Ask Tracey Questions Answered
You Asked … Tracey Jackson, Screenwriter, “Confessions of a Shopaholic”
Interviewed by StoryLink
March 12, 2009
Tracey Jackson is StoryLink’s March featured screenwriter in honor of Women’s History Month.
Jackson’s adaptation of Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic was released last month, and she has written more than 15 feature films and 14 television pilots. Her films include The Guru, the first Hollywood/Bollywood crossover film; The Other End of the Line, a trans-global love story to be released on October 31; and the upcoming Ashes to Ashes, which she wrote with Goldie Hawn. Lucky Ducks, completed last November, is Jackson’s first documentary and directorial debut. She is currently working on a book for Harper Collins.
Jackson, who believes writers constantly need to reinvent themselves, got her agent through writing plays and putting on readings. Her “Hollywood break” came at a baby shower, when she met the head of ABC Movies of the Week.
“She read my work and sent it to people who could help me,” Jackson recalls. “People responded to my voice.”
Jackson is adamant that writers keep plugging along with their work, push forward, and don’t give up.
“Your break-through happens through not giving up. … Calls come from unlikely places, when you least expect it, so be prepared. Nothing is worse than to be caught empty handed when opportunity comes knocking.”
For more of Jackson’s wisdom, read her answers to questions submitted and selected from the StoryLink Community. Members whose questions were chosen for this interview will receive a copy of Pilar Alessandra’s On The Page: The DVD.
Here are the selected questions from StoryLink members.
People talk a lot about an author’s voice and the style of their storytelling. Analyzing your own writing, what do you see as your voice? The themes you tackle, your approach to story, characters you gravitate to. And how much do you think about that when approaching a new idea? – Jeffrey Stoltzfus
I think what separates really good writers from merely good writers is their voice. And the “voice” is something that cannot be taught or learned. It is the unique way you see and hear the world around you and then through that lens tell your stories. The reason people talk about it is it is what makes a script “pop” – the reader says “Wow, this is unique.” In terms of my voice I would say it is a slightly cynical, yet optimistic, humorous voice. I hear dialogue in my head and it sounds like music to me. I know no other way to describe it. It is honest at all times and I am willing to say things that some people are not. I think that is my voice, but you could ask five people and they might give you another response.
The themes I tackle have varied in my career, as the stories have to interest me on an emotional level and things that interested me at age 30 do not interest me at 50. But the one thing they all have in common is I am deeply drawn to characters who are in their own way, and their journey is one where they learn to get out of their way and see the light. I am interested in the absurdities of life, yet, they always have to be grounded in emotional reality. I always think about these things when I approach something. Is this a story I can tell from my point of view? Is this a story that means something in the bigger picture, even if it is packaged in the form of a comedy?
How do you decide what information to put in the first five minutes to set up the film, and what to withhold for surprise/punch/audience engagement later? – Sally
The first five minutes of the film have to do several very specific things. First of all, they have to set up the world; where are we; are we in a comedy, a drama, a thriller? Whose story is it? Why are we willing to sit through the next ninety minutes or more with this person/persons?
If you can, the first five minutes should reveal many things. When I teach I use three movies to show examples of how to set up the perfect first five minutes. Tootsie, A Fish Called Wanda, and Jerry Maguire. If you look at A Fish Called Wanda, you meet the main players, and learn enough about them while setting up the action of the piece. In a perfect script you meet through the action of your main characters, the “dilemma” or what will drive your script, while setting up the world in a way that makes us want to stick around. And the world of scripts varies, one could say the world of the mob, but the world of the mob is very different in Goodfellas from Analyze This. Both are mob worlds, but one is dark and one comedic, and in both most of what you need is set up in the first five and max ten minutes. When people say the last act of a movie doesn’t work, I always say go look at the first ten. It all starts with those first five to ten minutes.
In terms of withholding, think of storytelling like fishing. You let out only as much line as you need at that moment. That’s what keeps your audience in their seats. You hold off on the big one/two punches until the last ten pages of act two.
What qualities do you look for in developing a concept? What do you believe a concept must have in order for it to survive the development process and become a viable property? – Brad
I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “concept.” But if you mean original idea then I’m really not sure anything you initially come up with ever survives the development process and retains what it started as. I don’t have to tell anyone these are hard times, and films are harder to get made than ever. That being said, what makes a concept a script is good, solid writing, an interesting story filled with vibrant characters.
If that good sample then lands in the hands of a producer, and you get some money, you are then in the development process – which is a euphemism for 15 people, many unqualified to tell narrative in any form, start messing around with your work. It is when the novice becomes baptized by fire, it is where you either hold up or fall apart. It is where money comes in and you have to let your little fillet mignon of a script become a Jimmy Dean sausage. It is called “development hell” for a reason and little survives it, including many of the people involved. I don’t mean to be so negative, but it is brutal. You will often times get fired from your own work; someone without your voice, despite the fact they bought your voice, will take over. That is the development process, and sadly, it is how most films get made and I guess, to use your question, become “viable properties.” I’m guessing “viable properties” mean “someone wants to make it.” Now, if in that concept, you had a great role, and that great role has not been watered down to pabulum in the development process, you will attract an actor or director. These days, that is how things become viable. You have to have the components to attract the talent, and the talent attracts the money, and the money makes that little engine called a concept into a movie that people sit and eat popcorn and pay their ten to twelve bucks to see.
What that concept has to be is still a mystery to me. I was told today a pitch I gave to a studio off their idea, was “too commercial” – go figure.
You can have all the cards in your favor and they crumble and you can have the most unlikely set of elements and you become a hit. Remember, Warner Brothers let Slumdog Millionaire go, and there are thousands of those cases.
Since Hollywood is in the midst of a remaking frenzy, what can a fledgling screenwriter do to get their spec script noticed? – William
I think a good script, when set up properly, gets noticed. The bigger issue is how does a fledgling screenwriter get noticed? If one does not have an agent, the best group of people to hook yourself up with is the whole “assistant mafia.” They have all the info, all the ins, and they know what everyone is looking for at every level. They often times have the power to get a script to an agent or a producer that the “fledgling” screenwriter may otherwise not have access to. The issue of remaking frenzy is something one cannot fight. It is what it is. Producers like brands and tent-poles they can hang their box office hats on – but yet, the Slumdogs, The Readers, and The Little Miss Sunshines do get made and rewarded.
What’s the first thing you do when you decide what your story will be about? Do you write a detailed outline or do you jump into the script right away? – Rob
That question depends on who I am writing for; it is different if I am given an assignment or writing for myself. If I am given an assignment and I really connect to the source material, “what it’s about” usually pops out at me right away. Or sometimes I have to decide what to make it about. In that case I will latch on to something that means something to me or something I find that has meaning in the germ of the idea. But, I do always need my work to be “about something.”
The nature of the material obviously dictates much of that – Shopaholic could not be about say what Juno was about.
When you are given source material or an idea, then you have to cull a story that is something you feel you can tell, while using the components at hand.
Once I know what the story is about, I start thinking up the people who can tell it for me and they will be my characters. Once I have them set, I go about the tedious, yet necessary, task of laying out the acts and the big beats, and I see from there if in fact I do have a full story or at least enough elements to create one.
If you are writing for a studio then you are obligated to write from an outline. In fact you cannot get a studio job without an outline. In the beginning of my career I wrote without them and I don’t know how I actually did it. I now use one, even if I am writing for myself – it eliminates what I call the 40-page wall, which is you hum along at a nice clip, introducing your characters and what you think will be a grand story, only to find you really did not lay enough track to get you to the end. You are left with some nice bits but not enough to tell a whole story, so I strongly advice an outline. My best friend Blake Snyder has written a wonderful book called Save the Cat, and on his website he has beat sheet you can download for free. I always use that now; it has saved me so many times.
Do you find it easier or more fun to write for a lead female than a male? What are the key differences? – Meglena
Being a woman I suppose I intrinsically understand certain things that give my female characters more depth and perhaps they are easier to write.
I think that was certainly true in the beginning of my career. In the beginning you write what you know and you tend to understand the complexities of your own gender better than those of the other. However, I have learned as my craft has improved to write both with equal ease. And often times my male characters are more fun these days. I think the best film I have done is about a man – The Guru.
You can also take things from your own life, regardless of gender, and utilize them. Many feelings cross gender barriers so you learn to use certain things and stick them in all sorts of characters.
The key differences are the obvious ones. The main difference in the commercial marketplace is the fact that it is much easier to sell a story about a man than a woman. Now, that should not influence you as you want to write the best script possible and, if your story is about a woman, then do not compromise that for commercial purposes. But if you have a story that can go either way, it is always easier to get things done for men; sad but true.
I am a first-time screenwriter with a coming-of-age story I originally conceived when I too was coming of age. However, I have effectively abandoned my character and his world for the past 9 months (a gestation period?) as a result of the huge life changes that have taken place in my own world. The good news is I feel I have evolved and matured in many positive ways. The bad news is, I am finding it very difficult to relate to the young, misguided main character I birthed so many moons ago. My question is, “Do you have any advice on how to stay true to a character’s journey when you as a writer have moved on making it difficult to relate to his world in the same way?” – Laurie
Most writers, when starting out, write about what they know, and what they know is most often themselves. What happens, as you learn to write, you move away from your immediate experiences and take in more of the world at large. There is a wonderful Howard Korder quote I always use with my class which is, “Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting.” This is something young writers or new writers usually need to learn. Sometimes the story you wanted to tell is not the story you are meant to tell. Perhaps you are meant to put that character in a drawer and create a new one you relate to better and then in time, if you want, you can return to her with new eyes and a more finely tuned technique.
When adapting a novel to screenplay, what is your method? After reading the entire novel, do you use the best 5 or so parts of a book then blend them into a screenplay? And, how long does this process take? Thank you for your time. – Robin
The method is really simple: what is the easiest story to tell, the cleanest, and most cinematic? Many times with a book you have take a lot of creative license as the two mediums are so different. In Shopaholic I used the irony of her working at a financial magazine while in debt to find my spine. That was very different than the book. And sometimes you have to change lead characters, as novels can wander and films need to stay closer to one place. If the book has iconic scenes, I try to keep them and I also try and stay true to the original writer’s voice an not inflict my own.
The process takes as much time as any film really, sometimes maybe less, as some of the heavy lifting has been done by the original writer.
What attracted you to the project Lucky Ducks and why did you decide to make your directing debut a documentary? – Nicole
Lucky Ducks is the story taken from my life about my life. I was very interested in why privileged youth were so unhappy and, raising a teenage daughter, I had access to this world. It felt important to me, and it really started out as a tiny idea that grew and grew. It could have been told fictively, but I really wanted to explore the documentary world and this seemed like the best way to do it. I produced the film and I hired myself to direct as, quite frankly, I don’t think anyone but me would give me a shot. The goal is to keep working and keep expanding and keep reinventing yourself. I have been doing rom-coms for 20 years. I needed to go in other directions for awhile and I wanted to see if I could. I wanted to tell stories in other ways and I REALLY wanted to have control over the final product and this was the only way I could do that.
Because of technology moving as rapidly as it has the last five years, the entry level cost for making your own film has dropped dramatically. So one can actually make films and do things on their own that would have never been possible ten years ago.
Do you consciously try to introduce tension in comedic scenes or humor in dramatic scenes, and how do you balance these in a romance gene? – Ed
In all good scenes there is an element of tension – that is what keeps a scene moving and allows it to move seamlessly to the next scene. I always feel each scene should contain a few elements: if it is a comedy, there should be some form of comedy, if only irony, in each scene; ideally always some form of tension; and in early scenes – certainly in the first 12 pages – you should be introducing your characters and setting up your story points.
Romance is based on some form of tension, depending on what type of romance, it is usually a secret one character has that will destroy their relationship when the other party finds out; this always happens at the end of act two. There are exceptions to the rule, but think back on the comedies of the last five years, or even my all-time favorite Tootsie – “when will she find out he is a man?” In Shopaholic – “when will he find out she is a sham?” In something like How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days – “when will they find out it was a bet?” Once who have introduced that element into your character’s lives, you should be able to keep the tension rolling from scene to scene.
Humor in dramatic scenes, when appropriate, is fine. But it really depends on the tone of your film and there are many times when humor would totally undermine the dramatic tension. It is often an issue of style and genre, and the way the writer is able to weave these things into the material. But this is very important: if you have a dramatic film that has an ironic bent, it has to start that way from the beginning; you can’t introduce it mid-movie.
You must stay consistent in terms of tone – pick a tone and stick with it. Revolutionary Road cannot turn into Fargo.
This article originally appeared on StoryLink on March 12, 2009.