Thursday, 30 June 2016

INTERVIEW WITH CREATOR OF THE SCREENPLAY SHOW - RICK RAMAGE #1

Last night I Skyped with Rick Ramage, the creator of The Screenplay Show.


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The interview with Rick was supposed to go for maybe 15 minutes, nail a few questions, then do a write up. But Rick is such a wealth of knowledge and so easy to talk with that the conversation went on for over an hour.

During that time Rick offered many fantastic insights into the world of screenwriting. Rather than condense it all into one post, I'll do a series of posts until I've exhausted the interview.

Rick is an accomplished writer. In his own words - 'Writing is the only job I've ever had.'

He has setup, sold or optioned more than 40 projects over the last 25 years. He's received pay-checks for spec screenplays to the tune of $2.5 million, and has worked with some of the best Hollywood has. 

The Screenplay Show is a ten episode web series presented in a fun and unique narrative style. Crafted like no other writing series. Rick will expertly guide you through every aspect of the art, craft and business of screenwriting.

DtS: What was the genesis of the concept for The Screenplay Show?

RR: A writer friend asked me to do a seminar, I was nervous about that because I don't do public speaking. I've been in the business for 25 years but I've never really done that. I thought to myself: what am I going to say for six hours? So I called in my editor and said let's do this visually. If someone wants to know about a character arc, we're going to show them what a character arc is visually, as apposed to just lecturing about it, I didn't want to just be a talking head. And the seminar went really well, but what really surprised me was that people had just as many questions about the writing experience as they did about the nuts and bolts. 

DtS: That's something I come across a lot as well. People want to know what it's like meeting managers, agents, lawyers, they want to know about the business end of it a lot.

RR: Absolutely. And so what I had sort of evolved. I thought what if I approach screenwriters in the medium that they're used to. I've met a lot of really talented directors and actors over the years that have informed the way I go about my screenwriting. They were generous enough to share their story with me for one purpose, and that's to get the story right. My approach to screenwriting has evolved over the years. It didn't come from books, or gurus, it came from doing it. I got into the business in a dream fashion, I sold a script right out of film school.

DtS: So you did do film school?

RR: I first wrote a book, and sent it to someone I really trusted, and they asked me if I wanted to be a professional writer or is this just going to be a hobby? And I said, no I'd love to be a professional writer, and he said okay, I'm going to treat you like one - unfortunately your book isn't very good. Which was like - damn - but then he said something really nice, you're a good writer, you write very visually, have you thought about writing screenplays?  So I turned my bad book into a bad screenplay --  

DtS: I've done that --

RR: So I applied to the AFI, which was great, because it wasn't so academic, you learned by doing. Making films. 

DtS: The process of learning by doing is a really important thing. I learnt how to write dialogue by seeing my badly written dialogue performed by actors on screen. And I think there is a huge difference between seeing an actor perform it in front of you, and seeing it played back on a screen. You see so much more on the screen.

RR: Absolutely. It was so powerful, you learn as you're watching, you learn as you're cringing, you know?

DtS: I do know...

RR: You know, it just didn't sound that way when I was writing it. And then I've also had these marvellous experiences where I would watch a rather talented actor take a mundane line and turn it into something fantastic and that's the serendipity of being a screenwriter, you can luck into some of the best moments. It's such a collaboration. A great actor can take a line and make it something special.   

DtS: Agreed. And taking your collaboration concept further, a great director can get a great actor to turn a lesser line into something more powerful. Have you ever found that you have respect for an actor because of a couple of their previous productions, then you see them in another production, but with a lesser director behind them suddenly the actor is not as good as you thought they were?

RR: Yeah, I have. Some of the most profound experiences I've had is that I have friends that are actors, be it theatre or screen,  and while they're performing I'll utterly forget that I know them. That's when I know it's really working. 

While I'm writing I really don't want to go to the movies. I watch a lot of sports, because watching films can turn into work. As I'm watching I start tracking the story, and my metaphor is that I bet a surgeon doesn't go to an operating theatre after work. 

DtS: I spent a lot of time writing music, and I find it difficult to listen to music without breaking down the song into its elements. And it's a similar thing when I'm watching movies now, I'm sitting there, very aware of the hero's journey, plot points, and formula. I find it difficult to disengage and step back and just enjoy a movie as a whole without breaking it into its parts. 

RR: Yeah, but then when it works and you find yourself really lost in a story, it becomes, like, wow! Then you know that something special is happening. If it can make you step outside yourself and literally get lost in the story, that's a pretty special moment.

DtS: So you've been writing 25 years, you've been on the production side of things for 25 years, are you less able to lose yourself in film because of that? Is that one of the reasons you love sports so much, because it is real?

RR: Yeah, I think so. I love my job, because it doesn't feel like a job after 25 years of writing, producing, directing, it's been my only job, and I feel really blessed even though that sounds really corny --

DtS: No, I get what you mean, you're appreciative of the position you're in.

RR: Exactly, because I live in Denver, so when I go to LA and walk onto a studio lot, it's special. I don't do it very often.  I'll do it 5,6,7 times a year, and every time I go, it's kinda cool, because it reminds me I'm in the business.  As a screenwriter, you spend most of your time alone in a room. 

DtS: On that note of the writer in the production process, one thing that I'm really coming to understand in the film industry from experience is that the writer is quite lowly, even though they are the one that comes up with the story. What's your take on that? What's been your experience? Have you found that you're not as respected and revered as perhaps you wanted to be? Or has it been a different story for you?

RR: You know, I've actually experienced both sides of that. My first movie, The Proposition, was absolutely the best experience. We went through 12 drafts in the development process. And by the time it was over no one recognised the story anymore. And in the end, the producer said we're either doing the first draft or not at all. So we went back to the first draft, and if the script said, 'Arthur takes the steps two at a time,' they did it. So from that respect, the script was really well treated, and I was a newbie, so while I was teased on set, I was also given a lot of respect professionally speaking. And I've been on sets where you could feel that they wished you would just go away. And that really comes down to a director that doesn't want a writer around, because of their unsolicited input. And I don't do that. I understand my role. If I'm on a set I don't give the director my notes unless they ask for them.  

DtS: I think that's a really important thing to learn, your relationship with the director. I've met writers in my time who have been happy to be hands off, then there are other writers who aren't aware of the writer's position on a set. 

RR: Yeah, and unfortunately, they're the writers that make it hard for everyone else, bad manners, there's a protocol on a movie set and if you don't take the time to learn and understand that protocol it's not going to go well. The psyche of the set really comes down to the mood and the attitude of the director. And if they're collaborative, then great, people are going to be loose and much more creative, and then there's those directors who are: 'it's either my way or the highway,' and those sets tend to be very tense. 

DtS: I've worked on both and know exactly where you're coming from. 

Tell me more about how people will access your screenplay show?

RR:  For now people can access it online through the website. We're currently working out the best distribution for the series. I have spoken with another outlet, another window, and I can't go into too much detail right now, but we may end up being on a cable network. We've captured something special with the show. We finished the first episode and I really wanted to test it - and the feedback I got was kind of shocking, they said that they got so into the story, we forgot that you're actually teaching us about method. 

DtS: That's a powerful compliment.

RR: It is, but at the same time I can't forget the mission, which is, I want to help other writers find their method. Which is covered in the first episode. So what we did was put bullet points up during the narrative so people would go, 'Ah, right, yeah, I'm learning.' 

I'll stop the interview there for this post. Much more to come in the following posts. Next up Rick talks about his writing method, both the physical and the cerebral sides of creating.

For now, I just want to look at some of the nuggets of learning Rick has shared to far. 

THE TAKE AWAY...

1) The first important take-away he's discussed is the learning process. 

Rick talks about learning via the visual medium. I know that's how I learn. I read several books on screenwriting as I was starting out, but it wasn't until I had screenwriting guru Karel Segers show me the hero's journey on a slide at a presentation that it really started to sink in for me.

If the hero's journey is something that you haven't nailed yet, I highly recommend taking some of the graphs that exist and creating your own graph. Something visual that is done in your own shorthand that you can understand. 

I found looking at Christopher Vogler's circular representation of the hero's journey to be no help at all. Confusing, in fact. But when I broke that graph down into a linear line with two seperate journeys running along the same time-line - one for the inner journey (the flaw arc) and one for the external journey (events that the hero goes through) - that I found the hero's journey much easier to understand. 

2) Writing can be broken into two main parts. The creative side, and the business side. 

The creative side is something that all writers experience first. Sitting and writing. But just as important is the selling of your work. The networking. The meeting people. It's important as writers to be aware of this second aspect of writing - the business end. As it doesn't matter how great your writing is, if you can't get anyone worth a damn to read it, it's not going to be made. 

How to apply this to your work? The best experience and relationships I've made have been working with people on projects. If that means collaborating for free, then it's worth it for the people you meet. 

There are good people to meet at writing events and seminars - but I've found personally that stronger relationships are built in the process of collaborating on an actual project than just sharing polite conversation at an event for like-minded people. 

Take yourself our of your writing bubble and get involved physically. Even if that means working for free just to make contacts. It's those contacts you'll be able to call on when your writing is ready to go out to producers. If you've already worked with them on previous projects, and you worked well with them, they'll be much more likely to read your work. 

3) Learning from others. Rick talks about learning from working with other talented people. Again, if you're on a set, even if it's not your film being made, you can see people in action. You can see the physical process of how a film comes together. You can also see what dialogue works, and what doesn't. Look at the script - compare what it looks like on the page versus the final result. 

4) Write a novel.

While writing a novel is a lengthy process, and odds are, your first novel will go nowhere, what writing a novel will do is teach you to use words. I've come across a lot of writers who think they can write, but their only experience with words have been high school or university level writing of essays. That is a world away from writing 100,000 words into a story. 

There is one caveat to writing a novel you must be aware of. That is the difference in style between novels and screenplays. With novels, there's almost no rules. You can write from anyone's POV, you can delve into any character's mind when you want - you can waffle on about any old thing and so long as the writing is engaging, you'll keep your audience. With screenwriting, it is all about brevity. Conveying your scene in the most vivid, yet concise way. 

So while you are writing that novel and leaning to play with words - be aware that when you come to the screenwriting medium, brevity trumps floral-writing every time. 

5) You don't have to live in LA to make it as a writer. Rick lives in Denver. Many screenwriters I know, live outside LA. While it is important to be able to go to LA to turn e-relationsips into real life relationships - with access to today's technology, living outside LA is no longer the hurdle to breaking in that it used to be.

6) Collaboration and understanding the writer's place on the set, and set dynamic and hierarchy. 

It is very important to understand that the first draft of your script that you write WILL NOT be the draft that goes into production. Even the draft of your script that you option or sell in most cases will not be 100% verbatim transcribed to the screen. There will be changes. 

The sooner the writer comes to understand this, the easier it is for them to let go of their babies and start to work collaboratively with producers, actors and directors. 

The more open to ideas you are was a writer, the easier the collaboration process will be. This can ultimately be the difference between people wanting to work with you or not. No one wants to work with someone who has no wiggle room, or someone who takes every note about their script as a personal affront to their genius. 

I'll leave the Take Away here... much more to come in the upcoming posts from screen writer and producer Rick Ramage.