Tell It Like It is Interview Series with Pro Screenwriter Mark Sanderson

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Mark Sanderson is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, script consultant and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with over two-dozen screenplays written in genresrangingfrom comedy to drama.

— from his sketch comedy writing and performing with The Amazing Onionheads and working for MTV, to his twelve screenplay assignments, television premieres, and worldwide distribution of his emotionally compelling films—the WWII indie feature I’ll Remember April, Lifetime Network’s holiday films Deck the Halls and An Accidental Christmas, the stylish indie-noir feature Stingers, and action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below (aka HereTV’s Tides of War) and SyFy Network’s Sea Snakes (aka 20th Century Fox’s Silent Venom).

Mark’s films have premiered on Lifetime Network, LMN, SyFy, Fox Family, HereTV and NBC/Universal and have been distributed globally and recognized at festivals including a premiere and opening the Palm Springs Int. Film Festival, premieres at the Hawaii Int. Film Festival, St. Louis Int. Film Festival, The Rainbow Festival in Hawaii, Newport Beach Int. Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale Int. Festival, and nominated for the Starboy award at the Oulu Int. Children’s Film Festival in Finland.

Mark currently has five projects in development including the sci-fi comedy Area 54 with producer Mark Harris (Crash) and he just completed production consulting on an indie film The Devil’s Harvest that shoots in October in Kiev, Ukraine.

He’s about to publish his new book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success, and his popular screenwriting blog My Blank Page (Script Magazine’s pick for “Website of the Week.”) just hit a milestone with 86,000 lifetime reads. Mark is @scriptcat on Twitter and his website is www.fiveoclockblue.net.

Thank you, Mark for taking the time to share your words of wisdom and years of experience. I know this information will be of great value to everyone who reads this interview. Jay R Baer

New writers: What is you best advice for them?

Forging a screenwriting career is like training for a super marathon. You can’t just decide one day to run a marathon and hope to finish. You may be able travel a few miles and then hit a wall unless you have the proper training and endurance. You have to spend the precious time to train and workout—to fail and succeed. The same goes for screenwriting.

The path to success as a writer is paved with rejections and failures. Only through this journey of learning can you emerge as a master of your craft. Aspiring screenwriters must also really ask the hard questions of themselves: “Why do I want to be a screenwriter—and do I really have what it takes to weather the long haul?”You should have no illusions that it will be as easy as writing one script and selling it for a million dollars.Good luck.Last year only 4,510 screenwriters in the Writers Guild West made money.

The other half of the WGA didn’t report any income for the year. You have to really love the craft of screenwriting because the film business is going to kick your butt and break your heart. That’s okay, because if you want a career in screenwriting more than anything else, you’ll get up before the ‘ten count’ and start screenwriting again on a new project.

The odds are stacked against you and that’s okay because dreamers never worry about the odds, but if you think your first few screenplays will sell, you will be humbled by the craft and the film business. It may take five or ten scripts to really hit your stride and be able to compete in a crowded and competitive marketplace.

It wasn’t until six years out of film school and my fifth spec script that I made my first script sale and it still took nearly three years after that to go into production. You’ll need to have boundless faith and patience while you continue to turn out excellent projects that may never sell.

The romanticized image of a screenwriter’s life— of making millions of dollars, schmoozing, winning awards, and walking the red carpet is replaced by the hard reality that it’s a thankless, mostly solitary job of creating a blueprint that is constantly changed by other collaborators. Aspirants also need to ask themselves: “Why am I writing this particular script?Passion? Money? Fame? Trying to be the next big box office hit?”

Be honest because I’ve seen so much precious time wasted on projects that will never go anywhere because of poor execution or an idea that really didn’t have an audience to begin with. Always respect the craft and act like a professional as you build and establish your career.It’s a daily, weekly and yearly slog that never ends even when you do have credits.

What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

I started making films at eleven-years old with my childhood friend director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In, The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). He received an 8mm movie camera from his grandfather and we immediately started making short films in the genres that influenced us the most at the time: Sci-fi, secret agent/spy, and action films. We did everything on our productions from screenwriting, directing, acting, the cinematography, to editing and even marketing and advertising.

We would screen the films in his garage and charge admission just like a real movie theatre. It was like we were pre-teen film moguls and we even had our own regular stable of actors.

So, my passion for creating the story on paper grew out of our early filmmaking endeavors. We were also lucky at the time our hometown of Santa Monica, California was the place where big Hollywood movies and TV series were always shooting on location.

It was like our neighborhood was Hollywood’s backlot and we’d hang out on the locations and study the filmmaking process. I think the fact we were surrounded by filmmaking helped us see that our dreams weren’t such wild ideas because sometimes we were filming our own movies on the same locations as the big productions.

By the time I was a teenager, I knew that being a filmmaker was something that really grabbed my attention. As the years went on, I continued to make films in high school and then at UCLA Film School. In college I finally knew filmmaking was my life’s pursuit. Personally, screenwriting always seemed to feel the most creatively empowering.

I really love the act of sitting down and creating a world and living through the characters while preparing the blueprint for a movie.While in film school, I made five or six short films culminating with my thesis film, but it wasn’t good enough to get me signed by an agency as a client. At the time my three feature scripts were not good enough either to professionally compete, so I knew that I had to make a choice to focus on one particular craft — and screenwriting became that choice. I’ve recently started to move into producing on the projects that I’ve written for more creative control as a multi-hyphenate filmmaker.

How did you sell you first script?

It was actually my fifth overall spec that finally made enough noise to get noticed.Back in the day I had entered it into the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship where I placed in the semi-finals and ended up being in the top twenty scripts out of over three thousand. That placement was enough to get producers and agents interested in reading it and my girlfriend at the time gave it to her friend who was an assistant who shared the script with another assistant who championed the project.

His boss was starting a new production company and this assistant convinced him to option my script as their first production out of the gate. It went into development and ultimately they executed the option, bought the script and produced it into a feature film. It was a long seven year slog from first draft to first day of production, but being on set and later having the film premiere and open the Palm Springs International Film Festival made it worth all of the effort.The film later went on to premiere on cable and was distributed worldwide.

The assistant went on to become the President of Production of the company and continued to hire me for screenwriting assignment jobs.He now has his own company and continues to hire me to write movies.You never know where your film industry encounters will lead and that is why it’s vital for screenwriters to build relationships and network.It will help you somewhere down the road on your journey to success.

How do you write? Do you use creative software?

This isn’t a product placement mention, but I’ve always used Final Draft software and have always been happy with it. When I’m consulting on screenplays, I also use Celtx, but not to write my own projects. When I’m formulating an idea that may end up as a new project, I love to use legal pads and handwrite my notes.

It’s very liberating to get away from the computer and actually put pen to paper.I usually have one note pad filled with notes per project and it can include character notes, ideas or anything story related that will help me craft the story treatment. I really enjoy the streaming thought process and capturing the ideas on paper and then using that to craft a detailed story treatment before I start any script pages. I also have a huge corkboard and like to pin up 3×5 cards as I set up the structure of the film. About seventy-five percent of your work should be on the story and treatment. You never want to start a script with a flawed structure or story. The DNA of the script goes into that first draft so respect this fact, as it’s so difficult to change it and make it something it’s not. Every producer I’ve ever worked for has always had me deliver a solid story treatment or step outline before I am allowed to start writing the screenplay. If you practice this discipline in your own screenwriting discipline, you will be prepared for when you snag your own screenwriting assignment job and you’ll be acting as a professional.

What’s the biggest obstacle in screenwriting?

I’ll offer up three—I consider distraction, procrastination and lack of direction three of the biggest obstacles. I’ve seen too many aspiring screenwriters without a game plan for their career. They write one script because they think it may be “fun” or because they read about some unknown who just sold a first script for a big payday.

They are just spinning their wheels and wasting precious time without a view of how each project you write fits into the bigger vision of your career. Their mistake is pushing the “one” project without any backup material. A writer needs to create a solid body of work to standout and show a unique voice and talent.

Yes, many of these projects will not sell (most probably will not) but they can help secure screenwriting assignment work. Most of my screenwriting jobs have been assignment work and I’m about to start my twelfth assignment job. It’s the bread and butter of working screenwriters. A spec sale is like winning the lottery especially in this world of remakes, reboots and adaptations.

Time burns quickly in Hollywood and it’s your responsibility to protect your writing time and the time you spend working establishing your career. This includes networking, keeping up on the film business news, taking classes, seminars, and studying film history.

Your career (if you really want a career as a screenwriter) is ultimately your responsibility. I find too many screenwriters get frustrated after writing one or two mediocre scripts that don’t sell and they just don’t have the patience needed to weather the long haul of the journey to success.

That’s okay, but be mindful of your lack of dedication and move on to another field of endeavor. It’s not easy. As in life there will be many ups and downs, but you have to look at your career as a lifelong pursuit and a journey of learning and constantly moving forward.

Why did you start “MY BLANK PAGE” and how can a writer benefit from your site?

The idea behind my blog My Blank Page was to help aspiring screenwriters with my personal advice about the craft of screenwriting with tips on how to survive in the trenches while you’re busy forging a career as a professional. The responses, readership and the comments from the readers have been so fulfilling. I love when someone comments about how my tip or personal story helped with a project.

The blog has grown to over 86,000 lifetime reads and I have followers from around the world. I’ve recently been having fellow working screenwriters “guest blog” and contribute with their own tips and experiences in the business.It gives my readers another perspective and gives my screenwriter friends a forum and audience they may not have on their own.

It’s also been a great forum to meet the ever-growing global community of screenwriters and offer my consultation services to them. I also enjoy being a part of the collective screenwriting dialogue with trying to help aspirants avoid the pitfalls that may slow their journey to success.

Another way I’m planning to share my knowledge and experience is through publishing my new book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success later this year. It’s a real-world survival guide based on my twenty years of experiences in the trenches.

You can contact Mark here:

http://www.fiveoclockblue.net/

 

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