“Make sure that first page is going to blow them away… because they’re going to pick up the script, read the first page and decide there and then if they’re interested, if you’re a good writer, if they’re even going to turn over to the next page. ”
In an all things Launch Pad Pilots Competition edition of the Mini Series, our new series highlighting our candid interviews with working writers and filmmakers. In this series, we meet with passionate individuals who discuss their writing process and the insight that they’ve gained by working in the industry, who all got their start in the Tracking Board Launch Pad competitions.
TB contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe sat down with Sean Costello, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter who won the 2014 Tracking Board Launch Pad Pilots Competition with his stellar script Paradise City. After his pilot won the first annual Launch Pad Pilots Competition, Sean quickly met with Brooklyn Weaver, who set up the project at Vertigo Entertainment. Costello later saw himself on the 2014 Young and Hungry List. Sean recently took some time out to chat about his experience developing and packaging his Launch Pad script, industry lessons he learned the hard way, how to query someone, and why you’ve got to have a killer page one.
——————⇒ Your Launch Pad winning script Paradise City is now being developed with Vertigo and Energy Entertainment. What has been your experience developing a project at such a high level?
Really amazing! Some of the exciting moments for me, were when we had meetings with directors coming in to pitch for the project. A young, talented director who has a movie out now which is doing really well came to meet with us in late 2014. While he was editing his film, Vertigo had sent him Paradise City. He loved it and put a DVD presentation together.
So here I am, just a guy, sitting in my house, writing screenplays, taking the occasional meeting, and entering The Tracking Board Contest—months later, a very talented, rising director is doing a presentation of his vision for the series. I loved it. I was blown away. He understood the material.
Watching the whole packing process is very interesting. We’re sitting in meetings talking about various showrunners, directors and actors. Trying to figure out what this show is about. What’s driving not only the pilot, but the whole season. How the season will drive the series. We’re figuring out what the core theme is and how each character plays into that.
This is all something that happened because I took an action—took a chance. It’s taken a lot of work to get here, but it’s a lot of fun.
——————⇒ Are you working with other writers or planning to get a writers room together?
SC: At this stage it’s just me—bouncing ideas with the team. I would love to be in a room with writers and a showrunner. I know the era depicted in the pilot very well. I know these characters. I’ve been preparing my whole life for this. If this show gets a shot, I’m more than confident—and excited to see it evolve.
——————⇒ So those 19 other scripts were leading you here?
SC: You know, every script you write, you learn from. They’re also my back-up bag of tricks. I’ll steal a line, a scene or a character from my other work. Some of the core characters and plot points in this pilot came from a different pilot I wrote in 2007! Even the worst script I wrote, there’s still something in there I can use or learn from… and eventually get it right.
Sometimes I go back and try to figure out if I can dust off this one or that one. There are a couple stories I will go back to, but some I will definitely bury them away in a landfill.
——————⇒ What have been the biggest industry lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Find your voice. Always be writing. Always be reading. Listen to the feedback. If you have an idea, test it out with people. But if it sucks, sometimes you’ve got to just leave it.
After I won the Tracking Board, a dear friend of mine who’s a producer came to me with a book he’d optioned and wanted me to adapt. I jumped in. I wrote almost 300 pages before I realized this wasn’t working. Fortunately I write quickly, but that was a lot of time and energy I put into it before I realized I was going in the wrong direction. I think a lot of people spend time working on the wrong project.
What happened is that writing it became a chore for me. I realized I’d lost the passion for it. I would have agreed to anything at that point just to get to the end. I finally got honest with myself when I wasn’t sleeping and I felt angry. I told my friend I needed to stop.
Why I’d gone that far was because I thought if I didn’t finish I was a quitter. But you know what? Sometimes you got to know when to f**king quit. You’ve got to know when to walk away from a bad idea. I’ve seen too many people, they’re dragging around the same project for four years! And you’re like— Dude that’s not working! How I know is because I’ve done that same thing myself.
When I worked at the Writers Guild part of the unsaid rule or understood condition of working there was that you weren’t allowed to tell the professional writers about your own writing. It was like an abuse of access. I never crossed the line. But… This is painful. At one point I had this shitty script, a “slow burn 130-page thriller about astral projection” or something like that. I mailed it to this A-list writer who I’d become somewhat friendly with. Here was the logic: One night at a bar some fellow writers got me amped up; they convinced me that I should—Go for it, man. Mail him the script, dude! I mailed it to his house without even asking. The moment I closed the mailbox I was like—Oh, shit! I was thinking of running the mailbox over with my car just so I could get the package back. Of course, the next time I see the A-list writer he looked like he was going to kill me. I broke that code of trust. He didn’t like me that much. I realized then and there, no one wants to read your script. Let them ask you; never assume.
You’ve got to read good scripts and learn how other writers are doing it. Break it down. Take what works and apply it to your own stuff.
That’s a hard thing to realize. It takes a long time to build that circle of trust to a point where you can get people to read your stuff. And you want them to be honest with you. I’ve had friends read my script and say—do not ever show this to another human being. (Laughter)
And I thought, thank god someone told me! I want people to tell me if something sucks. So then I can say—you know what? It is awful. Next!
It takes practice to write an amazing script that you start reading and the pages just fly by—suddenly you’re on page 22, then page 45. It’s not a chore to read. I can’t tell you how to do that, but I do know if you keep writing, you’re only going to get better at it. It takes practice.
You’ve also got to read scripts. I read 4-5 a week. You’ve got to read good scripts and learn how other writers are doing it. Break it down. Take what works and apply it to your own stuff.
I think you’ve also got to tap into things that are true to who you are, even if they’re dark. Because that honesty will come through in the writing and people will connect with that. Don’t write stuff that you think will please other people. Write stuff that will please you. My journey so far has been writing stuff I like and when I do, people respond to that. If you’re not excited to write it, other people aren’t going to be excited to read it.
——————⇒ What advice would you have for writers thinking about entering the Launch Pad Pilot Competition? Or the Feature Competition, which is also coming up soon.
SC: Make sure it’s ready. Don’t rush it. Proof your script and pick a good title! I’ve sent out scripts to people with typos and shitty titles. Do not think you have to get it out. Take that extra week to get it ready.
Make sure that first page is going to blow them away. No pressure! Just make sure it’s f**king great! Because they’re going to pick up the script, read the first page and decide there and then if they’re interested, if you’re a good writer, if they’re even going to turn over to the next page.
I’ve got a friend who says to me—The first act needs work but just wait until you get to page 40. I’m like—I’m never going to get to page 40! I mean, I will because I love you, but the guy you’re trying to get this script to has 500 scripts to read, he doesn’t love you and you’ve bored him to death with your page one.
——————⇒ I’m hearing that a lot now, page one seems to be the new page ten.
SC: I was at a seminar at the Writers Guild—I still go to them, I love those things—but they went down this five-person panel of huge agents, huge producers, as big as you could get and they asked them ‘when do they know if the writer’s any good?’ All five of them said—page one, page one, page one, page one, page one. It was like, next question.
——————⇒ You’re really talking about craft here. You can’t fake that page one. You’ve got to do the time and learn that craft.
Find your voice. Always be writing. Always be reading. Listen to the feedback.
SC: Absolutely. You’ve got to keep writing and you’ve got to be reading. We’re spoiled rotten in this day and age with the access we have to thousands of scripts online. PDF’s for free and at your fingertips. There’s no excuse not to read and learn. The templates are there. Find the movies scripts with the tone you love and get into it.
The day I decided to be a screenwriter, I was living in New York. I went down to this place in The Village in Manhattan that sold bootleg concert videos. This is before the internet—that does sound f**king old—but I would go down there because they had scripts too, so I brought three screenplays. It cost me $12 a script. I got The Verdict by David Mamet, An Officer and a Gentleman by Douglas Day Stewart and Ordinary People by Alvin Sargent. Three great writers. I sat there, I watched the movies and I read the scripts. I went through and tried to break it down. That’s how I learned screenwriting.
And better yet, these days you can access anyone. With an IMDB Pro account or even if you’re slightly clever and you know how to use Google, you can contact anyone.
Here’s another thing I learned, how to query someone. You write the title of the project in the email subject line and then just say—Hello, here’s a script I just completed. Then just write the logline and say—would you like me to send you a pdf? They know why you’re writing. Those people get hit all day long. Their email boxes get filled. They have one second to make a decision. What’s the title? What’s the logline? If they like it, they’ll request a read. Then when they get it, they’re going to read the first page, which of course, you’ve made sure is a killer first page! There are no excuses.
Contributor Miley Tunnecliffe is -based actress and screenwriter, known for the short films “Love in a Disabled Toilet,” “Bye Bye Lulu,” and “Barnesy’s Numbers.” Her comedic road-trip script, “Run Santos Run,” recently placed in the top 5% of 7500 unproduced screenplays entered in 2014’s Academy Nicholl Fellowships. She is also a co-head of Red Milestone Productions, which is based in Western Australia.
Follow Miley on Twitter: @mileytunn