Michael Hauge is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers and executives. I interviewed him about his career and craft.
Questions by Dan Bronzite, CEO of Nuvotech and Editor of ScriptTips
Dan:How did you start in the business? Did you go to film school?
Michael: Not as most people would consider it. I moved to Hollywood just to be in the film business but I didn’t know how to do anything, so there was this great film school in Hollywood called Sherwood Oaks Experimental College which is actually a place that Syd Field, Bob McKee.. we all sort of did our early teaching there, but I started out there taking classes. There was no credit or degree, I didn’t care about any of that.
One of the classes I took was in learning to be a reader, a story analyst who would write synopses and do coverage as it’s now called – a synopses and recommendations – and as a result I got a job doing that for a number of different agents and producers and then one of the producers hired me full time to be his head of development. So that was my first real full time job in the industry and that’s how I really broke in as a reader and working with writers and being on the receiving end of scripts and so on.
Dan: And when you were at Sherman Oaks College did you know specifically which aspects of filmmaking you wanted to study?
Michael: Absolutely not. I had no idea. I knew so little. All I knew was I loved movies and wanted to work in the film business. When I got to Hollywood I never knew there was such a job as a reader, to be honest. So I took classes in filmmaking and editing and story analysis and other odds and ends of things and this was the thing that I really liked and I seemed to be good at and seemed to fit my abilities. I never really had an itch to direct or to be a screenwriter myself. I liked giving my opinions and feedback on scripts and movies.
Dan: And how did you make that transition from being a reader to becoming a story editor?
Michael: I was working as a reader for an agent who represented a producer. The producer saw the coverage I had done on one of his projects he had shown to the agent about a weird sort of oddball book that he was interested in adapting, and he really like the input I gave on it so he hired me as a reader and eventually promoted me to a full time job. A reader is a freelance job, you get paid per script or book by and large, I mean, there are full time readers for studios but pretty much it’s piecework.
Dan: And it’s a great way to learn.
Michael: Oh yeah, I learned a huge amount. I sort of figure fifty percent of what I know is from watching good movies and reading good scripts, to see how they work, and at least the other fifty percent is from reading hundreds of bad scripts or scripts that aren’t gonna make it and seeing what they all have in common. What are the common mistakes. What’s the difference between the ones that don’t have a chance and the ones that get made into movies. And that’s always been the foundation of what I’ve done.
Dan: How did you first start teaching? Because that’s another transition, going from reading to story editing and development and then into teaching.
Michael: It was pretty easy. I had been working in development, and I went to Gary Shushett, the director of the film school I had attended, who still has this school and still offers classes and seminars and opportunities for people to come to LA and meet people in power in the industry. I said I’d like to do a class on screenwriting from the point of view of a person on the receiving end, not from the point of view of someone who writes scripts but someone who reads them, evaluates them, makes recommendations about it and knows what people are looking for.
He said yes, and so I did the class there and then out of that I started teaching at UCLA through their extension program and out of that I came up with the idea of offering seminars around the country, a weekend seminar that would have the same content as the ten week classes I was doing for UCLA. And I eventually offered that weekend seminar in every major city in the U.S., as well as Europe and Australia.
Dan: So that weekend seminar format is what you found works best for you?
Michael: Oh yeah, I loved doing that because I got to go all over the place, it was a very intense and fun way of presenting a lot of content and a lot of principles and suggestions to people in a short time. And then out of that what I was teaching, people started asking me well, would you be willing to take a look at my script? So I thought, okay, I could do that, and I could charge money for doing that, so I started consulting on scripts. And fairly soon I wrote a book on the principles I was presenting in the lecture and that was Writing Screenplays That Sell, my first book.
And so once that happened, even though I returned to development a couple of times in the meantime, pretty much ever since, and we’re talking.. well, thirty years ago I started teaching and twenty years ago the book came out, that’s what I have done. I really still do three things: I write about story and screenplay and writing and so on, and I lecture about story principles and screenwriting and or novel writing now as well, I do some lecturing on fiction writing, and I’m a consultant, and the consulting is the primary thing that I do.
Dan: And as a script consultant you’ve worked with various types of writers and projects, from studio executives, agents and managers and actors, and how does it differ, working with the different types of people?
Michael: Er.. the knee-jerk answer I was gonna give was they don’t. And the reason they don’t is because what I’m bringing to the party and what they’re looking for, I believe, from me is an understanding of story principles and how they can be applied to whatever the project is. In other words, my goal is always to help whoever the filmmaker is that hires me realize their vision for their project. In other words, close the gap between what they want it to be and what’s on the page.
So the process is hardly different in any situation. The one difference, if any, I would say is that when I’m doing work on projects that are at a studio then generally speaking, unfortunately this isn’t always the case, but generally speaking the level of the script is gonna be higher because that’s already been through a lot of rewrites or a lot of other people at the studio or at the production company or whatever. So where I also work with people who are writing their first script, they’re gonna be dealing with some more basic foundation principles where as the ones at the studios are gonna be perhaps a bit more refined. That would be the only difference, but even then it still comes back to okay, what’s working and what’s not.
Dan: So if you’re talking about the difference between a studio executive and a new writer, there’s no conflict in terms of the studio executive is coming from a commercial perspective and the new writer is coming more from an artistic perspective?
Michael: That might very well be the case, but it’s not a conflict for me (laughs) because I’m always coming from a commercial perspective. I’m always looking at how do you combine the artistry of this with its potential to get people to come see it. One of my core beliefs is that if you’re a writer, if you’re a screenwriter or if you’re a filmmaker for that matter, your goal is to be heard or to be seen and heard.. to touch as many people as you can with whatever it is you have to say, and the only way that’s gonna happen is first of all if your screenplay has the promise of turning a profit. Because if it doesn’t seem as if it will turn a profit it won’t get made, not unless you’ve got a credit card with a high credit limit and you’re making a super-low-budget film. But if you’re going to anybody else for financing they can’t invest in your movie unless they think it’s gonna make money.
Now if you have a low-budget film, it’s more of an art house type of film, then it doesn’t need to get as many people in as if you’re working on a movie like I Am Legend, which is, you know, a one hundred million dollar budget out of the gate. But nonetheless, everybody who writes screenplays has to understand that you’ve got to tell your story in a way that’s gonna get butts in seats, that’s gonna make people wanna come and buy a ticket. And I think a lot of times writers either forget that or wanna ignore that, they feel like thinking about commercial prospects is somehow selling out or is gonna diminish their project and so on, and I don’t believe that’s true at all.
I mean, if you look at the movies that have gotten the most Oscar nominations, not that is necessarily a definite measure of quality, but generally speaking, if you look at movies like Black Swan and True Grit and Inception even, although that was a huge budget, big studio movie, and The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech – all of those movies except Inception, in one way or another, well, they’re all personal visions on the part of the writer and the director, even King’s Speech I would argue even though it’s a very particular story with a particular vision of the writers first and then the filmmakers, and yet every one of those movies has been hugely profitable already. And so I think the idea that commercial potential and artistry are antithetical is erroneous. So what I’m doing is, whether somebody comes in with a script like Taken or somebody comes in with a script like The Kids Are All Right, the idea is “how do you reach as many people as possible with this story that you want to tell”.
Dan: So you try always to remain true to the story but make sure it’s gonna work for an audience…
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. And sometimes the process involves, in fact almost always, part of the process is to help the writer or the filmmakers to figure out what exactly is their vision. I think that a lot of times I’m asking questions about what exactly is it you want to say with this movie? What does this story you wan to tell have to do with a movie-goer in Detroit, Michigan going to a movie on a Saturday night just for the fun of it – how are they gonna connect with this? What has it got to do with their lives? And I think a lot of times that quality of a story is so kind of instinctive and buried for a writer, they haven’t really figured that out.. what the theme is and how that relates to the character arc, or what it is they’re saying and what it is that’s universal underneath the story. And it doesn’t mean it’s no there, it means they haven’t really taken a good look at that, and you have to because until you do, until you can answer that question then it becomes very difficult to decide what belongs in the script and what doesn’t.
As I sometimes say to clients, I always begin new sessions with new clients, regardless of what the source, regardless of whether it’s a studio or first time writer, I ask them a lot of questions about their story, just to see what do you like about this? Why are you passionate? Why do you wanna make this movie? Why do you wanna write this script? What are you trying to say? What do you want it to do? Or how do you want an audience to feel when they see this movie? And I ask those questions to get really zeroed in.. to create what I call a “litmus test” – a measure by which you can decide well, is this scene, is this character, is this line of dialogue contributing to that? Or is it taking it off in another direction? Or is it just irrelevant.
Dan: How do you initially approach a consultancy job? Does it completely depend on the material or as you mentioned in terms of your first questions to a client, do you have a systematic method that you apply to all scripts?
Michael: Well, I guess I do have a somewhat systematic method because the method is always read the material, unless it’s a pitch or I’m in the early stages of an idea and I’m just hearing the idea, but either way, I get the material, I read it, I take all my own notes on what I think is working and what’s not, and then I talk to the people involved. I usually describe myself as a coach because I don’t really do critiques, I don’t do analysis, I don’t write stuff down because I like the interaction because good things come out of that. Occasionally a production company or a studio just wants written notes from me you know, if they’re paying for me to do it, fine, I can do that but even in those cases I say can we meet, can we talk on the phone, can we set up a conference call with the writer and you and me.
So first I read it, prepare my own thoughts and then when I first talk to the person I start but asking a lot of questions, as I said. To get a real handle on what they vision is for it and then I start pointing out places where what they’re wanting to do with the project doesn’t fit what’s on the page. And then we start going from there and start saying okay, well, how could that be better, and then we move into both a brainstorming phase and a chance for them to start thinking about these things. And sometimes we end the session and they go off and think and come up with new ideas and then we start having follow-up sessions and so on.
Concludes next month.
About Michael Hauge
Michael is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers and executives. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Robert Downey, Jr., and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network. He is currently on retainer with Will Smith’s company, Overbrook Productions, where he was involved in the development of I AM LEGEND, HANCOCK and THE KARATE KID.
Michael also consults with attorneys, psychologists, corporations and individuals on employing story principles in their projects, their presentations, and their work with clients and patients.
Michael is the best selling author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as the brand new 20th Anniversary Edition of his classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell, released by HarperCollins in March of 2011. A number of Michael’s seminars, including The Hero’s 2 Journeys with Christopher Vogler, are available on DVD and CD at bookstores worldwide, and through his web site below.
Michael has presented seminars and lectures to more than 40,000 participants around the world. He is on the Board of Directors of the American Screenwriters Association and the Advisory Board for Scriptwriter Magazine in London.
For information on his consultation services for screenwriters, novelists and filmmakers, his products or lecture schedule, or to contact Michael directly, go to www.StoryMastery.com.