Yesterday, Joshua James hit us with The Jones Party, which sparked some pretty intense reactions (you can download the script here)! Although it was his first script, it’s been optioned twice and gotten him a ton of assignment work. I thought it was a really solid piece of writing, Some of you thought it was way too “20s-ish.” Whatever happened to letting people in their 20s hate?? That’s what our 20s are for! But in all seriousness, I was happy when Josh agreed to do an interview for the site. Amateur writers need to be aware that there aren’t just 2 types of screenwriters, madly successful ones and starving artists, but that the majority of writers fall somewhere in the middle, fighting for assignments while they belt out the spec they hope will put them on the A-list. Josh has a blog where he gets into a lot of this in detail, but I thought I’d pick his brain for some finer points here on Scriptshadow.
JJ: The following is only what I’ve experienced, it makes me no better or worse than anyone else. We are all flawed and imperfect creatures, which is oftentimes the source of great fun and / or embarrassment, oftentimes both at once.
SS: Now my understanding is that The Jones Party got you both your manager and your agent. Can you talk about that in more detail? How did you get the script into their hands? Did you know someone or was it a cold query?
JJ: It wasn’t quite like that. I was a playwright in NYC and had plays going on in the indie theatre scene, so I met people through that, some development people, etc.
I wrote Jones and gave it to a theatre producer / actor who’d produced some of my plays, he loved it and optioned it, tried to get it made with himself as the lead, but didn’t … he ended up making another film instead … happily, we’re still friends.
The option expired and then someone else optioned it, and that expired and then I hung onto it for awhile, turning down offers on it in hopes of finding a way to direct it myself. All the while, I wrote other scripts.
Through another friend, I was introduced to a director-producer named Ken Bowser, who had done some cool documentaries (he’s got a really great one out now about Phil Ochs) and he loved Jones and optioned it. Ken worked with me on developing Jones and I cannot understate how much I learned from him during this time.
Ken also had the rights to a book I’d read and loved, Peter Biskind’s Down & Dirty Pictures, that he was also developing as a feature rather than a documentary (Ken had also done Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as a doc as well, which I had seen).
Now, I’d read Down & Dirty Pictures at least fifty times, I mean, I was a huge fan of the book and that era (the indie boom), and every time we met to work on Jones, I’d asked him how the book project was coming, heheheh … you know, just asking …
Turns out, the project was stalled, they’d had a writer on it but it wasn’t working out, the guy didn’t really get the material … I got a chance to pitch for it, offered a fresh take that Ken loved and I got the job. That was my first real job.
All of the above happened because I had Jones Party to show around, it opened a lot of doors for me, and got me quite a few meetings and other gigs, too (besides Down & Dirty Pictures).
At the time that I was hired on Down & Dirty Pictures, I had no representation, I’d left the agent and the manager I’d had back then (more on that later) and used an entertainment lawyer to handle the deal.
In terms of representation, initially Jones did get me repped, but not by the people I’m represented by now. When I first wrote it, a friend introduced me to an agent at a NY office who offered to rep me immediately and I agreed without hesitation.
This was a mistake.
I made the same mistake with a couple NY managers later on. They were the wrong fit, let’s say. One manager was a nightmare, you have no idea. He’s not even in the biz anymore. Shit happens, though.
I’d been given the following advice early on, and I should have heeded it but didn’t, said advice being: It’s better to have no representation than it is to have bad representation or the wrong representation.
I scoffed at this at the time, but now I can see that’s indeed true. I should have stopped worrying about agents and focused harder on my work. If you write enough scripts that people love, you’ll find the right people to represent you.
The Jones Party led to me getting hired to adapt Down & Dirty Pictures, and a good friend of mine (name redacted so he’s not swamped with requests) passed that script onto Dan, my current manager, and he loved it. We met a few times to talk and see if we were simpatico and it turns out, we are.
Dan’s awesome, and while working with him I wrote the original thriller A Black Heart, which led my current agent, who is also awesome.
Write a great script, and, if possible, write more than one and then the right representative will find you. Everyone wants to read a great script.
SS: The Jones Party was your first script. That’s mighty impressive, since it’s universally known that 99.9999% of all first scripts are terrible. What advice would you give to writers so that their first script comes out as good as The Jones Party?
JJ: Hmm … I guess I’d offer the following advice when it came to first screenplays.
1) With regard to Jones Party, I had something really specific to say about the subject matter, something unique and personal, personal to me, anyway.
I think having something to say is what got the interest of the people who saw potential in the script even in its earliest form, it’s why it was optioned right away (and multiple times after) and it’s a reason why different folks, especially Ken, spent a lot of time working with me on it, because the story spoke to them.
And it spoke to them because the story was saying something.
2) It’s fair to say that the early versions Jones Party were rough, no doubt, and not as polished as the version you read, and though the actions and characters and their journey were essentially the same then as they are now, but it was probably a harder read then, much rougher.
I’m lucky in that some people who knew more than I gave me great feedback on it and I listened to them. I listened to Ken. I think that’s the second piece of advice I’d give.
I chose to listen to people in the know (which isn’t everyone, but it is usually more than one someone) and take their feedback to heart.
You can’t (and shouldn’t) listen to everyone, but you should listen to someone and it should be someone smarter and more experienced, if at all possible, and at the very least someone who can tell you hard truths.
A writer needs at least one person in their life like that. You have to trust someone, even Stephen King has at least one trusted reader (his wife, Tabitha) who will tell it like it is and he’ll listen … I’m lucky in that I have more than one.
If you don’t know anyone to ask for feedback, I would recommend taking a class or joining a free online group, like Trigger Street, for example.
My good friend Scott teaches an online class, http://screenwritingmasterclass.com/ … Scott’s one of the smartest guys out there. Yeah, that’s a plug, but seriously, Scott’s a great guy and really knows his stuff.
3) The last thing is that I kept writing scripts, I worked on other screenplays, and each script taught me something new and I brought that back with me when it came time to polish Jones again.
They say you won’t really get it until you write at least ten of them. Jones was my first, but I wrote a bunch more after that and applied what I learned in subsequent rewrites and improved it and my craft. I definitely learned more about myself as a writer after script ten, no doubt about it.
To sum up:
1) Have something to say, something real and unique.
2) Listen to how trusted folks in the know respond to what you have to say.
3) Write more scripts.
SS: The thing that most impressed me about The Jones Party was the dialogue. What’s the secret to writing good dialogue would you say?
JJ: I’m gonna be a dick and link to a thing I wrote about dialogue on my blog.
I really just try to listen, that’s the thing, I try to imagine real people who care about real things and listen to what they want and what they have to say … and then cut out the boring parts. That last thing is the most challenging.
SS: A huge issue I have with amateur screenplays is that I only remember 1 or 2 characters after they’re over. Here, there a bunch of characters who pop off the page. What’s your approach to character? Do you write up character bios? Do you try and make sure your characters arc? Can you tell us a little about your process?
I don’t know if I have a process or if I just have a lot of voices in my head – LOL!
I just strive to make my characters real if I can, real to me, and if that’s not working, then I put real people from real life into my story … there is a real life Danno, after all. There was a Hope in my life, at one point. I have actor friends, and I will subconsciously plug them into a story.
I come from an acting background, I did a lot of it (oh me or my, the Meisner Training. The Meisner Training? The Meisner Training. The Meisner Training? That’s an inside joke … hardly anyone will get that) and so a lot of what I do with regards to character work is rooted in that. I put myself into a character whenever I can.
Also, I love what the FBI profilers say when figuring out who the killer is …
What plus Why equals Who.
I always found that very useful.
SS: The script also has an offbeat structure, in that it’s jumping back and forth and covering many different characters. How much emphasis do you put on structure as opposed to, say, writing by the seat of your pants?
You can write by the seat of your pants and still worry about great structure, structure isn’t story, per se (I’m possibly gonna get roasted in the comments for that) but rather it’s how the story is put together.
How I view structure regarding scripts and stories, is:
1) Story is what happens.
2) Character is who it happens to.
3) Structure is how it happens.
So whether you’re writing by the seat of your pants or plotting everything out beforehand by the page, via scriptments, you still want it be be as cool and efficient as possible.
Jones is structured in the way it is to get maximum impact in as short of time as possible … you could start at the chronological beginning (two years before the party, when Derwin and Hope first meet) and follow the story until we get to the party, but I don’t think the story would deliver the same emotional punch as it does now.
How it happens now, structure-wise, it maximizes the impact, I think. Folks are free to disagree. But the point is to tell the story as fast and efficiently as possibly.
The story is about these people participating in a Jim Jones Party and why.
Writing by the seat of the pants is fun, and that’s how I wrote Jones, I mean, I had no fucking idea how I was gonna end it when I started.
But I did know, in a way, when and where I wanted it to happen in the story, so I guess you could say I had an inner structure clock in my head. I had the where and when, just not the what. The what is the story, not the structure.
But writing without knowing the end is not always practical, either … if you’re working on a spec, it can be cool to write yourself into a corner and take weeks or months to get out of it. But if you’re on an assignment, that’s not so cool. And there’s something to be said for writing a bad ending so you’ll have something to fix later.
These days I usually do a treatment or an outline, just to work faster. But not always, it depends. Different genres, different types of movies have different demands in order to realize their impact, or potential … I don’t think that there’s ONE structure to rule them all, it has to be the right structure for right story …
I think Dirk Nowitzki has the perfect structure for a basketball player, but a terrible one if he wanted to be a horse jockey. He’s seven feet tall. He’d need a vastly bigger horse.
Speaking of big horses, the real action in the Godfather doesn’t start until Vito is gunned down, some forty minutes into it. That’s perfect for that movie. It wouldn’t be perfect for, let’s say, Meet The Parents (actually, I haven’t seen that movie, but I’m presuming Ben met DeNiro earlier than forty minutes into the movie) as an example.
Everything has a structure, everything … even bad scripts. The problem is that the structure is either an incomplete or not efficient or serving the story’s needs. Good ideas told badly are usually one or the other.
Or the story isn’t compelling or just bad … you can write a perfectly structured story that doesn’t work … I remember something a friend wrote about Goethe about criticism:
Goethe asked three questions:
1) What was the author’s intent?
2) How well was it done?
3) Was it worth doing?
And I try to keep that in mind when going back over my own work. I try. Maybe ten years from now I’ll think differently … I accept evolution as an established scientific theory.
SS: The Jones Party feels like a very personal story. Which leads me to the age old question. Do you think writers should try to break in with a high concept screenplay that they don’t necessarily have a personal connection with, or something more low-concept (like The Jones Party) that’s extremely personal to them? Obviously, The Jones Party falls into the latter category, but I’m interested to hear if you think that’s right for everyone.
JJ: It’s not high concept? A feel-good movie about suicide isn’t high concept? LOL!
I believe you have to write what you’re passionate about.
If you’re passionate about big movies, write about those stories, if you’re passionate about smaller, more intimate stories, write those. I happen to be passionate about both.
I was, and still am, very passionate about this particular story (Jones), as others have been, it’s a unique story, one not about people dying but about people finding a reason to live, an idea which really moves me … it is indeed very personal.
I’m also very passionate about Down & Dirty Pictures (I am an ex-video store clerk-geek, after all) to a rather ridiculous degree, I love-love-love movies and what they’ve done for my life … so it was a pleasure to write about guys who loved movies as much (if not more) as I did, which is what Down & Dirty Pictures is about, at its essence. It’s about guys who love film and movies so much it hurts.
Who among us here can’t identify with that? LOL!
But I’m passionate about a lot of things … I love thrillers, for example.
Action thrillers, I love stuff like that, and it’s no accident that I’ve written more and more stories like that, not just screenplays, but short fiction, novels (I have a couple crime novels I tinker with in my spare time) … anyone who knows me can attest, I love films like that. Always have. I don’t write those only because they’re high concept, I write them because those types of stories turn me on.
When my manager and I first met and had a series of meetings, we found we both shared a love of the classic suspense and action thrillers from the sixties and seventies, and spoke about what we’d like to see that hasn’t yet been done, and my script A Black Heart is a direct result of those conversations … I’m very drawn to those types of stories.
I love those kind of movies (I grew up on Lethal Weapon, in fact, and don’t get me started on Bruce Lee movies) and I’m passionate about them to a ridiculous degree. And kung fu flicks! Oh man. I can go on and on (I LOVED Taken, and again I’ll probably get roasted for that in the comments, but I loved it, man) until my wife tells me to shut up already …
I’m also passionate about people, certain characters, both living and dead and also ideas, there are many, many ideas I’m passionate about.
And there are probably things that I’ve not yet discovered that I may be passionate about, you know? I just recently discovered something new and cool and dove right into it. That’s part of evolving, after all … everyone does it. You find new things to love.
How long ago was it that almost no one knew the difference between standard poker and Texas Hold ‘em? Now most folks do.
We live and we grow and the only thing constant is the change.
I think it’s important to write what moves you, what excites you. Whatever that is.
For me, there are many things that move me, I get excited about a lot of different things, a lot of characters and ideas, love, life, living, dying … and while it’s good to think about concept, it’s also good to make sure the idea is something that really moves you.
SS: I know you read a lot of scripts to keep yourself sharp. What would you say is the biggest difference between a pro script and an amateur script?
JJ: The biggest difference is that when you’re reading a well written script, you often forget you’re actually reading it … you may not even see the words, you just see the people in the story and you’re dying to know what happens next.
A professional usually has no unnecessary space, words … nothing unnecessary on the page and as a result the story moves like a freight train.
I read the Fight Club screenplay, because I wanted to see how the adaptation was done … it’s like 144 pages and I blinked and was at the end before I knew it (and hell, I’ve seen the movie and read the book, so I knew what happened, but still it drew me in). It moves.
I read Taken, which has long blocks of action, and it flew by. No fat on that, whatsoever. Good writing, regardless of format, just flies by.
SS: Kyle Killen, the writer of The Beaver, likes to tell the story about how his wife got pregnant and he had nine months to make it as a screenwriter or forever be miserable in a “real” job. He sold The Beaver with a few days to spare. Let’s play make believe. If you had to start over, what would your plan be to make it as a screenwriter if you only had 9 months?
Wow, I so had the opposite reaction when my wife got pregnant!
Seriously, I was working part time and busting my ass as a writer, making a couple grand here and there writing scripts for others, and when she told me she was pregnant I stopped and got a full time job as an office manager right away.
This was right around the time I left a bad agent, too. I thought, well, I had a good run but now I’m gonna make sure I can feed my kid. I’m gonna be a responsible dad.
I let Jones get optioned, to Ken, which in turn led to the Down & Dirty Pictures job a few months later, I left the office job as a result and have been fortunate enough to be able to work as a writer since then.
But in answer to your question, you realize that it’s not make-believe, right? It actually is that way, in a fashion, for everyone … we all have a limited amount of time.
You may only have nine months, you may have a week, you may have to do it early in the morning before your day job, late at night and on the weekends … you may be broke and unemployed … I was unemployed when I wrote the very first draft of Jones, I gave myself two weeks to write it, sat in a cafe and pounded it out, not sure where I was gonna get money for food (this was, happily, before I was married and a father) …
I wrote that draft, then got a crappy part-time job … kept going, kept writing and working and living and breathing.
You may have to completely start over, more than once.
You have until the money runs out, and even then, you can still keep going, you only have until your will and urge to do so runs out.
You have until the end of your life, but when is that? Fifty years. Ten? A week? Tomorrow? No one knows, right?
My friend Scott Myers has said, “Writing doesn’t owe anyone a living” and that’s so very true, so if you’re doing it, do it because you love it, and try (this is hard) to write like there’s no tomorrow.
Kyle’s a brilliant writer, if he hadn’t sold The Beaver by the time his wife gave birth, he would have eventually written something else that sold, even while at a crappy day job, had he wanted to. And I think he would have, some people, they have to write, they can’t help it, they absolutely have to.
Sounds to me like Kyle wrote like it was his last shot.
The trick is to write everything like that, every day.
I believe that.
Tomorrow is promised to no one, therefore the plan is the same as it always is … work hard, work smart, be grateful for good fortune and especially to those people in my life who enrich it and be certain to repay them by making the most of every moment.
If everything ends tomorrow, what note would you want it to go out on?
SS: Being a paid writer, you experience a part of the business that there’s very little information on – trying to land writing jobs. Can you put us in the room of an assignment meeting? What do you think the key is to landing a job?
As that I live in NYC, a lot of stuff is over the phone …
I sold a pitch once, over the phone, and I had a list of ideas I was going down and I couldn’t see the guys I was talking to, obviously, they didn’t say much (other than, nah, not that one) and so I had no real idea how I was doing until I got to the one they liked, and that was, yeah, we like that, we’ll take it … what an experience that was, man! Can’t see them, can’t really hear them well (on a conference call, that happens a lot). You’re talking into a phone, it’s hard … but hey, I’m talking to someone who’s interested in my ideas, so I’m not complaining!
You just have to talk ideas, paint the movie out verbally and be positive, I think.
They want to see the movie, I’ve been hired a few times to write something for someone, they had an idea for a movie but didn’t know how to make it breathe as a film, make it work, that’s the key to landing jobs like that … how do you make it work?
You meet a lot of people, listen to what excites them, tap see the movie they want to make but haven’t yet and, if you can, solve that problem for them …
I was hired to help polish Cat Run (more here: http://writerjoshuajames.com/dailydojo/?p=2104) and it was about two weeks before they started shooting, yikes… we’d had a couple conference calls and the rest by email … now, that close to shooting, there’s very little time for messing around, the director doesn’t want to debate you about story or character, what you’re really there for is to solve his problems.
The director has this script section he’s not happy with and needs it to work … how to solve it? You throw ideas out there, he throws them back and so on until we find the one he likes and says, write that, get it to me by tonight. He’s in Europe (or wherever they were shooting) and I was in NYC, just busting out pages. My job was to solve his problems. He doesn’t have time for anything else other than that, and nor should I.
That’s what I did, in a sense, was help solve the third act and the finale, how do they get into the castle, how do they do this, how do they do that, all in a way that was cool … you really have to lose the ego, then, and just focus on doing the work. It’s not about words, at that point, it’s about making the story work in a way that makes them happy. And having fun, too. I had fun on that project, even though I know a lot of what I was writing was going to be changed once they got on set. I had fun.
The thing to remember is, everyone in the movie business loves movies as much as you do … they all want to make cool movies, but everyone gets jammed up (yeah, everyone gets jammed up, everyone, some of us just lie about it much better than others) on a project they love and if you can solve the problem and clear the log-jam for them, you’re gold, Pony-Boy, gold.
SS: Over the years, you’ve probably heard hundreds of screenwriting tips and pieces of advice. What advice would you say has influenced you the most? What tips would you say still guide you today?
JJ: Man, I can’t write everything that’s influenced or guided me the most, I’ve already yammered on past the point of maximum density as is.
Tell you what, I’ll share two simple things that directly impacted my life and career and still do … they’re simple yet I’m amazed at how often I have to remind myself about them.
1) Don’t waste a moment.
I had that insight one day, that every word, every character and every moment in the story should count … I was dumbfounded when I looked at what I was working on then, lots of time I had filler scenes, filler conversations, filler characters, stuff that killed time until we got to the good part.
I realized that every moment had to matter, every character, every line had to be something. It all had to be the good part. Once that hit me, much changed. It’s hard to follow through, though, real hard. But a good hard.
2) One day I realized that all I want from a movie, a book, a song or a story is to be moved. And as that I’m no different than anyone else, ergo, that’s all anyone else wants.