Saturday, July 26, 2008
I Saved The Cat!
Here's my long promised interview with Blake Snyder, a very cool cat!
Blake Snyder didn’t just save his cat, he turned his kitty into pure gold. Author of the best-selling “Save the Cat” how-to screenwriter books/franchise, Blake is a hot commodity at classes, conferences and workshops around the globe for devotees of his now famous “beat sheet,” along with his common-sense methods and savvy tips. A screenwriter and producer for over twenty years, Blake is now busy writing the third installment of the popular “Save the Cat” series in which he is happily devising increasingly clever and crafty ways for writers to get their characters in and out of trouble. We caught up with Blake in Vancouver as he prepared to host one of his popular “Beat Sheet Workshops” (for more information on upcoming workshops, the “Save the Cat” books and ancillary products such as software, please go to www.blakesnyder.com).
Blake, was it always your intent to be a screenwriter? Do you see yourself primarily as a screenwriter or as a writer?
Well, I did tell a friend that I was going to be a big Hollywood screenwriter and sell a script for a million dollars, and it came true. I wrote my first screenplay when I was only seventeen. I am still very much in demand as a screenwriter. I get asked to write screenplays all the time. In the course of my career, I’ve sold over thirteen scripts. “Blank Check” was a successful Disney film. But for now, my primary focus is on the “Save the Cat” books. Writers everywhere tell me that they use and adapt the methods found in the books. I’m delighted to say that even non-writers have found the books useful. I once had a Realtor tell me that they used the books to sell a house!
What would your pitch be to a writer who has never heard of the “Save the Cat” books before?
That they are the first and last screenwriting books you will ever need! When I started out, I wish I had had this information, it would have saved me a lot of time and heartache. I had to educate myself on how to construct a snappy logline, a crackling pitch, and now I am delighted to impart that information to help others who are struggling in much the same way I did years ago. I went through hard times.
You know, so many screenwriters are focused on writing a great script that they forget that it is also about networking and making the necessary contacts in order to get their great script read. It’s all about connecting. Look at it from the executive’s point of view. They’d much rather work with a friend than a stranger. After all, wouldn’t you rather work with a friend than someone you didn’t know at all? I know I would. You can never discount the schmooze factor. You need to be pleasant and sincere.
Where exactly did the idea of "Save the Cat" evolve from?
All the other screenwriting gurus I came of age with, and loved and learned from, were not screenwriters, so when I wrote my book I wanted it to be from the point of view of someone who actually wrote and sold scripts. As a successful screenwriter myself, I wanted my book to be full of the slangy, how we really talk, brass tacks information that I and my screenwriter pals used to talk about and solve writing problems. One phrase I always used is "save the cat" where's the "save the cat" scene I'd ask of a writing partner or when pitching a story, I'd use that phrase to describe the moment as yet to be devised where we know we like the hero in a story. My books and methods are chock full of this stuff, it comes from 20-plus years of shorthand, cut to the set piece, flowery, slangy insider stuff I never heard anywhere else. That's why I think my books inform both new and veteran writers.
Regarding the books, I have a question from a fan. There seems to be a bit of a controversy, or let’s say, a disagreement, about the beats. Some people insist that you must adhere to the structure you lay out exactly, you must be very rigid in the page count where you have the beats, it has to be on this page or that page, and if you deviate from it somehow you’re ruining the formula. Do you have to be such a slave to it or can you deviate a little bit?
It is a guideline, and it is totally adaptable. I am fighting against the idea all the time that certain plot points must be on page 16 or page 25 and if it is not, the reader will simply toss the script aside. The books and the beat sheets are a distillation of everything I have learned over the years, information I sorely wish I had had when I first started out. However, the only way to educate oneself and learn is through trial and error, it is by doing, it is by the actual physical act of writing. There is no getting around that.
I know that for me, and I’m sure I speak for many other writers as well, that the mere mention of pitching strikes terror into our hearts. What was your first experience like pitching?
I can tell you that I was not very good at it. It was not until I educated myself on what made a good logline, the actual construction of it, that I got better at it. I say it in my books, go to Starbucks and pitch to the people standing on line with you. You will see by their reaction if this is a movie they would want to see. Pitch to your family, friends, neighbors. It is invaluable feedback.
If you were starting out as a screenwriter today, what would be your approach?
Well, it is so very much different for a screenwriter starting out today. There are so many opportunities for them, avenues and outlet that were not available back then: the Internet, You Tube, My Space, and the world of independent filmmaking that require less money to go tell a story. Stories are everywhere. We live in an age when visuals are the most important way of telling that story, be it a speech, 30-second commercial, a two-minute You Tube or a film downloaded to a phone. New outlets will be created for the once hemmed-in screenwriter to educate, persuade or create.
What about ageism in Hollywood and the idea that you must live in California to have a screenwriting career? I ask because I have a friend who recently told me that she was giving up screenwriting because one, she was tired of the rejection, and two, she was afraid that she was “over the hill” age-wise.
I hope you tell your friend to call me and hopefully I can talk her out of it! It is still about what is on the page and about making connections. If as a writer you constantly refresh yourself, keep yourself current and viable, I do not think it is a problem. The same applies for living in California, especially now with the Internet. It can be done.
Do you offer screenplay analysis/consulting? Do you plan to have classes on-line for those who can’t attend your workshops in person?
Yes, I love to help writers, and I love to read their scripts because through this, I learn new things all the time. I am my own best student! I will be in a class teaching and then a student will say something and I will think wow, I never thought of that in that way before.
And yes, we are working on offering classes on-line in the very near future. In addition, we recently became partners with Final Draft, and we are very excited about that. I am also proud to say that we have launched a fantastic new high school outreach program to teach students the basics of screenwriting utilizing the methods used in the “Save the Cat” books.
When did you realize that you were on the right track, screenwriting-wise?
I just spoke to a very new writer. As part of my outreach I often spend half-hour coffees with writers to help them. I give back to my industry and that's one way I do it. I asked him what he was working on and he was pitching his stories badly. He was using all the well-intentioned but misguided methods that I used early in my career. Well, by the end of the coffee, I am proud to say, we fixed that. He will never pitch "beat for beat" again. He will focus his story because he'll know what it is. My particular problem early on was attitude. When I started, my whole attitude was, I'm special, I'm different, and these rules don't apply to moi! And so, 20 scripts later that did NOT sell, I really was forced to take a look at that attitude and that method. Was I really going to do this, was I going to be a pro, or was I going to stay being an unsold dilettante? My turn came when I asked: what service do I offer? Why would anyone hire me to write anything? And how can I make it easier for producers, agents and executives to find me, and work with me. That was my big change. Starting from there I started to really examine what sold and what didn't and why. Logline was key. I scoured the trades for spec screenplay sales and examined, really analyzed the loglines and why oh why did they sell and mine did not. I started to make my ideas and scripts more like theirs, and soon my attitude of entitlement changed, and I became a better writer, and soon, one that sold with partners and on my own, a lot of scripts.
What makes for a good concept? Also, what makes for a compelling and a powerful logline, and why is it that so many screenwriters have so much trouble constructing them?
In Chapter 1 of my new book Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into... and Out Of, I discuss the three types of loglines I get pitched that come up short and why. I talk about failed loglines and pitches I've made and heard from other writers, and I give four brand new requirements that really make a pitch jump off the page. I have learned a lot due to the fact I put my e-mail address into both my books, and always answer writers who pitch me, I've heard hundreds in the past three years, and I have very definite ideas about what works and what doesn't and why. That's why I'm writing the third Save the Cat.
You stress the idea that screenwriters are providing a "service" and that scripts should be "transforming." Can you elaborate on that?
We writers have a noble profession, and it is complicated and hard work and all kinds of problems abound, but in fact the job is simple: Tell me a story. What is that? It's about a hero who faces his greatest fear, dies, and is reborn. That's every story. Why? It's because it's what we do every day; we rise, face the day, face our fears, fail or succeed and close our eyes at the end of it transformed. We die a little every day, we grow a little every day, and what we are all seeking, no matter how we seek it, is an interaction with the divine. However you seek that, falsely or in full consciousness of it, that experience is what successful storytellers recreate in their stories. The reason we like to hear stories of you going through this horrible transformative process, and not us is, it's painful to change! No caterpillar wants to die by becoming a cocoon, especially when we don't know for sure that we'll have wings on the other side of the transformation. But we all do it. Living each day is an act of faith and stories we tell let us know that it's worth it. Every story. Comedy or drama or musical, at core, the good ones address this truth. And as writers we must be aware of that.
What common mistakes or misconceptions new screenwriters have that they should try to avoid? For example, one fear expressed by many is that their scripts and/or ideas will be "stolen."
Yes. I say that only amateurs have this fear. If you only have one idea worth stealing you should be in another business. As to common mistakes, there are so many, I will have to keep writing books about them because I have made them all. But the good news is mistakes are how we grow.
If there's one bit of advice you could give newbie screenwriters, what would it be?
Be happy. You're in a great profession with more opportunities now than ever in the history of man. Be open. The best thing we can be as writers is flexible; the definition of humility is that state in which you are open to learn. Do not always think of what people can do for you; think about what you can do for them. It really is all about good karma.