Behind The Scripts
Recently, I had the pleasure of running into Geoffrey D. Calhoun at the Royal Starr Film Festival’s recent networking event. As a fellow screenwriter, we met previously before, but this time our conversation sparked enough interest, I felt the need to sit down and explore his mind.
A self-starter and intellectual autodidact, Geoffrey is an emerging screenwriter and entrepreneur that worked his way up by overcoming his weaknesses, utilizing his strengths, and finding the best path specific to his needs. I learned a lot from my discussion with Geoffrey and I believe any individuals aspiring to break into or navigate through their screenwriting career has something to gain from this eternal learner. From my discussion, Geoffrey gave me insight to the following lessons;
1. There Are Multiple Roads To Success
As you may already know, there is no one-fits-all manual to making it in the screenwriting world. While someone may get their big break by having someone read their spec script, others find themselves working their way up one PA position at a time. Whatever the route may be, it’s important not to get discouraged by the path you find yourself on. Most times, it’s exactly where you’re supposed to be. Success finds you when you’re doing the right things and Geoffrey is a clear example of that.
Geoffrey’s screenwriting career began ten years prior and was almost completely by accident. A Troy native, Geoffrey initially began his career by studying photography and exploring the medical world. It wasn’t until he was approached by a close friend that he dived into screenwriting.
“I had a friend who was working as an editor on a local TV show and he challenged me to write a treatment,” said the self-starter. “Secretly I’m very competitive, so I decided to take the challenge.” With that Geoffrey went to the closet bookstore and purchased several books about screenwriting. He absorbed as much information as he could before writing the treatment.
“After that I sort of just put it on the topself and didn’t think too much about it. It wasn’t until my wife read it a couple months later that I felt prompted to write the entire screenplay. It was my first and it actually was optioned to a production company who loved it. Unfortunately the tax incentives expired and the company went out of business, but that was the start of a long path of writing for me”
2. Location is Irrelevant
There’s a misconception that in order to have a working career in entertainment or media you must move to big cities such as Los Angeles or New York City. However, this rumor is quickly being dispelled. Not only is Detroit’s film community on a slow upward growth, but it is possible to get noticed and find work while residing in Michigan. As the Troy native explains, "I made the decision to be successful, so I wasn’t going to make excuses like, I live in a small town and I’m never going to make it. I began to strategize by setting a goal and then mapping out the best possible options for execution.”
For Geoffrey, the best option was networking with online communities and finding a mentor online. In addition, he submitted his scripts to screenwriting contests and began networking at the festivals he placed in.
“I did things sort of backwards.” He says, “Most people start at home and go outward, but through the film festivals I placed in, I was able to network and make contacts in LA and Las Vegas. I actually made my contacts out of town while residing in the Oakland County area. Even now while I write in Michigan, I have producers from LA reviewing my scripts for purchase.”
3. Excuses are the only thing that stand between you and your goals
I would’ve done it but...I definitely would have if...I can’t write because...
We’re all guilty of these thoughts that inhibit us from achieving our goals. A lot of times we like to think that if our circumstances were slightly different, our reality would be too. However, no matter where you’re at in life, there will always be an obstacle to overcome so the best thing to do is get used to it. Become determined enough to overcome anything that comes in your way.
In fact, Geoffrey was born with something that would have stopped most of us from pursuing a career in writing. “I’m dyslexic.” he said with a smile as my mouth dropped, “Words appear jumbled to me so it makes things like writing and English very difficult. I always loved story telling, but I never really correlated that into actual writing until several years ago. When I started screenwriting I had to find a way around it.”
Which is exactly what he did. Instead of allowing one of his perceived downfalls to stop him from becoming a writer, he instead found a way to embrace it and turn it into a strength. “People that are dyslexic think visually, so I’m able to think in pictures. I use that to my advantage by visualizing an entire scene in my head before I find a way to put it down on paper. I actually believe being dyslexic may help my writing.”
4. Inspiration is a luxury
It’s a common misconception that writers create solely off inspiration. That we wait for the life-changing experiences, moments, or thoughts to pass by our consciousness before we’re able to weave together a story. However, an actual working writer doesn’t have the luxury of time. In reality there are deadlines filled with dozens of rewrites and expectations of networks, executives, and other creative directors. So when it’s crunch time and you develop writer’s block, what can you do? As a working writer, Geoffrey stresses the importance of understanding the technical side of screenwriting and how having a clear sense of it can really get you out of a rut.
“When I become stuck it’s usually due to a lack of outline or research.” Says the screenwriter, “When I know I have a deadline to meet, I ask, what is the story I’m trying to tell? What is it exactly that I’m stuck on and what is the root of the problem? When that happens I like to remove myself from the script and sit down with a pad of paper and write the problem in the middle of the bubble. I’ll usually mind-map off that and come to a solution. If I don’t fully understand the topic of my story, I’ll do more research. If it’s a problem with the flow or plot- point, I’ll review my outline to remember the direction. It can be a very effective process.”
Geoffrey also touched on another source of writer’s block that really touched me. Sometimes being stuck in a story comes from lack of understanding the self.
“When you write you write from an aspect of yourself and your experiences.” He says. “The characters, the story, the plot, they all come from very personal things in our life. It can be tough and force you to sit back and really introspect. Sometimes that can be painful and other times it can be ugly. When that happens you must be patient with yourself and use it as an opportunity to learn about who you are and grow.”
5. Format is King
When I asked Geoffrey how important format was for a story he began to laugh while telling me about the time he received a script with no punctuation. “Absolutely none” He laughed, “I couldn’t tell when a character was asking a question or shouting something angrily. I could only get through the first couple of pages before I had to send it back. I hope to never see something like that again.”
All jokes aside, format is an incredibly important part of writing. Any errors in margin, spacing, or lining, can make interpretation of the script extremely difficult. As Geoffrey put it, “Proper format makes reading easier and serves as a tool for producers, directors, editors, and other creative parts to get a better feel of the story and do their job properly. If they’re confused about what you’re writing they won’t be able to do that.”
In addition, nothing screams amateur like an improperly formatted script causing many potential producers or investors to put down the script before reading even the second page. “Using proper format is what can move a mediocre writer to the top 10%. You’d be surprised how many scripts are sent out without undergoing the proper format. There’s a certain way to do it and many services out there that will automatically format your script for you like Celtix or Final Draft.”
6. Aim to Learn, Not Just to Create
Most writers are curious by nature. In a way you have to be in order to build intricate worlds and stories around fictional characters. We seek to learn about the outside world and that’s a huge positive. Sometimes writing a good story is less about what you put on paper and more about what you absorb in your experiences.
“Being defensive when your work is criticized is probably one the worst things a beginner or advanced writer can do.” Geoffrey exclaims “Screenwriting is a craft, like blacksmithing, you start small and build it into an art. There’s always room for improvement and it’s absorbing information which will only make you better at your job and more convincing to the people you want to join your project. I usually do about 12 rewrites for each of my scripts and more than half of those occur due to receiving feedback from a producer or a friend. It takes a certain amount of bravery and tough skin to receive criticism, but make it a learning experience.”
Being a living example, Geoffrey is a sponge himself. He learns from everyone and everything around him. He’s read about 40 books for screenwriting, listens to interviews, goes to seminars, and even studies movies in his free time.
“I like to watch a movie, turn off the sound, and watch how they block their shots. Before I wrote from purely a writer’s stand point, but after I began this practice I began to write from a directors or a camera stand point. By breaking a scene down minute by minute, I was able to study how shots correlated to scene breaks and it made me a much stronger writer.”
7. Networking is Key
Personally, I've always found the most difficult part of building a career in writing is that it happens in isolation. While a director or producer builds their craft through their interactions with others, a writer can spend an entire workday in a room with only their thoughts. In an industry that’s built on networking and forming professional relationships, this can be an obstacle for many people.
Like many of us, Geoffrey is a self-proclaimed introvert but realized early in his career that he had to be extraverted in order to expand his career. “Believe me, I would be very happy staying home all day and getting paid, but that’s impossible." He says, "You have to find a way to get yourself out there and express your light to people.”
After getting yourself out there what’s the next step? Becoming comfortable around people isn’t an overnight transition and Geoffrey learned this at first experience. “I was a finalist in a film festival and had to appear at a red carpet event. There were tons of people there, including Ron Pearlman, and I was so nervous that my blood pressure rocketed and I got a bloody nose. I remember going to the bathroom and contemplating on what I should do. Then there was a moment where I realized I could stay and go back out there or I could quit and go home. I chose to stay because you have to show people who you are on the inside.”
Geoffrey suggests starting small by participating in local clubs, seminars, and networking events. Even if you talk to one person and it has nothing to do with writing, you’re taking the first steps to developing networking skills and building relationships. In addition, for those of us that are extremely shy, there are many online communities that offer mentoring services and collaboration with other writers.
8. Success Starts From Within
The final lesson I learned from Geoffrey and probably the most important is that success is something intangible within us that is exuded into the world . Like many of us, Geoffrey faced many obstacles becoming an established writer. He received negative criticism from 95% of the people that read his scripts, he started out writing in the wrong format, and has been rejected more times than he can count, but he always considered himself successful.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you cant do it. You can make it in any version of success that you create for yourself.” Geoffrey says, “It just depends on time and effort; how much time you put in and the amount of effort you give each time. Always set aside time to write, always look for ways to grow, and be proud of any step you take forward, no matter how small it may seem. It could be ten years from now or longer, but eventually you’ll get there.”
What’s Geoffrey Up to Now?
Currently, there’s a lot of hush-hush about Geoffrey’s current projects. Believe me, I tried prying it out of him, but like a true professional he didn’t budge. I might have had more success attempting to infiltrate Quantico than learn what’s going on in his negotiations. Currently the self-made writer is in the midst of optioning two features, however, that doesn’t mean he is completely away from the public eye.
As the founder and main consultant of We Fix Your Script, Geoffrey’s services offers positive feedback and personal one-on-one mentoring. Unique from other services of it’s kind, it doesn’t just tear apart your script with negative feedback. It offers insightful advice by pairing you with a mentor of your genre that accepts follow up questions and actively works you through the problems of your scripts. If you’d like to learn more, please go to www.wefixyourscript.com.
While also running We Fix Your Script, Geoffrey is busy expanding and promoting Script Summit which is an online community for screenwriters and also an up-and-coming screenplay contest. “Screenwriting can be so competitive and not in a good way.” The founder expresses “Instead of giving you genuine advice to improve your script, many people can be unsupportive or unnecessarily critical of your work. That doesn’t help your progress at all so I think the site we created is beneficial for screenwriters to get access to industry information and also other screenwriters just like them.”
The site offers screenwriters the opportunity to build networks and find support and knowledge on how to jumpstart or improve their writing careers. The community also doubles as a contest platform and those that submit their work increase their chances of expanding their brand, forming relationships with producers, and getting positive feedback on their scripts. If you want to learn more about this community, follow the link to the Script Summit Online Writers Group.
Article and Interview by Monjoa Likine