Part of what sets the Film Connection
apart from traditional film schools is our ability to provide one-on-one access to dedicated, interesting and experienced mentors like professional screenwriter John Raffo
. John is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who is credited with such screenplays as The Relic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
, and Johnny Skidmarks
(a film he also directed). We’re proud to have John Raffo helping many of our apprentices remotely with the screenwriting portion of their Film Connection curriculum.
John recently sat down with RRF to talk a little about his own journey as a film professional, as well as his take on the industry itself.
RRF: What made you want to be a screenwriter?
First and foremost, I love movies. I could stop there, but on a practical level, I had a girlfriend who was an actress whose agent sent her a lot of scripts. I started reading them and thought, “I could do this.” And after a few bad scripts and a couple of years, I more or less figured it out.
RRF: How did you connect with the industry when you were first starting out? Did you have a mentor or people who acted as mentors/guides?
Yeah, I wrote a script, gave it to writer/filmmaker friends and they were decent enough to tell me it wasn’t any good. When I told them I was going to rewrite it, they suggested, delicately, that the idea wasn’t good enough. “What else you got?” they said.
I wrote another, abandoned it, then I wrote a third. Those same filmmaker friends read the first act, and were enthusiastic. When I got stuck in the third act, they tried to help (and failed, but it was the trying that meant something). I finally figured it out, finished it, and they recommended it to a producer (who passed) and an agent (who liked it). The script moved up the food chain, and I eventually sold it.
RRF: When writing scripts, do you think it’s best to take market trends into account, or do you just write what you like?
I absolutely think it’s important to understand the market, but you have to remember that the market is constantly changing. I adapted a sci-fi romantic comedy (a book) last year, only to finish it and realize that no one’s making romantic comedies anymore. Will that change? Does that render the project valueless? I don’t think so… a good script is a good script. If it sits around for awhile before someone discovers it, that’s okay…You can try and predict the timing of markets, but it’s very difficult. For me, since I often write on spec, I try and find projects I like, and try and fit them into a viable market. If there’s absolutely no market available, then I choose something else.
RRF: What’s your best advice to keep from losing steam when writing a screenplay, especially when one first begins to encounter problems with the story? Some writers change major things in their stories to remedy what seem to be small problems with plot or occurrences in the screenplay.
Yeah, good question. I tend to talk to other people a lot, other writers usually, pitch my ideas and characters, describe scenes and describe the problems I’m having. Look for answers everywhere. There are one or two friends who usually seem to get what I’m after and they help. If they offer nothing but a little encouragement I feel good enough to keep moving on…[Regarding] changing major things in order to solve small problems. I rely heavily on a “logline”. It’s one of the things I keep in front of me. It’s just a simple summation of the story—two or three sentences that describe the story and/or the lead character and his or her dilemma. If the plot point or character point I’m struggling with isn’t in the logline or disobeys the premise, then I know I’m venturing down a blind alley. It’s a very simple system that works for me.
RRF: You once mentioned a filmmaker friend saying about one of your scripts, “The best thing you can do is burn this one and start on another one.” Why was that good advice? Is there a telltale sign of when it’s wiser to start over?
I think that’s true. When you finish your first script, it’s like, “Wow, I really accomplished something.” It has a very special place in your heart. But you’ve got to realize it doesn’t have a special place in anyone else’s heart. You’ve got to find a way to evaluate your own stuff the same way other people evaluate stuff.
RRF: We’ve heard writers, both professional and newcomers, be rather disdainful of execs, producers or power-players, saying these people know nothing of writing, what makes a good screenplay, etc. Anything you can say about this?
It’s not true. Everyone’s looking for good stuff, but they’re also trying to make sure it fits in with what they need, what their company is looking for, and what’s succeeding in the market place… Movies cost buckets and buckets of money to make, to market and distribute. The exec knows if he’s going to buy something, there has to be a long range plan to recoup what his company is spending… and he has to be able to defend it to his bosses. Of course, sometimes developers and producers don’t see the same thing you’re seeing. The trick is to find people who like what you write, who like where you’re headed. That can be difficult, but it’s not impossible.
RRF: What is the most common mistake you see new writers make?
In general, I don’t think people want to read. You have to read… books, screenplays, and you have to watch movies. My favorite apprentices are the ones who watch a ton of movies, fall in love with a few, then seek out the books and scripts that lead to that movie.
Secondly, I see a lot of people who don’t want to rewrite. Writing is rewriting. Someone said that; it’s true.
RRF: How do you know when you have a compelling story idea, one that’s worth the effort, time and energy it takes to write it?
I think I just know, but I constantly pitch ideas to other people (anyone, my kids, my wife, friends, in-laws, whoever will listen) and if I can get a “That’s cool,” I figure I’m onto something.