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Interviews
 
Kevin Brady, Story Editor
Monday, Aug 22, 2005
Author: Will Plyler and EJ Pennypacker
 
Kevin Brady was born in Florida as an Air Force brat. Though planning to become a pilot in the Air Force after classes at Arizona State University, destiny would change his course. Kevin landed his first job in Los Angeles as a waiter at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, waiting tables and serving famous aging stars such as Carroll O'Connor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Carol Channing and many others. He took a giant leap forward as fate interceded and he began working as a cashier in the commissary of the world-famous House of Mouse. Within a year, destiny came knocking at his door yet again with a career leap, which led him to the Story Department. Kevin started as an assistant but eventually worked his way up to coordinator and then his current position as senior manager and department head of the Story Department at Disney Studios.
 

Where are you from and where did you grow up?

My mom and dad retired out of Honolulu to Phoenix from the U.S. Air Force in 1970.  I lived there until March of 1986.  Most of my interests had to do with travel, flying, airports, ultra-light aircraft and gliders.  At that time I was planning to join the Air Force and become a pilot after graduation.  Little did I know where life was going to take me.

When did you first become interested in screenwriting?

I wasn't focused on screenwriting when I was young, but I was impressed with the comedic writers who wrote for clever shows such as Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, Monty Python and comedians like Paul Lynde and Bill Cosby, as well as slapstick movies like IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD and YOURS, MINE & OURS.  For dramatic movies, I loved sharp-witted/strong female character movies such as ALL ABOUT EVE, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and THE WOMEN - all movies I had to really pay attention to in order to understand.

You went to college at Arizona State University and studied Aeronautical Engineering.  How in the world did you end up out in Los Angeles in the film business? What made you decide to change course so dramatically?

I was at a point when I was 20 years old when I was getting out of a destructive relationship and trying to break out of an oppressive family and learn how to be my own man.  Though my mother wasn't Mommie Dearest, she could have been a good back-up.  I made the smartest decision I ever made and flew out to Los Angeles and rented a room in a house in Venice from two women. One sold cocaine on the side (unbeknownst to me) and the other was a part-time prostitute.  At 21, I was pretty clueless about life, but as long as I was not in Phoenix, I was neither bothered nor judgmental about the situations I got myself into.  To make ends meet, I waited tables at the Roosevelt Hotel and met a woman who was a manager for the Disney Commissary (operated by Marriott) who needed a cashier.  I helped her out, which is what brought me to Disney Studios.

You originally started working on the Disney lot as a temp? How did you find the job? What were you doing?  And do you recommend temping as a good way to get your foot in the door, or do you feel your were “lucky”?

I left the commissary in the summer of 1987 and went to Scotland for vacation.  When I returned, I got in contact with a wonderful woman, Amy Deegan, who was in charge of the temps at Disney.  She kept me working on the Disney lot in different areas of the company.  Looking at different job opportunities in this fashion showed me what I DIDN'T want to do with my life.  After some jobs in home video, finance and publicity, and the narcissistic people who worked there at the time, I didn't think there was a place for me at Disney.  I was eventually sent to the Story Department, which was managed by two women, Liz Brown and Kate Rocca.  I did some filing and answered phones for the department, and the great thing about these women was they were part of the "Old Disney."  They were kind, considerate and honorable, and we got along well.  The assistant who was working for them at the time was a misogynist, so I knew it was only a matter of time before he would go postal and move on.  That was when I could apply for his position.

As far as temping is concerned, if you feel lost in that you don't know what you want for a career but know you want to be part of the movie business, temping is the best route.  I find "Type A" personalities love the publicity and development side, artists will love the hands-on music, writing and creative side, and you have finance/accounting positions which fit the corporate types.

You were eventually able to get a job in the Story Department as an assistant? What did that job entail?  What were your responsibilities? What were you learning?

After the misogynist Story Department secretary quit, I applied for the job and achieved my goal of working for the studio.  I loved my job.  Since my mother was from Edinburgh, Scotland and one of my bosses' mother from just outside of Glasgow (and with the Scottish taking care of their own), the reason I think I got this job with an aeronautical background was because my mother was from Scotland.  Did I fall into this job?  Yes, I did and I'm very thankful for it.  Luck was 70% and the rest was fate.

The responsibilities I had were typical assistant responsibilities regarding phones, documenting coverage, maintaining a video library, maintaining the development library for the projects we owned and keeping records for the legal department in order to protect ourselves from future litigation.  There was nothing modern or automated in our office.  We had IBM Selectric III typewriters, and I'm surprised we didn't have a rotary phone.  Jeffrey Katzenberg was here at the time, and the work his group generated was enough to create a 6-week backlog with 20 readers.  He was looking high and low for writers, and we had scripts everywhere. Our office had so many analysts and scripts coming in and out of it that it was organized chaos.

Part of my job consisted of being the Story Department's Radar O'Reilly from M*A*S*H.  The fact that we were the Story Department made us the red-headed step-children to the development group, at the time receiving unreasonable demands with little money in the budget and little respect.  The way the Story Department became computerized in the 1980s was when an executive would leave the company, I would go steal his or her computer in the dark of night and set it up in our offices.  I eventually got three computers, and when the studio went to Macs, we finally received the proper computer equipment to manage the office.  The things we had to trade and borrow in order to get what we needed to run the department were outrageous.  It's amazing how ingenious we could be when we had nothing, but this was under the old regime that left Disney to start Dreamworks.  Things are so much better today.

What happened next, that eventually led you to running the Story Department for Buena Vista?

Over the years, one of the two women retired, and the office was run solely by Liz Brown with me as coordinator and one assistant.  Due to unforeseen circumstances with my boss, I was offered to run the department as if it were my own by Nina Jacobson, president of the division, in March 2004.  It was a test to see if I could handle the job, but after 16 years, I learned all the positions within the department, including my boss's position.  I was taught to always be honest and forthcoming, and with that I had the respect of the development group knowing I was resourceful, respectful, I never said no, and I always offered options to their numerous requests.  The BVMPG Story Department is a service department to the development executives, and as a service department, we're the first ones in, the last ones to leave and we never say no.  After 9 months, I was officially given the position as a reward for a department well run.

For those who have not worked in Los Angeles or are new to the business, what is a story editor? What are your duties, responsibilities, etc.?

Different studios have different functions for their story editors.  The BVMPG's Story Department is a service department for the creative executives and VPs of development.  Some story editors actively search for projects for their companies to purchase as if they were directors of development, but the BVMPG has about a dozen people doing this full time, which allows me to focus on the details associated with the department regarding deadlines, legal requirements, administrative and ambassador responsibilities.  Keeping the readers and executives in sync with each other is a full-time job in-and-of itself when you mix together such varying personalities and idiosyncrasies.  The dynamics of WILL & GRACE or DHARMA & GREG would be a close comparison.  Throw in everything else and I have to ask myself why there isn't a fully stocked bar in my office.

What is a typical day like for you? A typical week?

My typical day is assigning work to the analysts and ensuring deadlines required by the executives are met.  This part is easy.  The work bogs down when I evaluate the analysts in detail to ensure they are giving me what I want and giving the executives what they want.  This is tough in that each executive has his or her own requirements and each analyst has his or her own way of doing things.  It seems all I do is read, read and read.  I field calls from the legal department since I've been here so long that I know where the bodies are buried.  I'm sure one day they'll just take me out and shoot me.  On top of this I work closely regarding administration issues with other story departments to learn what they are doing to run a smooth and efficient department.  We never share proprietary information, only administration details and juicy gossip.  Rona Barrett should have run a story department.  This is the focus of my days and weeks, but there are also budgetary and labor issues which round out the rest of my duties.

What is your relationship like with the creative executives? What do they require of you? What do they expect and need each week?

My relationship with the creative executives is defined in the fact that we are a service department to them.  I maintain the staff requirements to achieve what they need as inexpensively as possible.  We have readers working around the clock, seven days a week to provide this service.  We cover the creative executives' scripts by their required deadlines, provide them with necessary book and literary material, and maintain a DVD library so they can see a sample directors' and actors' work.  With the creative executives focusing 100% of their energy looking for and developing our next big hit, they don't want any problems from the Story Department and it's my job to ensure that.  We support the creative executives to allow them to shine in the spotlight while we quietly stay in the background and support the team.

How many do you read a week? A year? Process through your office? And of that amount, how many create interest to the point of development and/or production?

We cover 80 to 100 scripts a week for the BVMPG, which comes to 5,200/year.  I also handle scripts for the Writer's Fellowship Program, which is a competition we have every year in conjunction with ABC where we select 4 feature writers for a 1-year contract to work with us.  This throws another 2,000 scripts into the equation from June to September.  Of our submissions, 5% get a second look.  This is material that is submitted via signatory agents of the Writer's Guild to our executives.  We do not take unsolicited submissions, which helps keep the submission numbers down. We release 12-15 movies a year, and with that, the chances of scripts being purchased for development are slim.

Writers always want to know about the process of having their script read. What happens to a script once it lands on your desk all the way to the point that it is either optioned, bought or passed on? (And why does it take so long?)

The creative executives will send the scripts they receive to the Story Department to see if our analysts' opinion matches theirs.  Depending on where you are on the food chain indicates how quickly you get a response.  "A List" writers, producers and actors will have their submissions responded to immediately.  If you're a middle of the road agent with a middle of the road writer, it will take longer.  The creative executive's job is not only to search for fresh material, have breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, after-dinner drinks with clients, read 2 scripts a night and read 5–7 scripts over the weekend, but also to take meetings and pitches with agents and writers, read all their material, respond to everyone and do what their boss requires of them on a daily basis.  It only takes one call from the boss and their whole week's schedule is pushed back another week.  This is why the response time can be very long.

Do you work with readers a lot? In-house? Or freelance?  And what makes someone a good reader to you?

I work with the readers all the time, and sometimes it can be a tap dance with this eclectic group.  I must gently guide my readers in a direction to make them better readers and to be more helpful to the executive staff.  Some are very receptive and understand I am making adjustments for their benefit.  Other analysts dig in their heels as if to say, "Who are you to tell me to change?!!"  It creates very interesting dynamics combining writers who are analysts, want-to-be writers who are analysts, and former executives who are analysts.

Our analysts are union readers through IATSE/Directors Guild.  It's an odd combination, but with finances and cost concerns, the Story Analyst Union merged into the Directors Guild.  It's a great paying job with good Motion Picture benefits, which are the best in the business.  This is why analysts who have union positions rarely give them up and also why it's so difficult to get into the Story Analyst Union.  No one ever leaves.

To me, a good reader can take a horrible script and draft a synopsis that makes sense to whoever reads their coverage.  He or she can break down a script as to what is wrong, why it is wrong, and what could be done to address the problem.  This could be plot points, dialogue, character or whatever is needed to help the script.

How heavily do the executives at Disney (and in the rest of the business) rely on coverage? Specifically, how does BV evaluate screenplays that come in? What are the key elements that BV looks at most closely when forming coverage?

Executives will utilize coverage as a second set of eyes.  They read most of their material and compare it to what the analyst has to say.  If there isn't a match in opinion, most executives will discuss with the analyst why they feel the way they do regarding their opinion.  This open dialogue makes sure nothing falls through the cracks and all angles are covered.

Under the Disney umbrella, we can look at all potential material such as PRINCESS DIARIES, HERBIE, FLIGHT PLAN, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN as well as Miramax and independent/arthouse scripts.  It is our job to find good writers and good material no matter what the genre.  It's the development executives' job to decide whether it's for Disney, Touchstone, and Miramax - or not.

You often hear people referring to a writers "voice." What is "voice," in your opinion? And how does a writer go about acquiring one? Can it even be acquired?

To me, a writer's voice is their style as well as that which separates them from the ordinary.  For example, I know my style can't be copied by anyone.  I write in a stream-of-consciousness manner, and unfortunately my fingers can't keep up with my brain.  I go back and take out the extraneous adjectives, dangling participles, and make sure everything is spelled correctly and voila!  My soul on paper.  Unfortunately, screenwriters rarely have their writer's voice noticed by the public outside of a single movie, since few will be able to see 10 of their scripts made into movies for people to notice a style.  An exception would be John Waters.  If you're a fan, you know his style and humor translates well from the script to the screen, like Serial Mom and Hairspray, not to mention his movies that are cult favorites.  You know when you've read a John Waters script just like you know when you read a Grisham or Hemingway novel.

Can you acquire a writer's voice?  You already have it.
Can you change it?  Sure!
Can you say to yourself, "I want my writer's voice to be just like Orson Welles"?  Yes you can, but people will say, "That material is very similar to Orson Welles, just not as good."  No writer wants to be second fiddle in their own writing.

Where does most of the material that comes in to Disney come from? Agents? Producers? Managers? And why?

Almost all our material comes from the above listed areas.  Material submitted to us in this fashion filters out the inexperienced and amateur writers who want to submit directly to us.  If that were not the case, instead of 5,200 submissions a years, we would have hundreds of thousands of submissions from people around the world, and we wouldn't be able to get anything done.  Legally, we are better protected having material come to us from established agencies, production companies and managers.

If a script/story is “passed” on, but the writer is “recommended,” will (or would) Disney/BV still enlist their help on pitch projects and rewrites? Explain this process please. Does it actually happen?

If a writer is recommended and they have caught an executive's eye, the individual executive will track them and present the fact that this writer was recommended and/or considered to the entire development group to see if there is any interest.  This is not handled through my office.

What are the most common mistakes you feel new writers make in their writing? What should they try to “avoid” if possible? How can they best “make it past the reader” with their writing?

95% of what the analysts read is horrible.  A reader must be very critical since they are there to find the good material and writers for the executives.  Recommending mediocre material could get them in trouble for being too soft.

Firstly and most important in order to make it past the reader are grammar, spelling and typos.  What you write on paper represents you as a writer.  An analyst will be distracted, even if you’re the best writer in the world, if the writer can't spell or type English properly.  Sending a script copied on expensive paper, with a photo enclosed and a sentimental dedication is a serious red flag, and an analyst will think the writer just got off the bus and doesn't know what they're doing.

Secondly, learn the mechanics of writing a screenplay, in and out.  Read books on how to write a screenplay; read A WRITER'S JOURNEY by Chris Vogler, regarding structural elements of a story; read HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell.  Do your homework and build your foundation long before you put your great idea down on paper.

Thirdly, save your great idea until your 5th screenplay.  Get the kinks out of your craft before you go for the greatest story you've been dying to write since before you can remember.

And last but not least, finish your script.  Don't tell someone, "It's finished but I just need to change one small thing."  If you do this, 1, 2 or 5 years later your first script still won't be finished and you'll still be picking up your boss's dry-cleaning instead of writing for a living.

What should every writer know who’s trying to break into the business?  Do query letters work? What stands out most and gets a writer noticed?

A potential writer should work as an assistant or story analyst in a story department.  You will learn what works and what doesn't after reading thousands of bad scripts.  You learn what not to do.  Working as an assistant to a development executive will give you a lot of script reading as well.

Query letters do not work at BVMPG due to liability and legal constraints.  I respond to letters and try to be as helpful as time permits, but if a letter contains any ideas for a movie or story or has a script attached, I must forward it to the legal department to handle.  At this point it is out of my hands, and the writer will have their material returned to them with a form letter.

If you're a new writer without legitimate representation, the only way to have producers and executives read your material is through contacts and connections.  This is why you want your day job to put you in reach of as many influential people as you can.  Over time you can start collecting on the favors you've done in order to have your material seriously considered.  Unsolicited material that comes in without representation ranks at the bottom of the barrel.

If you want to be noticed as a writer, be original, have a strong foundation for your craft and be open to expanding your literary background.  When these things come together properly, you will excite the analysts and the creative executives.

Over the last few years or so, are there any writers or scripts that particularly stood out from a creative standpoint? And material that aspiring writers should try to read?

Read classical American and British literature such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Twain, Shakespeare and Byron.  Look at the style of stars like Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Maggie Smith and Marlon Brando and see what their classical training as actors has brought to the movies and theater.  Look at the clever games writers have played in old movies regarding sexual innuendos and taboo subjects that they couldn't spell out in a script.  Ask yourself if you want to write a fluff screenplay that will last a week in the theater or do you want to write the next "Casablanca" or "A Streetcar Named Desire," where students and universities will break down your screenplay and wonder how someone could write a script so well and so original.  Learn the mechanics, build your foundation, expand your knowledge and let your imagination go wild.

 


 

 

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