Sunday, December 20, 2009

Braving New Trails to the Web and Beyond with Screenwriter Aaron Mendelsohn

Sisyphus had it easy compared to us screenwriters.

If the Writer’s Guild Strike of 2007 taught us anything, it’s that you don’t have to wait for the studios to green light your project to get something made. Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog and Felicia Day’s, The Guild are two shining examples of this.  Truth is, all you really need is a script, a cameraman, some actors, a grip, a director, a coordinator, a production manager, a best boy, a make-up person, some P.A.s, maybe a driver, equipment, an editor and most importantly, craft service. 

You’ll also need a place to display your production once it’s complete. 

Enter the internet. That mystical, magical cloud we can neither see, nor touch but we’re convinced will either be the savior of Hollywood or its downfall. The jury is still out on that one. The point is this: it’s virgin territory and for those of us willing to take a risk and put ourselves on the line, it’s a fresh proving ground; an opportunity for writer/creators to finally exert greater control over their own content while bringing it directly to the consumer.  On the other hand, it’s also a cheaper way for the studios to see what we’ve created without paying us anything in advance. 

New media equals new paradigm.

So is new media really just old media with a fresh coat of paint or is it old media’s salvation? Although it’s still too early to predict the quality of content that will be created by the collision of old and new media, one thing is clear: it’s gotten a lot of us writers out from behind our keyboards and into the production end of the game. The question is, will it level the field or simply prove to be another wasteland?  Conventional wisdom tells us it’s too early to tell, so I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

In the meantime, one writer I know who is currently exploring this wild New Frontier is Aaron Mendelsohn. Aaron recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few quick questions on writing for the big screen and for the internet.

A working screenwriter for over fifteen years, Aaron currently sits on the Board of Directors for the Writers Guild of America West.  During the recent Writers Strike, Aaron brought together a group of top writers from Hollywood to launch Virtual Artists, Inc., a writer-owned studio that produces sponsor-supported "water cooler" entertainment for the Web.  Earlier this year they completed their “A” round of financing and will be launching their first shows in 2010.

Previously, Aaron co-created the AIR BUD movie franchise and co-wrote the first two films.  Among his other writing credits are the Lifetime movie CHANGE OF HEART, the Fox series “KINDRED: THE EMBRACED” and the independent feature CHAPTER ZERO, which he also directed. 

Jeffrey Berman: What was your first break as a writer and what did you learn from it that you brought to your following writing assignments?

Aaron Mendolsohn: My first break was setting up a pilot for a drama series that was based on a book my old partner and I optioned.  The pilot never went anywhere, but I learned how meaningful it was to have the credibility of a book backing you up.  And this was back in 1993. These days, having some kind of pre-existing intellectual property is practically a requirement.

JB: There’s an old adage in the film business, “Never work with animals or children.”  Is the same true when it comes to writing for them?  Do you approach scenes differently when writing for a dog, like in your script for Air Bud?

AM: I think writing for children and animals is very liberating in that you don't have to conform to all the restrictive logic and behavior that comes with writing adult characters (unless you're Judd Apatow, in which case you write your adults as if they're children).  And it's nice not to feel you have to make every line of dialogue Sorkinesque.  The challenge, when writing about kids or dogs, is to not be too precious.  No one likes precious.  And avoid anthropomorphism.  Dogs don't smile, they don't dance, and they don't raise their eyebrows.  When we were writing Air Bud, our Post-It note on the computer was: Everything the dog does, he does it for the boy.  He doesn't play basketball because he's some ball-jonesing canine Michael Jordan, he plays it because the boy he loves plays it.

JB: When you’re working on a story and you creatively hit a wall, what techniques do you use to break through and finish the script?

AM: I just write through it.  Get down whatever hideous blather spills out of my fingertips, and then I "fix it in post."

JB:  You recently created a new media company called, Virtual Artists that produces sponsor supported content.  Is writing for the web different than writing for Film and TV, and if so, how does it differ?

AM: Films and TV are a lean-back experience.  Web content is a lean-forward experience.  We try to build interactive components in and around our shows, giving viewers the option to click, interact, respond, share and sometimes even control the narrative.  It's the evolution of storytelling.  Sponsors like this sort of engagement because it increases the number of touch points with viewers.

JB: What advice would you offer to up-and-coming writers who want to work in the industry?

AM: Get the rights to something that has a pre-built audience – book, graphic novel, magazine article, 1970s TV show – because, sadly, in this era of corporate bottom lines, no one's buying original stories anymore.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Josh Olson Won’t Read Your Script, But He Might Adapt Your Story

The best education I ever got as a screenwriter came from reading scripts. When I started out I read every script I could get my hands on. I still do. When I have the time. Screenplays also make the best reference material when it comes to analyzing and breaking down a scene, especially when you’re stuck on one of your own. So when you read as much as I do, you digest a lot of pabulum. But every once in a great while you come across a screenplay that sucks you in and demands to be read. A script that refuses to let you put it down, until you’ve read every word, from Fade in until The End, every time you pick it up. A History of Violence is one of those scripts for me.

Based on a graphic novel (comic book), the screenplay by Josh Olson was nominated for an Academy Award, a BAFTA, the WGA award, and an Edgar in 2007.

Which segues into this week’s topic. Adapting scripts from other mediums whether it’s a novel, a play, a comic book or a video game, is a different breed of writing. You would think it would be easy; after all, the story and character are already developed which leaves the writer the simple task of transcribing it for filming. You would think that… but it ain’t so. I know firsthand because I’ve written several adaptations, including an M.O.W based on a biography of J. K. Rowling and I can honestly tell you that it was more difficult to write than some of the original scripts I’ve written.

So when it came time to discuss adaptations I went to one of the best, and one of my favorite writers: Josh Olson.

Writer of the cult movie, Infested, Olson broke into the studio world when he sold his original script Three Guns Blue to Paramount Pictures. That led to his first studio assignment, adapting the graphic novel A History of Violence. Since then, Olson has collaborated with legendary author Harlan Ellison on an adaptation of Ellison’s “The Discarded” for the ABC TV Series Masters of Science Fiction. He’s also worked on adapting the hugely popular video game HALO for producer Peter Jackson and has adapted the Dennis Lehane short story Until Gwen, which he will also direct. Additionally, he contributed the script Have I Got Story for You to the smash hit Batman: Gotham Knights project. More recently, Olson wrote a sequel to The Wizard of Oz for Warner Brothers and has just finished adapting the Lee Child bestseller One Shot for Paramount.

He is currently developing a TV drama, Pleased To Meet Me, with the legendary guitarist Slash, and is writing the pilot for Meanwhile, a dramatic series he created and sold to producer Peter Chernin and the Fox Network. Olson can also be seen commenting on classic film trailers at Joe Dante’s website, Trailers From Hell.

His Village Voice essay, “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” became an internet phenomenon, getting upwards of two million hits, and is spawning a book. (I wonder who will adapt it for the screen? Ed. Note). 

Jeffrey Berman: How does the writing process differ when adapting a screenplay from a book versus working on an original idea? 

Josh Olson: Every script is its own thing, whether it’s original, or an adaptation. There are no set rules to any of them. I’ve done adaptations where I’ve only read the source material once, and I’ve done them where I had the book open in front of me every step of the way. Hell, the writing process differs from page to page, let alone project to project. 

JB: With a comic book like A History of Violence you obviously have less material to draw on then you would a novel or a series of novels like Oz. Does that allow you the freedom to develop original material or is there a fear of straying too far from the source? And does that make your job easier or more difficult?

JO: It’s not about the quantity of material. It’s about the material itself, and what you’re going to do with it. With History, I took John Wagner’s premise, title, and - god help me for using this phrase - “inciting incident,” and then leapt off and told my own story. 

The graphic novel was packed with story, it just wasn’t a story I wanted to tell. It’s a solid, smart and fun action thriller, but I was a lot more interested in getting into questions of identity. In the book, there’s never a moment’s doubt that the main character is the man the mob guys think he is. I felt like that was a missed opportunity. I thought it was a great chance to play with a classic “wrong man” scenario in which the wrong man is actually the right man. And that led me to start thinking about identity, and what it is that constitutes your “self.” Is Tom the guy they all say he is? Or is he the guy he’s made himself into?

The freedom to stray from the material doesn’t necessarily come from the material, but from your own response to it. It also has something to do with the studio’s needs, as well. If you’re doing Harry Potter, there’s a billion fans that the studio’s trying to serve. If you fuck around with the fundamentals of the stories or the characters, you’re gonna be out of a job. But with something like History, we were talking about a ten-year old graphic novel that had a very small print run. There wasn’t a market-driven imperative to be faithful to the material, and it wasn’t the enormous audience that compelled the studio to purchase the book. I found out when they hired me off my pitch that they’d had the same concerns with the book that I did, and had just been waiting for someone to come in and show them how to take it into a completely different direction.

In the end, it’s gotta be a story you want to tell. I’ve written a lot of originals, but in the end, History was one of the most personal scripts I’ve ever written.

But, like I said, it’s not about quantity of material. I adapted Dennis Lehane’s short story Until Gwen a while back. It’s a 15-page story, and it’s very spare in terms of plot and detail. It’s mostly flashes of memory, tiny details, and bursts of emotion. Very little to work with, in terms of traditional scenes, but one hell of a powerful story. For the screenplay, in order to create a feature length narrative film, I had to invent most of the scenes, many of the characters, and find a way to structure it as a visual narrative. In terms of what a screenwriting 101 teacher would call “adaptation,” there’s maybe 20 pages of the thing that are directly based on Dennis’ story. However, from the first page to the last, I was being absolutely faithful to Dennis’ story and his vision, at least as I saw it.

That’s what it boils down to for me - writing is all about taking what I see and feel and communicating it to you. In the case of an adaptation, it’s about showing you how I saw something. Because I’ll never be able to really know what Dennis’ real vision was. All I can do is tell you how I connected to it, and hoped that it touches and moves you. In the case of something like Until Gwen, I’d also hope that it would inspire you to seek out the source material and let it have its way with you as well.

JB: When adapting a classic story like Oz, how closely do you keep to the source material and how important is that for any adaptation?

JO: Like I said, they’re all different. There’s no way to generalize about any script, adaptation or original. I wasn’t adapting a specific book, but I wanted to get across some of L. Frank Baum’s magnificent characters and settings, as well as write a movie that could stand as a sequel to the MGM classic. The story I sold Warner Brothers was my own story, utilizing characters and settings and information from the first few Oz books. The hope was to come up with something that would work as a sequel to the movie as well as satisfy fans of Baum’s world.

With the exception of the characters from our world that I created, every character in the script is from Baum. But I put them into my own story.

JB: Before you start to adapt a novel for the screen, such as One Shot by Lee Child, how do you determine what parts of the story go into the script and what parts are left out? And why is it necessary to leave anything out?

JO: One Shot was a project where my mandate was to introduce a very popular fictional character to a movie audience. In that One Shot is actually the ninth book in the Jack Reacher series, it necessitated changes that would allow us to make this the first movie. But beyond that, there’s almost always some basic nuts and bolts things that have to change. In One Shot, for instance, the book is paced rather leisurely. Jack spends a lot of time going back and forth between the same two or three locations, and while it works great in the book, it would have left us with a very static movie. I had to come up with ways to combine the net result of several scenes into one, all while not just being faithful to Lee Child’s fantastic character, but also introducing him to a larger movie audience that won’t be familiar with him.      

JB: What advice would you offer to writers who are driven to find stories from other mediums to adapt as feature films?      

JO: We’re at a point in the film business where it’s harder than it’s ever been to sell originals. We could discuss and argue the reasons for this ‘til the cows came home, but in the end, it wouldn’t change that fact. Studios are heavily invested in doing material that has some semblance of built-in recognition. The trick, for me at least, has been to find material that I click with personally. In the case of Until Gwen, it was a short story that just gutted me. In the case of History, it was a premise that allowed me to take the story into an entirely new direction and explore ideas that are of deep personal interest to me. With One Shot, it was a chance to fill a void I’ve been feeling for many years - the absence of smart, American tough guy movies. The book came to me the morning after I’d shown my girlfriend the first two Dirty Harry movies, and we’d talked about how sad it was that no one was making movies like that anymore. With Oz, I got to take books that I loved as a kid and use them to comment on the state of imagination today. 

People often perceive adaptations as somehow easier than originals...  “coloring between the lines,” if you will. But if you find the way into them, the way to make them personal to you, they can be as challenging as satisfying and as difficult as an original. Sometimes more so. The vast majority of directors don’t write their scripts. In essence, they’re adapting someone else’s work, translating a singular vision from one form to another. It’s all a challenge.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting it write with Jeffrey Berman, the host of The Write Environment

Okay, I know it's been a while since I posted my last interview. Some of the fault is mine because I've been busy producing a project I wrote. But I can't take all of the blame. I'm currently waiting for three new interviews to come in, which I'm assured will be any day now.


In the meantime, I thought this might be a good opportunity to reprint an interview that I did on the The Write Environment for Talking With Tim, which is a great site where you'll find pop culture interviews by Tim O'Shea. Check it out... but not until after you've read my interview first.

Jeffrey Berman on The Write Environment

When the writer’s strike happened in late 2007/early 2008, writer Jeffrey Berman was looking for a way to stay busy in a productive manner. And that’s how his new project began–The Write Environment. Here’s more details on the project: “THE WRITE ENVIRONMENT features 50-60 minute, in-depth, one-on-one interviews with some of the most lauded and prolific writers in the television industry today, including Damon Lindelof (Lost), Tim Kring (Heroes), Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), Doug Ellin (Entourage), Sam Simon (The Simpsons), and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

… each episode … takes viewers backstage into the heretofore unseen world of the writer’s room for intimate interviews that offer a rare look at these diverse writers and what inspires them. From that first idea to the finished script, the writers share their views and stories, examining their successes, failures, and everything in between.”

I enjoy the chance to interview interviewers, so my thanks to Berman for his time. In preparation of the interview, he was kind enough to allow me to view screeners of the Lindelof and Whedon interviews. My thanks also to Sylvia Desrochers for making this interview possible.

Tim O’Shea: How did you first come up with the idea of doing this series when the writer’s strike was in full swing? Do you think you would have been able to get these writers’ time if they had not been on strike?

Jeffrey Berman: The series came about as a byproduct of the Writers Guild Strike. I had co-founded a web site called Our mission was to keep our members, and the public, informed as to what was really going on behind the scenes. My contribution to the site was producing live interviews from the strike line as well as viral videos to assist in getting our point of view heard. As the strike progressed we started talking about cutting out the middleman, aka the studios, which would allow us to retain ownership of our own projects. As an aside, I’ll tell you that screenwriting is the only faction of the creative world where the creators do not retain ownership or rights to their material once they sell it.
Anyway, The Write Environment felt like a natural progression from what I was already doing at the time. Plus, how often do you really get to hear interviews with the people who create the entertainment we spend the majority of our lives watching? I saw this as an opportunity for the fans to hear from the folks behind the scenes, while offering some insight into the work process to the screenwriting neophytes out there.

O’Shea: When you saw Dr. Horrible mapped out on Whedon’s planning wall, did you have any inkling how popular his “Internet thing” (as he described it to you in passing) would be?

Berman: Nope. Who could? Of course, it was expected that anything Joss did would have an impact and certainly find a home with his fans, but I’d wager even Joss was surprised with the attention, and sales, he received from it.

O’Shea: Whedon confided how he paces while writing (not in a narrative sense, but literally walking in his writing area)–I was curious if the floor was worn where he paces–or did you look?

Berman: That’s funny, but no. There are no trenches worn into his floor. Of course, had it been a carpeted floor it probably would have shown more wear, but I related to this as I do the same thing. No trenches in my home, either.

O’Shea: Maybe I’ve not read or watched enough interviews with Whedon, but had he previously discussed the fact that his father and grandfather were writers much before?

Berman: Not to my knowledge. I discovered this while doing due diligence for the interview. Prior to that I had no idea he came from such a prolific family.

O’Shea: Given that most of the interview subjects are associates of yours, did you have to do much research in preparation for the interviews. Did you prep the interview subjects about what ground you wanted to cover before filming began?

Berman: Yes and no. I did research each of the writers background and reviewed their work histories but beyond that I approached the interview from two sides; As a fan and as a student. Then I split my question down the middle. Or at least I tried to. And no prep was given to the writers beforehand. Though Joss and I did have a chance to talk a little shop while the crew was setting up for the shoot. Wouldn’t you like to know what was said then? Heh-heh!

O’Shea: In all the writer’s offices you toured in the projects, what was the most impressive heirloom that you saw?

Berman: Hands down, Mr. Echo’s stick in Damon Lindelof’s office.

O’Shea: While you are an experienced writer yourself, I’m curious if you gained some writing lessons from the interviews?

Berman: Absolutely. As a comedy writer I probably benefited the most from my interview with Phil Rosenthal. As an aside, I have to tell you that it was hands down the most enjoyable of all the interviews. His comedic timing is beyond perfect. He had the whole crew in stitches for a good portion of the interview. His insights into comedic writing probably had the greatest impact on me.

O’Shea: In talking with all these successful writers, were there any common traits (for success or effective storytelling) that you observed with a majority of the subjects?

Berman: Yes, writers write. That and never sacrifice your characters for story.

O’Shea: Were any of the subjects immensely more forthcoming with information than you originally expected when you picked them to interview?

Berman: It’s really a crap shoot when you do these kind of interviews. It’s taxing to ask someone to sit and talk about themselves for over an hour at a time. ( Which is why I chose to do it in a surrounding where they’re comfortable. ) I was extremely pleased and rewarded with how generous and forthcoming all of the writers were. Not to mention insightful. Each of them has a s wealth of experience in different formats and they were all absolutely fascinating to speak with.

O’Shea: I’ll ask the question you asked some of the writers: “what makes a good writer”?

Berman: Fortitude. Writing is hard. It’s so easy to just not write. But in those time where I’m not writing, in-between the enormous guilt I feel and the sheer joy of not being chained to my computer, I’m still thinking about writing. The struggle to turn off the TV and get back to work, that’s the hardest part for me.

O’Shea: In talking to these creators about their show, did any of them instill in you a new level of appreciation of the show or its characters?

Berman: I have to go back to Phil Rosenthal because I think he broke the mold with Everybody Loves Raymond. How that show was allowed to survive for nine years astounds me. And lucky for us it did. It was on the bubble many times, but kudos to CBS for sticking by it.

O’Shea: How do you explain your encyclopedia-level knowledge of TV (ie your example of Donald Bellisario’s breaking his vow never to delve into JFK in Quantum Leap)?

Berman: I’m a fan. What can I say?

O’Shea: Where can folks get the DVDs?

Berman: Yeah, if I can put in a plug, please check out my site at and buy a DVD or two. Then tell a friend. Then tell your friend to buy a DVD or two… or three… Okay, I’ll stop now.