Editor’s Note: Pilar Alessandra lectures at Screenwriters World Conference West this weekend in L.A. Don’t miss the chance to experience her wisdom first hand. Get a discount code for SWCW at the bottom of this post.
By John W. Kim
Screenwriters come to her from all walks of life and all skill levels, young and old, local and long distance, novice and working professional. Some know her from recommendations of students who marvel at her ability to jump start improvements in their drafts, while others know her from her popular podcast, “On the Page.” Regardless of how they come to in-demand script consultant and instructor Pilar Alessandra, however, her mission is constant; to make their work better and to fulfill the vision of what the writers intended when they first started.
“My goal is to always help improve what’s in front of them, always,” says Alessandra who, in addition to private consultations, teaches a popular series of classes at her new Studio City facilities. Raised with a love of both theater and film, and an educational background that includes both stage work and study at the London National Theater, Alessandra came to teaching through industry script analysis, including stints at Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’ Entertainment and Scott Kroopf’s Radar Pictures. It gives her a strong grounding in what she believes is a critical difference in the advice and eye she lends to a script, that of an industry professional who understands how a script is read once it is submitted. “When their script actually goes out into the world – it doesn’t go into the hands of another writer,” says Alessandra. “It goes into the hands of a reader.”
Ironically, it was her work as a reader and analyst that led to her to starting “On the Page,” a combination of classes, consultations, and podcasts designed to help writers and learn about the craft, “a writer’s studio,” as Alessandra calls it. Though she became an eventual Senior Story Analyst at Dreamworks SKG, she found herself wanting to help the scripts that came to her but found herself lacking any way to do so. Finding her ability to pursue these interests professionally limited, she decided to branch out and try her hand at using her knowledge of both story and text to help writers, instead of simply passing judgment on work. “I got a little tired of hearing my husband call me ‘Crusher of Dreams,’ she remembers wryly.
Encouraged by informal sessions hosted “in her living room” at her home in the Fairfax district, she quickly realized there was demand for her services and began advertising in Backstage West, which led to a growing roster of students and an eventual job as instructor at the UCLA writer’s program. It was there that she found her industry background ideal for teaching. “I started turning what I was learning from reading those thousands of scripts into writing tools that could actually make a script better,” says Alessandra. “I tried out the tools at UCLA, and they worked! Writers moved quicker through their process and were making their scripts better at the same time.”
Energized by the satisfaction she felt working with writers, she eventually left her analyst work behind and began teaching and consulting full time, a decision she has never regretted (“I didn’t have the temperament to be a development exec,” she muses, remembering an interview with an executive who was considering her for an upper level position. “I asked if I could read my script under a tree. She looked at me like I had two heads”).
Throwing herself into her new career, she found she loved sharing knowledge and breaking down drafts with writers, who were then able to implement her suggestions with great effectiveness, a happy change punctuated by the occurrence, in 2002, of two of her students being selected as Nicholl Fellowship finalists, with one winning. “That’s when I knew,” remembers Alessandra.
Part of what made her effective was an epiphany she had early on, when she realized that the time her students gave her while seeking help was precious.
“This was their writing time,” says Alessandra. “They didn’t have that much time in their week. (So) I would have people stop class and then write. I realized they just needed writing tools that moment to solve the problems that they had, and they could apply them right now.”
One such “tool” Alessandra offers is an exercise she uses when students overwrite a page or monologue. She asks them to review the piece, then pick one sentence to represent what the character is trying to express. It becomes, says Alessandra, “An instant editing tool when people overwrite their dialogue, an instant rewrite.”
Out of these experiences came The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time, a book that includes chapter-by-chapter advice and direct, applicable exercises designed to improve scenes, dialogue, and plot. Filled with examples road tested by her classroom and consultation work, it stands apart from many screenwriting books in that rather than preaching any philosophy or “system,” it encourages students to find the tools that they may find resonant for their particular problem or story at any given time. Readers find bullet-point summaries in the book which turn into drills, to be tried in easily containable segments. The question and answer format of the drills gives a catalytic foundation to help shape and change drafts, a way of stimulating the creative process that is consistent with Alessandra’s own working philosophy.
“I like people to know that when they come to me, they will get a solution to a page problem,” she says. “They won’t just get a list of what’s working and not working - my job is to fix their pages, not just say what’s wrong with it.”
Evidence of the effectiveness of her work can be seen in this year’s crop of Motion Picture Academy Nicholl Fellowship semifinalists, four of whom are either current or recent members of of her private writer’s groups, invitation only gatherings that meet on a regular basis with Alessandra. Further proof of her success is that this has become an annual occurrence within her student roster, sometimes leading to writing assignments for students and sales to studios such as Sony and Warner Brothers, as well as network staff and executive producer positions. It is as much a testament to the writers who work with her, says Alessandra, as to her teaching. “Some major talent comes out of ‘On the Page,’” she says. “Agents and production companies should scout here.”
It is a record that Alessandra is proud of but doesn’t dwell on, as she is constantly engaged in the story, and writer in front of her at any given moment, a hectic calendar of classes and appointments managed by her lone assistant, writer Elena Zaretsky. “It’s fantastic to watch a writer find inspiration right in class,” says Alessandra, “and when you start to see the improvement directly on the page… I can’t describe how cool that is.”
The passion that she invests in her students, as well as her specific guidance on drafts, regularly yields results, agrees Andrea Stewart, whose script, “The Danish Ambassador’s Wife,” a suspense drama written with Alessandra’s help, earned Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist status this year.
“She knew (my) script very well and never spoke in generalities,” said Stewart. “Her feedback was targeted and practical. My complaint with the screenwriting seminars that I have done, and from feedback from other writers who have worked with other consultants, is that there is vagueness and that many consultants try to shape a script based on a cookie-cutter structure. What sets Pilar apart is while she provides a strong foundation of structure and form, she respects the world of your story and the direction that you, as a writer, want to take your script. ”
Patrick Mahon, another student whose 2013 Nicholl Semifinalist script, the revenge thriller “EVEN,” recently placed as a finalist in the Page International Screenwriting Awards script contest, attests to Alessandra’s ability to cut to the quick. “I was amazed by how in one reading she could instantly assess what was wrong with the material. And why the story wasn’t working. She has strong instincts and can work effortlessly across different genres and formats.”
Steve D’Arcangelo, a past and current student whose baseball comedy, “Reverse the Curse,” placed in the top 15% of the Academy’s 2012 Fellowship and was a quarterfinalist in that year’s “Writers on the Storm” screenplay competition, attests to the effectiveness of her writer’s toolkit approach, something he discovered early on while working with her.
“Her lessons are simple yet profound,” said D’Arcangelo. “One of her classes was about exposition dialog and how to disguise it. She described her “how” in five minutes and a fog immediately cleared from my mind, as well the guy next to me who said, “I just got my money’s worth right there.” She then had us try her method on the spot.”
D’Arcangelo, whose follow up, “Canary in a Coalmine,” also written in one of Alessandra’s “On the Page” groups, is yet another Nicholl semifinalist this year and a second round selection in the 2013 Austin Screenplay competition. He suggests that a relentless simplicity is key to her success in reaching writers already deeply buried in their own stories problems. “Other teachers would hit the main point and then crowd it with needless examples, analysis, or elaboration,” said D’Arcangelo. “Not Pilar. Every lesson of hers is practically a logline.”
Alissa Dean, who heard about Alessandra after her husband, screenwriter Rich Ceraulo, took one of her classes and came back with what she describes as “a brilliant outline for a high concept comedy,” ended up taking classes on her own while developing “Cricket,” an indie comedy that has placed high in a number of contests over the past two years, including the Nicholl Fellowship (which she calls “a result of my private consult with Pilar”), Cynosure, and Script Pipeline. After revisions supervised by Alessandra, the script garnered the attention of both a production company and a well known management group.
“Pilar is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” acknowledges Dean. “I’ve seen her take a good idea and help the writer make it GREAT. The work that comes out of her classes is truly astounding. She knows every genre and their pitfalls and how to avoid them, or how to take a scene that’s be done a million times in a genre and turn it on it’s head and make it fresh. It’s kind of magical to watch. She’s not a one size fits all type of consultant. She listens to the writer’s voice first and foremost.”
Ali Imran, a filmmaker whose comedy, “Ben Siegel Has Landed,” was written under the guidance of Alessandra and placed as a quarterfinalist at last year’s Austin Film Festival and the top 15% of the 2012 Nicholl competition, is another writer who credits much of the improvements in his work to session time with Alessandra.
“We talked for what was probably an hour or two, going page by page through all of her notes, discussing what was good, troubleshooting what could use work, and so on. After the session, I had a strong set of tasks set out for me that I could hack away at, further building my confidence in the story.” After a series of rewrites, Imran’s script was eventually optioned by a production company, while a second script that he completed incorporating many of the techniques learned from Alessandra, titled “V-day,” placed as a semifinalist in the Austin competition. Rather than distancing himself from Alessandra after his initial success, Imran is one of many students who find themselves returning both to the instructor and her techniques, in large part because their experiences using her tools and working with her have shown incontrovertibly positive results.
“I absolutely loved her no-nonsense approach,” said Imran. “Her insight was pointed, she honed in on flaws like a hawk, and re-affirmed my own thoughts on some of the things I thought only I would see.”
It is a sentiment echoed by many from Alessandra’s classes and consultations, a combination of gratitude at her recognition of their intentions, and her ability to see what is needed to make a work stronger. “It is a strange sort of alchemy,” said one writer fresh from his second consultation. “By understanding what you’re trying to do, she gives you a belief in the work you’re doing. Then by picking apart the weaknesses in your draft, and giving you possible solutions, she actually makes you feel better, because she gives you the confidence that you can execute what she’s suggesting. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt empowered by criticism. It’s like you’re getting two for one with her – One, the validation that your work has promise, and two, the road map to making it as good as you want it.”
Paradoxically, Alessandra expresses her own gratitude for finding what she now labels her true calling, and though she is proud of the work she did as an analyst, she is confident that her choice to run “On the Page,” a place where students safely and freely exchange ideas and information, was the right one. Ultimately, Alessandra tells aspiring writers that they must do the work needed themselves, and that includes the first step of submitting a script to her or any other outside help.
“Writers should take their script as far as they can possibly take it on their own,” she says. “You don’t want to pay a consultant to tell you what you already know. Once you really feel ready, seek out someone who gets what you’re going for, tells you the truth as to what’s working and what isn’t working, then gives you useful suggestions for how to fix the problems. You’re not paying someone for a chat. You’re paying them for help.”
Her willingness to give her students the final responsibility over their work may be one of her greatest strengths, a belief in their ability to see a way to fulfilling their own visions of their stories.
“The one great thing about people in 2013 is that we are all students of film and t.v.,” says Alessandra, who insists that the sheer availability of storytelling resources has created a kind of critical mass in the knowledge of the craft, even at a beginner’s stage.
Thus, when she teaches, she never talks down to students, nor does she differentiate between more experienced writers and first timers. “I never go backwards,” says Alessandra confidently. “I never slow down the class. I know they’ll get it.”
The goal is always the same, and the ultimate satisfaction she gets from her work, says Alessandra, is “When someone writes me and says that I helped make their project what they always imagined it could be.” It may be what finally separates her from others at the highest levels of her work, the ability to share in the struggles of her writers because she knows the rewards are great, and the reason why twenty four chairs and tables await new occupants every week at her “On the Page” facilities. It is why, she suggests, that she brings all she can to every new script, regardless of the subject or skill level, as long as the writer is willing to hear the truth about his or her work, and how to make it better. “If I won the lottery I’d still teach,” says Alessandra. “It makes me happy to see writing writers.”
John W. Kim is a School of Cinema-Television graduate of USC and writer-director-producer of Blur. He is a former Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist and quarterfinalist who lives in the Bay Area and is currently working on a technological comedy.
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