TRANSCRIPT Ep23 - Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays



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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.


Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on a very special guest today, guys. We have on screenwriting guru, Lucy V. Hay. That’s right, I said [guru].


Lucy: It’s not a title I’ve strived for, but people keep bestowing it on me.


Geoffrey: That’s the way it works, you have to be called a guru. If you call yourself a guru, you’re a charlatan, but if people give you the label, it’s for a reason. I understand that though because I get weirded out when I get that term thrown at me. I always feel like the forever student. We are going to talk about writing and selling drama screenplays, which is awesome. I’m really excited to discuss this topic with you, you’ve actually written a book on it, which I have been reading. … Before we get into this topic, which I’m really excited about, I’d like to get a little bit of your origin story and [learn] about what brought you into screenwriting.


Lucy: Going back about twenty years, I ended up on a course in the UK, “Script Writing for Film and Television.” It was the very first course of its kind over here, I was part of the 10th intake of students in their early days. I did that course because I had always wanted to be a writer and there weren’t any courses, at that time, that were about novel writing. Then I learned screenwriting was a thing and I was really intrigued because I was like a lot of people at the time who [had the mindset of], “Don’t actors make up their own lines?” I was a teenage mum, as well. I had a day job, lived in the middle of nowhere, and wanted to leave home because my home life was… not fun. I decided to do this course in screenwriting because it sounded interesting, so I just jumped into it and discovered screenwriting is a lot more involved than I thought.


Geoffrey: It’s a whole thing.


Lucy: While I was there, I needed to do a work placement in the industry, somehow. I had friends going off to do placements on Hollywood movies, newspapers, and I couldn’t do any of those things because I was a teenage mum with no childcare. We had to do the placement during the summer holiday, and I had no one to look after my son, so what could I do? I ended up doing a placement for a literary agent, reading all the screenplays and novels he got sent, and preparing reader’s reports for him. It was great because he let me do it from home, so I could [do the job] and look after my son at the same time. From there, I got into script reading rather than script writing. Although I still wanted to be a script writer, I became really obsessed with the craft of screenwriting, particularly things like plotting, structure, and character tropes. I kept seeing the same mistakes over and over again. I thought maybe I could do something with this, then I discovered script editing was a thing, and I realized maybe this was my niche. That’s my origin story, I fell into it by accident and discovered there was this space that really appealed to me in terms of deconstructing and picking stories apart.


Geoffrey: It’s fun, isn’t it? I love it.


Lucy: Yes, it is fun! I absolutely love it, too. That’s how I got into script reading and I started the blog because I was living in the middle of nowhere without a car.


Geoffrey: The Bang2write blog?


Lucy: Yes, this was back in the early days before it was [formally] Bang2write. I started the blog because I discovered my [script reader notes] I kept writing the same things all the time and I wanted to give them better value. I started writing articles online and referring [screenwriters] to those, then writing specific notes about their script. I naively thought that the only people who’d be reading my blog would be the people I gave the link to. I didn’t know how Google worked, or that blogs were a thing, I just saw it as a free space I could put stuff up on. Then I started getting fan mail and people started asking me to write specific articles about specific aspects of writing. That’s when I realized just how much blogging was a thing.


Geoffrey: Like you said, you stumbled into it.


Lucy: I didn’t stumble into it all, I’ve always believed that when you see an opportunity, you should say yes to it, even if it necessarily something you’re interested in.


Geoffrey: That is so true. Being a script reader is such a great education on the craft, itself. It really does help you define your eye and teach you how to identify elements like structure. I can see how you came up through the ranks and grew into a screenwriting instructor/guru. For everybody out there, read scripts, it’s one of the best educations you can have. With your book, there is a line, “Drama is about struggle.” That’s a great definition of what drama is. You cover the different types of misunderstandings of what drama is. “Drama is pain, or life is garbage. No, drama is about struggle.” It’s so true. I don’t know if you saw The Queen’s Gambit…


Lucy: I haven’t seen that one, yet.


Geoffrey: It’s a solid show about [Beth’s] struggle with her own addictions and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Talk to us about [the nature of drama and struggling].


Lucy: Very often, when I’m a script reader, people will write ‘misery loves company’ scripts. They’re all about how things are terrible and everything is really depressing, dark, and hopeless. On top of that, they’re writing such stereotypically dark stuff. They’ll often veer into stereotypical cliches, like the teenage mother who’s a terrible mother, her baby dies because she’s going out with a drug dealer, then she dies and he ends up in jail.


Geoffrey: Or the abusive husband trope.


Lucy: It’s such dirge and it’s boring. Even casting aside all the offensiveness of poverty porn, as we call it here in the UK, and the stereotypical portrayal of real-world issues, like how if you’re gay or transgender then your life is terrible, or if you’re disabled than you’re [an eternal inspiration]. … What we really want from drama is that nature of struggle because we want to believe [in hope], it’s a proxy for our own struggles. When we see someone overcome issue they’re living with, then we feel a sense of hopefulness. We go on that journey with [the character] and we can invest in their story. Even when the drama is extremely dark and devastating, something like Blue Valentine which is a very dark drama about divorce and doesn’t have a happy ending, there’s a lot of people going through [the same struggles as the protagonist] and they know the outcome isn’t always happy. [Like with a divorce], everybody makes that effort to get married and maintain that relationship because they want it to work out, but there’s a significant portion of people where it’s not going to work out, for whatever reason. Even when something is depressing, it’s not actually depressing, the struggle is devastating but there’s a certain catharsis in it. When I was watching Blue Valentine, I [recognized the character’s struggle] and found catharsis [through her journey].


Geoffrey: I think you’re right, it’s about catharsis, especially in our generation. We grew up in a time where over 60% of households were divorced. Our [grandparents] stayed together, but most of our parents tend to be divorced. But now, for our kids, they’re seeing a decrease in divorce. I think drama speaks to that, and that’s why it’s powerful. While reading your book, I was contemplating on drama and how authenticity is a big deal when it comes to drama. If you can represent the struggle through a story where there’s someone actually dealing with drug abuse, this is what it’s like for somebody to actually go through that drama. Marriage Story, on Netflix, is said to be a realistic version of drama. I’ve had friends tell me not to watch it because the arguments they have [in the movie] are so real, it made them [and their partners] get into fights after watching it. My wife and I are in a pretty good spot, I don’t know if I want to open that door for a fight. Speaking of Blue Valentine, in your book you do case studies, which I love. You break down films based on what works and what doesn’t. When you’re going through and writing drama, you want to find the best versions of drama you can emulate and use as a template. Is that a process you use, as well, when you’re coming up with your dramas?


Lucy: Absolutely, the first thing I say to my writers, when they want to write a project about a specific issue or something that happened in their lives, [I’ll refer them to a film that reminds me of their concept]. I tell them to watch that film, take notes, and see what is the same/different from what you’re [planning to write], pinpoint what works and what doesn’t, and see [if you can incorporate that into your own work]. A big mistake a lot of writers go through is thinking, “I’ll write a drama about [a specific topic] and not watch any movies on that topic because I don’t want it to influence my writing.”


Geoffrey: Yeah, don’t do that.


Lucy: You’re far more likely to accidentally recycle tropes…if you don’t see what’s come before you and do some case studies.


Geoffrey: What do you think about trying to develop a unique take on a drama? The field is saturated with dramas. How do you come up with a good idea/take on a subject that is unique so that it isn’t a cliché?


Lucy: It’s a tough one because dramas are character-led, not plot-led, so that differs between drama and genre. On that basis, I don’t know if you can have a unique take on a particular subject matter, because we’re not talking about being genre busters. Drama, as far as the industry and I are concerned, is not a genre, it’s an umbrella term.


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Geoffrey: We’re talking about trying to find unique ways of developing a drama screenplay. On my end, when I’m trying to develop something original, I’ll look at what everybody else is doing and then I’ll stop. I don’t care if I have to mind map, but I’ll try to figure out what they’re not saying/doing that is prevalent in today’s society. How can I make this interesting and say this in a voice which hasn’t been done a million times already? What are your thoughts?


Lucy: Emotional truth and authenticity are really important in drama; it’s non-negotiable. Like you were saying, you need to actually pinpoint what hasn’t been done/said. An obvious example would be if you were writing a drama about an LGBT character, 90% of stories about LGBT protagonists are coming out/transitioning stories…but why is that always the case? Obviously, coming out/transitioning stories are incredibly meaningful to the LGBT, but it’s something they always appear in. How about [you write stories showcasing] other stuff to do with their lives that isn’t necessarily about that? It doesn’t even necessarily mean you have to place the LGBT focus around them. It could deal with the time they were living in and having to deal with prejudice, or it could do with something completely unrelated to their LGBT status. Their struggle could be influenced by their involvement in the LGBT community… It’s difficult to find something original, authentic, and true. That’s why the ones that do well are in demand. People love and respond to them because they can see the reflection of that je ne sais quoi.


Geoffrey: You had mentioned a section of your book about how writing what you know isn’t what everybody else may set out to do. [When I was reading it], I started to chuckle because it’s exactly what I put in my book about writing what you know. It’s about research; it’s not just “this is the life I lived so this is what I know I can write about. If I’m a garbage man, I can write about the life of a garbage man.” It’s about being a researcher …


Lucy: I wrote the book in 2014, which was a transition time for what the nature of drama, reality, and truth are. We’ve moved from a period where in writing you had to be accurate, and if you weren’t, then you were a bad writer. Now we’re in this infinite space where we say if you’re not authentic then you’re a bad writer. Although accuracy is still important, it’s not as important as being emotionally truthful and authentic in some way. … I love this new concept of ‘own voices’ stories; this idea that you are part of a group that has been marginalized and you’re writing a story from your point of view. You use what you know to inform other people about this issue. I think ‘own voices’ stories can be really powerful and meaningful. Having said that, there are a lot of people who might be asked to write an ‘own voices’ story that would say no …


Bo Yeon Kim, who works on Star Trek, did an interesting thread a couple years ago where she talked about how she wants to write genre pieces and don’t necessarily want to be put into this box where they have to be ‘the Korean writer.’ I think making people write ‘own voices’ stories can be an un-goal, as well. There should definitely be more of them, but we shouldn’t make diverse writers ‘diverse writers’. What even is a diverse writer? I hate that term. We shouldn’t be putting people in boxes or forcing them to write what they don’t want to write. Having said that, ‘own voices’ pieces are powerful but, equally, some of the best pieces have been written by people who have no personal experience of a certain issue. Yet, they’ve written this amazingly powerful and emotionally truthful piece about [a certain topic]. I think it’s possible to do either. When we say write what you know, you can either do it as an ‘own voices’ piece or as a massively well-researched piece that isn’t about you. You have to put your ego aside, and I think a lot writers don’t do enough of that when they do research. They aren’t willing to find out what they don’t know about the subject.


Geoffrey: You’re absolutely right. It can be uncomfortable because you must get out of your box. It has to be selfless, it has to be about the project, and you have to really lean in. You are representing a community, and if you’re not a part of it, you damn-well better understand every aspect of it. When you’re doing your research, you need to be authentic to who they are and their journey. When you have that ego issue and you’re bringing that into a project, you’re not going to be that writer that people want to work with because of that ego.


Lucy: You’ve got to be prepared to hear things that maybe you haven’t/don’t want to really think about. Sometimes, well-meaning writers hear something they’ve never thought of because they had a level of privilege that meant that [prejudice] never had to be part of their lives before. They hear something so upsetting that it knocks them out of the box, and they don’t want to put their characters through that because it seems monstrous/exploitative/bad. At the same time, we don’t want to hijack other people’s/communities’ stories and call them our own, either. It can be a really difficult balancing act at times to not take stuff from people and profit off it in a vulture-like opportunistic way. There’s so many things that need to be considered in this journey of writing drama and being emotionally truthful. In all honesty, there’s a lot of writers that aren’t willing to go that extra mile. There’ve been times where I’m speaking to writers and they say, “How is this going to be different from hijacking somebody else’s story?” I try not to use the term ‘cultural appropriation’ because, with writers, that’s almost like a trigger word. “I’m not allowed to [write this type of story], I can’t write whatever I want.” It’s all because of this ego. I’ll say, “How are we not hijacking somebody’s story by doing it this way?” and they don’t always want to hear it, which can be disappointing at times.


Geoffrey: Then they’re not ready to write their project.


Lucy: Exactly, very often I will say to these writers, “I don’t think you’re at a space in your life where you can actually handle the truth.” If you’re going to be emotionally truthful…you’ve got to be able to handle it.


Geoffrey: I like that you consider drama to be more of an umbrella term, and [that there are] classifications of drama: the true story, the enlightenment story, the morality tale, etc.


Lucy: If you go on IMDb, pretty much every movie is tagged as a drama, which I think is cheating. … I wanted to illustrate for writers, when the industry says ‘drama,’ that’s very different from when lay people/internet say ‘drama.’ We have genres and subgenres for comedies, thrillers, etc. but drama is all the stuff that isn’t genre. We need a way of classifying it.


Geoffrey: We’ve been talking about writing screenplays, let’s talk about selling screenplays. You’ve got a great line in your book… “You won’t get rich off of selling your screenplay,” it’s 100% accurate. I always say, “Only you can make yourself succeed.” Let’s get your take on how to best set yourself up for success when selling a screenplay.


Lucy: What kind of screenplay are we selling here? Are we talking drama or genre screenplay?


Geoffrey: We’ll talk about dramas since that’s this episode’s theme.


Lucy: In terms of selling dramas, you’ll have an absolute job of trying to sell a drama in the traditional sense of going out [to Hollywood] with a drama script, getting it optioned, and selling it to producers who will actually make it. That doesn’t tend to happen as much with dramas as it does with genre, unfortunately. The reason for that is varied, but at face level, it comes down to the fact that drama screenplays become drama movies, which are not in as much demand financially as a genre screenplay that can become a genre movie. Producers don’t tend to buy dramas in the same way buy thrillers, horrors, and comedies. One of the best things you can do, as someone who’s interested in getting a drama sold, is to create as many relationships as you can with people to make it yourself for as low budget as possible. Make it the most authentic, believable, and emotionally truthful drama you possibly can. Target all the film festivals and the people in those communities who will champion your movie. The problem with dramas is that every single big producer you can think of has their own pet project and their own ideas for their own brilliant drama. Unless you find a story that is so unusual/amazing that you have the rights to…then they might be interested, but other than that, they’re not going to be necessarily interested because they want to do their own ideas. You’re the biggest fan of your own work and the story you want to tell, so you’re going to have to figure out a way to getting it made and originating the story. You essentially have to be your own writer/producer. I’m not saying it’s impossible to sell a drama screenplay. It was Bob Sáenz, the writer of Extracurricular Activities, who talked about stuff being possible, not probable. I love that [sentiment] because anything is possible in this industry, absolutely anything. As soon as I say anything, someone else will come along and say they did it a different way. It’s possible, not probable. There’s a reason that dramas get all the awards because they don’t necessarily make money. Most people don’t watch dramas for [casual entertainment], you have to really love movies to watch dramas. The average person on the street has probably heard of these dramas, but they’re more accustomed to Avengers: Endgame than Blue Valentine.


Geoffrey: [Straight dramas] aren’t making a billion dollars at the theater.


Lucy: Yes, and that’s only going to become more difficult now because of the pandemic and all the problems we’ll have getting the cinemas reopened.


Geoffrey: That’s a whole different [can of worms].


Lucy: It’s going to be a nightmare.


Geoffrey: You know what I think? We’re going to see a lot more lower-concept character-based dramas. Look at Joker, that’s a drama film with a great cast that [happens to be] based on a DC property. We’re going to see [more movies] like that.


Lucy: I’m not overly optimistic at this stage. It’s important to remember that Joker only got made because it was [about] The Joker. If that movie had been made about a guy who just went nuts and killed people in his decent into madness, it might still have been made, but nobody would’ve watched it with the same [vigor]. The Joker property was presold [with the film concept] so they could take more risks with that.


Geoffrey: I think what we’ll see is more higher-concept characters/stories being done in a more lower-concept way with IP characters. I think networking is a good idea, networking to get your script made is the best way to do it, especially with a drama. If you can get your foot in the door with a drama, it can start your career.


Lucy: It definitely can. A lot of people go straight to the drama feature script, which I think can be a mistake because you’re going to have a lot more currency if you start in the short film world and make a drama that’s 10 minutes or less. Get that [short] in as many film festivals as possible so you can get awards/selections. During that time when you’re going to these festivals; a lot of which have continued online due to the pandemic, which makes them more accessible to disabled filmmakers and filmmakers from low-income backgrounds; you can do a lot of networking, see other people’s short films, and find out who’s making stuff and like the stuff that you want to make. Look for the filmmakers who are different and meet as many people as possible. There’s a lot of writers who think the key to getting anywhere in this industry is to just lock yourself in a room with a laptop and just pound out pages. That is part of it, you’ve got to get yourself in the chair and write pages, but you’ve also got to meet people. When we say, ‘the industry,’ a lot of people think there’s this special place where all the cool kids live. But actually, the industry is just made up of people who are friends that are working together. That’s all it is.


Geoffrey: It’s relationships.


Lucy: It’s relationships, absolutely. You’ve got to know who is doing what, who is like you, and who you can/can’t get along with. That’s how you get ahead.


Geoffrey: ‘Write that short drama’ seems to be the key for getting it made. Screenwriters tend to not understand budgeting when it comes to writing a screenplay; I find that can be a big issue.


Lucy: Huge issue, I’ve lost count of the number of times where writers have come to me with ‘low-budget’ [scripts], then I look at it and realize it would [cost] one million pounds [to produce], which is a lot of money. It’s not so much money [in comparison to a Hollywood blockbuster budget], but in the UK that is so much money. A lot of writers erroneously think low-budget means $1-15 million, but in the UK, it means more like 50K-150K pounds. That’s a tiny amount of money. Even $1-5 million, like Blumhouse does, that still doesn’t get you very far. The average writer doesn’t know what’s possible for what amount of money. I’ll tell writers to try to find out what’s actually expensive; children and animals are obvious examples. Don’t have a child/animal in your low-budget film. Don’t have stunts, explosions, or CGI.


Geoffrey: Or elaborate locations.


Lucy: Yes, try to just have one location and dress it several different ways, if you can. All of this sounds pretty obvious, but you really have to learn the tricks of low-budget filmmaking. There’s so much information out their now, so you can find out what’s possible for what amount of money. There’s no excuse for it, but a lot of writers think the producer will just handle it. You’ve just written yourself out of this opportunity [with that mindset]. I know somebody who came to me with a ‘low-budget’ script where somebody falls off a waterfall, so they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. [In that type of scenario] I’m not interested in talking to the writer, so I’ll just throw the script away. To get a producer in the first place and persuade them that you know what you’re talking about…


Geoffrey: …you have to set yourself up to succeed. You have to have that killer script that’s authentic and unique in every aspect to grab an audience/producer. You’ve got to network, and you’ve got to know how to write low budget. Most low budget movies tend to have just one location, which is by design. What do you have coming up? You’ve written several books, have you written anything lately?


Lucy: Yes I have, this year during the pandemic, I wrote The Coven [which I published under my pseudonym] Lizzie Fry. I write novels in addition to being a screenwriting guru. I do write novels under my name, but those are usually crime-fiction novels that are plot-led. The Coven is a fantastical dystopian feminist story about witches, as the title might suggest. It’s got a flavor of The Handmaid’s Tale with a hero’s journey, as the protagonist goes up against a populist demigod president who wants to commit genocide. It was fun to write, I really enjoyed it and early reviews are coming in favorable. It’s out in February, which will hopefully set me up for 2021.


Geoffrey: People can find your screenwriting instructions at Bang2write, correct?


Lucy: That’s correct, they can also find me on all the usual platforms like Facebook and Pinterest. I just launched on Teachable, as well, so there’s a free course on the screenwriting craft that you can download there about concepts, characters, and structure. Anybody’s who’s interested in that is welcome to download the course.


Geoffrey: Lucy, thank you very much for coming on. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.


Lucy: Thank you so much for having me, it’s been really great!


Geoffrey: Thanks for listening, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share in your social media, where you can tag us @thesuccessfulscreenwriter.


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