Since I’m preparing for the Austin Film Festival (AFF) 2015, I thought it’d be fun to rehash my interview with Chris Jalufka, who I met my first year at the AFF. It’s been a long journey, and a fun one! I hope to meet many of you at the AFF this year, and if you are able to make it, come find me (I’m one of the panelist on the writing for games panel).
To find this interview and many more like it, check out my book: Creative Writing Career.
Chris Jalufka is a former script reader and collector of other production and post- production jobs in the film and advertising industries. Currently he is the writer and keeper of the art focused site Evil Tender Dot Com. He is included here for his views of structure, conferences, and as a professional reader.
Justin Sloan: Chris, you have worked as a reader in Hollywood and elsewhere, and done well in some contests, to include the Austin Film Festival’s screenplay contest. As a reader, what have you learned about screenwriting that you may have not been aware of before?
Chris Jalufka: The one thing that years of reading unproduced scripts teaches you is in fact the greatest lesson a writer can learn—no matter what, this is all subjective. Getting good feedback doesn’t mean anything. Bad feedback doesn’t mean anything. Write what you want to write. Don’t get hung up on the opinions of others, good or bad. Move forward, always.
I’ve had my bouts with trying to write what I thought others wanted. Living in Los Angeles I grew a new sensibility that was pure mainstream and blockbuster focused, which is not the way I write. The stories I’m attracted to tend to be introspective and character driven. When I look back and read what I wrote and re-wrote while in Los Angeles, it’s not me. It’s not the type of writing I want to spend time with.
The second lesson culled from years of reading is the need for clarity. Novels are allowed to be a slow burn. Scripts need to be lean. Get rid of clutter yet maintain depth of story and character. Easy enough, right?
Being a reader helps you develop your eye for what works and what doesn’t and more importantly, helps you develop the language you need to get it across to the writer. As the reader that was always my main goal – what can I say to the writer to help them in their re-write? But also to let them know where I’m coming from so they can choose to listen to me or not. For example, I’ve read scripts for children’s made-for-TV films, like what you’d see on the Disney Channel. That’s not a genre I’m well versed in, so I’d make that clear in my notes. That’s another lesson learned – to be able to put yourself in another writer’s shoes and find what they were going for.
JS: What are your views on screenplay structure, and do you have any books on writing you would recommend?
CJ: Structure has always been my weak spot. I’ve read a handful of the popular ‘how to’ books and honestly what helped me the most are two things –
- Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style
- Watching films I love (and some I don’t) and writing out their structure.
The Elements of Style is a great book for basic grammar and tips on being succinct. Again, clarity is key.
Screenwriting books, I’m not so interested in. I’d rather sit with a notepad and watch Wall Street and track the structure of a film I admire. I’m of the thinking that every novel made is a ‘how-to’ on structure. Every film is there to teach.
I should have started with this, but going to film school you’re fed those story and structure books and hey, look! Your teacher even wrote one! I’m skeptical of anyone who writes a ‘how-to’ book. Just my prejudice.
When the history of Hollywood is built on every production company and producer looking for the secret recipe for a successful film and they still haven’t found a working formula, only the most basic of ideas are in those books.
JS: Did placing well in contests such as Austin, and attending the festival, help you as a writer?
CJ: It’s a bit of an ego boost. It builds the confidence. Gets the blood hot. For a day or two every idea you have and word you write feels perfect. Brilliant. Then, a few days later, it fades.
Placing in contests didn’t make me a better writer but the experience encourages you to look closer at the process. It can make you a more focused writer. I started to get picky about what I entered. Who are the judges? What have they done? Anything good? How relevant is this contest to the actual filmmaking world? What’s the prize? At $50 plus an entry, I was looking for benefits to placing, and potentially winning.
Having read for contests I saw that some can be easy ways for a producer or company to make money on, and there are also those unknown variables. I read for one competition arranged by a producer who was looking for an ‘urban romantic comedy.’ He knew they were cheap to make and easy to sell. Nowhere in the contest description was that mentioned. If he had mentioned it all of those aspiring writers with vampire stories and period pieces wouldn’t have entered.
I pretty much lost faith that contests are worth the entry fee, but I did find one benefit – I enjoyed the deadlines. Knowing that I had to have a final draft ready to send off on a certain date to enter Nicholl or Austin was a huge bonus. A calendar full of deadlines is exciting.
JS: Focusing on the Austin Film Festival and any other writing events you may have attended, where do you stand on these conferences now and why?
CJ: They’re great social environments – I love to make new friends and talk about what I love, but these days unless I’m going as an audience member to watch new and exciting films, I’m not interested.
An environment like the Austin Film Festival is fun and has some great speakers and events but I realized they’re not for me. Yeah, I’m an aspiring screenwriter, but what they offer isn’t what I’m looking for. Not anymore. We don’t all need the same type of encouragement.
As hobbies go, or as career aspirations go, screenwriting is a pretty bad call. If you wanted to play basketball professionally what would you do?
- Buy a basketball.
- Find a basketball court.
- Play pickup games or join a local league.
- Repeat steps 2 through 4.
- When you’re skills are up, try out for a professional team.
You may never become a professional basketball player but you would have played basketball and had all the joys and benefits of that experience. If you want to be a screenwriter you can write scripts, but the goal is not truly fulfilled until what you wrote is on a screen. You’ve just been dribbling.
There are plenty of crap movies made from crap scripts every year, so why follow anything you hear at a conference or read in a book telling you that if your script is crap it won’t get made? You need the experience of making a crap film the way a basketball player needs the experience of getting shut down. Experience makes you stronger. Leaner.
So that’s where I’m at. I just want to make stuff. Writing and then trying to coerce someone to read my script and hoping they’ll like it enough to put money behind it and maybe get it made doesn’t appeal to me anymore. Save money to shoot your film yourself. Hire a director, editor, and cameraman. Cast it. Be the producer.
If I were going to the Austin Film Festival again I’d bypass the badges and the talks, the private parties and events and just hang out at the bar of the Driskill Hotel. There you’ll run into other writers but also directors and actors, editors and other filmmakers. It’s one of the greatest experiences to just chat with someone over a beer about making movies and writing, getting inspired on a personal level. But that’s what I need to get inspired. The casual spur of conversation.
There’s a point, I think, where you graduate from screenwriting contests, writing panels, and all of that. After film school and working in Los Angeles and doing the festival route I felt I was hearing the same thing over and over.
JS: Do you continue to write? If so, does surrounding yourself with art fuel your creative process?
CJ: I write at least an hour a day, but usually more. I’m writing for my site and short stories. Scripts have lost their place on my priority list.
Having art stuffs around is just in the fabric of my life. I spend a lot of time seeking out new art – books, movies, posters, comics. Whatever. When I get ‘stuck’ I go on Tumblr or something like that and look for art that strikes me the right way, then spend hours going through artist galleries and just researching. The internet is a wonderful thing.
Actually my last visit to the Austin Film Festival is what inspired me to move away from being an aspiring screenwriter. It was an awesome time and I met a ton of great folks, but I realized if I wanted to see my scripts made I’d have to do it myself. Turning it into a career, making money at screenwriting, wasn’t, or still isn’t, my goal. I’ve always been a DIY type of person.
JS: Your site, EvilTender.com features some amazing artists. What brought you to focus more on visual artists and less on writers?
CJ: My first love was drawing. I’d gone to the Academy of Art in San Francisco since junior high, taking Saturday classes and summer school. My major there was printmaking, specializing in etching. I was doing a series of prints trying to tell stories, so I switched to film thinking it would be an easier way to combine storytelling and writing.
Evil Tender was always meant to be about working artists. There’s a strange thing that happens when an artist attempts to make a living at their craft—the fine artist becomes an illustrator, the poet writes commercials. The guitarist plays in a wedding band. That idea of ‘selling out’ gets tossed around, which is hard to describe. If the concept of ‘selling out’ actually exists, earning ‘legal tender’ gets tainted as ‘evil tender.’ A silly play on words for the title of a site, but I’m stuck with it.
I have a ton of friends who have their own businesses or work freelance and I wanted to do interviews with those types of folk – skilled people who bypassed the traditional career routes to work for themselves. I love the spirit of it, the ‘do it yourself’ mentality of not waiting for someone to make your dreams come true.
The site has featured writers, actors, and musicians – basically anyone whose work has crossed my path that caught my fancy and got me excited. By going to more gallery events it was a natural progression from focusing on filmmakers to printmakers and illustrators.
JS: You are big on such conferences as Comic Con, Disney’s D23 Expo, and we met at the Austin Film Festival. Let’s start with what you get out of these conferences in general and why you keep returning.
CJ: It comes down to the people. I love people and I love when people make stuff, and love talking to people about the stuff they make. The world needs that. I need that. To see an artist hold a comic book in their hand that they drew is one of the most exciting feelings in the world.
At these conventions there are always huge corporations showing off their goods but also booths full of top notch toys, comics, books, and posters all with the folks who made them right there. How can that not be one of the greatest thrills in the world?
I love the tangibility of dreams at these events. You get to experience the results of dedicated artists. You can watch that movie or read that book. When you stop by a booth and see the posters made by an illustrator in person rather than as a .jpg on the computer, the importance of it gets heightened to the level of those that created the work.
At an event like Disney’s D23 Expo you get to be immersed in the universe of Disney and watch films in progress, concept art and all of that. Disney artists are tough to talk to you in terms of reaching them, but it’s still a great experience.
JS: I remember when we were at the D23 Expo, you talked about wanting to make a short film. Is that still something you see yourself doing? Do you have anything to share with our readers in that regard?
CJ: I was set to shoot an eight page short I wrote that was going to film in San Francisco. I had my wife on board with the idea and we saved the money to get the project going, but another project I was working on took priority.
Another love of mine is art, or specifically posters. Prints. It’s always been something I’ve been drawn to and as a collector there were certain artists I wanted to see more work from. I wanted to see original work, images outside films and gig posters. Like with most creative outlets, personal work doesn’t pay. A band will pay for posters to be made, so will a gallery or a film studio, but when it comes time to create work on a more personal level there’s no one there to fund that, so an illustrator or printmaker won’t turn down a paying gig to work for free even on their own idea. So I figured if I wanted to see original work I should step in and do what I could to make it happen. Why wait for someone else to do it? I’m impatient I guess.
I commissioned Swedish artist Kilian Eng to do a 24” x 36” poster of whatever the hell he wanted and I’d sell it through Evil Tender. So that’s where the film fund went.
Shooting a short is always on the ‘to do’ list, but it keeps getting trumped by other projects. I like to have a few projects going on at the same time, each in a different stage of movement. Whichever one has the most traction gets my attention. I have a few posters commissioned and I’m putting together a group show at a gallery in San Francisco set for 2015.
A few of my scripts have turned into short stories and a few others I’m drawing up as comics. It’s actually a good test to use the same narrative and translate it into short fiction or a comic book to see if the story still works or holds your interest.
JS: Congratulations, I can’t wait to hear more about the showing. I love the art on your site, but I especially love reading your posts on Disneyland. Sorry, but I am a Disney boy through and through. What is it that draws you back to Disneyland? It may not be writing related, but can you share your secret have-fun-at-Disneyland recipe?
CJ: When Walt Disney set out to make Disneyland he cut no corners in making his dream come true. Viewed from every angle, it is a magic place. Every ride experience is beyond beautiful. The structures are works of art. For a park of that size to run that smoothly and be that dedicated to an ideal so innocent and true, man. It brings a tear to my eye.
Going to a place like Great America, you’ll have a bummer of a time. The rides are good, but you can tell that no one cares about the park itself. Whoever runs it has no idea or passion for it. They treat it like a bunch of roller coasters in a parking lot and in turn the guests do.
My wife and I have come up with our own Disneyland routine. We’re annual passholders and go about 2 – 3 times a year. We go in September and again some time close to the holidays, either November or December. Then we go again around May. All ‘off season’ times. I’ve never been during the summer.
We stay at the same hotel every time, the Best Western Park Place. It’s right across the street and close to our favorite off-site restaurant, Tony Roma’s. That’s where we go for a late night beer and bowl of potato cheese soup. We’ve gotten to know the bartenders there, which is always fun.
Our routine is slowly changing now that we have our daughter, so we’ve added character breakfasts to our day. We’ve also started doing stuff that we’d never done, like the walking tours of the park.
With California Adventure getting bigger and having more stuff, plus beer carts, we’ve been spending a day there and a day at Disneyland. And if it’s a hot day and you need some cooling off, Carthay Circle at California Adventure has amazing food and classic cocktails. Yeah, our trips have slowly turned into drinking and eating tours of the parks mixed in with rides dependent on our daughter’s sleeping habits.
JS: I had a blast when I was able to go with you – it’s always that much more fun when the person you are with truly appreciates the place. With this art and your love of writing, do you have a business plan? A five or ten year goal?
CJ: I’m a believer that if you do what you love opportunities will present themselves naturally. There’s a common story I’ve heard from various artists, the details change but the general story points stay the same –
An illustrator buddy of mine had jobs that ranged from educational textbooks to drink cups, but his goal had always been to work for Disney. When he wasn’t doing paid work he created Disney inspired art. With each new film, he would do a design of the characters. Every holiday, a new piece with Mickey and friends in that theme. He posted on Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter, and over a few years his following grew. Still, no Disney job. Eventually a drawing he had done of Buzz Lightyear and Woody was posted on Twitter and Lee Unkrich, the director of Toy Story 3, saw it and loved it. He was contacted and soon enough was doing freelance work with Disney.
I probably have some of the details wrong, but the gist of the story is true. It’s a story I’ve been told by artists repeatedly. They did what they loved because they wanted to, and eventually it just all came together.
I don’t know if this would apply to writing, but it just might. Treat what you do like a job until it is a job.
So my business plan. I’m going to keep putting out posters until the money runs out and curating gallery shows until I’m no longer welcome.
With Evil Tender Dot Com having such a specific focus, like a niche inside of another niche, I get asked to write for various sites and projects. I get requests to interview artists for bigger sites, write bios for gallery shows, and cover art projects. All stuff I do anyway.
Okay, so my business plan is not money or career based, but I think about it this way – if I played golf that would cost a ton of money for clubs and course fees, or if I skied I would have to buy skis and a park pass or whatever. Instead of that I put my ‘extra’ money into going to gallery openings and doing what I can to put some good art out into the world. Not sure if that’s a business plan or not, but I found my skill set is in the ‘cheerleader’ role, and I totally love it.
JS: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Chris. Do you have any words of wisdom or other thoughts that maybe I forgot to ask about?
CJ: Making a career out of anything creative is a total bitch. There is no clear way to do it the same way it would be if you wanted to be a lawyer or a dentist.
It’s up to each writer, each person, to sit down and pinpoint their true goal in life. I have an amazingly cool and beautiful wife and a daughter that just blows me away. Writing and art is a major part of who I am, but I got to the point where trying to make a living at it was taking the fun out of it and I realized I don’t need to make a living at it to feel fulfilled and that’s my true goal – to feel fulfilled.
Plus, I’m not going to move to Los Angeles again, where I believe you really need to be to make things happen. It’s a long shot to make it as a screenwriter in LA and trying to do it outside of LA is the craziest super long shot in the history of long shots. Oh, that’s another lesson learned and the one fact that people hate to face – the most important thing you can do to advance or even start your career as a screenwriter is to move to Los Angeles.