Paul Zeidman is a screenwriter based out of one of my favourite cities, San Francisco! I met Paul in a screenwriting group on Facebook and as a rookie have been very appreciative of the articles and guidance that he shares with us all! An insider’s knowledge and expertise is like gold-dust!
- How did you become a screenwriter?
I’ve always been very into both writing and movies, but didn’t really start on screenplays until after college. Up until then, it had always been about writing books, or that short period in high school when I was obsessed with writing one-act plays.
- How many scripts have you written?
I’ve written 10 feature-length scripts and 3 shorts. For the features, I’m willing to show 4 or 5 of them to other people. The rest are still in the early draft stages; several of which I plan on eventually getting to and finishing.
- You worked with a co-writer on Switched, how did this work practically between you both?
That was the director’s senior project for film school. I actually got the gig by responding to a Craigslist ad. We met and discussed what they were looking for. I did a majority of the writing, and they provided notes. Since it was on a shoestring budget, I had to do what I could to keep things as cheap as possible. Once you know your parameters, it’s not too difficult to work within the confines of that space.
It was about 12-13 pages, and took three drafts until the director thought it was ready to go. That’s as far as my involvement went. A few months later, I saw the final cut – and discovered a middle scene that tied all the subplots together had been cut! Probably for timing reasons. Oh well.
Sadly, the filmmaker has since taken if off of YouTube, so it’s lost to the ages.
- When do you decide that your script is finished…or really is it never finished in your mind?
Sometimes I’ll feel it’s finished because I don’t think I can do any more with it, which often turns out to not be the case. Maybe I just feel burned out, and don’t want to work on it anymore. Or I might feel stuck, totally drawing a blank as to what do with it next.
Just as an example, I have a script that’s gone through I-don’t-know-how-many drafts. When I finished the first one way back when, I thought it was great. Some tough-but-fair notes and less-than-stellar contest results showed me otherwise. So I continued to work on it. Each subsequent draft a little better than the previous. Every time I thought “this is it!”, it actually wasn’t, so I’d continue working on it. I recently completed a massive rewrite of it, so hopefully it’ll do better this time around than it has in the past. All I can do now is hope for the best. And work on other scripts.
- What do you feel are the most common mistakes writers make?
The biggest mistake I see is “tell, don’t show”. A writer describes what a character’s thinking or how they’re feeling or the true meaning behind what they’re saying. It’s as if the writer has an overwhelming need to provide us with information, rather than letting us reach that conclusion ourselves.
Another big problem is overwriting – using ten words when two or three will do. I’ve seen scripts where the writer goes into great detail about EVERYTHING. Just as an example, if a scene is the family having dinner at home, that will include what they’re eating, the decor of the dining room and/or kitchen, specifics about each character’s wardrobe, what’s going on in the background, and so on. If it doesn’t have any relevance to the story, why is it in there?
Two of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, and try to incorporate into my own process, are:
-Write as if ink costs a thousand dollars an ounce. This is a screenplay, not a novel. Some might disagree, but I’m of the opinion that the more white space on the page, the better.
-Get in late, get out early. Get to the point of the scene as fast as possible, then get out and move on to the next one.
- How do you feel about the trend for re-makes in the industry? Would you write one?
I love the quote from legendary director John Huston – “Don’t remake good movies. Remake bad movies and make them better.” I don’t have a problem with remakes as long as you’re not trying to recreate the original. What’s the point? Remember the 2015 extreme sports version of POINT BREAK? Exactly. When I heard they were remaking JUMANJI, my initial thought was “Why?” But they changed it around just enough to make it different, but still kinda-sorta slightly similar. And it’s a huge hit. So to answer your second question, I would definitely be up for writing a remake, provided I do whatever I could to make it as different as possible from the original
- As an actor, do you feel this gives you an advantage with writing a script and selling it?
I really haven’t done that much acting (and absolutely no selling either, I’m sorry to say), so that doesn’t really factor in to the post-writing phases. However, I think a writer’s love for the material and the genre of their script should be evident when it’s being read. One of the things I’ve tried to develop is to make my characters feel as human and realistic as possible, no matter what kind of story it is. It’s adds a relatable element to the story, and enables the actors more to work with. What actor wouldn’t want to portray someone layered and “real”, as opposed to a one-note character?
- What’s your favourite genre to write?
Adventure. Definitely. A good ripping yarn always has a special place in my heart, whether in book or film form. They’re just a lot of fun to create. It’s not easy, but I try to take new approaches and put a new spin on what we’ve seen before.
- What are your sources of inspiration and why?
I’ve often say I’m a child of the 80s, so films like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Back to the Future had a huge influence on me. Those are the kinds of fun rollercoaster ride-type stories I love to write. Also part of the appeal is that these are all told in a smart kind of way. They take the material seriously and don’t talk down to the audience. That’s also something I try to do with my scripts.
- What are the biggest challenges you face as a writer?
That’s a loaded question if ever I heard one.
I look at it in two parts. First, there’s everything that happens during the development and actual writing of a script. Working out the story, fine-tuning it in the outlining stage, and then writing as many drafts as needed to get it to “where you want it to be”.
Then there’s everything you need to do to get your script out there. Contests, query letters, networking, and so on. You know that saying of “treat getting a job like your actual job”? Same idea applies to marketing your script. There’s no one definitive path, so you do what works best for you.
I’ve endured all of this, and like to think that each draft of every script gets me a little bit closer to the ultimate goal of being a working writer.
- I read an interesting article recently stating that a writer’s role now encompasses so much more and spills into producer/director territory – do you agree with this?
Most definitely. A writer isn’t just a writer anymore. Once you think your script is ready to show the world, it’s all about marketing it and yourself. Fortunately, a lot of other writers who’ve gone through this have offered up tips and advice, many of which are easily found across the internet.
The biggest tip I can offer is Be Professional. You’re trying to get into the entertainment industry. Both your script and behavior should represent you as somebody who knows what they’re doing. Be the writer people want to work with.
DO NOT begin any initial conversation with “Hi. Nice to meet you. Can you read my script?” That’s equivalent to meeting somebody at a cocktail party and the first thing you do is shove your business card in their face. Would you want somebody to do that to you?
- Any nuggets of wisdom you’d like to share with me while I embark on this mega-challenge?
I’ve sprinkled a few of those throughout my other answers, but only because all of them apply to everybody. As for the a few others…
-It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Writing a script, let alone seeing any kind of progress within the industry takes a long time. Patience is key. Things always take longer than you expect. As fast as you want things to happen, they just won’t. I find one of the best countermeasures is to work on something else.
-Try to write something every day. Even if it’s only a scene or a page. All those little efforts add up. If you’re serious about wanting to write professionally, then you need to actually be writing. Preferably on as regular a basis as you can.
-Be a nice person. A lot of this business is based on relationships, which take time to establish and develop. Treat people the way you’d want to be treated. Would you rather be known as friendly and helpful or a selfish jerk? Make it about them (“How’s that rewrite going?), and not all about you. You’re more likely to get good results from treating others as equals rather than your support staff.
-Never stop learning. Read scripts. Watch movies. You’ll soon realize your analytic skills have improved, which in turn can help you with your own material. Another good way to do this – swap scripts with other writers. It’s a lot easier to evaluate somebody else’s work than your own. This also falls under the “be nice” category. There’s a big difference between being “brutally honest” and “tough but fair”.
Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to these questions and may I wish you all the very best in your upcoming projects this year.
You can find Paul on social media here;
my blog Maximum Z – http://maximumz.wordpress.com
Twitter – @maximum_z