Friday, July 05, 2013

Finding A Champion for Your Screenwriting: Q & A with Script Consultant Jim Mercurio

I am excited to introduce my readers to story analyst and script consultant Jim Mercurio. In 2008, I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Los Angeles participating in one of Jim's Killer Screenwriting advanced script workshops. I found the experience invaluable.

As a story analyst, Jim has A-List and Oscar-nominated clients, in addition to being available to those still trying to break into the industry. Creative Screenwriting magazine ranked him as one of the top screenplay consultants in the country. His clients include Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated writers. Jim ran the Expo Screenplay Competition for six years before starting the Champion Screenwriting Competition. He is currently working on the first ever screenwriting book to focus solely on scene writing.

Jim is a tireless mentor and cheerleader for his client's projects. Plus, it is impossible for me not to like someone who can quote both Star Trek and Springsteen in order to illustrate a particular writing technique.

I was thrilled to learn that Jim had recently released Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List, an in-depth, 10 hour / 6 DVD course on craft. I've seen excerpts, and it's full of solid, actionable information. I was even more thrilled when I asked if he'd be willing to provide an interview, and he agreed! 

Q: You are a script consultant what exactly do you do? What can a writer who engages your services expect from your working relationship?

A: In general, a consultant or analyst provides feedback to help you improve your screenplay. I mine your draft and try to give insight that organically emanates from it. However, I think what I usually do goes beyond that.

I do the above, obviously, but I function more as a champion and a coach. As a mentor, I try to be the illegitimate love-child – in spirit – of Sargent Foley (Officer and a Gentleman) and Mr. Keating (Dead Poets Society). [This hints at the breadth of my teaching examples, too.]

"What am I fighting for?" More than a goal: a gameplan.
Improving the script is the goal but I think, just like in scenes, the idea of "goal" is limiting. Think about your favorite scenes or some of the most memorable moments in cinema…  

The cab ride in On the Waterfront, Quint’s monologue in Jaws or even Sally’s fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally. The idea of “goal” doesn’t begin to capture their emotional impact. When I teach scene writing, I use a term from acting – “What am I fighting for?” It’s a more active way to look at it. And the answer to the question for the characters are usually huge: love, acceptance, to save someone’s soul.

So your goal might be to improve the current draft of your script but more often than not, I approach my work as if I am fighting for your soul as a writer. Am I being overly melodramatic? Maybe, a little. But my company name and Myers-Briggs type is Champion. It’s not that I ignore the immediate goal of fixing the current script, but what I do best is to see what’s special in your writing and encourage it. Focusing on your overall growth as a writer will ultimately lead to a better script but it also gives you the tools to sustain a career as a professional storyteller.

Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about script consultants?

Good question. I am not sure that I can speak for all writers. Personally, I see several writers coming to me with the expectations that what I do is the same as notes, coverage or typical one-way feedback. My insight goes deeper than that and I expect the process to include a dialogue where we explore solutions and clarify anything that is confusing. We also discuss any patterns or craft deficiencies I sense. 

On average, I spend 20 hours on a script. I prefer the coaching paradigm where the feedback is spread out over as many as half-a-dozen drafts, but even my one-shot set of notes have some interactivity built-in and expected.

A.H.: One thing I particularly liked about your workshop was the give and take. You would present us with a concept or technique, and then lead the brainstorming process about ways to incorporate that tool or element in our writing.

Right. My job isn't to dictate "here's how it's done." Instead, I spend time offering solutions that might work, but whose larger purpose is to inspire.

A pet peeve of mine is when writers vilify story analysts or consultants who charge “too much.” In response, I simply ask writers to research what they are getting. I pay $20 for a 15-minute haircut at Supercuts, which ends up being the same hourly rate for my coaching clients. If, after 15 hours spent giving you feedback, my insight is still valuable to you, then the concept of “overpriced” is moot. It’s the writer’s choice to decide if they want to continue to engage me or any consultant.

Q: In your experience, what stage in a writer's career is the optimum time for a writer to engage a consultant's services?

A: The idea of "optimum" for each writer will vary. 

Budget might be a legitimate concern. If so, writers can hold off on hiring someone like me until they have written a script or two or until their self-directed learning has hit a plateau. There is a plethora of resources that are free (blogs, websites, newsletters, produced scripts to read) or inexpensive (books, DVDS, coverage services, local classes, online courses). 

If budget is not a concern and you know that personal interaction and the push-and-pull of a coaching or consulting relationship would accelerate your learning curve and growth, then hiring a mentor to hasten your walk through and beyond the basics might be just what the script doctor ordered.

Part of the reason why I spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars on my new 10-hour DVD set, Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List is that I wanted to reach a wider range of writers. For a fraction of what it would cost to travel and attend a weeklong class, I can bring writers “up to speed.” I include 30-40 hours of free workshops to my coaching and consulting clients because it allows our one-on-one time to be more efficient.  

(An excerpt illustrating how pattern use aids clarity. With Star Trek example FTW!)

I am not complaining about teaching the basics or working with beginners. In fact, I have traveled and given private classes in some pretty cool cities for novice clients including successful businessmen and a young kid who is literally an international rock star. However, in the same way, I work to elicit what is “special” in your writing, I know you (and I) will get more out of the relationship if our time spent on Screenwriting 101 doesn’t intrude on the time where I can share what is “special” from me: more advanced and nuanced insight.

Q: Describe your dream client. What does the ideal client bring to the table?

A: I like helping a professional or near-professional writer get from good to great or from great to world-class. In these scenarios, we know there isn’t some set of rules I need to explain to them. We stumble upon the “answer.” An Oscar-nominated A-List client had me look at a cut of his film and I was able to boil the problem down to a 2-3 sentence thesis with which he was happy. It’s an exciting challenge to not know exactly how you will be helpful but to be open to the process and trust that it will be productive.

It comes down to trust and open-mindedness. No matter the skill level, a dream client really wants to grow and is willing to be challenged without becoming defensive. 

The flipside of being a champion and a coach is that I see the gap between where writers are and where their amazing potential can take them. Encouragement is constant, as is pushing them to face the deficiencies in their craft. 

My filmmaking background and gift-slash-curse for craft minutiae often mean there is more work to be done than expected. The coaching (working on several drafts of same script) or mentoring (coaching on two scripts) process that I prefer requires a commitment from both of us. Writers have to trust me and the process.

Q: What are the top 3 things you find yourself telling writers who want to improve their scripts?

A: 1. Brevity and essence. Writers must fight to get to the core of their story and all of its elements. Strip away all that’s not essential, unique or special to them. This is partially a by-rote craft lesson about succinctness, words and specificity. But it goes beyond that. In the same way they must reveal to the audience the essence of their protagonist, they must also discover their essence as a writer. I push them to recognize what they do best as writers, discovering the idiosyncrasy of their voice and take on a story.

2. Raising or recalibrating expectations. Once again, some of this is simply craft. Writers will tell me that their script is as good as the bad movie that opened last weekend on 3500 screens. But that’s not good enough. If you are working in a genre, it’s not good enough to satisfy its “criteria.” You have to surpass them. You have to transcend  the genre… and 99% of the time that means ADDING something to it, not just taking elements away. A thriller that’s super smart but not thrilling is no longer, well, a thriller, right? On a practical level, it’s also about being realistic about their writing in terms of concept, budget, and marketability.

3. Let go of the goals. Worry more about “what you are fighting for.” Like, I said, I focus less about you getting an agent from this script and more on improving your craft and storytelling so you can apply it script after script. The goals will take care of themselves.

Q: How would you suggest a writer go about researching script consultants and deciding who would be a good professional fit?

A: Many people who work as a story analyst or writing coach have some public body of work whether it’s produced credits, educational products (DVDs or books) or simply blogs or articles. These can shed some light on their tastes, background and approach. You might even start “small” if there are options for lesser services.

One warning about looking at samples of an analyst’s work. I have discovered there are times when a writer will be amazed by an insight into his or her script, however, that feedback won’t resonate as strongly to another writer. My notes are tailored to the individual writer who is currently immersed in a given script. I would suggest that you ask the consultant or analyst if you can speak to past clients so that you can get the reaction from someone who received feedback on their own script.

Q: How would someone determine if you were the right consultant for them?

A: Check out the clips from my DVD set. Or if you order it, you will be immersed in me and know more than you want to about how I look at screenwriting.  Kidding… But keep the finger on the pause button… I talk fast. Also, consider my non-coaching services or the Snapshot Evaluation which is a litmus-test like service that I offer to allow people to explore if they might want to do coaching with me. They can also send me questions [email jim (at) jamespmercurio (dot) com] or set up a quick chat with no high-pressure sale tactics about their goals as a writer.

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