By Billy Minshall
Janet Scott Batchler is the author (with her husband and writing partner, Lee Batchler) of Smoke and Mirrors, Batman Forever, Pompeii, and My Name Is Modesty. Most recently, they have written Jack and Dick, a behind-the-scenes look at the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election, set to go before the cameras in 2019 with Hyde Park Entertainment. She is a graduate of the prestigious Directing Workshop for Women at the American Film Institute and served on the Board of Directors of the Alliance of Women Directors from 2004 to 2010. Batchler is currently a screenwriting professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.
The Coachella Review talks with Batchler about writing, teaching, and the film business.
TCR: You and your writing partner have been working together successfully for years, yet you’re still looking for the “third writer.” Can you talk more about that?
Janet Batchler: I think this is the key to successful collaboration. If I write a story, it’s going to come out one way. If my writing partner writes the same story, it’s going to come out a completely different way. What we’re looking for as a writing team is the version of the script that the two of us can only produce together. Each of us brings certain strengths to the partnership, but we each have certain failings as well. The “third writer” is a combination of both of our sets of strengths that only our collaboration can produce. I’ve taught collaboration classes at the USC film school, and I’ve seen this moment happen—the moment where you’re seeing a product that is far beyond what either of the two collaborators could create on their own. I call that result the “third writer.”
TCR: You encourage screenwriters to be “emotionally authentic” in their work. What does that look like for you?
JB: It’s more about what it feels like than what it looks like. I have read far too many screenplays that look like valid, professional screenplays. They’re beautifully formatted, there’s plenty of white space on the page, dialogue blocks are tight, and the plot is fairly tight—and yet they’re emotionally hollow. People go to the movies to have an emotional experience. Maybe they want to cry or laugh, maybe they want to be scared or to be excited or to cheer. They want to share an emotional experience with other people. There are too many scripts that simply don’t provide an emotional experience, or if they do, it’s fake. The characters are not responding the way people naturally respond when they’re put into the situations that they’re in. If I read a screenplay that looks perfect but is emotionally inauthentic, I have no interest in reading anything from that writer again. If I read something that’s a mess in terms of formatting or structure, but there’s emotional truth to it, I’m more likely to want to read the next thing that that writer produces.
TCR: What is the “75/25 split” in screenwriting?
JB: The 75/25 split is more about commerciality than anything else. I got that from a discussion with Scott Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange. Those numbers (75/25) also come from studies that appear in books like Derek Thompson’s The Hit Makers. Here we’re talking about the audience. They are looking for something that is about 75 percent familiar. They want to see things that they’ve seen before, and yet they also want about 25 percent of it to be fresh. If it’s completely familiar, we’re turned off. We’ve seen it before, there’s no reason to see it again.
That comes into play for screenwriters when we’re choosing our stories. A lot of writers want to do something that’s never been done before. I caution them that that may mean nobody will want to read it. We have to look for that right story that hits the right amount of familiarity versus originality.
TCR: You have written television and features and have said that writing a pilot isn’t about writing one hour of television, but a hundred hours of television. Can you expand on that?
JB: Sure. People are writing pilots today the way they wrote spec feature screenplays in the ’90s. They’re writing them because that’s where the marketplace is. There are almost 500 scripted shows on television right now, which is remarkable. It’s no wonder that a lot of people are writing for that market. The problem is that when you write a pilot, you’re not writing a closed-ended story. You’re writing the opening to something that probably has to carry on for one hundred hours. Many pilot ideas don’t have one hundred hours’ worth of episodes in them.
You can see why we end up with so many crime dramas, hospital dramas, police and legal dramas. It’s because there’s an engine that drives those shows. There will always be another crime, there’ll always be another sick patient, there’s always something you can do to come up with next week’s episode.
I’ve taught classes where students will pitch their pilots, and I hear the pitch, and I say, “That feels like a feature to me,” because it’s closed-ended. It feels like it’s got maybe four episodes. And they’ll say, “No, no, it’s a pilot,” and I’ll say, “Okay . . .” Then I’ll bring in industry professionals, the students will pitch their stories, and invariably those professionals will say, “Have you thought about writing this as a feature?” And the student’s face just drops. The point is that some stories do not have the foundation to sustain 100 episodes of television.
TCR: What are some common challenges that some novelists face when attempting to write a screenplay?
JB: There are two basic ways to tell a fictional story: narrative writing or dramatic writing. Writing a novel or short story is narrative writing. It’s a very different beast than writing a screenplay or a stage play. A playwright has a sense of the demands of dramatic writing, so playwrights often make very successful screenwriters. Novelists, to be honest, are less likely to make successful screenwriters.
What are the big differences? In a novel, you get to go inside a character’s head. You get to understand what the character is thinking, what they’re feeling, what they’re remembering. You don’t get to do that in a screenplay. We don’t have that option. Sometimes we can use a flashback, or a character can discuss a memory with another character, but often those choices are clumsy. They’re not a good way to tell the story. Novels can delve into the internal in a way that screenplays don’t.
Another big difference I think trips up novelists is that screenplays are incredibly dependent upon structure. Screenwriters talk a lot about three-act structure, and I think there is a psychological reality to it. The three acts correspond to the beginning, middle, and end. Novels are not bound by the need for dramatic structure. Novels can wander all over the place. I remember the first time I read Les Miserables, which takes a one hundred–page detour that ultimately has nothing to do with the story, except that it gets one character to a certain location. You can’t do that in a screenplay. Screenplays have to be very, very tight. They don’t get to linger in one location very often. They can’t pause to write evocative passages or to explore intellectual thoughts. They have to keep moving. I think a lot of novelists are not able to absorb and abide by the structure that a screenplay has to have, with the extreme need for foreshadowing and payoff. The emotional effect that you get at the end of a screenplay is almost completely dependent on how well you have foreshadowed things earlier. In novels, Hercule Poirot or Dumbledore can stop and say, “Let me explain everything that happened that you didn’t understand.” You don’t get to do that in a screenplay. If you try to do that, people are going to fall asleep. The momentum of a story is a very powerful thing in dramatic writing in a way that it isn’t in narrative writing.
For many screenwriters, the structure of screenwriting comes as a relief. I love having to structure my stories. The freeform nature of a novel is a little frightening to me.
TCR: Some of the characters you’ve written about, including Batman and Modesty Blaise, are syndicated characters. Was it easier or more difficult writing these characters since they already have so much background and backstory?
JB: Oh, I love writing characters that already exist. I’ve written a lot of historical pieces as well where you’re also dealing with someone that already exists in history. I love exploring the story from the point of view of: “How can we honor the existing material while still carrying the story forward?”
Also, let’s face it, there’s nothing more intimidating than the blank page. When you’re writing an adaptation, at least you don’t have to face the blank page in quite the same way. I read hundreds of Batman comic books getting ready to write Batman Forever. I read all of the Modesty Blaise books getting ready to work on the two Modesty Blaise movies that we wrote, one of which got made. (Actually, I read almost all of those books. I did not read the story in which Modesty dies because I just did not feel like I could do that and still write the character.)
TCR: In January 2018, the Los Angeles Times published a piece called “R.I.P. for the Spec Script, Long a Source of Some of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Films.” You and your husband/writing partner Lee Batchler had the biggest spec sale of 1993, Smoke and Mirrors, a film that still has not been made. Is the spec script dead?
JB: Smoke and Mirrors has gone into preproduction and fallen out of preproduction twice, once because the star became ill, and once because of 9/11. And there are still people asking about it; there are still people trying to figure out if they can get it made. So, that’s one screenplay from the spec script boom of the ’90s that is still alive in some ways. Certainly, I don’t think that we’re going to see a spec sale market like we saw when Lee and I were getting started. We were very fortunate to enter the business at just the right time for a freelance screenwriter. But I do think that writers who have something to say still need to write screenplays and find the market for them. We sold a spec last year that is now casting with plans to shoot in January. So, specs are still selling. If you check the various tracking boards, you will see that there are still specs getting sold. If you look at the Black List every year, a good chunk of those scripts are specs. The marketplace has changed, but saying that the spec script is dead is, I think, a little overly dramatic and probably not accurate.
TCR: What have you learned from teaching screenwriting?
JB: I learn from teaching in a couple of ways. First, I keep having to repeat the basics over and over again, and that reminds me to go back to the basics. I’ve developed a metric that I call the Big 15. It’s a list of fifteen questions to ask yourself before you start writing. I developed it because I wanted my students to put more thought into choosing their story rather than just coming in and saying, “Well, it’s high school zombies.” You know what? I’ve read fifty high school zombie movies, and I doubt that they’re going to bring anything new or fresh to that subgenre. So, I developed this list of questions, and now I use it myself. I sit down before every script I write and walk through the Big 15 to see if we have collaboratively made the right decisions in pulling this story together.
Another thing that has come up for me in teaching is that sometimes my students will need to know how to do something that I have done a million times, but I’ve never verbalized how to do it before. How do you structure an action scene? How do you structure an action movie? How should the action sequences be the same, how should they be different, how should they build? I might do these things without being able to verbalize how I do them. When I teach my students, though, I have to verbalize it, which makes the process clearer in my own mind. I love teaching. I’m very passionate about it. I’m passionate about helping my students become the best writers they can be, and I learn as much from the process of teaching as I do from sitting down to write by myself. The way it makes me think is a healthy thing for me as a writer.
TCR: What types of screenplays are you looking for from your students?
JB: I am looking for emotionally authentic screenplays that will help my students move to a new level in their writing. For instance, there was a period of time where it seemed like every student I had was pitching some kind of mob story. And I kept saying, “Tell me about your own experience with the mob.” Of course, their own experience with the mob consisted of watching movies, so they really didn’t have too much to bring to that story. They really needed to write something that they were more familiar with. Although one time, a student answered that question by explaining all about his family’s involvement with certain gangs in his city, and I said, “Okay, let’s hear your story!” He was writing out of a place of authenticity, and he wrote an absolutely beautiful script that I was very proud to have coached him through. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for students to tell stories that are appropriate for them to tell, that challenge them to a new level of writing. I want them to tell stories that only they can tell, that nobody else can tell it as well as they can. Finding your voice as a writer takes a while, and I get to be part of the process as my students find their own voices.
Billy Minshall is a Chicago-based writer and actor. He earned a Bachelor of Science in English from Northwestern University and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at the Low-Residency program at UCR–Palm Desert. He is writing a novel called Local Celebrity and is at work on his first screenplay.