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Interviews
 
Jeffrey Gordon, Writers Boot Camp President & Founder
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Author: Will Plyler
 
Jeffrey Gordon grew up on the north side of Chicago in a neighborhood called West Rogers Park.  in 1989, he received his Masters Degree from USC's Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program.  Gordon is the President & Founder of the Writers Boot Camp.

When did you first become interested in films and/or writing?

I think DOCTOR DOLITTLE is the first film I saw in a theater as a child.  I remember looking up from the first row and being both inspired and overwhelmed, especially by the two-headed llama called Push-Me-Pull-You.  Later on, in addition to being exposed to so much live theater in small venues around Chicago, my parents took me to first-run films in the seventies from SHAMPOO to YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.  From an early age, I excelled academically and became bored by conventional choices, which turned me toward exploring writing through journaling and writer-in-residence programs at the end of grade school and in high school.

You attended the University of Illinois and were studying accounting.  But you switched to their rhetoric program.  How difficult was that change? What was their program like?

My academic experience throughout my four years of undergrad paled in comparison to the excitement of my extracurricular studies and entrepreneurship. I had complained to the head of the rhetoric (writing) department during the compulsory freshman-year writing course because I felt the teacher’s approach was overbearing and grading was capricious.  While my confidence insulated me, the other students, who had considerably less affinity for writing, were being turned off and not taught an organized and repeatable creative process.

Though accounting at Illinois was the top program in the nation, the huge size of the student body made me feel like a number and, since my general requirements weren’t challenging to me, by the time I did transfer to rhetoric I had become attached to my campus activities and floated through semesters until deadlines.  While many talented writers had sprung from Urbana-Champaign and I enjoyed a few of the poetry and fiction classes, I only began piecing together a writing/creative track through the combination of publishing my own literary/humor magazine, watching movies and discovering Syd Field’s book, which at the time was the only one on the shelf.

You received a masters degree from USC’s Peter Stark Motion Picture Producing Program.  What key things did you learn? How did it and how has it helped you?

The experience was great because it ultimately manifested the creation of Writers Boot Camp and I made lifelong friends.  Art Murphy, the inventor of the Peter Stark Program, a respected journalist for Daily Variety, who brought box office analysis to the industry, was an amazing force.  He broke down the industry in such a way to pull the curtain back and showed us how to understand the life of a project.  It complemented my experience as an assistant and as a script reader.

I learned of the program during my senior year trip to California for the Rose Bowl and I was intrigued because it seemed like the perfect blend of my creative and business backgrounds.  Consistent with my academic history, I followed my own program so to speak since there was more down time within the two years compared to the program today 17 years later.  I would make more films today if I were to do it again, which would have provided an even stronger platform of opportunity.  While I gave myself a job by starting Writers Boot Camp as an experiment in my last semester, the Starkies coming out today are an incredibly informed group of supportive friends in the business.  Going to USC can never be a bad thing as far as living in LA and working in the business.

You once worked as an agent trainee at William Morris.  What was that experience like and what did you take away from that?

It was an eye-opener. It was a whirlwind because I was promoted quickly out of the mailroom to work for the head of TV packaging and the exposure gave me a certain reverence for the agents and people on that side of the business.  I was still a neophyte in town and found myself directing calls from major players within the building and around town without knowing who they were.  My naïve optimism got me promoted.  The day I decided not to stay--that’s when I really got the flow of the desk because the pressure was off.  I’m still close with friends from that era and it led to freelance script reading, which cemented my perspective of script evaluation.

How did Writers Boot Camp get started? What was the idea behind it? And how as it changed, if at all, over the years?

Writers Boot Camp started because there were no writing classes that got writers to write.  Initially, as my writing and script development work evolved, I thought teaching at USC might be an option during my second year of Stark, so I proposed a way to teach writers fundamentals while writing a script. The writing department’s separateness from the producing students led me to start it on my own, a very high-concept idea because it filled a void in industry education, which is still needed today. I believe in continuing education of all kinds, yet there are still too many classes, lecturers, pitch fests and seminar offerings that are not about the profession.

My inspiration was to break down the script writing process to manageable stages and tasks, a left-brain approach for organizing creativity and for arriving at entertaining story decisions. The goal of Writers Boot Camp is to teach writers to be professionals through a set of tools that naturally build a script and foster stronger communication with producers and executives, even when the business people on the team are often deficient in those skills. When I started Writers Boot Camp, I didn’t know enough people to find a job at a level worthy of my experience.  I figured I would have fun motivating writers to meet deadlines and build a community of artists to work with in my future life as a producer.

Even the first sessions in my living room provided writers with the means to become authorities of their own work and to get beyond plot and formula.  From day one, we have been proactively service-oriented, including the unique and expensive commitment to a full-time staff, and have always focused on the real process and challenge of creating entertaining material.  The core set of original tools is still pertinent—with many more to articulate how to fully develop a script beyond a first draft.

The main difference is that we get our writers to understand that first draft, while certainly a step toward achievement, is just the beginning of the development of a script.  We look past the new writer’s focus on productivity and teach how to fully develop a script, including extensive idea testing and an empowered rewriting process.  Writers Boot Camp’s current emphasis is on our Professional Membership called Think Tank, which includes coursework, rather than on short Basic Training classes.

What pushed you to set up offices at Bergamot Station?  What are the facilities like there?

With so many writers taking Writers Boot Camp in the Los Angeles area and nationally, I felt we needed a headquarters to reflect our place within the industry landscape.  The feeling behind our space at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica harkens back to the writers’ buildings back in the studio heyday.  Well, it’s a lot more artistic and modern than that, and we benefit from the campus atmosphere of the art galleries at Bergamot.  The space is an intersection between expanding our educational mission and our vocational goals for our alumni, which is also the motivation for our new space opening in New York this summer in Chelsea.

Can you give us a basic overview of Writers Boot Camp and what it entails?  What will a writer go through?  What is the course plan and time frame like?

Writers Boot Camp is a membership for writers working or aspiring to work in the entertainment industry.  Our Professional Membership called Think Tank includes ongoing career benefits and an initial 22 months of intensive coursework in LA and NY.  A version of Think Tank called OPM (Online Professional Membership) is also available for writers living outside the industry hubs of Los Angeles and New York City.

Following the coursework, alumni in good standing are entitled to two free script evaluations and conferences annually, continued access to the Monday Night Event Series, a national forum online, portfolio management tools online and many other free amenities.

We still offer our Basic Training course to writers who aren’t ready to commit to the overall writing process.  Basic Training takes you from idea to first draft in six weeks, which is an inspired achievement yet not even close to what’s required to tackle the true learning curve or to make a script complete and ready to submit around town.

How is the Think Tank different from the WBC?  What is the emphasis?

Think Tank is Writers Boot Camp.  Basic Training, though a fantastic course, is not our main mission any more.  While we recently held our 200th Basic Training session in LA, it’s not a prerequisite for Think Tank.

Think Tank teaches Full Development and emphasizes script deadlines and evaluations every six months.  The 22 months of coursework is divided into an initial 12 weeks to learn Checkpoints.  These tools and creative exercises cover all levels of script development and evaluation:  Concept, Structure, Character Development and Scene Work, including brainstorming methods, time and lifestyle-management strategies and the inner workings of the business.

Following exposure to Checkpoints, culminating with a script deadline and evaluation, the sessions continue every other week, with script deadlines every six months and each month representing a Benchmark of completion.  A philosophy of crossover integrates instruction about the fundamentals of and distinctions between writing for both movies and television.

Both levels of membership require 10 hours of commitment to writing on a weekly basis.  If you have 10 hours available weekly, whether writer, producer, director, actor—anyone who works with scripts or creates projects—you will benefit from the coursework.

What are some of the other courses and benefits WBC offers?

Think Tank includes a free ongoing speaker and event series.  Alumni continue to be eligible for script readings of work in progress cast with working actors.  We offer an accelerated version of Basic Training called Immersion a few times per year for writers living out of town and locals who have more flexibility in their daytime schedules.  It’s also an efficient and cost-effective pre-production strategy for producers.

We provide extensive private and corporate consulting for celebrity clients, producers, companies, and corporate programming for in-house writing programs and training of creative staff for studios such as Fox Diversity, Dreamworks, Miramax, Warner Bros., etc.  Our Bivouac Membership includes mentoring and work space for a select group of alumni every year who are committed to their weekly writing regimen.

People are always writing articles about and discussing scripts and the movies made from them.  One of the key issues they note, of course, is that the stories aren’t very good and thus that’s what caused the box office to be sluggish.  Do you agree?

No.  I don’t believe box office is in every case tied to storytelling.  The degree that story dictates success is based on the particular audience of a project and the source of uniquely entertaining material in a project.  While four-segment story structure pertaining to two-hour movies and both dramatic and comedic television is inherently (main) character driven, not every idea is distinctive based on the story itself.  For example, the personality of a franchise character in a project or a cinematic element or special effect can be what drives audience.  As much as I would like to see better development of stories, sluggish box office is as much a result of producers and filmmakers not knowing how to coherently articulate the uniqueness of an idea.  Too seldom is the DNA of an idea integrated into every sequence or scene of a story.  It’s not content that needs to be original—all content is already derivative.  The key to the conceptual development process is to find an ingredient, layer or approach to the story that will make it more distinctively entertaining.

And along those lines then, what do you think a writer needs to have before even beginning to write their script? A theme? A message? Great characters?

While theme and effective characterization are potentially profound factors in the development of a script, a writer needs to first understand the distinctive proposition of their project.  A writer whose script will ultimately be judged on issues of commerce needs to ask those questions early on and articulate what kind of entertaining moment indicates what’s special and what we’ve never seen before in the film, TV show or sample episode of a series.  No matter how well written, a spec script is only as good as the greatness of the idea.

We teach a writer how to construct a script from any source of inspiration, whether a character, storyline, event in the story, relationship, the title, etc.  It doesn’t matter where you start from to do the work.  Of course, some stories come to mind more completely and present themselves more easily.

In this manner of building a layered and coherent project from any one piece, we also teach a writer how to survive as a professional.  Due to a variety of factors, from topicality and circumstance to an actor’s performance, an audience may forgive a less sophisticated or artistically constructed script if some of the parts are sufficiently engaging.  We teach a writer how to get there intentionally rather than by accident or happenstance.

Can you talk a bit about full conceptual development and the need to make entertaining distinctions in your writing?

There are three major kinds of entertaining distinctions: unique personality, unique action and unique presentation (effects).  An example of each, respectively, is seen in THE MATRIX.  Hugo Weaving’s character, Agent Smith, has certain personality traits and special effects that make him stand out to become a constant and fresh source of moments within the story.  We call that unique personality a Character Conceit.  An example of distinguishing action, a Story Conceit, is in the premise that the lives of the characters are on a computerized grid, which is an idea expressed by the title of the movie.  And there are actually two distinctive kinds of presentation, Cinematic Conceits, in: 1) The 360-degree, slow-motion photography called Bullet Time; and 2) The floating martial arts fighting.

A script only needs one uniquely entertaining distinction to be successful, though all conceits do not equally inspire or justify large budgets or indicate wide audience appeal.  The tools above pertain to projects at any level, whether a holiday-season tent-pole or independent festival screener.

One of the biggest factors that most writers face is time.  They try to write late at night or early in the morning. Or they try to secretly squeeze a few minutes in at work each day.  What can writers do to make the best use of their time? How can they best be productive?

Evaluate your weekly schedule and see what you currently do with your time.  Of the 168 hours in the week, nearly 100 hours are commonly taken up by sleep and the day job, leaving 68 from which to grab 10 as a starting level of commitment.  Give yourself a few years to tackle the learning curve but find closure on projects every six months, setting aside a script for a new idea if you haven’t resolved its challenges or reached closure.  If a writer is having trouble writing, it’s possible the motivation isn’t there or there’s an awareness or education gap.

In all fairness, who is WBC or Think Tank right for?

Prior to making the mistake of quitting your well-paying day job, everyone needs at least 10 hours per week to make steady progress on a creative project.  If you have 10 hours per week for your writing, then you should be in Think Tank.  The only reason to take Basic Training is if you only want to test the water or if you have trust issues (yourself or where your money is going).  We’ve been in business for 17 years--enough to know that we don’t want to persuade anyone to start out on a career that can be painfully challenging.

Writers and producers need to get beyond the first draft mentality and stop placing so much value on the significance of pages during early drafts.  When you work out the math of Full Development, first draft pages represent less than 7% of the entire development effort/process.  (You’ll have to contact the office if you want to know how we arrive at that number.)

What other general advice would you give to scriptwriters about writing?

Read the fallacies piece on our web site that breaks down twelve issues about the screenwriting process and the problems with having an outsider’s view of the business. (http://www.writersbootcamp.com/directors_chair.asp)

Think more about whether you would spend time or money to see your movie idea or television episode before you commit to writing it.  Ask yourself why you’re writing.  While screenplays can occasionally be lyrical and some movies have personal meaning, a screenplay is generally not poetry and one’s autobiography is probably not uniquely entertaining enough to be an entire production.  Even small movies require significant production budgets, the labor of hundreds of people and huge marketing dollars to promote and earn back the investment.

In your opinion, how can writers best market their scripts?  What grabs the eye of a producer, director or an executive?

First, don’t submit your script to anyone prematurely, which is any time prior to your own objective awareness that it’s going to be the best thing anyone has read all month.

Second, you need to understand the precise business argument for the particular companies right for the material prior to scattering it around town or to every contact.  You need to realize that screenwriting is a profession and it’s not good business to submit a script to an executive or producer if it isn’t a real business opportunity for that person.  New writers are too often driven by an unwitting vanity, seeking approval for their work. Relationships are perishable and you should consider whether your script is worthy of someone’s time, especially the time of a close friend.

Even in the rare exception of discovering a script that is entertaining in a unique yet familiar way, one that moves the reader emotionally, it won’t be right for every company.  If you’re utilizing a contact only as a stepping-stone to another submission, you should know that going in; both out of respect and to pre-empt the drawn-out process of script reading and waiting for feedback, a word that we teach our writers to lose from their vocabulary. Instead, we foster our writers to assume a role of being the authority of one’s own project.

Third, become a better listener and a more open person.  You need to test your scripts in the idea phase and discuss them with people working in the business who know how projects get made and what gets writers hired.  The attention for your work will flow from there if you’re doing the work and integrating what you learn into your creative process.

What are some of your favorite scripts and why?

It’s impossible to call anything favorite because different scripts are strong for different reasons.  THE SIXTH SENSE reads like a bullet even though the typeface and format are different. BREAKING AWAY, OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, WITNESS, even RISKY BUSINESS—they’re all easy reads and effortless in their expression.  You never have to interpret anything and you’re never bored.  GROUNDHOG DAY overcomes a potentially repetitious concept by showing us so many different amusing and interesting parts of the same day while integrating unlikely character growth.  The scene work on the page of HUSTLE & FLOW impressively evokes the cinematic value on screen.

There are so many classic television episodes and, having grown up in Chicago watching reruns on WGN after school, it’s as if I can see the lines spoken on screen as script.  I like almost anything written by Larry David, of course—his scripts not only push the envelope of social convention but he’s a master of dovetailing storylines.  The Krusty the Clown episode of the Simpsons is a classic.  Though certain procedural shows and hour-long shows are inhibited creatively by the nature of the material, I respond to the episodes of many of our successful alumni.  Overall, our alumni have written for and/or run dozens of top shows from Sex in the City to The West Wing to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Frasier.
 

 


 

 

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