Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Archive for March, 2011

The Beauty of Baumbach

Why I admire the screenwriting of Noah Baumbach.

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

Today’s films are saturated with over-the-top action sequences and flashy sexuality. The typical conventions of screenwriting have been sacrificed for commercial marketability that promises box-office success in the form of sexy casts and Deceptacons. While intimate, character driven scripts tell beautiful stories, rooted in human emotion and struggle, they don’t rake in the dollars at opening night the way a fast paced action thriller or star-studded Rom Com never fails to. Such well-crafted stories are so out of place that they are almost always produced outside of the studio system as “indie” projects, or by the smaller artsy studios such as Magnolia Pictures and Focus Features.

Throughout his years of filmmaking, writer/director Noah Baumbach has remained loyal to this exact kind of story telling. His screenwriting ignores the cheap tricks so overly utilized in today’s market, and instead focuses on crafting unique, rich characters and captivating stories rooted in simplicity and realism. While his most common criticism is that his films are too boring, I instead find them to be deeply fascinating for their ability to explore the most relatable of human emotions in a very original way.

His latest film, Greenberg, is no exception. This film follows a psychologically troubled man through his re-immersion back into society, and his efforts to do…nothing. The character of Greenberg is one riddled with insecurities and idiosyncrasies, but posses no spectacular traits of any kind. He is just a common man who suffered from intense anxiety issues that led to a nervous breakdown, and he is now learning to cope with these troubles on a daily basis. It is his struggles that allow the audience to sympathize with his character, as we can all recognize a piece of our own vulnerability amongst his complexity. It is this connection between the audience and the characters that provides a captivating element in a story that lacks fast paced action and suspense.

These conventions of storytelling are not new to film making. Instead, Baumbach is revitalizing the techniques of classic filmmaking of the 60’s and 70’s. Consider, for a moment, one of your favorite films from this time period. Does it showcase the intense action sequences of today’s popular movies? At a time when Hollywood didn’t have these cheap gimmicks at their disposal, they relied on the human realism in a fashion similar to Baumbach. They took their time developing their characters, their world, and their journey, in order to make the most fully developed and intriguing story possible. The resulting products gave us such masterpieces as The Godfather, Deerhunter, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde, just to name a few. All tremendous examples of screenwriting excellence, and all the product of minimal flash and pizzazz.

This is the sign of great screenwriting. If you haven’t already discovered Baumbach’s work I suggest you give it a glance. His Greenberg script is a very fun read which taught me a lot about character development and emotional insight. Among his other notable scripts are; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Margot at the Wedding. All are written in Baumbach’s intimate style and are very helpful in terms if story development.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Seeing The Big Picture

Enriching your script through filmmaking awareness.

Michael Mann, master of mixed media

Film is a fantastic form of visual art. Like all visual mediums, film offers the viewer imagery to perceive and interpret thoughtfully. What distinguishes film from these other forms of artistic expression is its ability to utilize so many complimenting works of art in order to tell its story. While the screenwriter employs the creative fiction trade, the cinematographer utilizes techniques of photography, just as the sound design team practices the musical art and the talent practices the art of acting. In creating a film, the filmmaker must capitalize on these contributions abilities to best serve the final product.

Because of this collaboration of mediums, it is important that all contributors keep in mind every piece that fits in to the film making puzzle. This applies most appropriately to the writing stages. Since writing is the first step in telling this visual story, having an acute awareness, as a screenwriter, of how a scene will be choreographed, sound tracked, shot and edited is essential to a film’s success. Even the most beautiful story can fall flat if it does not translate from the page to the screen effectively. This is the very reason that so many fantastic books have turned in to such lousy movies.

It is this awareness to which I attribute many great filmmakers success. In many cases, when a film is written, directed, and produced or edited by one man, the film tends to have a genuine feel to it that may be drastically lacking in other movies. Take for instance Michael Mann. Say what you will about his movies, which have received mixed reviews, but one thing you can never say is that they don’t feel real. Mann rewrites scripts based on the ideas he brings to the table as a director/producer, and goes about making his films in the most authentic ways possible. He usually shoots on digital cameras, making his shots seem that much more life like, and he crafts characters and settings so distinct that they come to life before your eyes. To top it all off, Mann has a masterful way of sound tracking films that sends chills down my spine every time I watch them. Take for instance the scene from Collateral, which man discusses below. This scene captures the emotion of the entire film through its use of cinematography, acting, and sound tracking. As we learn from Mann’s comments, this scene was incredibly premeditated from the writing stage onward.

So, when writing a screenplay, one should constantly be considering everything that will go in to bringing the story to life. We all sit down to write with this incredible idea. We can feel the magical aura of the scenery and the tension between two characters, but it is finding a way to externalize these senses that is what screenwriting is all about. All of the minute visual details, the dramatic music that comes in after that heavy line of dialogue, and the way the light hits the actor’s face when he saves the heroine from her demise play an important role in this process. I myself have a tendency to visualize each shot down to the most technical details. I have recently used this technique to improve my cinematic writing by recognizing how each action is shot and breaking my scene direction down accordingly.

While many of the things that I consider would never find their way on to the page, it has proven incredibly beneficial in setting the tone for my writing. Let’s face it, the director doesn’t want your input on what kind of underwear the character has on, but it might make all the difference if you realize that your protagonist is irritated by an uncomfortable wedgie, or is happy as can be with his choice to go commando on a breezy summer afternoon.

"You can tell a lot about a person by the kind of drawers they wear." - Van Wilder

So, the next time you get stuck trying to depict that magical sensation of your scene, take into consideration all of the complimenting art forms that the film will employ to bring that scene to life. You will start to watch as the scene takes shape in your head, and with any luck the words will start flowing with perfect details to set the tone.


Buddies Know Best

How the buddy relationship can serve your script.

We’re on a mission from God…

Different types of characters have served many different purposes in screenwriting. As a general rule of thumb, any character must serve the protagonist in some purpose or another. Whether it is the antagonist exposing the hero’s weaknesses, or the outsider serving as a source of expositional information, these characters have little significance beyond their duty to the scripts main character.

This makes the buddy dynamic a very fun and interesting strategy in screenwriting. The two buddy characters usually share a common goal, making their independence as characters a bit excessive, but it is the way that they serve each other as independent protagonists that makes this technique worth while. In a buddy film, the audience tends to learn the most about each character from the perspective of the other buddy. We also watch a relationship that is appealing and generally comedic.

This function can spill into genres other than the typical buddy film, when close friends, siblings, or partners in action have such a close relationship that their interactions reveal the most minute character details. This of course makes each character that much more realistic for the audience, and their goals that much more relatable.

In the effort to avoid sounding redundant, Ill avoid the obvious example of Butch and Sundance. So, consider, for example, this scene from The Shawshank Redemption, in which Red’s response to Andy’s opinions act as a means of further exploring these feelings. Without Red, Andy’s explanation of his reliance on “hope” would read as on the nose dialogue, and would seem awkward. It is Red’s insight into this emotional explanation that makes this scene feel so natural.

Such excellent examples of what I’ll call “the buddy insight” work their way into films of all genres. Think of your favorite film and imagine it without the protagonist’s best friend or sidekick. The character would be noticeably flatter and therefor less appealing.

So I encourage you to explore the possibility of a buddy in your own script. Whether it is a true brotherly bond story, or a sappy rom-com, Im confident that a close relationship could bring your character to life if utilized properly.

Your Line on the Horizon

Working with your setting to bring the story to life.

In Syd Feild’s Screenwriter’s Corner, he discusses the potential of using the properties of an action sequence to craft the arch of the scene. I was thinking about this insight while working on my own script’s revision last night, and found that visualizing the setting brought a lot not only to my action sequences, but my story as a whole. Now it may seem obvious that the writer’s job is to know everything in their scene’s location, but thinking about it the way Mr. Feild suggested seems almost backwards and definitely brought a new dimension to my understanding of each scenes dramatic action.

Taking his advice I started thinking about the spacial movement that had to take place amongst scenes, and started placing my character’s motions and dialogue along that timeline. I started paying attention to where the characters would be when they reacted to certain lines, what prop could best compliment their emotional expression, and how the scenery could enhance the mood of the scene, rather than how the scene could work in a specific location.

When it came to my action scene, I could totally visualize how the scene would fit into the movements that had to be made based on the physical space.

I thought about how this technique may have come in handy in one of my all time favorites; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This scene is a great example of how an entire scene is dictated almost entirely by the character’s surroundings, after that its just up to the screenwriter to craft the dialogue in a witty manner and “make the plunge” if you will…

Screenwriting is a trade of building a world within your writing, so I had a bit of fun working backwards and shaping my writing around my world. Give it a shot some time and see how you like it.

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