Interviews | Screenplay Doctor | Screenwriting

Doctor on Call: An Interview with Screenwriter and Author Susan Kouguell

31 Oct , 2011  

Written by K. Correia | Posted by:

Known best to NewEnglandFilm.com readers as the Screenplay Doctor, Susan Kouguell shares her beginnings as a screenwriter and the influences and experiences that have contributed to her new book, Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters complete with film analyses and exercises.

In her new book, Susan Kouguell attacks a common question among screenwriters: “What is the secret to writing good characters?” It is a question that she has been asked many times during seminars and workshops. It is also one that she is quite qualified to answer with her extensive experience as a screenwriter, story analyst, consultant, buyer, and producer.

The book itself is a compilation of thirty-four writing exercises, six templates to help with character construction, and contains references and analysis of over two hundred Hollywood, foreign, and independent films. For those looking to strengthen their character development skills and thereby strengthen their screenplay, Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! is not a book to be missed.

K.Correia: How did you get started as a screenwriter?

Susan Kouguell: I began screenwriting and making films while I was a senior undergraduate at SUNY Purchase. I collaborated with a fellow student and over the next six years we made six short films. Our second film was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and all six films were acquired for MOMA’s archives. These shorts won international film festivals, and were included in the Whitney Museum of American Biennial, as well as other notable exhibitions.

After the collaboration ended, I had the great fortune to work with French film director Louis Malle on his documentary And the Pursuit of Happiness. In addition to doing the research, production coordinating, and working on the small crew, I worked with Louis on writing and editing the voice-over narration. Towards the end of this production, and through contacts made on this film, I was hired to write my first feature.

KC: Of the several screenplays you’ve written and worked on, which has been your biggest challenge and your greatest achievement?

Kouguell: There has been a lesson for me in each screenplay I’ve written or worked on. As a writer-for-hire, there are guidelines, specific visions, and so on, from the producer or production entity that has hired me that might not necessarily match how I envision the project and that has often been a challenge. The most important lesson I’ve learned from this is that being a writer-for-hire, as it is in the filmmaking process, is a collaborative process and in order to make this experience the most successful and/or the least frustrating, being honest as to your expectations and visions will enable a more productive and creative work environment.

My greatest achievement was my most personal. It was the second short film I wrote and collaborated on with Ernie Marrero, One Day Franz Brought Me To His House, an experimental narrative film that centers on the 1980’s relevance of the Nazi Holocaust, as it is brought to bear on the political and religious realities of German society. This was my first film to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

KC: How has the development of your new book, Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays!, been different from your first book?

Kouguell: The first edition and second editions of the Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! – stemmed from the many Business of Screenwriting seminars I presented around the country on pitching projects, finding agents, writing queries, synopses, and loglines. I quickly realized that what the participants really wanted and needed to learn was the inside track on what story analysts and film executives look for in a screenplay.

Having worked as a story analyst and story editor at several companies, including Miramax and Paramount Pictures, and in acquisitions for Warner Bros., I had a strong handle on how the film “business” worked and how to navigate it. In the development of my own spec scripts, and as a writer-for-hire for a number of production companies, I had a true understanding of how to realistically survive both financially and spiritually as a writer in the film industry, hence the “Without Selling Out!” part of the sub-heading of my book. The inspiration for this new book, as with The Savvy Screenwriter, came from my clients and students.

I was teaching a number of classes for Screenwriters Online, which is run by the inspiring Tony Greco, as well as teaching screenwriting and film at Tufts University, and giving seminars and workshops for other organizations and universities around the country – and the common question that arose time and again from every student was: “What is the secret to writing good characters, and can you please give me some inspiring and new writing exercises to help me, and while you’re at it, please give me some examples from other films to illustrate how to do so?” And this is how Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! came to be.

KC: How do you see strong character development as being the key to selling screenplays?

Kouguell: When a screenwriter is pitching his or her project to a film executive or a story analyst is reading a script, these film industry folks are thinking and evaluating, “Will an audience care about these characters? Are these characters and the situations they find themselves in interesting, unique, and compelling?” As I write in my book: Characters equals plot.

In order to create a believable and compelling plot, characters must be developed and their distinct characterizations, motivations, behaviors, and so on, must be plausible and gripping in order to drive the plot. The bottom line: If your characters don’t ring true and are not fleshed out, your screenplay will be rejected.

KC: What do you see as the biggest challenge that writers face today?

Kouguell: The biggest challenge today is the economy.

Production companies and studios have tightened their financial belts so there is even more competition to get one’s work produced. From my twenty years of experience as chairperson of my consulting company Su-City Pictures East, LLC, it is indeed true – everyone seems to have a screenplay in his or her drawer and is dreaming and working hard to get it into the hands of the right people to get it made. This is why it is imperative to write a solid, well crafted, and compelling script, with characters who shine.

Susan Kouguell’s new book SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises is available for $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. To read an excerpt from the book, go to: https://www.createspace.com/Preview/1089452.

You can follow my Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell Twitter page to receive more Savvy Tips about how to write, structure, and sell your screenplay.

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Susan Kouguell’s new book SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises is available for $1.00 off by clicking on www.createspace.com/3558862 and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD. To read an excerpt from the book, go to: https://www.createspace.com/Preview/1089452. You can follow my Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell Twitter page to receive more Savvy Tips about how to write, structure, and sell your screenplay.