James “Doc” Mason knows how hard it is to get Hollywood’s attention for your work. He’s written and produced films like Caged (2021), Trespasses (2005) and Journey to Now.
One thing he knows is the key to getting eyes on a project is the logline. So, he’s
written a book to help other aspiring filmmakers. “Mastering the Logline How to Excite Hollywood with a Single Sentence” is a step-by-step, hands-on guide to crafting a compelling logline that will excite Hollywood decision makers.
With a foreword by Christopher Lockhart screenwriter and story editor for Willam Morris Endeavor talent agency, the book lays out guidelines for writing succinctly and grabbing attention with a single sentence. “A brilliant one-sentence description of a story can open doors and close deals.”
Author and Columnist James “Doc” Mason
Although this book focuses on the screenwriter, it is for any writer who needs to describe their story… briefly,” the author says. The book has received great reviews so far and Mason, a father of four, hopes this will help writers get their foot in the door, just as he has successfully managed to do…one sentence at a time.
You’re a great columnist and author, how did you get your start in the industry and eventually master your skill?
First, thank you so much for your compliments.
I got my start back in the 90s. I owned a small video store and would spend countless hours daily flipping through Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, or Roger Ebert’s guide, or Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever. They provided short descriptions and ratings of thousands of titles. They were the IMDb of their day. I really honed my skill describing movies to customers. I had to be brief.
Meanwhile, I took every class I could about filmmaking at the local community college. I was the big fish in the small pond. Soon after I arrived in Hollywood to become the next Tarantino I realized my passion was for writing. Like so many other screenwriters, I devoured every book and article I could and I wrote and wrote and wrote.
Many screenwriting books are similar to each other, but ” Mastering The Logline” is very niche. It focuses on the creative aspect as well as putting an emphasis on the logline so the script gets to the “top of the pile” to be read in a competitive industry. What inspired you to focus on this approach? Was it through experience?
Oh yes. It’s a struggle even for professional writers to get to the top of the pile. Before a movie can get made, though, the script must first get read. The primary goal of the logline is to get the script read by the industry professional. Unfortunately, as an aspiring writer, I suffered writing loglines. Like so many others, I didn’t know what to include and leave out.
You know that old expression, if you ever want to learn something, teach it. About 10 years ago I became one of the admins for the logline group on Facebook. With my unique experience describing movies, it was a natural fit. Back then, Christopher Lockhart’s great article was our only resource.
Over the years I have developed my own process, which very much compliments Chris’ approach. Helping others to craft their logline made me realize just how powerful the form is as a tool for diagnosing story problems. I’m honored that he wrote the Foreword for my book.
Your work not only focuses on the logline but also very important elements in screenwriting that puts an emphasis on premise, recommendation and reputation. Can you speak more on this concept from being a seasoned author in the industry? Did you gain this knowledge through experience as well?
Oh yes. I’ve lived the experience of waiting weeks or even months for my scripts to get read. It is excruciating, never knowing if it will ever get read. But there are ways to improve the odds of getting to the top of the pile. I call them the “four promises” Reputation, Recommendation, Premise, and the Logline.
Of course, the script will have a better chance of getting read if the writer is well-known, or if the script is recommended by an industry professional or winning a prestigious contest. Unfortunately, the writer does not have any direct control over these promises. They can, however, develop a clear and clever premise and craft a kick-ass logline. The writer must understand that with the thousands of scripts written every year, just getting the script read is tough. it will often take more than one promise to get the script read, even for experienced writers.
You co-wrote the 2021 feature ” Caged” . Did you apply the principles of ” Mastering the Logline and what was your experience or process of writing a film like that?
Caged was co-written by the director Aaron Fjellman. We were in a writer’s group together. We used a method of collaboration that kept us on the same page. This is vital for the writer working with the director. My job was to help Aaron see his vision. We had to be in lock step. So first we started with what we wanted to say. Aaron is a very thematic creative, which I love. Our thematic statement was something like, “Solitary confinement is not punishment, it’s torture.” Then we developed the premise.
We didn’t progress until Aaron was satisfied. This was absolutely necessary because he was going to commit months or years to getting the film made. Next we workshopped several loglines, to clarify plot and character. From there, we naturally built out the structure in a treatment.
Only when we knew our story thoroughly did we start writing the actual script. This took less time than the previous steps. The entire process, from our first conversations to a highly polished script was measured in weeks, not months. Aaron shot an amazing movie. Covid messed with any chance at a theatrical run, but it found a home online. It’s available on VOD pretty much everywhere.
You also have a feature drama, “Journey to Now” in pre-production and set to shoot after strike negotiations, can you tell us more about that project?
Thank you for asking. This project shows the power of persistence. In contrast to the speed of writing and making Caged, Journey to Now has been decades in the making. What was once a contemporary story is now a period drama! Let’s start with the logline, “An alcoholic veteran confronts the ghosts of his past on his journey to the Vietnam Memorial where he hopes to meet the adult daughter he’s never known.”
This is first and foremost a story of forgiveness. On one level, the main character lived through a time in US history where we didn’t treat our veterans with the care and respect they deserved. Full stop. This story had to take place in that context. I have stubbornly refused to contemporize the setting. On another level, this is a story about a character who, in order to stay sober – to survive — must seek the forgiveness of others, including his adult daughter, but also from himself. It is not a happy ending, but it is hopeful.
The story has become more than the testimony of a fictional character. Over the years, I have been deeply affected by the stories Veterans have shared with me. They have entrusted me with their truth. I owe them the very best I can do. And if the film can help just one person, one vet, or the child of a vet, like me, then all the tears will have been worth it.
Throughout most of your work, such as a past column you wrote ” Mastering the Conflict” you emphasize a different perspective for the writer when you refer to the audience engagement aspect, can you elaborate on that process?
Yes, all conflict comes down to differences in perspective, especially narrative conflict. Audiences want to engage with a story. They want to root for some characters or against others. In other column for Creative Screenwriting, I discuss how to determine who is the main character – whose story is it?
The perspective of main character usually engenders more empathy than the opposition. In an alternative universe, the audience might care more for the perspective of the opposition.
The writer’s job is to determine which universe they’re describing. It all comes down to how each character in the conflict interacts with the other elements of story. When the writer understands the conflict well, when they can describe how the character interact with the other elements, then writing the logline becomes much easier.
Any writers or creators that inspire you?
My heroes are Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Nora Ephron, Lawrence Kasdan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, and of course William Goldman. John August inspires me with his generosity and his talent. Going back in time, I am inspired by the team of Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond. No list would be complete without Akira Kurosawa. There are so many more.
What is some advice for aspiring screenwriters and authors?
Find your voice. Have something to say. Write what you know. What I mean is find what is meaningful to you and explore it from every angle. Find a way to express it in universal terms. You’ll never get tired of it. A common thread running throughout all my narrative work is my characters’ need for connection. Their flaw is often that they don’t have the personal tools to connect.
The most practical advice I can give is to pay yourself first. My father was a financial planner, so that meant money to him. When I say pay yourself first, I mean dedicate time to your art, to your project. Every day. This will pay dividends faster than one might imagine. For the screenwriter, a page a day can net four scripts a year. Or two with rewrites. For the author, that means different things.
I write non-fiction, which takes more time than fiction. It took me a couple years to write and rewrite Mastering the Logline. It’s a very thorough 280 pages with front and back material.
I write every day, even if it is a little bit. It should be noted that I am also a father of four, and I work in an ad agency full time. So the key is to finding the time for yourself. Pay yourself first with an hour, or 15 minutes, whatever you can afford. And just do it.