Film Connection screenwriting mentor Aaron Feldman on writing for the screen, character development, and getting your foot in the door.
Film Connection screenwriting mentor Aaron Feldman’s own journey into the film industry has been a winding road, initially going to medical school, and even having a stint working in counterterrorism in D.C. before eventually becoming a professional screenwriter in Los Angeles. During his career, he’s sold nearly a dozen scripts to studios, worked with major industry players, and currently also writes for television and YouTube stars like Taryn Southern and PewDiePie.
During a recent conversation with RRFC, Aaron weighed in with some extremely valuable advice for aspiring screenwriters and other film professionals, including the importance of character development in screenwriting, being creative about getting your foot in the door, and how to respond well to the inevitable critiques and rejections along the path to getting that “yes.” The best nuggets from that conversation are below. Enjoy!
ON DRAWING FROM YOUR OWN LIFE AND SURROUNDINGS WHEN WRITING A SCRIPT:
“This is one of the things I try to teach my students—not necessarily how to write a script, because you can read a book and learn the structure and do all of that—but rather how to look at the world around you and then incorporate that into your writing…Describe your room. Give me three adjectives to describe your room that gives me a sense of your character. Things like that. A big thing about mentoring is trying to teach the students ways of seeing and how to approach a script, because it’s overwhelming. The blank page is the most overwhelming thing you could possibly have. But you could write about your high school and just take things to a limit and your own personal conflicts. Even if it’s a superhero movie, the drama is still the same as the drama that goes on in your everyday life, except they have superpowers.”
ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SCREENWRITING AND WRITING PROSE:
“This is not writing a book. We’re writing basically a blueprint that you’re going to give to the director and the costume designer and production designer, where everyone needs to work off the same page. That’s your words on the page. That’s why there’s the structure and the way things need to be set out. My point is that you have to write visually, and you’re writing the importance of certain things when you capitalize different main props or characters or what they wear. Everything on the page is a decision…[When] you’re writing for a director…How you write is translated into a shot list, shot sequence. So if you’re writing a description for let’s say a high school kid Chris’ room and there’s a Picasso poster on the wall, a computer, a copy of “Lord of the Rings” on the night stand so you know he’s an artist and a sci fi guy. It’s a small wood-paneled room. He’s not wealthy. All of those descriptions…they all inform about the character. If you think about it like that and you’re visual about it, you can get across visual storytelling.”
ON HOW WRITING FOR TELEVISION IS DIFFERENT THAN WRITING FOR FILM:
“Writing for television [is a] different structure, different timeline. It gives you the opportunity to really develop plot and character over a longer period of time. It allows the audience to really get to know these characters. It’s more like a book experience rather than a film experience.”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF DEVELOPING YOUR CHARACTERS:
“I make all my students write out long character descriptions with minutiae that will never reach the screenplay, but I always say to them, ‘Make a three-dimensional character that you know you can talk to,’ because essentially you have conversations with these characters. And if you know your character, you’ll understand how they’re going to react. So whatever situation you have, you’re basically creating a sandbox, and you can create the scenario that brings them up or brings them down or that inevitably leads to success or failure…The great thing about screenwriting is that you get to be all these different characters, the good guys, the bad guys. Visualize everything. It’s a daunting task, but then it comes together and it all has to do with great characters…Again, it’s character, character, character.”
ON GETTING A NEGATIVE CRITIQUE, AND HOW TO RESPOND WELL TO CRITICISM OR REJECTION:
“This guy named Steve Zacharias, who wrote ‘Revenge of the Nerds’—this was 20 years ago—I sent him my first draft of my script. I called him, he was a really nice guy…Steve read my script, called me back up, and said, ‘What did you send me? You sent me half a script, and it needs characters that are interesting and scenes that need to be good.’… I wasn’t disheartened. I was re-energized. I went right back to it. I think you need to have that attitude if you’re going to be a writer. I say writing is rewriting… You have to have this attitude of, it doesn’t matter what anyone says, you just have to push forward. I mean it does matter what they say. You have to take notes, and you’re always going to be hearing “No” because the job of the agent or the executive is to weed out and say ‘No.’”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING MENTORS IN THIS INDUSTRY:
“To talk about how important mentors are in this process…I mean you can go to school, but you need mentors along the line. I really believe strongly in that…Stay in touch with your mentor. The mentors that the students are exposed to have real experience in the business, and they have connections to the business.”
PRACTICAL ADVICE ON GETTING YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR, BY ANY MEANS POSSIBLE:
“Being a first-time writer just starting out, you need to put in your 10,000 hours. You just do, because everyone that’s selling scripts can write. No one can’t write. I look at it like you’re in the Olympics or professional sports: That’s the level everyone’s competing at…Be tenacious. If someone doesn’t call you back, you keep on calling, because it’s not personal. They have 30 scripts a day…
For a young screenwriter, it’s hard to think long-term, but you’ve got to think long-term. There is opportunity in television to be staff or a researcher, a more set job within the industry rather than having a speculative career…If you’re young, you have an opportunity to intern, and everyone needs interns, and you could do that and attach yourself to someone who’s doing it, and hold on as tight as you can, because you’ll get your opportunity if you’re around long enough…
Basically, you have one ask from someone. So you build a relationship, if you’re in costumes and know the producer of the film you’re going to be working, at some point later on after you’ve vetted your script, after it is tight—because you’re only going to get one chance—you could ask, ‘Hey, I’ve been writing. I got this vetted. It’s had coverage. Would you cover it? Would you take a look?’…Again, all these guys are looking to say no. So the easier you can make it for them to say ‘yes,’ the better…You’ve got to create situations for them to say yes.”