Interview: Debbie Lollie

– Debbie Lollie, writer of Help Me Out, aka The Ex-Man (2013 Script Pipeline First Look Project Winner)

You won the First Look Project with a romantic comedy revolving around what’s considered a “high-concept” premise. Was this a deliberate decision? To write something that might appeal to execs at the studio level?

The goal and hope with any screenplay is always that it will be made into a movie. Therefore, attracting the industry’s attention with a “high concept” project is a key objective, but that term is highly subjective and difficult to define. I think of it as being a gut instinct. Something about a story idea just hits you and provokes an emotional reaction. I think another aspect is that the project is commercial.

But a strong caveat here. I don’t think one can set out to write a “high-concept” script. That can’t be the primary driving force. Due to the subjective nature of the term, there aren’t any guarantees. My objective is to always craft the best screenplay I can based on a promising story idea. It is a very personal decision. I ask myself three questions. Is this idea a story worth telling? Will I stay in love with the story and characters so I won’t mind writing and re-writing? And will an audience want to see it, too?

My winning script was a comedy idea that friends and colleagues laughed at out loud when I told them the plot. That was a crucial element. If the premise isn’t funny, the script won’t be. And the men had a different reaction to the male protagonist than the women. So I realized I had a story which would appeal to both sexes and get them debating. That was particularly important because The Ex-Man explores an aspect of the tried and true premise of the “battle of the sexes.” The fact people laughed and in the same breath offered their “ideas” for scenes, and examples of bad break-ups, I knew I was on to something. They wanted to be part of the story. At that point, I had a gut level feeling I had happened upon a potentially high-concept and universally appealing idea.

I purposefully entered the First Look Project contest because it specifically identifies commercial scripts. I believed the contest would be a great testing ground.  When it won, that was thrilling. It corroborated what I thought and really raised my hopes about the screenplay’s future.

What are your thoughts on romantic comedies released over the past several years? Has the genre, in some respects, become too watered-down? Too predictable, even though it relies on its predictability to an extent? Is it possible for a writer to infuse a great deal of originality without reinventing the genre?

With any movie, it comes down to story and character and a well-written script. If a genre label is just slapped onto a movie and the traditional beats and elements are carelessly executed, it’s not likely to succeed. And the audience can instinctively tell the difference.

Romantic comedies do rely on predictability. The expected outcome is the two leads will end up together in the end. There are the additional elements of the “meet cute,” opposites attracting and the couple breaking up.

But the magic in a romantic comedy is executing those elements in a different and unexpected way. Yes, the audience knows the characters will wind up together. But the secret ingredient is to craft a story that has the audience desperately wanting the characters to be together because they’re perfect for each other.

The audience has to be tricked into believing the love interests have bungled the relationship so badly, there’s no chance they will ever be together again. And although the audience may be reassuring themselves it will be okay in the end, that momentary thought “will this one end differently?” is what sets the great romantic comedies apart. The characters have to have great rooting power individually and then as a couple in a situation that raises the stakes high.

I absolutely believe it’s possible for a writer to create an original story that maintains the classic elements of a romantic comedy. For instance, Romancing the Stone is a romantic comedy wrapped up in an action/adventure. Shakespeare In Love, historical romantic comedy. Crazy Stupid Love, romantic dramedy.  As long as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl back, or vice versa, it’s a romantic comedy. For a writer to stretch and find an original plot and a fresh and creative way to package those elements, that’s an illustration of high-concept.

The script was optioned by a Script Pipeline partner several months after the contest ended, and it’s now being circulated to potential investors. Describe that process—rewriting or polishing the script, coming up with a plan on how best to market the material. . . all the details that come after someone has interest in the project. Was it what you expected?

After The Ex-Man won, I had expert script notes as one of the perks of winning the contest. These discussions were invaluable. I identified some elements I had taken out of the script for specific reasons beforehand but realized they should be placed back. I also needed to add a couple of scenes to increase the emotional impact. I did a re-write which addressed these issues, and that was the script that was marketed.

I was fortunate the script generated so much interest. But I went with the producer who really understood the story and was passionate about it. We were of the same mindset, share the same sense of humor, and our personalities blended well together. And these are key elements to having a successful working relationship.

The producer has a definite marketing plan in mind which suits the script well. Once I began working with him, we basically did a polish. It was targeted specifically for a particular marketing/investor angle. These elements were already in the script, but touches were added to enhance them. And we went through the script addressing the finest points, getting it to be the best screenplay possible.

We also changed the name. The Ex-Man fit the script, but even I was running into brand confusion when I pitched it. Of course, everyone immediately thought of that other franchise [X-men, of course]. So we brainstormed lots of names, tested a few, and selected Help Me Out, which we both agreed on and liked the most.

Working with the producer has really been a team effort. He has had a paramount interest in maintaining the integrity of the script as written and working with me as the writer. Once we locked the script, he created an amazing business plan. One of the best I’ve seen. Which was a really proud moment for me because it’s a vital marketing tool and really captures the script. The care he took just solidified his passion and commitment to getting the movie made.

Based on your experience thus far, what are the keys to successfully working with a producer?

I’ve learned it is essential to pair with a producer who understands the project and the writer’s vision. That the story as intended is the one the producer wants to make. I’m not advocating that rewrites aren’t necessary for a myriad of reasons during the development and pre-production stages. But there’s a significant difference between writing a story, for instance, about Dracula, and it morphs into being about Frankenstein.

For me, life’s too short for screaming matches. Having mutual respect for one another’s talents, expertise, and opinions makes compromising on issues easy. Since Ex-Man is a comedy, it was important we shared the same sense of humor and comic sensibilities. It’s also important the producer had a definite marketing plan in mind and was also eager to move with the script. That definitely cuts down on the “so, what’s happening with my script?” calls.

It’s so often said a producer needs to be “passionate about the project” that it seems like a cliché. But it’s the truth. Passion is what gets movies made because it’s incredibly hard work and an emotional journey. If a writer is fortunate enough to find a producer as passionate about the project as the writer, that’s truly special.

The burden isn’t only on the producer to have a successful relationship. The writer should be good to work with. She/he must also be realistic, willing to make changes, compromise, work hard, and meet deadlines.

In the end, the script is a commodity. It’s for sale. It’s likely revisions will be necessary at some point. However, if both the producer and writer want to execute the same vision, then protecting the integrity of that vision and taking the necessary steps to get the screenplay to the screen aren’t mutually exclusive objectives.

How long has your journey been, from the day you decided to write a screenplay to now? What are some of the most important things you learned along the way?

Sometimes the journey feels like it has taken forever. There are days I feel like I’ve taken five steps forward but then ten steps backwards. And then periods when everything goes well. After I graduated from UCLA film school, I felt I really had a much better understanding of the art and craft of screenwriting as well as learning the business of the business. So that was a real turning point for me, both in ability and attitude.

There are many lessons learned along the way. Very often the best-learned lessons came from painful mistakes.

I’ve learned the importance of seeking advice from the right people, but having the courage to follow your gut. Sometimes that’s really hard because your gut will be yelling one thing and your brain screaming another.

I believe it’s important to know what you’re willing to compromise about yourself and your principles to make it, and what you’re not willing to do. When I was in film school, one of my professors had us do an essay about what we would be willing to compromise about ourselves to make it it in this business. I still reflect on that all of the time. If you don’t set limitations, it’s very easy to lose yourself because it’s so competitive and decisions carry high prices. Having a strong sense of self and knowing your limitations goes a long way to staying sane and staying the course that allows you to look yourself in the mirror.

It is imperative to have genuine friends outside the industry. To know who your true friends are and that they can be trusted to be honest with you and keep you grounded. And who are also an amazing support system.

Develop a reliable “phony” detector. Know who are the legitimate, serious, and credible people in the industry. Research and ask around. If your script ends up in the wrong hands, or you’re in an untrustworthy working relationship, that could be a nightmare.

Always, always, always have a contract. That manages each party’s expectations and protects friendships and relationships.

Be social as well as a writer. Network. Meet people. It’s not enough to just sit at a computer. If a script never gets out of the writer’s workplace, it can’t be a movie regardless of its brilliance.

Always stretch as a writer. Try new things. Be passionate. Observe human nature. Keep up on the news and world events. That’s where the stories are. Truth truly is always stranger and more creative than fiction.

Most importantly, if writing movies is truly a talent, passion, and gives meaning to your life, do your best to stay strong and not let anyone take that dream away from you.

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