Pilar Alessandra is the director of the screenwriting and TV writing program On the Page®, host of the popular On the Page Podcast and author of the top-selling book “The Coffee Break Screenwriter.”
Pilar started her career as Senior Story Analyst at DreamWorks SKG and, in 2001, opened the On the Page Writers’ Studio in Los Angeles. Her students and clients have written for The Walking Dead, Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and Family Guy. They’ve sold features and pitches to Warner Bros, DreamWorks, Disney and Sony and have won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship, Austin Screenwriting Competition and Warner Bros. TV Writing Workshop.
In addition to her private classes taught out of the On the Page Writers’ Studio, Pilar has trained writers at DreamWorks, Disney Animation, ABC, CBS and regularly moderates the Pitch Conference at the American Film Market. Pilar has traveled the world teaching in London, Dublin, Beijing, Warsaw, Lisbon and Cape Town, training writers, animators, producers and show runners in the art of writing, story telling and pitching.
Alex Ferrari 1:35
Enjoy today's episode with guest host Jason Buff.
Jason Buff 1:40
On today's episode I'm going to be talking with Pilar Alessandra about screenwriting. I just read her book, the coffee break screenwriter, and I mean, it's it's an amazing book, it's got all kinds of activities you can do to kind of jumpstart your creativity and start really figuring out what your screenplay is about and what the characters are, you know, what their motivations are, what they want in the story, I really enjoyed it. And it's got a lot of stuff that I haven't seen another screen or there's a million screenwriting books, and I try to read as many as I can. And this one had a lot of great new stuff in it, so I highly recommend it. Here's my interview with the amazing Pilar Alessandra, like a typical workweek for you like what I mean, are you do you have like a pile of screenplays that you are going through? Are you talking with screenwriters on the phone, what what's kind of your world like there?
Pilar Alessandra 2:26
My world is a little bit busy, I wouldn't recommend it to everybody. Unless you're, you want to commit to workaholism. I consult on two scripts a day. And I run Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, I run for different private writers groups this is these are things I actually don't advertise, they're made up of writers that I've picked out of clients that I think that are really at a certain level with their writing, and are also good and good in a room. So I run those private writing groups, four times a week. And then I also have six week classes that I teach currently teaching one on Saturdays 1230 to 330. And that's those tend to be first draft classes. And then I also do rewrite weekends and the occasional specialty class. I'm very, very excited because I'm also teaching TV class about every two months now. And it's usually a one day intensive. And then when I'm not doing that, I'm really lucky I get to travel and, and teaching other countries. And recently just got back from South Africa, which was amazing. I got to spend five days with an animation company called Trigger Fish, and 35 writers from all over Africa. So that was really cool. No,
Jason Buff 3:48
Is that ever intimidating to you? I mean, do you? You kind of pinch yourself and say, you know,
Pilar Alessandra 3:55
Yeah. Like every time I'm invited somewhere, I just think that they've just sent that email to the wrong person.
Jason Buff 4:02
Pilar Alessandra 4:04
Yeah, we kind of go through that for a little bit like, well, you know, there's, you know, like, no, no, you so, so yeah, I'm very, very lucky. And it's really cool. So, so yeah, I work really hard. But it's a it's a great job.
Jason Buff 4:20
So working with creative people, do you? Is there something that they have in common that they're looking for that they need in terms of they have a certain way of thinking they have a certain way of wanting to create and want to write, but they just need somebody to come in and organize their thought or something like that?
Pilar Alessandra 4:38
I think I think everybody wants to know, are they expressing their intention? They had this idea in their head or they had this person in their mind or they had this amazing scene. Is it there? And then one of the reasons I call this on the page, my business was because it really all came down to was it there was it on the page? It can it can live in your mind. Um, you can help a director brings it out or an actor, but if it's not on the page, then it's just not working. So that's what everybody wants to know. Am I seeing it? Is it there? Will audiences see it? And if it's not there, then we talk about what's the best way to express that so that they can get their intention.
Jason Buff 5:18
One of the things that I've had to learn over the years was okay, where's my talent? What am I good at? What can I you know, I can see, when I write I kind of see scenes, I see it. And it's almost a way of like, taking dictation, putting it on the page and saying, Okay, I've got a movie. Now, how do I take that movie and then structure it right and put it right, so that what I'm actually seeing is what I'm conveying to people, you know?
Pilar Alessandra 5:42
Right. And then there's the tricky part. Because if what you're seeing is sort of a list of things, I see things, I see that I see the other thing that can get monotonous and it can feel cuttable. But if you phrase it in a way, you know, I see it and it looks like this thing. You know, if you're using a simile that works for you, or a metaphor that people don't, don't appreciate, I think how how, how much screenwriters are writers, they have to find the right phrase, in order to convey visually, what's in their head. Because they're a list of things doesn't work. It has to be a sometimes just concise sentence. So so we're choices is everything. Ah, work,
Jason Buff 6:27
It seems like a lot, you can take a lot of liberties with certain things when it comes to kind of making your vision come to life. And I was wondering what you thought about that in terms of just do you find that there's a lot of as long as they're getting their vision through? They can kind of play with that?
Pilar Alessandra 6:44
Yes, if it's readable, it's working. If it doesn't make the reader stop, to notice the format, or look at the page number it's working. People are so hung up on, you know, is there am I doing the correct format, but I really believe over the years it has loosened up. Because at the stage that you're submitting your script, it's for people to grasp on to the story and characters, and then start pushing it upwards. So if that's not coming through, if they're not completely involved, it's not gonna go anywhere. They're not going to pass on it because you did some kind of incorrect formatting. They're gonna pass it, they're bored. So yeah, even. That's my call waiting, sorry.
Jason Buff 7:33
Everybody will just assume you use some bad language there. So
Pilar Alessandra 7:38
It'd be really funny if it just kept
Jason Buff 7:40
Okay, let's try to keep it on the table here.
Pilar Alessandra 7:45
Don't worry. Even David trotty, a, he wrote the screenwriters Bible, and he's, he's known lovingly as Dr. format. You know, he's, he's, over the years, said as much, you know, if it's working on the page, if it's, you know, the things the objects you want noticed are being noticed, and the visuals are coming through. And the dialogue is clear, and you're working down the page with, with a certain pace, it's working.
Jason Buff 8:14
One of the biggest things that I remember was when I was in my younger years, I re read, you know, Shane Black screenplay for lethal weapon, which is kind of like what everybody has to read when they're first starting out. And it just blew me away, like, you know, even noting parts of it, where it was like, you know, that he was in the kind of house that I would buy if I sold the screenplay, and like, all these little things that he put in, just to kind of keep people interested. And it just seems like in the good screenplays that I've read, it's all about just keeping people's attention. You know, building that tension, making sure that every, every scene has a reason to be there, and everything is pulling you in and just affecting you versus some of the more amateurish things that I used to read, which was, you would just have people talking and dialogue that kind of went nowhere, and people would be creating a world but they wouldn't necessarily be creating a story.
Pilar Alessandra 9:03
No, I totally agree with you. And, you know, fortunately, I think writers have, there's so much more out there now for them as far as resources go, that they know now, that di unit, just hanging it on dialog is not the way to go. There. The scripts that I've read over the years have gotten better and better and better. And the bad news is, that means your competition is getting is also getting better. So now when people sort of when it's not good, what people so now when it's not working page wise, it's not so much because people are hanging it on amateur. Late sorry, I'm getting a little tired. It's not that people are getting amateur in their writing. It's that they sometimes they're just is actually too full of bells and whistles now.
Alex Ferrari 10:04
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.
Pilar Alessandra 10:13
Now, it's like, I'm not going to tell you the story. I'm gonna go to a really cool flash forward. Now I'm gonna go back in time, and I'm gonna go from somebody else's point of view, I switched genres. I'm so clever. And so when that starts happening, that's sometimes what I see is screwing things up, not because you shouldn't be inventive, because you should, but because they're throwing all the cool spaghetti against the wall. And it just feels like spaghetti against the wall,
Jason Buff 10:42
Kind of the Michael Bay version of a screenplay.
Pilar Alessandra 10:46
I think what Michael Bay does, you know, he commits to, I don't know what they want, like if they if you know, the right No, Michael Bay movie, five committed to it. But if you're writing a Michael Bay movie, but it's half that, and it's half Tarantino, you know, and it's also a super indie at the same time. It's like, okay, make up your mind. It's that kind of spaghetti method. That could be a problem.
Jason Buff 11:09
Yeah, well, I remember when when I was in film school Tarantino was it Tarantino, it really just come out when I think Pulp Fiction was out. And Reservoir Dogs came out, I think when I was a sophomore, and it was funny, because, you know, I was taking a screenwriting class and every single person in that class started writing Quentin Tarantino screenplays, you know, and they had the dialogue between two guys that was kind of like, didn't really have anything to do with anything. And there was something kind of, you know, in the background that you were supposed to add, they just kind of missed the point of that and just went for the the funny dialogue versus it's funny dialogue, because you know, something bad is gonna happen. It builds that tension, you know, the kind of Hitchcock way of showing you something bad's gonna happen, and then having people do stuff, you know, they would just forget about that part.
Pilar Alessandra 11:53
Yeah, you've totally just nailed why that scene works, which is, it gets our defenses down, you think, wow, these are just two guys who were just talking about this guy, fun stuff. And then when you see the blow of the scene, which is, you know, they're on their way to kill a roomful of people. That is what that scene is about. That's why it has to be there. And you're right after that, people wrote a million copies. And I read them all because I was at the time, and they didn't have any reason for being there. They were just clever. And, and, you know, cleverness, without context without a connecting to anything. You know, it's a cute scene, but it, it feels, it kind of wrecks the screenplay feels out of place.
Jason Buff 12:46
Now I want to I want to step back a little bit and talk about your time at Amblin. And working with Amblin. And DreamWorks. And that's that period. And so if we can just go back in time a little bit,
Pilar Alessandra 12:59
Way back, and oh, my goodness,
Jason Buff 13:01
Well, I can't let it go. Because I'm a huge Spielberg into Mecca span,
Pilar Alessandra 13:06
You know, I first took on the job because it was really cool job. It was like, Oh, wow, this would be great. You know, I can, I can work from home and I can do the other things I was interested in and hanging out with my friends. But my work on workaholism, you know, soon. Soon got in my way, where I was reading tons of scripts for them. When I first started, it was the heyday of Amblin. Jurassic Park had just hit Schindler's List. And, you know, everybody was feeling really good about the content. And it was a real or sort of happy go lucky place. If I remember, right, I was in like MIT. And you could show up and on Friday, people were, you know, having a beer and, you know, it felt like, even high five. Yeah, you know, you go in every day, and the place looks a lot like the Flintstone compound to me, you know, these cute little hatches, and yeah, it was, it was it was pretty amazing.
Jason Buff 14:10
I think I remember seeing that and like a Barbara Walters special or something. Because, yeah, they had all the Jurassic Park stuff around and dinosaurs.
Pilar Alessandra 14:18
Yes. And it was it was such a cool place to be working in 20s. You know, I was like, wow, this is this is awesome. And I was definitely learning on the job. You know, I made some screw ups. But I also had, you know, a couple creative executives who really thought I knew story and, you know, would would, you know, give me some of their more trusted work and over there once you were trusted, and were working your butt off, you know, used to also start doing notes on existing projects. So that was interesting for me too. As a reader, what you're usually doing is going If yes or no, as somebody who's doing notes, you're saying, Well, of course, because it's a project. And this is what you can do about it, this is how you can make it better, which is very much the kind of work that I do now. And when it became DreamWorks you know, I got to be senior story analyst one of the one of a couple of senior story analysts, which really just met work harder. And, and then when Bob Zemeckis did have a deal with DreamWorks, and he was on a lot, for a while there, I was sort of reading a sort of a go between between both companies. It was interesting, just tons and tons and tons of content that was coming my way. And I was really getting, I think, pretty good at homing in on what made a script exciting, and and where it might not work for the executives I was working for. And that was what led me to create a bunch of writing tools that I used in classes and became the root of my book. But it was a great learning experience.
Jason Buff 16:11
Where were most of the screenplays coming from where they just people that were submitting screenplays or where they
Pilar Alessandra 16:18
It was all the big agencies of the time. CAA ICM, really Morris? APA, just just, uh, you know, the big ones, which I can't always say, in my opinion from, from reading somebody's scripts over the years is necessarily always a good thing. Because since, you know, since that work, and now that I've been on my own for so many years, and I've read so many writers who aren't represented or represented by smaller agencies, I have to say, I think sometimes the studios are missing out, because there are some wonderful work out there, that that isn't wrapped by a big shiny agency. And, and, you know, that's where a lot of unique voices are. So, you know, I've read some, I would say, over the years, even better stuff than I read back then,
Jason Buff 17:18
Do you think it's important for writers to try to get an agent so that they can get into that world?
Pilar Alessandra 17:24
Yeah, unfortunately, it still is, because you still need somebody who can champion your work and have the connections that can that can reach out for you. So yes, you still want to try very, very hard to get an agent or these days a manager, because a manager manages your entire career, and may understand that you have more than just one sellable project that maybe you have something that would be good as a writing sample, to get you work or to staff you up, or maybe you have an incredible play that needs to get get out there, or a web series. So that's what a manager does is, tries to get you out on all kinds of levels, an agent that turns around and tries to sell a script.
Jason Buff 18:07
Okay. Now, when you were reading the screenplays, would you Was there any? Is there any sort of moment when you would kind of know that it wasn't a good screenplay? I mean, is there a typical pattern that you would see in terms of you know, a screenplay arrives, you start reading it, and then you start seeing maybe like red flags?
Pilar Alessandra 18:28
Well, you know, there's something that happens in the second act. And it happened then. And it happens now, where I'll read something, it has a really strong first act, it has a great concept, but I kind of call it spinning its wheels in the second act, it doesn't really know what to do with that concept. And it starts playing one trick over and over again, and you start going, Okay, I've been here before, can we get can we get out of here? You know, can we get out of this mud and know that it's just spinning its wheels. And if it just sort of fails to ever sort of cleverly get out of there. Then usually that's that's that is a problem that I see. Sometimes, the problem is actually the third act where everything has been sort of interesting and fun and games. And you know, it's trucking along in the second half, but then there's no clever. There isn't a clever resolution. There's just sort of achieving resolution, you know, they get the treasure, they get the girl they live happily ever after. But there wasn't an interesting way of getting that treasure or the girl are living happily ever after. And the writers just hoping that the audience will be okay with that. And I don't think audiences like to be cheated out of a third act. So, so that could be a problem as well.
Jason Buff 19:46
It seems like a lot of times, screenwriters will keep setting up things and setting up things and making things like oh, well, I'm going to throw something in, it's going to make you it'll pull you into the story and make you more interested but it's not paid off at the end. There's nothing that it really leads to.
Alex Ferrari 20:02
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Pilar Alessandra 20:11
You're absolutely right. I think too, that's sort of the secret to coming up with a clever ending is mining, whatever you created in the first half. And so writers get stuck because they think that they have to come up with something completely out of thin air. And it's like, no, just look, look behind you. What did you invent along the way, the smallest thing could be an incredible payoff. And I think when we see thrillers that work for us, or even romantic comedies that work for us, they're often pulling from something that we didn't expect, but it was there, it was there, it was right in front of our nose. And then they use that to their advantage. In in, in the resolution. And that's what I teach in class. And I find that, you know, I'm constantly surprised when somebody does do it. Well, in a great script, I'm like, Ah, that was a great payoff. And in when I was working for the studios, that would get passed upwards. And now that I'm not, it's it I do see those scripts move on to success.
Jason Buff 21:12
Now, one of the things that full disclosure is that, you know, I'm, I've been working on a screenplay for the last two months, and I got your book in order to, to talk to you about it, you know, and I actually when I once I started reading it, it kind of blew me away, because it's exactly the kind of thing that I need, because I'm a very disorganized all over the place kind of person. And I absolutely love the concept of just being able to have somebody guide you through and say, Okay, let's focus on what's the logline. What's the idea? What's this? And what you know, talking about the third act, one of the things that completely made the screenplay, about 100 times better was the concept of working backwards from the third act. And it was just like, it was so great. Yeah,
Pilar Alessandra 22:01
TV writing. And, you know, over the years, my work has changed from just screen, just dealing with screenwriters, I would say half and half of it is it's TV. And that particular exercise works really well for TV writers too. Because if you're plot, plotting out TV, your ACT breaks or everything. And when you're figuring out your TV show, you need to think about act break backwards. So let's say you have five acts, if you ask, what is it, you know, what's my act break going to be? And then do that kind of work of well, how did I get there that will help you figure out how to tell your story. So so I'm very glad that worked for you. Because I do think that it, it is something that can help people in outlining, especially if they're not outline, or
Jason Buff 22:50
How long do you think people should be outlining before they actually jump in. I mean, one of the things that I have found for myself is I'll go through and I'll try to get everything together. But I'll still have a lot of scenes that I haven't worked out. And then once I start writing, it almost becomes like this improvisation, you know, and I want to make sure that I have the tracks laid out and I can kind of stay there. But I kind of go into these wild ideas, all of a sudden, I'll invent a character over here, and I'll have this happen over there. And it's like, oh, wait a second, I gotta get better. You know, I'm going off a little bit. But it's also good, I think to have that first draft out there. So you can just start generating all those ideas. You know,
Pilar Alessandra 23:30
I think what you said is perfect. I am not a believer, and 25 Page outlines, I think all you've done then is spend time on a 25 page outline where you could have been writing your screenplay. So in classes and in the book, it's very much what you just said, I provide a blueprint, so that you can see big picture with your with your screenplay or with your TV, pilot. And then as you're writing, I think you're right, sometimes the characters go a place you didn't expect. Now, if they're starting to go in a place that could completely modify that outline and you like it, go back into the blueprint, adjust it a little bit so that you can see what that butterfly effect is going to be. And then okay, you've got a new blueprint to work with, and go from there. But but your outline should be something that is changeable. Because I agree your writing is going to change that story as you go you sometimes to never really know until you're actually writing it.
Jason Buff 24:35
Do you find that people when they're writing their first draft tend to say, Oh, wait, wait, wait, I had an idea. And they want to go back and start changing things
Pilar Alessandra 24:44
Going backwards thing, it can be a problem. It's not so much that they usually go back and say, Oh, I had an idea. It's usually that they want to make whatever they did just perfect before they move on. And what ends up happening are those perfect first acts that we talked about, and those Oh, God, I'm so tired third acts. So I, I, if you if you have an idea, and you're like, I want to change the first app, because the idea now is is the better one to help you move forward, by all means, do it, just don't spend a lot of time rewriting all the stuff around it, just change that idea so that you can see now how it's going to retrigger. The second act,
Jason Buff 25:28
That's the mistake that I made for a very, I ended up rewriting a screenplay for almost a year and a half that I would go in, and I would watch a movie. And I'd be like, Oh, I really liked the tension in the scene and kind of like what's going on here. And I would be like, maybe I can use that. And I would go back and like, start changing the screenplay around a little bit. And it just became this gigantic mess. And so now that I write, when I write now, it's more pay a lot more attention to the outlining process and making sure that I don't get into it and say, oh, I want to change things, you know, halfway through,
Pilar Alessandra 25:58
Right! You got to get to the end, in my classes. It's all about in the first draft class, it's all about, you got to move forward and just finish this, we can go back and make a pretty later can go back and nuance it later. But it doesn't matter if you're most beautiful writer in the world, if you never had anything done.
Jason Buff 26:14
Now, in your classes, do you find that there are certain different approaches to screenwriting? Terms of personalities?
Pilar Alessandra 26:21
Okay. Yeah, I would say if I've got 30 students, there's 30 different ways in and there should be there should be you know, everybody's got to have their own style and their own stamp. So that's why again, it's important to loosely outline and not get hung up on saying to people, certain plot points have to be at certain pages, I believe, because they don't have to be, your story should be unique in its telling, not only in its subject matter. So we can talk about patterns that have been in successful movies and TV shows. But then, once you know that, once you feel confident in your outline, you should just go and see what happens. So yeah, there's a million ways to tell the story, fortunately, and that's what keeps keeps us watching movies and TV, because we just never know what the next approach is going to be.
Jason Buff 27:19
Do you find that some people are more into the structure side of it, and then other people are just more more like me, that are just like more creative and not really like? I mean, I remember I had a conversation with Cory Mandel. Intuitive versus conceptual. Yeah, that's what I was talking about.
Pilar Alessandra 27:37
Yeah, I love that. I love that approach that he has. And, you know, you can, you can say the dummy version of it, which I'll say, which would be like, inside out or outside. And you know, and there are the conceptual people. Those are the outside and people, the people who see big picture and see the outline, and then have a hard time sometimes finding the scenes and they have to work at the dialog and they have to really work at their craft. And then they're the people who are, as he calls it, the intuitive people I call it the inside out people who Korea's way smarter than I, the people who love their dialogue, know their scenes, but have a hard time seeing the big picture. And certain times can get lost in the minutia. And in, in my classes, I like to think that we do both at one time. I'll start everybody big picture. But as we are fleshing out the big picture, the craft issues are coming in, and we're dealing with them as we go. So that you're sort of having a flip between both minds. And, and you're not abandoning one over the other. But you really do have to get strong at both. And I think that's why the experienced writers over time have done that.
Jason Buff 28:56
I always think of it like, you know, somebody who's a right handed person having to sit there and try to write with their left hand for, you know, a couple of days to start strengthening that up.
Pilar Alessandra 29:06
It doesn't have to be as difficult as that. It could be 10 Your right hand do two things that one time. Can you multitask, you know, and anybody who has texted somebody, while they're writing an email, and posting Facebook, you're doing three things at one time, where you can probably look big picture out your script, and right from within, without having to completely go to your left hand. You know what I mean? It doesn't have to be as foreign as that.
Jason Buff 29:42
Now, can we talk a little bit I know you talk a lot about loglines. And I'm sure that you're probably a little tired of you mind explaining the importance of having a long, long logline and how that guides you as a writer,
Pilar Alessandra 29:55
No screenwriting teachers ever tired of talking about love lines, God, we love our love lines.
Alex Ferrari 30:02
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.
Pilar Alessandra 30:11
I think the reason that that everybody's so hung up on them is they serve a purpose for the writer and they serve a purpose for the listener for the writer, knowing what your hook is. And being able to articulate that in one line means that you always have a thesis statement you can go back to whenever you're lost in your writing process. So you can go oh my god, where am I look at your logline and say, Oh, that's what I wanted. That's what my intention was. So that's why it's important for the writer. For the listener. It's important because it's a mini pitch, we get an we get an idea right away of the kind of movie or TV show you're going for. And what's special about it, what's special in the what's a special idea? Not what's special fanatically, although that should bubble through, you know, what's that cool idea that we haven't thought about before. We want to explore more. And that's what happens in a logline. And that's why it's important.
Jason Buff 31:09
What is the key? Do you think to creating like, if you're a little bit lost? Are there some ways that you can create your logline or figure it out, because a lot of people will be will write screenplays, and they're in the middle of the story and what you know, one of the common things that you'll do is go up and be like, what what is your story about? You know, and and for whatever? I mean, people would do that to me, and I just be like, Well, do you have half an hour? Play? And I never, it wasn't until I started focusing on that idea of creating an idea logline that I, you know, I can be like, Oh, well, I really need to know how to say this quickly.
Pilar Alessandra 31:47
And it's about is actually a good way in to find your logline. What's your story about, it's about a person who experiences this thing. So they have to do so and so, or it's about a person who wants to do so something in a particular way, or it's about this group of people who in their attempt to do such and such end up in conflict. So, yes, just starting with it's about is is a great way in but yes, your the answer to that question is usually a sentence is not have a half an hour? Yeah,
Jason Buff 32:18
Can you walk through a little bit of how to deal with X structure and just structure in general for how to lay out their story?
Pilar Alessandra 32:26
Yeah, you know, I have a second edition of coffee break screenwriter. No, no, no, this was a bit. Yeah. But I just want to tell you what's
Jason Buff 32:34
Alright, well buy the book.
Pilar Alessandra 32:35
No, no, no, there's something that's gonna be in there that that I'm using in classes. Now that's not in the first one. And I can tell it to you right now, you don't have to buy the second edition at all. But I want to tell you, it's, it's just the idea that for screenplay structure, all those books, everything we've been talking about all the analysis really comes down to, in my opinion, for things, trauma, training, trials and triumph. And the idea is that in Act One, if you will, or the beginning of your pilot, trauma is that thing that sort of traumatized as a character into a new experience, and it can be positive, it can be negative, or it could be positive, falling in love with the trauma, then the training is kind of an on the job kind of training, where you're sort of learning about your new experience or your new environment by doing. And that can be seen as you know, the first half of Second Act or the first part of the middle for your pilot, then we've got trials, which is a real push back and testing. Really, you think you know what you're doing? Oh, yeah, well, here's this big conflict that's going to happen deal with that. And then we've got triumphs and which doesn't have to be happy ever after is just that solving of the problem that we talked about some kind of closure. And in a pilot that tends to be sort of a mini solving of the problem with a greater question asked. So trauma training trials and triumphs. You asked my take on structure, that's pretty much what it is. Tr words that I can say really quickly, and that sounds kind of cool. I like it. Thank you.
Jason Buff 34:16
You can put it on a shirt. Yeah, yeah. It kind of reminds me of the hero's journey a little bit.
Pilar Alessandra 34:22
Yeah. And I think it's sort of that idea of what's everybody saying? You know, we're all trying to say it a different ways. Well, I think you're really out of those four things. There you go.
Jason Buff 34:31
Okay, moving on. One of the things that I struggle with a lot is not so much the second act, but what you have in your book is the second second act.
Pilar Alessandra 34:40
That's that be that middle part for you? Yeah.
Jason Buff 34:44
Now that it seems like a lot of kind of screenplays, that's where they die in.
Pilar Alessandra 34:48
Well, that's where that trials part comes in. And it is that pushback. And that pushback can be from an antagonist, where somebody goes, You know what I see you Turning on the job and I don't like it, I don't want you to accomplish a goal, I'm going to do something really big. So enact to be, you might be thinking, Okay, wait a minute, somebody is really going to try and stop them in a major way. Or sometimes it's a characters flaw, that's the push back, you know, the character was doing really well, and even even sort of, you know, dealing with a flaw or overcoming it, but something about their nature just screwed it up, their flaw was triggered, and that's the push back. Sometimes it's an event that happens, we talked about that midpoint event that happens right before that section that focuses the main character and forces them now to really accomplish one mission, instead of several little moments of fun and games. And that can make act to be feel feel more important as well. And if you look at that, as pushed back, it's, it's the idea that, that that person now has this mission, and that's going to be really hard, is that they were learning on the job, they thought they got it, okay, now they have to do this. So those would be some ways I would be thinking about to heighten act to make it interesting and different. So that the reader doesn't go oh, here we are more than
Jason Buff 36:18
One of the things that I think a lot of writers get lost in. And one of the things that you guys do, I think a really good job of on the podcast is talk is analyzing what people are writing, how they've put it together and how if somebody is going over the top in terms of explaining what the details are in the room, every painting on the wall and everything like that, what what do you in terms of rewriting so that people are actually making progress? What is your advice for them,
Pilar Alessandra 36:47
I'm a big believer of essence statements? So instead of you said, you said, you know, all this stuff in the wall, and you know, the set decorating, so instead of set decorating your environment? Is there a comparison you have Is there a way of of describing it in one sentence, that is the personality of the room, the essence of the room. So I think an example that I use is, you know, Bill's office screams CEO. So if a if a room is if an office is screaming CEO, you know that we've got a big desk and a huge cheer and an imposing environment. And, you know, diplomas all over the wall, something like that, the set decorator can do their job, you don't have to say they're all those things. The personality is just there screaming CEO. So I'm looking for those personality descriptions for environment for your rewrite, an essence of character instead of just physical lysing them, those kinds of things, help paint the picture and make your writing better.
Jason Buff 37:53
One of the things I love about doing the podcast is I get to do a lot of research. So you know, I've been watching some of your presentations that are on YouTube. And I really loved what you what you said about you don't want to you want to make sure characters aren't just saying what they're thinking, you know, and that's a problem that people get into. It actually made me It reminded me of that. I don't know if you ever saw that SNL sketch with Joe Montana, where he just walks in and he's a guy that can only say what he thinks.
Joe Montana 38:21
You know, honestly, I could talk to you for days. The ad like the jumper bones.
Same here, you know, I haven't even noticed the time where she jumped my bones.
Joe Montana 38:34
Whoa, I didn't realize how late it was. You know, you're welcome to spend the night here in the living room. If she says yes, I'm home free.
Gee, you know, I really shouldn't. I don't want to seem to trampy
Joe Montana 38:49
Wow. Suit yourself. Okay, I will. Oh, great. That's my roommates do what a time for him to show up. Terrific.
I'd love to meet him. And oh, no, he's gonna ruin everything.
Joe Montana 39:09
I think he really likes to is absolutely the most sincere, genuine, straightforward person you'll ever want to meet a real honest guy. What a jerk. He is.
He sounds really nice. Yeah, it sounds boring.
Joe Montana 39:24
Oh, here he is. Hey, Stu, come on in. Oh,
I hope I'm not disturbing you. I hope I'm not disturbing them.
Joe Montana 39:39
God, he's gonna scare her away. This is Leslie. Leslie. Sue.
Hi. I'm very glad to meet you. I'm very glad to meet her.
Nice to meet you. Guys.
Joe Montana 39:54
Leslie was going to sleep in the living room.
Alex Ferrari 39:58
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Joe Montana 40:07
Unless that's a problem for you, in which case she could sleep in my room and I could sleep on the floor. Come on, you idiot helped me out.
You know, maybe it would be better if I stayed in dance room because we don't want to inconvenience you.
Hey, it's fine with me if you stay in the living room won't bother me at all. It's fine with me if she stays in the living room. It doesn't bother me at all.
Joe Montana 40:29
Thanks a lot, Stu. Yeah, thanks a lot. Jerk.
You know, you are so sweet. Boy. Yes, this guy lame.
Joe Montana 40:39
Well, listen, Stu, I think Leslie and I are gonna stay up a while and talk. So I guess we'll see you tomorrow.
Great. See you tomorrow. Great. I'll see them tomorrow.
Listen, we'll talk quietly so as not to disturb you. Okay.
Oh, you won't disturb me. I'll be in my room masturbating. I'll be masturbating.
Jason Buff 41:06
It just call us. I'll send you a link to it. But it's like a thing that people, you know, if you're reading a screenplay, it's like, you know, I'm angry at you for this? Well, I think because you did this. But you know what I mean? So he talked a little bit about dialogue and the way people you know, use dialogue that's not just like on the nose and the different kinds of dialogue I guess
Pilar Alessandra 41:26
You're awesome. You know exactly what you're talking about. The the the fact that a lot of people don't understand that on the nose means saying what you absolutely feel it's so weird for, for a grown up to say exactly what they feel like we've learned how to lie. That's, that's what being a grown up is about. We've learned to say, wow, it's great to see you instead of oh, God, I can't believe it's you again. Because we're in such a civilized society. And, and, you know, that's why with comedy, often, the comedy comes out of somebody who's simply unfiltered, who's just telling the truth. So if you look at one example I given in classes, I show a scene from Silver Linings Playbook. And you know, what makes those characters so incredibly quirky. And funny, is the fact that they're in a romantic comedy. And they're saying things like, you know, there's they're just speaking the truth to each other. And it's just so weird and unfiltered and wrong. That is hilarious.
Okay, so coming over you okay with that? Sister, Tiffany, Tiffany and Tommy? Just Tiffany? What happened to Tommy? You guys, tell me that? Cops die? How to die. Please don't bring it up. No. How did he died? He said, I let her die. Hey, Tiffany, this is Pat. says no, Tiffany. You have nice. Thank you. I'm not flirting with you. I didn't think you were I just see that you made an effort. And I'm gonna be better with my wife and working on that. When I acknowledge her beauty. I never used to do that. And do that now, because we're gonna be better than ever. Nikki is practicing how Tommy die. What about your job? I just got fired, actually. Oh, really? How? I mean, I'm sorry. How that happened? Does it really matter?
Pilar Alessandra 43:26
It's, it's I should say. It's a completely new take on traditional romcom. Right. So yeah, I think that you have to be careful that if you're writing dialogue, and it's not intended to be funny, and somebody is just saying what's on their mind, it's going to seem really cheesy. It's going to seem like you know, Oh, I feel this mixture of attraction and revulsion right now. It's like, really, I Are you a human being? Don't you know how people really talk? Which is the lie. You know, instead of saying I'm feeling this mixture of a Jackson and revulsion, they might just say hello. And the the action underneath would show the subtext. You know, they might do something to express how they really feel. But that line itself is as simple as Hello. I hope that makes sense.
Jason Buff 44:22
Yeah, I mean, I think one of the, you know, as a screenwriter, you're always looking for things, to make your audience curious, to make them want to know more and to really pull them through the story. And you know, Spielberg is great at doing that. You always want to know what's going to come next. And when you when you have characters who aren't giving up everything and that you're, you know, maybe at some point, you're going to figure out what is actually going through their brain but I mean, it's, it's a really important thing, I think, to make people wonder, I wonder what that person actually is thinking, you know, versus what they they say,
Pilar Alessandra 44:55
You know, it's a great scene to go back to an old classic Spielberg scene. You that I just think shows that I don't know there's there's more subtext and subtlety in certain Spielberg movies then then people give those movies credit for the mashed potato scene in, in crawl. Yeah, you know, I love the mashed potato scene. Because there you are at a family dinner. And this guy becomes obsessed with building a mountain out of his mashed potatoes right in front of his family. And they're looking at him like he's the craziest guy in the world. When he looks up, one of the kids is crying. The mom's mouth is a game. And all he's been doing is showing what's in his head by playing with his mashed potatoes. And it's a great scene. It's just, it's, it just sort of expresses it all. Without having to completely talk about it. Now, it does trigger him to finally say, Okay, this is what's going on with daddy. But, but the story is really told before he actually says that.
Jason Buff 46:06
Yeah. Is that the same scene where he's like, you kids might have noticed the dead?
Yeah. No, cool. Well, I guess you've noticed something strange with Dan. It's okay. Still can't describe it. When I'm feeling when I'm thinking. This means something.
Pilar Alessandra 46:54
But if you started to see in the data, you kids might have noticed and blah, blah, blah, blah, would feel artificial. It would feel on the nose, we needed the expression of what was in his brain through activity first. And that triggers him to finally have to admit, okay, this is what's going on.
Jason Buff 47:09
Yeah, I mean, I think something that I did back in my early screenwriting life is I would try to make things sound natural, and how people you know, you're like, Okay, I want it to be real. So I'm going to, I'm going to write like, people actually talk. But at the same time, it's like, you can't do everything in your scripts, it has to be deliberate, you know, it has to be moving you towards something. So I would just sit there and write, you know, two people talking to each other. And then this would happen, then that would happen. In my mind. I was like, Oh, I'm just setting up this world. But it wasn't, there was no point to it.
Pilar Alessandra 47:40
Right! And, and how people really talk, I'm not saying that people in movies shouldn't talk the way people really, really talk, there needs to be an authenticity to the voice. But if we included every, um, and stutter, and you know, and all those things that we do, it would be really difficult to watch. Which is why we added a lot from the tops and bottoms of scenes, because often it takes us so long to get to the point where with scene work on screen, we're able to get to the point much quicker. And we can lop off all that hemming and hawing that gets us there.
Jason Buff 48:20
Now one of the another thing in your book that's really helped me a lot is the concept of goal, action and conflict. As you go through your scene, can you talk a little bit about that, and the importance of, you know, breaking things down into those idea of goal action and the conflict that it calls,
Pilar Alessandra 48:38
It's one of the ways I get people to outline and just figure out their central beats, so they can figure out what their story is. I asked, okay, well, you take all those scenes that you think are this part of the story, and ask yourself, What's the goal? What does the character want to do? What's the activity? What do they actually do? Not what do they think or feel or plan? And then what's the complication? What gets in their way? And if you can do that big picture, you can start to find your major beats. But you can also do that, in your scenes in terms of what is your character wants in the scene? And what and how do they intend to get it? So yeah, it can be done in the macro. It can be done in the micro, but it always sort of keeps you on story. So yeah, it says something I would just recommend, as far as outlining and for rewriting
Jason Buff 49:27
When you mentioned the idea that it's a macro and a micro way of doing things, what I ended up I was going through and I was putting together the different you know, in the book, it breaks it up into first act, second act, second, act B and third act. And so what I ended up doing though, was I found that even in a moment by moment level, I was looking at it, you know, so I would have like five or six different moments in the first act alone where I was asking myself, Okay, here's this character, what is their goal? What do they want? What is the action that they're taking to get that goal and then what conflict is that causing
Alex Ferrari 50:01
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Jason Buff 50:10
And it caused the scenes to be so much more dynamic. And you understood the characters much more.
Pilar Alessandra 50:16
I'm so glad that worked for you. I don't know if I want to go around going. It's the GAC system. A little bit,
Jason Buff 50:23
I got money making shirts. Can you talk just for just a second about once somebody has a final screenplay once you've worked with them, once you've gotten it all, like ready? What is kind of the next phase after that?
Pilar Alessandra 50:36
So I think are you talking about sort of like, how would you push a tour to sail?
Jason Buff 50:40
Yeah, I mean, I guess the idea is that a lot of people that listen to this, and you know, there's a couple of things I wanted to go into that I want, just in terms of like people who are not in Los Angeles who want to ride and people who are trying to sell screenplays. Are you finding that people that you're working with are trying to build a career as screenwriters like full time screenwriters? Or is it something that's kind of like a part time thing? And is it a viable option for people? I mean, what what can they do? Once they have a screenplay that you sign off on that you say, Okay, this is really good.
Pilar Alessandra 51:11
Well, let's talk about the people who don't live in LA first. There's all kinds of different feelings about competitions. But my feeling is, why not. When you submit to competitions, competitions, know, first of all, that you might not be in LA person, which actually is to your advantage, because they're looking looking for diverse writers. And that means diversity of experience in place as well. So that gives you an advantage. Another thing is, it's a writing competition, not a selling competition. So competitions are looking at your craft and and not necessarily you know, whether or not they want to take this on and thinking about oh, but there's a competing project. So both of those things can work in your favor. And once you do win a competition like that, it's become a bit of a vetting situation for agents and managers who may not have their own personal reader reader pool, and use competitions to as a reader pool and a way to help them find undiscovered material, so and undiscovered writers. So I do think that it is worth submitting to competitions, you know, high level competitions, not necessarily you know, your friends, cousins, competition, who's paying me 50 bucks. And you know, you want to make sure that there's some kind of pot of gold at the end of that rainbow for sure. So I would do that.
Jason Buff 52:36
Are there any competitions that come to mind?
Pilar Alessandra 52:39
Well, the nickel fellowship is definitely the most prestigious that's through the academy, Austin, Austin Film Festival, screenwriting competition is also prestigious. The kind of the ones that are typically time for people, those have been around the longest. And that usually means that they had the most success behind them. Blue Cat screen Screencraft is doing a good job as a new screenwriting competition because they are genre oriented. And that means that it doesn't have to just be a drama that wins because they have their own comedy or horror category just for those films. So So I think that's a good one. There's also a lot more open for TV now for competitions, and short films to a lot of short film competitions are out there, that will give you money to make your film, which is awesome, because making your stuff is also a great way to get people's attention. If you're from outside of LA, and you have a good camera and a really tight, smart script. And I'd be thinking about, you know, really short form content. And you feel like you could make it without mortgaging your house and put it on YouTube. And it's something that could get eyes on it. That's another way to go. People are looking for talent online. Another way to go if you're, you know, the the pitch fests, a lot of cynicism around them, that and I can understand because there's this sense that they can be a little bit of a circus. But once you are one on one with somebody, that's your opportunity, it can be a pretty intimate, intimate moment. And it's an opportunity for face time with industry that you might not have otherwise, I think it's replaced the query letter as far as being sort of a cold look at your work. So all those things can be good for people who don't live here. For people who do live here. They're doing the same thing, but also they're looking for who do they know who knew who knows somebody and they're trying to mine their contacts. And in that case, what they're usually doing is saying, hey, person who knows my friend. Not Can you read my screenplay, but I, could I take you out for coffee? And can I pick your brain a little bit? And if you make that relationship by the end of coffee, they might say, Yeah, sure, send me a script. But you don't want to start with a favor. You want to start with mining relationships. And that's what people in LA do. And why the caricature of that is known as, you know, as as being very smoothie. But really, you know, it's how an LA person moves up is they have to make their relationships and a lot of people in the industry live out here, and they got to make friends. You know, and I think making friends is actually not a bad thing. So yeah, so that's, that's my advice for moving things forward, just a little bit of it. Because the people who come on my show, they always have interesting stories about how they got in. And, inevitably, it's always some kind of random moment. But the only thing that ties them together is that their work was ready. When they got that opportunity, they had a great kick ass script, which is why I spent tend to stay on the content side trying to get people to write a kickass script.
Jason Buff 56:14
If people need to have a body of work. I mean, should they have like, some people say three screenplays or four screenplays that they can show?
Pilar Alessandra 56:22
I don't know if there's a magic number, but I do know that the first thing somebody says after they've read something is what else do you got? So you want to make sure that you're at least knee deep and something else before you, you know, paper, your script all over town? Because if the answer is no. You know, at least be like, Yeah, I certainly do got something else. And as soon as I'm done polishing it up in a room and finished the effort
Jason Buff 56:57
Well, you know, I know you gotta go so what? How can just so people can get in touch with you? I assume most people have already heard of on the page. But what what is? What's your info?
Pilar Alessandra 57:08
I don't know. I don't know if most people have on the page. That'd be cool. If they have but you haven't it just so you know. Yeah, there is a podcast called on the page. It's on iTunes. But also, I think a catch all for my classes, the podcast, my book. Also have some recorded classes for people who live out of town. It's just go to on the page.tv That's my website. It's got it all there. And and I'd love to work with you someday.
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- The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time
- The Coffee Break Screenwriter Breaks the Rules: A Guide for the Rebel Writer
- Pilar Alessandra – Official Site
- Episode 662: The Coffee Break Screenwriter with Pilar Alessandra