I am pleased to bring you Cinema and Fiction's first interview. You may or may not know him by name but if you have an interest in the film industry, particularly in screenwriting, you will almost certainly know the name of his software Final Draft.
Join me as I chat with Ben Cahan about his opinions on screenwriting and his new project, Talentville.
You founded and co-created Final Draft, probably the most prominent screenwriting software in the world. Have you ever written any screenplays yourself? If so, could you tell us about one of them?
When I wrote Final Draft, I was a computer programmer, not a Hollywood insider. Most would say I’m not a Hollywood insider even now, but at that point I was no more of a writer than anyone else without formal training, and I had never even read a book about how to write a script. I thought I was smart and figured that it couldn’t be that hard. The first script I “sort of” wrote along with my former business partner (the current CEO of Final Draft) got to about 100 pages and I think we made it to the end of Act I. We just kept writing, never thinking structure or character arcs or anything that might have helped us to outline and craft our story before diving in.
In recent years I have found a few screenplays originally written by other authors and helped them to improve the quality of the story and make them more compelling, but then again none of them have been optioned or produced, and I’d rather not think about what that says about my own abilities in the writing arena. I’m not done trying, but in the short term I’ll stick to helping those who are more creative than I am.
What is the top piece of advice you would give to emerging screenwriters?
Don’t make the mistake I made by thinking that it’s easy, and don’t get overly pompous about your stories and abilities. Learn the basics first, then start writing, and use the first script or two as a learning experience by getting outside feedback and listening to the advice of those who have more experience. Criticism is tough for anyone to take, but I took plenty of it at Final Draft and the product and the company was better for it.
For someone who is getting good response on a screenplay they have written, keep in mind that all the top writers realize that a script isn’t done until the film is shot, and the best writers and directors keep tinkering with their script until the last possible second. Give it some time, go back, read it again, make your own notes and make improvements where there are weak elements. I recently revisited a script I co-wrote some time ago; with the time and distance I was able to look at it with fresh eyes and cut out 15 overwritten pages (uggh!) while losing none of the story. Still not ready to get optioned or produced, but it’s a step in the right direction.
What in your experience seems to be the most common mistake that holds new screenwriters back from succeeding?
Thinking too much of themselves. I’ve talked with writers who insist they are going to direct and produce and star in the movie. They have no credits and want to rocket to the top. Great dream, tough to do in the real world. Also, while I am not an agent, manager or producer, I think many new writers pick stories that are very low concept (thus tough to sell as a new writer) or they pick a tired plot line that everyone is writing (can you say “internet dating experiences?”). If the story isn’t clever and something that is going to get noticed, even a well written script will likely go nowhere.
Is not living in LA a handicap to new screenwriters; especially for those as far from LA as my own country of Australia?
Right now, sure. There are contests, there are some internet sites, but living so far from LA will always be something of a handicap. It is not easy to go to lunch with a prospective LA-based agent when you are in Brisbane. My feeling is that some of that disadvantage can be overcome by creating a “virtual agency”, if you will, and that is part of the idea behind Talentville. The tough part, which I don’t think has been done effectively until now, is to attract the buyers to the site by developing a comprehensive community where everyone goes to improve their writing and showcase their work to the Industry. Even if Talentville does everything I want it to do, it will still be up to the members to get involved, to critique the work of others and to put in the time to get better. It is true that only a small percentage of all the scripts written will ever get produced or even represented, but everyone should at least be able to have the right people take a look when the script is ready for prime time.
You have recently launched a new screenwriting site (www.talentville.com). What does your site offer for screenwriters, particularly for those who are not already established in the industry?
Perhaps there are scripts out there collecting dust that are great and should be made immediately. I would love it if those scripts were in the Talentville Library, we’re happy to take the credit for getting the right producer to see it and write a big check to the author, then to make it with big stars and huge box office. Just be sure the Talentville staff is invited to the Oscar party when you win! As for the reality, there are many talented writers out there with great story ideas and with scripts that can get to that point with if they put in the effort. Having a sophisticated peer review system combined with some more professional feedback from the Industry partners we will be seeking is a starting point. That will have to be combined with our ability to get the agents, managers and producers to also join and keep their eyes out for that special project. I take that responsibility seriously and will do what I can to get those eyeballs scanning the Library and reading the reviews.
What is your ultimate goal for the site?
I have a lot of goals down the line for the company but first and foremost is to create a brand name that does for unproduced screenplays what Final Draft has done for the technical side of screenwriting. Final Draft is known as the tool to use to write the script, I intend for Talentville to be the place you have to put that script after you have worked tirelessly to write it. All other goals I have for the site stem from getting there first.
Who is your favorite screenwriter and why?
That may be a risky question for me to answer as I know quite a number of extremely talented and successful screenwriters, but I will give you one name since you asked: Richard Curtis. I do not know him personally and it is not only for his big blockbuster movies such as “Notting Hill” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” that I picked him, although both are extremely well written. He just seems to have a great command of sly humor and an ability to craft characters that come alive and jump off the screen. I’ve never actually read any of his actual screenplays, but his great dialogue and deep characterizations show up clearly on the screen. I would encourage anyone to see “The Girl in the Café”, a moving story he wrote with top notch dialogue and engaging characters which I believe was an HBO film but is still one of my all time favorites. It also has a good moral message which was a bonus to me personally.
What sort of movies do you enjoy most, and are there any movies that have been such a catalyst in your own life that you would consider them to be a life-changing experience?
I tend to like movies with character depth, which often go unnoticed and don’t often make the box office that big action and slasher movies make. Dialogue is critical to me, and seeing movies that let me believe I am that character for 90 minutes is one thing that keeps me inspired to do my best to find more of those.
What do you think the future holds for filmic storytelling (including TV)? Are you willing to predict any trends, or express your hope for future directions and possibilities in filmic storytelling?
I’m actually the wrong person to ask that question, although I do think times are changing. All I will say is that in the near future, I believe that theaters and movies as we know them now are not going away any time soon, regardless of the size of HDTV’s and other types of media which are gaining traction. Of course, when things change I will do my best to keep Talentville flexible enough to showcase any new types of storytelling methods and project formats as they gain a wider audience. In some sense, a story is a story, so that part of the recipe is not likely to change dramatically.
Thanks for your time Ben and I look forward to seeing how Talentville grows into a fully functional 'virtual city'.
So if you've got a screenplay gathering dust or sitting unread on your computer, check out Talentville. It may be the catalyst you've needed to get your work read, get some feedback and maybe get a sale. Be sure to say hi to me while you're there.
Click on the link for an interview with Ben Cahan at screenwritingfoxhole.blogspot.com.
Go back to the top of this page