Peter Russell shares his secrets
HOLLYWOOD’S STORY DOCTOR: Peter Russell
Peter Russell recently presented his seminar Secret Patterns of Writing for Different Genres in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town, between 12 and 22 May 2016, through the Writers Guild of South Africa. Hollywood’s renowned story doctor’s clients include Imagine Films, HBO, Participant, Viacom, CBS, to name a few.
ussell started out as a script reader in LA nearly 20 years ago. “My notes got passed around, and people started offering to pay me to give them development notes on their scripts,” said Russell. A recent tally of all the commercially submitted scripts he’s read topped 7 000. “Even an idiot – and I certainly can fit that description – can start to see patterns in what works and what doesn’t.” Since Russell was a child he wanted to be a writer. “I think writing is the most astonishing craft in the world. I think it’s as challenging as nuclear physics, and I always admired writers above everyone else. I still do. I have deep honour and respect for writers.” Russell loves helping create a story and making it better. “I get to work with the smartest people in the world. Then I get to teach this stuff to beginners and to people at UCLA and Pepperdine
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University who are just starting out. That is a blissful thing, I get such a high from teaching that I get nowhere else.” At his South African seminar, he covered the deep hidden patterns in action movies like Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man, 300, and the reason The Fast & Furious and Bond franchises work so well. How movie mystery thrillers like Inception work. He looked at the Sci-Fi patterns in Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avatar and Interstellar. At TV drama like The Good Wife, True Detective and Mr Robot. He broke down TV structures claiming that TV plots are much more intricate than film. Using Breaking Bad to illustrate this. At romantic comedy and love stories and comedies like Bridesmaids. “I see a lot and I analyse a lot for my clients in LA, and frankly, I’m going to see what the SA folk want. I love to tailor it to what the audience wants.”
So, what are the Secret Patterns of Writing for Different Genres? “At the heart of almost all great movies is one simple thing: a wounded hero given a chance to heal,” said Russell. “It’s different in TV, but in the Hollywood movie story, by the end of two hours this wounded hero has either healed (happy ending) or they’ve bled out (tragedy). In TV, the hero is offered a chance to heal, but they generally don’t take it for 100 episodes, or ever. That’s one important gist of almost all great film and TV shows.” Russell explained that this same pattern works in slightly different ways in shorts and webisodes. “It’s critical to understand where the industry is right now, in 2016. It’s in a helluva different place than it was just five years ago.” He said that back then in 2011, 80 per cent of his doctoring was for movies. Now, in 2016, 80 per cent is for TV. “Luckily, almost all the hidden patterns I’ve found in films also apply (in each genre) to TV.” Russell explained that almost all hit movies use the following tools: ‘Weed and Speed’, ‘Core Wounds’, ‘Five Suspense Techniques’, ‘Healers and Wounders’, ‘Theme’, ‘BMOC’, ‘Hero’s Journey’, ‘The 3 Act Structure’ and the ‘20 Beats of the Story’. “There are 20 big beats in almost all hit movies. Even though the movies can be about wildly different subjects, these beats usually are the same. They tend to happen in the same order, and at the same time,” he added. “Just like pop songs, no matter how original, they always have choruses,
verses, bridges, et cetera.” Talking about why certain genres seem to be more popular than others Russell explained: “It’s all about the audience and who will pay to watch what. Some groups of people (Hollywood thinks) won’t go see anything, by the way, Hollywood can be wrong. People over 60 are one of the newest, growing markets for movies and TV shows, which surprised the hell out of Hollywood.” So on his first trip to SA Russell advised script writers to write about Africa. “I can tell you that Americans are fascinated with Africa. It’s such a huge, astonishing place and we know so little about it.” Russell has a series of books on genre coming out next year where each genre has its own book. The best piece of advice he has ever been given is also what he believes is most needed to succeed as a screen writer: Don’t quit. “It also helps to be a narcissist who is completely certain that what you have to say is incredibly valuable, so when your work gets criticised you just shrug it off,” Russell added. “And you must get along with people. This, too, is horrible news to a lot of writers, who have become writers because they loathe working with other people. Screenwriting is all about collaboration.” Russell continues to get to know stories better and to share what he’s learned. While doing just that in SA he planned to explore thoroughly what he called “your fabulously renowned, gorgeous country.” – Cera-Jane Catton