Meet Mark Sanderson, Hollywood Screenwriter & Consultant
One of the joys of being part of the Twitter community is being introduced to some awesome people. One of these is Mark Sanderson (aka @scriptcat) – whose tweets and My Blank Page blog posts never fail to resonate. Why? Because not only does Mark have some great advice based on his 15 years working in the business, but his professional, caring attitude shines through. No ego, no flagrant self-promotion; but heart and soul and a genuine commitment to helping other writers learn their craft and find their place in the profession.
I hired Mark as a consultant on Restoration and he fully lived up to my expectations. He took the time to get to know the script and characters, he picked up on the nuances of the theme and he provided detailed notes to further its development. All the while making me feel cared for, heard and trusted as a writer. And that’s what you want in a script consultant – someone who will see the big picture of your career while examining the structural, format and details of your writing. Mark is as much a coach in his approach as a consultant, and his humility and professionalism makes him a strong ally to have on your screenwriting team.
Mark is currently teaching a workshops series titled “You’ve Just Finished Your Screenplay, Now What?” at LA Creative Workshops over at Canoga Park in the west valley area of Los Angeles. I asked him if he’d take some time to share more about his experience as a screenwriter and what his workshop is all about.
Mark, thank you for joining us. Let’s start at the beginning. How and why did you become a screenwriter?
It all started when I was twelve years old. My best friend as a child, Matt Reeves (co-creator of Felicity, director of Cloverfield, and director/writer of Let Me In), received a film camera from his grandpa and it’s the event that sparked our passion to become filmmakers. We co-directed our first film, a secret agent adventure that we also starred in, and we eventually became part of a collective group of pre-teen filmmakers who premiered movies at the Nuart Theater here in Los Angeles. The sold-out screenings even garnered a feature article in the LA Times.
We loved movies and knew it was our life’s calling. We were influenced by the movies that we loved and I gravitated toward the comedies of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis and absurd extravaganzas like“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “The Great Race,” and the “Pink Panther” movies. I thrived on the spy/action/martial arts/heist film genre. As a kid, I remember loving the James Bond films and looking forward to the next Bond movie. I was an avid reader of “Martial Arts Movies” and “Kung Fu” magazines and they gave behind the scene stories on the making of the current action films and interviews with their stars. I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, too. I would see every martial arts film I could find try to mimic those films in style of the movies that we produced. We were also very lucky to be living in Los Angeles at the time where the most popular films and television series filmed on the streets of our neighborhood.
I continued making films throughout high school and after I graduated, I was accepted to UCLA Film School where I continued my film studies. I started to write feature screenplays there and it wasn’t until after I graduated that I made some noise as a writer. One of my scripts nearly won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and it took five scripts to finally get a script sold and eventually produced. At the time, I was also the co-founder of a Los Angeles-based live sketch comedy troupe. It was a great creative outlet and we created a new live show once a month. We shot a TV pilot, a music video, and had a hit parody song on syndicated comedy radio. After this I wrote for a popular MTV game show, my sold screenplay worked its way through development and eventual production, I co-produced an indie feature that I also co-wrote, and eventually started to get hired for screenplay assignments and script doctor/consulting jobs.
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned in your creative journey?
If you’re going to be in this business as a screenwriter, you must accept the fact that it’s a business first and a creative art form second. If you can effectively blend the two into your work, you’ll have a much easier time on your journey. If you fight the reality of the important business aspects, you will constantly hit the wall. Screenwriters don’t work in a bubble and if the idea is to work in Hollywood and get your screenplays produced and distributed, you will need to be aware of the way Hollywood works. I’ve learned about compromise, rewriting, and treating my career as a business—it’s one of the biggest real-world lessons that I learned early on in my career.
What role does fear and faith play in your creative process?
I have embraced fear and do my best not to allow it to interfere with my creativity. There have been times when I’ve gone back to my well of creativity and came up dry. It was terrifying and the more I focused on the fear, the more it fed upon itself. When I allowed my anxiety to cloud my ability to create, I become blocked and couldn’t see. This is the true definition of “writer’s block.” Instead, I didn’t avoid the trouble by leaving my desk and procrastinating, I faced the problem head on—even in the face of fear. I know the only way is through it—and not around the problem.
I think from so many years of screenplay assignment work, I’ve trained myself to work effectively under a deadline and at my full creative potential. The fear is still looms, but my faith allows me to work past it, as I know I’ve been in these situations before. I’ve proven ability many times over having written twenty-six screenplays—eleven as assignments. If you’ve been to the rodeo before, you know how to ride that new horse. Every new project is loaded with surprises and pitfalls you may never have expected, but I do my best to stay flexible and adapt to every new situation. I know eventually, I’ll figure it out and see the scene or story solution in my head. There is a wonderful quote from the late Bruce Lee that sums it up, “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
What has been your experience with characters? Do you create them or do they already exist and “channel” their story through you?
I create the characters and write up a page or two of their biography and spend time getting to know them. Once I start a script, I just follow their lead, and at times it feels like they are waiting for me to get back to the page so they can move forward in their journey. I do feel like I’m channeling their story when I follow them through the script. It’s a strange and very cool experience and humbling as well. Like Michelangelo’s statue of David, believed trapped in the block of marble waiting to get out, I feel the stories are out in the ether waiting to be told on the blank page.
What myth about screenwriting would you like to bust?
That it’s a road to fame, fortune and celebrity—it’s not. The myth doesn’t include the years of hard work as you master your craft, the many late nights, sacrifices, constant rewrites, rejection and criticism, magnificent highs, bottom scraping lows, and the constant search for validation and respect. A screenwriter must navigate this Hollywood minefield on the journey to a career as a working screenwriter. I find many aspiring screenwriters decide to write scripts because they believe in the myth of a huge payday. They read articles in Variety or on the Internet about “A-list” screenwriters making huge deals and they want a piece of that action. I’ve heard too many times, “If I just write a good script, I’ll sell it for big money.” It’s a fantasy life with a house in the hills, a pool and three cars in the garage, but very few screenwriters achieve that level of success. I read a WGA statistic for 2011: Only fifty writers in the entire guild made a million dollars or more last year. That’s out of nearly 10,000 guild members—half of those didn’t work at all last year. Any aspiring screenwriter must be in the game because they simply love to write.
Even if you finally do get paid to write or your script is purchased, the money may not be what you expect, and you may have to live on it for a year or more before the film is made—if the film is ever made. Your daily reward must be that you love to write and create the material. Even if you do “make it,” your overnight success will be ten years in the making. Trust me, those will be years of sacrifice, ups and downs, criticism, self-doubt and fear. A constant test of just how badly you want a career as a screenwriter. So, if you want to make big money or get attention in a career, pick another profession besides screenwriting.
What can be taught to screenwriters and what can’t?
I believe format and structure can be taught, but you can’t teach creativity or talent. I believe a writer is born with the basic storytelling tools in his/her DNA and like the professional athlete, you will only reach your full potential by training, discipline, focus, drive, willpower and setting goals. It comes naturally to some writers and it’s difficult work for others. I’ve read scripts from writers who will never get better because they just don’t have “It.” I think “It” is a natural point of view, a unique voice and the ability to channel emotions, creativity, and stories to the page. You can read two different scripts by two writers and one script is a ten and the other is a two.
I also believe you can’t teach passion. You either have it for your craft, or you don’t. If you love what you do, nothing will stand in your way from doing it. You can’t teach courage or commitment either. Sadly, countless splendid dreams have been squashed due to fear or self-doubt on the part of dreamers. You can teach someone how to live without fear—or at least how not to allow fear to cripple splendid plans. But at the moment of truth, writers must step off the cliff themselves into the dark void and believe there is a net below to catch them. This feeling only comes from within the screenwriter and you can’t teach it. It has to be experienced and understood through passion in their dreams.
Both the screenwriter and the athlete need time to study, learn, fail, and succeed while constantly building the endurance it takes to achieve a particular level of success. Over time, the process will become effortless, as both have reached a higher level of performance at the top of their game.
There are so many “How-to Write Screenplay” books out there. Do you have a favorite?
You’re right, I checked on Amazon.com and if you type in “how to write a screenplay” they list 434 results! I still love my signed copy of “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” by Syd Fields. He used to be the guru of the three-act structure for a long time. There have been so many “How to…” books written about screenwriting over the years—some good and others bad. A recent favorite of mine is the late Blake Snyder’s book “Save the Cat.” A fellow screenwriter turned me onto it a few years back and I’ve found it to be a fresh look at the three-act structure. Blake uses specific examples and breaks screenplay structure down into a beat sheet format. His companion book, “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies” is also very good as he breaks down fifty landmark movies of the past thirty years. It’s an extremely valuable and informative tool for learning structure. I also discovered a fantastic book a few years back called “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler. He based his book on the work of Joseph Campbell, so it’s all about the mythic structure of The Hero’s Journey with examples from Hollywood movies. Two fantastic books on screenplay format are “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier and “The Hollywood Standard” by Christopher Riley. Any aspiring screenwriter would be smart to purchase both as a constant reference tool because format separates the amateur from the professional.
In your screenwriting workshops, what topics do you address? Who should attend?
Yes, my new workshop is called “You’ve just finished your screenplay—now what?” I’m very excited to be consulting to a room of aspirants about how to build and establish a career as a working screenwriter in Hollywood. I didn’t want to teach a “How To Write A Script” workshop, but instead teach important disciplines to use before, during, and after you finish your script. The workshop grew out of my screenplay consultation business and my frustration when I consult for aspiring writers and they just don’t understand or respect the mountain they are climbing. I get a feeling sometimes new writers believe they just need to write one script and when they fall out of bed the next morning, they will get an agent and a three picture deal.
There is so much more that goes into the long haul of a screenwriting career. This is why I created my intense, one-day workshop that presents a vivid portrait of what is really needed to go after a screenwriting career. I share practical advice and my real-word disciplines to guide a writer through the minefields of Hollywood. I’ve broken the day into five major topics relating to a screenwriter’s journey and spend an hour and fifteen minutes on each topic with time for questions and handouts. My workshop is geared to the beginning screenwriter to enlighten them about the larger picture of what it really takes to carve out a career in Hollywood. It’s basically a real-world survival guide to weather the storm in the trenches. I hope to save fellow screenwriters precious time from making the same mistakes that I’ve made along the way. If they take away a few choice nuggets from my advice and it helps them on their journey, I’ll be extremely satisfied.
What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter?
Honestly ask yourself, “Do I have the all-encompassing drive and talent it takes to achieve any type of success as a screenwriter?” “Are you willing to put in the work necessary to achieve any level of success?” I don’t mean, can you write and finish a script—I mean can you endure the endless slog over time, maybe five to ten years, working on project after project with many never seeing a frame of film (or video). You need to be a professional in all manner and action.
The great author Steven Pressfield in his book “The War of Art” says, “The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week. The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.” The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real” vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.”
- Ask yourself if you have an artist’s mentality — or the insanity to believe that even as you stare into the dark void of the unknown, your fear won’t cripple you and your burning passion will guide you across yet another hurdle. You’ll need to withstand continued rejection, criticism, failure, ridicule, and times when you make no money. If you’re okay with all of this, you just might have what it takes.
- Be humble or learn humility. Do not consider yourself superior to your craft. Recognize those who went before you and learn from them, but find your unique voice.
- Master format. I find many aspiring writers have a serious lack of knowledge or respect about screenplay format. It’s what separates the professional from the amateur.
- Don’t overwrite. I read too many scripts that are overwritten. Many new screenwriters feel the need to micromanage every scene and will even explain the color of the wallpaper. Producers and executives hate to read—funny in a business where the script is so important, but they like to see a lot of “white” on the page. This means the fewer words the better and it’s the job of the screenwriter to stay the hell out of the way of the story. The death of your screenplay can be from 1,000 little format, story and structure issues. It’s all about the attention to the little details. I can start reading a script and by the first page know it’s from an amateur. The producers and executives will notice too.
- Respect story and structure. I find a lack of respect for the treatment/step outline/beat sheet and how it related to the screenplay structure. This arrogance will get a writer into trouble when they end up in Act 2 and lost on page sixty or with a hundred and fifty-page script and have no idea where to cut.
- Understand and accept this fact: Screenwriting is rewriting. Many believe their first draft is perfect and needs no rewrites. Reality check ahead! After I read someone’s magnum opus and they tell me it took six months to write it without a treatment or even a step outline, I grimace and realize they just don’t understand. A reader or producer will stop reading after the first few pages.
- Take the time to create a viable body of work. Always have a ready a new pitch, synopsis, treatment and script to offer. Hollywood is a business, and agents and managers size you up to see your career potential. Are you a one-script wonder — or a writing workhorse with a pile of material? Are you good in a room pitching your ideas — or are you horrible live? Do you execute notes well and can you meet deadlines — or do you bristle at criticism? This is all part of being a professional screenwriter. Potential reps will look for these traits because your potential employers will as well.
- Find your unique voice and the type of material that attracts you. “Don’t write stuff you can’t handle. If you don’t like romantic comedies, don’t write “Annie Hall.” You have to always write your best, or you’re dead.”— William Goldman
Most of all—please be patient. Overnight success is usually ten years in the making. If you are in this for the long haul, constantly learn and become a better writer. Also enjoy the journey and the little successes along the way.
Thank you, Mark. We appreciate your insight and the opportunity to get to know you more. Follow Mark on Twitter at @scriptcat.
About Mark Sanderson
Mark is a veteran of the screenwriting game with over fifteen years of experience and blessed to be living his childhood dream of being a filmmaker. From his start in sketch comedy writing and performing live with The Amazing Onionheads and writing for MTV, to his eleven writing assignments that have garnered six produced films—the emotionally compelling I’ll Remember April, An Accidental Christmas, and Deck the Halls, the stylish indie noir Stingers, and action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below and Silent Venom—Mark’s films have premiered on Lifetime, SyFy, Fox Family, HereTV, and have received worldwide distribution.
His long association with Hollywood veterans and award-winning filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay, and has since worked with Producer’s Guild of America nominees Paul Colichman (Gods & Monsters) and Mark R. Harris (Academy Award winner Crash) — legendary genre directors Brian Trenchard-Smith, George Mendeluk, Fred Olen Ray, and Bob Clark — and Academy Award acting nominees Seymour Cassel, Pat Morita, Haley Joel Osment, Tom Berenger, and Emmy nominees Mark Harmon and James Hong. Mark’s films have also been recognized around the world and have opened and premiered at major film festivals.
His popular screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE has developed into an internet sensation with over 29,000 readers—in addition to his screenplay consulting services, he’s finishing his first book, shopping two TV pilots, and from his five projects in development comes two comedies Last Christmas and Area 54—his latest script assignments scheduled for production later this year. Visit Mark’s website: Five O’Clock Blue Entertainment.