Are you looking to hone your skills as a screenwriter and a storyteller? Professional storyteller Heidi Hornbacher is a writer, producer, and director. In this episode, Heidi joins Dani Behr and Tara Joseph to talk about her passion for writing and how she shares her skills through PageCraft. From Italy to LA, Heidi and her husband, Carlo, have helped writers hone their craft and produce some of the best works we know today. Don’t miss this episode to learn the basics of screenwriting and why the delivery of the exposition can make or break your work.
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Becoming A Professional Storyteller
With Special Guest Heidi Hornbacher
Our special guest is not only a dear friend, but also a multi-talented writer, producer and director, a serious triple threat. Let’s welcome to the show, Heidi Hornbacher. Where are you joining us from and are you an original Los Angelian? If not, from where?
I am joining you from West Hollywood, over here in the sun just like you, but I am originally from Boulder, Colorado.
I call Colorado God’s Country. I’ve never seen such a beautiful place ever. It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s stunningly strikingly beautiful.
How come you moved from the beauty of there to here?
Honestly, I went to college here and I left because I wanted to be comfortable. Going home to a small town was comfortable. It’s a sweet place and it’s lovely. After a while, I realized this was as big as my life was ever going to be unless I reached for the stars. I came back here and dived into the crazy world of LA.
Did you always know you wanted to be in the entertainment industry, in the Hollywood industry, or did that happen by default because you were here and that’s what happens?
I always wanted to be a writer. I’m an English major. I’ve written since I was 5 or 6 years old. I didn’t think I was allowed to be in the entertainment industry because no one had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re for this.” After a while, I realized, “Yes, no one does that. No one taps you. No one gives you permission. You have to jump it.”
You went to UCLA and did the screenwriters program there?
Yes, that’s right.Anyone can be taught the basics, but whether you're going to be an exceptional writer, there is raw talent involved. Click To Tweet
How was that as an experience? We want to expect it to be probably the best screenwriting program in the world because you were at the mecca of screenwriting. Did it live up to what you expected?
I think so. I’m very proud to be a Bruin. I know we have our rivalry with USC. I feel like I had some incredible mentors, incredible teachers, especially Neil Landau, Paul Chitlik, Robin Russin and Laurie Huztler. People who’ve become huge names in mentoring, screenwriting teaching and all that stuff. I got the basics down. I was excited to be part of the machine here. While I was going to UCLA at night, I was working at Paramount Pictures.
What were you doing there?
I was a president’s assistant, which means I had my own golf cart and he was also British. He was from Rugby. He’s a lovely man. As a president’s assistant, I had my own golf cart so I got to cruise around my block.
As a screenwriter, this is a very personal thing. It’s a talent with acting, you have to be fundamentally quite good to start with. You can refine your technique and your skill, but you’ve got to be good to start with. Is it the same with screenwriting that you’ve got to be good to start with naturally?
Yes and no. Everybody can tell the fundamentals of the story. We’re wired. The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s stuff, we’re all hardwired to understand the story. I do believe anyone can be taught the basics, but whether you’re going to be an exceptional writer, there is raw talent involved. Not that I’m saying I have it. You get the training. You take 8 or 10 years to learn your craft to get good. See where the chips fall, but you were starting to say you’re digging in. It’s therapy. You’re always digging into your own stuff like an actor digging in using their own experience.
You clearly must have a natural-born talent to be able to write.
I like to believe I do. As a kid, I remember telling my brother at one point, whenever we’re hanging around the house or going somewhere, “Do you ever narrate things?” It’s a scene in a movie or a book. He was like, “No. Are you crazy?” I’m like, “I do.” I still do.
You’re a storyteller by heart.
Would you call yourself more of a screenwriter, a producer or a director? I know that you do a bit of all and you do it all very well. Which is your primary talent?
What’s your favorite thing to do?
Writing is my favorite. That’s my first passion. I love teaching writing and helping other people go through what I went through. To get there faster is such a joy to see a writer crack something open and get why their page isn’t working. Producing is like checking things off a list. I’m fine at it.
It’s not very creative for you and it’s not something that gets your juices flowing.
I can get it done fast, but directing is fun because you get to tell everyone what to do.
I’ve seen that you’ve done various music videos and directing those. What artists have you been working with during that process?
I’m not a fan of progressive rock, but for whatever reason, I’ve fallen into that. A lot of the bands know each other, so they were referred to me to refer me. I ended up producing a bunch of progressive rock music videos, which are all very long because the songs are very long. They play all the notes. They’re lovely people. It’s been fun to work with them and make their vision on a shoestring. What can we do to showcase this song? They’re singer-songwriters and progressive rock artists for some weird reason.
In most industries where one becomes an expert in their field and I know from my experiences of being on camera, TV hosting, voiceovers and radio hosting, you tend an occupational hazard. It becomes what you tend to watch another show and another host. You don’t get to sometimes enjoy the end product because you’re so busy overanalyzing the actual work. Do you find you do the same as a writer? You can’t sit through a movie without picking up hard a little bit and directing as well.
Not so much for directing. More with that, I’m looking at going, “How did they pull off that effect?” or, “What was their budget because they have this cool thing happened. We couldn’t make it work. They must have had a gym and we were handheld.” We tried The Witcher with Henry Cavill. Who doesn’t love him?The worst possible way to do an exposition is just to have someone stand there and say what they need or want. Click To Tweet
Can we discuss about him? He is a hot British man. There’s very few that I go, “They’re hot.” He’s definitely one of those. I’m glad you agree, Heidi.
It’s hard not to. I want to love it. I’m feeling the loss of Game of Thrones and that whole thing. There’s a scene early on in the pilot where he stops. They need to get all this exposition across and there’s no way to do it. He stands and talks to his horse and tells his horse the exposition. I was like, “No, I am out. If that’s the thing, I am done with this series.” We stopped right there in the episode and I’m like, “No, no more.” All the writers I know and all the talent I know, “That’s the best you could do?” It made me angry.
For people that aren’t writers or screenwriters, explain that a bit more because what should have happened? What is the right way to go about that? The average person isn’t a writer and the average person certainly is not a screenwriter. We’ve got to broaden it up for our audience here who may have dreams of being a screenwriter in Hollywood one day, but you are the real deal. If you could elaborate a bit more on that.
Exposition is when you tell the facts and the backstory of why we’re in this situation, who these people are, what they need, what they’re hoping for. The worst possible way to do it is to have someone stand there and say what they need or want. The best way to do it, all information that should come out through conflict should come out at the last possible moment. It comes out only when the audience absolutely needs it and wants it. If I start sitting here with you and I’m like, “Let me tell you about the fact that I know how to sail.” You’d be sitting there going, “I didn’t ask about your sporting history, Heidi. I don’t need to know that about you.”
What you mean is there’s no context around it.
If you and I were desperate to get to Catalina and there’s a power outage of everything, we don’t know what we’re going to do and we’re fighting about it. I’m like, “Dani, I know how to sail. I can get us there.” There’s a reason for that information to come out and it’s important to the story.
If one wants to be a screenwriter, give them the three fundamentals, the guidelines of what you should do if possible.
Read as much as you can. There are many great scripts online. Be careful because a lot of scripts that are online are shooting scripts and not original scripts.
What’s the difference? Can you elaborate that?
The difference is that a shooting script is after the director has gone through a script and gone, “I know what shot I want here. I want the camera to follow the character,” so it’s a follow shot or, “I want to do a closeup on the person’s hand,” so they put close on the person’s hand. Those things are all the director’s choices. When we write original scripts, we’re not supposed to put that stuff in because we want the director to be able to put their stamp on it. We can imply things like that that nudge the director in a way. There are techniques for doing all of this where you’re not stepping on the director’s toes, but you’re giving them a strong vision.
You’re silently directing them.
You would say, “Dani’s hand brushes back her hair from her neck,” and you’d be like, “Obviously, that’s a close-up shot.”
Heidi, something that you and I have spoken about many times in the past is the fact that you and your lovely husband, Carlo, set up this amazing screenwriters camp in Italy that you run in the summer annually. Tell us how that came about.
I’m assuming Carlo is from Italy?
His parents are. They came over about two years before he was born. He was born here, but he has dual citizenship. One of the bonuses of marrying him is that I have dual citizenship.
Tell us about the screenwriting workshop. Where do you do it? How do people become involved if they’re reading and would like to?
How did it come about?
It came about in 2008. We had both graduated from UCLA screenwriting. We were both struggling to find time to write because that’s the thing. We go through all this training and we have this craft, but you have your day job. You’ve got to pay the bills. You’ve got to do the laundry. You don’t have time. We were like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could take some writer friends to Italy with a professor that we love, hang out and have her an intensive writing thing?” We talked to one of our professors into coming with us. He put the word out. A bunch of people wanted to be part of it. We have a friend who let us use his villa. We went for two weeks. We sat and we wrote. It was Paul Chitlik who was one of our professors who helped shape the direction of the class. It was a retreat, a group and we had fun. Everyone got so much work done and good work. When you’re in a group like that where everyone is concentrated and they’re all at the same level, the idea is flying back and forth. Your work gets exponentially better than if it was you sitting alone in a room.Writers pour their souls onto the page and if someone rips apart that page, it's painful. Click To Tweet
How many are there of you in the group?
There are eight.
Are your group working together or are you going off on your own and individually creating so you’re doing some alone time plus review time?
Is it generally couples who come or solos?
No, it’s coupled. We had so much fun and it went so well that we decided that should be a business. Gradually watching the different instructors that we had that come with us over the years, not to sound totally egotistical, but I’m like, “I can do a better job.” I would listen to maybe someone who asks a question and sees that the question wasn’t quite being understood. The participant didn’t get the answer they thought or it didn’t help them. I could see they were still confused. I would maybe go up after and go, “This is what they were meaning to say to you,” and watch the light bulb go off. I’ve taught a bunch before. I get pedagogy and I’m like, “I’m good at this. Let me take over.” I did. I took over it years ago.
Writers are like actors where they’re very sensitive to criticism and their work. Do you have to be a certain type of personality and have a certain style of teaching to get through that ultra-sensitivity and to bring out the best of them?
It helps because it’s like acting and that we are pouring our souls onto the page. If someone then rips apart that page, it’s painful. To get to the point where you garner their trust and you create a safe space where it’s like, “This is only going to help all of us,” and learning how to praise, “Here’s what you did amazingly. Here’s where I think you might want to look at adjusting.” You never go, “This is crap. Delete your copy of the final draft and stop writing.”
Do you have certain people that you go to whose opinion you trust more than others to read your manuscript, synopsis or whatever it might be?
Yes, some former participants in some of our Italy things, a lot of people we’ve become close friends. We’re all friends. A couple of people come back year after year and some of them I definitely trust with reading my own work and tearing it apart for me. Ultimately, your mom will tell you that your script is great. You need somebody to come in and go, “This is terrible.”
Does Carlo write alongside you?
He’s my first trusted reader. He’s good at analyzing the structure of a story and digging into some deeper conventional truth. In fact, he was like, “I have this new idea for this thing that we need to teach,” and it’s brilliant. I’m excited about it. We often talk about every story has a central mystery. That makes you lean in and go, “What’s going to happen? What’s the mystery? Who’s done it? He was saying it also has a philosophical mystery that digs into the why. Why are the characters in the situation in the first place? What is driving them?” I can’t even remember the way he said it, but it’s brilliant. I wouldn’t want to do this without him, the Italy stuff because we come at it from such different points of view that he covers ground that I wouldn’t think to cover and vice versa. That’s fun.
Have you had any of the work or the writers that have come out of your camps gone on and sold their screenplays? If so, which ones? Have we seen them? Where are they?
I worked with one of my clients on three different scripts. She literally has won six different film festivals in the last few months with these two different scripts. She’s amazing. She’s on fire. I’m been working with Gabe Kaplan who wrote Welcome Back, Kotter and starred in it. He is super fun to work with. He’s got some great ideas that are hopefully going to blow up soon. I’ve been working with a man called Michael Mack who is amazing. He was the first black Romulan on Star Trek The Next Generation. He was the first black writer in the writer’s room. He’s written an incredible feature that is going to be up in Sundance and all that stuff. I’m excited for him.
Dani and I have a production company called DANTAR Productions. We specialize in unscripted. I’ve said this to you, Heidi, but we also are doing scripted and we’re looking for amazing writers. We should get together with Heidi and talk about some of the projects that we’re working on.
At least pick our brains and show us what we’ve scrapped together and get your opinion. Scripted is not our thing. It’s quite an entry going from unscripted to scripted. It’s a whole different ballgame and a whole different process. Conceptually, on the unscripted side, we have our formula down and we’re in a routine with it. When you venture into the scripted route, not only do you have to have the ideas and what you’re saying is the mysteries, philosophical or otherwise. You need to have the formula. There is a set formula to screenwriting, which unless you’ve been taught, it’s not something you would automatically know.
Going back to The Hero’s Journey thing, there is a very specific story structure that it’s like Picasso. You have to learn the rules and you can break them because people chafe against this, “It’s formulaic.” In fact, what Carlo always likes to say is that the structural rules are like the blueprint of a house. Every house needs the load-bearing walls, sewage drainage, plumbing and they all need those same elements. It’s formulaic, but you have to have the house stand up. You can put all your design elements in, your cool tile and your furniture. That’s what makes the foundation and you can customize over and above. I have a thing where I have every writer at the beginning say what their favorite movie is. When we meet the first day, I break down how every single movie that they named fits this structure. Even your favorite movie still does the same structure.
Talking about LA and the City of Angels, what do you love about LA? Where are your favorite go-to places? Where are the writer’s hangouts? If you’re an aspiring young writer, screenwriter, you’ve moved here from Detroit or South Carolina, when you’ve come to the mecca of Hollywood, where would one go and see their favorite screenwriters?
It’s not like we’re zoo animals. The short answer is any cafe, you will see a billion laptops open and everyone with their script software up and working on a script of some kind. When we took cabs, the joke is that you could ask your Uber driver about his script and you will get an answer. It’s not like they’ll be, “I’m not writing.” Everybody will tell you, “I’m a writer.”
How can people find you and find out how to be involved with your Italian workshop?
We’re at PageCraftWriting.com and we’re on Instagram the same. We post a lot of beautiful travel pictures of our stuff there. We have two retreats in Italy. Our first one is scheduled right after the Cannes Film Festival. If you’re going over and want to stay in Europe for an extra two weeks, pop over to Italy. We’re going to be in Tuscany in this beautiful farm for two weeks. In September, we go to the little hill town of Orvieto in Umbria, which is absolutely charming and lovely.
What are your plans over the next 5 to 10 years? Where would you and Carlo like to be, living in Italy, living here?
Whose career do you aspire to have? Are you wanting to go down the Nora Ephron route or who are your favorites? Whose careers do you love?
Greta Gerwig is a huge favorite of mine. She’s got one of those names with double letters like me. We would love to be part-time in Italy for sure, who wouldn’t? Like every writer, I would love a little statuette or two on my mantelpiece. I would love to see some more of my participants, students, clients get there. I do have one Emmy winning client and I’m very proud of her. It’s not my talent. That’s them. I helped shape that. I helped give them direction.
She would be nothing without me.
It’s like physician heal thyself thing. I’m an expert in all this stuff. I write my own scripts and I’m like, “I spin and I get lost.” I’m like, “What am I not seeing?” We all need help. Even the top-level people, you still need someone that can help you get another perspective.
We’ll be looking out for you at the Globes, the Emmys and wherever you may be. We’ll be like, “We remember her.” We’ll definitely be calling out for some screenwriting advice and some retreats if you have time for our little numbers.
Are there any further words of wisdom you can give to any youngsters out there who might find to go along the path that you’ve chosen to go along?
Once they get to Hollywood, what advice for young writers can you offer?
It all comes down to it’s all who you know. You have to keep writing. You have to keep being willing to tear up your work and know that it can always get better. Even if you think it’s the best thing ever and your mom loves it, it can always get better. The more open you are to that, the better you’re going to be as a writer and a professional because we all have to be willing to take studio notes, mentor notes or peer notes. We all have to know how to graciously do that and know when you can ignore those notes.
It can’t be Jewish mothers you’re talking about because most Jewish mothers like ours would be like, “What about this bit here?” We would get the full breakdown of criticism and pointers. “I didn’t understand what this bit meant.” We wouldn’t get to this as amazing. Maybe you need to check everything with a Jewish mother.
You’ve been an amazing guest. I knew that you would be.
We’d love to catch up with you and find out all your next projects and if there’s anything exciting happening to, you must share.
I have a short on the film festival circuit and in the works.
Keep us posted and anytime you’re always welcome.
Thank you so much. Anytime you need help with your scripts, I’m here.
I will reach out to you.
We always take up a good request like that. Thank you so much, Heidi, for being on the show. Thanks to all our audience for reading. We’ll be back with more La La Landed episodes coming soon.
- Heidi Hornbacher
- DANTAR Productions
- Instagram – Page Craft Writing
About Heidi Hornbacher