Conceived by Geneviève Appleton, a director, editor, and producer with White Wave Productions, and sponsored by the founder of Aspiring Canadian Writers Contests (ACWC) Heidi Stock, the 2015 Screenwriter Mentor Experience takes submissions of short film screenplays of up to 10 pages from across Canada. Appleton, who is also the contest’s main judge, will create a short list from the entries from which the top three will be selected by a panel of judges which currently include Appleton along with Maureen Dorey, a freelance story editor and screenwriting professor and Elise Cousineau, the Head of Development and Production Executive at Sienna Films. The grand prize winner will receive online script editing sessions with Appleton as well as a mentoring session on how to take a script from the page to the screen with Navin Ramaswaran, an independent director/editor.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities out there really for novice or unproduced screenwriters to submit their works. It’s very rare at all that a producer or any other agency will read unsolicited scripts, especially in Canada. Everybody is just so busy trying to get the work in their own portfolios made that they don’t really have time to be wading through piles of scripts that may or may not be professional. I’m hoping to bridge that gap and introduce screenwriters to the types of incubator programs that exist and make sure that their script would make a first cut of those types of organizations.” This desire to help aspiring screenwriters get their work onscreen led to the creation of the 2015 Screenwriter Mentor Experience.
As the head judge, Appleton is “going to be looking at the scripts from a professional standpoint. Is this a project that I can see on the screen? First of all, is it following industry standards? That’s a good indication if the writer is professional or not, or making an attempt to be professional. I’ll be looking at it also from a screenwriting perspective as a professor. Does the story work? Does it carry me along? Do I want to keep reading? Do I care about the characters? Is the imagery strong? Because cinema, of course is an image based medium. Is this more of a radio play? Or is it more of a sitcom? Or is it actually a script that will work well on a big screen?” Ramaswaran also stresses the importance of professionalism in the scripts. “Grammar, spelling mistakes, that’s my pet peeve. If you’ve made a single spelling mistake in the script, it’s gone unless it’s so captivating I can’t put it down, but you have to proof your script. Final Draft has spell check.” Appleton is also looking for scripts that she “feels are close to being ready to submit for funding and production. I’ll hopefully be finding something that I can share with other producers and distributors and help the person find funding.”
I’m hoping to bridge that gap and introduce screenwriters to the types of incubator programs that exist and make sure that their script would make a first cut of those types of organizations.
Once the winning script has been selected by the judges, Ramaswaran steps in to provide feedback on how to develop a ‘finished’ script for the screen. He emphasizes that “the most important aspect in any art form, but specifically in film making, whether it’s writing or directing, is having enough time to develop the script. With a lot of writers, a lot of filmmakers, it’s such a rush to get the movie made that often times first drafts get made. It’s a whole different thing getting a script ready for production versus something that you’re happy with. A lot of people are so protective over their script. They’re so hesitant to show other people for feedback and get other people to read it. And I get that, I understand that, but you need to let it go to make it a better product. Writing is very intimate. It’s just you and your thoughts essentially, but getting a few people that you trust, writers, mentors, people like that, to read it are a great option to get articulate feedback on your script which is so important.”
Ramaswaran continued speaking about working on the script even once filming begins. “Then there’s the process when you are making that jump or transition from page to screen. That’s a whole other process because, especially on a small budget indie movie, your job doesn’t end as a writer. You’re still writing and rewriting stuff as actors are cast and locations are found. You’re constantly changing things. To tie in with that, there’s the collaboration between the writer and the director, the writer and the producers and making all the bridging from one end to the other end of it. It’s such an important process that often times people skip little steps that result in sub-par products, sub-par movies. The screenplay is the blueprint. It’s the foundation for any movie and if you have a mediocre script your foundation is wobbly to begin with and when you build up on that, it’s a disaster.”
Appleton also stresses the importance of remembering “that scripts are blueprints for productions. If you don’t know how to make a film, then it’s going to be hard to write for film. It’s one thing to be an audience member and watch, and we learn a lot by doing that, but it’s also important to compare what you’re watching to the actual script. So go online, there’s a lot of databases of scripts and try to find the actual script that was written by the screenwriter (as opposed to a transcript) and then comparing the script to what ends up onscreen and seeing how it was written. In particular scripts are written in a very direct form describing what we see and hear on the screen. They shouldn’t be editorializing. They shouldn’t be explaining anything because the audience isn’t going to have the benefit of having things explained to them. What they see is what they get and they have to figure out and decode the meaning.”
The screenplay is the blueprint. It’s the foundation for any movie and if you have a mediocre script your foundation is wobbly to begin with and when you build up on that, it’s a disaster.
Both Appleton and Ramaswaran agree that mentorship opportunities like The Screenwriting Mentorship Experience are extremely important for aspiring writers. “One of the reasons why [Ramaswaran] said yes to this right away is that I strongly believe in programs like this, you know mentorship and especially practical experience. I went to school for film, but I truly learned by being on set, by talking to other people who do it, by shadowing people, other directors. I think that’s an invaluable experience and especially something like this, where you’re getting the information from the horses mouth.”
Appleton hopes to bring attention to the opportunities there are available for aspiring writers to get their work out there and receive feedback. Incubator programs like Praxis, programs through the Canadian Film Centre as well as continuing education courses at the University of Toronto, Ryerson and York University, which has a dedicated screenwriting program at both the undergraduate and graduate level, are all places for screenwriters to make connections in the industry and get their work out there. A good first step however would be to enter the 2015 Screenwriter Mentor Experience which is accepting entries until June 30, 2015 or to one hundred entries, whichever comes first.
Appleton says, “Remember that they say ninety percent of communication is nonverbal and not to rely so much on dialogue to move the story forward. Realize that people speak when they have to speak and for a reason that has to be as motivated as action. And then try to submit to contests.”
The mentor’s final words of advice for aspiring screenwriters? Appleton suggests “taking your iPhone or Android or whatever camera you can get a hold of and start rehearsing, preferably with some actors who are trying to break into the industry as well, but even with friends. Working with actual actors who are going to be speaking those lines and acting out those lines, making them come to life. Remember that they say ninety percent of communication is nonverbal and not to rely so much on dialogue to move the story forward. Realize that people speak when they have to speak and for a reason that has to be as motivated as action. And then try to submit to contests.”
Ramaswaran believes that “the key is to get your first script made. You meet people all the time who have a script, who have written a script, who are writing a script. There’s nothing better than a calling card where you can go to someone and say ‘here’s my movie. I wrote it, it’s great.’ That’s important because then you have something tangible, it’s not just words on paper anymore. Having said that, it’s important to go through the proper steps to get there. Go through the proper process of making it. Make sure you have a solid script. Make sure you proof read it. Be patient with it. Step away from it for a couple days or a couple of weeks, then come back and look at it because you’ll be surprised how your perception of it is different. Talk to other writers, but remember at the end of the day, it’s everyone’s opinion versus your work and what you believe in. If you strongly believe in something and the content of the script, then go for it.”