Sunday, April 13, 2008

KILLER SCREENWRITING: Interview with Jim Mercurio

by Jim Cirile

I remember the first time I met Jim Mercurio. It was almost ten years ago, and I’d been invited to a poker game by a friend who told me it would be “an industry game.” Little did I know that the players largely consisted of the editorial staff of “Creative Screenwriting” magazine! There was Jim Mercurio, a whirlwind at the table, an H-bomb with his take-no-prisoners style, mathematician’s brain and his frickin’ uncanny Daniel Negreanu-like ability to intuit your hole cards. Curse you, Merky! Jim and I went on to work on several projects together, and we consult on each other’s material.

The thing that impresses me about Mercurio is not so much his encyclopedic knowledge of movie structure, which is amazing enough, but his uncanny facility with character. This man makes me seriously up my game in terms of thinking about my characters as real, dimensional people, not just automatons serving the needs of the plot. Jim brings psychology to the table, and as a result, he forces you to transform your characters into living, breathing, noble, flawed, brilliant yet fallible entities -- in short, real people. This sounds easy, but trust me, it’s not.

I spoke with Jim about what he’s up to post-Creative Screenwriting and about his upcoming seminar series.

Coverage, Ink: I'm sure a lot of folks remember you from your great column in “Creative Screenwriting” but also for coordinating the Screenwriting Expo contests. Tell us about what you're into lately.

Jim Mercurio: As always, I am balancing working in and around screenwriting as a teacher, consultant and gun-for-hire with finding time to write my own stuff, too. The Expo experience has been great. What I am looking forward to in my Killer Screenwriting classes and in long-term script mentoring is to have an ongoing relationship with writers and really have an impact on them. It's like the difference between Dr. Phil and your personal therapist. It was fun to reach hundreds of people all at once at the Expo, but I have very little idea if what I gave those writers is going to impact them. I like the intensive and ongoing environment which allows me to see the growth and adjust to make sure I am really being helpful to my clients and students.

CI: There's a couple of screenwriting seminars out there. How does your approach differ from the others?

Mercurio: Look, we will probably spend ten hours on structure but the 20 interactive hours where we spend time on the nitty-gritty craft is where this class is special. Maybe in spec markets past, a cool concept or good structure was enough, but now you have to be the complete writer. You have to have a great concept and good story--which is the focus of most classes and workshops -- but my class is going to elevate your scene writing, clarify your characters, improve your dialogue, sharpen your jokes and make your script the best read it can be.

CI: You've been involved in the poker world for a while, too. Tell us about that. Any possible crossover into movies?

Mercurio: Some of my connections may lead me to raising money for films and, of course, I have a rom-com set in the poker world in my head, but surprisingly the biggest effect poker has had on my life as it relates to movies is in helping me understand learning and mentoring and the importance of a dialogue, a back-and-forth in the learning process. I have had access to some of the greatest poker minds ever and as a student of the game, it has humbled me to be on the other side of learning. Teaching poker may be harder than teaching screenwriting, but I have learned unless you are one of the top 1% of people who have amazing natural talent, its about learning the craft/fundamentals. Like one of my poker mentors said to me: "Talent has nothing to do with it. There are a zillion things you have to learn before you even get to your talent." I guess I feel the same way about screenwriting craft. There are hundreds of things you can learn about screenwriting and storytelling before you pour your heart and talent into it. I am not saying that you can't write whenever or whatever you want. But if you are an intermediate writer, I have hours of material and examples that will push you to become a better screenwriter and storyteller.

CI: What do you see is the biggest mistake writers make? I think it's sending out scripts too early, or not being receptive enough to doing heavy lifting that is often required.

Mercurio: Back to the poker analogy...when an intermediate player plays against a pro, it's impossible for him to have an idea of how much better his opponent is, because he is limited in what he knows. I think so many writers are limited in their view of scriptwriting and their craft that they think their script is done, good enough. But if you have read several thousand screenplays like I have, you can quickly assess writer's weaknesses. My goal in Killer Screenwriting is for writers to leave the class with higher expectations for themselves and for every aspect of their craft, which allows them to find their own path to improving as a screenwriter.

CI: Tell us about the coolest or most remarkable thing about doing your Killer Screenwriting class.

Mercurio: I am really proud of the fact that the class is like a living and breathing work of art. A lot of the examples and clips and are taken from or inspired by the student's work. The class is never exactly the same. A portion of the class is actually tailored to what the students in that class need. For example, if I find a writer has problems with hiding exposition or reverting to clichés, I will take an excerpt from a produced movie or script and use it to illustrate how another writer was able to solve that same problem. So the class is interactive even before the first day.

CI: Thanks, Jim. Anything else you'd like to say to our readers?

Mercurio: Respect your passion and your craft. Seek out and face all of your weaknesses as a writer and push your stuff to be as good as it can be. I know you’d be the first person to agree that when you nail it and your writing is firing at all cylinders, it rises to the top. It will get you noticed. And I hope that it will change your life.

Jim's intensive, week-long Killer Screenwriting seminar is coming to NYC June 23-27 and LA July 7-11. For more info, please visit his website. Or order his KILLER ENDINGS DVD from the Writers Store HERE.

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