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Archive for the ‘Screenwriting’ Category

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!

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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.

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.

Playing With Plot Points

Experimenting with the effectiveness of your script’s beats.

When writing in the three act structure, two plot points transition your script from act one to act two, and similarly from act two to act three. These events in your script are crucial to the progression of your plot, but also to the depth of your protagonist’s character and their relation to their surroundings. Each plot point can be anything from a single line of dialogue to lengthy sequence of actions, but not matter the form a plot point generates a major shift in the plot’s progression. In this way, the plot point can be a handy tool in developing your character, as it provides a specific and relevant look at how they react to situations. Any protagonist must have active instincts on some level or another, but this shift in pace is an excellent resource for demonstrating just how they go about actively pursuing their goals.

Because of the flexibility of writing, even in the apparently rigid structure of today’s scripts, a plot point can vary greatly in its effectiveness. A plot point which spans several scenes, for instance, sets a pace for the action that follows throughout act two. It would be difficult to follow this with a series of strong, quick progressions with a generally decisive and aggressive protagonist. A concise plot point, however, may illustrate a protagonist’s decisive nature and the urgency of action, propelling the hero into a series of demanding circumstances that move along at a fast clip.

Take for instance The Bourne Identity, in which Jason Bourne disarms several police at the embassy, and in doing so initiates a high-speed chase of a second act, in which he is constantly pursued by highly trained assassins and government agencies. This crucial turning point coincides with the pacing of the film, while also illustrating Bourne’s capabilities and decisive manner.

A drastically different approach is utilized in The Color of Money, in which Vincent is approached with the opportunity to travel and play pool with Fast Eddy Felson. His reaction is not abrupt, as with Jason Bourne, but instead spans a series of complications in which much of his decision hinges on the characters around him. This sets the tone for not only a less thrilling and more contemplative second act, but also introduces Vincent’s inability to act according to his own values, a thematic issue throughout the film.

So, when organizing your ideas and developing your script, I urge you to consider the effectiveness of your plot points. The first plot point will establish a great deal for the action to follow, while the second plot point will illustrate the progression of your protagonist’s character arch and the development of the plot. Try and experiment and see what feels right for your story, and explore the flexibility hidden within the three act structure!

 

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

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