A Conversation With Skip Press
by Claire E. WhiteAn award-winning author, screenwriter, teacher, playwright, and former
His latest book Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting, was just released by MacMillan Publishing, and is about to go into its second printing. He has also written for national publications as diverse as Writer's Digest, Disney Adventures, Espionage, and Reader's Digest, and sold electronic articles to America Online and other online magazines around the globe. A native Texan, Skip lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children. When he's not writing, you might find Skip on the golf course, teaching his popular online writing class, or spending time with his family. Skip spoke with us about his new book, the fatal mistakes that beginning screenwriters make and why it's so important for aspiring screenwriters to be Internet-savvy.
Let's talk about your new screenwriting book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting. How did this project come about?
What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
There are soooo many books on screenwriting out there, but there are problems with most of them: (a) the good ones are mostly written by people no longer active as screenwriters; (b) some of the really good ones (like Bill Martell's Secrets of Action Screenwriting) are specialized on one aspect of films; or (c) the gurus who have written most of the books don't really have many credits as screenwriters. I don't think Linda Seger (How to Make a Good Script Great) has ever written a screenplay, but she has good advice. I didn't want to be a screenwriting guru, and I don't have a produced feature screenplay credit, just sales and jobs and options. I do have produced TV credits and other credits. So I had to weigh whether there was enough missing information in a how-to book against my lack of an onscreen feature credit. Finally I decided there was actually a need for what I could tell beginning screenwriters, and I did the book. What now amazes me is that the feedback I'm getting on the book is over the top on praise, and the same with the reviews, and they're telling me that I actually did fill in gaps that existed in the plethora of other books out there. For example, I'm the only book that also talks about writing for Webisodes (shows on the Web).
What is your writing schedule like? How do you manage to balance your time with all your projects, teaching and still have a family life?
I'm beginning to pay a LOT more attention to my family, and putting the
|"[There] is a sick and soulless attitude by a lot of the folks I know in Hollywood, who don't have kids, will never have kids (and should not), hate kids, and will consciously do everything they can to pollute the minds of the youngest kids possible."|
As a teacher, what is one of the most common mistakes that you see aspiring or beginning screenwriters make?
They take it personally when they are rejected. They don't see that they are simply in a market and that customers have a right to choose. The customer is always right, and if the customer doesn't buy from you, you find out why and fix it, or you find a customer who thinks you're the best -- and then you'll be happy to say they're always right. Remember, long term successes in show business tend to stay with the same publisher year after year, or work with the same producers (Hollywood version) time after time. You have to reach a certain quality with your writing, and then it's just finding your customer. Beginning writers don't do enough of that, and they don't get around and meet other successful writers so they can see that all these writers were rejected time after time before they made a breakthrough. They forget that J.K. Rowling couldn't even afford to make a photocopy of her first Harry Potter to send it out. They aren't in it for the long haul like she was (like I am) so they make some attempt or a few and then give up. With particular regard to screenwriters, they don't learn the formulas that Hollywood buys over and over and over again. They don't write a great screenplay that will get them working immediately, that shows they know what they're doing as a screenwriter. And even worse, they don't move to Los Angeles and meet people and do whatever they need to do to get their work seen and to meet people personally and make friends. Hollywood is a people business, period. Writing is everything, but writing is secondary when it comes to finding someone to work with you and love your project enough to put two years of their life into getting it made.
You have always urged your students to take advantage of the opportunities that the Internet offers for screenwriters and authors. How has the Internet changed since you first got online?
The bad news is, producers aren't as enchanted by email as they once were and it's taken on the same aspect as a phone call from an unknown. The good news is, producers will now read an ebook or a screenplay on a screen. They won't go to a Website to read the script you posted, but a few development people will. And some agencies and production companies have even promoted finding writers on the Web. Zoetrope (Francis Ford Coppola) optioned two properties this past year that were discovered on zoetrope.com. The Internet is now a big part of Hollywood. You can find out anything you need to know, what projects are in development, where to reach anyone. Take a look at FilmTracker some time as an example -- check out their InfoSource area. Also, I can get an email from a writer in South Africa and a few minutes later have him talking on the phone with a Hollywood producer he's been trying to reach (at his expense). The Internet has made doing business much more affordable for writers, which is a big deal when you're starting out and broke.
Why is it important for screenwriters to understand the history of drama and filmmaking?
Because if they don't they're wasting great resources. If you didn't know
Why is it important for screenwriters to read Shakespeare?
He gave England pride in its language and culture, and with the proliferation of his plays around the world, he helped make English the world language (the world needed a main language desperately). Now film & TV is the main cultural language of the Earth. Also, Shakespearean plots and themes get recycled over and over in Hollywood. It's been done innumerable times, and will be done again. There is a depth of the understanding of the psyche and emotions, the darkest elements of humankind, the struggles of the classes, in his works that you just don't find in other places. I also feel that writers who study Shakespeare write more lyrically. Japan's greatest filmmaker, Kurosawa, was a huge fan of the Bard. Kurosawa's Ran was King Lear set in feudal Japan.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I enjoy the results. I enjoy hearing that people are inspired, that they've solved problems they've been stuck on a while, and that I've saved them time and kept them from going down dead ends I encountered myself. But best of all, I love hearing they've sold something or gotten further up the road of success. That's the real reward.
As a father, how concerned are you about sex and violence on tv and in films? What should the role of the government be in regulating content of films, tv and/or computer games that are targeted to children?
Kids don't understand sex. They think it's kissing and hugging up to a point, and naked bodies cavorting just look icky to small kids. So I don't worry too much about that. But violence they emulate, and they hurt each other. What really matters, though, is a sick and soulless attitude by a lot of the folks I know in Hollywood, who don't have kids, will never have kids (and should not), hate kids, and will consciously do everything they can to pollute the minds of the youngest kids possible. You can't tell me it's not intentional, because I've been around real people doing real things like this, all in the name of seeing just how much they can get away with. In a sense, they're actually asking someone to stop them, then they raise hell when it happens. I'm not sure the government can regulate it, because the problem is a moral malaise that might actually best be cured by turning off the television and not allowing kids to see certain things "because the other kids did." Parents give in to that kind of thing, and Hollywood has taken advantage of it, consciously advertising PG-13 movies on Nickelodeon shows they knew little kids were watching, because those kids would nag their over-worked parents into taking them to see the movie. Thank God the FCC report helped a crackdown on that take place and gave people opposed to this Hollywood practice ammunition to shoot at the guys who did it, who only care about money. I think the new tone in Washington will continue this kind of thing (while on the adult side you'll get a bit wilder side of things as the liberal actors try to make statements against the conservatives on film). I don't know what the government's actual role should be -- I think that Hollywood goes overboard enough and that a public reaction leads to a government reaction, and that it all balances out pretty well.
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I was pleased, but in a way amazed that it got taken that seriously. The original print book came from a class I taught at the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and the ebook was an update to the print copy, which did pretty well.
What is your opinion of the ebook publishing phenomena? Are print books going away eventually?
Unless they perfect e-readers -- the instruments that play them -- so that they have a booklike feel to them and you can carry a number of stored books at once in something no bigger than a normal paperback now, at a price that is affordable by just about everyone, ebooks will never dominate. I think people will keep their favorite books in hardback form with acid-free paper that will last for a long time, like art, but most of their reading will eventually be done on e-screens. But that only when the screen is not demanding on the eyes over hours of prolonged reading. What people don't realize is that a whole generation is growing up reading onscreen and they don't mind. The only issue is size and portability. A Palm screen is too little for books over the long-term. Something mid-size between that and a regular hardback book, priced at less than $100 (maybe even $50) will probably be the model, and maybe that device will also play mini-CDs or MP3s, etc. As to things that have driven the phenomena so far, the biggest success story so far has been M.J. Rose, who sells sex, and Stephen King, who already had a massive audience. Why did Rose make it? There are a whole lot of people sitting at their computers looking for sex, looking at pictures and masturbating, and chatting online acting like they are someone who doesn't need to lose 50 pounds and get a life. Rose's book isn't the only example of how the big ebook phenomena so far has had sex tied in. But that's not too far away from half of what makes people go to the movies, is it? And buy romance novels and watch soap operas.
How will the Internet affect the future of newspapers and magazines?
It already has. The New York Times and the LA Times and most major newspapers give away enormous amounts on content daily. People can now get what they want without buying the whole paper. They know what they like and they get free email newsletters daily from major news sources. They don't have to read the ads. New magazines coming along, however, have figured this dynamic out, so they tailor everything they do (narrowcasting, not broadcasting) to the demographic their publication is intended to reach. Two good examples are Inside.com (Web, then print) and Screentalk.org (Web, then print) which are some of the best in their area. A bad example is Salon, which has always been about driving a definite agenda into the minds of readers (a communista approach) rather than knowing what their demographic likes and trying to provide it. The New York Times may adapt and survive. I doubt that the LA Times will, unless their new bosses in Chicago do some wholesale firing. (And the mere fact that the LA Times was taken over by a group in another city should tell you how clueless they've been.) People who live with the immediacy and interest in what works, not what is just opinion, don't have time for people who will kill themselves over political correctness like the LA Times staffers. "Get over it" is something traditional newspapers better understand quick. "Right here, right now" as well.
What is your advice to aspiring screenwriters who feel they have a great story, but don't know what to do next?
Buy my Complete Idiot's Guide and read it, then read some of the other
|"When you've made it or the next one (or the next one) the very best you can, then find some professional (that means working) writers to read it and give their opinions. Try to find 10 of those. If you keep hearing the same comments about something to fix, pay attention. If you hear 10 differing opinions, do what you want."|
When you're not working, what are some of your favorite ways to relax and have fun?
I read M.J. Rose books and cruise chatroo... just kidding. I play golf, I smoke cigars, I try to have a date with my wife. I've even been known to go to a party, or watch some Hollywood star try to prove he's a great musician in a local club, like Jeff Goldblum and Dennis Quaid have been doing lately. Or I'll go somewhere on a weekend with the family. The really great way, though, is to have dinner or coffee with some other bright creative people and share our visions of the world, what it is, what it could be. But the thing is, I'm always working. I'm always observing and filing things away mentally. People ask me how I can be so prolific, and I'm aghast. I think they're simply just not paying attention to all the amazing things that are going on, usually in their own backyard. I have 100 more ideas than I can get around to writing almost all the time.
What projects are you working on now?
I'm finishing the 3rd Writer's Guide to Hollywood and doing a rewrite on