This month's interviewee is established screenwriter Michael Elliot.
To get regular advice from Michael, join his Facebook group THE LADDER: Produced Screenwriters Helping Aspiring Screenwriters.
You have written films including Carmen: A Hip Hopera that launched the film career of Beyonce, starring alongside Mekhi Phifer, as well as popular films such as Like Mike, starring Bow Wow and Jonathan Lipnicki. How did you get into screenwriting as a career?
I had just lost my job. I had moved to LA five months earlier, and had been working for hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs. He started a film/TV production company called Bad Boy Films and hired me to run it. But four months into the job, after the untimely death of his friend and artist Notorious B.I.G., he folded the company (48 hours after Biggie’s death). I had no Hollywood connections, and no job prospects. I had a decision to make: return home to the East coast and get another job, or stay in LA and try to make it on my own. I looked at the computer that Diddy had purchased for me, and decided I’d write and sell a screenplay. I then went to The Writers Store in LA and selected a book on screenwriting. I read it over a weekend, and then went to a local Blockbuster. I re-rented all my favorite films, and watched them, this time from a different perspective. I needed to see how the stuff I just read in my screenwriting book (about 3-Act structure, character arcs, inciting incidents, etc.) was executed in movies I had seen a hundred times. I realized that there was a formula to the whole process, and once I understood the formula, I began to write.
What is the main piece of advice you would like to give to people starting out as a screenwriter?
Write about people, situations, or worlds that you know well. Consider story ideas that either come from a place you know well, or could have characters inspired by people you know.
I notice you’ve been on the net helping new screenwriters. What is the most rewarding part of doing this?
Knowing that my help, or my advice, is appreciated by the people that write me feels great. However, as I just started to actively mentor other writers through “The Ladder” the biggest reward hasn’t happened yet. That reward will be finding out that my advice helped another writer sell their first screenplay and launch their screenwriting career.
What do you think makes a good screenplay?
A great story. Complex characters, great dialogue, interesting conflicts don’t matter much if the story itself is great. I know of countless screenplays -- from writers who are unskilled at character development, structure, etc., -- that were good and even sold because of their story.
What is your favourite screenplay or screenwriter and why?
“When Harry Met Sally…” by Nora Ephron and “Sleepless in Seattle” also by Nora Ephron. I love improbable romance, and both of these screenplays are the best examples of this idea.
You wrote the film Just Wright, which will be released this year. What was the key to making that screenplay work?
The key to making the screenplay work was being crystal clear about the story’s beginning, middle and end, as well having a clear sense of who my characters were and how they impacted the story. Now the key to selling “Just Wright” which I sold as a pitch to Disney was understanding who the studio wanted to be in business with, and then attaching that person to the project before I even pitched. I knew that Disney wanted to stay in business with Queen Latifah, so pitching Disney a project perfect for Queen Latifah dramatically increased my chances of selling it. It worked. By the time I left the room, the pitch was sold.
What one book do you recommend to screenwriters and why?
“Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field. This book makes the basic structure of a good screenplay easy to understand.
What kind of filmmaking would you like to see more of, and why?
I’d like to see more love stories, and by that, I don’t mean ‘romantic comedies’ where the focus is comedy.
Can you tell us anything about what’s next for you?
I hope to direct, and I’m currently developing a project that could be my directing vehicle.
If you would like to find out more about Michael's work, you can check out details of his major film work on IMDB or have a look at his Facebook group THE LADDER: Produced Screenwriters Helping Aspiring Screenwriters.
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