From Script to Screen: Paul FitzSimons Meets Pilar Alessandra
‘On The Page – The Path To Screenwriting’ was a seminar run at Filmbase in Dublin recently. It was hosted and presented by Boston-born and now LA-based scriptwriting and editing guru Pilar Alessandra. I sat down with Pilar before the seminar to talk about her fascinating career, involving working for and ‘run-ins’ with Stephen Spielberg, why she became a screenwriting teacher and, firstly, how she was recently listed as one of LA Weekly Magazine’s top one hundred people in LA.
“That was weird,” Pilar tells me with a laugh. “And fun. The photographer came to the studio and said ‘Do you have any script pages lying around?’ and I said ‘Do I have script pages lying around?’ and all the pages you see in the picture [taken for LA Weekly by Keith Scanlon] were there, they’re all the pages that I happened to have read that week. We dumped them on the desk and that’s me in front of them looking tired.”
We get on to the reason I was so keen to meet Pilar in the first place – her early script reading and editing career inside the Hollywood movie industry. And the first thing I do is mistakenly suggest that she started off working for Stephen Spielberg’s Dreamworks.
“Actually, you know, I came in when it was Amblin, it wasn’t Dreamworks yet. Basically, he had Amblin as a production company. Amblin, as a production company stayed although Stephen Spielberg created a studio called Dreamworks. So they were now a buyer who was also able to fund Amblin if they wanted to. It’s all very corporate, who knows. All I know is, I went from working with Amblin to becoming senior story analyst at Dreamworks. Regardless, it was Spielberg’s company, I was just happy that they didn’t kick me off the lot.”
Pilar then goes on to tell me what her jobs at Amblin and DreamWorks involved.
“I was story analyst. A story analyst is a script reader, that’s the real term for it and people have forgotten that. What story analysts do, good ones at least, is read the whole script, talk about its strengths and weaknesses, what kind of a movie it is and whether or not it would be a good project for the company. So that’s what I did at Amblin and Dreamworks for the most part but after being there a while and becoming trusted by certain executives, I also started doing writers notes on existing projects so, say they needed a writer to do a pass on it, they would give it to someone like me first. I would write up what I thought the writer should do about it. And that doesn’t mean I was the only person to do that by any means, but I was certainly, from time to time, asked ‘what do you think?’ it definitely helped me figure out – ‘Well what do I think about this script?’ And about scripts in general.”
When I ask Pilar if she read any films we might know, she does get a bit more cagey. At first.
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you. But this was a golden age of script-dom. There were a lot of writers after making a lot of money at the time. It was the 90s and everybody wanted a really big idea and a really good writer. And so there were things that were moving. I would get a script at 9pm and be told to have the coverage on the desk by 7am because there could be a bidding war by 8am. So it was really exciting. I do remember reading Saving Private Ryan and I just went ‘wow’. It was a great idea, it was moving me on all kinds of levels, emotionally, and here I was in my twenties, but it was working for me as a war movie, something I hadn’t grown up on – I remember that particular read very well.”
That piques my curiosity about Saving Private Ryan and I ask Pilar to talk more about that script, in particular, that famous opening half-hour, an all-action battle scene without much dialogue.
“Well, you know, it’s funny, I actually used the first page of one of the original specs of that in a class, I don’t think it was The-First-Draft, but it was certainly the first draft I remember. You’ll find that that entire battle is in the first couple of pages. You can see that the way it’s been compressed and yet it’s detailed specifically and emotional, so what you see for half-an-hour is actually really concise writing. Let the director and production people and the actors do their jobs.”
Pilar’s mention of directors leads me to ask that question I couldn’t really resist – did she have any direct contact with the great Mr. Spielberg?
“It was a very exciting time. When I came to Amblin, there was Jurassic Park, there was Schindler’s List. I mean, it was a really exciting time. But, you know, everybody was doing their job and Stephen would show up every once in a while. You know, for the big meetings.
“Amblin was a place that had beer on Fridays but when Stephen showed up, it was solemn, it was like church. He’d show and you’d know he was there because everyone would get very quiet and very business-y. I would duck my head down instead of saying ‘Hi, I work for you’.
“And then I almost hit the man with my car, not once but twice. Once I almost backed up over him and the other time I nearly hit him full on. Those were my big meetings with Stephen Spielberg.”
Moving on to Pilar’s current profession-of-choice, we talk about something she said on her website www.onthepage.tv – that she had been bitten by the ‘teaching bug’.
“It’s such a wonderful thing. As a writer, you’re often writing in a bubble, you don’t get to have the experience of watching the immediate effect of your writing. You have to wait for someone to make your movie. But when you’re teaching, you can try out certain things, say ‘I think this will work to help your problem’ and when a student takes it on and it does work, it’s so wonderful to see – an immediate consequence, an immediate effect. So yeah, I love teaching for that reason.”
I’m curious as to whether that was why she set up the writing consultancy – that she saw a gap in the market.
“No, it wasn’t a commercial choice. Choosing to become an instructor is never a commercial choice. But, I felt like, what I had learned as a story analyst was translating very well to my students. They were actually making big progress and I thought ‘Okay, there’s something here. I can actually help people. I am going to start my own writers’ studio and bring in lots of classes and lots of clients and see what happens, see if it works. And that was twelve years ago. So it think it’s worked.”
I ask her what specific skills she was able to translate from her script-reading jobs to her role at OnThePage.
“Well it’s interesting. I read not only for Dreamworks, I read for Image Movers, Radar Pictures, The Robert Evans Company, Saturday Night Live Studios, I just read for so many companies that, I don’t know, it’s what I did, it’s how I made my living. I’ve always been a little bit of a workaholic, as you can imagine.
“So what I learned was, that no matter what the company, if there was a big idea, they would get really serious and everybody would have to read the script. But when they were just talking among themselves, they’d often talk about the read. It was the writing that turned them on. So it was really interesting to me that good writing always went to the top. Even if they weren’t going to make the movie, it would be ‘Get me a meeting with so-and-so’, ‘We have to hire this kid’, or ‘Wow, you have to read this’. Almost like they were members of a huge book-club , telling each other to go read ‘Twilight’ or something. It just had that bubbly effervescence about it.
“So, that’s what it taught me, it was the writing. And that’s what I’m trying to teach because there are so many ways to get work in Hollywood, it’s not always about a sale. It’s about being a strong enough writer that people want to work with you.”
Something I’ve always wondered about LA, being essentially the movie capital of the world, is if there is a good infrastructure of training facilities there for screenwriters. With this question, Pilar can’t resist being a bit bold.
“There’s a million of them. But come to me,” she says with a glint in her eye. “Come to OnThePage. You’ll get a lot done in a very short amount of time. Then I’ll boot you out into the world.”
One of the other strings to Pilar’s bow is her weekly podcast, on which she talks about scriptwriting and interviews writers and other influential people from the movie and TV industries.
“I like podcasting, I’ve been doing it for 5 years,” she tells me. “I started it out on a whim, which, for anyone who has been listening for those five years knows, because, when I first started out, I cracked a beer open on a Sunday with a favourite student of mine and put a mic on us and started talking about the screenplay and I didn’t really think anyone was listening. And it turned out – a lot of people were. So I got a little more serious after that and eventually put the beer down and realised that people really needed at least one nugget of information from podcasts. Something that they could really take with them, that was new or made them think or made them apply it to the pages. So I do take the podcasts – the responsibility of the podcasts – seriously.
“I come out here to Dublin and people have listened to the podcast. And they’ll tell me things that they learned on it. So, yeah, I think its doing okay. Is it a totally goofy, nuts, completely loose, messy podcast? Yes. It’s crazy sometimes. But I have a responsibility to do it every week and I’ll be there for the writers.”
I mention one recent podcast, on which Pilar has interviewed organisers and speakers at last year’s London Screenwriters Festival, where she also presented a seminar.
“I really liked that festival,” she says. “I was in such amazing company. Mike Lee was there, Simon Beaufoy was there. I couldn’t even believe I was a speaker there. And also the writers, they had this commitment and focus and energy. And it’s such a positive place to be. I would definitely recommend it to people.”
But Pilar is also very enthusiastic about what’s available to writers in Ireland. “I’m really pleased with FilmBase, the organisation I’m teaching for tonight. They have eighty people coming so they really have a nice reach and I think, I mean, just peeking in, it looks like they do some great work.”
I’m delighted to be able to confirm that Filmbase is indeed a great facility with a constant flow of writing courses, and that it was at one of these courses that I wrote my first feature screenplay.
This moves us on quite aptly to Pilar’s latest achievement, a copy of which she has just given me as a present. The book ‘The Coffee Break Screenwriter’ does pretty much as title suggests, tells us how to write a screenplay in ten minute bite-size pieces.
“In my classes,” Pilar explains. “What I started realising was, you know, they’re not just here to hear me talk. This is their precious writing time. So I’m going to get them writing. So I started experimenting with, well okay, here’s the writing tool. You know what? You’ve got ten minutes. You’ve got five minutes. You’ve got two minutes. And when they had to focus with no distractions, they get a lot done. And they can move through a script very quickly. So those are the tools that are in the book.
As we realise that we need to be getting over to Filmbase so that Pilar can stand up in front of that room full of writers, we quickly get to talking about the craft of scriptwriting. I ask Pilar what mistake she sees writers make most often.
“I think it’s still over-writing. Editing goes such a long way toward making your pages better but also I would add that overwriting isn’t just cluttered pages, sometimes it’s cluttered ideas, where someone has a great idea and then they think it’s not good enough and they go off in five different directions. And focus is editing. You know, staying on track, staying the course. If you have a great idea, exploit it. So, that also goes with overwriting – don’t overwrite back-story and side-story and romantic subplots.”
I also can’t resist asking her what advice she can offer the new or emerging screenwriter (like myself).
“Take the opportunities when they come, don’t second-guess yourself. Because if you do, some jerk is going to go get your job. I see it all the time. And don’t chase trends. Because by the time you catch up to them, the trend is over. So here you are writing what is popular in the theatres right now but by the time that gets read, and developed and put on screen, it’s years later and that trend is over. So you have to just write what gets you in the moment. Whatever you’re really passionate about.”
That refreshingly optimistic and upbeat advice is typical of Pilar’s outlook, both throughout our chat and during the highly enjoyable and educational seminar that followed. As Pilar mentioned, around eighty people were in attendance and all those I spoke to afterwards all came away with and a renewed enthusiasm for their writing.
To contact Pilar about your script (there’s about a six-month waiting list for a script-edit) or to take one of her classes (in LA), visit her website www.onthepage.tv. If you can’t get to LA, check out Filmbase for more help with your work.
(c) Paul FitzSimons
Paul FitzSimons is a screenwriter and novelist and has written the novel ‘Burning Matches’ and a number of scripts for film and TV. He has worked as a storyline writer on RTE’s ‘Fair City’. His short stories are published in ‘Who Brought The Biscuits’ by The Naas Harbour Writers. Paul likes crime thrillers, good coffee and Cadbury’s chocolate. He doesn’t like country-and-western music or people who don’t indicate on roundabouts.
Paul also runs the Script Editing service Paul | The | Editor.