Question and Answer with Film Connection Screenwriting Mentor John Raffo
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One of the major things that sets Film Connection apart from traditional film schools is our ability to provide our students with direct access to dedicated, experienced and interesting mentors like professional screenwriter John Raffo. Credited with such screenplays as The Relic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and Johnny Skidmarks (a film he also directed), John is one Hollywood screenwriter we’re proud to have helping so many of our apprentices as they concentrate on the screenwriting portion of their Film Connection curriculum.
John recently sat down with RRF to talk a little about his own journey to becoming a Hollywood screenwriter and film professional, as well as his take on the industry itself.
RRF: What made you want to become a screenwriter?
John Raffo: 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 first connect with the industry when you were starting out? Did you have a mentor or people who acted as mentors/guides?
Raffo: Yeah, I wrote a script and gave it to writer/filmmaker friends who 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?” was what they said.
I wrote another and abandoned it. Then, I wrote a third. Those same filmmaker friends read the first act and were enthusiastic. When I got stuck during the third act, they tried to help (and failed, but it was the trying that meant something). Finally I 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 screenplays, do you think it’s essential to take market trends into account, or do you just write what you like?
Raffo: I absolutely think it’s important to understand the market, but you have to remember that the market is always 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 completely 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’ll choose something else.
RRF:What’s your best advice to keep from losing steam when penning a screenplay, especially when one first begins to encounter problems with the story? Some writers change major things in their stories to “fix” what seem to be small problems with plot or occurrences in the screenplay.
Raffo: 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. I have 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 the following about one of your screenplays: “The best thing you can do is burn this one and start on another one.” Is there a telltale sign of when it’s better to start over?
Raffo: 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 have 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 just the same way other people evaluate stuff.
RRF: We’ve heard screenwriters, both professional and newcomers, be somewhat disdainful of execs, producers or power-players, saying these people know nothing of writing, what makes a good screenplay, etc. Is there anything you can say about this?
Raffo: It’s not true. Everyone’s looking for good stuff and 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, market and to distribute. The exec knows that if he’s going to buy something, there’s 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 hard but it’s not impossible.
RRF: What is the most common mistake you see newer writers make?
Raffo: In general, I think people don’t want to read. You have to read books and 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 up 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 is worth the time and energy it takes to write it?
Raffo: 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” then I figure I’m onto something.
View an interview with John Raffo here.