Recently, The Script Mentor spoke with Anthony Crossen, a screenwriter whose current war drama OP Winchester has been impressing the judges in the Nicholl Fellowship, so far reaching the semifinals; the top 150 0f approximately 7000 entries.
Anthony and TSM’s working relationship goes back several years now, and we were among the first to read his completed initial draft of this screenplay. Over the years we’ve engaged in discussion, debates and even an argument or two over our beliefs in screenwriting, filmmaking, politics, and even the roles of law enforcement and the military in today’s society. In the end, Tony is a very good friend, a talented writer and an even more talented filmmaker.
Anthony is a 23-year Army veteran; retired. He is a former tank commander, platoon sergeant, and urban operations live-fire trainer. He is also a 3X decorated combat veteran; “My military journey initiated with my desire to attend film school, which I did in the early ’90s. I retired from the Army five years ago and have been practicing my craft and beating my drum as loud as I can ever since.”
Anthony continued, “I tried to do ‘film things’ while I was in. I taped a lot of field training exercises, and tried to continue my film education but, the war ‘fighting business’ always got in the way. When YouTube kicked off the digital revolution, I found a way to practice and publish craft.”
His resume of deployments includes stints at the Los Angeles Riots, 1992; Kosovo, 1999; OIF I/II, 2003 – 2004; OIF V/VI, 2005 – 2006. His long list awards are highlighted by a Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, 4x Army Commendation Medals, 8x Army Achievement Medals, and 5x Army Good Conduct Medals.
TSM: What is the title of the script you’re currently working, and what’s it about?
AC: I have a script going around town called OP Winchester. It’s doing extremely well at the Nicholl Fellowship this year, it’s up to the semifinals at this time. The Nicholl Fellowship is a screenwriting competition put on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – “The Oscars”… It’s also at Zero Gravity right now. I’m getting offers.
“OP” is a military acronym for Observation Post. Often times, points on a map often serve as verbs, there are missions or TASKS assigned to those points. They are often given code names, “Winchester,” in this case.
Anyway, the script is an Afghan war drama about two soldiers who have an intense dislike for each other, who become trapped behind enemy lines. One is a millennial, the other is old school, a sergeant who came up during the Cold War. Here’s the actual logline:
“Left behind after an attack on a remote U.S. outpost, an entitled, young soldier is forced to man-up by his tough-as-nails sergeant when an enemy compound housing a wanted Taliban warlord becomes the key to their rescue.”
TSM: Can you share with us any advice on the process of actually getting the option deal/ offer or doing well in the Nicholl?
AC: Well, Winchester is doing both. It’s been optioned three times, and now it’s doing well in competition. And I’m getting option offers again. Personally, I think the key is coming from a point of perspective. Write what you know, right? That’s the case with OP Winchester. That knowledge or point of view really comes out in your pitch. Yes, the logline, but be able to talk smartly and passionately about your subject– and what is your subject? Sure your movie could be about a haunted house, but isn’t it really about a woman who’s suffering from something else and suddenly has to deal with this situation? She is your subject. Be able to talk about it.
Winchester’s first option came after a pitch. I didn’t pitch to sell. I hadn’t even written it yet. I pitched it to start a conversation; to garner interest in me, my “brand” as the modern euphemism is, and the story, to talk to the gate keeper and prepare him for my arrival- which is exactly what happened.
Of course, the final step is delivering a killer script. You have to back up your words with action. Character is action; “I am what I do”. So, I delivered a kick-ass script!
TSM: How long did it take you to write the script?
AC: OP Winchester took about a month. I was clearing, conducting final out-processing from the Army towards retirement. I was able to knock the first draft out in about 30-days. The producer read it and loved it.
TSM: Did you write an outline beforehand? How many drafts did you write?
AC: Yes. I went to film school and took a couple of writing classes, but for the most part I am self-taught. I leaned heavily on Syd Field’s book series because that’s what was selling at Barnes & Noble at the time. Yes, this was before the internet, when you had to buy books from bookstores! There really wasn’t a lot of information out there, or ways to get information. Now everything you ever wanted to know is online for free!
Anyway, I began with the Syd Field 4-page treatment. I never hold to that though. If I’m seeing the scene unfold, I don’t hesitate to write it all out. I may end up with a 10-15 page treatment. Much of it, I’ll simply copy and paste into Final Draft while writing the script.
TSM: Where did the original concept come from, and how did you develop it? What was your process?
AC: Op Winchester stems from my reaction to The Hurt Locker. It’s a direct rebuttal, actually. I was active duty at the time and fresh from my second tour in Iraq. I was an armor Platoon Sergeant, in charge of an M1 Abrams tank platoon. Anyway, Winchester is my anecdote on military leadership and why young men choose to serve despite the horrors of war- and they’re reenlisting in droves. I had dudes in my platoon who wanted to stay in country – and we’d already been there a year!
I’ve led millennials. There’s a marked difference in their psychology and needs vs guys I knew coming up during the Cold War. That’s what I wanted to write about. So, 4-page treatment with free association; lots of wall staring, long baths, and plenty of Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack. It was an anecdote. Many of the sequences I experienced personally while in the service are in this script. You often hear how a story writes itself- OP Winchester was a prime example of this.
TSM: Did you receive any assistance along the way from friends, relatives, or screenwriters that you’d like to credit or thank?
AC: Sure! You (TSM) and I worked early-on on the logline for OP Winchester. I hung the script on Inktip.com and it wasn’t getting any play. You can move your script to the top of the listings from time to time, and you can edit your logline whenever you want. So I wanted your help with the logline, hoping to get more traction.
The Script Mentor’s logline methodology is what I use when developing my scripts. If you can find one better, please share it with me!
TSM: Nice of you to say, and it looks like you added you own unique twists to the logline, so I’m glad it’s working for you. What’s the best tip or advice you’ve ever received when it comes to screenwriting or something to do with the screenwriting business?
AC: It’s very important to be perceived as a team player. Be willing to take notes and make logical changes. Understand that individuals have their own reactions to stories and that they won’t be the same across the board. Notes will come out of left field. You’ll get notes from one person saying change this, while another will say they love the original, don’t change a thing. It’s all subjective. So don’t delete any files or drafts. Keep them all and be prepared to implement a change which you just removed two months ago.
TSM: Are you a “formula” or “non-formula” person when screenwriting? Can you tell us why or why not?
AC: I guess I’m a formula guy, for now. For me, structure makes things easier. It keeps my stuff lean and focused on arriving at the next beat on time.
TSM: What kind of software did you use to write the script, if any? What other kinds of writing software do you use?
AC: I only use Word for the planning stages and Final Draft for the script. I use the Warner Bros. template. There was someone who posted formatting questions on a LinkedIn group. They were using Final Draft, but got notes that their screenplay format was out of whack. They asked how to properly format a screenplay. I mentioned the templates in Final Draft. They didn’t seem to know it had any. Instructional videos are on YouTube. Let Google be thy friend.
TSM: Do you write every day? How many hours per day?
AC: I do write almost every day, but most of the writing I do is on social media.
TSM: Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with that?
AC: I don’t know if it was writer’s block per se, but I have been stuck on a scene which really threw me for a loop. This was still in the outline stage. It got to the point where I didn’t want to think about it. I actually avoided this project for 3-4 months. My problem was, I was writing a crime drama, not my genre, and I hate being cliché. I went round and round with it. I think I shared the beat sheet with you, Geno, because I knew you were a police detective. Your help was valuable, but it finally took me sitting down and confronting the problem head on and it I finally worked it out.
TSM: Have you written any other screenplays or television scripts?
AC: Yes. My first feature script was a horror yarn. Pieces of Silver, about a latch-key kid in the ‘80s who learns his estranged father is a serial killer…of sorts.
Most of my stuff since OP Winchester have been short scripts. Abel’s Promise, a short thriller about a cop who discovers his wife is having an affair with someone close to the family. Great twist on that one. I’m developing that into a feature – which is where that writer’s block episode hit me.
Satellite – “In a post 2nd Civil War wasteland, a band of orphaned misfits accidentally steal part of an advanced secret weapons program, uncovering a larger threat to humanity from off-world.” This is a logline for a feature script, but I wrote a short as a proof of concept. It’s great, full of high energy sci-fi action. My ode to Macross and other sci-fi anime.
TSM: Do you live in Los Angeles? If not, do you have any plans to move there?
AC: I live outside LA. I’m originally from Orange County, “The OC”, but my time in the service has weened me from the big city. It’s okay to visit, but I need space and easy access to the outdoors to really live. It’s great seeing all the landmarks, the Hollywood sign, the “Nakatomi” building from Die Hard, and everything, but in the end, the city is a hassle. I hate it.
TSM: Not sure if I ever told you this, but my my old Beverly Hills office used to look out to that “Nakatomi building. It’s part of 20th Century Fox, now, and I would go there often. So, what’s next? Are you working on a new script?
AC: I’m actually doing my first adaption. It’s a spec to be sure, but I’m in a panic to have a great follow up to OP Winchester.
My first script was horror. I really like the story, but I wrote it first, before writing the logline. Now, I’m having trouble nailing down a concise logline, which is crucial to being able to pitch it. Without a good logline, I can’t properly market the script. It’s a perfect example of why the logline should always come first.
I was also approached to do a spec trailer for someone’s project. I edit and direct as well as write. Now, a trailer, if your followers don’t know, is a visual representation of the logline. It’s true! But trailers are more compelling. Go watch some trailers, like The Judge (2014), Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall. It has every logline element. And they use music to set tone, from character, in the opening, to hope, towards the end.
Anyway, I asked for the logline to formulate a plan for the trailer. What I was given was a brief synopsis with every element in the script, not the main arch of the story: protag, antag, mission, stakes, irony, etc.
So I asked, if they’d written the script first or the logline? They said, script. Ah-hah! So another lesson, another point of evidence towards creating the logline first. It keeps your story grounded and focused. It doesn’t let it take off on a tangent which, maybe, should be its own script.
I wound up reading the entire script and sending them a logline. Not sure if they dug it. Haven’t heard back. It’s tough when you’re married to your work, then someone objective comes in and completely destroys what you thought you were doing. It sucks. Which is why writing is so difficult.
But that’s why you have your stuff read before you put it out there.
They say writers should stick to the genre they know. I know military, so this adaption I’m doing fits in a roundabout way. Presenting a horror script as a backup doesn’t sound smart for me.
Now, I’m hesitant to give the title because the property is public. It’s so old and forgotten (hopefully), that no one has the rights. The story takes place in 13th century England. There was an attempted coup which failed. The king’s loyalists are scouring the countryside for conspirators, which is where our story opens. Here’s the logline:
“When the teenage son of a fallen noble is sent away to knight school, he discovers he’s the key in a wider plot to restore his family name and exact revenge on his father’s nemesis through trial by combat.”
It’s a childhood favorite. It could easily be Disney fare, but I plan on putting my gritty, no bullshit spin on it.
Q: Well, I’m pretty sure it’s NOT “Pete’s Dragon”! Do you have any favorite stories or life lessons related to the industry that you’d like to share?
AC: Three things –
Character is action – Syd Field is right, but not only in writing, in life! It’s what you do that matters, not what you say.
You get what you pay for – so so true. Referring to the above, filmmaking is hard work. It’s like working construction. When passionate volunteers learn that filmmaking sucks, and that it’s non-glamorous, they won’t return for Day 2. They may not even return after lunch! When you’re in a time crunch and you need to get the shot the first time, you need professionals who are going to get it. Passion does not equate talent, and startups need to understand and be prepared for that going in. Pay for pros to head key departments on your shows.
Don’t be married to your work – film is a collaboration. If you’re lucky to have a say after you’ve sold your script, you’re in a very small club. Everyone will have notes for you. Everyone wants story changes. How you fight for your story will determine your career path.
So, it comes down to how you define success: You’ve never been produced, but you script-doctor and ghost write for name brands. Now, you have $4M in the bank, and you and your family can do whatever you want? Are you vying for that Oscar? Are you looking to direct? Don’t get disillusioned about the biz. Learn how movies are made, and learn to make your way through that process. Don’t get butt-hurt when they change your shit. That’s how it’s done. Be a team player and move on.