Earlier this month, I sat down with Screenwriting Guru, Michael Hauge, author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds and Writing Screenplays that Sell: New 20th Anniversary Edition. I picked Michael’s brain about his thoughts on what qualities yield excellence in screenplays and what advice he has for budding writers. Here’s what he had to say …
MT: What qualities should be considered when nominating contenders for an Academy Award?
MH: Like all awards, the Oscars are subjective, but in evaluating what would be worthy of Best Screenplay, I would look for something that has touched the mass audience deeply. Too often, the awards go to the esoteric critical darlings and not to those that do an outstanding job of what Hollywood movies are really there to do, which is to entertain and inspire or enlighten a mass audience. So the leading question should be: “Did this story really move people in a significant way?” The next thing to look at is the underlying theme and whether or not it is reflective of the human condition in a way that is both valuable and original. So, the screenplays that both entertain and inspire are the ones that should be singled out for an Academy Award. For example, The King’s Speech and The Social Network did what I just described: They were both immensely entertaining and touched a wide audience. They both found wider audiences than you’d think would be interested in a long-dead prince and a self-involved computer genius. I thought they said something broader and deeper about the human condition.
MT: That’s excellent. And what about you? When you consult on screenplays, what qualities do you look for?
MH: When I consult on scripts my job is to figure out what the writer’s vision is for the story they want to tell and then make sure that what ends up on the page reflects that vision in a way that is going to draw a mass audience. Of course I look for certain principles and rules that consistently work at eliciting emotion in an audience, but I really don’t judge or evaluate a script until I talk extensively with the writer to better understand what their passion for the story is, what they’re trying to accomplish with the story and how they see the characters – what do they want the characters to be? Or, have they even thought about who the characters should be? Then, slowly, what will happen is the discussion will start to reveal the gaps between what the writer has on the page and what they have in their head. I look to see whether the writer has sufficiently thought about their story in a way that helps them realize their vision in a way that people are going to want to pay money to see it.
MT: Since this is awards season, a time for celebrating the ‘best of the best’, what do you think is the most important film for writers to see? What can they learn from it?
MH: If you want to advance your skill as a screenwriter or storyteller, it’s more important to read a whole lot more scripts than you’re reading rather than finding that one perfect script. I’ve worked with a lot of writers who have read an embarrassingly sparse amount of screenplays before diving in and trying it themselves and I’m not sure how that works. I think you have to get used to that specific way of telling stories and then look for scripts in the genre where your story belongs and then look for the box office successes in your genre and study those. It doesn’t necessarily follow that big box office equals great art, but big box office does mean that you elicited great emotion in the mass audience and these are the movies Hollywood will look to make because Hollywood is interested in replicating success. So, track those down and read them.
MT: I recommend the same to a lot of directors. I tell them to get the shooting draft of the script, read it, then see the movie. Of course, I’m talking about a different part of the process, which is transferring stories from the page to the screen. I say, look at the script, look at what they started with, then compare it with the final result. Sometimes the script is better than what’s on the screen and sometimes it’s the other way around.
So, what’s the biggest mistake you see screenwriters making today?
MH: They don’t think sufficiently about commercial appeal.
MT: What advice do you have for how to determine commercial appeal?
MH: Stop and ask yourself, “Is this really something millions of people are going to be willing to pay money to see? If you’re not sure (or if you think they will), open up the Friday or Sunday newspaper and look at the ads for all the movies that are playing. Ask yourself whether or not your story will compete with those movies you see in the paper. Will people choose your movie from all the choices available? Another thing you can do is go to boxofficemojo.com and look at the top moneymaking films from the previous year – what do they have in common? If you’re doing a period piece, look to see how many films were in the top 200 that took place in that period. You’ll get a sense of what Hollywood is looking for – if that’s what you’re trying to achieve – and figure out if your story idea fits the trends. If you want to take it even further, consider whether or not your story is “high concept”. The definition of a high concept story is one that would draw an audience regardless of who’s attached (stars, director, etc.), regardless of reviews, regardless of source material, regardless of word of mouth. Take a movie like The Help – it was an extremely successful film, but it is the antithesis of a high concept movie: it’s a dramatic piece and it’s a period piece. But, it was successful because it was based on a hugely successful book. It had great word of mouth and great reviews. Basically, high concept is a genre film (action, comedy, romantic comedy, horror, sci fi, family film) that is easily expressed in a single sentence. It promises big, big conflict for the protagonist, has familiar elements we have seen in other movies and some unique element we’ve never seen before. If your story has all of these qualities, then it’s high concept and you probably have some commercial potential.
MT: What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters if you could only give them one piece of advice?
MH: Become a hedge fund manager! Seriously, though, if you’re talking about someone who wants to improve their craft, the advice I would give is to write every day. If I’m only allowed to give one piece of advice that separates the successful screenwriter from the wannabe, it’s that successful screenwriters write every day. If you don’t have that kind of commitment, I don’t think it matters much else what you do or learn about screenwriting.
MT: Any last pieces of wisdom you want to share with our readership?
MH: Sure. This is what’s at the core of all storytelling: when you’re telling a story, don’t ask who is this character? Ask these 3 questions instead (and keep asking them until your movie is in the theater): 1) What does this character desperately want? 2) What makes achieving that goal seemingly impossible? and 3) What terrifies this character?
MT: I like that because it feels manageable.
MH: I think this goes to the core of storytelling for any storyteller – actors and directors also must be able to answer these questions as well.