gonna sit down with you and walk you through the outline something my man, my agent said, it never happened in our old career. This guy here. That's how much he he loved my vision and said, I could never finish the book. But why? Well, and this goes to structure and what we talked about earlier, what You were saying about structure and what people think about structure. I think what happened is, I had written the first half of the book purely on instinct, and adrenaline and pleasure. I didn't have a clue in my head, what was gonna happen next. And then I got halfway done. And I should have just finished. But I got halfway done and, and I thought, Oh, well, you know, I got to get an agent. But we got enough here, I read it in a book, you've you got a couple of chapters, you send it out. So I sent it out, I sent half the book out, and got the agent got the publisher got it all. And then they said, This is fantastic. We can't wait. I got an advance. Then I went back, I was living in Topanga and I went back to my little cabin. And for the next six months, everything I wrote was shit. Because sorry, crap, because I have this structure. Now in my head, now you've got to do this. And this, now your hero has to do this, this and this. And I couldn't get my hero to do any of that stuff, all the entertaining, effervescent tone, because it was a comic novel was gone. And nothing he did, it was all LED. And it was my It was awful. And, and three times the publisher tried came in with a new plan. Oh, that's terrible, Peter, but you're always gonna, you're gonna do it. Here's another plan. Here's another, you did. So structure can sometimes kill you. And that's why I imagine I say when you're writing your script, and you're cooking, don't quit. Just get it all out on the page, write your excitement, as long as you can, maybe you'll be done. And even if you're not done, you'll have this whole work on the page that have a piece that isn't about Oh, got a plug in column A got to do B got to do see, because that can kill your creativity.

Unknown Speaker 1:26:59
So yeah,

Peter Douglas Russell 1:27:01
I that's my that's what I learned from my biggest failure. So don't try to rely on books and structure and stuff you read. Just ride your own excitement as long as you can. And then you'll have to go to structure and stuff. And by the way, Hollywood Story is such a complicated form, that the chances are, you're not going to get the whole thing out. And you are going to have to and this is the last thing I'd say, if you can have a collaborator, have a collaborator. This is such a lonely business. And it's so hard. If you have somebody who helps you who you're co writing with, I've seen it many times, because that's kind of what I get hired to do. Sometimes I'm professional friend, I'm your screenwriter, but I'm also your friend in this business. You know, I'll help you at this moment. If you can have a collaborator, so many people do. And the reason is, this is so hard, and doing it by yourself can feel terribly lonely. So having a it's not till I got partners, by the way that I really sort of started having some success under my own name.

Alex Ferrari 1:28:09
Now, where can people find out more about you and the work you do?

Peter Douglas Russell 1:28:12
Okay, well, it's just this simple. It's my last my first and last name, Peter Russell, script doctor.com. That's it. Peter Russell script doctor.com. That is where if you go to Peter Russell, script doctor.com. That's where all my classes are my lectures. I've studied most genres, and I have lectures in every genre on my site. And they talk about all the things I've observed that the greatest writers in this genre, whatever the genre is, love stories, ROM coms, action, whatever the common patterns are, that these guys and girls, us, I show you those patterns. And I've noticed that when I give a writer these patterns, when they get stuck in their story, if they're writing a rom com, or they go and they look, and they see Oh, that's what this guy did at this point. Oh my god. And this is how this guy created this character. And this is how these lovers fell in love. And this is how they, this is when they fell out of love. And this is why and this is what almost every great romantic comedy character has in them every time so and some of those things will, in my experience, they will set your heart at glow and they'll fire you up again and you will be excited about your project. Because, you know, like Picasso said, you know, talented people borrow geniuses steal. And I do think that and this These aren't structural patterns, although those are in some of them. These are tricks. These are tricks that The greatest people like Tarantino use in his story, their tricks, their tricks with guns, their tricks, with knives, their tricks with the suspense, their tricks with the way you enter a scene and get out. He stole so much of what he did from 1970s drive in film directors, a whole bag of tricks that that he uses and all of his work. He stole from classics too, but you want to steal stuff, and you can't patent suspense devices. You can't patent what Hitchcock did, you can't patent What lowen? Does, you can't patent what tintina does. They're there for you to steal. And I just show you the big glass case of things I've stolen. Hey, would you like to try this? You know, here's a plot device, man, I think you'd love it. And you go, Okay, I'll

Unknown Speaker 1:30:50
try that. Let

Peter Douglas Russell 1:30:50
me have one of those. And two of those. It's like when john wick goes into get his guns, you know. So that's kind of what I've got there on that side. It's a glass cabinet full of tricks you can steal,

Alex Ferrari 1:31:00
Peter, we can keep talking for at least another two or three hours. I know for sure, for sure. But I do appreciate you taking the time and dropping knowledge bombs on the tribe today. And it's been very educational, without question. So thank you so much for being on the show, my friend.

Peter Douglas Russell 1:31:16
Dude, I love your show. And I think you're performing a real service. And it's been really entertaining and fun. So yeah, I I've been really appreciative. Thanks for your intelligent questions.

Alex Ferrari 1:31:30
I want to thank Peter for coming on the show. I really appreciate all the insights that you brought to the tribe today. So thank you, Peter. If you want to get links to Peters work his his little tricks of the trade that he offers on his website for you guys to take a look at and steal as he puts it, head over to the show notes at indie film, hustle, calm forward slash bps 058. And guys, if you haven't already checked out I have done a complete revamp of indie film, hustle TV, and I added a ton of new trainings series Doc's about the screen writing process. It has become a treasure trove for not only screenwriters, but for filmmakers as well. If you want to check that out, please head over to eye f. h. tv.com, available on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, as well as iPhone, iOS and Android apps. Thank you for listening. I really appreciate all the support. I hope this episode was a value to you on your journey. As always, keep on writing, no matter what. I'll talk to you soon.

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