Geno Scala on Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Ghostwriting

"...I’m not one of those who lives and dies to see their name on a movie screen, or dreams of winning an Academy Award (I’ve held over 100 Oscar statues already, thank you). I’m concerned about putting food on the table for my family, and keeping other writers employed as well..."

From being in the military to being a police officer to being a private investigator to now being a professional writer, Geno Scala has lived a life most authors would never have the imagination to create. Scala is now the ghostwriter who now turns novels into screenplays behind two companies: The Script Mentor and Shark-Eating Man Productions. His feature film screenplay, “Banking on Betty” was the winner of the StoryPros, the Script Pipeline and a top finalist in the Scriptapalooza. His most recent television project, “Bad Priest”, was pitched to and reviewed by several executives, who provided the following feedback:

“Overall, this pilot is compelling and clear and offers just enough to tease us with where these stories and characters might go. It begs for a full season, which is a huge accomplishment.”

Wanting to learn more his career and how he approaches ghostwriting, Scala was awesome enough to allow me to interview him for ScifiPulse. You can learn more Scala and his work by checking out the homepages for his companies, The Script Mentor and Shark-Eating Man Productions, and by following him on twitter at @Sharkeatingman.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what stories – regardless of medium – did you love? Are there any books or movies that you can still revisit and enjoy?

Geno Scala: I’ve always enjoyed stories that involved heroes. My earliest recollection of a hero was “Sinbad the Sailor”, a Hanna Barbera cartoon.

This love of heroes is ever present in my spec screenplays as well; they’re not superheroes, but every day people who do heroic things. Having been in law enforcement in the past may have helped shape that “hero worship” as well. The movies that I can still watch over and over again tend to be more violent, but that hero thread runs through each of them; Reservoir Dogs, Lone Survivor; just about any John Wayne, Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood movie – anytime, anywhere. My interest in reading material tends toward the true crime genre, as well as bios or autobiographies of real-life, historical heroes, such as Winston Churchill.

Yanes: Given your current success as a writer, why did you originally pursue law enforcement instead of writing for a career?

Scala: That’s a great question, actually. No one has ever asked it from THAT angle.

My police career started when I moved to Phoenix, AZ, to pursue an advanced degree; the trip AND the school was decided on based on a girlfriend at the time. Needless to say, SHE didn’t make the trip, but I did. One day, while in my studio apartment watching TV from a wooden box tubed black and white TV from the 40’s that I picked up in some Goodwill store for five dollars, I saw an ad from the City of Phoenix, advertising that the police department were hiring. I figured that I’m in good shape, having just come from a military college in Georgia, never did drugs, and had never been arrested; I should give it a shot. At that point, I was already used to uniforms, rules and regulations, and being clean-cut, so it seemed to be a natural transition. My father was pretty proud of the choice, but I didn’t find out until years later, my mother never slept well from that day forward.

In any event, as a police officer and, later, detective and investigator, paperwork is probably a good 80% of the actual job (at least, back then; today, it’s all computerized). They always stressed how a well written report will go a long way in solving the crime when the detectives follow up on it. So, I concentrated on writing good reports. Beside the basic “who, what when where and why” questions I tried to answer, I wrote linearly, and each report had a solid beginning, middle and end. Descriptions were obviously important (the sights, sounds and smells of a crime scene can only be experienced for the first time once). Spelling, grammar and proper punctuation was extremely important, as well. Many of these initial and follow-up reports were later entered as evidence in court, and released to the press down the line. There’s a big difference between “What’s that lying in the road ahead?” and “What’s that lying in the road- a head?”

Now, police reports are a far cry from writing screenplays, but the experience it gave me carries through to this day. While writing full-time for a living, it’s nothing for me to sit at the computer six or seven days a week, writing for ten to fifteen hours a day. As a result, I’ve completed in the neighborhood of twenty five feature film and/or television scripts of my own or for my clients.

Yanes: I have family in law enforcement and family that, we’ll say, are on the opposite side of law enforcement, so I’ve heard some pretty crazy stories. What is the one of the stories you have from law enforcement that is beyond belief?

Scala: After seeing the worst of what man can do to man, nothing, to me, is “beyond belief”. In police work, especially working in the most violent areas of the city, nothing surprises you anymore, to be honest. I love irony, and I try to include as much of it in my project titles, as well as in the stories. The most memorable events in police work- to me- were also the most ironic. We had a career felon who had just been released from prison after the court overturned a rape conviction on some technicality. Within a week of his release, he goes out into the Phoenix desert with a cache of weapons and takes target practice at the beautiful (and protected) Saguaro cacti that line the landscape; which is, itself, against the law. The last weapon he used was a sawed-off shotgun (illegal), which was later found to have been stolen. We were called to the scene because, while blowing away a very large Saguaro with the shotgun, it split in half, tumbling onto him, crushing and killing him with the thousands of needles. To add insult to injury, one of the guns in his cache matched through ballistics to a homicide of a fellow felon. Serendipity.

Another scene, a bit more tragic, but none the less ironic, took place at a “dance club” in South Phoenix. It was nothing more than an illegal bar selling alcohol, where the locals and an outlaw biker gang would hang, sell drugs, pick up women, and end the night in a gunfight. The music would come from a stolen jukebox, playing forty-fives. One night, a patron was thrown out of the club, and to show his displeasure, got into his 1969 Pontiac Station Wagon – with the wooden side panels – and proceeded to do forty miles per hour smack through the club, finally coming to a stop after slamming into the jukebox. A couple of people were killed, several injured, and the building (nothing more than a shack, really), began to collapse. After being one of the first on the scene, and taking care of the injured, etc., I discovered one of the few things NOT broken – a forty-five record, pristine even after flying out of the smashed jukebox, landed on the hood of the wagon.

The record? “No Parking on the Dance Floor” by Midnight Star.

Irony, gotta love it!

Yanes: After years in law enforcement, what was the moment in which you knew you had to transition into being a professional writer?

Scala: There was a lot of time between the two careers, actually. After police work, I owned and operated two private investigation firms in Arizona and in California, and specialized in worker’s compensation defense as well as domestic investigations. In California, this led to working with many of the Hollywood set – some easily recognizable and A-listers, others not so much.

The actress, Rebecca Shaeffer had recently been stalked and murdered, and this set off a whole NEW concern for the community – stalking – which, prior to this incident, was hardly ever discussed or even investigated. Some of my PI work at that time arose from these types of situations, but we also had the standard divorce – infidelity investigations. I was involved in the Menendez double-homicide investigation as well, where Lyle and Eric shotgunned their parents; I was hired to find the origins of where the shotgun came from. These experiences led to many, many high level connections.

I later transitioned into various executive roles in CA, leading me to being one of four Executive Directors of the 2000 Academy Awards show. I was also in the same position with the Grammys, the Emmys, the Soul Train Awards and the Blockbuster Video Awards shows. Later, while driving down the 405 one early Sunday morning, with my mind drifting, I came up with, what I thought, was a funny joke; a play on words, really. I actually laughed out loud. That joke led to a character, and that character eventually became my first speculative script – “Junior Simple”.  The premise was basically a village idiot who “accidently” becomes a multi-millionaire, and fights to save his idyllic town – and his reputation – from a greedy land baron, planning to plow over both.

Yanes: You are now a professional ghostwriter. Could you take a moment to describe how you approach ghostwriting? Specifically, do you fully develop an idea a client give you or do you completely overhaul deeply flawed narratives that clients run by you?

Scala: Yes- to both! That’s the short answer, but obviously I’m not into short answers! Most of my clients, to date, have been writers who have written novels that they believed would make good movies as well. They don’t know how to start that process, and they seek me out to make that happen for them. Adapting from an original source material is quite different than writing your own concept. You want to be loyal to the original source, but you still have to write a stand-alone screenplay with a visual story. It is NOT, as many screenwriters believe, a simple transition of taking the novel and placing 300,000+ words and stuffing it all into a screenplay format. Not even close. Writing adaptations is a learned craft in and of itself and very few screenwriters I know today are really skilled at it.

Other clients, usually the celebrity client or those already in the business at some level, believe they have a concept that they also believe would make an entertaining movie or television show. They generally want to be known as a screenwriter, but don’t have the time or the knowledge to actually write the material. Some of these assignments are what is known as “vanity projects” – stories the actor wishes to star in themselves, to further their career, or to take it into a different direction. For example, Russell Crowe in recognized more for his dramatic characters (having won an Oscar), but loves to do comedy as well…and he’s very good at it.

Most of these projects come to me because of my personal relationships with the actors, their agents and/or managers, developed over the years dating back to the PI days and the Academy Awards show, etc. Others have just been people searching for screenwriting contest winning writers, or someone known in the business. Others are looking strictly at the “cheapest”. I’m not that person, but I’m a far cry from the WGA-required rates one might pay. I can work within almost anyone’s personal budget, and if, by chance, I can’t, I usually know someone who can, as I employ several different levels of experienced writers.

To be truly successful at this, it pays to know how to write all three formats well; feature film, teleplays and adaptations.

Yanes: You have worked on several science fiction projects. How do you approach the science fiction genre? On this point, what do you think is the one thing you want to see in all science fiction projects?

Scala: I always start with the concept; it is new? Is it plausible? Is it interesting?

All screenplays start with the concept. I am one of the few, actually, that believes a well-written screenplay, perfectly formatted, with no errors, and with a word count of 150-180 words per page, in a screenplay between 85-110 pages, can do very well – both in competitions as well as on the market, no matter the actual concept. The concept still has to be good, but it doesn’t have to be great or even that unique. How many mafia movies have been made that is generally the same story? How about disaster films? “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” are essentially the same script (Google “twin films” and you’ll find a list of 125+ twinnies). So, I believe I can write a great script, even if the concept isn’t necessarily the most original ever contemplated.

The next criterion – for me – is, “Is it plausible?” Being science fiction doesn’t preclude it from making sense, being credible or being plausible. I never understood how Superman could have bullets bounce off his chest, yet, in a fist fight, get knocked to the ground. You can’t have humans travelling to distance planets in space, and communicating to friends on Earth through text messages on iPhones. There has to be some grounding in reality at some point. That’s where I come in. I understand suspending belief, but there’s a point where it becomes all too convenient that the hero is able to escape certain death when his spaceship is about to be wiped out by an asteroid, but manages to communicate to NASA through his iPhone which he forgot that he packed in his overnight bag. I can often help get you a better resolution to this story; one that makes better sense.

The last criteria is does your story generate interest in me, personally, and is it likely to be interesting to others- producers and the four-quadrant market (male under 25; female under 25; male over 25; female over 25)? Book sales tell us a lot about this, but it’s not the whole story; the writer might just be lousy at marketing. Let’s be honest – most self-published novels are not all that good or even well-written. Even if that’s the case, though, the story can be improved through the screenplay. I’ve had several authors change their original story to more closely match the resulting screenplay story because they realize now the number of plot holes and story issues. Plus, they found the screenplay that much more interesting.

The one thing I’d like to see in all science fiction stories is a solid “B” story; personal relationships that make sense and are not forced or just part of a background. If there are three main characters, all three have to have a relationship with one another, and these relationships are different, with unique stories of their own.

Yanes: Given how many science fiction projects are out there, what do you look for in a project before you invest your time into it?

Scala: To be honest, I’ll invest my time in ANY project IF the client is willing to pay. As a ghost, I’m selling my personal “credit” on the project to the writer, in exchange for payment now. I’m not one of those who lives and dies to see their name on a movie screen, or dreams of winning an Academy Award (I’ve held over 100 Oscar statues already, thank you). I’m concerned about putting food on the table for my family, and keeping other writers employed as well.

That being said, I think the best thing a science fiction story can possess is one unique aspect that no one has ever seen or heard of before, be it a new kind of creature, a new angle on a weapon, or a completely new world. One client I worked with, helping him with his screenplay that he wrote – Glenn Garritano – created a new concept on the standard “Heaven and Hell” that we’re all used to reading about. Essentially, he combined the religious beliefs of Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, and transformed it into a galactic battle for his story “The Quantum Realm”. To me, it was genius, and he’s a very talented writer to boot, but he didn’t know how to write screenplays. Another project – an adaptation of Michael Canon’s “Last Judgement” – Michael needed assistance in developing the screenplay a little bit differently than his original book, which had great sales numbers, by the way. This story was a more contemporary story, with a twist, where a conspiracy theorist journalist investigates a series of missing people, only to “discover” that they were most likely taken through alien abductions. Having a conspiracy theorist reputation didn’t help when he tried to convince others of this, and the story evolved from there. That was a fun project because of his unique characters and the relationships he developed. So, two very different stories, but each one had its strengths. The writers only needed some help creating a marketable screenplay, and that’s where I came in.

Yanes: You have also worked on many fantasy narratives. What is a key element you think every fantasy narrative needs to have?

Scala: The key element is playing God; creating that new world setting that no one has ever seen, read or experienced before. “The Lord of the Rings” is an excellent example of this; Middle Earth. The names, words and phrases that come from that set of stories are now part of our everyday vernacular. We all can’ write a LOTR, but we all can create and envision a world unlike any others have imagined. Gene Roddenberry did. The “Mad Max” films did.

I also think that, even though the stories are fantasies, the theme has to be grounded in reality- “good versus evil”, or something along those lines.

Yanes: Looking back on your career, what are things you’ve learned that have made you a better writer?

Scala: You HAVE to have a solid foundation in screenwriting before you even attempt to make it in the industry. Reading a few scripts and copying that format does NOT make one a screenwriter, any more than tracing a picture makes one an artist. Being good at spelling, basic grammar and punctuation is extremely helpful, as well. Reading books always made me a better writer (and speller, btw), but I don’t necessarily ascribe to the theory that reading screenplays helps you become a better screenwriter. Too many newer screenwriters copy the techniques they read in a produced screenplay, and writing spec scripts is vastly different. Lastly, having a creative imagination will help you be a better writer. It almost stems from my investigation days; you have an end result of an event, and you try to figure out how it got to this point by working backwards. This is the same in storytelling. You have to know your ending first then work the story backwards, making sure each character, each move, each word of dialogue, plays a part in getting you there.

Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working on that people can look forward to?

Scala: I’m currently working on an animated story with a client; an underwater fantasy world that she created into a children’s book. Her story has already garnered much attention, and she’s hoping to generate a second revenue stream with the screenplay. I’m assisting her with that project. Another project is a historical drama – a true story of the relationship between a struggling, relatively unknown middleweight boxer trying to become champion, and his brother – a world famous baseball player, and one of the original five to be voted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The author of this story, Christine Wagner-Mathis, is the granddaughter of the boxer, and it’s a poignant story no one has ever heard – even the famous baseball historians aren’t familiar with it. This project has serious legs, I believe, and I’m proud to be assisting her with it.

I’m contacted everyday by people; celebrities and non-celebrities alike; with great stories to tell, whether it is the horrible personal experience with rape and incest, or a creative fantasy world no one before has ever imagined, and I want to be that screenwriter that helps their stories come to life for the screen. I want to be that person that helps their dreams come true.

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Remember, to learn more about Scala and his work, check out the homepages for his companies, The Script Mentor and Shark-Eating Man Productions, and by following him on twitter at @Sharkeatingman.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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