EducationFinished in Four — A 4-Week Screenwriting Challenge with John Ridley
June 3, 2020
On May 29, 2020, screenwriter, television director, novelist and showrunner, John Ridley joined a conversation with CEO and co-founder Emily Best as part of our series of Creative Sustainability Sessions. Sitting at the intersection of art and activism, John is also the owner of Nō Studios, a virtual space supporting both the creative community and organizations dedicated to social justice.
The hour-long livestream conversation originated as an idea that John brought to Seed&Spark from his desire to encourage artists and creators to be as vibrant as possible in the next month of quarantine: “If you've got four more weeks of lock down, how can you set goals for yourself?”
Week 1: The Idea
“If you're feeling weird, if you're feeling ambivalent, if you're feeling depressed, not just about your situation, but also about the world, take the thing that you can do as an artist and activate it,” John shared in response to the chaotic state of America and the impact it has on artists’ focus.
The first step is identifying the subject matter that you want to explore and the end goal that you hope to accomplish. Some important questions to ask yourself to help frame the beginning process are:
- At the end of the day, do you want to sell your script or film?
- Do you want to write a script solely as a calling card in pursuit of getting representation?
- Do you want to write a script in order to independently produce a self-financed/crowdfunded film?
Answering these questions can help you discover if the end game for what you want to do lines up with where it begins.
“Understanding what you want to achieve coming out of it is really where you got to begin to understand what the end is...You want to know what that end result is and then, the product becomes about all of those things: the research, the space, the time and the price point,” John said.
Week 2: First Draft
The second step is the first week of real work. It’s getting the first draft of the script on the page.
“Nobody needs to know whether it's good or bad, but if you don't get it done, my feeling is I never know what works and what doesn't work,” he said.
This insight was the most meaningful piece of advice that I took away in the creative process John discussed. Until you have version one of the script laid out, you will not be able to have a clear view of the entire work in order to precisely decide which piece(s) will actually support completing the project in a manner that supports the initial objectives outlined in your end goal.
“Let's not take this four-week challenge literally. But if you're a month into your project and you're still on page 20, you are damaging yourself and you're damaging your psyche as opposed to getting it done and having so much stuff that all of a sudden you have to have an attic sale,” said John, expressing the urgency to get the script to its ending beat in order to advance to the next stage of curating the most important parts.
Week 3: Stage Tricks (Re-writing)
“Then, you're pulling things out and going, ‘This one is precious. This one means something to me. This one I thought meant something but it's just junk. This is kind of nice and I actually want to take it and get it real-upholstered and I got to do some work on it, but it's going to be special and it's going to remain as part of the family’,’” he continued.
If you muscle past week two (phase 2), then week three (phase 3) is where you get to finally be you — where you get to be an artist by nature of curating the parts of the script that elevate the product in a way that indicates your artistry.
In terms of stagecraft tactics, John had this insight: “Stage tricks in some ways goes back to the editing and looking at scenes and just doing things like pre-lapping and layered dialogue.”
Once you've (1) come up with your idea and you know what you want to do with it, (2) have it down on paper and (3) have taken the time to really make it the thing that you want it to be, week four is all about applying a very new skill: pitching.
Week 4: The Pitch
This fourth phase is practicing the pitch, but it’s not necessarily practicing the pitch for a studio, network or content provider executive.
“If you ask an agent what they're looking for, they say, ‘self-starters, self-generators and people who are already making stuff, getting it out and already connecting with an audience. And those are all things you can do on your own,” said Emily Best.
Sometimes when you're talking about pitching, especially if it's earlier in your career, you’re actually talking about pitching to collaborators, producers, crowdfunding audiences or even
a local business that has something that you might need to use for a location.
Whether you are pitching to a Hollywood executive or a local collaborator, it is important to practice the pitch until you have developed a heightened level of confidence.
“If one is ignoring any step of this, then there's the opportunity for things to go wrong,” said John Ridley.
For the complete and nuanced responses of John Ridley, check out the full livestream conversation.