Two Inspiring Lessons For Screenwriters by Elaine Zicree and Marc Zicree

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Film Courage:  Thinking back to something a mentor said to the two of you individually, maybe even before you met one another, what was it?  Or what statement or mantra never left you?  It could be Ray Bradbury or someone else.

Marc Zicree:  Sure.

Elaine Zicree:  It’s a funny thing but what most affected me was a script doctor, a very good script doctor I had.  And it was a script I’d written and it was one of my favorite scripts ultimately but she said “This is brilliant.  I absolutely love it!  Now here’s the notes….”  but the fact that she said that I was brilliant and that she loved it I thought “Well the heck with a few notes.  I’m brilliant and I love it!” So I think crazy flattery…I realize the weight of allowing somebody to feel special and be special, it was crazy flattering that all of those notes seemed like nothing.  So one of the biggest pieces of advice was ‘Hey, what you’re doing has super value.  Now here’s the work.’  And just going on that thing where I was allowed to have super value at the top of the journey really got me through it as if it was nothing (those notes).

Marc Zicree:  In terms of me (the mentors) what they’ve told me…you know…it’s funny because the mentors who’ve really guided me have been Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Guillermo del toro and what really inspired me was the fact that these are guys that come from enormous enthusiasm, creative enthusiasm.  And one thing Ray said to me was don’t look outside yourself, look within.  And it’s funny there was one time when he and I was sitting together and I said “I just figured out what business you’re in.”  I said “It’s not writer, you’re in the Ray Bradbury business.”  And he said “Yes!  That’s exactly right.”

And so what he was doing was creating something that no one else could create.  And he told me that he wrote every day for 10 years before he wrote a single line, a single word that was uniquely his.  And then one day he sat down and he wrote the words THE LAKE and he wrote a short story based on the time when he was a little boy.  When he was eight years old he and a little girl friend who was seven went swimming in Lake Michigan and he came out and she never did (she drowned).  And it was a story of her coming back as a ghost and they told me that when he finished the story, tears were streaming down his face and he knew that he’d written something that no one else could have written and it came specifically from his experience and his soul.  And it took another two years of writing everyday before he could write something again that was uniquely his.  And then he got to where he could do it again and again and again and he became Ray Bradbury because he was determined to do that.

I thought that was a great lesson to say ‘Okay, what are you creating?  What can you create that isn’t something of what others are doing, but that is unique to you, that no one else could have created, that you create something fresh in the world that’s truthful and meaningful and then you know you’ve done something worth doing.  So that’s been a great inspiration to me.

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Elaine Zicree:  There are so many people, they are afraid of being hurt that they do the safe thing.  So that if somebody says “That’s not very good.”  They can say “I know.  It’s a piece of trash.  I was just doing what everybody else was doing.”  So you do put yourself out for far greater vulnerability.

Marc Zicree:  With something original.

Elaine Zicree:  With something original, but then to not do so is slowly soul-killing.

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“It’s not their responsibility to make the script work, it’s your responsibility.  And so they’ve hired you because you’re a professional writer.  Executives get a bad rap.  Most of them are very smart and very talented and very driven and they’re in the business because they love it.  Everyone wants a script to work.  Everyone wants a movie to work.  Nobody wants to create something that fails, but it’s very challenging.”

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Marc Zicree:  Yes.  Say that quickly.

Elaine Zicree:  I failed to say it quickly.  I fell all over myself. [Laughs]  It is.  It’s like being worn down by the ocean.  Secretly it just does.  So one of the things (as an example) when we work together for TV, if we got a note, it doesn’t matter if it’s a dumb note or not (sometimes the notes were great, but sometimes they were dumb) but we made pact that no matter how dumb the note felt initially we would not hand in that draft until we were able to work that note in, in a way that made it better.

Marc Zicree:  Every draft had to be better than the previous draft and so no matter how challenging the notes were, we would find a way to do that. And my friend Doug Heyes who was one of the great directors of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, he did Eye of the Beholder, The After Hours, and The Howling Man and many other episodes, he was also a very good writer and he said “When you get notes, the executives giving the notes are often not writers and so the note (the solution) they’re offering may not work.  But there’s a concern under the note.  There is something that is not working for them and what they’re saying the solution is may not be the right solution and never put something in your script that doesn’t work.  But you have to look at what the concern is.  You have to figure out what the concern is and address that.  And if you come up with an alternative that does work, they’ll be satisfied even if the solution they offered isn’t the one that you utilize as long as the concern is addressed and that is a great piece of wisdom.

Elaine Zicree:  You really want to maintain a pride of workmanship and not just say “Oh well, you know” and just toss it off.  First of all, you don’t do that to the audience.

Marc Zicree:  Oh no.  You give it your best no matter what.

 

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“There are so many people that are afraid of being hurt so they do the safe thing.  So that if somebody says “That’s not very good.”  They can say “I know.  It’s a piece of trash.  I was just doing what everybody else was doing.”  So you do put yourself out for far greater vulnerability.”

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Elaine Zicree:  Because it represents you and you make it represent you and you see it with people on assembly lines where you develop something you don’t care about versus something you care about and take a little bit of pride in what you do and which I think is just critical to the way that humans work. And yes we put up that fight…I always remember when we were teaching there was a woman who shared with me.  She had an action piece (the man, woman into action thing) and it was like non-stop action, non-stop action.  Going and going and going and the woman said (who was the executive) “Well it sort of drags in the second act. It really drags.”  And she flared but enough to keep it to herself and she said “Well let me look at that.” (That it was dragging in the second act) and said how could it drag because there was non-stop action?  And then it hit her on the way home that it wasn’t that it was non-stop action that in Act 1, she had not set up for us caring sufficiently about the leads and the outcome for those leads for us to care about what kind of threat they were facing because we didn’t care.  And so she said okay, well she’s going to like deepen the characters and much more focus on their need and our investment in their journey.  She’s going to slow down the second act, still keeping it exciting, but she’s going to slow it down so we really know what the struggle is about.  The reason that it seemed slow was that we just didn’t care.  The executive then said “This is much better.  Now it really rolls along.”  Now she couldn’t analyze why she didn’t care in the second act but she was dead on.  By the second act we were getting restive and simply didn’t care because we didn’t know who was in the struggle.  And so why would we care?

Film Courage:  So sometimes [the note giver] doesn’t communicate what’s really going on, they just know that the story is falling flat?

Elaine Zicree:  Yes.

Marc Zicree:  It’s not their responsibility to make the script work, it’s your responsibility.  And so they’ve hired you because you’re a professional writer.  Executives get a bad rap.  Most of them are very smart and very talented and very driven and they’re in the business because they love it.  Everyone wants a script to work.  Everyone wants a movie to work.  Nobody wants to create something that fails, but it’s very challenging.  I mean, it’s hard to make anything good.  But if you decide that you’re going to give everything your best effort.  That you’re going to bring everything you’ve got to every job, that’s a good starting point.  That’s been true in my whole career.

I started in animation and whether it was writing SMURFS or SPACE COMMAND (and I don’t just write things with an ’S’ starting in the title).  But you say Okay, I’m going to bring everything I’ve got to this and that gives you a certain professional integrity.

Elaine Zicree:  And the executives they’re paid to get a sense of the story but you’re paid because you have the analysis in your brain to say “Okay, there is something wrong.  I have to figure out what is wrong (specifically)” but they’ve picked up that something is wrong and you’re probably accurate.

Marc Zicree:  But sometimes that is why it’s good to have friends who are very talented so that if you’re stuck, you can call them and say “Can we just bat this thing around a little bit? I’ve got to figure this out.”  And Elaine is my sounding board.  Sometimes it will be like “Okay, this works.  But how can we make this better.  How can we make it go deeper?  How can it be more meaningful?”  And that’s very important.

 

Question for the Viewers:  What part of this video did you enjoy most?

 

 

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About Marc and Elaine:

Working both together and individually, writer-producer-directors Marc Scott Zicree and Elaine Zicree have sold over 100 teleplays, screenplays and pilots to every major studio and network, including landmark stories for such shows as STAR TREK– THE NEXT GENERATION, DEEP SPACE NINE, THE NEW TWILIGHT ZONE, BABYLON 5, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, FOREVER KNIGHT, SLIDERS, LIBERTY’S KIDS, SUPERFRIENDS, HE-MAN, REAL GHOSTBUSTERS and SMURFS. Their work has been nominated for the American Book Award, Humanitas Prize, Diane Thomas Award, and Hugo and Nebula Awards, and they’ve won the TV Guide Award, prestigious Hamptons Prize and 2011 Rondo and Saturn Awards. Fans of their work include Steve Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Ray Bradbury, Damon Lindelof, Frank Darabont, Joss Whedon and millions of fans around the world (Read more here).

 

 

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