Thursday, June 11, 2009
Interview With Michael Hauge
Dear Five Scribe Readers,
I was fortunate to interview Michael Hauge via telephone. He is a charming gentleman with a great laugh and what felt like a bottomless well of information.
Michael is also generously offering the choice of any of his books or single disc DVDs to the winner of the randomly chosen blog comment. See the end of this interview for details.
Michael's Bio: Story Consultant and Writers’ Coach MICHAEL HAUGE, author of Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays, novels, movies and television projects. He has consulted on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network.
Please welcome Michael Hauge to Five Scribes.
LA: Michael, I’m so pleased you can be with us here today. It’s wonderful.
MH: (Laughter) Let’s hope you feel that way when we’re done.
LA: I will and I’m completely sure Five Scribes readers will as well.
I enjoyed reading Writing Screenplays that Sell (WSTS) I’m a fairly seasoned writer and if I can find nuggets of inspiration in a book, that book is a gem. Your book must be what, in its 28th printing?
MH: I think, actually it’s in its 33rd printing.
LA: Is there anything you’d add to or change in the book?
MH: Well, in terms of the essential principals, there’s only one. In the book I take a different approach to character arc and theme than I do on the DVD of The Hero's 2 Journeys (with Christopher Vogler.) The inner journey is the same thing as character arc.
In WSTS, I said character arc doesn’t follow any prescribed structure because it’s inner and invisible, it just can occur wherever it occurs. That’s the only thing I said in the book which I now consider to be absolutely wrong. I think the character’s inner journey, the character arc, follows a very precise structure and it follows actually the exact same structure as the visible journey, the journey to achieve the outer motivation.
In fact, that’s going to be an essential part of what I’m talking about at the lecture I’m giving in July that Colorado Romance Writers is hosting in Denver, as well as my seminars this year in Austin, Minneapolis, Connecticut and Los Angeles: how you unite the visible journey--the journey of accomplishment where the hero is going after a visible goal and crossing a visible finish line, with the inner journey of transformation--where the hero is overcoming some deep seated fear and finding the courage to really change in the course of the movie.
Those two are intertwined very closely, not just in the way they’re developed, but in the actual structure of the story. And I didn’t realize that when I wrote WSTS. Other than that, all the other writing principals are correct. I wouldn’t really change any of them. I’ve just gone on from there and expanded them.
That’s the first half of the answer.
The second half is, when it comes to the stuff on marketing your work, there’s quite a bit I would add. When I wrote the book WSTS, believe it or not, there was essentially no internet, there was no email, and there weren’t the multitude of resources that screenwriters and writers of any kind have access to that they do now. So I would add those resources (LA: which he has included in his book Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds!)
LA: In your WSTS book you suggest that ongoing education, taking classes, reading books, scripts, going to movies is very important. You also said it was equally if not more important to write every day, even if it was for 15 minutes. Wow. I always thought it was futile to write for only 15 minutes if I’ve been away from it writing for a period of time, even 2 days. How can you get back into your story in such a short period of time? What to expand on that?
MH: Why were you away from it for 2 days?
LA: Well… (I was speechless for a few seconds…not a good answer in sight…read on)…Ummmmmmmm…I was on vacation and needed a break?
MH: (laughter) You don’t need a break from writing. You need a break from work, a break from family or friends, but not writing.
What I’m saying is that regularity is the key to successful writing. That writing when the spirit moves you or a couple of hours every weekend is just not going to get the job done.
Let me give a little aside here, to explain my belief on writer’s block. It’s almost never something that happens at the computer. It happens somewhere else and prevents us from sitting down at the computer and really starting to put stuff down.
I don’t think there are very many instances of people sitting and staring at a blank screen not knowing what to write – at least not for any extended period of time. I think when we’re blocked, we’re not going to the screen (or the legal pad) in the first place.
So, if writing becomes as regular as having breakfast, or exercise, or going to work – if it’s mindless – then you don’t think about making the time to do it. That will get rid of 90% of anything that can create a block, because you’re not even thinking about it.
And if you have a limited amount of time, write 15 minutes every day. 15 minutes breaks the logjam and gets you going.
Now I have a question for you. Have you ever sat down to write for 15 minutes.
LA: No. I usually write much longer.
MH: So you’re just assuming you couldn’t get much done in 15 minutes.
LA: Correct. It sounds like an inordinately short time because I’ve always had a longer time in which to write.
MH: You already have a positive addiction to writing more than that…so this advice really doesn’t apply to you. But for people who would like to write and just feel like they don’t have any time, my contention is that you can always find 15 minutes a day, and get something done. And to anybody who is reading this interview and doesn’t believe it, try it for one week and if it doesn’t work, email me and we’ll take a look at what’s going on.
LA: On your website www.ScreenplayMastery.com, you allow people to download Chapter One of Selling Your Story In 60 Seconds. This is great selling tool, by the way, as once I read the chapter, I only wanted more.
There’s something that you mention in that chapter that totally blew me away – your cardinal rule for pitching. Want to elaborate?
MH: The cardinal rule of pitching is don’t try and tell your story.
LA: Like I said, that blows me away!
MH: That was the intention, to say something that at first glance sounds absurd.
LA: But…we’re always taught to tell the story.
MH: This is absolutely the number one mistake writers make in trying to get people to read their stuff. When you’re pitching for a short moment, either at a conference, on the phone, at a pitch fest, or even at a party, and somebody asks what your novel or script is about, writers often make the mistake of saying, “Well, it opens here and then it’s this and then this happens and this happens and this happens….” And pretty soon the potential buyer’s eyes are glazing over. Or you run out of time before you get to the middle of Act II, and the person doesn’t get the essence of your story – the thing that is going to persuade her to read the script.
So what you have to realize when you’re in a pitching situation is that your total and complete goal is only to get someone to read your work. Thus the idea is to convey the elements of the story/screenplay…the emotional elements that are going to make them want to read the full script. And if you can do that, you’ve accomplished your goal.
LA: Additionally in that 1st chapter you talk about using antecedents in your pitching. I’ve never thought of using antecedents in pitching my work.
MH: Yes, antecedents are hugely helpful in several ways.
An antecedent isn’t a movie that has the same plot, it’s a movie that’s in the same genre, or more specifically a movie that would be marketed in the same way to the same group of people. So it may not be an identical film. For instance, THE HANGOVER was just released, and is going to be a huge hit. But it wasn’t a totally unique story. It’s genre, tone and targeted demographic were the same as 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN and WEDDING CRASHERS. They all are R-rated comedies involving immature men who don’t want to grow up emotionally, and who get themselves into hilarious situations as a result.
That means if you’re pitching your own Judd Apatow-type comedy, and you can say your movie is in the same arena as KNOCKED UP or THE HANGOVER, the people you’re pitching to immediately knows what kind of story it is. And since your antecedents were commercially successful, it means they’ll immediately start thinking that your script might be as well.
The same holds true if you have a smaller movie – let’s say a comedy that has rich characters or an ensemble feel – and you can say your script is in the same arena as JUNO or LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Again, the plot may have nothing to do with teen pregnancy or a beauty pageant for a kid, but the marketing, the tone, the style, the kind of movie it is, is similar.
And this principle applies to the book world as well. Naming other successful romance novels or mysteries or thrillers or sci-fi epics as antecedents greatly increases the chances of getting your own manuscript read.
So when I lecture, I’ll ask the participants to name a couple movies or novels they could point to and say, “Because that story made money, mine will make money.”
Often times, the answer I hear is, “I can’t think of any.” Well, if you can’t think of any successful model for the novel or screenplay you’re writing, then how successful are your attempts to sell it likely to be?
Hollywood doesn’t produce movies they see as completely unique and original. They want to make movies that fill the slot and the mentality that’s been successful in the past. So, if you’re pitching a romantic comedy, a broad comedy, a suspense thriller, a big action movie or a family film, they’re apt to be more receptive because those are the kinds of movies they’re looking to make.
Again, the same holds true for publishing, though perhaps not to the same extent, since publishing a novel costs far less than producing a Hollywood movie. But believe me, the publishing houses are looking at the best seller lists to choose their fall lists in the same way that the studios look at the box office returns.
Antecedents are also helpful to me as a consultant. When I coach writers on their novels or scripts, if I know the books or movies that my clients see as similar to theirs, I can use them as models to address the specific story principals that apply, and to point out weaknesses in their scripts or manuscripts.
LA: As a writer, this excites me, because it gives me a new toehold, a new concept to try and use to sell my work. So I can use these concepts in my letters, in my phone calls and emails. That’s incredible.
MH: Absolutely use these ideas. These are really the things that will get your stuff read, and that’s the whole goal of your marketing. No movie ever got made, and no novel ever got published, unless a lot of people read it and said yes.
LA: There’s the old pitch concept of “X meets Y.” I didn’t ever really think it was a great way to present your story. What do you think?
MH: I agree with you. I wouldn’t include that phrase in your pitch. Once it was satirized in THE PLAYER, it had pretty much run its course as a way to pitch a project. But the idea underneath it is interesting in this way: I think novels and screenplays that sell always successfully combine familiarity and originality.
I think for any story you market to have a chance, it’s got to draw on situations, genres, themes and characters that we find familiar in some way. If we go to a big budget Sci-Fi movie, or if we read a romance novel, we know what to expect – and those familiar elements pull us into the story.
To look at it in another way, I recently coached someone on their mystery thriller script and told him, “Look, if you’re going to write a mystery thriller you have to understand what the conventions of that form are. There are certain things that have to happen in certain ways for this to work, because the audience expects that, and it’s one of the reasons they go to this kind of movie.”
On the other hand, if your story is so familiar that it’s one more cookie cutter version of a police procedural or a horror film or a what-have-you, it’s not going to work either. You have to take the form that’s familiar for the genre and then you’ve got to bring something new to the party. There has to be something about your story that makes the reader or the person you’re pitching to say, “Wow, I’ve never heard anything quite like this before.”
I think what “X meets Y” is getting at, is we’re taking something familiar and giving a unique twist to it. Or seeing a character we’re comfortable with in one genre and putting her into a different one. So the novel (and soon to be movie) The Lovely Bones takes a very familiar story type – a family coming to terms with tragedy – which we’ve seen or read in such widely different stories as Ordinary People and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sleepless in Seattle. And it adds this twist: what if the story is being told by the young daughter who was murdered, and is now looking down on her family from Heaven? The result is a brilliant novel.
That original element is what gets producers and publishers excited… once they know you’re working in a familiar arena that has commercial potential.
LA: In the DVD you did with Christopher Vogler, The Hero's 2 Journeys, you say that you each approach crafting a story differently. Is that because he uses Archetypes and you don’t?
MH: Chris and I are friends from way back. I love his approach, love his book The Writer’s Journey, and you know, he’s just a great guy. So I thought it would be fun for us to share the stage and I suggested we do a day where we each talk about our own approach to story structure and character arc.
His approach is modeled on the Joseph Campbell approach to myth and storytelling. That’s the door he enters to get into story. My approach is one I developed on my own by looking at lots and lots of movies and screenplays.
So I present a 6 stage structural approach, where Chris’ consists of a lot more stages, which are more fluid. And while Chris talks about a story beginning in the Ordinary World, I talk about the Setup – my term for the first 10% of a screenplay. It’s clear that down deep our approaches don’t contradict each other, they complement each other. We just have two different ways to get to the core principles of good storytelling.
So if you don’t like his way, or if you don’t like my way, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you find the tools and approaches that will help you get to a successful screenplay or novel.
On the DVD of the seminar, Chris and I also talk extensively about the inner journey – about how plot structure and character types contribute to the Hero’s growth and transformation. And then at the end we join each other on stage to apply our principals to an analysis of ERIN BROCKOVICH.
LA: I have one more question if you have another minute, and that’s about love stories.
MH: Putting a love story into your script or novel gives you a wonderful tool for developing character arc, because for a love story to work, the hero must transform in order to end up with the love interest.
Take a movie like ROCKY. The only way Rocky can end up with Adrian at the end of the movie is if he transforms through the process of facing Apollo Creed in the ring. Sylvester Stallone brilliantly understood this when he wrote the screenplay, which is really more about their love story than the boxing match. He didn’t want the film to just be two guys pounding each other in the ring. ROCKY is about the transformation of this palooka of a hero into somebody who finds his courage and dignity. And the way that comes out is through his relationship with Adrian.
LA: Love stories make the hero more vulnerable as well, because he/she has something emotional at stake.
MH: Absolutely. All love stories are going to make the hero emotionally vulnerable. It gives the hero one more thing that’s on the line, something precious and essential they can lose. They’ll lose it if they don’t find the courage to change emotionally the way they need to.
That’s really what a character arc is: going from living in fear to living in courage.
I talk about love stories in all of my one-day seminars, not just those for romance writers. I also cover all this on my DVD Writing Romantic Comedies and Love Stories. Because these principles apply to any story that contains a romantic relationship, whether it’s a romantic comedy, romantic thriller or tragic love story.
LA: Now I understand (light bulb here!) why some romantic comedies just don’t work. Because they aren’t risking much and there is so little at stake.
MH: You’re absolutely right. For a love story to work we have to truly believe that these two people are each other’s destiny. And that if they don’t end up together at the end of the movie, the most precious thing in that person’s life will have been lost forever.
Which, by the way, is also a rule for ANY story, in any genre.
LA: Elaborate please.
MH: Okay, here’s an example: say you write about somebody who’s a multi-millionaire, and then your hero has some crisis at work. If he fails, what’s going to happen? He’ll just go back home to his millions and say, “Bummer. Better luck next time?” How emotionally involving is that?
We’ve got to feel like everything is one the line for the hero. He’s risking everything he has, everything he is, in order to achieve whatever goal we’re rooting for him to achieve.
The pithy version of this principle is that if the hero doesn’t care about winning the goal, then the audience won’t either.
LA: Tell us about your latest adventure…the Movie Magic Template you’ve created.
MH: I’ve created a template, available for free to anyone using the Movie Magic Screenwriter 6 formatting program.
If the writer turns on this particular template while writing, it will tell her that she’s at such and such a point in the script, and will point out the principles and story elements she must be sure to apply. In a properly structured movie, certain things need to happen at certain points in the script. So this reveals those, and reminds you of them as you write.
The template is based on my six-stage approach to structure, and on my categories of primary characters, my love story principles, and my tools for eliciting maximum emotion through character arc and theme.
LA: Thank you Michael for sharing your time and wisdom.
You're coming to Denver Colorado July 11th for a one day seminar: STORY MASTERY, which ISN'T for screenwriters or romance writers only.
The Topics included are:
Primary Goal of the Story
The Power of desire, need, longing and destiny
The essential conflict all characters must face
Turning pot structure from a complicated concept into a simple powerful tool you
can easily apply to every story
The single key to creating character arc and theme
Creating unique, believable and fulfilling love stories
The unique rules of romantic comedy: fantasy, duality, deceit
Adapting your novel to film
So readers of Five Scribes, if you want to elevate your fiction writing to the highest possible level, this event is a must. And there are limited seats, so to find more information, click on http://www.coloradoromancewriters.org/Flyer_MH.pdf. Or to find out more about Michael’s lecture schedule throughout the country, go to http://www.screenplaymastery.com/schedule.htm.
And please check out Michael's website, http://www.screenplaymastery.com/ and sign up for his e-newsletter. You can order any of the products we've discussed here on his site as well.
REMEMBER, Michael has also generously offered the choice of either of his books, or any one of his single-disc DVDs, to the author of a randomly chosen blog comment. So make your comments soon to qualify.