Screenwriting Chat: Lizzy Weiss

Screenwriting Chat:
Lizzy Weiss

Lizzy Weiss is a screenwriter, television producer, and television writer.  Some of her writing credits include Switched at Birth (TV series) and Blue Crush.

Question: Hey Lizzy how did you get started in screenwriting and when did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?

Lizzy Weiss: I was always a writer - but not a screenwriter. I loved film but thought I might write about it - so I went to NYU's Cinema Studies Master's program. Didn't like it...started studying how to be inside it, instead of outside writing about it. I took Writers' Boot Camp in New York, Robert Mckee's weekend, read a bunch of books, trained myself. I never went to formal school for it.I think it's definitely something you can learn by doing - though I think school would've been great for me too.

What was of the most value?

All of it! For me, at least. I think when you're first learning, it's all valuable - at least until you can scrunch up your nose at something and say, that doesn't sound right. But I did everything - read the trades, called people asking questions (who I barely knew), read all the Syd Field books, etc. I had to compensate for the lack of formal classes, I guess.

This is very specific to me and my flaws - but I wasn't very market-savvy when I started. I didn't think about who could star in it or how much it could cost, or any of that. While

Lizzy, did you write Blue Crush as an assignment or on spec?

It was an assignment. I had written two specs that deal with girls coming of age and they hired me based on those. 

Lets go back to the "Little breaks" you had when I interrupted. Can you continue with that?

I think getting an agent is essential - most writers aren't very good at selling themselves, and are spending their time writing, not making phone calls. So having someone to sell you all day while you write is key.

I spent a great deal of effort getting an agent - using all my random contacts, etc.

How did you gather your contacts? How did you network at first?

Just the six-degree thing. Asking if anyone knew anyone, and when they did, being shameless about calling. People are usually willing to help when you ask for something specific and you seem determined.

Lizzy ,what was your experience with Writers Boot Camp?

The advice I got to be more marketable (from the earlier question) was from an agent I to this day have never met. But he was a friend of my mother's friend - three degrees away. And he read my Susan B. Anthony script and said write something younger and hipper. So I did.

Boot Camp was good for me. I had a full-time job and it was at night once a week, and it was very do-able. It was putting one foot in the water, having someone to hold my hand through a first draft.

This was a decade ago though. 1992. So I don't know anymore.And I found McKee very charismatic and useful, too. It was two days, all day long. But he's incredibly articulate and convincing about writing mainstream scripts.

Lizzy, how long have you been writing screenplays and how long did it take to master the craft?

Still haven't mastered the craft - obviously. Only a handful of people out there have, I think we'd all agree. But have been struggling through for I guess about 10 years now. Slowly at first, since I had to work during the day. But I still read a lot, even the books in the bookstore! I flip through them, see what people are saying.

Lizzy, how many completed scripts have you written in the 10 years?

Eight? Nine? But that would only count "Blue Crush" as one - and I did five drafts. So it's hard to say. Plus all those first acts of stuff I threw out at page 40...

Lizzy, is it hard to find connections in the movie industry? Seems like the doors don't open like the once used to...

Well, I guess I can't compare, since my experience is the only one I know. But people are always asking me for help...cousins of friends, people's friends who want to quit their law job, etc.

I think I'd say it's probably the same - just keep doing all those boring things everyone says. Keep writing, keep the faith, keep knocking on doors.

Lizzy, what was the most useful tool or technique you learned, specifically regarding writing?

Again, very specific to me - but I am very verbal and not very visual - a problem. So I had to learn to think more visually. Working on Crazy/Beautiful helped me a great deal.

Lizzy, what would you say is the best place to start with a screenplay, is it the characters, an event, a story line/idea or all of the above? (Moderator note, Lizzy maybe share with us how you develop a story?)

I think it absolutely depends on the project. For Blue Crush, it was a world. For the script I'm working on now, it's two characters. Sometimes it's a hook...though I haven't done too many of those. I think everything depends, doesn't it? i.e. sometimes the character gets you excited, sometimes the twists and turns are what drive your development. depends depends. agreed.

I don't write a formal outline, but I do map out the big plot points...they change a bunch of times along the way, but I do like to try to nail where I should be by page 60 and page 90.

How did you find your first connection in the movie industry? (Moderator note: I think we covered this, but a lot more people have joined and it's a good question.)

There wasn't "one"...they all add up. And they're everywhere! As we all know... at every Starbucks. But, as I said before...getting an agent - key. And then writing something your agent can send out, and then taking all the meetings they set up. So you meet more more more people... So in terms of the spec thing...(maybe I'm saying this because I've never sold a spec), but I'd say - that doesn't have to be the goal. The goal is to prove you can do it. Show them you're good. Even if they don't want to spend six figures on it, they might want you for their next gig. That's what happened to me...

I just think we all put so much pressure on ourselves - reading who sold what for how much. There are other ways in - that might not be as glamorous or "overnight" - but they work too.

Does a screenwriter have to move to LA to succeed? Is that what we're talking about? Writing query letters seems like a lost cause to a lot of writers.

Hmmm...I'm sorry that I probably can't give a happy answer. But I was told when I was starting out that it was important - so I moved (back) here.

For me, it seems essential - to meet friends of friends, etc. as we discussed earlier. I know people have done it other ways but it seems so much harder. Then again...moving across country knowing no one is probably hard too. So it's personal. And again, I was lucky. I was raised here - so it wasn't a huge leap. For others, it takes a lot of courage and faith.

Lizzy, you said Blue Crush was about a "world". Did you immerse yourself, i.e. research it or live it or rely on others with the experience to guide your writing?

Both. At first I interviewed, read, went to local contests, etc. Then I went to Hawaii for 10 days. The first draft was about the structure and the story - and then I wanted to get in deeper. I think it's probably wise to go as early as possible, but in this case, it worked out fine. By the way, BC began about a "world"...but it did change, a number of times.

Lizzy, Hawaii for 10 days... that's what I call research!

Yeah, I know. It's true...!

What was Blue Crush for you personally? Theme, etc.

Blue Crush ended up being about many things. But when I first read the article that inspired it, it was about passion and friendship. I still think that is in the movie, but it became about drive and determination and overcoming fear. It is also about, I think, being able to be a girl and be an athlete at the same time - and what that means. To want to be taken care of, but wonder if that takes away your strength. There are things about the movie that surprised me...or that I can't take credit or responsibility for. Of course - it's a communal effort. But overall, I think it has a great spirit that I'm proud of. Girls seems to walk out feeling empowered, which is exciting to watch.

Was there a little of you in any specific character?

When Matt asks Anne Marie, What do you want? She answer with a long list of random things, unrelated. And at the end, she says, And I really really want to win tomorrow. Well I really really wanted to be a writer... And she didn't "win", but she had her moment. And I think I relate to that.

Lizzy, do you write a draft straight through, or rewrite as you go?

I obsess about the beginning - read it over each day and rewrite until I get to where I am. So - constantly rewriting, I guess. And I hate endings. So I put them off.

Lizzy, who is your favorite screenwriter?

I love James Brooks. Tarantino - even though he's so different from my style. Nicole Holefecner. I tend to love people who do what I can' well as what I aim to do better.

How important are those first ten pages in grabbing the reader or producer do you feel?

Very. Very. Very. And it's tough! To set up a character in a scene, to get to where the story's going - it's tough. For me, it takes overwriting and then cutting down. Take a day off - that's something I learned late in life. Go away from it. Get a fresh look.

Lizzy, what should be established in those first ten pages? What's my goal as a screenwriter?

Lean writing. A character with a particular view of the world. I think there are lots of ways to go - i.e. either be funny or sexy or great action. Just do something to make them feel like the writer has a plan. And goal, I guess. Especially for executives. They love to know what the character's goal is. But I don't think that necessarily has to be by page 10.

Lizzy, what was your experience working on BC, was it good? Did you get on set? Any regrets?

I did get on set...I was sent back to Hawaii for another 10 days for a polish. I regret I couldn't hang out longer and learn more, but I had to get back. I regret not being part of that process more - because John is the kind of director who is happy to listen to everyone's voice. And it would've been interesting to participate in some of the things that happened after I finished writing.

Lizzy, final question, what does the future have in store for you? What are you working on now and where do you want to be in career wise in 5... 10 years?

I'm doing a project for Paramount and a pilot for Touchstone TV. I'm very excited about TV - I think it's a great great place for writers. I'd love to do something smaller, more independent. And I will. But I started here, and I'm in "mainstream" world, and I'm learning a lot here too. My goal in 10 years is to be a better writer - not necessarily any monetary or award goals. When you see something on cable you love, and can't turn off (last night "Accidental Tourist" , last week "Postcards from the Edge") ...and you say, I LOVE THIS MOVIE. That's a goal. To write something like that. Even if it doesn't make hundreds of millions. I'd like to write something that people hold dear to them. I've got 10 years, huh?