the Essential Elements of Screenwriting and Connecting to a More Universal Audience
By Meg Moore
“SEE PLOT AND CHARACTER AS ONE THING” Pietro Schito shares on this week's podcast. Dare to Dream Productions Host Bridget Johnson interviews Italian screenwriter, Pietro Schito, on the animation writing process, how to make your own writing more universal, and breaking into the film industry.
Pietro began with behind the scenes videography and built up to his success of optioning scripts and being a high demand writer for animation projects. He works in both the Hollywood and international film industries, and owns a production company in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Schito’s interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is it like being a professional screenwriter working with a variety of studios? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how to break into the industry?
I started when I was a little kid, I love to grab the family camera and started telling stories with my ninja turtle action figures and what not. When I was at University, when they invited a screenwriter from Disney to give a course on screenwriting. It opened up an entire world for me, it was really something that stuck with me. I discovered all the principles behind a good story, there was a narrative, there was a craft to it, it’s all from human nature. We have the possibility to create stories, it was like, “that’s what I want to do”. Since then I’ve been writing, and I got a scholarship to the New York Film Academy of Los Angeles where I was really forced to write, because it’s an intense program. It’s very practical we wrote two feature films, multiple short films, T.V. pilots and more.
The way I was able to break into the industry was by connecting with people at film school and doing my internship where I was offered to get my first feature film produced. I got an option on that and then I came back to Mexico where I started connecting with people in the animation industry. The local animation industry is very active, there’s a group of directors that are working in different types of animation; I started writing for them as well.
How to break into the industry? I think if you ask 1,000 people they will give you 1,001 different answers. Everyone has something different. My big experience of being on a big set is doing behind the scene videography for a feature film that was filmed in the same lot where they filmed the Titanic, here in Mexico.
The takeaway for me is that you need to put yourself out there, do not be afraid to show your material to people and also to find unconventional ways.
Nobody gets through the front door, they all get through a window, so find your window, find something you can do in the industry that will put you closer to other people. So for me, doing behind the scenes videography, meant going to each department of the production and connecting directly with the prop master or academy award-winning actor that I was interviewing, so I got a feel of how the industry works from different points of view. It was a great experience for me. That’s how it started.
You focus mainly on animation, what is the difference between animation and narrative writing?
We might think that the narrative style is different, but it's not really a different structure that you have to implement in animation, there’s still the same --- structure that you use in any movie. What’s different is you have to be a little more direct, especially if you’re writing for kids. If it's an animation directed to kids there are some things that you can and can’t put into an animation. You’re able to be a little bit clearer with what you say, with what the character wants and needs, and they can express it a little less subtly then you find in a feature film. What’s interesting and allowed me to learn a lot from animation was the cycle and the way they produce these movies. If any of you have ever seen a documentary or behind the scenes about a movie from Pixar you learn the process they use, which are reels or animatic, they are like the storyboard of the film with temporary voices. You can play a whole movie, you can write the draft of your script and the story artist brings it to life through rough sketches, and they are edited together so that you can sit down and play your entire story in a rough version.
We say in screenwriting, there is nothing better than being able to sit down and see your first draft and hit play and basically watch your movie. Once the reel is completed everybody watches it, and they give feedback. At Pixar, they call it the Brain trust, they get into a room, they do a projector and everyone in the room throws out their notes, they break the story apart and then it's the director’s job to collect the pieces and try together with the writer to make a better version. So it’s a cycle, once you finish one draft, you go right on to the next one, and you watch the animatic.
For me it was a big learning experience to be able to, from the time you write, you can sit down to watch your story come to life it’s a long time, and then to be able to write something and then see - sometimes if it’s a specific scene it can be days later, you can see the joke you thought was funny, is not funny, or something you thought would work, a clever line of dialogue of something you wrote into the script, you realize that it’s not working, so you have this great opportunity to work and fix before the movie gets into production. A director friend of mine says “In animation we shouldn't have bad movies because of the animatic, because of the process, you're able to watch it from beginning to end before you get into production.” If it’s not working there, it’s never going to work when you actually go into production. If the scene is not emotional, you can add all the strings and violins you want, but it’s not going to be emotional because of the music. If the animatic works, then everything that is brought in like production design, sound, the actors, everything and the beauty of animation will bring that story to a higher level to connect even more.
They do that in advertising as well, if you're producing a quick 30-second ad, it’s still a big production. I remember when I was little in Italy I used to go to this focus group, they would show the animatic for the ad. Recently an agency asked everybody to grab their iPhone and draw some sketches and use their own voice to tell the pitch for the ad. More and more live action productions implement something similar. I invite everybody to try experimenting with this for live action projects. Whatever you can make that’s close to a storyboard - even if it’s your laptop piecing it together -so you can see it from beginning to end. It’s going to be very rough but it will give you an insight to the story that you won't have in any other way.
A lot of filmmakers have talked about struggling to find the motivation to write during these crazy times of the pandemic, or even just hitting a writer's block.
How do you overcome this?
Writer’s block is something that strikes and then for example, in a project if there are specific plot problems, if I am unable to crack the plot of the problem. Sometimes it goes on for weeks or almost months and you're still stuck but I try to think as if writer’s block doesn’t exist because your work is to write and what do I do when I feel like I have no idea? I would do anything else but writing, I still sit down and write. Those times when you’re staring at the screen and the blinking cursor is looking at you and you have no idea what to put on the page - I believe that those afternoons, those long hours of not writing are actually very important. The hard thinking and trying to figure out the story will pay off later.
The key to overcome writer’s block is to write a bad version. It’s going to be bad many times before it gets good. It’s humbling because you know it's going to be bad and it’s gonna hurt when you read it, and it’s terrible, but to be able to sit down and write the embarrassingly bad version of your idea - helps you to put things on the page. Then you write it again and again, that’s one way to deal with it. Also, trying to think about what won’t solve the problem. This will never happen in my story. Okay, write it down somewhere. You need to play with the material and to move it, do not stop writing.
If you have multiple projects maybe you can explore another project for a little bit. I don't believe in hoping you can dream about the answer, I think you need to sit down and do the work. It helps a lot when you can talk about your story with somebody else. Especially if it’s a plot problem, the right question, even if it’s the worst possible idea that you put on the table - somebody else can give you their take and can somehow get you unstuck. That’s why I love working with director’s and being able to collaborate. The simple act of being able to express the problems of your script can really help you. So if you have a writing group, friends, a mentor or somebody who can help you, listen to you, or even talk aloud. If you’re able to read your dialogue aloud, try to, try to write it down, write down what you feel when you’re stuck, but don’t stop.
an article from a newspaper, I collect it in the Magic Box folder. I have other folders for other ideas and I try to write it down. You need to write down the bad ideas too, something you think you have no use for, sometimes you might get back to later and find something hidden that was there.
Have you heard about story dice? There are some apps and dice with icons on them that you throw and force yourself to write a story with those elements. When you have a blank page and you want to find inspiration, I think the best way is to constrain yourself and say I am going to write about this and that. A palm tree and a car accident, setting, Los Angeles, and you try to write a story like that. An exercise I do with students is to bring a black bag and take out random objects from it and then ask people to write a story. Sometimes this constraint seems like it’s limiting you but it’s actually freeing you to have a very interesting idea come out from something that is totally random.
How do you make your scripts stand out?
What’s unique about the story is you. The more the story comes from yourself and has a deep connection with you, the more personal it is, the more universal it will be. Let’s do an exercise with the people that are listening and watching. Write down the 5 movies that you would watch over and over again. Even if it’s a movie that’s not artistically acclaimed. It’s important to do this exercise without thinking about ourselves as filmmakers. If it’s a guilty pleasure, put it down. We will get back to this and see how it relates to what you write.
What are the essential elements of creating characters?
Something that I’m learning is that the more you write, the more you understand the character and plot are the same thing. Character is plot and plot is character. The plot is a consequence of who your protagonist is. Sometimes we have the whole plot figured out, and then we do not connect with the protagonist, and that is horrible, because you could have the most interesting story but if there’s not a connection with your main character then you don’t feel as interested. The writer of Finding Nemo and other films says “make me feel”. He has a great TED talk about it. Following the Nemo example, why do we feel for Marty? We start understanding that empathy is not just checking marks, like “okay, something that is really heartbreaking to overcome”. It’s really integrating the concept of the entire movie, what do you want to say? What is the truth that you’re seeking to understand in the movie? Why does your main character believe a lie? Something in their life is not true, but they believe it.
In the case of Finding Nemo, they’re taught that the ocean is a dangerous place. I remember from listening to the talks and analysis of the movie - for a lot of time they had it start with an accident where a barracuda eats the wife and all the kids except Nemo. They used to have that spread out throughout the movie but then they decided to put it at the very beginning - that’s something to represent the reason for him to believe that lie. They call it the ghost. It’s a very strong moment in the protagonist's life that makes him see the world in a certain way. Then you have two battling ideas. The idea of freedom, letting go, risk, that’s represented by Dory, and then you have this character that has this real struggle, we have empathy towards this character. What is the worst that can happen to somebody like him? His kid gets kidnapped, and not only that, he needs to cross the entire ocean. So we start understanding that the plot of the movie is not something separate from the main character, but it’s a reflection of his journey, his own arc.
On my YouTube channel we have a video analyzing The Joker, and we see some specific elements to create empathy. But that’s only one aspect of it, you can find injustice toward your character or see your character do something good for somebody else, which is the premise of the book, Save the Cat, it invites you to have the character save a cat in the beginning. It’s okay, you can add those things on a superficial level that can help you a little bit, creating empathy, but then you need to understand what is the movie about and why is the story happening to this character? The more you see plot and character as one thing, the better off you will be creating an empathetic character and a movie where the audience can really connect to the character.
Think about your own struggle, because that’s real, if you can connect a question that you have or something that's really unique or intimate about your life, then it’s going to be universal. You can have a wonderful film in terms of visuals and style, action scenes and what not, but as you say if they don’t connect then nothing else matters.
What are the next steps after you have a finalized script?
When you feel like your story is ready, there are two things you should do. One is to start writing the next project, because I see over and over people get a little too attached to their first project but you get to be a good writer by writing project after project. Maybe you already have multiple projects and you want to promote one. Many people finish the script and now what, what can I do with it? How do you find an agent? How do you find a manager? And they're emailing everyone to try to get a connection. I suggest that you go on a different route that is more real personal contact in friendship and getting to know people that are working in the industry. You’re a writer trying to find a producer, help them with their script, - you’re a director, try to find writers and actors.
Second, get your work out there, don’t be afraid of people stealing your work or if it's not good enough. Put it out there, create a page and put it on YouTube, make a website out of your screenplay with visuals and try to get it to as many people as possible. The agent, the manager, they will come, when the project already has the attention. There are a lot of scripts out there, but there are very few good stories. So if you think you have a good story it will find its place. But if you keep it in secret and you only tell a few friends and you’re hoping to get an agent out of the blue, that’s unlikely. It can happen, but I think your best shot is to know that you’re more creative than one script, so you can always come up with new ideas, so if you’re detached enough you send it out much more. You can go to contests and pitch festivals but there’s nothing like a direct connection with somebody. Nowadays through Facebook and social media you can get to many people and sometimes you think they will never get back to you but I’ve been surprised in the past where I will contact A list screenwriters and they’re able to sit down and chat and give some mentorship to me. I used to think that they would never answer, and then I started contacting them. You might be surprised.
What makes a successful pitch?
Try to see the core of your story. Have a killer logline, really work hard on your log line, and try to tell your story as if you're telling a friend about a good movie. Try to structure it so it reflects the structure of your movie and spend a lot of time creating empathy towards the main character. Even if the beginning takes a little longer than the rest of the movie, you want to make sure that you have this connection. You want to have something that hooks you with the character, not trying to impress with a clever plot. Rehearse a lot, try to tell your friends.
For me, I'm an introvert it's really hard for me to go out there - but i know friends who are writers and when you see them pitching it’s like oh that's how you do it! But try to tell your story in a way that you feel what you're saying, in a pitching situation keep it short and rehearse. During the pandemic there’s a lot of pitching being done via Zoom, there’s almost no in person pitching in Los Angeles right now. I see people starting to do video pitches, where it’s not live, it's pre-recorded, and they're able to add a little bit of art and music. The person to person connection in the pitches is what you need, to make sure the other person is paying attention. Sometimes the producer is having a bad day, and they're distracted, it might have more to do with them than with your story. Don’t get discouraged. It’s similar to casting, you need to do it often.
A suggestion for when you’re practicing your proposal, sometimes depending on the situation it might be good to like with TV, do a pitch for your movie. Have a document that sums up the movie, it’s way easier to read one page. If you can't reduce it to one page then your story has some problems. The full treatment and the script itself will be a lot more, but it will help you first to realize the important blocks of your story. The document normally has a logline (the movie in one sentence), and the rest of the page you fill with the synopsis of the film and then it has your contact. It’s really easy to read and then pass to somebody else - it’s better to have multiple one pages than to have a single script that is finished. If you have ideas, especially for TV, it's better to have multiple TV bibles and maybe one episode that's written then try to have one tv series and write all the episodes. Because, many things can change between pitching your story and getting the green light from a production studio.
What was a real breakthrough or realization you had that helped you succeed?
There’s a lot, I consider myself as someone who is learning and relearning, you never finish. A breakthrough would be the moment where you realize the writers I admire, they have the same struggle when it comes to sit down and write. Sometimes we feel like we are not good, and we should focus on something else, maybe we feel like the material is horrible, and we have those days when you have self-doubt, imposter syndrome, it creeps in and basically tells you to stop. But then you realize that, even the great directors and writers with multiple awards and series of movies one after the other, they still feel that every day. To sit down and write is painful, and they would also do anything else instead of it. Hearing it from A-list writers and seeing that that is part of the craft, that is what you choose to be when you write, and those are the frustrations that will never go away. It’s similar to when you start exercising, you want to get better, you know it's going to hurt every time. It gets easier but it's still an effort, and multiply that by one thousand when you try to write.
It helps you to write every day, try to stick to your schedule. It helps to understand that we analyze movies and scripts once they're finished and produced. So when we read a screenplay we think this is a masterpiece it's going to take me forever to get to this level, but we need to remind ourselves that that’s the final product, that’s the final piece of art, and we never get to see the many rewrites that they went through, and sometimes you hear from directors that every movie is bad in the beginning. It was hard for me to believe that until I got into direct contact with some of the people I admired. That’s what everybody goes through, so don’t give up when you feel like your material is not good.
Earlier you mentioned the five movies?
You don’t have a project and you're thinking of starting something from scratch, you have the blank page and you don’t know what you should write about. The worst thing to do is chase what is popular, because by the time you write it and the time the movie gets made and released, everything will change, but most importantly it's not connected to yourself. This exercise allows you to see which the films resonate with you. If you look at the list you created with your five films, and if you analyze them through the eyes of the protagonist and their struggle and journey then there's something that connects with you maybe it's a guilty pleasure or it's not artistic but there something about that story that moves you somehow and usually people find out that there is a theme between these 5 movies and that its very informative. Sometimes it's surprising what the stories have in common, but maybe you can write a story with those themes. It’s an exercise that is not always so revealing but I’ve seen people crying after doing it, discovering something about themselves during the exercise. Especially before getting into making them - we think we like them because of the special effects, or the action but there's always something deeper.
What’s next for you?
I’m in the middle of writing three animated feature films, and rewriting a short film that is going to be a combination of live action and CGI created characters. We’re waiting for some feedback on some of the projects, and they are very close to production. It’s something that’s good news for me, at least two of the three are very close to production, so I'm focusing on that and I hope to be able to tell you more very soon about those.
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Bridget Johnson is the president and co-founder of Dare to Dream Productions. She writes and directs thought-provoking films that inspire others to follow their dreams.
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