Interview: Paul Zeidman, on the Black List

Paul ZIf you are not aware, let me fill you in on the Black List (blcklst.com). Of course, if you want some real details you can read the thousands of pages worth of forum discussion on DoneDealPro, but I will give the quick version, as follows: For $25 a month the Black List will host your script where, in theory, industry professionals can see it and make you famous. But the common belief is you need to receive some good scores before anyone will care that your script is on there. To do so, you should pay the Black List’s experienced readers $50 to read and rate your script, and if they give it a good score, the Black List folks will promote your script around Hollywood via newsletters. It is best to pay for two reads, as there are a few stories out there of people receiving a three and an eight or nine on the same script. So you never know. But you have to pay for a read to get noticed.

Or do you?

Not according to what happened with Paul. But instead of me boring you further, let us ask him directly. I had the opportunity to interview Paul about his experience with the Black List and finding representation, about his writing process, his blog, and how makes this all happen. If you enjoy writer interviews, his blog has a series of interviews ongoing with script readers and consultants.

(This interview first appeared in an older post on BayAreaScreenwriters.com)

Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience, Paul. I understand you recently posted a script on the Black List, and have had some positive first steps from this bold move. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Paul Zeidman: This is actually a very long-winded answer. I originally posted my script Dreamship on the Black List back at the end of January. Two weeks later, I got an email saying a real live industry professional had downloaded it.

It was also around this time I decided to enter the script in the new Launchpad competition from Tracking Board (TB). The entry fee was reasonable, and I’d heard good things about TB. Apart from the Nicholl every couple of years I hardly ever submit to competitions, but I figured, “Why not?”

About a week later, I got an email from my industry professional. His name was Sean Butler. He was a manager, and wanted to talk over the phone about possibly working with me.

A few days later, we chatted. First about our respective backgrounds, then the script. He was very enthusiastic about it, and felt it was very reminiscent of kid-oriented adventure films from the ‘80s (like The Goonies). Even better, he thought it had enormous potential.

The deal was signed.

Next up was working with his assistant Chris on a rewrite. Scenes and characters were fleshed out, giving the story more depth. I didn’t agree with all of his suggestions, but things moved along quite nicely.

Then right around Memorial Day weekend, I got an email from the Tracking Board people saying my script was one of 25 semifinalists. I can’t begin to describe how much of a vindication this was for all the years of working on countless drafts of this and other scripts. Of course I daydreamed about making it to the finals or maybe even winning, but accepted that just being a semifinalist was still great.

JS: I read the script and have to say, I loved it. I can certainly see why someone would scoop it up. Where did you come up with the inspiration for this story? Does having a daughter inspire the child in you? As a fellow writer of family scripts, I would like to know: when you are writing such a story are you cognizant of how it will play for children and adults?

PZ: Thanks for the kind words about the script. I always like to describe it as “Retro sci-fi steampunk pirates.” The idea stemmed from an earlier script of mine about ghost pirates. Ironically, right after I completed that original first draft, Disney announced they were making a movie based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which of course involved ghost pirates. So I changed my story so it was about ghost cowboys.

But I’d always loved this mental image of a ghostly pirate ship sailing above suburban rooftops. I tried to figure out how I could work that into a different story. Several tweaks and variations on that resulted in the script I have today. This is why you should hold on to earlier work.

My daughter isn’t a huge influence in how or what I write. But in the end, I try to write material that not only I would want to see, but what maybe we would enjoy together. You want to write something that kids will get, but isn’t too far over their heads, as well as smart enough for adults. Star Wars is still a good example of this.

JS: I see you write a blog, Maximum Z, on screenwriting, where you share your wisdom. What do you hope to get out of such a blog? I am often curious about such blogs (as I try to run one myself). Do you find it functions primarily as a way of keeping track of your thoughts? Networking? Do you find it distracts from that precious screenwriting time?

PZ: I see the blog as a kind of forum for me to try and give out helpful tips when it comes to screenwriting, and to chronicle my own personal progress for writing and how my career is developing. I never claim to be an expert—far from it—but there’s always going to be somebody out there writing his or her first script, and maybe one or two of my posts can help him or her along.

I’ve connected with a lot of other screenwriters with similar experience, but don’t know if any industry folks have checked it out. If they have, they’re certainly not letting me know about it.

In terms of taking time away from actual writing, I’m lucky that it doesn’t. My day job is being a traffic reporter on the radio, so my workday begins a little before 5AM (and no, I don’t fly in the helicopter). Since there are a few sizable gaps of time between reports, I’ll keep one eye on the roads while jotting down a few sentences for that day’s post.

With my daughter’s busy schedule, most of my writing is done while she’s at soccer practice or Hebrew school. An hour and twenty minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but you’d be surprised how many pages you can crank out during it—especially if your outline is rock-solid and ready to go.

JS: It was great to meet your daughter, and you two seem to have a wonderful relationship. How do you have time to write, work, and raise a family?

PZ: I’m very lucky in that my daughter will occasionally ask me to tell her the story of one of my older scripts, or about the one I’m currently working on.

I’m also extremely fortunate to have a wife who’s been very, very understanding and supportive of me going after a career in screenwriting. She’s always the first one to read my outlines and pages, and gives some great feedback. A lot of times, we’ll discuss a movie we’ve just seen from a writer’s point of view (e.g. “Yeah, it was a great concept, but the characters just weren’t that interesting.”)

JS: What do you think of the contests out there? Is the Black List just another avenue? You have been writing quite a while, what made you decide to try out the Black List?

PZ: Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t submit to a lot of contests. It really comes down to two factors: the script and the money. I may like the script I’m working on, but hardly ever feel it’s ready to submit. And contrary to popular belief, working in radio isn’t exactly a very high-paying job, and some of those contests are pretty expensive, so I have to be extra-choosy about which ones I do.

I think you should pick the ones that have the best chance of helping you build your career. I doubt anybody’s writing just for the hell of it. I’d recommend the Nicholl (definitely), Tracking Board’s Launchpad (naturally), TrackingB, PAGE, Just Effin Entertain Me, and maybe the BlueCat. Sure, there are a ton of others out there, but these are the ones that can really make a difference.

The Black List making themselves open to amateur submissions may be one of the biggest opportunities a writer could ask for, but you really have to make sure your script is absolutely bulletproof before sending it in. It’s been a while since I’ve seen how many scripts they’ve received they started doing this, but it was hovering somewhere just above 9,000. You are literally going up against just about everybody else out there. This is where the adage applies: don’t give ‘em a reason to say no.

I decided to send my script in to the Black List because I thought it was ready. This thing had gone through a ton of drafts and rewrites based on feedback and notes from professional analysts, trusted colleagues, and a little gut instinct. I was already planning on submitting it to the Nicholl, and then they made the announcement about accepting submissions (mid-December, I think).

So after one more read-through, I sent it in. No regrets, and results far beyond what I could have imagined.

JS: How about LA? Do you feel you can live up here and pursue a career in screenwriting? Would you ever consider relocating?

PZ: I used to host a weekly online radio show where I’d talk to established writers and screenwriting gurus. One of the questions I’d ask, especially to those who didn’t live in Los Angeles, was “Do you need to live in LA to make it as a screenwriter?” It was evenly split between “yes” and “no.”

If you’re fresh out of college, or at least still in your 20s, single, and have nothing really tying you down, then you should seriously consider taking the plunge. If relocating isn’t an option, it’ll be harder; but is still doable, thanks to this wondrous thing called “the Internet.” You can email a script as a PDF, or conduct a meeting via Skype. You might not be able to network in person, but I’ve connected with a lot of people via Twitter, LinkedIn, Stage 32, and my blog. Geography is fast becoming the remaining insurmountable barrier.

I’m very lucky to live in San Francisco. We love it here, and really have no desire to relocate to LA. Hopefully once things get started for my career, it’s not a big deal for me to fly down there.

 

For Paul’s interview and others like his, see my ebook Writing Screenplays, an excerpt from the full book Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. 

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