Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Interview with Joe Ollinger - winner of the "I WILL Read Your F***ing Screenplay" Contest

It's a blog crossover today! A few weeks back I invited everyone to submit their worst screenplay for a contest that involved me critiquing their script as part of an upcoming column. After several great pitches, I picked Joe Ollinger as the winner. Today you can find the resulting article, 140, as a guest-blogger post on The Story Spot. Go check out my live-Tweet review of Joe's script "Blooming Season" there today, but first, read this interview with Joe.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in a small swamp town in Florida and moved to Los Angeles to go to USC in 2002. I graduated in 2006 with a B.F.A. in Writing for Screen and Television and a B.A. in Psychology. After that I worked for the University and also worked from home as a reader for a production company. I'm still working as a reader, but I quit my other job and I'm now attending Southwestern Law School. I hope to one day either coach the Miami Dolphins or eat a 100-ounce steak.

What led you to write BLOOMING SEASON? Any inspirations in particular?

At the time I was really into those 1970's sci-fi movies like Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes. I've been an avid sci-fi fan my whole life, and it was the genre I felt the most comfortable with at the time.

You called BLOOMING SEASON the second-worst thing you've written. There's no delicate way to ask this... How much worse was #1?

I wrote an untitled schlocky action script about involving a bounty hunter and a snuff porn cult. It was fun and quick to write, but after I finished the first draft I looked at it and basically said, "Yep, that's not worth rewriting." Actually, in truth, that screenplay is executed significantly better than Blooming Season, but the premise isn't really specific enough or interesting enough to spend time making it better. It was good practice, though, and every page of bad or mediocre writing gets you closer to being a good writer.

At the time you wrote BLOOMING SEASON, were you convinced all you needed to do was get it to an agent and you'd be the next hot thing? How long was it before you looked at objectively?

I was convinced I had written a good screenplay, I'll say that. I had no idea how the business worked at the time. I was a freshman in college, so I basically put the thing aside to focus on writing new material for a while. I never did a big rewrite on it for a couple of reasons: (1) when 28 Days Later Came Out, I thought there was too much similarity between the "rage" virus in that movie and the insanity plague in mine; and (2) after learning more about the industry and doing some research on script sale statistics, I realized that it's basically impossible to break in as a screenwriter with sci-fi material. Sci-fi movies aren't that common, and sci-fi specs don't sell very often. So I basically let the script die and chalked it up as a loss. Fortunately I also love writing comedy, so I started doing more of that, and less sci-fi.

Did you, like me with my first spec, waste some potentially good contacts by giving them BLOOMING SEASON when you might have been better served by waiting until you had a really strong spec?

I did waste at least one potential contact, but in retrospect I didn't make the mistake a lot of writers make by alienating a bunch of people they don't even really know yet, harassing them to read a passion project. I was probably fortunate that, for whatever reason, I didn't feel the urgency a lot of people feel to get material "out there."

You're making a really good point, though -- I would recommend that writers finish at least three feature scripts and go through at least a couple of rewrites on each, before they show anything to anyone. Unless it's just for notes or something, obviously.

What did you learn from the experience of writing BLOOMING SEASON?

I would say the chief thing I took away from it was a lesson in confidence. I learned that I could write a screenplay in a couple of months. I hear too many writers say they've "been working on a screenplay for the last couple years," and that type of thing. I think that's ridiculous. If you want to be an actual writer, and not just another guy with "a" screenplay, you need to complete projects. Massaging your passion project for two years isn't going to help you. If you get too close to a story, it's almost definitely not as great as you think it is, and odds are it never will be.

Other than that, I would again say that every page you write gets you closer to where you want to be. So by that math, Blooming Season got me about a hundred pages closer.

What do you credit for your growth as a writer over all?

That's a tough question. I can't give a complete answer, but the obvious factors are (1) the great education in storytelling I got at USC Film and (2) reading lots and lots of material.

I think a lot of aspiring writers overlook the necessity of studying storytelling analytically. If you don't put a lot of thought and examination into what works and what doesn't, you're writing blindly. If I had just gone ahead and written another script after Blooming Season, without putting some study into structure and dialogue and character development and premise, I doubt I would have shown any improvement.

You say you're a script reader. Would you mind telling me for whom? (If not, that's cool.) How does reading a lot of scripts translate to being better at writing scripts?

I won't say for whom, but I'll say that I work for a director/writer/producer with more than one Oscar. The company is relatively small, but it's had a pretty busy, relatively high-profile slate since I started working for it in 2006.

Reading scripts might be the best way of improving one's writing. Actually, let me qualify that: reading scripts and analyzing them might be the best way. If you just read screenplays and don't put thought into what works and what doesn't, it's probably not going to do much for you.

At this point I've probably written around 2,000 pages of coverage in my life. I've seen terrible screenplays, bad screenplays, good screenplays, and even great screenplays (though thankfully I've never had a job where I had to read a lot of un-repped amateur stuff, so I can't claim to have really seen the worst of the worst).

You don't need to read nearly that much to reap the benefits. It doesn't take long before you start thinking of your own material in the same way you evaluate the material of others. If you know your stuff, you can spot mistakes quickly and easily.

And finally, plug away. Tell me all about the specs you're trying to get people to look at now. List as many as you like.

I don't know if I've been "trying to get people to look at" stuff. As you know, the spec market isn't a friendly place right now; statistically, fewer screenplays are selling than ever before. So I've been working in other genres for the past couple years. But here are some loglines of projects I'd still like to get out there, in the odd event that anyone would ever care to read stuff by the winner of a "Worst Script" contest...

Moose Chunks and Me -- a teen/sports/romantic comedy
In order to impress the girl of his dreams, a high school nerd must befriend his chief competition: a popular though moronic meathead named Moose Chunks.
I co-wrote this one with a guy named Frank Howell. It finished in the semi-finals of the Bluecat Competition, for whatever that's worth.

Wanderlost -- an adventure/comedy
An aimless young man from a family of great explorers finally gets his chance at greatness when he inherits his grandfather's memoirs. With the help of his quirky family and his foreign sidekick, he embarks on a bizarre journey across the world in a race against a jetsetting playboy for the last undiscovered treasure.

Tool: The Movie -- a college/"bro-mance" comedy
Two frat boys, a nerd and a player, join the staff of a feminist retreat in order to pursue their dream girls. To succeed, the nerd will have to learn how to be a tool, and the player will have to learn how not to.

The Crush -- a comedic superhero series
The adventures of The Crush, a young superhero with the ability to smash things with his mind, and a frustrating inability to use this power around women he feels attracted to. Faced with the every day struggles of a college freshman, The Crush must also deal with various strange and powerful villains, including his arch-nemesis, an alluring former-stripper-turned-billionairess.
I've been working with an awesome animator named Arvin Bautista (www.greasypigstudios.com) on this project, developing it both as a comic book and an animated TV series.

... and a couple of novels...

The Apex Predator -- a thriller with some sci-fi elements
A detective must kill alternate versions of himself in several parallel realities, in order to return to his own universe and save the woman he loves from being murdered by her fiance.

Loopback -- don't know what genre I'd stick this under
A former NASA engineer teams up with a clairvoyant twelve year-old kid to exploit the Las Vegas casinos. Set against the backdrop of the late 1960's, the story deals with the possibility that the Apollo 11 moon landing may have been faked.
I also have a screenplay of this story, but I think the book is better.

I lied. One more thing - if people want to read BLOOMING SEASON (or contact you about any of your other specs), may they reach you at your e-mail address?

They can contact me at jojofromsoflo@yahoo.com.

1 comment:

  1. Tool: The Movie -- a college/"bro-mance" comedy
    Two frat boys, a nerd and a player, join the staff of a feminist retreat in order to pursue their dream girls. To succeed, the nerd will have to learn how to be a tool, and the player will have to learn how not to.

    I was sold the minute I read the title: Tool.