For some reason, many filmmakers think they can just throw together a story and make a movie. But screenwriting is so much more than just a story. It’s an art that requires skill and training in order to properly bring a story to life on the big screen. Screenwriters need consultants to point out weaknesses and guide them on how to tweak their script and make it shine, and they need experienced individuals, not just screenwriter wannabes.
When I first started writing screenplays, I didn’t want advice. I was afraid of criticism. But as we continued making movies, I realized the only way to grow was to get feedback from qualified experts. I got respected filmmakers and writers to give me their thoughts on my drafts. Then, for Summer of ’67 we took it a step further and submitted to Austin Film Festival’s script coverage service. The help they provided was invaluable.
I’m excited to introduce James Christian Peters, a screenwriter and script consultant. He’s actually done script coverage for Austin Film Festival as well as a number of other consulting services. He’s judged top level festivals and read and evaluated over 700 scripts in 9 competitions. He knows what he’s talking about.
And here’s the best news! He’s offering his insight and experience to help Christian screenwriters up their game, for FREE! So if you’ve got a script you’re working on, you need to connect with James.
Sharon: James, introduce yourself and your role in the film industry.
James: Hi, everyone. I’m James Christian Peters, a screenwriter and script consultant. Recently film producer, too. Next month (November 2018) my wife Vicky and I will help with shooting Linda Palmer’s inspiring feature, Turnover, in Canoga Park, CA. And at Charles Willis’ Upper Room Film Festival in December, I’ll teach a mini-course for faith screenwriters: “Writing the Faith Screenplay.”
I’ve done a bit of everything: literary agent, screenwriting instructor at a community college, screenwriting competition judge, and writer of coverage and development notes for filmmakers, film festivals, and private clients. This year I’ve pared back a lot to focus on my own writing, especially faith stories, and on helping other faith writers.
Currently, I have two faith scripts in the hands of filmmakers: Neighbors and Strangers, based on true stories of prejudice, redemption and love. And Miracle at Mount Olive (co-written with prolific Austin writer Hanz Wasserburger), about a young pastor who must struggle to keep his dying church alive and finds a surprising answer in an African American church across town. If we have to produce these films ourselves, watch for our crowd-funding ads!
Sharon: What led to your interest in screenwriting?
James: As a kid, I wrote and illustrated short stories and non-fiction articles, some of which were published. During careers as an engineer and part-time soldier, I did a lot of technical writing plus fiction writing sandwiched in “spare time.” In 2004 the amazing story of my father-in-law’s 25 years as a CIA pilot in China and elsewhere in the Far East–led to the first screenplay, Shadow Warriors. Vicky and I went to L.A. to market the script and actually got several companies to read it, but it has languished on the shelf since.
Sharon: Tell us about your screenwriting background/education.
James: I soon learned that our first screenplays should not be Gone with the Wind epics! After floundering around for a few years I went to UCLA and New York Film Academy (Burbank)–both at the same time! About 30 credits later, two professional certificates in screenwriting and a much better understanding of the craft were the rewards for crawling (or careening) down the 405 or the 101 every day!
Having begged an L.A. agent to represent my work, I embarked on several years of work for him. Vicky and I decided to do what we could to make filmmaking “cleaner.” We actually cajoled writers to soften their profanity, overt sex, and so on! It was a huge learning experience, kind of like trying to stop the tide…
James: Truth is, 99.9 percent of scripts we see have a wide array of issues, ranging from weak story concept to poor character and plot development. For faith/Christian screenplays, we can add a few more. Like misinterpretation of the Gospel and, especially, preachy dialogue. And there’s much, much more. Just now and then, out of nowhere, we’ll see a truly wonderful, well-crafted screenplay. Huzzah!
Sharon: What do you wish every screenwriter knew?
James: Wow! I’ve written a book about that! But the biggest thing is that screenwriting is a vocation, not an avocation. It takes years of hard work for most of us to achieve a level of professional skill that will attract a filmmaker. Faith filmmakers really need excellent, inventive screenplays from us screenwriters so they can hope to make successful faith films.
Sharon: What is one thing screenwriters can do to up their game?
James: Trick question! There’s no one thing. Most important: Be patient, go to school, learn the craft, seek God’s wisdom for your project, brainstorm original new story concepts, and plan, write, write, rewrite, repeat, polish. Realize that faith writing generally isn’t about money, rather about sharing the Gospel in compelling storytelling and, in time, enjoying fulfillment as a screenwriter-child of God. Not least: Make and nurture CONTACTS in the biz.
Sharon: What led to your decision to help Christian screenwriters free of charge?
James: As children of God, we have on our hearts the desire to serve Him. We share our time and experience with faith writers who are sincerely trying to learn and introduce the Gospel in storytelling to others. Bottom line is, It’s a ministry. We want to share the Gospel far and wide, and no one can do it alone!
Sharon: If a screenwriter sends you their script, what they can expect from you?
James: They can expect honest, industry-level coverage, usually four-plus pages of professional assessment of the primary elements. Since I work for filmmakers and agencies, I’ve learned to use the same criteria they employ to determine whether they want to read a script cover to cover and possibly invest time and money in a project. I put myself in the producer’s place and tell the truth. Do I sugarcoat my analyses? No. But yes, I do try to be kind and helpful.
James: The best way is via email, AListLiterary@gmail.com. Love to hear from your faithful readers!
Sharon: Anything else?
James: Faith/Christian film is improving, but it’s a slow process in an ever-changing, tough filmmaking/financial environment. We faith/Christian screenwriters must realize that effective, memorable faith films like God Is Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Hacksaw Ridge begin ONLY with well-crafted, relevant, imaginative, credible faith screenplays. Yes, that includes even true stories. Faith screenwriters, content writers, and filmmakers must grapple with the need to portray the real world without displaying the ghastly realism that has assaulted us in secular film for decades. At the same time, we must escape the notion that the real world exists somewhere else and deal with realism in honest but palatable ways. Thus armed, we can share credible, enjoyable faith films with the world–not just the like-minded faithful. It’s all about Him!