Tough Reader, Good Advice

"Mike has a superb knowledge, love and understanding of film. He does his work with integrity and passion."

Kristin Overn
Executive Director
The PAGE International
Screenwriting Awards

"To be honest, the money I have spent on these reports ($50 for each one) has been some of the best money I have ever spent. "


Mina Zaher
Journey of a Screenwriter

"Michael Lee is the most knowledgable, thorough and professional screenplay analyst in the business!"

John Vincent
Executive Director
Hollywood Screenplay Contest





Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Insider's Guide Available

The Insider's Guide to Screenwriting is available from the PAGE Awards

I authored the chapter on Structure.

Buy a copy today!

NEW CONTEST: National Student Film Association UK

National Student Film Association Announces Free Screenwriting Competition

Today the National Student Film Association (NSFA) invites all student film-makers to submit their short film scripts to the National Student Screenwriting Competition. The competition is run in partnership with the BFI and boasts a host of professional judges including BAFTA winner Asitha Ameresekere, the organisers of the London Screenwriters' Festival, and board members of Euroscript and Women in Film and Television.

The competition is aimed at UK students of all kinds who are looking for a career in film but have not yet had the chance to present their work to industry professionals. Not only does the competition offer fantastic prizes such as a mentoring meeting at BAFTA as well as BFI and IMAX vouchers, but students will also have the opportunity to get their scripts read by two members of the high calibre jury.


Competition judge Asitha Ameresekere commented, "This is a fantastic opportunity for students to expose their work to members of the industry and gain invaluable experience in the competitive screenwriting business. I am very excited to be part of the NSFA competition and look forward to supporting outstanding new talent."


The competition is hosted online at Circalit, an online platform for aspiring writers, where all the entries will be visible to the public, and talent scouts will be paying close attention to the winning writers.

Raoul Tawadey, CEO of Circalit, commented, "The NSFA are doing student film makers a great service by connecting young artists with industry professionals. Starting a career in film can be a difficult process and the gap between writing your first screenplay and seeing your work produced can be very daunting. I hope this competition and the work that the NSFA are doing will give students the opportunity to kick start a career in the film industry.”


Screenplay submissions can be up to five pages long and of any genre. The deadline is the 7th November 2010. For more information please visit, www.studentfilm.org.uk


Contact
Franzi Florack
franzi.florack@studentfilm.org.uk


www.studentfilm.org.uk
www.facebook.com/#!/NSFAUK
www.twitter.com/NSFAUK

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Writing the Found Footage Horror

This is an adjunct to my blog on the Wrap.com about the Found Footage Horror genre. Check that out to learn the rules and tropes of the genre here we’ll talk about using them in a script. Found Footage will almost certainly continue to be a hot genre for the next years. What that means for the writer is that every knucklehead with a version of Final Draft will be banging out his version and sending it in. How are you going to make yours stand out from the pile?

Once again MASSIVE SPOILERS on Last Exorcism.

The Beginning

As I cover in my blog, Last Exorcism nailed its opening. Previously everyone had been going the Blair Witch route. They’d just have people milling about aimlessly on a loose journey to…somewhere. Then the demon or the Cloverfield monster would disrupt their lives and that’s the fun would start. But it was teeth grating to get to that part in Blair Witch, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity and it probably looked even worse on the page. Last Exorcism presented a new paradigm, borrow from real documentaries. They give us a character who is interesting and they quickly show why he’s interesting. In just a few short minutes we get a look at who Cotton Marcus is, his history and why he’s so fascinating (a preacher who may not believe in God) and then we’re off on the exorcism of the title. It not only gives us a good character it gets us on the road and headed towards trouble faster than any other Found Footage I can think of. Writer’s should definitely take a look at this opening. It’s like a journalism piece. It leads with the headline, or at least what the fictional documentary makers thought would be their headline. If you were writing a documentary your first job would be identify your subject and tell us why he’s worth watching. That’s really a good tip for any kind of writing.

Foreshadowing

It’s a little heavy handed but it makes people chuckle. Both Last Exorcism and Blair Witch use interviews with the locals to foreshadow their endings. It sounds outrageous but it turns out to be 100% true. This type of foreshadowing is used in fiction a lot (as a fan of George R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice I am eagerly awaiting the appearance of the giant ice spiders) But it’s not something that appears too often in films. It’s up to the writer whether or not he wants to use this technique. Right now it’s cool. It will eventually make audiences groan so if you’re going to use it, best use it in the next few years.

Atmosphere

One thing restricts Found Footage is you usually can’t pile on the dead bodies and mayhem until the very end. If these fictional cameramen start seeing people die they’re not going to hang around. They’re going to book it to the nearest police station. So things have to proceed with more subtleness. Instead of the growing body count of a slasher film the writer has to up the creepiness factor bit by bit. In Last Exorcism, Nell appears to be suffering from schizophrenia. It’s not until late that we hear two voices coming out of her room. The exception to this rule is if you’re doing a REC/Cloverfield story where the characters are trapped in an area that’s under siege by zombies or giant space aliens.

Use the Medium to Your Advantage

Some of the creepiest moments from Found Footage movies are aural in nature. There are the voices in Last Exorcism and that baby crying in the distance in Blair Witch. And who can forget the sound of the monster stomping by the store in Cloverfield? Yes, that had a visual component as well but it started as just a noise. Visual shocks can work very well in the medium because they have the illusion of being real, but they tend to be so powerful that they’re best saved for the end.

Kill Everyone

Don’t forget to leave no survivors. This is Found Footage after all. The people who shot this did not survive. Generally it’s not until the very end that the characters all die like in Last Exorcism, Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. Just remember it’s always a single camera being operated by one of our characters. He’s not going to hang around and give you a perfectly framed shot of one of his friends being killed (which is why foreshadowing is a good thing!) The one exception is when the camera man gets killed like in Cloverfield where the poor shlub is obviously paralyzed with fear giving us our first clear extended shot of the monster’s face…right before he eats the character.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Machiavelli part 2 and 1/2: Some Thoughts and Words of Warning

Since I started this blog on Machiavelli, it's been eye interesting to then go and observe recent moves in Hollywood or re-examine moves in the past.

Recent news that Edward Norton has been replaced as the Hulk for the Avengers movie really got me thinking. Some people may think that it's a cost saving move. Others may say it's karma, payback for Norton's past bad behavior. In way that's true. Norton has behaved badly in the past. In particular however he had a habit of rewriting his own lines. According to sources, Norton would show up on The Score with new dialogue he'd written that night. He'd tell director Frank Oz that these were the lines he'd be using that day, end of argument. I don't know if that was his modus operandi on the set of the last Hulk movie, but if it was then his firing makes perfect Machiavellian sense. The director on the Avengers is Joss Whedon, a man who knows a few things about writing. Marvel and Whedon probably decided better not give him the opportunity to test their power so they cut him off when he was weakest, before cameras started rolling.

Then there's the case of Joe Carnahan. As you'll remember, Joe and his handpicked screenwriter were the last men standing after 9 others had taken their swings at writing The A-Team. That minor victory proved to be a major defeat as it left no one other than Carnahan to take the fall when the movie failed. The only other culprit could have been the producers who greenlit the project in the first place. That was never going to happen.

Then there's the case of Jerry Bruckheimer, one of Hollywood's most successful producers. It's fascinating that you don't see his name associated with a lot of projects based on established material. Or at least nothing so popular that the writer would have a lot of power coming in. He hasn't made a superhero movie. He hasn't taken on a YA fantasy series. He has produced movies like those, but they are always original creations he can control. Rather than have to deal with Dan Brown he made National Treasure. Rather than deal with Marvel, he adapted a Disney theme park ride. Who's going to complain about what he does in that series? The guy who built the ride when the park opened? In his behavior you can see Machiavelli at work. He's avoiding possible confrontations with people who might wield as much or more power during the process like Stephanie Meyers or J.K. Rowling.

All this comes with a warning. Machiavelli, a lot of people forget, was often talking about a zero sum game. That is you win or you die. That was the case for a Renaissance prince. That's not the case here. Your career is not zero sum. There are degrees of success. Plenty of people play power politics and at some point, if your career goes anywhere you will have make a stand. But most of the time you should be able to take your money and your credit and walk away with a smile on your face. If you keep playing all or nothing, sooner or later you will end up with nothing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Machiavelli’s The Prince and Screenwriting Part 2

Continuing the discussion on how Machiavelli’s The Prince can help the screenwriter’s career. It’s obvious when you read Nikki Finke or the Hollywood Reporter, when you hear about how Robin Hood was mucked up or how The A Team needed 11 different writers, it’s obvious; screenwriters have very little power. Take this post from Hollywood Roaster. It’s not real, but it’s a “funny because it’s true” joke.

If somebody gets screwed in the process, you better believe it’s the writer. There is very little to do about it early on in your career. They’ll throw a bunch of money at you then tell you to get lost. By their way of thinking the writer should be glad for just getting a paycheck and his opportunity. And that’s not wrong. The paychecks for features are BIG and you can’t have a career until start one. But after you start, then you need to look out for number one, and try to take as little of number two as possible. So how does old Nicky M suggest we proceed?

To start you need to understand two very important things. There’s the script and then there’s your career as a screenwriter. They are two entirely different things. Writers tend to conflate one with the other. An individual script is (hopefully) one of many. Fighting too many battles early is a sure way to get a “difficult” label attached. Now everyone in the movie business is difficult. Just ask the assistants or the security guards at the gate. When a person is labeled as Difficult it’s because the value he or she adds to the project is lesser than the amount of problems they add. If you add enough value to a project the studios will put up with anything up to and including major felonies.

4 Why the Kingdom of Darius, Occupied by Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against the Successors of the Latter After His Death


In Machiavelli’s day there were two types of kingdoms, those which were absolute monarchies and those that were more feudal in nature. Feudal kingdoms were easier to conquer, he said, but harder to hold on to whereas absolute monarchies were just the opposite. How does this apply to the screenwriter? Look at the A-Team. 11 writers worked on that. That’s a lot like a feudal kingdom. In a situation like that it’s easy to get hired on as writer number 7 or 8. The trick is to be the last writer standing. In the case of the A-Team the last writer was a friend of the director. Directors are like the absolute monarchs. Announcing a director puts a project on track. If he leaves it usually derails the entire works. It’s not that easy to get a directing job. You have to have the track record that’s worthy of the purposed budget. There are plenty of projects languishing in Hollywood because the director attached is no longer considered as bankable. Because of this it’s hard to become a director and harder still to remove one from the project.

5. The Way to Govern Cities or Dominions, That, Previous to Being Occupied Lived Under Their Own Laws


When those state which have been acquired are accustomed to liver at liberty under their own laws, there are three ways of holding them. The first is to despoil them; the second is to go and live there in person; the third is to allow them to live under their own laws...

This might be the second best known tenet of Machiavelli’s next to, “It is better to be feared than loved.” It’s certainly an idea that gets put into practice a lot in business. Usually when there’s a takeover what follows is a purge. Out with the old team and their projects, in with the new. That is certainly the case in the entertainment industry where a change in management usually spells doom for the projects already under development. It also happens in writing especially. This is why there isn’t anything left in the movie Robin Hood from the smart and very original screenplay Nottingham. As soon as a new writer was brought on, the first thing he did was scrap what had been done before and come up with something new. Artistically it’s indefensible. The practice has resulted in some the worst, most disjointed Franken-scripts in Hollywood history. Yet it’s a sound career tactic. As Machiavelli says, “And whoever becomes the ruler of a free city and does not destroy it, can expect to be destroyed by it…” Unless you are absolutely secure in your relationship with the producer, director and star of the project, in which case you probably would have been the original writer, then you need to make a mark and demonstrate what value you can add. If you spend your time praising the work of the previous writers you’ll probably join them as previous writers.

6. Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired by One’s Own Arms and Ability
7. Of New Dominions Acquired by the Power of Others or by Fortune
8. Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy
9. Of the Civic Principality
11. Of Ecclesiastical Principalities


Machiavelli spends these chapters talking about how kingdoms are acquired. They all boil down to the same advice however; secure a power base, neutralize or eliminate those who could prove a threat, always strive to be top dog in the pack. Of special mention is chapter 8 Of Those Who Have Attained the Position of Prince by Villainy. Why is this important to remember? Because no matter how good you are you’ll always be a villain to somebody. Never more so than when your work actually starts getting made. It will start with the internet trolls, the people who swoop in on discussion boards and talk crap. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Get used to the idea that somewhere out there there’s a group of people laughing at or hating on a story you sweated bullets to get just right. And it can spread. Look at Ehren Kruger. You’d think he ran over somebody’s puppy. But as long as you make preparations and not get caught up in the negativityyour career will continue. (Interesting here is Kruger is now pissing off the actors which could spell doom for that career of his if he’s not careful)


10. How the Strength of All states Should Be Measured


And whoever has strongly fortified his town and, as regards the of his subjects, has proceeded as we have already described and will further relate, will be attacked with great reluctance, for men are always averse to enterprises in which they foresee difficulties,…

That last part should be framed over everyone’s head, “…men are always averse to enterprises in which they foresee difficulties,…” Universal truth. I know, you hear a lot about the great entrepreneurial spirit of America, that just means we’ve 1 in 10 who are willing to take on a difficult project whereas in the rest of the world it’s more like 1 in a 100. Odds are if there’s any great difficulty attached to a project, large budget, difficult shooting conditions, no name actors, it probably won’t get made. Unless of course it’s more difficult to NOT make the project. Harry Potter 7 could have cost half a billion dollars and it was still going to be made. Ideally you want to, as much as possible, make it hard for studios to pass up your project. This is especially true today. You have to do more than minimize the reasons to say “No.” You have to make it potentially hazardous for them to pass up on it. Today that means established properties; getting your story published first as a novel or a comic book. Marvel Comics went direct to video fare to its own studio in less than a decade. Harry Potter and Twilight are destroying box office records. Those who can create material and build a following have a huge advantage over screenwriters with just a spec. They have advantages over producers and even studios if the fanbase is big enough. Can you imagine what would happen to a studio exec who tried to step on J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyers? It’s an odd set of circumstances that exist right now. On one hand Hollywood has all but shut down the spec market, limiting opportunities for writers. On the other they’re obsession with established material gives certain writers more power than ever.

Next Post Part 3

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Teaser Trailer for Raymond Did It

A few months ago I interviewed Travis Legge about his upcoming horror project Raymond Did It. Well he's wrapped and here is the teaser trailer.




I love slashers. They're a guilty pleasure of mine. This looks like a good one!

Congratulations, Travis.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Machiavelli’s The Prince and Screenwriting Part 1

Machiavelli’s The Prince is the classic book on strategy and skullduggery. For centuries it’s been used as a guide for leaders, politicians and businessmen. But can it help a screenwriter navigate the sharks in Hollywood?

Yes, if you make a few allowances.

1 The Various Kinds of Government and the Ways by Which They Are Established.


All states and dominions which hold or have held sway over mankind are either republics or monarchies.

Machiavelli says in his next chapter that he’ll only be talking about how monarchies operate. This is good because when a screenwriter negotiates with a producer, a star or a director he is essentially talking to a king or a queen. Businesses are essentially monarchies. There a boss and what he says goes. He might be restrained by corporate bylaws but that’s nothing compared to the constant haggling a democratically elected official has to engage in. The good news is that as soon as you sell your screenplay you’ve joined the aristocracy. There are four pillars that make up a movie, the producer, the director, the star, and the screenwriter. Editors and DP’s might be hugely important but they rarely if ever get a seat at the big table. The bad news is that out of the four pillars, the screenwriter is the most junior and the most replaceable. Writers are replaced at the drop of a hat. Going in you have to be aware that yours is the weakest hand.

2. Of Hereditary Monarchies


…the difficulty in maintaining hereditary states accustomed to a reigning family is far less than in new monarchies; for it is sufficient not to transgress ancestral usages, and to adapt oneself to unforeseen circumstances…
No your kids won’t actually inherit your position as screenwriter, though they’ll have an easier time breaking in. But a year is a lifetime in Hollywood. After just a few sales you will have become known for a particular kind of writing. Therefore anyone who has that kind of a project is going to look to you first. Usually after just one sale your reps will be inundated with offers. You’ll be offered Chainsaw Sorority Part IV because you wrote Lifeguard Massacre III. As Mackey says, these gigs are easy to maintain as long as you meet expectations. The problem arises when you want to break out of your niche. William Peter Blatty is a prime example. Blatty started out as a comedy writer. He wrote A Shot in the Dark which essentially created the whole Pink Panther franchise. But by the late sixties he was tired of comedy and wanted to write a horror story. Studio execs wouldn’t even look at his horror writing so in frustration he turned to print publishing. He wrote The Exorcist which became a bestseller. Ironically he then tried to go back to comedy only to then find himself trapped in the horror niche.

3. Of Mixed Monarchies


But it is in the new monarchy that difficulties really exist.
And here’s where we start to get into the nitty gritty. The real meat of how to begin your career and lay the proper foundations.

Thus you find enemies in all those whom you have injured by occupying that dominion, and you cannot maintain the friendship of those who have helped you to obtain this possession, as you will not be able to fulfill their expectations, nor can you use strong measures with them, being under an obligation to them;…

You have enemies. Get used to the idea. The second somebody said “yes” to your project it meant saying “no” to a dozen others. Those projects had their own champions inside the company and, if they’re any good at all, they won’t miss a chance to advance their project at the expense of yours and your reputation. And you can’t expect your own champions to leap to your defense. They’ve already done you a huge favor getting you this far. So what do you do?

…you will always need the favor of the inhabitants to take possession of a province.
Get your name out there and start building your following. This is a real problem for most screenwriters. Novelists understand this much better and are better equipped for it. But before the ink dries on your first contract you should be out there and putting a human face to your words. Whatever your story is, there’s already a huge fanbase out there (otherwise you wouldn’t have made a deal) start giving interviews. Look for fan sites more than screenwriting sites. People who read screenwriting sites are your competition. People who read fan sites are your potential customers. Yeah the whole world is skeptical of social media’s influence. They point to many cases where internet interest didn’t match real interest. Maybe but even if they are skeptical of praise, they’re still terrified of criticism. The Wonder Woman movie essentially bit the dust the moment Joss Whedon was removed from the project. The producers may well have had a script they loved but the Whedonites would have torched it nonstop from the start.

But when dominions are acquired in a province differing in language, laws, and customs, the difficulties to be overcome are great, and it requires good fortune as well as great industry to retain them; one of the best and most certain means of doing so would be for the new ruler to take up residence there.

Once you get the money, move to LA. Yeah it’s expensive but even a first time feature contract is worth a LOT of money. It’ll probably be a few years before you can afford that house in Beverly Hills, but get your behind over to Los Angeles pronto. The language and laws of movieland are unlike anything else that exists. Often the difference between staying on a projecting and being replaced is a few words at a party. Yeah in the past there guys who wrote from Michigan or Wisconsin, but where are they now? The guy who wrote Top Gun never set foot in California and look at the result. Nearly everyone else involved is a household name, Tom Cruise, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott. Where’s the screenwriter? Did he get screwed or did he screw himself?

Further, the ruler of a foreign province as described, should make himself the leader and defender of his less powerful neighbors, and endeavor to weaken his stronger ones,…
As I said earlier the writer is in the weakest position at the start of a project. Of all the principal members he’s the one who can be replaced without making any fuss unless he or she has worked to establish a fan following. Nevertheless the writer has made a tremendous gain. He has conquered his own little kingdom and Machiavelli’s advice comes into play. A writer should strive to make himself the friend of the smaller fish in the pond. First there are the fans. Then there the assistants and secretaries that make up a huge part of any production company. These people will one day be producers and execs themselves and believe me, they love it when you buy a round at the bar. Then there are the other members of the production, the DP, the editor, the Unit Production Manager, the Casting Director, the Assistant Director, the other actors. It’s really important to get to know these people. Even if a dozen other writers are called on to the project, make sure you get a set pass and use it. Why? You want to learn everything about the business for one. You want to be able to talk the lingo and have a few stories of your own to tell. Secondly you want to learn how to make a movie. That’s because there’s only one way to weaken a director and that is to become one yourself. The same goes for the producer. In fact you’ll probably add “producer” to your business card right away. Nearly all writers form companies so they don’t get reamed by the IRS. But a real canny writer will use his company for more than just a shelter. He’ll actually learn the ropes of producing and distributing. It’s a lot harder to disentangle an agreement between two companies than to just replace a writer. Above all the writer should be looking to direct his or her feature debut as soon as possible. While you’re at it, make sure to give yourself at least a one line cameo in the film. The smartest thing Tarantino ever did was get in front of the camera, thereby putting a face to his writing and his directing. You come in as a credible producer and director and maybe even as a credible actor you monopolize the project.

Next Week Part 2

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Final Word on the Robin Hood Debacle

Feels strange calling a film that’s made over $100 million worldwide a debacle, but there it is. The $250 million epic might not break even and there’s certainly not going to be any Oscar love for this Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott project. And while I think Gladiator is one of the most overrated Oscar winners of all time (it’s 200 AD, people drop dead from disease all the time, but Commodus can’t poison Maximus and be done with it?) but what’s really getting all the attention, at least in film blogging circles, is the screenplay and how that was butchered.

Claude Brodesser-Akner has excellent piece in the NY Times Magazine detailing all the changes of fortune. To sum up Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reif, creators of Sleeper Cell, came up with a script called Nottingham which was Robin Hood from the perspective of the Sheriff of Nottingham. It combined the costume swashbuckler with elements of crime procedurals, CSI: Middle Ages.

I’ll just go over some of the most important points from the article:

Most studios and producers immediately passed on the Nottingham script when it hit their in-boxes in January 2007. It was set in the twelfth century (expensive!), it wasn’t based on a toy, board game, or action figure (Robin who?), and so far, it had no big-name talent interested.

This fits with everything I’ve heard about the spec market. Budget matters to the big guys. If you’re a new writer or even an established pair like Voris and Reif, they’re still looking for a reason to say “no.” If your story needs castles, costumes and hundreds of extras, that a pretty big reason to say “no.”

But four days after the spec script went out — an eternity in Hollywood development — it caught fire:

Here’s where Voris and Reif’s world differs from mine. Four days isn’t that long for a new writer. Four WEEKS isn’t that long. I can’t imagine how many screenwriters read that article and became paranoid that they didn’t get the phone call 24 hours later. If they called back faster than that I’d be wondering if they actually read the damn thing.

By the next Monday, Crowe had read the Nottingham script and attached himself as the Sheriff.

This reveals the big truth in Hollywood. Stars and directors are where the power lies. Never forget that writers. You’re not safe unless an A-Lister has your back, and even then it’s not a sure thing. Crash got made because Don Cheadle loved the script and got his friends to sign on. If you’re really interested in protecting the material, get an actor or director on your side.

Interviewed in the Sunday Times of London in April of this year, Scott told a reporter that the original premise was “fucking ridiculous” and that “you’d end up spending 80% of the publicity budget explaining why it was Nottingham and not just Robin Hood.”

Scott’s going to get a lot of hate from writers for this one and rightfully so. I’m going to go slightly against the grain and say he’s not entirely wrong. I have a hard time picturing Nottingham as a HUGE tentpole picture. It strikes me a smaller more modest budget effort where the production values aren’t going to drown out the nuance. The higher the budget goes, usually the more simple the script becomes. See Avatar as example A.

So again, for those keeping score: As the cameras rolled, Stoppard was rewriting Helgeland's rewrite of Webb's rewrite of Helgeland's rewrite of Voris and Reif's original script, which started out with the complete inverse of the present concept.

Now let’s be clear, this situation ISN’T new. And if we’re being honest the screenwriters of Hollywood aren’t against it. The established screenwriters encourage this kind of behavior. Helgeland probably could have stopped everything and saved everyone a lot of dough by saying “This is a great story. You’d be nuts to not want to shoot it.” But that would have meant passing up his own big paycheck. Certainly the Guild isn’t going to object to a system that results in paydays for FIVE different writers. The career goal of most writers now is to be the Helgeland, the Webb or the Stoppard. To be the guy called in to “clean up the mess.”

Finally don’t feel too bad for Voris and Reif. They got their payday. They have story by credit on a summer blockbuster. And the way things work, they’re next deal will be north of 1.5 million. If they really want to see their story in the big screen, better turn it into a novel and hope it becomes a bestseller.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Script Coverage Way Back Machine

Looking through some of the coverage I’ve done over the years I’ve picked out some doozies to share. This should give you an idea of what to expect. Script readers can come from anywhere. They range from studio readers who are unionized and VERY well compensated to unpaid interns. It’s a wide variety of people and we’re often given a wide variety of scripts to read. Here’s a sampling of coverages past. As in Dragnet, names have been changed to protect the innocent. I’m sharing these so you’ll have a better idea what the process is like. Once again these are from years back and NOT any recent scripts I have read.

THE BAD

When you’re doing coverage for a production company you don’t mind a bad script. In fact you’re kind of relishing it. That’s because your coverage isn’t going to the reader so you can really cut loose. Here’s my comment section for a vampire story I read.

This is THE worst script I’ve read for XXX. The writer has no clue what he’s doing at all. Everything right down to the formatting is wrong. The entire script is one 125 page long first act. It’s not a stand alone story….. The story starts off not bad, just cliched, introducing the archeological dig and DRACULA in prison. But DRACULA talks exactly like Yoda. Even Yoda can’t talk like Yoda anymore without it sounding stupid. The scene shifts to CROCKET and TUBBS and it quickly goes downhill. Even though they’re on stakeout they go into a dialogue scene that lasts 6 2/8 pages, during which everything is spelled out about their characters; the fact that they’re foster brothers, that TUBBS has no faith left in human kind, yadda yadda.…. CALDERONE’S present turns out to be some kind of spell book called the Kobe. Yeah as in Lakers’ forward. Forgetting the name for a moment, even though this book appears to be important it’s about to completely disappear along with CALDERONE until page 100! The gun battle that follows is drawn out and mostly meaningless. The story hasn’t really begun. This has nothing to do with DRACULA, why bother? Afterwards the boys are finally put on DRACULA’S trail. They start looking over the shattered prison and reviewing his case file on page 58! Something they should have done by page 10! By page 70 they’re just beginning to follow his trail of corpses. Finally after a needlessly expensive chase they finally meet DRACULA and learn he’s more than human at page 87! It’s taken the writer the length of a regular movie to get to what could be considered the first act break. From then on it’s a lot of talk until the big fight at the end which isn’t really the end. The writer apparently doesn’t know that even though its part of a trilogy, each film has to be its own, COMPLETE story.
Ah classic. This was an easy case of the writer not thinking much beyond his concept. But that’s really a softball. When a writer forgets every part of the story it’s easy. It’s harder when the writer has some talent and experience. Here’s one, a thriller, that actually showed some promise.

Not a bad mystery. Just not anything great. A real problem is that we never get to know JACK or JILL. I have no idea what JACK is normally like or JILL. They're nothing but victims from the word go. I guess this is supposed to make them sympathetic, but the results are more pathetic than sympathetic. The whole screenplay feels a little light. Like there's not as much material as 116, it's just formatted wrong…The mystery itself and the detective work were merely serviceable. Nothing outstanding was added to the genre. So in short, bland characters, bland storyline, no reason to go any further.

A little harsh maybe, the writer did have some good points, but he failed in the Holy Trinity of script coverage, Character, Plot, and Concept. At least ONE has to be better than good before a reader would even consider giving it a CONSIDER. Of the three character is probably the one I most notice when I’m reading. Take this PASS on a thriller that actually won an award.

I nearly gnawed off my own leg to get through this one. Just awful. The entire story consists of three very annoying people constantly yammering at each other. Every little detail is hashed out and ridiculed over and over again. Nothing much happens until the final chase at page 100. Who’s going to stick around that long?

Bottom line, I’m taking several hours out of my life to read this script. I want to spend it with characters I at least find interesting.

THE NOT BAD

In my younger days I was actually quite forgiving. I handed out a lot of CONSIDERS back then. Surprisingly I still became the favored reader at this company. CONSIDERS are really and usually handed out to high concept stories. In those days I was more interested in writer quality. Here’s a comedy that feature Elvis Presley.

A lot of style and a lot of humor in the opening. This is a wild ride through 1950's Memphis at first. Unfortunately it gets a little predictable with the crazy scheme in the middle. Then after BORIS, whose a great villain, gets killed the script almost completely stops dead in its tracks. Oh there’s plenty to be resolved, but without BORIS menacing presence there’s just no urgency. Towards the end this felt a little bit like an I Love Lucy skit…Basically the last 30 pages have to be completely redone. But this is a quirky ride and might be worth the trip.

Sometimes style can get you points. But the secret with that story was the writer created great characters, he just let the engine of his story die 30 pages too soon. Then there was this, a Rom-Com set in an Evangelical Church.

Not that bad really. ROMEO and JULIET are nice characters that you can root for. On top of that the writer manages to have some pretty good pratfalls and gross out humor. There's a scene with LUCY hiding in a trash can that would do the Faralley Brothers proud…The plot pretty much follows Rom-Com 101, with the meet cute, the build up, leading to the Misunderstanding and reconcile. I do like the church forum idea used in the resolution. That feels new. The only thing is it could use more. More jokes, more pratfalls, maybe a little more tension. Things are a little too easy for ROMEO and JULIET. She's already quit the strip club…The author's on the right track. Just needs a little more oomph and it's a nice piece of niche market comedy that has good cross over potential.

I use that word a lot in my CONSIDERS “oomph.” There’s no better word to describe it. A story exists to give you certain things, scares in a thriller, laughs in a comedy, thrills in an adventure. And how big are those laughs, scares, thrills. You want somebody to pay you a million dollars for your script you’d better be providing more than a few chuckles. Now these things are at least a little bit subjective, especially jokes which often depend on delivery. But that’s why they say death is easy compared to comedy.

Then there’s the ending. A good beginning will get a reader’s attention but a poor ending can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Talk about your blown endings. Up until the last five pages this writer had me. It wasn’t formatted correctly but that was okay. A few typos but that was okay. I thought the writer should all caps the sounds that POE was obsessing about. But it was a really great thriller, almost Foreign in its approach. You really couldn’t tell if POE was on to something or if he was going crazy. But then the ending. Nothings happens! POE’s obsessed, MARY SHELLY’s scared, and BLOCH’s looking at life in prison. Not to mention there’s a stuffed dead girl in the bedroom. Something is going to happen! That they’d all just forget about everything and move on is by far more ludicrous than even the most lame action scene. With a different ending I’d recommend this script without reservations. But I have a suspicion the writer won’t give another ending for “artistic” reasons.

THE GOOD

I think only gave two real full throated RECOMMENDs to screenplays during this time period. At the time I pegged both as small indie films which I realize now was a mistake. Even small production companies want to think big. I don’t think I was budget conscious and it wouldn’t have made a difference since the biggest budget projects I read were also the worst. Maybe it’s just because the qualities that make a script shine really have nothing to do with money and the screenplays would be great if you made them for ten cents.

The first was a drama/comedy centering around a teenage boy.

This is damn good. This writer knows drama. There is a large cast of characters each one exceptional. It's full of great scenes. It starts a little slow and little confusing because there are so many characters and it's a little difficult to get all the relationships squared away. But once you do, it's a great story. Funny, genuinely touching and ultimately very powerful. You don't really blame JOE for wanting to believe SAM which is the key to this whole story. So when it all comes apart you were expecting it, all you can feel is pity for these two characters who just can't deal with the world. The ending needs to be a little bigger. Needs to end with them kissing or embracing like at the end of Garden State. This has the potential to be a real indie gem. It's got a quirky cast of characters to rival the American Pie movies and emotional impact of a Sideways or a Garden State. A real find.

The second was a little stranger involving a mysterious item.

Sort of like Shamaylan only instead of a stupid, tacked on "twist" ending, we have an emotional, unbearably tense finale with hardly any "action" in the traditional sense. FRANK goes to sleep. MARY tries to wake him. He doesn't wake up immediately. We fear the worst. Then he finally pops awake. The story starts slow but the writer does a great job fleshing out each member of the MARY'S family and their friends. You really feel like you know them when the craziness starts. There are some problems. We never learn how MARY went from "modern day saint" to back to normal. MRS. SMITH is such an important character but we never meet her until the final act. This is not a typical story. But it works so incredibly well. This would be a tremendous indie, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Sixth Sense.

Good characters and good story. When everything’s working you get the recommend even if there are a few quibbles.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What to Worry About

DO: Worry about the story. Is it entertaining? That’s the big question. Never ever give them a reason to put your screenplay down because you never know when they’ll pick it up again. If everything else goes wrong, a great story can still save your ass.

DO:
Worry about the logline/pitch. Having an entertaining story is great. Having an entertaining story that you can easily sell, that’s gold. The next big hurdle after learning how to write well is learning how to write something that other people will actually pay money for. And it’s not about collecting a bunch of adjectives or using active voice. It’s about those few sentences that paint a visual, dramatic picture that is unlike anything else out there. I wish it were true that any well written story were automatically sellable but it isn’t. Quite often these scripts are exceptionally well done versions of movies we’ve already seen countless times or things so far off the grid there’s no point of reference.

DO:
Worry about the characters. Usually a compelling story and a great logline means you have great characters, but it isn’t always so. Characters are the doorway into your script. People follow characters, they sympathize even love them. And they are a real benchmark for a writer’s talent. Do you produce flesh and blood three dimensional characters or fall back on well worn archetypes and clichés?

DO: Worry about the dialogue. Great dialogue writers are the ones who get all the ink and all the attention. They’re the ones who get the nominations, who the A List actors want to work with. They’re the ones who get called in when a tentpole script “just isn’t working.” Your dialogue should sound like real life only better. It should be what people wished they said. It’s never “realistic” but it could be performed realistically. It’s not an easy skill to acquire which is why it’s so sought after.

DO: Worry about the basic formatting of the script. Right format, right font size, right spacing and margins, right use of headings, tags and slug lines. It’s so easy now with all the screenwriting software that does all this for you. You don’t want to look like an amateur. This is probably the last thing you should be really concerned about but it’s the first thing readers notice and it will mark you at the beginning as either someone to take seriously or not.

DON’T: Worry about the advanced bells and whistles in Final Draft or the other programs. Most of those are for pre-production. Case in point scene numbers. There shouldn’t be any scene numbers on a spec script. Scene numbers are for the unit production manager when he’s preparing a budget and schedule. If you’re not in pre-production there shouldn’t be any numbers.

DON’T:
Worry about every little head tilt or intake of breath your characters make. That’s for the actor to decide with the director. Some writers have a nasty habit of directing their character down to the millimeter. This not only wastes space but it also is used as a cover for dialogue or scenes that may be a little flat. If you’ve done your job then all the drama should be in the scene with you having to circle and underline everything. The actors should be able to get the spine of the scene and build accordingly.

DON’T:
Do the director’s job either. Unless you’re going to direct yourself stay out of the director’s chair. Let the DP do his thing. Ditto the editor and all the others. Maybe the director thinks it’s better to open with an in depth staging shot rather than a quick cutting montage. Maybe a long tracking shot is required instead of a Dutch Angle. Again this wastes space in a script and often covers up dull or uninteresting writing. Give them the important elements in a scene, the mood and the feeling, give them the components of a montage but leave how they are conveyed to the people doing the shooting.

MAYBE: Worry about the budget. This is dependent on the kind of screenplay you’re writing because with certain genres part of the appeal is the low production costs like Rom Coms and horror. So if you’re writing a Rom Com it’s probably a bad move to dump the characters on a crowded ocean liner then have it sink. Action movies, science fiction and historicals command the higher budgets. You should feel free to go wild there.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Opening with Jekyll

Look at this opening five minutes from the BBC miniseries Jekyll.



It’s is a marvelous, entertaining five minutes of television and it’s nearly all exposition. This scene is a real text book case for aspiring writers, especially those in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres, on how to give information while at the same time creating drama and entertainment.

The writer here was faced a number of challenges. He had to introduce two main characters, well THREE main characters really. He has to spell out the main concept and the conflict both of which are a little complicated. To recap, a modern day man who is the descendant of the real Dr. Jekyll has a split personality and can transform into a superhuman Mr. Hyde. He hires a psychologist to help him monitor his Hyde persona and he is giving her the details of the uneasy truce they live under. He has to establish the main character of Tom Jackman, the supporting character of Catherine and, although he doesn’t actually appear in this scene, the character of Mr. Hyde.

The writer doesn’t do anything fancy. He just lays it all out and we’re on our way. What he does a great job of is creating a dramatic circumstance which makes it necessary for Jackman to recap all this information. He’s hiring a new assistant and needs to get her up to speed. This isn’t any ordinary job interview. There’s a real chance Hyde might kill her. He also he creates a real sense of dread about the character of Mr. Hyde. That chair with the straps (a terrific opening image) creates a sense of unease. How could all these precautions be necessary?

That chair isn’t just a great image, but it spells out clearly the main conflict of the show, the struggle between Jackman and Hyde. This is something new writers should really study. You’ll progress a lot faster if you practice this kind of visual shorthand in your scripts.

Finally what really makes this scene is that Stefan Moffat really takes the time to get inside his characters and really write from his perspective. Jackman is worried but at the same time this is all routine for him. Catherine is amused and mildly flirtatious. There’s a hint of attraction between these two, making this more personal and not such a dry emotionless scene. These are probably two of the duller characters in the story yet their scene here is riveting.

Then Moffat follows up with this next five minutes.



Perfect delivery of the promise. We meet Hyde and he’s even more awesome than we were lead to believe. And just when we thought we had her down, Catherine reveals she might have another agenda. Really your goal in the first ten pages is to blow the reader away. If this were in a contest I honestly wouldn’t read past the first ten pages. Automatic to the next round. If I were reading for a company this would go to the top of my “read thoroughly” pile.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What a Vicious Takedown of Attack of the Clones can teach us about Screenwriting

He’s at it again. The RedLetterMedia guy is doing his impression of Ted Levine from Silence of the Lambs and taking a hammer to the next entry in the Star Wars prequels. Like the others it’s a hoot and even the serial killer jokes are getting better (which is to say they no longer make you squirm as much) But besides the jokes what really makes these videos great is they have real insight into where these films went wrong. Me and my brother watched these together and afterward he said, “I always knew these films were no good, but this guy really puts into words why I hate them so much.” I concur.

I also noticed that nearly all the complaints at least have something to do with the scripts penned by Lucas himself. As writers we should pay attention. I’ve always said you can learn more from a bad movie than you can from a good one. So let’s start learning shall we.



Flesh eating roach jokes aside he covers a lot of GREAT points in the first part. Starting off with a relatable character. Show us the characters and their relationships instead of telling us. Make sure everything has internal logic. And, seemingly contradicting the earlier advice, take time in the beginning to explain and set things up. In other words show the character but explain the vital information. In this one Lucas tells the relationships and skips over the vital information.



He doesn’t mention it but this part really touches on research on really knowing what you’re writing about even if it is a fantasy. How can you write a political thriller if you know nothing about politics? Again the internal logic is severely lacking. But Lucas also fails to create human drama as well. He even sounds sterile when describing this “doomed romance.” If you can’t get a little teary eyed talking about your own story then don’t expect it to hit anyone else in the heart. So failure on both the bog political plot and the small intimate love story. Not a good sign.



Then we move into a failed action plot. Again, internal logic. This whole sequence was written by a FX animator not a real writer. I shouldn’t say that, most animators I know are pretty good storytellers. But you get the idea. When you’re writing a scene of actual physical conflict you have to have them act at least half smart. And you have to keep your characters in character. The impulsive character makes the impulsive actions.



Ah, love. All I can say here is never take audience sympathies for granted. Just because you’re writing a romance and hit every Harlequin cliché in the book doesn’t mean your story has any real emotion in it. And while there’s no hard and fast rules for creating sympathies a good place to start is keeping the characters true to themselves and have them act accordingly. And don’t get me started on the “wish I could wish away my feelings” line. Oh and never let your kids name your characters. Kit Fisto.



Yeah, when you need two characters to fall in love and marry in 3 DAYS you don’t have any room for errors. And don’t talk about sand. Or mass murder. In really simple terms (which admittedly are the only terms I can write romance) you have to give the characters a reason to fall in love and a reason to overlook their faults.



This is more of a directing/casting problem. And I have stressed that you have to treat your projects as products that will have to be marketed, but obviously you can go too far. But if you are writing for a star you have to make sure you write to that star. But he has a great point at the end of this segment about how you can only include so many elements and still really be general audience friendly.



He hits on the curse of the CGI period. FX are now so easy they’re no longer special. Has nobody heard about going to the well once too often? We’ve gained incredible ability in visuals but we’re quickly forgetting the beauty of mystery. And does he nail the bit on screenwriting logic in the scene with the kids. Purpose of the scene dictates how that scene is written.



This point in the beginning here is nearly an epidemic in big budget movies. Again we’ve let our ability to create anything on the screen drain away all the tension. It’s my biggest complaint against most of today’s summer movies. There’s no consequences, no impact, no pain to any of this action. Action hurts. Remember Indiana Jones getting shot in the arm? That scene is nearly 30 years old and it still makes you wince when you see it. Take a look at those light saber duels. Any wincing there?



Pretty much just wraps things up in a nice little package of how bigger isn’t better. And things aren’t getting any better. CGI isn’t going anywhere. So we writers really have to know our crap. Our plots, our characters, our stories have to be real and from the heart. Because if that’s not on the page, there’s no way they can put it in during post.

Monday, March 22, 2010

10 Things Before Submitting A Screenplay courtesy of Ted Hope

Came across this excellent post by producer Ted Hope. He makes some great points.

1) Cut at least another 10% of the script. Even when you think you are finished, there’s always another 10% that can come out.
VERY True. Brevity is the soul of wit. Can you get your point across clearly and quickly. That's the thing I'm always noticing on my rewrites, any excess word-adge. Any fat that can be trimmed.

2) Clarify what you feel the themes are and how they evolve during the course of the narrative.
Your screenplay is never just about what it's about. Even if you're writing an idiot action thriller you're still working some kind of a theme, even if it's something as simple as "good triumphs over evil in the end." Embrace it. Own it. Use the hell out of it.

3) Figure out some of the ways that the story can be expanded onto other platforms.
Okay I admit I'm not 100% clear on what he means but I'm 90% certain he means think beyond your screenplay and movie. Can you see this thing as a novel (easiest translation) or something else. George Lucas when he filmed the first Star Wars movie, he wasn't sure the movie would be a hit but he was positive they could make budget back on the toy tie ins. Obviously you can't think that way for ALL projects at least not beyond the novel presentation but if your genre and subject matter trends into those areas (sci-fi, fantasy, action) then once again embrace, own, use.

4) Know what the historical precedents are for your story and how you differ from them in how you have chosen to tell it.
Which is a fancy way of saying "This is X meets Y" Hard truth, operating completely outside all known film history is probably going to get you a bunch of blank stares. The execs speak one language, recent hit movies. It's like Esperanto for producers.

5) Review the script from each characters’ point of view and make sure that their dialogue and actions remain emotionally true for each of them in their different situations.
You should have done this BEFORE writing really. This should have been part of your outlining/planning stage. This is the only way you can be certain that your characters really come across as unique and don't all sound alike. Also make sure that they're just doing things for convenience sake (DR EVIL: No, I'm just going to leave the room and assume they're dead.)

6) Recognize what some of the mysteries contained within both the characters and story are that you are committed to protecting — as not everything should be explained.
Maybe not, but you'd better HAVE an explanation in your bag of tricks in case someone important asks or, if upon further review, it turns out you DO need to answer that particular mystery. Anyway how are you going to maintain the emotional integrity of the scene if you don't know, deep down what that emotion is or should be.

7) Understand why you are truly prepared to tell this story at this time – or not.
Again this is more something you should ask before you start writing not before you're ready to pitch, but better late than never. You have to feel it. It has to be alive inside of you. If it's not alive and kicking it's going to die on the page and die in the pitch.

8) Make the world that the characters inhabit truly authentic; don’t just give them jobs or apartments or hip music to listen to.
Research, research, research. Don't be making stuff up all the time. Know it. Even if its the daily routine of a bike messenger. Authenticity sells. Authority sells. 90% of first novels are "insiders view into FILL IN BLANK"

9) Make it somehow provocative, intriguing, audacious, or thought provoking — something that will make it stand out.
Like I've always said, you have to make sure it stands out in a pile of 20 to 100. And it has to stand out in all forms, as a logline, as a 1 page synopsis, as a pitch, as a quick 10 10 10 read, and as a full read.

10) Make sure it is more than just a good story told well. Be truly ambitious. Take us somewhere new, or take us there in a new way.
This is what separates the A's from the A+'s. This is what separates the contest winners from the finalists and semi finalists. This is what separates the "I'll stick my neck out and recommend your script to my boss," from "Great but not really for us, try us with something else."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The 8 Steps to Becoming a Screenwriter

So how do you go from total I-Never-Even-Knew-Movies-Had-Screenplays to thanking the Academy? It’s easy (grins ominously) No seriously it is. The biggest obstacles are the ones inside you and they can be overcome.

STEP 1 Read the Books and Get the Software: The first obstacle you have to get by is your own ignorance. Don’t be offended. Nobody is born knowing how to do this stuff. And it’s so easy to correct. All the info is out there. First thing you need to do is learn the format. Format. Format. Format. Please people there’s no more excuse for improperly formatted screenplays. Syd Field books have been around since the 80’s. You can get old copies for pennies on eBay. Final Draft is out there. Can’t afford Final Draft? There’s Celtx for free. These programs do 90% of the work for you. You just have to know how to use them correctly. Above all grab some free scripts from sites like Simply Scripts. Read those thoroughly. Read a lot of them so the format really sinks in. Read and study. That is a life long habit you should form if you are serious about becoming a screenwriter. Correct formatting is the first of many tests and it is mandatory that you ace it. D+ will not be enough. C or B will get you bounced.

STEP 2 Learn the Structure: This will make things so much easier. It’s not that hard really. It’s nothing more than counting pages. You have to know what the three act structure is and how it’s used. Again read more scripts and see if you can identify when the second act break occurs, what happens in the midpoint etc. Learn how to outline a screenplay. Outlines make writing a screenplay so much easier. They break down 120 pages into smaller bite sized pieces making the whole thing easier to tackle.

STEP 3 Write Screenplays: Get off your butt and write! Get on the computer and start typing. Set aside certain hours of the day. What you have time to read this blog but you don’t have time to write? Bulls*t! Get to work! Outline your story and start getting your money’s worth out of that screenwriting software. What do you write? At this stage it doesn’t matter, (as you’ll see in a minute) so write what you really want to write. Write what you love. Write what you want to see. Anything. The next Star Trek. An adaptation of the Blondie comic strip. In college I actually started (though I did not finish) a sequel to the George Lucas/Ron Howard film Willow and an entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. My first two finished screenplays were a John Woo shoot ‘em up and a Lovecraft horror story with Baywatch babes. Whatever gets you over the finish line. You’re never going to write a screenplay if you never write a screenplay. Seems like a duh moment but people just can’t appreciate what an effort it really takes to see something like this through from start to finish.

STEP 4 Get Tough: Okay you finished a masterpiece right? Wrong. Unless you are a total prodigy, what you wrote was complete crap. If you submit it to a contest you’ll be bounced immediately. You get feedback it will probably be devastating. If you send it to an agent that will be the last you hear of it. You suck. You’re worthless. You wasted months of your life. Knock it off! You did not waste anything, least of all your time. The fact is you completed a script. That’s something most people can’t do. What you did was extraordinary. Now it’s time to do it again. Now is the time to be even more extraordinary. You poured your heart out into that last script. Refill your heart. You’re exhausted? Shake it off. You think this hurts? Wait until you actually get good. Wait until you actually have expectations. Wait until you actually have some distance to fall. Think it smarts getting bounced in the first round? Try making it all the way to the finals. See your life about to change then hear you didn’t make it. That happened to me. I was a finalist in the Disney Fellowship. I was this close to getting 30K for an entire year to just sit back and write. I was the final person cut. Crash! I didn’t go to work the next day. A week later I was writing again. Now the stuff I put out now is miles better than that screenplay that almost but didn’t quite make it.

STEP 5 Study the Craft: There’s probably a million reasons why your first screenplay sucked from bad dialogue, to bad plot to the fact that it’s about Captain America. Whatever. You’ve proven to yourself that you can write a script, now it’s time to show you write a good one. Back to reading and studying and, here’s the fun part, going to the movies. Go to as many movies as you can. If you can afford it try to see one every week. See the good, the bad, and the lousy. You can learn more from a bad movie than you can from a good one. A bad movie you can watch and think, what would I do different. And study study study. Read books, read more screenplays, get feedback on your latest script and join a writer’s group. This will tell you what you need to focus on. Dialogue needs a lift? Bone up on dialogue. Plots going awry? Study plotting. Study your subject. You probably haven’t done any research since college (maybe you didn’t even do it IN college) Fix that. They say write what you know. Well the more you know, the more you can write about. About this time you should be figuring out it’s more a marathon than a sprint. Then you’re ready for the final step.

STEP 6 Study the Business: It’s been a long road to get to this point. You’re probably already miles better than that guy who thumbed through Syd Field utterly mystified. You’re to the point where you can write a screenplay and the reader doesn’t hate it like poison. It’s actually kinda good. But can it sell? That’s the question. After all this talk about passion, craft and art we’ve finally come down to commerce because that is what it’s all about. You don’t just want to write a great script, you want somebody to PAY you for it. Time to put aside the writer and become the salesman. And no one ever made a sale without first knowing the market and the buyers. Time to get out from behind the computer screen (or not) and meet people. Writer’s conferences, Expos, Pitch-fests are all great ways to meet people if you don’t live in LA. If you do there’s internships, assistantships and reader positions. Then there’s always the internet and things like Twitter’s #scriptchat. It’s amazing who you can meet online. Subscribe to the trades. Make as many contacts as you can. Ultimately you want to find out three things, what is selling, what is this particular company looking for, and can you submit something to them.

STEP 7 Write Something That Will Sell: You’ve honed your craft. You’ve made your connections. Now is the time to put it altogether. Passion, craft, and business acumen. Look for that story that will do it all. Find that logline/concept that the company cannot ignore. Write with every ounce of craft you possess, don’t give them an excuse to put it down ever. And write something close to your heart. Something that really only you can write. The last thing you want to do is whet their appetites for something you really can’t deliver because your heart isn’t in it.

STEP 8 Remember to thank Screenwriting Foxhole when you accept that award.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Adaptation of a Classic

Here’s a unique problem but one that I have a lot of experience with. My best screenplay/novel happens to be a twist on a well known classic. My reps love it and I’m hoping any day now to hear those magical words “We’ve sold it!” Writing it both as a screenplay and as a novel was absolute joy. I’d grown up with this story, I’d seen it retold a million times, so when I came up with own fresh spin it felt like I was striking gold. It felt less like writing and more like unearthing.

Flash forward to today and I’m judging screenplays for a contest. One of the scripts is based on the works of a famous author. I can understand the enthusiasm the writer must have felt in taking his favorite author and putting his work on screen. It must have felt like magic to him to walk around inside this world and to be with these characters.

He’s not getting through to the next round though. Worse than that I don’t see this being the screenplay that’s really going to get this guy’s career started. It won’t be kicking open any doors or getting people’s attention.

Why?

Well for starters the writing isn’t very gripping. That’s a problem when dealing with passion projects. Your personal passion may or may not make it to the page. Another part is some writers assume that because their starting material is classic their work must be equally gripping. You know what they say about assumptions. Just because you’re working with “a timeless classic” doesn’t mean you can slack off with your craft. That’s something I struggled with myself. After I had the story I went over it time and again wondering and worrying over the tiniest details. The rules for screenplay writing still apply, knock ‘em off their seats early and keep ‘em wowed throughout, never give anyone an excuse to stop reading. The unfortunate contest script has given me ample reasons to stop reading.

But there’s a larger issue, namely that the screenwriter chose an AUTHOR who is famous, but the stories and characters he’s using on aren’t well known at all. These tales, despite being studied in English class haven’t worked their way into the pop culture landscape. (In case your curious, yes I did base my soon to be masterpiece/bestseller on a very well known work) When you go for something that isn’t as well known you’re really putting yourself behind the 8 ball. If the reader or exec hasn’t read the story before you’ve got a problem. Either he doesn’t like the story in which case you’re dead anyway or he does like it but he’s wondering how much YOU had to do with that. Are you a good writer or do you just have good taste?

Remember, as much as you may love this old time master, it’s about you as a writer. You have to demonstrate YOUR talents. Best way to do that is to take a story everyone knows so it is obvious what changes you made and how you put your stamp on it. And always be aware that it is a constant battle for the reader’s attention. Treat a classic with respect but always remember it is just a platform for your screenplay.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Movie Scene Structure

There’s something directors (and actors) know that most beginning writer’s don’t; how to structure a scene. It’s bizarre but you will never find (at least I haven’t yet) anything in the screenwriting books and about this very vital part to the moviemaking process. Most of them are concerned with the structure of the overall screenplay but none that I found talk about the very simple yet incredibly important process of structuring an individual scene. I know in the top screenwriting MFA programs, USC, UCLA and NYU, directing courses are offered. I don’t know if they are required however.

It’s a very simple process I first learned when I took a stage directing course in college. It was reinforced when I picked up a film DIRECTING book a few years ago. Basically you structure a scene backwards. That is you take the very line that is spoken, or the very last action that is taken in a scene, called a beat, and then look at what immediately preceded it. That last beat was caused by the beat that preceded it.

The character said that final line because of what was said or done immediately prior to it.

For Example: Villain yells “See you in Hell!”

What happened just before he said that? He pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and hugged it to his body.

And that action was came about because of what happened immediately prior it.

Why did the villain pull a pin out of the hand grenade? The hero beat him up. The hero, having just kicked his butt tells him he’s going to rot in jail.

And so on and so forth until you have an unbroken chain of cause and effect going all the way back to the beginning of the scene.

A comes from B which comes from C which comes from D.

That is how you structure a scene. That is what actors talk about when they discuss the “spine” of a scene. You ever wonder how a director comes up with a shot list? He goes to the scene structure and makes sure every beat has its own shot. It is absolutely vital to having a coherent and shoot-able movie script yet it’s almost never covered in screenwriting seminars, books, or anything that floundering beginners cling to. This is why dialogue in real but not really real. Real dialogue has tangents that go no where. There are delayed reactions. You can’t have any of that in dramatic writing. It’s all an unbroken chain. Any tangents have to weave back to the central point. People just don’t suddenly remember, something has to happen or be said to jog their memory. It’s probably the reason why so first time writers get replaced soon after making a sale. Once a director gets attached the first thing he does is start breaking down scenes to get his shot list. If the writer hasn’t got a clear line of cause and effect in his scenes, they have to be rewritten.

I shouldn’t say that Nobody in the screenwriting world talks about this. Robert McKee makes it central to his seminars and book. But I think goes a little overboard. According to McKee the secret is constant outlining and that no scene can be saved by “rearranging dialogue.” That’s obviously wrong. And his instance that every new beat be the total opposite of what came before it tends towards histrionics instead of drama. It is possible to fix a scene that is loose and all over the place. Just decide what element is really vital for the story and make that the point of the scene. Then go back and make sure you’ve got a good cause and effect chain stretching from the beginning of the scene to the end.

Every scene is like a chess game. You know where you want to be at the end, it’s just a question of how you’re going to get there.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to Write a Sci-Fi Screenplay Part 2

Earlier I wrote about writing a sci-fi/fantasy screenplay. I argued that a successful one would be built around a single concept that A) influenced the entire story and imagined world of the story B) was cinematic, visual, and easy to grasp (i.e. High Concept) and C) lent itself easy to Geekiness, role playing, video games, fanfic. But there’s more to it than that. There’s always more.

INFO DUMPS

Let’s start with the biggest problem sci-fi writers have, info dumps and exposition. Those passages where you have to tell the reader what the heck is going on. In a recent scifichat on Twitter we had a discussion on the difference between adult and YA sci-fi. Some argued that the difference between the two was you could leave things unexplained. Having just completed The Hunger Games and Uglies I couldn’t disagree more. Things are most definitely explained in those two books, probably the two best known versions of YA sci-fi. There were definitely info dumps in those books, Mockingjays, Tracker Jackers, Hoverboards, and the Oil Plague were all explained in little info dumps. The difference was they didn’t feel like info dumps. I think, though I’m sure I’ll get a lot of disagreement on this, is that YA sci-fi has gotten good at disguising their info dumps. In regular sci-fi it’s become an accepted practice and hard core sci-fi readers don’t mind an occasional side trip into the imagined history of Planet Mongo. YA readers were pretty new to the genre and couldn’t be expected to wait so patiently, the writers of those books treated their info dumps very carefully. They revealed new info in one of two ways. First as an answer to a mystery. Throughout Uglies we see the results of the disaster that destroyed the old world, ruined cities with lines of rusted cars full of people trying to escape whatever happened. It’s never explained fully until late in the book that we finally learn about the oil plague, a bio engineered bug that infected petroleum and caused to explode. The author didn’t come right out and tell us. He planted the seed in the very beginning and went back to it a few more times before finally giving an answer near the end of the story. This is basically the same technique used in mystery stories like CSI. Nobody thinks of CSI as science fiction (though given some of their resolutions, maybe they should) but it’s a great template for sci-fi script writers in how to deal with exposition and info dumps, make them mysterious. Make the audience WANT to hear the explanation. So a real easy hint is never put an info dump in the beginning of a screenplay. Show its effects and have the audience wonder about it, then explain it later in the story.

Another method of info dumps is to make them part of the story or their own story. In Hunger Games we find out about the deadly bioengineered wasps, Tracker Jackers, when Katniss is stuck up a tree and finds a nest of them. In Uglies we find out about Hoverboards as Tally learns how to use one herself. In a lot of ways the writers treat these imagined creatures and technology no different from real life ones. The authors could have easily been describing a bald eagle or a windsurfing instead of Tracker Jackers and Hoverboards. That gives us the next method for info dumps, namely treat the imagined things as if they were real. When you come to a piece of alien tech or weird fantasy beast, do some research on something real and treat it the same way. Because after all isn’t a UFO supposed to be just a really, really advanced version of 747?

COMMON POINT OF ENTRY


The problem with info dumps is that they can take a reader right out of the story. But it’s an even bigger problem if the reader fails to get on board in the first place. As I blogged earlier, how to begin a screenplay is what stumps a lot of newbie writers. It’s even worse for sci-fi/fantasy writers. Sad but true, many sci-fi specs have been shot down in the first few pages. The writers give gigantic info dumps right off the bat, essentially wasting the first 5 to 10 pages of their script, or otherwise fail to make their imagined world real. That’s the real challenge of the sci-fi/fantasy writer, making it real. The only way to do that is go into this made up world and find something relatable to the real world. This is a technique as old as sci-fi itself. You have to find a Common Point of Entry for your reader. You have to be in territory that’s familiar to a large audience. Take the classic sci-fi novel Space Merchants for example. It features a resort in Antarctica, a gigantic cloned chicken heart, and far off space colonies, but it starts out like Mad Men. The hero is just a typical advertising exec trying to get ahead. That’s the Common Point of Entry (and a prime reason for adapting Space Merchants!) But there’s a problem. Prose writers have a huge advantage over screenwriters in that they can get inside the minds of their characters in just a few short paragraphs. A sci-fi writer may start off with a multi-tentacled Aldarian who’s zorging a Xxanx, but with a just quick peak inside the mind of said Aldraian the writer can define “zorging” as sex, drugs or rock n’ roll, whatever it needs to be. Screenwriters can’t get into the minds of their characters like that. They can’t convey anything other than sight and sound where as the prose writer can engage all the senses and emotions and memories as well. So where does that leave the screenwriter? The pattern over the last few decades for filmed sci-fi is to find their Common Point of Entry in typical activities or even in other genres. The Terminator doesn’t start off with a history of Skynet. It delivers an 80’s action film. The Terminator is just a cybernetic mafia hitman. Or look at SyFy. They’ve made it their signature style to take an easily understood set up then add a CGI monster to it. You’ve got Spring Break with an Ogre in it, a western with giant snakes, a reality show with alien invaders. That’s the extreme end of the spectrum but you can’t go too far from the normal without completely losing your audience. It’s pretty hard for people who specialize in wild imaginings to ground their stories in mundane details, but it’s those mundane details that lead the audience to those wild imaginings. You don’t have to be as simplified as SyFy originals, and I wouldn’t recommend trying unless you’ve got an in at the network, but don’t go all space cadet from the word “go” either.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Interview with Travis Legge of Raymond Did It

Travis Legge is a writer/director who’s in pre production for his first feature film Raymond Did It. Raymond is a throwback slasher movie that celebrates Travis’ love of the genre. I spoke with Travis a little bit about this project, his writing process, and how it all began for him.

How did you get started writing screenplays?

I had been writing comic book scripts. I don’t draw so I had to find an artist. That search eventually led to doing the horror role playing game Contagion. After that I enrolled in the excellent film production program at Rock Valley College. That taught me a lot about filmmaking. I started making very simple comedy shorts and just fell in love with the process of making movies. I worked my way up to where I felt ready to tackle a feature.

Were you always a horror fan?

Horror has always been one of my favorite genres. I grew up in a very small town. Its one saving grace was that it had a video store with an excellent B movie selection. I saw Evil Dead and I Spit On Your Grave probably at a much younger age than I should have. From there I discovered the classic EC Comics and then explored the rest of the genre.

How did you come up with the idea for Raymond Did It?

I’d always wanted to write a slasher film and on the Troma website there was an open call for screenplays. I started writing it but I liked it so much I decided to make it my feature film debut instead of submitting it.

How did you go about writing the script?

I just sat down and wrote it. Typically when I write, something just pops into my head and I sit down and bang out a first draft as fast as I can. I like to get that out of the way as quickly as possible then rewrite it. I’ll have music playing normally as I write, music that’s appropriate to the scene I’m working on. I also keep a number of windows open with Google or other search engines so I can research while I write. That’s a habit I picked up while working on Contagion. For example there’s a scene in the script where a character, who’s had a very rough time, is reaching for her prescribed medicine. Originally I just had “she reaches for her medicine” but after I did some research I found out what kind of pills she would be taken given the kind of trauma she had suffered. That helped further define the character.

What was the hardest part of writing the script?

Writing entire scenes where there was little or no dialogue. It’s a big change from my shorts which were comedies and had a lot of dialogue. But it helps that I will be directing this movie so I can be more visual with my writing.

What was the easiest part?

Writing the kills. We have a lot of them and they have a lot of variation. They were a lot of fun.

Were you at all concerned about the budget?

Budget should be the last thing a writer is concerned about. I am very fortunate to have Tim Stotz as my DP and Robert Williams as my editor. They were available when I was writing. If there was a section I had a question about, I’d just call up and ask, “Can you manage X, Y and Z” and they’d usually say “Sure, no problem.” I also can’t say enough about the Rock Valley College Filmmaking program which, when it comes to equipment and know how, I put on par with Columbia’s. I really learned a lot. I learned what you can shoot and what you can fix in post. So writing a practical script wasn’t a problem for me.

What are some of your other horror projects?

I did a short for Nation Undead. This is a site that is collecting zombie related shorts from all over. When they get enough they intend to edit them all together as a feature movie.

What is the status of Raymond?

We’re in pre-production. We’ve already acquired one half of our targeted budget. We’ve secured Lindsey Felton (Caitlin’s Way and Scream Queens) to play Tammy. We also have Elissa Dowling (Clive Barker’s Dread) on board as well. We sent Elissa the audition sides and she asked for the completed script. After she read the script she committed to the project.

Anything you’d like to add in closing?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Don’t be afraid to bend or break the rules. There are no such things as rules, there are guidelines. But apart from formatting the guidelines were all meant to be broken or bent. I got this far because I was too dumb to know better and it paid off.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Interview with Ben Cahan of Talentville

There’s a new Screenwriting Community Site up and operating called Talentville, you can check it out right here. The site is founded by Ben Cahan the original developer and co-founder of Final Draft™, the screenwriting software that has become the standard for the industry. And if you have any doubts about that you should check out craigslist LA under TV/Film work or the UTA jobs list. You’ll always find Final Draft™ under the list of requirements for internships and assistantships.

I talked with Ben about the Talentville site and about the early days of creating FD.

How did Final DraftTM get started and how did it become so successful?

Before I was doing work with movie production software. I had good contacts in the industry through that but I still took a severe beating. After that I looked around and I found that there was no good screenwriting software on the market at that time, nothing that offered the complete package. So I set out to create my own that would do everything for the screenwriter, format, word processing, the whole deal. It was a long process. I credit the success of it to fact that we (Cahan and current Final Draft CEO Marc Madnick) kept improving the product. We never stopped making Final Draft better. After I’d taken my beating, I had a powerful fear of losing which really drove me to make sure that never happened again. We poured our profits back into our product. We kept adding things. And we became the first cross platform software in the industry. We did this because Macs are used so extensively in the industry.

How did you first come up with idea for Talentville. How do you envision it being different from the other scriptwriting sites on the web?

Not to bash anyone else’s site but I’m looking to do for screenwriting sites what Final Draft did for screenwriting software, provide writers with the total package; part exposure, part feedback, part education, all of it in one site. In 2008 I was reading some scripts and I looked at ways to get them exposure. I contacted some of the sites that were up at the time and talked to the people who were running them. I found out there really wasn’t a site that really got its members exposure to people involved in the industry. There wasn’t anything out there that really satisfied my needs so I realized I was going to have to build one from the ground up. It was the same lesson I learned while making Final Draft. I started work on the site and added what I wanted to add. I wanted it to be a place not just for aspiring screenwriters but industry professionals as well; a place where the agencies and production companies could come to find a good screenplay. It can be done but you have to do it the right way.

The site is still under construction what features are available to writers now.

The site is new but the core basics are up. Writers can join, email each other, create groups, but the real heart of the site is the screenplay library and the review process. I put a lot of effort into creating the screenplay library and making it secure. The review process is crucial. This will allow us to see which scripts are really good and which ones still need work. That’s important. Writers need to set goals for themselves. Anything is possible if you put the work into it. But most people don’t put the work into it.

What features of the website can writers look forward to in the near future?

We’ll be having contests and rewards for both top writers and top reviewers. We’ll get this more integrated into the Hollywood community. We plan to have story gurus like Micheal Hauge give guest lectures on the site and provide reviews of scripts and do Q & A’s. Other features will be added on down the road to help screenwriters market themselves and make connections.

What’s the most important part of getting the industry involved with Talentville?

The review process. We need to get a large number of reviews and a larger number of talented reviewers, people who know what they’re talking about. You have to be able to demonstrate that the top reviewed scripts on the site are actually worth Hollywood’s time. That it’s not just a pipeline for more junk.

How do you see Talentville changing the industry?

Hopefully you won’t have to move to LA if you want to break into screenwriting. Writing you can do anywhere and with electronic formats you can carry around 40 scripts on a Kindle or a laptop. But Hollywood is a non-believer. You have to demonstrate that this can work. And hopefully we’re going to show them that it can.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How to Write a Sci Fi Screenplay

To paraphrase Jack Palance in City Slickers, when it comes to writing a great sci-fi screenplay you just need one thing.

What is that one thing?

Well you tell me, it’s your story. What I mean is you have to focus on just One Big Idea and build your story around it. In science fiction literature they call this an Elevator Pitch which Charlie Jane Anders of IO9 explained here. In movie scripts they call this the concept or logline which I wrote about here.

Astounding Science Fiction July 1939 --Black Destroyer

A little genre history lesson will explain how this all came about. Science fiction back in the 20’s and 30’s had very little real science in it and what was there wasn’t integral to the plot. The stories were really just pulp adventures with aliens and rocketships taking the place of gangsters and fast cars. It wasn’t until John W. Campbell took over as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (Later Analog Science Fiction) that things started to change. Campbell demanded more scientific rigor and better literary standards from his magazine and ushered in the modern era of Sci Fi Literature. Writers of the time responded by basing their stories around a single fantastic idea or scientific theory and extrapolating how that would effect the characters and the world as a whole. Where as before we’d have generic space hero X battle generic alien monster Y with generic raygun Z, under Campbell writers like Robert Heinlein wrote stories about what would happen if the country were crisscrossed with moving roads or what would happen if a stowaway snuck on board a rocket as it was about to land. It’s the standard template for a science fiction story to this day.

It’s also NOT the way science fiction scripts are written. It’s similar though. Sci-Fi movies and Sci-Fi literature are two completely different streams that only occasionally converge. Sci-Fi movies have a similar but very different history.

star-trek-tos-cast

Sci-fi movies and TV began like sci-fi literature, in the pulp stage. More often than not the movies were programmers with stock stories and situations. There were exceptions like Forbidden Planet or the Twilight Zone but most often the only thing distinguishing a sci-fi movie of the 30’s through the 60’s were the special effects or art design. But then everything changed. Gene Roddenberry started it all with Star Trek and George Lucas really got the ball rolling with Star Wars. The first helped create modern Geekdom and the second changed movies and pop culture forever. What did they do that was different? They were the first ones to present The Big Idea in science fiction. In some ways it was similar to what Campbell had done decades earlier at Astounding. But it went beyond that and into the area of High Concept years before Don Simpson codified it. They also created fertile worlds for others to explore and even “live” in for a little while. So a Sci-Fi big idea for movies or television can be one part Joseph W. Campbell, one part Don Simpson, and one part Gary Gygax.

star-wars-episode-iv-a-new-hope-20061222111307977

Campbell would have hated Star Wars and probably didn’t have anything nice to say about Star Trek. There wasn’t ANY real science in Star Wars and Star Trek played pretty fast and loose with the known laws of physics. Nevertheless both of these franchises are built off of Campbell’s early insistence on extrapolating a single idea. This is the most important part of The Big Idea. There is something that makes this imagined world run. In Star Wars it’s the Force, in Star Trek it’s the Constitution class starship. And everything about these two imagined universes runs off these ideas. Like Obi Wan said, these ideas surround, penetrate and bind their universes together. The entire plot of the Star Wars movies revolves around the struggle between the two sides of the Force. Every Star Trek movie is based on what you can do if you have one of these awesome ships at your command. You see it other movies and TV shows as well, Lost, X-Files, Avatar, The Terminator, Aliens, Blade Runner, Dollhouse, Buffy. All the various bits of tech, all the storylines are really fruits from the Big Idea tree. In this regard they are no different from today’s sci-fi literature.

diamond_age_hc

So why isn’t Hollywood optioning every title in the Sci-Fi racks at Borders? That’s because not every great Lit idea is a good Movie/TV idea. A Big Idea has to do more than satisfy the rigors of Campbell, it has to satisfy Don Simpson. In the 80’s Simpson codified the High Concept, that movies should be based on iconic, easy to visualize stories and conflicts and this applies to sci-fi films in a big way. Sci-Fi films cost more and will always cost more than say a comedy or drama that requires no special effects or bizarre sets. There’s much more pressure on the producers to make back their investment on sci-fi films. Star Wars wasn’t a series of philosophical debates, it was light sabers and dogfights. Star Trek wasn’t an engineering lecture, it was Horatio Hornblower in space. Here’s where sci-fi lit and sci-fi movies and TV go their separate ways. Sci-fi lit, especially short lit either has disposable ideas (Heinlein introduced the moving roads in one short story then barely mentioned them) or ideas that just don’t translate into High Concepts. Steampunk right now is the hottest trend in sci-fi but it’s near impossible to sell a Steampunk script. Most execs never even heard of Steampunk. It’s certainly nothing the general movie audience is familiar with. The closest Hollywood has come was last year’s Sherlock Holmes movie. A great movie idea has to lend itself not just to great visual elements but also to an easy to understand narrative. The Terminator is a near perfect example. The entire plot setup is summarized in just a few sentences. It’s easy to understand and lends itself to amazing action sequences and a terrifying reveal when the metal endoskeleton keeps coming after the heroes.

starfleetbattles-fedcon2

But even after that you’re still not done. The really great ideas live long after the movie or TV series ends. They inspire action figures, comic books, video games, role playing games. It’s the final one writers should give a little thought about. It’s usually a bad idea to get ahead of yourself, but sometimes a little game thought can help with the story. I remember reading a fantasy script for a contest. The hero and the villain were engaged in a magic battle. It was special effect, special effect, special effect. I couldn’t tell who was winning and who was losing or even what the whole point was. I wrote in my notes, “Think of this as a video game or role playing game. What’s the objective of the scene and what are the opposing strategies?” That may sound a little silly but really that’s the root of drama in any scene, what’s the objective, what are the opposing strategies. The only difference is that the objective might be a mystic gem and the opposing strategy might be a fire spell. The trick is to turn that into drama without losing the gameplay aspect of it. You see games rely on rules, and rules are necessary in a fantasy or science fiction story. You have to re-establish the limits of the universe. You establish that Luke Skywalker can move objects by using the Force but he can’t use it to teleport into Cloud City and thus avoid the trap altogether. The Enterprise can beam Captain Kirk down to a planet’s surface, but if it gets attacked when its shields are down, watch out.

So that’s the One Thing you need to write a sci-fi script, the Big Idea. An idea that is central to your story and universe, one that is visual and iconic, and one that has an organized set of rules governing it. Now you just need to find it.

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