Interview with Heidi Hornbacher (Co-founder @ Slamdance Script Clinic and PageCraft, Writer, Filmmaker)

Interview with Heidi Hornbacher, Co-founder @ Slamdance Script Clinic and PageCraft
INTERVIEW WITH HEIDI HORNBACHER (Co-founder @ Slamdance Script Clinic and PageCraft, Writer, Filmmaker) 

Heidi is teaching an upcoming course with Roadmap Writers, called Fixing Your Structure Problems. The next session starts 04/08/24 at 5:30pm PT.

This interview was conducted by Roadmap Writers' Director of Brand Management & Partnerships, Tristan J Shuler, via Zoom on March 4, 2024. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TJS: Who are you? And how did you get into this industry?

HH: Existential question. “Who are you?” I am a writer. I'm a filmmaker. I'd worked at Comedy Central in New York, and I'd worked at a startup in Boulder, Colorado, and I was like—I got–I need more for my life…so I decided to move here. 

I went to UCLA for screenwriting, you know, as an adult student and just absolutely fell in love with it. Got out of UCLA and thought, "Okay, great, I'm a screenwriter now. That's how that works." And then suddenly realized: there's a lot more to this. There's a lot that I don't know. I don't know what I don't know and how do I figure out what I don't know? 

So I started doing just as much as I could to learn. I read a bunch of scripts. I started reading for the PAGE Awards, which are amazing. I started reading for a couple other things including Slamdance, and I started noticing the same mistakes over and over and over. You know, it was just you start developing a muscle really quickly to see what's working and what's maybe not working so well in script reading. And it became really obvious to me that if these same mistakes were occurring over and over that somehow the stuff wasn't getting taught, like, these fundamentals-these things that seemed fundamental to me–weren't being taught. 

At the same time, my husband and I decided to start..."Wouldn't it be fun to take screenwriters to Italy with a favorite professor from UCLA for 2 weeks to write in a villa like–"

TJS: Period.

HH: Who wouldn’t want to do that right? We started doing that. And it was great. And I was like, "This should be a business. Let's do this and make money. Doing this should be amazing." And after a few years, as we kind of kept going, I was watching how the professors would interact with the students. And there was always something that I was like, I get what this person just asked, and I see that the professor answered this piece, but I can see that the writer-it didn't land with the writer. They didn't get what they needed out of that answer. I see what was still missing. 

So then often I pulled them aside later and would be like, "Here's what I thought you were asking, and here's what I here's what I think the answer is," and they'll be like, "Oh my god, that's what it was. Thank you!" So I realized I had an avenue here for both curriculum development and teaching.

So, we basically launched PageCraft fully online. Because of COVID. All of our curriculum is now online, but we still, of course, do our in-person stuff.

And, yeah. Somewhere in there, I also co-founded the Slamdance Script Clinic to do that and help writers at that level, and that kind of gave me-I felt like a little more legitimacy to be like, "No I am a teacher, I do know what I'm doing." And I've helped now tons of writers raise their craft.

TJS: What do you think gave you that kind of proclivity to be like, "That writer's not getting the answer they needed.: Like, what about you and your process and your artistry led you to that skill to check in and see when the questions aren't actually being answered?

HH: Yeah. I've always been a teacher. I've taught English, I've taught self-defense, I've taught Italian. So I have a lot of experience teaching. I really enjoy that experience. I enjoy being a leader in the classroom. And just checking in, there's like a certain intuition, you know, empathy, whatever you want to call it, that you can see where a student is or a learner is, and you can see when they don't get it. And I love that moment when they just kind of go "Boop!" and you can see it light up. You see that something landed, and they broke through something. And they understood something in a new way. So that's what keeps me coming back and doing it again and again.

TJS: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. So PageCraft is the company that you started with your husband and with script consulting, where you’re doing writers retreats in Italy specifically, which I can't wait to go to. What makes PageCraft different than any other screenwriting kind of consultation service?

HH: Yeah, it's a great question. I think part of the screen-the teaching part is that we're really curriculum driven, and we're really driven based on filling in all, like I said, all these things that I saw were missing. So I see a lot of people like posting online, like, "Oh, I got into this residency" and "I got into that lab" and I'm like, "What are you getting from that?" And they get like one-on-one time with mentors, which is amazing. But they're not getting a curriculum.

And a lot of writers sort of feel like, "Oh, I don't need that, I don't need that." But what I’m–our focus is like….we all have to go to the same steps every time we write a script, right? We have to go through the same things about your characters, figure out your story structure, figure out what you're focusing on, what your themes are, all this…so what we've done is create a curriculum that basically walks you through that process. So that you kind of have someone holding your hand and there's accountability. And support. So you're getting great accountability and mentorship and work with other writers as you're going. 

So that you can feel like you're gonna come out at the other end with something. Really tangible like a finished draft or an incredibly cracked firing-on-all-cylinders treatment that you can write from knowing you're headed in the right direction.
And when I've spoken with my friends that have gone to other, you know, notable residences and stuff, they're like, “Yeah, we didn't really do that much writing in the end….I got some cool connections and I got some great theoretical mentoring.” So what we do is the practical.

And what we don't do is connect you with industry people…and there's so many great organizations including Roadmap…that that's what you guys do…you make those bridges…we don't do that…we just want to make sure people's craft is as good as it can be.

TJS: Yeah.

HH: And we need people where they are. Like I've worked with writers who, you know, they've come to me, and I've read their scripts and like, "Okay, like this is gonna be an uphill battle, like maybe it’s just for you to feel like you're a good writer and that's all." And then I've seen them make these quantum leaps where all of a sudden their scripts are winning contests after, you know, after working with them for a while.

So it's like, I really believe anyone can discover that muscle within themselves and that spark to tell a great story.

TJS: Yeah. What do you think, like, the biggest lesson that makes people make those leaps and jumps into contest wins–what do you see over and over again that you're like “Oh my god," like, when they get that key, when they unlock that or it always works?

HH: It's, I mean people-like everyone-hates this but it's like, it comes back to story structure.

TJS: Yeah.

HH: It comes back to "What is the thing you are trying to communicate about the human experience? And how have you done that in a way?" That is like the dreamy part up here, but then is there a structure underneath it that is supporting that?

And like, like, one of the most common problems I see is people looking at their A, B, and C story…maybe they're not looking at those as clearly distinct threads, and so they'll have this second act where all of a sudden things kind of get a little squishy, and maybe we're losing momentum…and what I almost always see is “Oh, they've got this great low point on the B story, and there's nothing on the A story.” And when I talk to them about it, they'll be like “Well, but that's the whole thing is the heartbreak…the heartbreak” or whatever it is…I'm like "That's amazing, and yes, but we still need that structure for the heartbreak to live within"–and if you're missing something on your A story, that is that external story.

Subconsciously, we'll sit there and wonder whether there's something missing. So what I'm trying to do is give writers access to all that subconscious stuff that once you make sure it's in there, it's cracked in the external and the conscious. People read it. Maybe they can't put their fingers on it, but they're like, "This script is great."

TJS: So tell me about your structure class that's coming up that you were going to be teaching this key to open this door, and kind of what structure is, and what that structure of that class is if you don't mind.

HH: Yeah, well, so we have our Concept to Pages curriculum and that is a 10 session curriculum, and we start with characters because you've got to know who your characters are more than anything. And that's the one thing I see. If people haven't figured out what the pulse is, you know, the goal, the beauty of this person, but also the ugly side, and done that for all their characters... [If] people haven't done that for their antagonists, their story is going to be flatter, too. So, you know, really, what's the humanity of your entire person? What pushes them forward, what holds them back. So we do a lot of structural, like psychological structural work on your characters. 

Then we look at the story you want to tell and like, "Okay, well, if these foibles are present for this person, what can you make them face that absolutely expresses that story in the best way?"

And then, we make sure the character structure and the story structure are playing nice together. And then we look at scene structure and make sure that you're constructing scenes that really get that out there-that have momentum, that propel people to the next thing that keep readers engaged, you know...don't answer too many questions too soon and all that.

And then once you've really got all that foundational work together, we set you free to write pages, and we spend a lot of time table reading and you know, critiquing as a group but in a really supportive way.

TJS: Yeah.

HH: Accountable way. So In theory, you come out at the end with a really solid outline and most, if not all, of a finished first draft.

And the Concept to Pages curriculum is what we do online. For 10 weeks it's also what we do in our 2 week Italy retreat over the 10 days of curriculum there.

TJS: So. 2 ways to learn. Amazing. We will add the links and whatnot so you have to tell us where to find these things. We'll add those links for you where we can sign up for both the retreat and for this course.

But let's get to talking about you a little bit, Heidi. What you as a writer, you know, you're not just an educator, you're not just a traveler. You as a writer yourself, what, where are you at in your career and what're your next steps?

HH: I am, you know, like so many of us. I have so many, right, irons in the fire. And I have a feature script that's family adventure that's keeps, it keeps winning things. And it's, it's 1 of those, you know, it's such near, so many near misses like there's been really top tier production companies involved in...then someone got sick...and then it got walked into some like big extremer executive office...and then that person got fired...and like you know, like so many of us, it's like so many near misses.

But what I like to say about that is, you know, failing at higher and higher levels-like the doors that are opening because of that script. I’m getting, you know, like I would get in the door with those people at that place like that's incredible. And an A-list actress had it for a while, you know, so like things like that. And it's high budget. 

So while that's kind of out there representing me, I'm also working on a series about the female pilots in World War 2 and that was, you know, an interesting process because I had to option a book to do that. So I learned all about how to do that and work with an author and that's just been incredibly, incredibly fun.

And I'm also working on a, I've just finished a second draft of a Heist comedy with an extremely unselfish, hero who is making all kinds of mistakes in life and it's pretty funny.

TJS: So what would you say, your-you know, one thing we work so much at Roadmap with writers about is discovering their brand. What would you say Heidi Hornbacher slash PageCraft writing brand is?

HH: Well, this was something that Roadmap, when I, when you guys were talking about this a couple years ago at AFF...and it just blew my mind because I was like, "Why is everyone not doing this? It makes so much sense." And I love that you do this. So what I got out of that was that me, me as a writer, Heidi as a writer. I write stories about misfits grappling with loss.

TJS: Beautiful.

HH: To find where they belong in the world. And I realized that that personal sort of logline of my writing. It's true whether it's my talking dog adventure. It's true whether it's my little orphaned girl that finds herself homeless. It's true with the female pilots, you know. That runs through everything. And so I really encourage all writers to find that thing and you know....It is funny how it cuts across genre.

TJS: I know it's so cool. This is an absolute pleasure. Did we miss anything today? Anything we wanted to do? Do you want to kind of talk a little bit more about the retreats?

HH: Well, yeah, I mean, I was just gonna say a little bit about, cause you asked me about PageCraft brand and I didn't get that yet–

TJS: Oh yes, yes, yes.

HH: Yeah, the PageCraft brand, I think, is really just–we're about community. Like we have–we really want people to come together and go forth with their cohorts and stay together. We have a community of writers that we're always adding to and more people are welcome. We do in-person gatherings. We do Sunday Morning Pages together. And what I really see is like, especially online, are my writers really show up for each other and they really cheer each other on.

And I have writers that show up for every, every in-person retreat we do, every online retreat we do–our online retreat, online workshop that we do. And you know, one of our regulars, his wife was like, “Why do you keep going back? Don't you, didn't you learn everything already? What's wrong with you?” And he said to her, like, “That's not the point. I hear something different every time I go and every time I participate in the curriculum because I've grown as a writer and I can hear things that Heidi is saying in a way I’ve never heard them before, so there's new light bulbs every time.”

And that's to me the beauty of, like, the long term support and that we're always going to be in your corner, and we love seeing people develop. And that yeah, it's not, you know, for writers who might be going, “Oh, I don't need a class.” It's like, "I know you don't. But would a community help you raise your craft?" That's what we're here for.

Heidi is teaching an upcoming course with Roadmap Writers, called Fixing Your Structure Problems. The next session starts 04/08/24 at 5:30pm PT.

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