Screenwriter Interview – Richard Finney

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On Writing For Hollywood in the 21st Century - "I really recommend the mindset of outrageous amibition for all screenwriters." 

Richard Finney HeadshotRichard Finney is a Los Angeles based screenwriter and a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA). He is also an award winning film producer and novelist.

His screenwriting career began at Walt Disney Pictures working on a project that became the movie Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. He subsequently set up a series of movie projects including pitch sales at Touchstone Pictures, Warner Brothers, and his biggest pitch sale… to Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks.

As an independent producer, Finney has produced twelve films starring such actors as Academy Award winning actress Melissa Leo, Katherine Heigl, Giovanni Ribissi, and Oliver Hudson. As a screenwriter and producer, Finney has worked at most of the major studios and production companies including Sony, Universal, ABC, Fox TV, 20th Century Fox, Lion’s Gate, CBS and the Lifetime network.

On Screenplays Strange and Deviant: What Did Aristotle Know About Screenwriting?

Written by Arik Cohen on .

AristotleYou know that pop song that gets stuck in your head?  You know, the one you end up loving despite all your defenses against it?  It’s sort of a lazy song actually, perhaps it’s even bad, but boy is it catchy.  British pop singer Cher Lloyd has a few tracks that I admit I love, even though they are sort of horrible and have titles like “Swagger Jagger”.  I’ve heard people mention “Call Me Maybe” as a song they hate to love.  I would bet every person reading this has a pop song that you absolutely adore, have on a Spotify playlist, have synced onto your ipod, but wouldn't play in front of your significant other until at least ten years into the relationship.

Well, what happens when a script reader comes across the screenplay equivalent to this pop song?


It’s an interesting question.  As a judge in a screenplay competition, it’s my job to give every script a fair shot to impress, so what happens when I subjectively love the ever-loving crap out of a script that I objectively hate?  What happens when a script is sort of terrible, perhaps even lazy, but somehow I still like it?  It happens more than you think.

Take a script I read earlier in this contest that I will refer to as SCRIPT-A.  Now, SCRIPT-A doesn’t have a third act.  It just isn’t there.  The characters are pretty wooden.  The real title is something that just makes you groan and the plot is hard to follow.  It is objectively a bad screenplay.  But somehow it’s never truly boring.  It’s always fascinating.  Not in a so-bad-it’s-good way, but it somehow wins you over with its incredible confidence in writing, despite the fact that it really shouldn’t be so confident.  It’s like when you play Chess against someone who plays such a bad game that he’s unpredictable, and even though he’s a terrible opponent it’s fun as hell to play against him because – unlike all the other chess players – you truly don’t know what he’s going to do next.

When I finish the last page of a script like this (usually ending in 80 pages or 140 pages, these sort of scripts ignore page-count convention, though I think out of ignorance), I now have a conundrum.  I’m supposed to grade this script on its different attributes.  How were the characters?  The story?  The structure?  The writer’s voice?  Well I guess, technically, they’re bad.  The characters are mediocre at best. The story is undercooked.  The structure deviant for no reason and the writer’s voice is just “okay”.  But despite all that I LIKED this script!  Something about it spoke to me.  Is this what Aristotle meant when he said "the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts"? Like a viral pop song, something about it made it fascinating and enjoyable.  At the end of the day, someone wrote a script, I read it, I enjoyed it.  Shouldn’t I give it a positive review?  But how can I give it a positive review if the different attributes are all poor?  How can I give it a positive review if I can’t defend it?

So what do I do?  Do I send it to the second round because I enjoyed it?  Or do I give it a “pass” because it’s just technically bad on so many levels?

There are movies that fit this criteria.  The most obvious example for me is Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, a strange, abstract, ostentatious piece of filmmaking.  After the success of Donnie Darko, it seems Kelly was given carte blanche on creative output.  The result is a film that critics called “incoherent”, “pretentious”, “immature”, and “misdirected.”  Audiences avoided it like the plague, making it a box office failure and a home video failure, never really achieving the cult success of its predecessor.

Yet I love it.  I love the hell out of it.  I bought the blu-ray at full price.  I kept the blu-ray in my car when I worked on the Disney Studios lot since my boss was friends with Southland Tales­-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (I wanted to have it handy for him to sign if he ever showed up, but he never did).  Sure the characters are inhuman, the plot overly complicated, and the tone goofy, but nobody can call it boring.  Every moment is something off the wall and crazy.  Once a musical number breaks out at the midpoint where an injured drug-dealing ex-soldier (played by freagin’ Justin Timberlake) starts lip-syncing a track from The Killers for no obvious tonal, story, or thematic reason, you just have to let go and soak it all in.

I can’t defend Southland Tales to my friends.  I’ve tried, but I fail.  Sometimes a work connects to you on a level that’s either difficult or impossible to explain.  (For Southland Tales I think it’s the film’s dream-like tone that resonates with me.  I have strange, abstract dreams and this film feels like it could be one of them.)  But whatever it is I don’t trash talk the film because I admit its faults.  I didn’t refuse to purchase the blu-ray for $29.99 because I couldn’t explain my love for it to other people effectively.  I will give it my full support.

And that’s what I did with SCRIPT-A.  I can totally see another judge in the second round squashing its dreams of being this year’s winner.  I can totally see that judge coming to me afterwards and asking what the hell I was thinking.  “How could you send this to the second round?” they’d ask.  “The characters are mediocre at best. The story is undercooked.  The structure deviant for no reason and the writer’s voice is just okay.”

“I know.” I’d reply.  “I agree with every criticism you lob at it, but I liked it.  I can’t defend it, but I enjoyed it.  Because even though I figured you probably wouldn’t like it, there was small chance you would see in it what I did.  And I’ll be damned if I didn’t give a script that entertained me that chance.” 

I’ll quit this business before I have to reject a script for objective reasons that I subjectively loved.  I’d quit and then go home and watch Southland Tales while listening to “Swagger Jagger”.  Keep your objective perfection, I’m hanging with my homies Cher Lloyd and Richard Kelly. 

Productive Feedback vs Negative Criticism: Taking Notes on Your Screenplay

Written by Arik Cohen on .

muppet-criticsI have an actor friend (in Los Angeles? WHAT ARE THE ODDS?!)  Let’s call him Fred.  Now Fred was in a small play in the area, though it was big enough to attract a review from an online LA theater site.  He read the review, and it was positive for the show, but not for him.  Poor Fred got a critical review.  It wasn’t angry, it wasn’t worded as “Fred sucks” or anything like that.  It was all legitimate criticism.  As expected, Fred didn’t take it well.  Fred is a man with a big, delicate ego (in Los Angeles? WHAT ARE THE ODDS?!)  He dismissed the fair criticism entirely.  He passed it off as jealousy or envy.  “He’s probably just pissed he didn’t make it as an actor,” Fred claimed, “And he’s taking it out on us actors with the guts to go for what we want.”

Making The Point Loud and Clear

Written by Arik Cohen on .

exclamation pointI try to not use these blog posts to discuss pet peeves.  I also tried many times to avoid eating all my Halloween candy in one day when I was 11.  Sometimes we just fail.

I remember at an early age I acquired the Milton Berle joke book known as Milton Berle's Private Joke File: Over 10,000 of His Best Gags, Anecdotes, and One-Liners.  It was full to the brim with zingers, groaners, and enough great one-liners to fill a vaudeville stage.  I read through the book almost daily in middle school, using it as my secret shortcut to being funny.  But even at that young age I noticed something:  Practically every single joke ended in an exclamation point.

And I hated it.

It's Good Enough To Ship - The Search for Perfection

Written by Fresh Voices on .

by Arik Cohen

Pursuit of excellence

How do Bridezillas happen?  They happen when someone seeks absolute perfection where absolute perfection is impossible.  They happen when 99% isn’t enough.  They happen when you have someone who believes that everything must be in the right place or it should never be done at all.  Bridezillas should never be writers.

Why Do You Write?

Written by Fresh Voices on .

unproduced screenplays - Photo Sharon Terry

I came across this picture on the internet the other day and it reminded me of a Los Angeles billboard ad campaign a few years ago for a nationwide bank that was just making its presence known in the City of Angels.  I can’t quite remember which bank it was.  I could research it, but the specific name doesn’t really matter.  What matters is the slogan on one of their ads overlooking the infamous Hollywood & Vine intersection:  

“More ATMs in LA than Unproduced Screenplays!”

I might be paraphrasing here, but the point is clear:  Hollywood is so notorious for its plethora of screenplays that it’s being used as a marketing gimmick.  But this isn’t just some unfair stereotype, this is true.  Hollywood is home to an insane number of screenplays flailing about without purpose or support.    There are a whole lot of people who decided to write a screenplay.

Winning The Screenplay Context

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"Exposition is to your screenplay like green beans are to Thanksgiving Dinner"

Script ContextYou need to have it, but nobody really likes it.  Even big budget films can fall under the weight of their exposition, and that's despite having screenwriters at the helm who have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to craft the story. 

Exposition is, fundamentally, context.  It's the story behind your photo.  It's history behind the first kiss.  It's the backdrop that adds or takes away from the conflict of any given scene.  For example, your script opens with two men in the midst of a brawl.  Punching.  Kicking.  Shoving.  There's conflict present and an immediate thrill.  But context is what will allow us to understand this scene as it relates to the story. If these are two men fighting over the love of a woman, you'll look at this scene one way.  If they are two rival agents from enemy countries fighting over the codes to a nuclear bomb, it's now an entirely different scene.

An Interview with Matt Lohr: Coauthor of the new book, Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure

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Dan Obannions Guide To Screenplay StructureFresh Voices recently met with Matt Lohr, co-author of the new book, "Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure", for an informative interview about the book and what sets it's approach to screenwriting apart from so many others. As well as an author, Matt is a screenwriter, blogger, and contributes articles to many screenwriting magazines and websites including Creative Screenwriting and Fresh Voices. Matt is also a script consultant and can be requested for script analysis and development services through Fresh Voices. If you like the interview, you can purchase this book for 25% of the cover price at www.mwp.com

Screenwriter Profile: Stephen M. Hunt

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2012 Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition Grand Prize Winner

Stephen Hunt lo-resStephen M. Hunt won the Grand Prize Award of the 2012 Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition. Stephen, an accomplished British playwright, lives in the south of France. His 1999 radical adaptation of The Merchant of Venice opened to rave reviews. His three year collaboration with Hildegard Neil (Royal Shakespeare Company) resulted in an award winning and highly celebrated six month regional tour of his stage play Impossible Steps.

Read what Stephen had to say about winning Fresh Voices and what's been happening since his win!!

The Subjectivity of Judging Screenplays

Written by Fresh Voices on .

"Hey judge, what do you look for in a winning script?"

scales of justiceSo here's the inside scoop: There's a secret checklist.  It's ten points, and we go through your script and see if it has the ten elements.  Elements such as "A character named Jake" and "The word 'gregarious' on page 63."  If you have all ten, you make it to the next round!

I wish.  I totally wish.

How easy it would be if it was mathematical.  How simple it would be if this was not subjective at all.  I could go through ten scripts in an hour and then spend the rest of the day laid out on Venice Beach sipping a Pina Colada.  But it is very subjective.  And that's what's great about it and why I do it.  I love movies, I love screenplays, and I love subjectivity.

So "What do you look for in a winning script?" might not be the right way to phrase the question.  "What qualities do winning scripts tend to have?" might be better. And although there aren't specific elements that I require every script to have, there are a few things I -- and most readers -- tend to gravitate towards: