Curves and Lines of Grand Designs: A Beginning of Sorts-Guest Post by Sam Christopher

Sam Christopher was asked to provide his insight on successful scriptwriting, this is his reply:

This is, apparently, never going to be a place where you can find great grammar tips, or fantastically brilliant advice on the nuts and bolts of scriptwriting. Or any kind of writing. I’ve actually tried to think of a way to do that that’s entertaining and informative and… Well, I can do it. I just can’t do it better than other places you can find it on the web. I can tell you about books to read, but I’ve only read a couple myself. I tried to read a few others but they put me to sleep. Of the few I’ve read, my favorite is The Art of Scriptwriting by J. Michael Straczynski, which is pretty dated, having been written in the ’90s, but is still interesting. Beyond that, the three others I can think of off the top of my head that I thought were worthwhile are Story by Robert McKee, which is comprehensive and, from what I’ve seen from people whose entire existence seems to revolve around reading scriptwriting books, seen as the “industry standard” (a term that gets tossed around a lot more than it deserves to be, but may be true in this case). Then there’s Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, which I wasn’t nearly as impressed with as my writing partner, Christopher Monteleone, was but still found somewhat informative. I thought of it more as a fairly entertaining reinforcement of what I already (mostly) knew. Finally, we have Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which is also entertaining and pretty informative, as well. It’s a smaller book than Story, but packed with interesting tidbits and essentials.

I think the main problem with me and these books is that I’d already written about ten scripts or so before reading any of them. See, a couple-three (yes, that is a real measure of anything in the South) years ago I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and had to have a back surgery because of a crushed vertebra due to the multiple myeloma. I then had to have a second back surg… sorry, don’t mean to get into this. Suffice it to say, I had problems and couldn’t work for awhile. During this time, Chris and I started writing together. We had met when he delivered a pizza to our first Star Trek club meeting but had never done a lot together outside of the club. He called me one day and said, essentially, “I have great ideas but can’t write a lick. Can you please save me?” (Which is not at all what he said but makes me look better so I’m gonna leave it.) And I, of course, said, “Yes, my friend. I am here to serve.” (Which is not at all what I would have said even if he had said the fabricated thing I said he said that he didn’t really say, but it makes me look better so I’ll leave it.) So I put on my cape and flew to his rescue. (Never tell a small lie.)

Okay, back to reality. Chris had some connections. He knew a couple people who had knocked around Hollywood a little. There was the old friend who had written a produced script or two, and Chris’ brother is a producer who has written music and worked as a director’s assistant here and there. There was even a Navy pilot– we live in a military town– who had passed through a few years ago that had gone to Chris’ church and always said he wanted to be in the film business. Of course, none of these people are Steven Spielberg, but there was a time– and I know this is hard to believe now– when Steven Spielberg wasn’t Steven Spielberg, if you know what I mean. But they were connections. I, of course, brought nothing to this table. I hardly have any friends here, much less in Hollywood. Oh, I’m friendly enough. I can be fun to be around– if you’re warped enough to want to be around me. But I would just as soon stay home and watch Dawn of the Dead (as an example) for the thousandth time as go out to a party. Going out to a movie isn’t bad, if there’s something worth seeing, but I’d rather read a book than go out to most of what’s in the theaters these days. Which is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that Chris brought a very important ingredient to our getting a script produced (as you already know if you read my previous effort on this site).

So we got together and worked hard. We came up with an idea for a tv show and slaved over it for weeks. It was fun and innovative, but, honestly, not very well written. It was our first script and it showed. When I look at it now and see the problems that just didn’t seem like problems at the time… And the worst part is that there’s not really much use in fixing it because it was a tv show. See, almost no one can get a tv show started unless they’ve previously written episodes for tv. With the networks, anyway. That actually may be changing with the advent of so many other channels– Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc– producing their own original material. But the main problem with our original script– and even the second one, which is an idea I’d had rattling around in my head for over ten years– is that it would cost a fair amount of money to make given the way it’s written. We can scale it back but I don’t know how that would play out. Then Chris’ brother, who was acting as a kind of agent for us, called with an idea that appeared to be our proverbial foot in the door.

The idea: There are some investors who want to produce an action film. They are from Thailand and want the film set in Bangkok. He called and asked if we could have a “treatment” to him in the next week or two. (A treatment is basically a prose version of the basic story you’ll tell in your script.) “Sure,” we said. “No problem!” And it wasn’t much of a problem, to be honest. We knocked it out fairly quickly. Chris came up with the basic story and then we hammered out the characters and the action sequences in short order. The only real problem was the sex. We had been given three edicts: lots of action with lots of blood, set in Thailand, nudity and sex. Now, anyone who knows me can tell you I am no prude. I have no problem with nudity or sex (as long as they haven’t supplanted plot and characterization) but writing it into a script? I don’t know how far they want it to go, and, frankly, in this story there’s really no way to make any sexual act intrinsic to the story. So we tossed it to the director, ending scenes every now and again with “They have sex” (after setting it up appropriately, of course) and letting the director figure it out on the set. Long story short, they loved the treatment and we were told to go ahead with the script. So we wrote it and they loved it. And I told people about it and everything fell apart. And now I’m depressed about it again and don’t want to talk about it. I promise to tell you all about it later.

So we moved on and wrote a few other things on spec and nothing really came of any of it. I think some of it is pretty good but we’ll see. And, yes, there is something in there I have high hopes for but I have mentioned it a couple times before when I thought it was getting somewhere and the bottom fell out. Like Eli Manning, I’m not superstitious but I am a “little stitious” so I’ll talk about that when either it happens or I know it’s completely dead. But then we heard about an opportunity that got us into the realm of paid screenwriters. Can’t say much about it yet, because it hasn’t been produced yet, but the parameters were that it be short and simple. Five to ten minute skits with one or two sets and only a few characters. We kicked around a couple-three ideas (see? that works for the measurement of almost anything down here) and I hit on the one we sold. We wrote a script in a couple hours and BANG it was sold. What I didn’t know at the time is that we were in competition with around 20 other ideas floated around for this and we won. We sold the idea, but we’re still not sure if we’ll be working on the series or not. Stay tuned. I’d like to work on it, both from the standpoint of our being paid and because it was my idea in the first place, but I have a feeling that they’re more interested in… well, I don’t want to say too much. In a couple months, the show should be on– or at least made– and then I’ll talk about it more.

See you in a week or so. I may even have a passable bio to post by then.

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