“Too many scripts don’t have soul. What does soul mean? In character terms, it means, I want to feel what your characters are feeling. And as a writer you’re obligated to give your audience and that reader that feeling. It better happen on the page, or it’s not going to happen in the film.”
Screenwriter Rick Ramage
This is a follow-up to the three part Q&A (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) I did with writer/director Rick Ramage and is a look at a new screenwriting series he is working on called The Screenplay Show. (The 10-part series is not yet available to purchase.)
If any of you were around in 2008/09 when I started blogging you may recall it wasn’t uncommon for me to write posts between 1,500 and 2,000 words. This 1,700 word post is a throwback to that style. I hope some of Rick’s insights help you in your writing.
SWS: Who is the intended audience for The Screenwriting Show?
RR: We’re openly saying we’re for new writers, or writers that haven’t sold. Because a lot of writers who haven’t sold have been very close a few times, and one minor adjustment they might pick up or an idea—like I did from others over the years—can help them reset and refresh. Even a seasoned writer can think, “Alright, what is this thing?” What if they pick something up that helps tip them over?
SWS: I saw one clip in The Screenplay Show promo where Ben Franklin was writing in a bathtub, how does an inventor and founding father of the United States, who’s been dead 200 years, help a screenwriter learn the craft today?
RR:. New writers don’t know what a method is. In my mind there are two kinds of methods. One is physical; it’s how you arrange the day. It’s where you’re most comfortable. The time of day, and how you do it. I used other writers to show that everyone has their own way and there is no right or wrong. It’s what works for you. Ben Franklin used to like to write in the tub. Truman Capote called himself a horizontal writer. He liked to write in cheap hotel rooms laying down on a bed. People need to find their method.
Screenwriting is basically problem solving and if you have a consistent method that helps you solve problems—mine is writing with questions— you have a very valuable secret because now you can rely on it. You return to the way that you’re used to story telling to solve a problem that a character is having. Usually if a character is having a problem you are as the writer because you’re looking for an answer.
SWS. Christopher Lockhart, story editor at WME, says you don’t need to write the great script, but the right script—
RR:. I agree.
SWS: How does The Screenplay Show help writers, wherever they live, write the right script?
RR:I have a very unconventional approach compared to all the screenwriting gurus, because the things I know about writing or hope to know came from working with guys and women whose main purpose was to help me get the story right. And you can’t work with big directors and producers and executive over the years without having it inform how you approach a story. It just does. I was usually in awe of whoever I was in the room with. And so when they were going over the notes of something that I’d written you’d bet I was paying attention. And I was never afraid to ask, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?” And it was really freeing because they didn’t really know either; we’re in a very subjective world. So what you look for in scene is that favorite pair of blue jeans that fits. And you’re working on those scenes right up to production. We were working on Stigmata right up to the day. There’s a reason for that, as things develop and as they grow you find out “That’s not working?” But the thing I learned over the years was re-approach it, don’t be appalled to look at it another way. We’re not writing in stone. You can always put it back if it doesn’t work.
So I did a few seminars for writers and I realized they were as interested in the writing experience as they were the nuts and bolts. All anyone wanted to know was “am I doing it right?” And, by the way, that’s never a question that’s gone away from me. Those seminars were very visual. If you wanted to put together a character arc, we’d put together 50 still of Jack Nicholson in The Shining of all his different expressions. With no words, just his expressions. It’s a phenomenal exercise seeing what a character arc looks like as he progresses into madness.
R.R. (con’t): And I began to realize if I tell people why I’m doing it, this is how I arrived at this technique. And this is when I’ve learned to shut up writing dialogue and just let the subtext play. Those are explanations that are not right or wrong, but it’s the way I do it and it’s worked for me. Because I’ve been generous enough to have people share those little secrets with me. And that’s really what The Screenplay Show is about. It’s a narrative about being a writer and it’s also a nuts and bolts way of approaching screenwriting that doesn’t seem so scary to me. I really want it to be conversational. I want people to see I’ve had as much rejection as success. It’s part of the business; it’s part of the game. And then there’s always questions about the business, so in episode 10 I’m going to deal with the business. Take some of the scariness out of it because I think people want you to succeed. I was only in one hostile room in 25 years. And it shocked me. But it was just somebody trying to make a name in their circle, so I left. End of discussion. But for the most part I saw notes as protection.
I worked pretty hard, but I’m a pretty average guy, and if I can do it, I really believe other people can do it. That’s just the truth of it. That’s the good news that The Screenplay Show is going to bring to people.
SWS: What’s your goal with The Screenplay Show?
RR: To prove to people that it’s not the impossible dream. My manager told me once, you know my nickname in Hollywood is Rico, it’s a long story (my friend gave me that) she said, “Rico, if every writer only knew they’re only one script away from a career like yours. One script did it for me. I think that’s tremendously positive, and it really hit me. One script away. Now there’s flashes in the pan. You see them come and go, and that’s why I was determined to treat script writing as storyteller. Not as some guy writing a blueprint for a director. I wanted my scripts to read like stories. I’m on the page. A really famous actor told me, “You cheat.” I’m like “what?” “You cheat, you’re on the page, telling me what to think.” I’m like, “no, I’m just telling you what my character is thinking.” He had me. But I think that’s what’s helped me sell so many scripts. The scripts I get to re-write you have to read between the lines just to figure out what’s going on in some of these. They’re good ideas but then they turn to a real writer and say make something out of this cause we have to take it to talent, we need to bring it to a director, flesh this out, let’s get a story going. Because what do you think draws talent? What do you think draws a director? They want to see the movie on the page. Maybe that’s an antiquated view, but that’s mine.
There is a structure to screenwriting, you have to obey all of that but as a writer and artist I’m going to bend those rules every chance I get because it’s going to help me get read. It’s going to make people stay with me because they’re in the hands of a storyteller. I think for my career anyway it’s made all the difference.
SWS: How does any writer—from the middle school kid to the hipster in LA, to the grandfather in Fargo—get anyone of importance to read their screenplay?
RR: You’d be surprised. Readers ascend the ranks by finding good material. It’s not a dodge. If your script is really unique and good enough they’ll find you. That’s a widely affirmative statement because it means if you pick up a phone and try to get a reader or somebody that has a connection in Hollywood to read your script, if it’s good enough, they’re going to forward it on. I used to call it friendly eyes. I wanted friendly eyes to read my scripts and that meant there was a buzz about it going in. And the only way you can get a buzz about it is to get them to say, “wow, have you read Ramage’s latest script? It’s good.” So you automatically have friendly eyes. So find somebody, no matter who it is, that has a connection in L.A. and exploit it. Make a friend at any level and it’s going to help. I’m not talking about kissing someone’s ass, be a businessperson. You have a product to sell and ask them if they’ll take a look at it. I wouldn’t be shy. As I’ve said, my bigger fear is not being read.
SWS: Any closing tips you can pass on until The Screenplay Show is released?
RR: I look at screenwriting like a trade. I know it’s an art form, but I think it’s a trade, too. You don’t just pick up your first straw and blow perfect glass. You have to experiment and find different ways to express yourself. And in screenplays you have to do it with brevity, you have to do it quickly. You develop stylistic traits as you go….Keep trying. Don’t get one rejection and stop. Keep working, Keep testing yourself. Writing in general is a muscle, the more you use it the stronger you get. If I take two weeks off I can feel it.