Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Writing Drills

A new approach to developing your writing style.

I’ve been in Hollywood for six months now, working on my craft, interning at a production company, taking classes, and enjoying the local atmosphere. I am a humble BU grad looking for a chance to prove my worth, but six months ago when I drove in to town in my Mini Cooper packed to the brim with my belongings, I was a cocky 22-year-old who was convinced I was going to enter the industry with a bang and be the next big thing. I also expected to start interning and be blown away by the excellent scripts that I would be covering on a daily basis. Looking back I’m not sure which is more naive, as I am a long ways away from my big break and have grown tired of writing “Pass” on coverage templates.

The sea of terrible scripts that pass through a production office in a given week is both inspirational and discouraging. Most of these failed attempts at a feature script are identifiable within the first few pages. If the writing style doesn’t give it away, cheesy dialogue, sloppy structure, or lame concepts almost certainly do. On the contrary, however, a great script will make itself known even sooner. The scripts that grab people’s attention do so not only with cool concepts, well formed plots and characters, and the usual aspects of a good story. They compliment these conventions of story telling with a writing style that snags the reader form the first page, telling their story in a voice that projects the film in the back of the reader’s head. Doing so requires a rare skill that walks the thin line between imaginative prose and efficient screenwriting that utilizes the medium of film to the fullest.

This isn’t a tangible feat, however. It may sound simple in theory, but in actuality there is nothing that measures a script’s “wow factor.” It was a concept that I struggled with for a long time, wondering how I would blindly stumble across my voice, or find a way of illustrating my scripts with head turning style. I had learned the elements of structure, character, concept, and themes that are the groundwork of a great story, but no one can teach you how to find your own voice and develop a writing style that is uniquely your own. That is until a friend of mine made a simple suggestion that changed the way I thought about practicing my craft.

When discussing what makes a script stand apart from the rest, my friend Josh said “think of writing more like basketball drills.” This hit me over the head as if I was standing under the hoop when Lebron laid down a huge dunk. The excitement was overwhelming. It was a new way of approaching writing, and one that was sure to enhance my style.

The idea is simple; forget writing in blocks of a hundred page features, and just for a while write scene by scene, focusing less on the plot, character arch, blah blah blah, and more on the quality of the writing and the style which I’ve just been emphasizing. I combined this philosophy with a collection of scenes from GoIntoTheStory’s blog (which you can find HERE) that included scenes which stood as great examples of a wide variety. Some had excellent dialogue, others gripping action sequences, and more still depicted the world of the script in stellar fashion. I wanted to master this wide array of scene types, while honing my voice at the same time.

So I set out on a mission. A drill a day, in week long blocks, until I master as many scene types as I can think of. Each week I pick a new genre of scene, be it car chases, love scenes, comic relief, climactic battles between hero and villain, exposition… you name it. Each week is dedicated to a new objective, which means that after each week I have five to seven new scenes. I take risks, getting creative and exploring ways of telling my story that I would be too cautious to include in a feature length script. I create hypothetical problems that I force my self to solve, and get to work with an expansive cast of characters and settings.

Another clear advantage to this daily drill exercise is that I have learned a great deal about creating scenes that follow a solid structure. In writing scene by scene, I try to convey at least a somewhat captivating and cohesive story in a small window of time, and I believe that this is a skill that will prove valuable to my writing in general.

So give it a shot! Sit down and just start writing a scene. Any scene. But make it as captivating and well written as possible. Then the next day, try writing the same scene in a totally different way, breaking out of your comfort zone a bit to try out some new stylistic choices and exploring your voice. If you’re serious enough about it than give the daily drill a shot. Start each week with a genre and write a new scene under that genre each day, paying close attention to what aspect of your writing the scene is implementing, and practicing that specific skill. Before long you’ll notice that you find yourself gravitating towards certain methods and tricks, and that is how you find your voice as a writer. It wont be easy, and I am by no means saying that I’ve accomplished such a feat, but Im much closer than I was.

 

Superheroes to the Rescue!

With the current remake trend representing a major share of new releases in 2011, Comic book movies are revisiting things in a brave new way.

Bond through the ages...

The film industry has been relying heavily on the model of producing material with a built in audience for quite some time. A reboot of an old favorite guarantees a certain level of success independent from any other aspect of execution solely for the benefits of audience familiarity. It is the concept that has kept James Bond on the silver screen for decades, just as it has with so many other familiar characters. Franchise films sell tickets before the first trailer is released, and in an industry as volatile as Hollywood, that is a very appealing concept. This built-in security has generated a boom in adaptations, remakes, reboots, and reimagining’s in recent history, while narrowing the window of opportunity for original content. Why would a studio take a risk on an unfamiliar and unproven concept, when they have three more Spider Man installments ready and waiting?

While there is certainly a sense that Hollywood is neglecting the value of quality writing and innovative ideas, creativity and good story telling have found themselves an unlikely hero amidst the chaos. Comic book movies epitomize the studio’s dependency on revisiting time tested material, and have seen a huge expansion in recent years, with nearly every major super hero and comic book villain finding their way on to one sheets and in to action-packed trailers. But a genre that used to pump out action-centric films where story was more or less an afterthought has taken a new approach to story telling, and in many ways is the saving grace of an industry that cares far more about the zeros on the checks than the words on the page.

In years past you could count on a good super hero movie to have some great fight scenes, some big explosions, probably some cool technology, and a few smoking hot villains or victims, but when it came to story quality it was more or less a delivery system for the “Booms” and boobs. Most comic book movies followed a pretty standard template of the hero has to stop the bad guys and save the girl.

In recent years however, the genre took a new look at their characters and brought it back to where it all began, and in doing so began putting a stronger emphasis on story and character development. The creation story has become the recent trend, and we have watched as nearly every franchise dusts off the initial volumes and digs in to the back story of the popular superheroes that have been so successful over the years. They brought us back to when Tony Stark found the key to his iron suit, to when 007 fell in love with martinis, and to when that spider snacked on Peter Parker’s skin. We saw an X-Men movie where Dr. X and Magneto still fought on the same team, and a Planet of the Apes film with apes that couldn’t yet speak English. We still got all that we expect out of a good super hero movie, with guns, capes, girls, and a new bat mobile, but we got it all by way of well written plots, heavy in respectable themes and rich character development in a way we never fully have.

By starting at the beginning, the screenwriter has been able to explore the character arch as a prominent plot line, letting the struggle against an actual bad guy play out in the b-story. We’ve gotten to see the heroes haunted pasts and current struggles, to witness their internal conflict and their coming to terms with their fate, and most importantly, we’ve gotten to see them back when they were just a normal person. This glance into who our heroes were before they were heroes has developed a stronger relationship between audience and action figure. We can connect with them on a human level, rather than view them as immortal, and develop a deeper connection to them as substantial characters.

The studios have recognized this as a huge asset to their already reliable franchise films, and have begun to utilize it as much as possible. We saw Bruce Wayne return to Gotham to confront his fear of bats in Batman Begins and we loved it. So what did the studio do when they returned with The Dark Knight? They gave us Harvey Dent, a stand up politician determined to rid Gotham of crime. We related to him for his good intentions and his human flaws, which made his transformation into the famous villain Two-Face that much more profound. This wasn’t the only major accomplishment in the hugely successful Batman film, as it also had a script that explored areas of psychology with the pathological Joker character that runs violent social experiments, a tense romantic dilemma between Bruce and Rachel, and the close friendship between billionaire and loyal butler.

Such examples can be mined from the reincarnation of dozens of popular franchises. Those who have realized the potential of complimenting eye-popping explosions that sell tickets with well-developed characters set against complex plots and significant themes, have opened the genre up to a broader audience. These new age re-vamps have become accessible to more than just comic book nerds and pyro-crazy teenagers, by seeing the value in a good story. In this way, the super heroes have done it again, by swooping in and protecting Hollywood from devaluing a good script entirely, and they have been substantially rewarded for it.

Born from bats.

Rescue Me

How unlikeable characters make the best protagonist…

This is a very exciting week for me. The final installment into my favorite saga will be presented to the world. I am not talking about the Harry Potter movie that will have little girls running and screaming for the theaters, but rather the final season of Rescue Me, a show that would likely make little girls also run screaming. Unlike Harry Potter, whose moral compass never strays, Rescue Me’s protagonist Tommy Gavin throws the middle finger to morality as he bangs back a shot of vodka, before things really get interesting. He is a foul mouthed, egotistic, womanizing, violent, abrasive alcoholic, and I love him. He is one of many in a long list of anti-heros who have snatched up the hearts of audiences and ran with them. From Bill Munny to Hank Moody, these hugely defected characters have made for some of the most fascinating protagonists.

The Ultimate Badass: Has he really played any "likable" protagonist?

We learn from the get go that in order to write a script, or even a bedtime story for that matter, you have to have a likable protagonist. This, clearly is not the case. These anti-heros not only win our sympathy, but let’s face it, they’re way more fun to watch. It’s like watching that stupid friend that you have who always get’s himself in trouble. As much as you enjoy laughing as gets yelled at by his parents, you still hope he gets away with it. But the reason that these characters have won our hearts goes much deeper than that.

A major part in film and television’s success is that it provides a fantasy for its viewers, while still offering them something to relate to. What keeps swarms of tweens rushing to the theater (and forkin over the dough), is that recognition of a teenager just like them, doing magical and brave things that they could never. It’s also what kept more mature audiences tuned in to Friends for a decade; the idea of people and friends just like them who lived lovely lives in Manhattan, never had to work, and always got along. Its almost as magical as Hogwarts to be honest.

It is this same principle that makes us so intrigued with these Anti-heros. We recognize that we are flawed, as every one is, and as they certainly are, but they are also doing incredible things. Plus,as far as the female demographic is concerned, no matter what your parents say, girls DO love bad boys. This is a fundamental principle of the anti-hero; they have a substantial redeeming quality. In Tommy Gavin’s case, he saves people from terrifying fires. No matter how devilish he is outside of that inferno, he still drags innocent people to safety by running in to life threatening fires. He also suffers from PTS while mourning the losses of 911, a national tragedy, so he gets brownie points for that as well.  So viewers tune in and realize that everyone has a shot at redemption, something that is nice to think about, as they watch him terrorize everyone around him.

(In this scene Tommy just saw his dead son who he sorta killed… yeah, Id fall off the wagon)

What I think attracts me to these characters, however, is that they make for very complex protagonists with very complicated stories. While everyone who’s ever heard of Harry Potter instantly wants him to defeat Voldermort (sp?,whatever…), even the most loyal fans of shows like Recue Me and Californication, who have rooted for this protagonists for season upon season, still have to question where their sympathy lies from time to time. This makes for interesting themes, conflicts, and plot lines. It also keeps those loyal fans tuning in time and time again, as they subconsciously hope that Hank Moody gets away with statutory rape .

So while “likability” may generate some really successful protagonists, Im going to say screw likability. Give me complex protagonists, with the human tendency to hit on the wrong girl, drink too much, but do it all with the best intentions. Put ’em in a complicated situation and I say you have yourself a story!

We all fall for legs like that...

I’d love to hear who some of your favorite protagonists are (no matter how likable), and what you think makes them so great!

Sticks and Stones…

Giving your dialogue that extra punch.

Dialogue is for many the most intimidating part of writing. FInding a way to breath life and pizzaz into their character’s can discourage anyone from making their master piece come to life. Even successful Hollywood writers would agree that dialogue is a daunting component of a script. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, who really reads scene direction any way? Relax, of course people read scene direction, but the dialogue is what makes or breaks a good story.

I was recently re-watching Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, a great film that is among my bluray collection for good reason. I’d always enjoyed the movie, but upon my most recent viewing I realized that the story itself was pretty predictable, the character very typical, and the world totally plain. So what is it that makes this movie so gripping? Ive seen it time and time again, know exactly what happens, yet I still can’t turn away. The answer is the electrifying dialogue. Every word is delivered with such intensity and force that you feel it in your own bones.

So I got the screenplay, hoping for the same effect, but was greatly disappointed. The dialogue on the page is bulky and awkward. It has only glimpses of the impressive nature of the words that jumped out of my TV. The opening monologue is an excellent example of this. What sounded great in the movie read as muddled garbage. It had lost that edge that made me think “wow, this character knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.” Even as a lunatic’s rant, this monologue still had power in its well chosen words, once chut down in the production and post production phases.

This is an excellent example of over writing dialogue. It’s so common that even Tony Gilroy couldn’t avoid it, so don’t be too hard on yourself when you catch this in your next revision! Great dialogue, in my mind, consists of three key elements:

1) Originality – find a way to deliver your message in a way that hasn’t been used a million times. This is what makes for great movie quotes that stick in your audience’s mind, and make up killer trailers.

2) Subtext – We all know how awful on the nose dialogue can be, so dont do it.

3) Brevity. I can’t emphasize enough the power of lean dialogue. Get your point across and shut up. This is what made the dialogue in the film so great was you really got the impression that the characters, mostly successful lawyers, thought at a faster pace. Not a word was wasted, misused, or underpowered. The violence of the film came across more in the brutality of their words than the car bomb and murder.

So, next time you sit down to write some dialogue, pay attention to every word. Does it say exactly what you want it to say? Does it need to be there? Can you scour your vocabulary for a more efficient way of saying it? Chances are you can, and Im not saying everything needs to be one word answers, there are times for long winded rants and confusing tangents, but choose them wisely. It will serve you well by making for more powerful dialogue, and by improving the flow of your script.

http://www.afi.com/100years/quotes.aspx

Make it Yours

Be the only one that can make your movie!

"A lot of people wanted to hear my story and they said that it would make for a good movie. I insisted on writing it." -Antwone Fisher

Survival of the fittest is a law that governs all life forms on this planet. While the human race may have evolved beyond the primitive tendencies of hunting, gathering, and procreating, the nature of the film industry can be boiled down to animalistic instincts; the weak suffer while the strong survive in the brutal fight to the fresh meat. And with hords of aspiring writers, directors, cinematographers, you name it, all trying to fight their way into the business, education alone is not enough to stand out on this battle field. To make a name for yourself you need to find what it is that you have to offer that will set you apart.

This idea is daunting when considered on a broad scale. I have asked myself in desperation “what do I have that makes me special?” I struggled with this uncertainty for quite some time before finding an answer, and it is one that everyone can benefit from.

Make every movie your own. Before starting on any project, lay out all of the variables and analyze them on a personal level. What is the world? Who are the characters? What is the tone? The themes? What are the complications?… How can I infuse all of these aspects with my own personality? What experience do I have that I can draw from in bringing this to life? What about this is my own?

"One of the things I do, which I think always surprises the studios, is I demand to go back and redo the primary research... I went out to Pahrump, Nevada, where there's a six-hundred-acre course, and I crawled around in the dirt for a few days and I shot and shot and shot and shot." -Jonathan Lemkin

Now I’m not saying that every script you write should be a memoir, or that every film you make should border on documentary. But what I am suggesting is that you find a way to relate as deeply to the material as possible, so that you know the story as if it was yours. If you cant relate to the emotional struggles of your widowed female lead, recall your first heartbreak, and the devastation of being alone and the struggle of moving on. Remember how amazing that perfect sunset was back on your family vacation to the Caribbean when you were thirteen. Feel the astonishment that flooded your senses as you took in the surreallness of the moment, and harness it while you find a way to get the perfect shot of whatever beauty the script calls for.

But most importantly, find that moment in your life that defined you. That experience that changed your out look and let you see life through a new lens. This is your most powerful tool in this industry; your own personal lens. It is more important than any camera filter, writing technique, or film making style you may have picked up along the way because it gives you the ability to let your work stand apart. When told through this lens, all of your stories will be distinctly your own. You can confidently write and sell a script knowing that it is unique from anything else out there. You can approach any film project knowing that you are the one for the job.

Every moment in your life, every accomplishment no matter how significant, every struggle no matter how big or small, every relationship you’ve had, has defined you. Now you must let it also define your work.

Dreaming big and often.

Acceptable movie, exceptional message.

This post will stray from my usual writing-centric additions, but I find it very important in a career of such uncertainty that you keep your goals and ambitions in the forefront of you mind. It is crucial in all walks of life to visualize everything that you hope to achieve, but in the arts, where certainty is near-fictional, aspiring professionals and established artists alike must not lose sight of the things they’re working towards. There will be many periods of struggle and ambiguity, when the strongest tool a writer can have is their hope and determination.

This isn’t an original concept by any means. Their is a plethora of inspirational and informative publications out there, urging people to think positively and frequently about what it is they want out of life. I was initially inspired by the popular film The Secret, which I would recommend to everyone, no matter their profession. Most recently, however, my screenwriting professor and friend Rose Cummings discussed the use of personal mission statements as a form of navigating through the industry’s trying nature.

While everyone will go about motivating themselves in a different manner, I am a strong believer in visualization. Be it the tropical paradise clipped to Max’s taxi visor in Collateral, or my own, more elaborate methods, seeing and believing is a key component in attracting everything you desire. Calling upon as many senses as possible when envisioning your future success will compliment the mental aspect of imagination greatly.

My daily que has taken on the form of a personally crafted desktop background. I compiled pictures that represent everything I plan to obtain, and creatively compiled a colorful, inspirational collage for my laptop. These images prompt brief day-dreaming every time I open my computer, but also rest in the background when I write, reminding me of this hopeful attitude periodically amidst my story telling efforts. I encourage everyone to find their own way of decorating their work area with visual cues, to keep their eye on the prize amidst their occasionally laborious efforts.

Pin your goals on the cork board of your mind.

Another form of daily encouragement that I’ve found successful is incorporating my wish list into a daily journal. I would encourage every writer to keep a journal, if they don’t already, because it allows for a filter-free method of expression. The prose of a journal is much more authentic and intimate than the writing style of a script, and since you know you will be the only one to read it, it opens up the opportunity for experimentation and creativity. Anyway, at the end of every entry, I include a little section dedicated to what I want at that moment. Yesterday’s entry, for example read; “What I want most today: Health, Friends, Success.” Other days the list has included words as simple as “subletters, final exam A, or successful interview.” It’s that simple. Just a few words to put your thoughts down on paper. Taking that little effort will strengthen the significance of the positive thoughts that drift through your mind throughout the day.

While these methods are time consuming, deliberate methods of focusing on attainment, it is also beneficial to passively remind yourself of these desires throughout the day. An aspiring young adult is constantly on the move throughout the day, so I employed the use of what is called a “gratitude rock,” which is mentioned in The Secret, though only in passing.

The purpose of the gratitude rock is a subtle method of keeping your thoughts on a positive track, no matter what struggles your day may put in your path. It can be whatever trinket you desire; a lucky coin, a fancy ring, or a well-word stone… In my case, it is a handblown bead tied to a string which I tie to my belt loop and keep in my pocket for easy access. I run my fingers across it during frustrating arguments, boring moments on the T, or in important meetings when a little determination can go a long way.

So think about what it is you want most out of life. Fine tune your wish list. Shop around the universe and pick out whatever it is that matters most. Get a good sense of your strongest desires and find whichever way works best for you to keep those goals present in your thoughts at all times. Once you know what you want, never let yourself lose sight of it. Never catch yourself thinking “I’ll never get there.” Just give it all you’ve got, both in attitude and in action, and eventually you will find yourself at the top of the metaphoric Philadelphia staircase, arms raised in triumph and mind soaring in pride of all you’ve accomplished. Then write about it…

Raise your arms in triumph

Where is the Love?

The rise in “Tent Pole” Rom-coms.

The new battle of the sexes...

The genres of film have seen a drastic shift over the past few decades. While my own writing is inspired by the rich characters and masterful themes of the classics, today’s blockbusters have left much to be desired. But while comic book heroes and worn out adaptations account for much of today’s popular releases, the genre that has peaked my curiosity the most lately is the modern day romantic comedy.

With such films as Love and Other Drugs, No Strings Attached, and the upcoming Friends with Benefits, today’s romantic comedies have thrown romance out the window in exchange for casual sex. Sam is no longer playing piano to recount fond memories, Sally’s diner orgasm has been one upped by many actresses’s climactic moans, and passionate emails have been replaced with horny text messages.

The Lost Art of Desire

It is hard to criticize this advance, however, as there is no arguing against the fact that these themes not only attract todays youth, but in many ways speak to the cultural acceptance of recreational sex. These films are telling it like it is in many ways, as the traditional plot of classic romantic comedies would generate a significant gap between themselves and their audience. Such liberated themes provide great comic opportunities as well. There is certainly something to be said for an actor’s ability to transition from an intense sexual expression to a juvenile boner joke with such fluidity, and it is moments like these that make such films so entertaining. I personally died laughing at Jake Gyllenhaal’s stubborn erection, as well as Natalie Portman’s infatuation with Kutcher’s “3-D” manhood. So the entertaining value of these films is present, but there is one industry wide shortcoming that resonates in these new sex-comedies.

The writing doesn’t convince me any more. I dont believe that our protagonists fall madly in love with their female co-stars based solely on the physicality displayed on screen. I am all for sexual chemistry and what not, but I still want dialogue that makes me fall in love with these characters. I want rich characters that come to life and make me all gooey inside. When I write romantic characters I try my best to make the audience want them to come through the screen and propose, but to be honest I found Hathaway’s character Maggie Murdoch to be irritating, and Portman’s Emma to be frustrating and insulting. So much time was spent sexualizing these women, that the only insight we had into their real characters came in the form of obstacles for our heros, which were naturally their flaws or hesitations. How is that attractive?

In this aspect I feel that the writers have sold them selves short. I think that they over looked the dramatic potential of emotional conflict that comes from longing, desire, and affection. They skipped right over the powerful stuff and jumped right in the sack. Be it as a means of raising the box office numbers by exploiting hot young stars, or by serving the demand of the audience, they didn’t pay enough attention to the good stuff. When it is presented, it’s stifled. Gylenhaal nearly has a heart attack trying to say “the L word,” and Portman stuffs her face full of doughnuts when she finally realizes what she lost.

I hope that romantic comedies can return to their prior glory. In the end, boy will always love girl, and girl will love boy, but I want to believe that what got us there was more than a string of orgasms. It will be hard to work these themes of sincere affection into today’s market, but it would be a shame to abandon America’s favorite genre on account of America’s favorite pass time.

The unacceptability of love in today's films.

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