Kent Tessman is the creator of Fade In screenwriting software, no small achievement in itself… but he’s also a great screenwriter and filmmaker too.
Details of his feature Bull can be found at http://www.bullthemovie.com/ and you can hear a fantastic table read of his script, Chrome Noir, on the Blacklist podcast http://blacklist.wolfpop.com/audio/35178/chrome-noir-pt-1
Without further ado… over to Kent.
Q: Could you give me a little bit of background on yourself and how you got into screenwriting?
I was one of those film kids. I was nine years old and taking books out of the library and learning how traveling mattes worked. I think I was fourteen or fifteen when I wrote my first feature and sent it to Steven Spielberg. I got back a “No thank you” letter, which of course I kept. I doubt everyone got a letter back from Amblin, so it must’ve been pretty obvious a fourteen year-old wrote the script.
Q: And how many features, shorts etc have you written now?
The cool answer would be three: the two feature-length things I directed plus CHROME NOIR. The real answer, however, is lots, most of which really weren’t very good at all.
Q: Can you give us a brief logline for Apartment Story and what was the inspiration for it?
APARTMENT STORY is about a guy who decides one day not to leave his tiny little apartment, and came about because I was living in a tiny little apartment and that was the one location I knew I had access to. The production budget was pretty much my rent cheque. It was done right at the time when you first could do a film like that, thanks to digital video and computers.
Q: Same question for Bull?
BULL is a murder mystery that takes place during the summer during a heatwave amidst the skyscraper canyons of the Toronto financial district, because I remember what it was like working during the summer in a heatwave amidst the skyscraper canyons of the Toronto financial district and always thought it would be a hell of a lot more interesting if there was, you know, a murder mystery or something going on instead. It was another technologically well-timed project, among the first of the independent HD films, and the whole goal was to make something that looked like it cost a couple million bucks for far, far less, complete with a real, professional cast, elaborate locations, and visual effects.
Q: Any other Options/Sales/near Misses along the way?
I think for anyone trying to do this the ratio of Things I’ve Done to Things I’ve Almost Done/Things That Almost Happened is probably tiny. You learn early on not to get too excited and/or disappointed about any particular thing. It’s nice when someone says something nice. It’s nice when something nice happens. When it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t.
Q: You’re also the creator of Fade In, screenwriting software, what prompted you to create your own software and not use the more traditional and established products?
Honestly, because I’d used those more traditional and established products — for years — and thought they could be an awful lot better than they were (and are).
Q: You have a famous and vocal advocate in Craig Mazin, do you think one day you could replace Final Draft as the software of choice for screenwriters?
I’m genuinely grateful for the kind things Craig has said about Fade In, and I’m glad that I’ve been able to provide him and other writers with a writing tool that they find useful and hope that I’ll be able to continue to do so. The nice thing is that I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know Craig a little, and he’s a very smart guy who puts a lot of thought into what he says, and who doesn’t mince words and who doesn’t suffer fools (or foolish software), so while I’m happy with the kind things, I try to pay more attention to what he and other professional writers are saying they want and need because it only helps to benefit the software and, as a result, everybody who uses it.
(And by the way, anyone out there who isn’t listening to Craig and John August on their Scriptnotes podcast is just plain crazy and missing out. It wasn’t that long ago when it would have been completely unimaginable to have a totally free opportunity every week to hear two extremely well-spoken, well-informed people talk inside baseball about the film business from a writer’s perspective.)
As for Final Draft, I honestly don’t think about it that much, other than when a user presents me with an issue they’re having with a Final Draft file, or with their workflow, etc. The fact that so many professional writers are switching to Fade Indoes say at least a little something about “software of choice”, though.
Q: Any other well-known screenwriter users of Fade In?
To be honest: quite a few. There are a number of movies and television shows coming out this year and next, for instance — some pretty big ones, too. I won’t run through all of them here; but I’ve started to list some at http://www.fadepro.com under “Who uses Fade In?” where people will probably recognize a name and a title or two.
Q: I see you also did some VFX work on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, must have been interesting, which element did you work on?
For that film I worked on the IMAX 3D version. And the most interesting part was easily getting paid to sit down every day in front of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography. And that part was wonderful.
Q: Writer, Director, Editor, Composer, Game Creator and Software Developer, bit of a polymath, any particular discipline you prefer out of these and why?
Prefer? Directing. It’s the closest you come to actually making the movie. (Or, more accurately, to actually living out The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I read fifty times when I was a kid.)
Writing is one of those things where are definitely better writers than me, but that doesn’t mean there are better screenplays available for me to direct. For obvious reasons. So writing is at least partly borne out of necessity. As is pretty much everything else that follows.
Because there are definitely better editors than me, too. And there are definitely better composers, but that’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing, and I look forward to hopefully doing it again.
As for software development, I wouldn’t call it enjoyable. I would, however, maybe call it useful and sometimes sort of satisfying. Useful because it gives me — and hopefully others — better tools to work and write with. And sometimes sort of satisfying because programming is different from, say, writing in that really you can solve any problem you have as long as you just hit the keys long enough. (And the game(s) I created because I had a couple of screenplays that weren’t going to get made into movies.)
You chose “polymath” when the other way you could’ve gone was “master of none”, and I think that’s maybe actually a cautionary tale worth talking about. I mean, I’ve known — or certainly known of — people who have spent twenty years doing almost nothing but shooting film, whether commercials and/or movies, and on most days I’d happily have traded places with them had that at all been a possibility. But one big reality of this sort of undertaking is that it’s like wrestling a whale, and you don’t always get to pick the direction the fight is going.
Q: Did you undertake any formal writing/film making training, courses or just jump in?
Oh, I went to film school. I’m old enough that when I was a kid and wanted to do this, going to film school was pretty much the only way you were going to get your hands on a camera and lights and editing equipment, at least coming from where I was coming from. That’s not the case today.
Q: You don’t live in LA, but have managed to work within the industry, how have you achieved this?
“The industry” is an expansive term. There are films getting made in Canada. Not as many of them, and not as…easily. But they do get made. There are films getting made in England. There are films getting made in India and Hong Kong and Nigeria and pretty much everywhere else. And an independent film, well, that you can make anywhere, by hook or by crook or by smartphone. And then again there’s Hollywood, and Hollywood is in Hollywood (most of the time).
As for writing, you don’t have to be in LA to write. You can write anywhere. Now, you may very well have to be in LA to meet and work, depending on what you want to do, but that’s another discussion. (And that said, I have lived in LA, for varying lengths of time, at different points. But as a Canadian that can be a tough thing to manage to do full-time and long-term.)
Q: And have you managed to get representation along the way? If so, any thoughts on this aspect of the industry?
I have, at points along the way, had representation. My experience with this aspect of the industry is that it can provide you with some highly entertaining stories for dining out.
Q: Your excellent script, Chrome Noir, was recently featured on the Blacklist table read podcast, how did that come about?
Well that’s very kind of you to say. I had been fiddling with CHROME NOIR for years, since before Fade In, and finally forced myself to pound out an actual first draft and threw it up on the Black List website anonymously (in case everyone thought it sucked). Luckily people seemed to like it, and it was really well reviewed, and when they decided they’d let the audience pick the next screenplay to be produced for a table read, Franklin Leonard asked me if I’d like to put CHROME NOIR up for voting and I figured I had nothing to lose. I guess people were curious enough about “Men in hats. Tommy guns. Robots.” to pick it.
Q: And has the additional exposure resulted in any additional interest?
Oh, for sure.
Q: What do you think of services like The Blacklist and Inktip for writers trying to break in?
I think the Black List (website) is unique and that, despite some similarities to other services, there’s really nothing else like it for a couple of key reasons. I should start by saying — and I’ve actually said this before elsewhere — when the Black List website first debuted I was quite skeptical of it. But even before I had a positive experience with CHROME NOIR I began to see where what it was doing was different. The fact is, you just can’t do what I did when I was first starting out, which is to mail your screenplay or your tape (yeah, I said tape) to a studio executive. You just can’t get away with that sort of thing anymore. But the Black List has a curated membership of industry professionals, and they have industry readers doing the evaluations. So it ends up being a fairly low impact way of potentially getting your work read in a professional forum, by people actually in the industry. When I recognized that, that’s I decided to give it a whirl with CHROME NOIR. Anonymously. Like a coward.
I do think that people have to be realistic about it. I don’t think it’s perfect. It costs money and there are no guarantees. In fact the odds in general are stacked tremendously against you — just like they always are. I think that’s probably the number one thing that everybody really has to get their heads around. That even if you have a great script — by industry standards, not just in your own — it still doesn’t necessarily mean that “something” is going to “happen”, not by a long shot, because there are just too many variables in play. But hey, we’re writers, not statisticians. (I don’t really know anything about Inktip and can’t comment on it.)
Q: How do you approach structure in your scripts? Do you follow any particular method?
No, I don’t.
Q: What’s the best and worse screenwriting advice you’ve been given?
As far as bad advice goes, when I first started writing it was before Twitter and the proliferation of websites and forums, and so advice overall for the most part came in books. And I read more than a few bad ones (because there were and still are very few good ones). The best advice I’ve ever gotten has probably been something along the lines of: “Do you wish to save before closing? OK | Cancel”
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters on SimplyScripts?
What advice would I give? Find someone smarter than me to take advice from. There are probably things I’m qualified to give advice on, if I think hard enough, but for aspiring screenwriters, that’s probably the best I can and should do.
Q: Any advice for writers who think they have the next $500 million hit script if they could just get an agent/make a connection?
Probably that…they’re mistaken? It’s probably easiest to think that when you haven’t read a lot of the really good screenplays that have been in development over the years, or if you don’t know how many really good writers there are writing them, or if you don’t know just how much more complicated things are than “Oh, that’s a great script, here’s your big bag of money, let’s make a movie.” But things just don’t work that way. And it’s probably useful, then, to spend some time absorbing all the information you possibly can about the way things do work.
But look, what do I know? Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe they do have an amazing screenplay, and if only they could connect with someone it would change both the box office and cinema itself as we know it.
In that case I promise to buy a ticket.
Oh: but I’m also one of those people who really believes that if your motivation revolves around writing a $500 million hit script then probably your motivation isn’t right. It’s not a lottery. It’s a craft, at least, and at best it’s art. And in the end the odds of fabulous financial rewards are slight, to say the least. The point is that if you’re going to do this, it should be worth it to you, still, even with full knowledge of that.
Q: What other projects are you working on now and when can next expect to see your name on the credits?
One thing I’ve learned is to talk about these sorts of things less and work more.
Q: Any final thoughts for the screenwriters out there?
If you take any of what I’ve said as advice or instruction, you’re probably making a terrible mistake.
Except this: always use Fade In!