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Q&A with Dr. Mckittrick by Kylan Huacuja

Most writers eventually hit some sort of road block when writing.  A common one is lack of motivation/inspiration.  I decided to ask Casey if he had any ideas to help someone in this situation get past it, this is what he told me: I am very atypical in that I only write when I am sure I can produce something.  I admire people who can routinely set aside time specifically for writing.  If I have been away from my work for awhile and want to get in the mood for writing, I will go back to the characters and try to add more characteristics or back stories to them to see where they are going next.  This helps the writing flow and the story will come to mind more easily.

The end of his answer brought me to my next question.  I was curious to know if he had any rituals or exercises that he performed before he brainstormed to easily develop new ideas.  He had a few in mind:  I think of actors that could play my characters and visualize what they would naturally do on screen to help give me an idea of what I want to happen in the story.  Also when I come up with anything relating to my script like dialogue or setting, I write it down somewhere.  Anywhere—notebooks, napkins, my hand, post-its.  And eventually put together everything that I wrote.  This gives the illusion that I started writing, making it easier to actually start.  I have also taken trips to places where I want my script to take place giving me a better idea of the cultures flavor and landscape which ultimately helps the writing process.

Personally I would love to have a job in the film industry, but don’t know the best way to get into it.  So far all you people out there who are in the same boat as me, I did you a solid and asked Dr. McKittrick what he thought some of the best ways to get in are:  Any internship or volunteer work dealing with production would be great.  Becoming an extra in any film would give you some good experience also and give you an idea about how a set operates.  I have heard of people moving to Los Angeles to take temp jobs because that sometimes gets you in the industry door, or getting a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree can get you ahead as well.  If you want to be a writer, then write to develop a diverse portfolio to show a range of writing abilities and then find an agent.  You could also enter film festivals to get your scripts out there faster.

I was interested to find out more about how he forms his narratives.  I wanted to know if he thought it was better to have most of the story in mind before writing, or to just think of new ideas as he wrote: For my script Pray for Me I had a good idea about what the first and some of the second act would entail, but after that I just came up with new ideas as I was writing.  I had about six key scenes that I really wanted to write, but as for the third act, the only thing I knew I wanted to for sure happen was to have a certain character end up okay at the end of the movie.  Sometimes crucial parts of the story just come to mind and turn out to become a huge part of the script.  About a quarter of my script was written as it came to me. There isn’t really a right or wrong way to do it; it depends on personal preference.

At this point I was still pretty interested in the beginning parts of the writing process.  So I asked Casey the following; when incorporating the narrative you thought up, with what will be seen on screen, how common is it that you have too much or too little to include:  You have to keep in mind the traditional amount of time movies are allotted before you start putting things down on paper.  It’s 30, 60, and 20 minutes for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd acts.  What I do is almost map out how long I estimate each scene taking so I can get a good idea of how much time the movie will be.  A good rule of thumb is each page of the script usually ends up being a minute of screen time.  In Pray for Me I ended up with 33, 59, and 13 minute acts.  If you just plan it out and try to get to objectives in the plot the fastest way without taking anything valuable away from the story, you should be in good shape.

Dialogue is something that a good amount of screen writers struggle with.  Some of them write it too bland or predictable, while others include too much or too little.  I wondered if Casey had any tips to come up with the right amount: Always speak it out loud. It needs to sound natural, and the only way to do that is by speaking it.  I try to resist clichés or common sayings because I am wary of sounding like someone else or like an everyday conversation.  Also try to visualize the scene and what actors can communicate non-verbally, like feelings, ideas, motives, and let them do some of the work for you.  This will help you become an economical writer.  If you have too much dialogue, try to cut out adjectives so descriptions come naturally.  Industry standard says to cut down on stage directions, but I personally like a lot of them because I have that micro-managing tendency, where I want to make sure every line has the nuance I intended. It’s a weakness.

Everyone has their own favorite character on screen. I asked Casey if he thought those characters were entirely made up or based on someone the writer knows:  The characters people like the most are either the ones that they can personally relate to, wished they knew someone like them, or know someone like them.  Familiarity helps people connect.  What I do is combine aspects of a bunch of roles I see on screen and people in my life to form characters.  I take any trait that I like and use it; it doesn’t matter if they are real or fictional.

I don’t know about you, but I am kind of tired of seeing the same script format in EVERY movie.  It’s all so predictable.  I told Casey this and asked him if he would ever recommend formatting a script differently from the classic three-act structure:  From a practical standpoint, no because it will be hard for Hollywood to read it.  If you can’t think of any other way to write it, do it.  It is rare to see happen but when it does, it is refreshing to see.

Revising your own work is difficult for most people.  I was curious to find out if Casey had any tricks to read and revise his own work with more criticism:  For me this is the hardest part of the process because I feel so attached to what I wrote that it is hard to go back and change something and still have it flow naturally.  When I read my own work for a good while I start to hate my writing voice, this makes it hard to become objective.  When I need to rewrite a section I start from scratch, and when I am done, I compare and contrast both versions and take what I want from each.

I started to run out of questions dealing with the writing process and began to want to know more about getting ready for Hollywood.  One thing that every writer needs to have is a logline.  A logline is a summary of the movie in one sentence in about 25 words.  I asked what kind of things should be included or focused on in it:  You have to nail the identity of the protagonist in a few words and capture their circumstance at the start of the movie in a couple word as well.  After that you need to suggest that they “travel” from one point to another in some way, shape, or form.  The last thing that needs to be included is the explanation of the moment when the protagonist “travels” from one point to another (character A encounters X and then becomes Y).

Gotta love Star Wars.  “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” is a tagline that almost everyone knows.  I asked Casey if he aimed for that kind of renown standard when coming up with his own tagline:  I don’t think that taglines are really that important. It’s hard for me to think of any taglines right now.  I prefer mine to be confusing or ambiguous over catchy because it draws people in easier and they want to know more about it.

I mentioned Pitch Fest earlier and I also mentioned how Casey was lucky enough to participate in the event.  I wondered what he would have wished he knew while he was preparing for Pitch Fest and what he wished he knew while he was pitching:  I wished someone forced me to have a 1-sheet (advertising summary of script) and that I found a visual artist to help me make the one-sheet visually appealing, to get producers to understand the idea better.  I wished I researched the production companies before I went, like go online to see what they produced before and what they were currently interested in.  I knew this, but it is important to know before you pitch the big actors and small ones that could play your characters.  It is also important to be personable so producers want to get to know you beyond work and to demonstrate that you are unique and devoted.  While I was pitching I wish I more often remembered to be explicit about the plot and themes because I know my work well, but my audience does not know it as well as I do.  You don’t want to forget about the little things.  Also don’t let producers draw conclusions for themselves, draw it for them.  A good thing I did was explain things without referencing other shows or characters; I made mine seem similar but not at the same time.

So you pitch and get some people interested in what you have. What is the next step? Do you have to continue to seek out producers or do they find you:  Afterwards you keep revising.  Never assume you have a deal.  Keep on operating like there is no interest and keep looking out for competitions. Look at my first Pitchfest: I had a LOT of interest in both of my projects, and none of them panned, for one reason or another.  Keep trying to get pitches and do NOT call back because if they want you, they will call.  Also never assume that just because you pitch that your ideas will circulate.  If you want to send a company or company affiliate some of your work, NEVER send your script, send a one-sheet and maybe a treatment because the script puts them in legal trouble.  They can be sued for copyright infringement. Again DON’T send anything besides a one-sheet, unless they ask.

Let’s say that a producer wants to buy your script and wants to negotiate some terms of the buy.  What kind of things can be discussed:  A producer can option the script.  An option is a “lease” of the script in a time constraint of usually 1,2,3, or 5 years.  They have a certain amount of time to consider making the movie.  If they don’t make it in time, they can either renew the option or give the script back.  They can also just buy the script for a flat sum or agree to buy it for money plus a percentage of the money the movie makes.  You can negotiate writing credit if you want it and you can have a say as to how much they change your script.  The company can also make you a producer if both parties are comfortable with the notion.

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