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Finding your Mentor

By Chris Soth

This year I began a mentorship program through my website. After a few years of building up students who knew my methods and can speak my language, there's finally a tiny community of like-minded souls that believe in the way I learned to do things at USC and want to follow in my and my fellow graduates footsteps. Ever since I started a website, I've received the odd email from writers asking me to help and give guidance in the script they're writing this year, or to read their work, and this year, with the WGA strike the time had finally come. My fellow professional screenwriters and WGA members said two things:

"They're stalkers! Look out!" and "They want a free ride. There's no way they'll pay for this and they'll suck you dry."

They were wrong on both counts. I've enlisted a group of mentees so terrific with a slate of projects so fascinating and varied that the studios should watch out. And at a price that's a bargain for them and makes it worth my while as well. I've never been so excited - we've tapped into a real thirst out there in the writing community for guidance in the crafting of a log line, outlining a story, writing style, and that's before they've thought about marketing, presentation and representation.

But where's your mentor? WHO is your mentor? What will you do for guidance? This article's being read by people all over the world, not just in LA. There are people reading this who may not have access to the great events at The Writers Store, the networking events at UCLA and USC or hosted by Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

What do you do? Where's your mentor?

Take heart. First, remember: you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Other people have tried to do this and other people have done this, and some of them were further from Hollywood than you are, and had higher hurdles to leap than you will. They had greater socioeconomic barriers standing between them and their ultimate success.

Would they be your mentor?

Maybe. You could contact them, or seek to, with your questions and hopes. But in a very real way, they already are.

You have mentors by the dozens, the hundreds, even numbering in the thousands. And it's time to take advantage of them. You can model on their success and get all the answers to your questions if you just study and look. Even if you can't reach them and they never respond to an email or a phone call, they can mentor you. And you should take full advantage of their wisdom.

Did I mention that I was guided in my writing style by one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters? A writer who more than once sold spec screenplays for more than any other writer had before? Whose first spec sale was made while he was in film school and became the first chapter in one of the most successful franchises in movie history?

Not that he ever knew it.

Shane Black is on record as saying he developed his writing style by imitating that of William Goldman and Walter Hill. And his style was selling like hotcakes when I was in film school. And I had William Goldman and I had Walter Hill, and I had one thing Shane Black never had: I had Shane Black.

I read all their screenplays. And I studied their styles. And years later, I was lucky enough to meet Shane Black, but to this day, he probably does not know he was my mentor.

What's to stop you from doing the same?

Model on success. Still need more?

There are 20 mentors at your local Cineplex, with shows starting at 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10. These are your storytelling mentors, and there are more coming to your rescue next Friday. And there are thousands verging on millions more at your local DVD outlet for rent or purchase. They'll even come to your house from Netflix and Blockbuster.com. What are you waiting for?

You're not the first person to write a thriller, a horror movie, a rom-com or action-adventure feature. Someone's dealt with these problems and solved them in great style or failed to solve them and made a huge mess of everything. Either way, you learn what to do or what not to do.

Side note: in film school, I ran across a contingent of film people who didn't believe in studying film. In film school, yet. Their feeling was that this could only result in derivative and unoriginal work. But I'm not of that school. First off, if you don't watch the seminal films in the genre you're writing, you run the risk of imitating them without knowing. And you won't imitate them, at least not in an unoriginal or derivative way, you're better than that.

But you can't exceed it if you won't know what it is. That's right, the student must surpass the mentor. You're not going to try to write a pale imitation of the best film in your genre, you're shooting for the best film ever made in that genre, an instant classic!

And if you get halfway there, you'll have great success.

Think of the most lamentable, unoriginal movie you ever saw, how there was nothing original in it, how it was creatively bankrupt, with every moment stolen from something more creative and compelling. In fact, think of Hollywood's latest remake versus whatever the original they remade was.

Now think of Quentin Tarantino. Is his work influenced by the work of Godard? Of Kubrick, of Hong Kong Kung Fu directors, 70s TV shows and more? But has he put his own slant and twist on the work of his unwitting mentors? And has that unique take resulted in some of the best work in movies in recent years?

You bet he has, you bet it is. And you can do the same. Originality, it's just another ingredient in the perfect screenplay, and you have to make sure you've got just the right amount.

Need more?

Ever go into The Writers Store? The walls are lined with mentors, begging you to partake of their wisdom. Their books, DVDs, CDs, tapes and more are waiting with the knowledge you need.

Meet the Author: Chris Soth

Writer/Director-Producer Chris Soth has authored over 40 screenplays and is a frequent speaker on the topics of story structure and independent filmmaking, teaching screenwriters around the world how to write great screenplays AND pitch them for success. Chris is the writer of FIRESTORM, released by 20th Century Fox, and the independent hit OUTRAGE: BORN IN TERROR. He is currently developing a slate of independent films, the first of which, DON’T FALL ASLEEP, has just received distribution. His directorial debut, SAFEWORD is presently in post-production. He has taught at USC and UCLA, and currently guides screenwriters from concept to FADE OUT using the ...