Screenwriter and Development Executive Tom Vaughan joins us to talk about working as a writer in Los Angeles and teaching screenwriting in LA and Houston. Tom also shares what it’s like to develop scripts at a small production company and gives some advice to new screenwriters as well.
Tom Vaughan- Writer/Development Executive
Tom Vaughan studied at the University of Houston with Broadway legend Jose Quintero and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee. It was his work as a writer and director in Houston theatre that got him recognized by Hollywood.
He was soon writing screenplays for, among others, Phoenix Pictures, Spelling Films, Rysher Entertainment, TNT, MTV Films, Castle Rock Entertainment, Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers and Disney/Touchstone.
His productions include BLACKOUT with Jane Seymour for CBS, and CRITICAL ASSEMBLY with Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy, Knocked up) for NBC. He served as writer as well as Co-Producer on ATOMIC TWISTER with Sharon Lawrence and DEAD IN A HEARTBEAT with Penelope Anne Miller and Judge Reinhold, both for TBS. His feature film debut was UNSTOPPABLE, starring Wesley Snipes. He just completed his directorial debut, PLAYING HOUSE, based on a script written with Kristy Dobkin. They are now full-time writing partners. Most recently they wrote HALLELUJAH together for acclaimed Japanese director Kazuika Kiriya (Casshern, Goemon).
He has been teaching screenwriting for nine years between Los Angeles and Houston and finds it as gratifying as actually practicing it. He is currently the Director of Development for the Los Angeles production company Dirty Robber.
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Producing animated content is a much different process than producing live action. The concept of creating a whole world is the same, but in CG animation, every aspect of the production is created in a computer. The process is vast and very fascinating. Join us as we speak to animation producer, Ellen Coss about her experience in the world of CG art and animation.
Ellen Coss- Producer
Ellen Coss is a 25 year veteran in computer generated imagery, starting her career at the seminal Digital Productions.
In the 1980s feature films were not using computer imagery, but theme park attractions were. Ellen spent 2 years at Universal Studios as the production manager of the film for Florida’s Universal Park Attraction “The Funtastic World of Hanna Barbera”. The film, a motion based race through three of Hanna Barbera’s cartoon worlds employed computer backgrounds and 2D characters, optically composited. This was one of the first projects to combine 2D and 3D animation.
Ellen then joined Rhythm & Hues as a producer for theme park attraction films such as Seafari, which won first place at Imagina that year. She later became the Executive Producer of the theme park division and was responsible for bringing in multi-million dollar projects to the studio.
As many of the projects she worked on became creative milestones in the industry, Disney Feature Animation brought her in to produce their theme park attraction films. Magic Lamp, employed exaggerated squash and stretch techniques common in 2D but not common in cg, and Mickey’s Philharmagic, a stereoscopic film which took nine of Disney’s beloved 2D characters and created them in 3D. It is currently playing at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando and is the number one audience rated attraction.
Ellen then joined Dreamworks, as a Production Executive, where she worked for a year on various studio initiatives. Subsequently she was the Associate Producer on the feature film Over the Hedge, released in 2006. Hedge was heralded by Jeffrey Katzenberg as the smoothest running production ever at Dreamworks Animation. During a second stint at Dreamworks, Ellen produced the Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special, which aired on NBC and Secrets of the Masters, which was the companion DVD to Kung Fu Panda 2.
Seeing that overseas production was the wave of the future Ellen headed to Prana Studios, a 325 person animation studio with offices in Mumbai India and Los Angeles. As Head of Production Ellen contributed with her years of production pipeline experience as well as her new role as a voice in the process of the company developing their own I.P. Prana is currently producing, as a 1/3 ownership partner, three direct to DVD features entitled Unstable Fables being distributed in 2008 by TWC. Under Ellen’s direction all pre-production including script writing, storyboarding and visual development occurred in Los Angeles, with physical production currently taking place in India.
Ellen then got a call to produce The Tortoise and the Hippo at Walden Media with John Dykstra directing. She developed the project for 7 months until it was put on hold because of the writer’s strike.
Ellen then provided producing consulting services for the animated feature Arthur Christmas an Aardman Animation film to be distributed by Sony.
Ellen’s reputation in the industry is one of an excellent executer, and a nurturing manager, as well as a supporter and contributor to the creative vision of all projects. Her goal on every project is to produce an excellent creative product, on time and on budget and to have the people associated with the project feel that it was one of the best working experiences in their career.
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January 10, 2012
You know that as a screenwriter, you will need to put words on the page to tell your story. You may not, however, need to use quite so many of them.
Writer types (myself included) often love basking in the glow from their sparkling, perfectly obscure, amazingly profound WORDS. Their characters say such amazing, impeccably-timed THINGS. They talk, Talk TALK their way through three acts, telling you not just the plot points you need to know, but also how untouchably brilliant the writer behind that masterpiece is.
Not that we don’t love the Sorkins and Codys of the world. But sometimes, it’s nice to give the words a break.
Hmmm, is it obvious that I watched the new silent film The Artist this week?
The Artist uses maybe 20 lines of spoken or written dialogue in its entire 100 minutes. And yet, despite the fact that we don’t hear crackling wit snapping back and forth between the characters, we always know exactly what’s going on, we’re on board with how characters are feeling and we get to delight in the visual medium that film is.
Without so many words, you get to delight in and focus on all the other ways to tell a story: what characters are wearing, their expressions or what artifacts are in their environments. Characters in fact, can often come to life much more when they are not resting on the crutch of words. Actions, in turn, get to be much more definite, clear and decisive when you don’t have someone in the shot narrating what we’re seeing anyway.
My two favorite sequences in one of my favorite movies, Children of Men, also have no dialogue. In fact, most of the third act of that movie is, apart from score and sound effects, silent. If you haven’t seen it, it’s amazingly powerful and nothing any character could say would do those moments justice.
There are so many moments in our own lives that are made powerful not by the clever turn of phrase someone threw together at just the right second, but by what they didn’t say, by what email didn’t come, by who wasn’t at the party, or who was, or the way they just turned away when you showed up and made eye contact. A point, a smile, a frown, a tear, a step away from you, or a subtle scoot toward you, a kiss, a stumble, a something left behind when they thought they had cleaned up all the evidence…these types of things often speak loudly and clearly without using words at all.
Just for fun, try rewriting a scene or two of your latest screenplay without just half the dialogue, or if you’re feeling up to it, no dialogue at all and see how it changes the scene, or the piece entirely.
Thank you for your time this week. In honor of the topic, I’m gonna shut up now.
November 22, 2011
Q: What should you keep in mind before writing your first screenplay?
Question from EYESthatHEAR on Facebook
1. Screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint. Sure, there are some prodigies who can whip out a perfectly formed first draft, but most professional writers will spend months or even years on a script before they plug every plot hole, smooth every character arc and crystallize every line. Be prepared to be in it for the long haul.
2. You are writing a character’s story, not your story. Even if you are writing a story based on your life or the life of someone you know, you will need to give your character their own existence. They shouldn’t do, feel, think or say things simply because you do, feel, think or say those things. Your character needs their own motivations, reactions, faults and desires.
Even stories about famous people are rewritten for dramatic effect. Most people’s lives don’t naturally fit into a three-act structure, so even if you’re basing the story on a personal story, you will have to embellish or even create some details to make a story work.
3. Structure supports your story. Songwriters need to understand music theory to make songs work. Car designers need to understand engine mechanics so they make sure there’s room for one in their latest concept vehicle. Architects need to understand structural principals so that their buildings don’t fall down. Surgeons need to understand how cells interact with each other so they don’t kill their patients.
The same concept goes for screenwriting. In order to make a story work, you have to understand what the parts of a story are, how they work together, where they should fall and why they’re important. Otherwise, you may have a whole bunch of scenes, but not necessarily a working screenplay.
4. Writing a screenplay, selling a screenplay and producing a screenplay are very different things, so know what your end goal is. If you just want to write for the joy of writing, then have at it. If you want to sell your screenplay, finishing the script is only about 50% of the work—because next you’ll have to make and nurture the connections that will lead to a sale. If you want to produce your screenplay, you should make sure that what you’re writing is within your production capabilities—i.e. unless you have access to lots and lots of capital, maybe figure out another way to do that explosion on the moon sequence.
5. You’re in good company. Writing a screenplay is difficult work, but the good news is that lots of people have done it before you. There are plenty of blogs and websites (like this one) that can give you good, solid advice. There are produced writers (like this one) who can mentor you along the way. And there are hundreds of thousands of movies to watch to keep you inspired and writing!
Today, I am not going to answer a question, instead I am going to talk about something that really made me frustrated. This week someone posted a really not nice comment on Facebook about how if this person gets asked to support a crowd funding campaign for film, they automatically know that said film is not going to be professional in look and in treatment of the crew. There were some other just plain idiotic comments in this post as well but I really wanted to focus on two things in regard to this.
1. That is a bunch of malarkey! Depending on the scope of your project, crowd funding can be an amazing way to raise money for it. I do not recommend trying to raise millions of dollars, but who is to say that wouldn’t work as well. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not used crowd funding to fund any of my projects, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t and I know plenty of people who have and their sets were run professionally and their projects looked fantastic. Some even got great distribution deals. So, if you are going to go out and raise money via crowd funding, I say go for it! The key is to know your project and raise enough funds in order to make the experience for the crew and cast enjoyable, make sure you can get the equipment, locations, cast, crew, etc that will make your project look great, treat everyone with respect and gratitude and by all means, let them know what they are getting in to before they sign up. If they are aware up front of the scope of the project and you have done your best to set yourself up to succeed then there should be no reason the cast and crew wouldn’t be happy to work on it.
2. The most frustrating thing about this person’s post (aside from the discouraging manner in which he wrote it) is that this person is a consultant for producers. To my knowledge, this person has not produced anything! He does not have an IMDb page to speak of (yes, I understand that not all films get put on IMDb but it is the job of the producer to get those credits up there) and whenever you ask this person what they do, they are very vague and they change the subject and just say that they are a consultant. I do not want to discourage anyone from doing what they love and if consulting is what this person loves, then great. BUT, I do discourage fraud and at this point, that’s how I feel about what this person is doing. For all of you just starting in the business, please do not say you are a producer, writer, director, editor, etc., until you have done that job. I know, this may sound harsh and it is counter intuitive for those of us who have always been told to own what we are doing. But, you can say, “I am an aspiring producer, writer, director, etc” or “I am studying to be a producer, writer, director, etc”. Then get out there and make a short film, music video, web series, something that allows you to have done said job. Then you can claim that title. Don’t start giving discouraging advice on jobs you haven’t done. This business is tough enough and I can’t stand it when people make discouraging comments on things they don’t know about. I may be harsh in my advice sometimes, but it is always coming from a place of love and encouragement. Keep pursuing your dreams and never give up. If it’s your true passion, then it will be yours one day. Be patient and don’t put the cart before the horse and by all means, crowd fund away if that’s what you want to do.
After making over a dozen short films, the Vegan Cannibals are gearing up for a full feature film, Go To Hell. Fans of their work know their style as outrageous, visually striking, sometimes gory but always entertaining and thought-provoking.
Their short ‘The Diary of Anne Frank of the Dead was a hit on the horror film festival circuit, taking Best Short Short Film at the DragonCon International Film Festival 2008 and was chosen by Dread Central (www.DreadCentral.com) as one of 8 Short Films to Die For in 2009.
Rationed, a suspenseful, thriller won Best Picture at the Inland Empire 48 Hour Film Project 2009 and went on to place 3rd overall in the International competition. It was selected to play at Cannes International Film Festival in 2010. And is currently being featured on www.ScariestMoviesOnline.com.
Go To Hell is written by Emerson Bixby (writer of Disturbed) and directed Scott Baker. It follows groups of individuals as their story lines converge in a demonically possessed old movie theater. Featuring non-stop horror-comedy action, it is sure to please any horror hound and fan of outrageous cinema.
The Vegan Cannibals are independently producing the film so as not to be constrained by the oversight of studios or investors, enabling them to make the film true to their vision. They are reaching out to the horror community and lovers of independent cinema to help them fund their project. Through Kickstarter (Go To Hell Kickstarter Page) they are looking to raise the intial funds necessary to build the FX and start the production. They are offering incentives to those willing to donate and are appreciative of any help.
Scott Baker, a native of Northern California, received a degree in History from Sonoma State University and served in the United States Peace Corps from 2000-2001 in Turkmenistan. He co-founded Vegan Cannibals Productions with Philip Stimmell in 2002. Their first film, Brunch of the Dead was a feature-length zombie-comedy. Since re-locating to Riverside they have done several award-winning short films, including Rationed which screened at the 2010 Cannes Short Film Corner and 2 episodes for their new series Findings (think Ghosthunters meets Reno911!). Scott’s film Rationed was 2nd runner-up in the world finals of 48 Hour Film Project, aka, Filmapalooza as part of the NAB Show in Las Vegas. The film was also selected for a showcase at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival (Short Film Corner Marche du Film).
It’s hard to imagine a movie without music. Music is one of the key elements in filmmaking and is used to help set the tone of a film as well as supplement emotional arcs of characters. The topic is vast, but we attempt to scratch the surface with composer Paul Spaeth and music manager Susan Thampi. In this episode we discuss budgeting for music, licensing, and working with a composer to score your film.
Susan Thampi- Music Manager
Susan has worked in all areas of the film industry including development, distribution, and both live action and animation production. A graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the Thornton School of music, she got her start in post-production at Kennedy Marshall productions, after selling her couch on craigslist to an executive at Warner Bros. She has worked on over twenty freelance independent productions in various roles including production designer, editor, and producer. She joined DreamWorks Animation in 2009, and was named Music Manager for the studio in January 2011. That same month, she released her first solo classical music album entitled Chanson Boheme, a fusion of opera and world music. She is currently working on the animated feature Puss in Boots for DreamWorks, set to release in theatres on November 4, 2011.
Paul Spaeth- Composer
Paul Spaeth’s soaring yet poignant artistry has inspired admiration from a large and diverse audience. At MP3.com, upon reaching over 1.6 million downloads, Paul Spaeth was recognized as the Top Artist in LA and remained in the Top-Ten of Amazon’s download charts for months.
Evidence of his wide-ranging musical appeal began with winning the Pepsi-Summerfest Talent Search at age 15; as a solo pianist competing against rock bands. Since then, mentors such as Morten Lauridsen (composer-in-residence, LA Master Chorale) and film composer Christopher Young (The Shipping News, Spiderman 3) have praised Spaeth for his “innate talent” and rare melodic sensitivity.
Paul Spaeth rides the line between silver screen, stage, and concert hall with resounding success. Spaeth’s work in cinema has premiered at such prestigious film festivals as Toronto, Monaco, Naples, and Montreal. Since the premiere of his first orchestral piece at age 17, his award-winning concert works have been recorded by some of the leading artists of his generation. Spaeth’s artistry has inevitably attracted high-profile producers, agents and multi-platinum songwriters, and in 2003 he won the Recording Academy’s Grammy Scholarship Award.
Paul Spaeth attributes his success to his philosophy of the “numinous experience in music”: a clarity and directness that draws individuals to an intensely personal experience. As said by one listener, “The subtleties strike us honestly, driving to the core of who and what we are.”
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Q: What are some ways I can maximize my educational opportunity, and what should constantly be on my mind as I develop my own voice as a filmmaker?
Summer Anderson via Film Method Mailbag
I love this question! It is so important to understand what an amazing opportunity it is to be amongst other filmmakers in such a tight space with access to equipment. My advice to you is to network your butt off (as you should be doing anywhere) with your fellow students. Work in every crew position so you understand what you will be asking of people when you are in charge. Shoot as much as possible in the correct way, meaning using real pre-production as much as possible. Utilize the equipment that is offered to you. If you are in a class that is not allowed access to certain equipment, then help the upper classmen with their shoots. Intern as much as you can. Really use this time to find your favorite aspects of filmmaking. Are you a producer, director, writer, editor, or do you just love the grip department (it can happen)? Do you love art films, action films, television, commercials? Once you figure this out, tell everyone! You never know who someone is looking for or what projects they have in the works. ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS! Ask questions of the teachers, the staff, your fellow students. You should be so exhausted when you go to film school that you need a little vacation when you get out because you’ve worked on so many films. Obviously, you need to take care of yourself, but you should never be bored. Get out there, meet your fellow filmmakers and find the ones that you fit together with like a puzzle piece. Your goal should be to come out of film school with a pretty solid idea of what you want to do when you get out and a handful of short films that show your desired area. You will have many that you did just for practice that you won’t want to show anyone, but you should have a handful that you are proud to show people saying, yeah, I did ___________ on this.
Q: Do you approach investors first or talent first? That is, if you have a script that is fully developed, what is the first phone call you make?
Kelsey (via the Film Method mail bag)
That’s a good question because it can be a bit of a catch 22. It really depends on the topic of the script. For example, the first feature I made was written and directed by a survivor of the Columbine High School shootings. Because of the topic and the fact that a survivor was directing, we didn’t need actors attached in order to secure funding. The writer/director played that role for us in a way.
If you are going to make a movie that is a bit more typical, it might be about the same topic, but you don’t have a direct relationship to the subject, then you will most likely need talent attached. This can be really challenging because in order to attach talent, they will require funding most of the time. You see where the catch 22 comes in. This is why it is so important for you as a producer or filmmaker to network and create the relationships within the film community. It can take years to cultivate the types of relationships you need to get someone of name attached to your project, so you should start now. But, I will say this, you NEVER know what an actor or manager is looking for so put your project out there. Start to contact agents at the same time as investors. If it’s your first film, try to find someone who has done it before so that they can help you navigate the waters.
I wish I could tell you specifically which to go to, but like most things in this process, there is no one-way to do it. The most important thing is to have a solid business plan, a solid script, passion and perseverance. It will take a while and it will be bumpy at parts so if you are not 100% thrilled and passionate about the project, not only will the people you’re talking to be able to tell, but there will be nothing to get you through those rough patches.
BIG VOICE is a musical feature documentary directed by award winning filmmaker Varda Hardy and produced by Marina Viscun, Deb Love and Karen Lavender. BIG VOICE is a LiveTribe Production. With BIG VOICE, Varda maintains her commitment to create meaningful work that will both delight and inspire audiences.
This uplifting documentary explores the lives of the top-singing students of the award-winning Santa Monica High School Choir, and its visionary choir director. At a time when drastic budget cuts endanger both the quality of our public schools and their arts programs, this determined high school music teacher strives to create a thriving vocal music program that ignites in his students a passion for music, a sense of belonging, and the value of working hard to achieve their dreams.
Santa Monica High School’s Jeffe Huls is “larger than life” choir teacher with a passion for teaching and an edgy sense of humor. His talented students practice diligently to pass the highly competitive auditions, meet daily to learn and sing challenging music, and perform both for their local community and in venues around the world. But why is Mr. Huls so moved by the power and artistry of the human voice? Why has he dedicated his life to teaching teenagers how to sing? And what does it take for Mr. Huls’ students to rise to his high standards? Why do they dedicate so much of their time and resources to singing? What critical life lessons do they learn and how does singing in the choir affect their artistic and academic dreams as 21st century teenagers?
BIG VOICE will follow Mr. Huls and his teenage students interweaving interviews and concerts with ‘slices of life’ footage. It will explore what it means to be a teenager facing an unknown future, and an accomplished artist creating great art in the context of a public school. In addition, this visually stunning documentary will include original songs created for and by the students with the assistance of Grammy-winning artists*.
BIG VOICE reveals the challenging journey of an extraordinary teacher who overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to educate and transform students to step into adulthood as powerful contributors to a world that needs them. BIG VOICE will entertain you, touch your soul and uplift your spirit.
To see the BIG VOICE Promo Video and find out more about this musical documentary please visit: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bigvoicemovie/big-voice-dare-to-dream
Varda Hardy- Writer/Director/Producer
I confess. I love making movies. I want to make beautiful, truthful work that will engage and inspire. You may have seen some of my short films…Window starring Louis Gossett Jr. that screened at Cannes and aired on cable networks across the U.S.? Or Race To The Sky which aired during the Grammy Awards? Maybe you caught What Kind Of Planet Are We On? It received the “most innovative” non-profit video on YouTube & went viral with over half a million unique views. Or Ode To Los Angeles which recently won the Grand Prize from NewFilmmkers LA/LA INC? I treasure each of these films and the challenges my crew and I experienced making them. And now we are embarking on another incredible challenge, BIG VOICE! It takes a huge amount of effort to create meaningful films, but it’s worth it. I’m deeply grateful to my family, friends & community for supporting my efforts to use my creativity, skill and filmmaking ability to create good works.