Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Archive for June, 2011

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.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

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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